‘The Greatest Man In The World’ by James Thurber

Thurber, James 1935

The Greatest Man In The World by James Thurber, 1931

The magic trick:

A very cynical and very funny government conspiracy

All good satire is rooted in misanthropy. The key, I think, is to keep the balance right. Too much misanthropy kills the humor. This Thurber piece comes close to tipping those scales in favor of the misanthrope, but in the end, the humor wins out.

The story’s joke is that the latest aviation hero’s detestable personality and personal history are a threat to a national security based on the promotion of clean-cut, patriotic achievers. Thurber skewers the media and the government relentlessly. It is a silly, absurd story, but the criticism of hypocritical American institutions wounds deep. And that’s quite a trick on Thurber’s part.

The selection:

None of this extraordinary interview was, of course, printed. On the contrary, the newspapers, already under the disciplined direction of a secret directorate created for the occasion and composed of statesmen and editors, gave out to a panting and restless world that “Jacky,” as he had been arbitrarily nicknamed, would consent to say only that he was very happy and that anyone could have done what he did. “My achievement has been, I fear, slightly exaggerated,” the Times man’s article had him protest, with a modest smile.


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