For some years, including the months of 1929 when they jointly composed Is Sex Necessary?, James Thurber and E.B. White shared, during office hours, a small room at The New Yorker. White had already become the darling of the magazine’s editor, Harold Ross; it was through White’s suggestion, in 1927, that Ross had hired Thurber, who at the age of thirty-two was still a struggling writer from Columbus, Ohio, with little to show for several journalistic stints and aspiring sojourns in Manhattan and Paris. While they shared their close quarters, White tutored Thurber in the art of writing for “Talk of the Town,” and Thurber gradually became the chief “Talk” writer and rewrite man. When Thurber died in 1961, White remembered the period fondly:
It was a fine thing to be young and at work in New York for a new magazine when Thurber was young and at work, and I will always be glad that this happened to me.
It was fortunate that we got on well; the office we shared was the size of a hall bedroom. There was just room enough for two men, two typewriters, and a stack of copy paper. The copy paper disappeared at a scandalous rate—not because our production was high (although it was) but because Thurber used copy paper as the natural receptacle for discarded sorrows, immediate joys, stale dreams, golden prophecies, and messages of good cheer to the outside world and to fellow-workers. His mind was never at rest, and his pencil was connected to his mind by the best conductive tissue I have ever seen in action.
Is Sex Necessary? was published in November of 1929, enjoying warm reviews and healthy sales (eleven printings of 45,000 copies in the first five months). Scott Elledge’s biography of White asserts:
Eight months earlier the authors had begun to think about collaborating on a parody of some of the works on sex produced by “heavy writers” (doctors, psychiatrists, and “other students of misbehavior”) with which the market had recently been flooded.
Robert Emmet Long’s biography of Thurber puts it rather differently: “One day in the late 1920s, Thurber and White discovered that they had each begun parodies of the same subject—the current rash of books that, with pseudoscientific nomenclature, explained sex and psychological adjustment to the layman.” In a list of the unsuccessful works that Thurber had accumulated by 1927, Long mentions “an elaborate, unpublished parody of current best-sellers, ‘Why We Behave Like Microbe Hunters.’”
Certainly Thurber’s chapters in Is Sex Necessary?—the odd-numbered ones, the glossary, and the preface by “Lt. Col. H.R.L. Le Boutellier, C.I.E.”—show the greater enthusiasm for the parodistic premise of the book, that the authors are specialists following in the footsteps of the fictional doctors Karl Zaner and Walter Tithridge, the “deans of American sex.” Thurber had a keener interest than White in specifically psychological predicaments; he was the more consciously troubled, with his nonstarting literary career, his compromised eyesight (he had lost an eye to a brother’s arrow in a childhood accident, and the other eye was succumbing to “sympathetic ophthalmia”), and his marriage to Althea née Adams, a tall, ambitious former campus beauty queen at Ohio State University in Columbus. Their union early encountered sexual disarray; Thurber told a friend that “sleeping with Althea is like sleeping with the Statue of Liberty,” and she is believed to have inspired the menacing female figure in many of his drawings.
White’s contributions to Is Sex Necessary?—the even-numbered chapters, the foreword, “Answers to Hard Questions,” and “A Note on the Drawings in This Book”—seem relatively diffident and innocent. Beginning in Chapter II with a bumbling, Benchleyesque embarrassment over distinguishing love from passion, he does work up a certain comedic enthusiasm in Chapter IV over Schmalhausen trouble, specific to “girls who have taken a small apartment (schmalhausen) and are reading the behaviorism essays of Samuel D. Schmalhausen,” and ends in Chapter VIII by invoking the minnesingers and the medieval tradition of romantic love, anticipating by ten years Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World. Chapter VIII is the only one jointly composed: Long credits White with “the first and final parts,” leaving the hilarious yet heartfelt account of the frigid male’s “recessive knee” to Thurber:
Simply stated, the knee phenomenon is this: occasions arise sometimes when a girl presses her knee, ever so gently, against the knee of the young man she is out with…. Often the topic of conversation has something to do with it: the young people, talking along pleasantly, will suddenly experience a sensation of compatibility, or of friendliness, or of pity, or of community-of-interests. One of them will make a remark singularly agreeable to the other person—a chance word or phrase that seems to establish a bond between them. Such a remark can cause the knee of the girl to be placed against the knee of the young man. Or, if the two people are in a cab, the turning of a sharp corner will do it. In canoes, the wash from a larger vessel will bring it about. In restaurants and dining-rooms it often takes place under the table, as though by accident. On divans, sofas, settees, couches, davenports, and the like, the slight twist of the young lady’s body incident to receiving a light for her cigarette will cause it….
