My Life and Hard Times
is a 1933 comical memoir from humorist James Thurber. It details the eccentricities and unusual goings-on that surrounded a young Thurber growing up in Columbus, Ohio, around the time of World War I. Thurber also provided pen-and-ink illustrations to accompany the text. Thurber was a celebrated American cartoonist, journalist, and writer, known for his deadpan sense of humor.
In Chapter One, “The Night the Bed Fell,” Thurber’s father decides to sleep in a spare bed in the attic, where he can enjoy some peace and quiet. Thurber’s mother fears the old bed up there is not safe to sleep in and might collapse in the night. That night, Thurber, who sleeps on an old army cot, rolls too close to the edge of the bed and it tips him over with a crash. Thurber’s mother wakes up, convinced the attic bed has fallen on Thurber’s father. The noise also wakes several other members of the family. A cousin, Briggs, groggily decides his worst fear has come true and he is suffocating in his sleep. He sniffs a bottle of camphor he keeps by his bed to revive himself. Thurber wakes up on the floor, under his bed, and imagines he’s been buried.
Briggs tries to stumble to an open window but finds a closed one and smashes it open in the confusion. Thurber’s mother heads to the attic, but the door is stuck. Thurber’s father wakes up to commotion and thinks the house must be on fire. Only when the door is open does the family realize no one is in danger. Afterwards, Thurber’s mother refers to the incident as “the night the bed fell on your father.”
“The Car We Had to Push” describes the eccentricities of the family car, which had to be pushed a long way before it would start. Thurber describes a prank his older brother once played on their father, tying up a number of kitchen utensils beneath the car so they would clank out onto the street and frighten their father into thinking the car’s engine had fallen out. The car is eventually destroyed when it’s parked too far from the curb and a passing streetcar smashes it.
Thurber’s grandfather often stays with the family but is unwell, flashing back to his days as a Civil War soldier. When the car is destroyed, Grandfather becomes confused and thinks someone in the family has died. He decides the deceased is his brother Zenas, whom Thurber facetiously claims was killed many years ago from “the same disease that was killing off the chestnut trees.” Grandfather insists that a funeral be held. The family asks a friend to dress as Uncle Zenas to set Grandfather’s mind at ease, but when they try to stage the scene, Grandfather is contemptuous, saying Zenas died years ago in 1866.
Chapter Three, “The Day the Dam Broke,” is actually about the day in 1913 when the town merely thought their dam broke. A man walking downtown begins to run, perhaps because he is late for an appointment. A boy begins to run as well, and then another man. Someone sees the running figures and decides the dam has broken. Word spreads, and the whole town panics, until finally city officials ride around with megaphones explaining that the dam has not broken. Thurber claims that the “Afternoon of the Great Run” was considered a serious matter and not a joking one for many years afterwards.
“The Night the Ghost Got In” is when Thurber hears footsteps outside the house. Thurber’s mother says they’ll call the police, but no one wants to go downstairs to the phone, so his mother throws a shoe at their next-door neighbors’ window and has them call instead. The police break down the door when the family is too frightened to go downstairs and open it. Grandfather fires at the officers, thinking they are Union Army deserters. The police find nothing, and Thurber decides he heard a ghost.
Chapter Five, “More Alarms at Night,” details a time when Thurber’s brother Roy is ill and decides to pretend he is delirious as a joke. He wakes up Thurber’s father in the night and shouts “Buck, your time has come!” The rest of the family doesn’t believe Thurber’s father’s story and tells him he dreamed it.
Months later, Thurber has trouble sleeping. He has been trying to remember the name of the town Perth Amboy but cannot recall it. He wakes up his father and demands that he “name some towns in New Jersey.” His father is alarmed, thinking him delirious. He wakes up the rest of the family to prove the incident with Roy was not a dream.
In “A Sequence of Servants,” Thurber describes a series of family servants hired at the family home (he claims they employed 162 over the years, but only a dozen were “memorable”). These servants include Dora Gedd, who shot one of her suitors; Juanemma Kemmer, who had a pathological fear of being hypnotized; Vashti, who had a curious genius for finding things the family lost; and Mrs. Doody, a religious woman who became convinced Thurber’s father was the Antichrist in the middle of doing the dishes.“The Dog That Bit People” is about an Airedale named Muggs, whom Thurber says was “the worst of all my dogs.”
Thurber’s brother Roy brings him home while Thurber is away, and Muggs is convinced Thurber is not a part of the family. Thurber explains there was an advantage to being seen as family, because Muggs “didn’t bite the family as often as he bit strangers.” Thurber’s mother sends a box of candies at Christmas to every stranger the dog bites, a list that swells to more than 40 people. When Muggs dies, the family buries him under a plain board with the inscription “Cave Canem
,” or “beware of the dog.”
“University Days” is a vignette about Thurber’s college years. He does poorly in botany because he does not adjust the lens of his microscope and never sees anything through it, enraging his instructor. In economics, a dull-witted football player causes similar problems. In gym, Thurber is forced to remove his glasses, blindly bumbling through activities. He is required to complete two years of military drill, which he is not good at, and forced to repeat through his senior year.
In Chapter Nine, “Draft Board Days,” Thurber is unable to join the army because of his poor eyesight. Thurber’s grandfather is eager to go but is far too old. Thurber, on the other hand, is repeatedly called before the draft, and repeatedly explains that he has already been disqualified because of his glasses. This happens again and again until Armistice Day, when World War I ends.My Life and Hard Times
presents comically exaggerated and embellished stories of Thurber’s home life. His family appears neurotic and deeply eccentric. Thurber tends to ramble for comic effect, purposely derailing his anecdotes or throwing in bizarre asides as a joke. The book became a bestseller. Poet Ogden Nash called it “just about the best thing I have ever read."