James Thurber, Mark Doty and Percy Bysshe Shelley

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.


Elizabeth Bowen and Kay Ryan

Elizabeth Bowen lived between 1899 – 1973. We read her story, ‘The Demon Lover’, published in The Demon Lover and other stories in 1945. Her first published short stories appeared in 1923.
She is particularly well known for her 1949 novel The Heat of the Day about World War 2
and The Death of the Heart published in 1938.
In her lifetime, she published 10 novels, 13 collections of short stories as well as alarge number of non fiction books.

Kay Ryan, born in 1945, is a former US poet laureate, appointed to the Library of Congress  in 2008. Ryan is also the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work is compared to that of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore and she has written at least 8 collections of poetry.

We looked at two of her poems, ‘The Edges of Time’ and ‘Album’, which are both available to read online.

To read any of the texts mentioned on this blog, go to the Texts pages.

Links to

Alan Paton and Robert Duncan

Alan Paton is one of the most famous anti-apartheid writers, and best known for his novel, Cry the Beloved Country, written in 1948.

Paton was principal of a reformatory in Diepkloof for young black offenders between 1939 and 1945 and his story, ‘Ha’penny’, which we read draws on that experience. Ha’penny was published in his collection, Tales from a Troubled Land in 1961.

Robert Duncan’s poem, ‘My Mother would be a Falconress’, was published in his famous collection Bending the Bow in 1968. A member of the Black Mountain poets, he was a friend of Anais Nin and published Henry Miller.

Duncan’s biological mother died and he was brought up by theosophists. He is known for his experimental approach to language and this poem is a good example of that.