“War thundered and whined around the dugout and battered the door.” James Thurber wrote this sentence, which can be found in his short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The story has gained new currency because it has received its second big-budget Hollywood treatment, this time by director Ben Stiller.
The quote is important, in fact it's essential, because it is precisely this backdrop of war that gave the Mitty story its heft and meaning when published on March 18, 1939 in The New Yorker. One did not have to be a geo-political strategist to understand that the threat of war was growing throughout the world at that time and that the lives of men and women, in and out of uniform, were already in danger.
This is not a story of a small man dreaming of heroic acts. This is a story of majesty. It is the idea that any human being is capable of great things.
The character of Mitty is much more complex and poignant than simply thinking of him as a regular guy who is dreaming about something more exotic than his humdrum life.
In the story, Walter Mitty is a gray-flannelled man driving into Westport, Connecticut, on a weekly shopping trip with his mildly domineering wife. We don’t know this at first, though, because the opening of the story is a burst of wartime energy:
"WE'RE going through!" The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander. "Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8500! We're going through!" The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" he shouted. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" repeated Lieutenant Berg. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" shouted the Commander. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. "The Old Man'll get us through," they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of hell!"...
The "old man" is of course Mitty. But then the story shifts quickly to reality: Mitty’s unnamed wife chides him for driving too fast. “What are you driving so fast for?” It’s a model of economic writing. We get the picture. The connection between the minute details of everyday life transmuted into something grand is made in a couple of sentences.
Something grand, yes, but as we move ahead into the story, we cannot forget to imagine how contemporaneous readers would have reacted to the character of Mitty. Mitty isn’t just dreaming about adventure — what he’s doing is projecting an image of how he hopes to act in a time of war. Would I — would the reader — be as heroic as Walter Mitty?
Two out of the five mini-adventures that Mitty dreams about are military heroics: he’s both an American and British fighter pilot, Another dream is that of a crack assassin (but this would be a much-admired trait in any military man). Another is as the best surgeon in the world (again, not explicitly about the military but it is almost impossible not to make the connection). The remaining fantasy is that of man defiantly facing the firing squad. Each of the endeavors that Mitty dreams about gives you the idea that each time he has done something good, even noble. How would a member of the French Resistance act if caught acting against the Nazis?
I have not seen Stiller’s version of the Mitty story, but it does not seem to contain any of this social or psychological urgency. Stiller seems to have either missed, or rejected, this reading of the story and the main character. His Mitty is a guy trying to win over a girl, while also attempting to track down a Life magazine photographer who seemingly lives the kind of life that Mitty only dreams of (but one that Mitty apparently does start living by the end of the movie). The original context of Mitty’s dreams, which constitute the better image of himself, the better image of all of us, is reduced to a sadsack who instead does skateboard tricks to get the attention of the beautiful girl. Not quite the idea that Thurber had in mind.
The other aspect that’s intriguing about the story, and actually rather amazing, is that Thurber the writer is sending up situations and cliches that weren’t even cliches yet. The heroic fighter pilot with a stiff upper lip may seem like an easy target to today’s reader — we may have come across a version of this literally thousands of time in movies, stories, TV shows and whatnot — but it’s astonishing to realize that WWII had not even started yet for Americans. That’s when the movie and story cliches really started to fly. But Thurber’s ear for this sort of thing was remarkable:
“We only live once, Sergeant,” said Mitty, with his faint, fleeting smile. “Or do we?” We laugh at this line more out of recognition now rather than because we find it witty. But when The New Yorker readers came across this in 1939, it must have seemed genuinely original and fresh.
The story is also funny. In the second bomber sequence, we read this: “It’s 40 kilometers through hell, sir,” said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. “After all,” he said softly. “What isn’t?”
At the end of the story Mitty is literally backed up against the wall. He’s flamboyantly smoking his cigarette as the firing squad takes aim. This is the image of a man, of course, who did something risky for God and country, and who in all likelihood succeeded in his mission but was caught in the end.
This is a Mitty with a “faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips” as “he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.”
It would be interesting to talk to the young men who read this story in 1939. I have a feeling that for many of them, their take on it would not be about a guy who was unhappy in his daily life. No. They would, in fact, see themselves. Not because Mitty was a hapless everyman, but because he was a regular guy who, when the time came, was capable of great things, of heroic deeds. A man who would be there when his men, and his country, needed him to be.