Now, a normal male in whom there are no traces of frigidity will allow his knee to retain its original position, sometimes even exerting a very slight counter-pressure. A frigid male, however, will move his knee away at the first suggestion of contact, denying himself the electric stimulus of love’s first stirring.
Parts of this exposition, especially a passage that describes “the merest touch of knee to knee, light as the brush of a falling blossom against one’s cheek, and just as lovely,” sound more like White than Thurber; but Chapter V, “The Lilies-and-Bluebird Delusion,” is pure Thurber:
I have in mind the case of a young lady whose silly mother had taught her to believe that she would have a little son, three years old, named Ronald, as soon as her husband brought a pair of bluebirds into a room filled with lilies-of-the-valley. The young woman (to say nothing of the young man) was thus made the victim of one of the extremest cases of Birds and Flowers Fixation which has ever come to my attention. I shall transcribe, from Dr. Tithridge’s notes, the first dialogue on the subject that took place between the young couple….
On the evening of the 25th of June, when the couple were married, the young husband entered their hotel suite to find it literally a garden of lilies-of-the-valley. He was profoundly touched, but baffled, and asked his wife who was dead.
“Where are the bluebirds?” she replied, coyly.
“What bluebirds?” he demanded.
“The bluebirds,” she said, blushing.
Both men had reason for sexual perplexity as 1929 wound down. Thurber felt simultaneously trapped and spurned in his six-year-old marriage to Althea, which had become an erratically “open” one of separate residences and overlooked affairs. A “boxed-in feeling,” we read in Chapter VII, can lead to “delusions of persecution [that] may attain astounding proportions.” Thurber’s inner life, hyperactive since his boyhood, when his natural frailty was intensified by his ophthalmological impairment, could indeed achieve astounding proportions; the convenient diagnosis “nervous breakdown” entered his medical history a number of times, and there were, as he aged, increasingly frequent explosions of wild and rageful drunken behavior.
White, at the time of coauthoring Is Sex Necessary?, was involved with an older woman, a divorcée with two children, a woman so seductively intelligent and beautifully understanding as to overwhelm the evasive tactics that had kept him a bachelor during his footloose twenties. As a free creative spirit, he had traveled across the country in a Model T Ford when the western roads were rudimentary; he had shipped out of the country on a one-way ticket to Alaska. Harold Ross, who wanted him steadfast on the editorial bridge of the good ship New Yorker, pressed another sort of suit, which White dodged by such maneuvers as taking refuge in a Canadian boys’ camp and threatening to become a camp counselor. But Ross and, on the romantic front, Ross’s right-hand woman, Katharine Angell, proved too much for the rising writer’s vision of an ideal freedom. White and Katharine abruptly married a few days after Is Sex Necessary? was published, occasioning this item in Walter Winchell’s gossip column:
News that couldn’t wait until Monday: E. B. White, of The New Yorker’s comical department and one of the better wits in the town, and Katharine Angell, the managing editor of The New Yorker, eloped Tuesday and were sealed up-state.
The groom recently co-authored a book titled (heh-heh): “Is Sex Necessary?”
The wedding was performed in Bedford Village, in a Presbyterian church after the couple failed to find a justice of the peace, and the bride’s dog Daisy (a gift from the Thurbers) got into a fight with the minister’s police dog. White later remembered, “It was a very nice wedding—nobody threw anything, and there was a dog fight.” The marriage, of which Katharine had told a friend at the time, “If it lasts only a year, it will be worth it,” lasted until she died in 1977, and was by all signs a happy and mutually enhancing one.
In Is Sex Necessary?, it may have been Thurber who wrote, in the climactic eighth chapter, “Life, as we know, is very insistent; almost daily people become involved with other people,” but it was White who observed, in the penultimate paragraph, “An imagined kiss is more easily controlled, more thoroughly enjoyed, and less cluttery than an actual kiss.” The danger of entrapment in reality (e.g., women) is a theme common to both writers, both of them nervous, wary men who at this tender point in their lives could not foresee their future renown or the lasting success of the magazine that had given them professional shelter. Their joint answer to the question the title of their book poses would seem to be “Maybe, but we’d rather it weren’t.” Seldom has a book with “sex” in the title had so little good to say for it.
