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.)

5 Replies to “Who?”

  1. There’s a school of thought that says you should use the reference despite the fact that it (unfortunately) may not be recognized. Using it may cause someone curious minded enough to actually look it up. And in these days of Google it’s easier than ever.
    There’s an incredible film by a friend of mine called “A Touch of Greatness” in which she tells the story of Albert Cullum. He taught kids in Rye, NY in the late 60’s Shakespeare in 4th grade. He even involved kindergarten kids in serious Shakespeare productions. His thought was that they might not understand it all but they do understand and share (and should celebrate) the heroic yearnings.
    I was born in ’67, by the way, and Walter Mitty is alive and well in my stable of references. But then again, I can recite lyrics from just about any Cole Porter song, so I may be an outlier.
    And maybe I’m taking catalog copy way too seriously.

  2. Hey, MK:
    Well, if I’d been writing for myself, I guess I’d have left Walter Mitty in and let people look it up, which is what I’d like to think I’d do when I come across an unfamiliar name or word. In fact, the person I was talking to in this case was online at the time, and her actual words when I asked whether she knew about Mitty and Thurber were something along the lines of “Ummm — not yet.” She was going to look them up on Google.
    I guess I was just observing how cultural reference points change, but I was trying not to bemoan it. I know my kids probably don’t know who Walter Mitty is — but of course, they’re immersed in a culture than in many ways has moved on. But still, I’m surprised at things they’ll bring up from my (our) day that I’m not really familiar with. Case in point: My 18-year-old son, Thom, was carrying “In Cold Blood” around a couple months ago; his class had been reading some Capote stuff, including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and one of his friends had turned him on to the Kansas murder epic. I had never even opened it. (I commandeered it and read it straight through.)
    I’ll have to look up this Albert Cullum you talk about. I think that that approach to Shakespeare is necessary whatever the age of the students — it takes a lot of reading and listening to really get comfortable with the language. I’m still surprised by things I hear in plays I’ve seen many times.

  3. Well just to let you know – I do know who Walter Mitty is 🙂 But I can’t claim to have read it. I heard about the book when the original rumors of Jim Carrey playing the role came out, which was a long time ago now.

  4. In reference to MK’s comment about stiring interest from a reference. I must admit that I read Lolita from Sting’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”

  5. … and I first read “Alice in Wonderland” after seeing Tom Petty’s video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” in the 80s. As for Blue Oyster Cult, I probably never would have chased them down had Stephen King not dropped a lyric in a chapter break in one of his books. I became engaged with Nikola Tesla’s life after seeing a Tesla coil spark in the desert at Burning Man. Had I not checked in on Infospigot today, I never would have Google’d Thurber and found this awesome quote: “I loathe the expression “What makes him tick.” It is the American mind, looking for simple and singular solution, that uses the foolish expression. A person not only ticks, he also chimes and strikes the hour, falls and breaks and has to be put together again, and sometimes stops like an electric clock in a thunderstorm.” I say, MORE OBSCURE REFERENCES in catalogs and elsewhere!

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