22 November 2012

"The Unicorn in the Garden", or God Bless You, Mr. Thurber

I freely admit that Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday. In my household, there were only the three of us, which meant that I was outnumbered. With neither church nor company, there was little occupation for my parents other than to eat, drink, and fight. In the immortal words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, "It was a queer, blank day," and sometimes more. The turkey was good, and the stuffing superlative, but I got the same at Christmas, and we had more variety in the way of entertainment.
Robert Benchley
But we all have our escape hatches, and mine was books, for which I give grateful and ever-lasting thanks. Especially humor. When I was a child, my grandfather found a copy of "The Thurber Carnival" lying on the street and gave it to me. At the same time, someone else gave me a copy of "The Benchley Roundup" and I was hooked - and warped - for life.

Here are some of my favorite quotes, just to warm us up:

Benchley - "A freelance writer is a man who is paid per word, per piece, or perhaps."

Thurber - “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.”
James Thurber

Benchley - "Even nowadays a man can't step up and kill a woman without feeling just a bit unchivalrous."

Thurber - “With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and definite hardening of the paragraphs.”

Benchley's work was, 99% of the time, the classic humorous essay. Thurber's work ranged far more widely, from wistful to sardonic to straight-up reporting to literary analysis. (He wrote what I consider the best essay on Henry James' writing ever - "The Wings of Henry James", in the November 7, 1959 issue of the New Yorker.) And then there are his parables. Here, for our Thanksgiving entertainment, is "The Unicorn in the Garden", the obvious predecessor of "The Catbird Seat", and in both cases, one of the neatest ways of getting rid of someone unpleasant I have ever found. Not that any of us would be interested in that...

The Unicorn in the Garden

by James Thurber
reprinted from
Fables For Our Time
Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. "There's a unicorn in the garden," he said. "Eating roses." She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him.
"The unicorn is a mythical beast," she said, and turned her back on him. The man walked slowly downstairs and out into the garden. The unicorn was still there; now he was browsing among the tulips. "Here, unicorn," said the man, and he pulled up a lily and gave it to him. The unicorn ate it gravely. With a high heart, because there was a unicorn in his garden, the man went upstairs and roused his wife again. "The unicorn," he said,"ate a lily." His wife sat up in bed and looked at him coldly. "You are a booby," she said, "and I am going to have you put in the booby-hatch."
The man, who had never liked the words "booby" and "booby-hatch," and who liked them even less on a shining morning when there was a unicorn in the garden, thought for a moment. "We'll see about that," he said. He walked over to the door. "He has a golden horn in the middle of his forehead," he told her. Then he went back to the garden to watch the unicorn; but the unicorn had gone away. The man sat down among the roses and went to sleep.
As soon as the husband had gone out of the house, the wife got up and dressed as fast as she could. She was very excited and there was a gloat in her eye. She telephoned the police and she telephoned a psychiatrist; she told them to hurry to her house and bring a strait-jacket. When the police and the psychiatrist arrived they sat down in chairs and looked at her, with great interest.
"My husband," she said, "saw a unicorn this morning." The police looked at the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist looked at the police. "He told me it ate a lily," she said. The psychiatrist looked at the police and the police looked at the psychiatrist. "He told me it had a golden horn in the middle of its forehead," she said. At a solemn signal from the psychiatrist, the police leaped from their chairs and seized the wife. They had a hard time subduing her, for she put up a terrific struggle, but they finally subdued her. Just as they got her into the strait-jacket, the husband came back into the house.
"Did you tell your wife you saw a unicorn?" asked the police. "Of course not," said the husband. "The unicorn is a mythical beast." "That's all I wanted to know," said the psychiatrist. "Take her away. I'm sorry, sir, but your wife is as crazy as a jaybird."
So they took her away, cursing and screaming, and shut her up in an institution. The husband lived happily ever after.

Moral: Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and may all your unicorns lead to high hearts.


  1. Thurber along with Thorne Smith were among the top of my father's favorite writers and my mother thoroughly enjoyed Benchley. I'm doomed.

  2. "The Unicorn in the Garden" was one of my favorite stories in childhood. Thanks for bringing it back to me and for the delightful quotes. Have a Happier Thanksgiving this year!

  3. A treat! Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. What a delightful nostalgic treat! I'd completely forgotten the story, though I think about "The Catbird Seat" every time I see a catbird perched in the crotch of two upper branches in the backyard. I'd also forgotten that there was a copy of The Thurber Carnival in our house when I was a kid. Happy Thanksgiving to my blog sisters and brothers on SleuthSayers and all our readers!

  5. I love both Benchley and Thurber. "The Catbird Seat" may be the best perfect crime story ever written, says me, and of course I edited THURBER ON CRIME, so I would say it.

  6. I enjoy Thurber but unfortunately I've never read Benchley. I first read Thurber in my freshman year in college and tried over the years to learn from his prose style. My favorite story is "A Visit From Saint Nicholas in the Ernest Hemingway Manne,r" his parody of Hemingway.

  7. A delight! Thanks! Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Elizabeth and Louis, thanks for reminding me of those.

    I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, Jeff!

  9. There are probably multiple connections between Thurber and Benchley, but in a 1944 radio adaptation on This Is My Best, Robert Benchley played the daydreaming titular character in Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty".

  10. Some people say that Benchley WAS Walter Mitty - he and Dorthy Parker used to share an office at the New Yorker - Dorothy said if it was any smaller, "it would have been adultery." Check out some of the old Benchley shorts on YouTube. Very funny man. And I agree, "The Catbird Seat" is the perfect crime. I'm going to have to get a hold of "Thurber on Crime" - one of my seminal writing moments as a child was "The Macbeth Murder Mystery"! Oh, and I have much happier Thanksgivings nowadays. :)

  11. Benchley hit his prime about ten years before Thurber. The latter said that when he and EB White shared an office at The New Yorker every time one of them wrote something funny, he would show it to the other one and ask "Did Benchley do this already?" Certainly Benchley was a master of the "little man" persona that Thurber is now associated with.

    I am pretty sure that Parker and Benchley shared an office long before The New Yorker. The other famous line about that was their claim that they shared an international telegram address: PARKBENCH.


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