My Life and Hard Times
by James Thurber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

first appeared (partially) in The New Yorker, July - September 1933

Harper & Brothers: New York, 1933
153 pages

collected in —

Writings and Drawings

April 2011

Untimely misadventures

My Life and Hard Times is not an autobiography of James Thurber's life, but a very funny memoir of minor comic disasters and confusions of his youth. He makes it clear that these anecdotes are of smallish times and limited events stumbled through by his sort of man and writer:

This is particularly true of writers of light pieces running from a thousand to two thousand words.

The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. ... They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats. ... they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out. This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane.

Authors of such pieces have ... a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbors, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons "humorists," a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. ...

Such a writer moves about restlessly wherever he goes, ready to get the hell out at the drop of a pie-pan or the lift of a skirt.

"Preface to a Life"

Thurber recounts alarms and excursions by day and by night, usually confined to his family — most of whom had generous imaginations crossed with a quick willingness to misconstrue. Aside from their inherent fascination, these anecdotes suggest that Thurber came by his affinity for misadventure, as well as his sense of humor, from an intimate pedigree and example. Many are small events that loom large to a few, although the panic that beset the city of Columbus on "The Day the Dam Broke" is an example that loomed large to many. Small events, perhaps, but molded into an excellent book.

After truly fine and funny anecdotes entangling himself as a boy, his family, and often an exemplary family dog, Thurber completes My Life and Hard Times with superb chapters on "University Days" and "Draft Board Nights", both deploying Thurber's partial blindness (even as a youth) to illustrate the structural blindness of institutions: the botany instructor who persistently labored to teach Thurber to use a microscope (he couldn't focus on anything through a microscope), and the draft board which called him over and over only to reject him each time (he couldn't pass the eye test).

These memoirs end with Armistice Day in 1918, but in later writing Thurber both elaborated on these years (see for instance, "Snapshot of a Dog" and "I Went to Sullivant"); and extended them (see "The First Time I Saw Paris" and The Years with Ross. All these excellent pieces as well as My Life and Hard Times are collected in Writings and Drawings.

Helpfully placing the book in perspective, Thurber's friend Ernest Hemingway contributed a blurb for its dust-jacket:

I find it far superior to the autobiography of Henry Adams. Even in the earliest days when Thurber was writing under the name Alice B. Toklas we knew he had it in him if he could get it out.

Indeed. In his opening vein of self-deprecation, Thurber empathizes how the "short-piece writer" (such as himself) is a man out of his time, largely uninformed and uninforming about larger events:

He is aware that billions of dollars are stolen every year by bankers and politicians, and that thousands of people are out of work, but these conditions do not worry him a tenth as much as the conviction that he has wasted three months on a stupid psychoanalyst or the suspicion that a piece he has been working on for two long days was done much better and probably more quickly by Robert Benchley in 1924.

"Preface to a Life"

Or perhaps, any of us may suspect that some modest foray of our own into the dissonantly untimely world of humor already has been done, to better effect, by James Thurber himself. For a man confessedly not at home in his time, he certainly adorned it with a great deal of timeless hilarity and wit.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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