“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) is a short story by James Thurber. The most famous of Thurber’s stories, it first appeared in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and was first collected in his book My World and Welcome to It (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1942). It has since been reprinted in James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (The Library of America, 1996, ISBN 1-883011-22-1), is available on-line on the New Yorker website, and is one of the most frequently anthologized short stories inAmerican literature. The story is considered one of Thurber’s “acknowledged masterpieces”. It was made into a 1947 movie of the same name, with Danny Kaye in the title role, though the movie is very different from the original story. It was also adapted into a2013 film, which is again very different from the original.
The name Walter Mitty and the derivative word “Mittyesque” have entered the English language, denoting an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world, or more seriously, one who intentionally attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not.
The story had an influence on other humorists, notably Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman (who borrowed the story’s sound effects), playwright George Axelrod (who employed Mitty-like fantasies in The Seven Year Itch) and animation director Chuck Jones (who created a Mitty-like child character for Warner Bros. cartoons).
When referencing actor Errol Flynn, Warner Brothers studio head Jack L. Warner noted in his autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood, “To the Walter Mittys of the world he [Flynn] was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package”.
Major Tom is a fictional astronaut created by David Bowie, heard in his songs “Space Oddity“, “Ashes to Ashes“, and “Hallo Spaceboy” (particularly in the remix by the Pet Shop Boys). Bowie’s own interpretation of the character evolved throughout his career. 1969’s “Space Oddity” depicts an astronaut who casually slips the bonds of the world to journey beyond the stars. In the 1980 song “Ashes to Ashes,” Bowie reinterprets Major Tom as an oblique autobiographical symbol for himself. Major Tom is described as a “junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low”. This lyric was interpreted as a play on the title of Bowie’s 1977 album Low, which charted his withdrawal following his drug abuse in the United States. A short time later, there is another reversal of Major Tom’s original withdrawal, turning ‘outwards’ or towards space.
In 1983, Peter Schilling continued the story of Major Tom in his hit single “Major Tom (Coming Home)“. Other artists who have subsequently made substantial contributions to the Major Tom story include K.I.A. and The Tea Party, among others. Due to some similarities in Elton John‘s “Rocket Man”, there is a possible connection between the Rocket Man and Major Tom, a connection notably made by Bowie himself, who while singing Space Oddity in concert would sometimes call out, “Oh, Rocket Man!”
In the 2013 film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” produced and starred by Ben Stiller, the phrase “ground control to Major Tom” is a recurrent reference to Mitty’s episodes of daydreaming. The song (Space Oddity) motivates Mitty to go find the elusive photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), as he daydreams of his crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) singing the song to him in a remote karaoke bar in Greenland, Mitty runs to catch a helicopter piloted by a very drunk and emotionally unstable man, he then begins a journey of self-discovery and personal growth.