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 In a list of the unsuccessful works that Thurber had accumulated by 1927, Long mentions “an elaborate, unpublished parody of current best-sellers, ‘Why We Behave Like Microbe Hunters.'”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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.
Copyright © 2004 by John Updike