Photo of James Thurber (c) courtesy of Rosemary A. Thurber

Book Excerpt: James Thurber's 'Collected Fables'


This month marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of essayist, novelist, and all-around with James Thurber. To celebrate the occasion, HarperCollins has published Thurber's Collected Fables (edited by Michael J. Rosen), which combines an unpublished Thurber preface and 85 of his classic fables, with ten previously uncollected stories.

The Aesop-inspired Thurber fables were renowned not only for their absurdist wit and quotable morals, but their astute satires of timeless struggles. And thus, it seems appropriate (considering the kind of year it’s been for the profession) to excerpt this story of the woes of working journalists.


Not very long ago there were two sheep who put on wolf’s clothing and went among the wolves as spies, to see what was going on. They arrived on a fete day, when all the wolves were singing in the taverns or dancing in the street. The first sheep said to his companion, “Wolves are just like us, for they gambol and frisk. Every day is fete day in Wolfland.” He made some notes on a piece of paper (which a spy should never do) and he headed them “My Twenty-Four Hours in Wolfland,” for he had decided not to be a spy any longer but to write a book on Wolfland and also some articles for the Sheep’s Home Companion. The other sheep guessed what he was planning to do, so he slipped away and began to write a book called “My Ten Hours in Wolfland.” The first sheep suspected what was up when he found his friend had gone, so he wired a book to his publisher called “My Five Hours in Wolfland,” and it was announced for publication first. The other sheep immediately sold his manuscript to a newspaper syndicate for serialization.

Both sheep gave the same message to their fellows: wolves were just like sheep, for they gambolled and frisked, and every day was fete day in Wolfland. The citizens of Sheepland were convinced by all this, so they drew in their sentinels and they let down their barriers. When the wolves descended on them one night, howling and slavering, the sheep were as easy to kill as flies on a windowpane.

Moral: Don’t get it right, just get it written.

COLLECTED FABLES. Edited by Michael Rosen. Copyright © 2019 by Rosemary A. Thurber. Reprinted here with permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers and the Barbara Hogenson Agency, Inc.