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Dreaming of Walter Mitty Dreaming

January 9, 2014

Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

If you want to learn about Walter Mitty, first, check the dictionary:

Walter Mitty: an ordinary, timid person who is given to adventurous and self-aggrandizing daydreams [from the title character of James Thurbers’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: (1939).”

James Thurber: The guy who dreamed up Walter Mitty

James Thurber: The guy who dreamed up Walter Mitty

Now, we generally use the term “blogger.”

Walter Mitty is one of the few fictional characters to enter our zeitgeist (a pretentious way to say…well, he is in the dictionary). Simply put, James Thurber gave us a character with a resonance that cuts directly into the lives of so many people–ordinary and timid but dreaming of bigger things. That is who we are; that is what we do. Here is a link to the story itself.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” text from The New Yorker

James Thurber created a character so intrinsically tied into twentieth-century American urban life that “Walter Mitty” made its way into the dictionary. I used my old solid, book version put out by Random House/Webster’s in 1992.  By the way, for those who would rather go online for definitions, you can get the same one from Random House/Kernerman/Webster’s College Dictionary, more current at 2010. If you wait awhile, you may be able to get the same definition again published by Random House/Kernerman/Chick-fil-A/Webster’s College Dictionary. I am only guessing about that, though.

The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin FedEx, 2009) defines Walter Mitty thusly: “an ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumph.”

Merriam-Webster online writes the definition this way: “a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming”

And Dictionary.com has it like this: “an ordinary, timid person who is given to adventurous and self-aggrandizing daydreams or secret plans as a way of glamorizing a humdrum life.”

And, one more, the Macmillan dictionary online: “someone who imagines that unusual or exciting things happen to them, but whose life is in fact very ordinary.”

OK. The differing keepers of the language listed above play around with the wording slightly, but the idea is clear in its application and universality–small lives, big dreams. That just about covers most of us.

I enjoy this fact: Walter Mitty is in the dictionary. That seems worthy of some respect. Huck Finn is not there; neither is Tom Sawyer. Those were the two most reasonable characters that, to my mind, had the best chance to be acknowledged in the dictionary as types or simply as definitive fictional characters. (I may be missing others, but I generally start and stop with Mark Twain when making such points.) In any case, Thurber’s character, appearing first in the pages of The New Yorker in 1939, was immediately familiar and captured a pervading (and ever-growing) sense of failure amid grand expectations that has defined American culture at large and many men for over seventy years.

Poster for the 1947 Film

Poster for the 1947 Film

This has been a common theme in our culture and literature, but never conveyed in such a concise and poignant fashion. Thurber’s effort is simply a near perfect expression of all that is wonderful in American humor. Which means the story is very funny and heart-wrenching in its implications at the same time. It is so good, it remains in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, a standard-bearer of literary art–actually, that is not true. The editors removed it awhile back along with some other wonderfully constructed humor. No doubt that the editors made sound decisions because it is better to get more works in the anthology that people never read and never will read than to celebrate writers who are wonderfully readable rather than provocatively unreadable. Again, I am off point. It is just that, sure, T.S. Eliot was smart and gave us J. Alfred Prufrock, a character/speaker with some vital connections to our modern age. But, Walter Mitty is a better version and, well, he is in the dictionary. And I want T.S. Eliot to be declared fully British so we can be done with him. The same goes for Henry James. Would someone please take care of this?

Though the dictionaries do not want to state it, “Walter Mitty” is an American type. He is also a male, though the definitions render him gender neutral. That is fine, though, really, only “ordinary” men would ever dare to imagine such ego-driven, self-absorbed dreams. Only men are that desperate.  Though, Lady GaGa comes to mind. I will let someone else deal with that.

Poster for "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (2013)

Poster for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (2013)

Of course, when you google “Walter Mitty” currently (winter of 2013-14), you get references to the current film version, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, a man who has built a career around his natural “Mittyesque” (or is it “Mittyan”) sensibilities. I say that with love. What I mean is that you get links to the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The reviews are lukewarm, at best. Claudia Puig, in USA Today online, calls it “well-intentioned but insipid.” She means the film, not USA Today online. Insipid means: “without distinctive, interesting, or stimulating qualities.” (I still had my dictionary open.). Apparently, a character like Walter Mitty can be insipid, but a movie better not be. Fair enough.

Here is a link to the IMDb site for the film: http:IMDb site for the film

In this version, Mitty works in a cubicle for Life magazine. Get it? It also seems to have a moral: “stop dreaming, start living.” That’s nice. If the Walter Mittys of the world only had the funding of a Hollywood film, then,…wow, what dreams would come from that? Now, I am lost in a circle of self-reflexivity–dreams, life, dreams, life. Whoa.

Poster for "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947)

An earlier film version (1947) starred Danny Kaye and suffered from some of the same issues. The film’s dreams and overall tone depart from the original story. Danny Kaye is nonetheless very compelling, and he may be a major factor in the popularity of the story and the character. Here is  a link to a twenty-eight minute radio broadcast version promoting the 1946 film, with Danny Kaye in the lead role. It is worth a listen:

Audio performance of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” with Danny Kaye

I am not going to review either film; I like Ben Stiller and Danny Kaye too much to do that. And I am not going to blast it for being a perversion of the marvelous short story by James Thurber because that is what films do to literature.  

I simply want to celebrate the Walter Mittys of the world. We are numerous, relatively harmless, and, most importantly, we are in the dictionary.

ben-stiller-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-600x337

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 9, 2014 1:11 pm

    As a lover of James Thurber, the original short story, and “the Walter Mittys of the world” – this post made my imagination soar!

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