HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: My Life and Hard Times
Author: James Thurber
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, reprinted in 1999
Language level: 1 (I don’t recall anything specifically objectionable)
Reading level: 13 and up
Rating: 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Thurber, James. My Life and Hard Times (published in 1933). James Grover Thurber (18941961) was an American author, cartoonist and celebrated wit who was best known for his contributions (both cartoons and short stories) to The New Yorker magazine. Born in Columbus, OH, Thurber attended The Ohio State University, though he never graduated because his poor eyesight prevented him from taking a mandatory ROTC course. From 1918 to 1920, he worked as a code clerk for the Department of State, first in Washington, D.C., and then at the American Embassy in Paris, France. After this he returned to Columbus, where he began his writing career as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. In 1925, he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor with the help of his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor, E.B. White.
Many of his short stories are humorous fictional memoirs from his life. “The Dog That Bit People” and “The Night the Bed Fell” are his most well known short stories; they can be found in My Life and Hard Times, the creative mix of autobiography and fiction which was his ‘break-out’ book. Actually a series of vignettes told whimsically, it is considered his greatest work as he relates in bewildered deadpan prose the eccentric goings on of his family and the town beyond (Columbus, OH). Characters include the maid who lives in constant fear of being hypnotized; a grandfather who believes that the Civil War is still going on; a mother who fears electricity is leaking all over the house; and Muggs, an Airedale Terrier that had a liking for biting people. T he book was a best seller and also achieved high critical praise. Russell Baker writing in the New York Times said it was “possibly the shortest and most elegant autobiography ever.” Ogden Nash said it was “just about the best thing I ever read.” And Dorothy Parker said “Mad, I don’t say. Genius I grant you.”
I read My Life and Hard Times in high school for my junior American Literature class and really enjoyed it. It is funny. As a result, I tried to read almost everything else in our school library by Thurberincluding his play The Male Animal (1940) which I did not care for, and his “fairy tale for adults” entitled The White Deer (1945) which I thought was odd but interesting. Of course, one of our literature classes also read his most famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which was made into a film with Danny Kaye that really bears no resemblance to the original story; Thurber is reported to have hated it. Thurber had a tendency to write in a somewhat “urbane” style, so younger children might not understand him, but some older teenagers might enjoy some of his works.