The two men never collaborated on another book, and their office-sharing ended in 1930. Thurber was five years older and yet the more extravagant in his behavior and art. He was a natural show-off, given, like his mother, to amateur theatrics and antic monologues. In his near-blindness he found it entertaining to hoax his friends with cleverly imitated voices over the telephone. Fame held no terrors for him. In 1960, a Broadway revue based on his work, titled A Thurber Carnival, was faltering at the box office; he stepped in and played himself, delivering a monologue each night from a chair whisked to the center of the stage on a conveyor belt. Elliott Nugent, his old friend and the coauthor of their play The Male Animal, commented, “That S.O.B. has been trying to get on the stage for forty years, to my certain knowledge.” White, in contrast, never spoke in public and appeared onstage only for the mute acceptance of some honorary degrees. Still, as Elledge points out:
In background and experience the two men had much in common. Their parents had not gone to college. Each had been given as a middle name the name of a Protestant minister. The middle-class culture of Mount Vernon, New York, was not much different from that of Columbus, Ohio. Both had been editors of university newspapers…. Both had written scripts for campus musicals. Neither had shown much ability to write fiction; both admired the great American paragraphers.
Both, he could have gone on, became the biological father of one child—Rosemary Thurber, Joel White—and stayed young by writing elegant, and in White’s case classic, books for children. Both achieved high literary status without ever publishing a novel for adults. Both were, it is almost unnecessary to say, white, Protestant males when to be anything else was to enjoy, in the United States, minority status. In White’s chapter “The Sexual Revolution: Being a Rather Complete Survey of the Entire Sexual Scene,” a generic figure called “Man”—of two illustrative drawings by Thurber, one has Thurber’s mustache and spectacles and the other White’s furrowed brow and central hair-parting—“had come to know enough about permutations and combinations to realize that with millions of Caucasian females to choose from, the chances of his choosing the ideal mate were almost zero.” Damsels of African, Asian, or Jewish blood evidently needed not apply.
Rereading Is Sex Necessary? seventy-five years after its creation, one is more conscious than its good-humored, liberal-minded authors could have been of its phallocratic assumptions and misogynistic tendencies. Thurber, in the chapter “Claustrophobia, or What Every Young Wife Should Know,” amusingly relates the case of a husband (born, like Thurber, in 1894) who is heedlessly painted into the bathroom while shaving and then is told by his wife, “You’ll simply have to stay in there till the paint dries.” He traces, in an increasingly urgent tone, how the difficulties a husband experiences with guest towels and such enigmatic household details lead to “the inception of a Persecution Complex and the slow deterioration of mind and spirit incident upon claustrophobia,” and he concludes by decrying the “heavy toll of male minds as the result of the carelessness or stupidity of wives.” White ends the next chapter on an equally harsh and abrupt note: “So you see, frigidity in men has many aspects, many angles. To me it is vastly more engrossing than frigidity in women, which is such a simple phenomenon you wonder anybody bothers about it at all.” Clit-lit and The Vagina Monologues lay far in the future.
White and Thurber, though agnostic as adults, were raised as Christians early in the last century, when the Puritan heritage was still vitally felt in the respectable middle class. Both families were shocked and offended by their sons’ chastely racy spoof. White overheard his father say to his mother, “Well, I don’t know what you think about it, but I’m ashamed of it.” Thurber’s loyal father back in Columbus told an inquirer, “That name sort of bothered me at first. I spent plenty of time dodging the young woman [the librarian] every time I visited the public library.” The two writers’ voices harmonize in a distrust of sex and resentment of the contortions and submissions that sex exacts from men. The early-twenty-first-century reader, amid the furor over gay marriage and in the wake of the Pill, the free-loving counterculture of the Sixties, the women’s liberation of the Seventies, and the outing of AIDS in the Eighties, must make an effort to feel how sweetly daring it was for these two non-Casanovas to put their modest experience and considerable qualms at the service of this spoof, which for all its flimsiness and signs of carefree haste says much that is honest and true about human sexual discomfort.
The drawings, of course, keep the text from ever too heavily touching the ground. As White explains in his note on the drawings, it was he, in the offices of the young New Yorker, who noticed them, retrieved them from the wastebasket, inked them in, and presented them to Harper and Brothers as the finished illustrations. It was a stroke of critical genius on White’s part, and it launched Thurber’s career as an artist: after Is Sex Necessary? appeared, Ross began to run Thurber’s cartoons in the magazine, and they became, along with those of Arno and Hokinson and Addams, signature ornaments.
After White’s marriage, the collaborative fever between the two “Talk” writers cooled, and, as the magazine prospered and expanded, the office the size of a hall bedroom no longer needed to be shared. But the names of Thurber and White were linked for good, and the Whites never quite surrendered their old friendship to Thurber’s later provocations and fractious egotism. Is Sex Necessary?, breezy and slight and overextended as it is, has never been out of print; it stands as a rare conjunction of singular talents, a fusion bred of close professional quarters. Its jests cast shadows; melancholy and anxiety underlie its high spirits. Sex isn’t everything, the book seems to say, but, then, what is?
Copyright © 2004 by John Updike