Western tale by a teenage Thurber published for first time

NEW YORK (AP) — Before becoming one of the great wits of the 20th century, James Thurber was a teenager hooked on Westerns.

The Columbus, Ohio, native would remember fondly such “nickel novels” as “Jed, the Trapper” and “The Liberty Boys of ’76,” and was so caught up in the gun duel of Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” he became physically ill. Inevitably, Thurber sketched out a couple of tales himself, including “How Law and Order Came to Aramie,” completed when he was around 18 and unpublished for more than a century. It appears in The Strand Magazine’s new issue, which came out Friday.

“You can definitely see this is a young Thurber, who is very talented, spoofing those Westerns,” Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli, who has unearthed writings by F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and many others, told The Associated Press during a recent interview.

Thurber was a prominent writer for The New Yorker, known for his drawings and for such stories as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Catbird Seat.” He died in 1961 at age 66.

“Aramie,” its handwritten manuscript found by Gulli in the archives of Ohio State University, tells of a sheriff named “Big” John Oakes, big not in physical stature but “in the quality of his nature.” Sheriff Oakes’ authority has been challenged by the gang of Bud Tevis, leading to a confrontation that ends with Tevis running away, a heroic fantasy the daydreaming Mitty might have imagined for himself.

The story has the kind of vernacular (“It seemed like Bud would bust awaitin’ fer that gun to blow”) Thurber would use unforgettably in his baseball yarn “You Could Look it Up.” It also includes such absurdist touches as a sleeping Sheriff Oakes “grotesquely doubled up on the antique couch,” and shows Thurber’s emerging gifts for description and characterization.

“For some minutes the little sheriff was silent, the tense, hard look on his face unchanging, his gray eyes glinting under their fine, sensitive eyebrows, the muscles of his jaws moving sharply at intervals,” Thurber wrote. “(H)e tore himself from his abstraction with a brief, characteristic gesture, and, without a word, unholstered his gun and examined it carefully. But for the glint in his eyes, like the flash of a polished filing in the sunlight, he seemed to have sunk again into a deep study.”

The tone seems mostly farcical, although at least one Thurber scholar found a darker undertone. In the 1995 book “James Thurber: His Life and Times,” biographer Harrison Kinney thought the story “riddled with the cliches of the western pulps,” but noted a common Thurber theme: “manly strength versus the pussycat.” Kinney concluded that “thanks to the self-plagiarizing nature of the arts and the entertainment industry, Thurber’s plot is as old as a hundred years and as fresh as last night’s TV western.”

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