The secret to the enduring popularity of what is perhaps James Thurber’s most famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"—published first in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939 and then reprinted in Thurber's 1942 collection My World - and Welcome to It—lies in a certain universality. No matter how famous, rich and successful one becomes, each and every human carries around with them a secret fantasy life. Everybody experiences those moments throughout the day when a word or a sound or a scent or memory stimulates a brief escape from reality into that realm of the imagination where all things are possible.
Thurber's story follows Walter Mitty, a married man on a day trip to Waterbury, Connecticut with his wife. While she gets her hair done, he goes about town running different errands she has tasked him with; but all the while he lives another life in his imagination, inhabiting such colorful characters as a dauntless hydroplane commander, an infamous crack shot, a WWI captain, and others. At the time Thurber published his short story, Mitty may not have been viewed as such a universal representative of the power of the imagination to allow ordinary people to escape their lives of quiet desperation. Readers in 1939 could have recognized Mitty as a parody of a husband desperately searching for a way to establish autonomy and individuality in the face of his wife’s domineering personality.
Less than a decade after the story was published, the first film version appeared starring Danny Kaye. Notably absent from the plot was Mitty’s wife—replaced by both a domineering mother and fiancée–which did nothing to stop the movie from becoming a box office hit. A little over a decade later, a stage musical of the story was mounted with Mitty’s wife returned to a place of prominence in the plot. That version closed after less than 100 performances and essentially disappeared forever. The most recent film version, directed by and starring Ben Stiller and released in 2013, changes the role of fantasy in Mitty’s life, tossing him headlong into the need to act heroically in real-world situations. Thurber's story continues to be popular with readers as an allegory for the pleasures and pitfalls of an overactive fantasy life.