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Feature Articles


June 2018
The Walter Mitty Syndrome

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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WANNABE: A namby-pamby milk-toast. A person with a very fertile imagination who can mentally place himself in the role of another, whom he admires, but himself can never equal in status. The wannabe myth: Down these mean streets, live large, die young, leave a handsome corpse.

The characterization of the most celebrated wannabe is to be found in a short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Urber that appeared in the 18 March 1939 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The Mitty profile shows a classic wannabe with a vivid imagination whose mind skips from one vivid heroic episode to another, in each instance beating the odds, coming out unscathed, better for the experience.

Two Hollywood films presenting the Mitty character have been produced. The first in 1949 starring the talented comedian Danny Kaye, the second in 2013 with actor Ben Stiller in the role of the indomitable Mitty. Danny Kaye dives headlong into daydreaming states where mortal threats loom, his arrogance overbearing, as he faces overwhelming odds: a 19th century sailing ship captain on stormy seas, a World War Two British ace pilot, all with amazing panache. The Stiller portrayal resolves a complex series of physical challenges, somewhat awkwardly, yet he wins the girl in the end.

When it comes to organized crime the Walter Mitty in us often appeals. Most of what is produced about the phenomenon of orgcrime is at best a screwball balance of myth and realty. The trend is largely toward exaggeration, which is necessary, of course, to keep the plot moving along to insure the reader’s interest. The wannabe craves action. He wants evil, he wants improbable powers invested in the bandits, mixed in a stew with a dash of political/police corruption. Those Goodfellows in the finale must receive their just deserts. Where does the wannabe come in? He is routing for the bad guys, putting himself with that crowd. Why? Because the “boys” are living a life he only can imagine for himself; a life unfettered, free of societal constraints. But justice must prevail, the scales must balance.

We realize that the mobster profile is unacceptable, yet the wannabe in us does side with the mobster image, because the instinct of wannabe is simply too enjoyable to turn off. Every depiction of the mobster, real or not, is a morality tale, cautioning us that crime does not pay. Al contraio, crime pays big dividends. The gangster gets his version of glory, the wimp is left without. Really folks, who prefers the everyday lockstep existence, punching the clock, the 9-to-5 grind, the anxieties of modern life, a pitiful pension awaiting you at the end? Remove yourself from the dreaded boring routine. Sample the Flight-O’-Fancy Walter Mitty cure. Daydreaming gets you over the rough spots. Sorry, no refunds.


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