James Grover Thurber, a cartoonist and writer wrote his autobiography in the year 1933 and called it My Life and Hard Times. Portions of this book appeared in The New Toker in 1920 but the book was published in 1933. It is a rare kind of an autobiography because it is told in few chapters and in the wittiest manner. The New York Times stated that “it was possibly the shortest and the most elegant autobiography ever.” The humour in the books is not delightful one liners but many funny incidents. This book has not been made into a movie or not been staged. Any creative director can take one chapter of the book and make it into a stage production.
The Autobiography Of An Almost Blind Man
There are eight chapters in the book and each chapter is totally unrelated. Each highlights a particular incident or characters who were a part of the Thurber household at some point or the other. It is too funny to be believed as autobiographical and there are critics who say how can one remember the minute details of incidents in life? We get an answer from Thurber’s words; he says when one loses vision, there are no distinctions and then the focus is better and one can remember the incidents in more details.
The first chapter is called “The night the bed fell” and it about the chaos created by all in the house about the sound that is heard. The sound is made by the author’s bed over turning and putting him below the bed. All think that the bed in the attic where the father had decided to sleep that night had crashed and that father was in trouble. The author was a deep sleeper, even after his bed upturned, continued to sleep under it. He was awakened by the shouts of mother and brother and uncle. Only then he realized that something was wrong and he also believes that his father is in danger. It took a while for all in the family to realize the comedy of errors.
The second chapter ‘The car we had to push’ was about the rickety car which would not start without many people pushing it. His brother experiments with the car by tying many kitchen utensils to it. The children wanted the father to think that the engine was falling out. But the father was smart to know it was a trick played on him and was not happy about it. This car finally saw its end when another car rammed into it. The grandfather’s reaction to this is most hilarious. He thought someone was dead and wanted to give a decent burial to the dead man. He even imagined that it was his brother Zenas who had died while in reality this brother had died many years before. How they get him out of this delusion makes the rest of the chapter.
‘The day the dam broke’ is a funny narration of mob behaviour. How one man running becomes a frenzied running of all the people in the town to escape the flood. The flood was a rumour and it took the militia men to get this crowd to come to a grinding halt. But even when the men announced “the dam has NOT broken”, the people hear it as “the dam is NOW broken”. The people of his town did not find the whole incident funny, not until many years later. This chapter is followed by “’The nights the ghosts got in’ where James imagines people running around the dining table. His brother Herman also hears it and the mother is woken by the noise made by slamming of the door. She also hears someone running.
Ghosts Or Thieves
Before the children could say anything she concludes they are thieves and gets the attention of the neighbours by throwing a shoe at the window and breaking their glass pane. The police are alerted and they find nothing to prove that thieves had entered. During the search they go attic and their grandfather’s reaction is very funny. Only James and Herman know it was not thieves and for want of better proof they decide the sound was made by ghosts.
‘More alarms at night’ deals with the prank played by Roy on his father and making his father a butt of his practical joke. The truth is revealed only years later and this is shortly followed by a genuine problem of James in recalling a name. He wakes his father up to tell the name of various cities in New Jersey and his father thinks his son has gone crazy like Roy. As all times, the mother puts some sense into their heads and sends them off to bed. ‘A sequence of servants’ tells about the different kinds of servants they had. The number had crossed hundred and James could remember the names of few who made indelible impression in his life. There was Juanemma who could be easily hypnotised. Vashti who angered her lover by telling him about a non-existent step-father trying to woo her is another one in the list.
The Ferocious Dog
Mugg was an Airedale who bit people who he thought was not family and the misery was he did not think anyone belonged to the family other than James’ mother. Even she narrowly escaped. This chapter lists out the hardships of the iceman, laundry man and many others who are bitten by Mugg. Their mother however has a soft corner for him and he leaves the house only after his death. ‘University days’ relates his hardships in mastering subjects. He also recounts cases worse than him and it is extremely funny especially the football player who is clueless about the meaning of ‘means of transport’.
The title ‘My Life And Hard Times’ prepares the reader for some morbid or painful stories. One is pleasantly surprised with the humour and the caustic jokes all through the book. The joke is on the author as much on others. This book read after 80 years, which is now, is still as exciting and makes great reading.