17 February 2015
We read James Thurber’s short story ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, first published in 1939 and collected in My World and Welcome to It in 1942. Thurber was a turn of the century man, born in 1894 and died in 1961 – witnessing a phenomenal change in the world in his lifetime. He was a talented cartoonist as well as writer for The New Yorker where he was also an editor.
We were all struck by how funny, modern and relevant the story is and its influence. It’s just over 2,000 words long and yet it’s created two films as well as named a psychological syndrome.The phrase, Walter Mitty, is now part of the English language and used to describe a daydreamer.
Alongside Thurber, I chose a poem of Mark Doty’s, ‘Apparition (Favourite Poem)’ from his collection Theories and Apparitions (Cape Poetry, 2008). The poem quotes a couple of lines from Percy Bysshe Shelly’s famous ‘Ozymandias’ so we looked at that too. Doty is one of the leading contemporary American poets who has won many prizes, particularly for his earlier collection, My Alexandria, about the death from HIV/AIDS of his lover.
Doty, born in 1953, lives in New York where he is a critic and teacher, writes a great blog and in fact, explains the background to this poem on one of his blog posts.
Shelley came from Sussex and was another turn of the century writer, but it was an earlier century. He was born in 1792 and died young, in 1822 just before he reached 30. He was drowned, sailing.
Ozymandias must be one of the most quoted poems and we were interested in the fact that Doty uses the lines that identify the poem so well. Like Thurber’s short story, this short poem’s influence (it’s a sonnet) has an enormous range and it’s hard to believe it is so short when the mythology surrounding it makes it so large.
Shelley first published the poem in 1818 under the pseudonym, Glirastes and later in his 1819 collection Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with other poems. It’s thought Shelley wrote it in competition with his friend Horace Smith. The famous quotation at the end of the poem comes from a report by Diodorus Siculus, a classical writer, describing an inscription on a Theban monument of Ramses 11.
All the texts are available to read on the Reading Round Texts page of this blog.