Thursday, March 08, 2018

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939)

Read story by James Thurber online.

This brief story by James Thurber, told third-person but with majority interior dialogue of its title character, is amusing but not that insightful, though it's among Thurber's most famous. The basic idea is that this Walter Mitty, a mild-mannered middle-aged man, has a head full of heroic fantasies about himself. They range from wartime scenarios (interesting given the publication date six months before Hitler entered Poland) to grave medical emergencies to high-stakes courtroom dramas. He appears to have little clue about the realities of medical treatment in the one fantasy, where he is an expert on "streptothricosis," a real skin disease, discussing "obstreosis of the ductal tract," a completely made-up procedure. The sound effect "pocketa-pocketa" recurs across a few of these fantasies, and occasionally reality intrudes on them in strange ways, a bit like waking in the fog of a dream. The outside scene involves Mitty taking his wife on a shopping trip and he does some shopping himself. That's about it. It has a few moments that might get you a smile—for example, I enjoyed the "pocketa-pocketa" sound effect—and as with anything published in the New Yorker it's at least a pleasure to read (except for those times, which come, when you tire of the urbane metropolitan voice). In terms of a look at the dark corners of a human soul, no, it's not that. I mean, you know what goes on in your own head, so you know right away what's missing if you give it any thought. No sex fantasies, no revenge fantasies, no brooding or seething. That's not the kind of guy Walter Mitty is (or, more realistically, that part of him is buried out of reach of this story. If he's that alienated from himself I don't want to think about it). A recent figure he reminded me of is Ken Bone, who was briefly famous during the debate season the other year with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Walter Mitty is just a guy going about his workaday shopping business and imagining himself in heroic roles as he does so. You get the impression he does a lot of this, but so do we all, right? And really, his are the sanitized versions and not much more. But fun to read the story.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)


  1. Funny linking Walter Mitty to Ken Bone. The "urbane metropolitan voice" is to the NY-er what rhythmic monotony is to disco. It's good to great until it isn't.

  2. This short story was regular 9th grade lit curriculum even 15 years ago, I wonder if it still is. How does anybody relate pocketa-pocketa to today’s youth? May be one of many reasons I failed teacher’ing.

    The Danny Kaye film is nice, and the Ben Stiller version is downright beautiful as seen in the big screen. I do recommend it.