There is a ghost somewhere in Columbus, Ohio who surely remembers the long oak table in the dining room at 77 Jefferson Avenue. After all, it kept wisping around the table—and up the stairs—and causing a hullabaloo. “Its advent caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door,” wrote the New Yorker’s James Thurber in his beloved 1915 short story The Night the Ghost Got In, “and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrolman.”
Somewhere in Columbus, too, is an owl that surely cannot forget the narrow, twisting stairs it swooped down in another of Thurber’s classic tales, The Owl in the Attic.
And everywhere there are readers, four generations of them, who will never forget the three-story, red-brick Victorian house immortalized in the whimsical adult fairy tales written by Thurber, who died in 1961. Now, after years of decay, the author’s boyhood home has been meticulously restored under the leadership of Columbus’ Metropolitan Learning Community, with the aid of $250,000 donated by local businessmen and Thurber lovers around the world. Aptly, there is an author in the attic: Richard Andersen, 38, who moved into the top-floor apartment last September as the winner of the first annual Thurber writer-in-residence contest.
Even that henpecked dreamer, Walter Mitty, whose secret fantasy life was the subject of Thurber’s most famous short story, might not have thought possible what happened to Andersen. Last year when Richard’s wife, Deborah Shea, 33, a published poet, noticed an ad for the contest in a literary magazine, the couple was living in a dilapidated one-room Manhattan apartment. Her husband, a self-effacing sort in the best tradition of Thurber antiheroes, had published four books(including one on education in America and another on the 1873 Muckaluck Indian Wars) but was between books and jobs while teaching remedial reading two nights a week at the City University of New York. The family checking account was nearing a precarious low of $125, and so was Andersen’s confidence. “I’ve never been terribly ambitious,” he admits.
Naturally, then, he was reluctant at first to enter the contest. But his wife prevailed, and the judges were impressed with Andersen’s books. Beating out several hundred others, Andersen won a $25,000 stipend and the privilege of spending a year in Thurber’s abode.
A fan since age 11 when he read Thurber’s 1942 story The Catbird Seat, Andersen grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father was a lawyer. Richard fared well academically, earning a B.A. from Loyola University, an M.A. from City University and a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University, which led to a Fulbright professorship at the University of Bergen in Norway. But professionally, his life reflected the title of another Thurber story—My Life and Hard Times. Andersen has held more than 15 jobs through the years, including Bloomingdale’s salesman, bicycle messenger and ditchdigger. He finally settled into teaching jobs in high schools but then was fired from one for protesting the unfair treatment of another teacher. “I didn’t mind being fired,” he recalls. “Most good writing is done by people who don’t fit in. And I look at some of those people at the school, and they drink too much, they have affairs with other teachers, and they’re dull.”
Now that he’s in the catbird seat in Thurber’s attic, Andersen is working on a biography of Michael and Catherine Karolyi, Hungarian aristocrats who during World War I helped overthrow the Habsburg monarchy and establish eastern Europe’s first democratic government. Feeling that Thurber is somewhere looking over his shoulder leaves Andersen unruffled. “I hope the ghosts turn out to be friendly,” he ventures with a sly glance up those twisting stairs, “and the owl in the attic offers no serious perplexities.”