Story Playlist 17: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

James Thurber: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) I’d guess that relatively few of us are living the life of our dreams, which is why we dream in the first place. We all have a secret life of sorts, a world or worlds into which we step when “real life” gets us down. The more mundane our real life, the more that secret world offers a welcome escape. Day dreams come to us during waking hours when our mind drifts, bored by whatever occupies us. If life is consistently boring enough, we might have a hard time leaving our fantasy retreats.

New Yorker staple James Thurber introduces us to mild-mannered Walter Mitty in medias res: we’re in the middle of what seems an exciting World War II adventure film, as the Commander pushes up the speed of a hydroplane in freezing temperatures. The scene dissolves at the sound of Mrs. Mitty’s voice—cautioning her husband not to drive so fast—and we’re with the Mittys as they run errands in placid Waterbury, Connecticut. With a light and humorous tone, Thurber lets a series of fantasies add excitement to Mitty’s mundane activities. In each of the fantasies, Mitty is the hero, the focus. This is a far cry from reality, in which Mrs. Mitty “wears the pants” and in which Mitty is ashamed at failing husbandy tasks, like not having the skill to remove snow chains from his own car’s tires.

Shopping while his wife visits the hairdresser, Mitty inhabits a series of adventures in which he is the protagonist: the Commander in the hydroplane; a level-headed doctor faced with medical and mechanical emergencies; a defendant in a murder trial; a World War II pilot about to undertake another perilous mission. In each case, the fantasy arrives from some real life cue: Mitty, hearing a newsboy shout about a local trial, is “on trial” when he can’t remember the other item his wife told him to buy; he becomes a pilot in response to a headline about the threat of the Nazi air force. While giving us cartoon-like glimpses of Mitty’s imaginative realm, Thurber also creates an everyday world where his hero cringes beneath the judgment of policemen, parking attendants, and even random passersby—such as a girl who overhears him muttering about “puppy biscuit”—the item he remembers to buy after, in his fantasy, he is called “a cur!”

Like O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” Thurber’s story is so much a part of our common oxygen it has entered the dictionary, with “Mittyesque” a term for someone who prefers fantasy to reality. It is perhaps not a stretch to think that Thurber chose the name “Mitty” for its similarities to the word “mitigate,” meaning to “lessen something, to make something less harsh, severe, or violent.” “Walter” sounds a bit like “alter,” as in “alternative reality,” giving a sense of Mitty's character—if we want to think of him as heroic rather than hapless—as one who can alter and mitigate the banalities of life through his gifted imagination. Like any creator of fictions, we might say.

As a writer of fiction himself, Thurber clearly enjoys the sound of words, particularly nonsense words. He heightens the humor of Mitty’s imaginative flights by showing that Mitty actually knows nothing about the complicated, high-pressure situations he commands in his fantasies. Official-sounding but meaningless words populate Mitty’s foray into surgery, where he invokes “streptothricosis” and “obstreosis of the ductal tract” and the onset of “coreopsis,” all invented but sounding plausibly like real medical terms. And much like many an earnest writer, Mitty has his own motifs: whenever a machinery-sound is required, Mitty imagines it as “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa,” a wonderful use of onomatopoeia that may also be found outside the boundaries of this story, having—like the name of its fictional originator—entered the popular imagination.

The life of a Walter Mitty might look very different, were it to take place in the digital age. It will be interesting to see how the new 2013 film of the story deals with the fact that we no longer day-dream as we once did. Time once spent in our inner worlds is now spent engaged with the virtual world: texting on cellphones, listening to mp3s, reading on a screen, browsing the internet, watching films or film clips. Rather than lull our spare moments in the cooling waters of our imaginations, we turn at once to our electronic devices. In a sense, our minds have grown lazy. We no longer know how to amuse ourselves in our own thoughts. Were he alive today, Walter Mitty would not exist in the form in which Thurber envisioned him, though the way in which the real world intrudes on Mitty’s thoughts is rather akin to how our surroundings can still bring us up out of our various virtual realities. And one might still kill time by reading “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” on a kindle or smartphone, devices which, in a sense, make Mittys of us all.