Doing a little writing assignment — and I do mean little — for a High-End Retail Catalogue that Will Remain Nameless, I hit a snag. I was trying to come up with some copy about an imaginary daydreaming dad. An adjective I might use for this person’s reveries popped into my head: Walter Mitty. For many readers of a certain age, there’s an instant recognition of who that is: the title character of a James Thurber short story, a fictional Everyman whose oppressively mundane daily existence masks a heroic fantasy life.
But something made me ask myself whether Walter Mitty would be too obscure a reference for a turn-of-the-new-century audience. So I asked the person who gave me the assignment, a literate and intelligent person, whether she had heard of Walter Mitty. Or James Thurber, for that matter. She answered no on both counts. Not surprising: She’s at least 15 years younger than me, and came along well after Thurber was a humor icon. Actually, I came along after he was a cultural icon, too — he began writing for The New Yorker in the 1920s, published “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in the magazine in 1939, and died in 1961. But people still talked about Thurber in the ’60s, and there was even an NBC sitcom based on Thurber’s work, “My World and Welcome to It,” that ran for three seasons starting in 1969.
So I didn’t use the Walter Mitty reference. I could too easily hear people reading it and saying, “Who?” Just the way I probably gave a blank look to older relatives who mentioned Ring Lardner or George Ade (though eventually someone handed me a copy of Lardner’s “You Know Me Al,” so I know now that he wrote one of the best, funniest baseball books ever).
(Of course, Walter Mitty’s day may come again: There are old rumors floating around that Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey plan to make a movie based on the story. After that’s out, the reference will be current once more.)