Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes "Mame" (née Fisher) Thurber on December 8, 1894. Both of his parents greatly influenced his work. His Father was a sporadically employed clerk and minor Politician who dreamed of being a Lawyer or an actor. Thurber described his mother as a "born comedian" and "one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known." She was a practical joker and, on one occasion, pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed.
From 1913 to 1918, Thurber attended Ohio State University where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He never graduated from the university because his poor eyesight prevented him from taking a mandatory ROTC course. In 1995 he was posthumously awarded a degree.
From 1918 to 1920, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the United States Department of State, first in Washington, D.C. and then at the embassy in Paris. On returning to Columbus, he began his career as a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of this time, he reviewed books, films, and plays in a weekly column called "Credos and Curios", a title that was given to a posthumous collection of his work. Thurber returned to Paris during this period, where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.
Thurber married Althea Adams in 1922, but the marriage was troubled and ended in divorce in May 1935. They lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut, with their daughter Rosemary. He married Helen Wismer (1902–86) in June 1935.
In 1925, Thurber moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an Editor, with the help of E.B. White, his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor. His career as a Cartoonist began in 1930 after White found some of Thurber's drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication; White inked-in some of these earlier drawings to make them reproduce better for the magazine, and years later expressed deep regret that he had done such a thing. Thurber contributed both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.
In addition to his other fiction, Thurber wrote over seventy-five fables, some of which were first published in "The New Yorker" (1939), then collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956). These were short stories that featured anthropomorphic animals (e.g. The Little Girl and the Wolf, his version of Little Red Riding Hood) as main characters, and ended with a moral as a tagline. An exception to this format was his most famous fable, The Unicorn in the Garden, which featured an all-human cast except for the unicorn, which doesn't speak. Thurber's fables were satirical, and the morals served as punchlines as well as advice to the reader, demonstrating "the complexity of life by depicting the world as an uncertain, precarious place, where few reliable guidelines exist."
His stories also included several book-length fairy tales, such as The White Deer (1945), The 13 Clocks (1950) and The Wonderful O (1957). The latter was one of several of Thurber's works illustrated by Marc Simont. Thurber's prose for The New Yorker and other venues included numerous humorous essays. A favorite subject, especially toward the end of his life, was the English language. Pieces on this subject included "The Spreading 'You Know'," which decried the overuse of that pair of words in conversation, "The New Vocabularianism", "What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?", and many others. His short pieces – whether stories, essays or something in between – were referred to as "casuals" by Thurber and the staff of The New Yorker.
While Thurber drew his cartoons in the usual fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, his failing eyesight later required changes. He drew them on very large sheets of paper using a thick black crayon (or on black paper using white chalk, from which they were photographed and the colors reversed for publication). Regardless of method, his cartoons became as noted as his writings; they possessed an eerie, wobbly feel that seems to mirror his idiosyncratic view on life. He once wrote that people said it looked like he drew them under water. Dorothy Parker, a contemporary and friend of Thurber, referred to his cartoons as having the "semblance of unbaked cookies". The last drawing Thurber completed was a self-portrait in yellow crayon on black paper, which was featured as the cover of Time magazine on July 9, 1951. The same drawing was used for the dust jacket of The Thurber Album (1952).
Thurber wrote a biographical memoir about the founder/publisher of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, entitled The Years with Ross (1958). He wrote a five-part New Yorker series, between 1947 and 1948, examining in depth the radio soap opera phenomenon, based on near-constant listening and researching over the same period. Leaving nearly no element of these programs unexamined, including their Writers, producers, sponsors, performers, and listeners alike, Thurber republished the series in his anthology, The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948), under the section title "Soapland." The series was one of the first to examine such a pop-culture phenomenon in depth.
Thurber's behavior became increasingly erratic and unpredictable in his last year. He was particularly so at a party hosted by Noël Coward and had to go back to the Algonquin Hotel at six in the morning. Thurber was stricken with a blood clot on the brain on October 4, 1961, and underwent emergency surgery, drifting in and out of consciousness. The operation was successful, but he died, aged 66, due to complications from pneumonia. The doctors said his brain was senescent from several small strokes and hardening of the arteries. His last words, aside from the repeated word "God", were "God bless... God damn", according to his wife, Helen.
Thurber and one of his brothers were playing a game of william Tell, and his brother shot James in the eye with an arrow. This event is largely the reason why there is a street in Falls Church, VA named after Thurber https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/why-is-there-a-street-in-falls-church-va-named-after-james-thurber/2018/04/07/98d14084-3903-11e8-9c0a-85d477d9a226_story.html?utm_term=.ba79bf949634 He lost that eye, and the injury later caused him to become almost entirely blind. He was unable to participate in Sports and other activities in his childhood because of this injury, but he developed a creative mind which he used to express himself in writings. Neurologist V .S. Ramachandran suggests that Thurber's imagination may be partly explained by Charles Bonnet syndrome, a neurological condition which causes complex visual hallucinations in people who have suffered some level of visual loss. (This was the basis for the piece "The Admiral on the Wheel".)