"My Life and Hard Times" by James Thurber

It’s really difficult to finish James Thurber’s books.  Almost impossible to read even one chapter at a single sitting.  By the end of the first paragraph, I am laughing so hard I just cannot continue.  “My Life and Hard Times” was my Mothers Day gift and it is such a treasure. 

The book was written by a middle-aged Thurber but of events that  took place before he was 25.  “The sharp edges of old reticences are softened in the autobiographer by the passing of time–a man does not pull the pillow over his head when he wakes in the morning because he suddenly remembers some awful thing that happened to him fifteen or twenty years ago, but the confusions and the panics of last year and the year before are too close for contentment”, he explains. Thurber had the unique ability to bring out the humor in what must have been the most painful situations in his young life. The years at Ohio State University seem to be tinged with disappointment because that was when he was made painfully aware of his handicap–he just did not have great eyesight. At age 7, he had lost one eye while playing “William Tell” with arrows and the other through “sympathetic opthalmia”. He couldn’t look through microscopes, he could not participate in gym and he could not enlist in the army.  Although he recalls with amusement his weekly visits to the draft board medical examiners, the reader can detect a growing disappointment  in him as he kept getting rejected and a subsequent relief when the armistice was called.

Thurber’s early life was a revolving door to bewildering eccentrics.  I wonder how much he laughed reminiscing about the Get-Ready Man “a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world. ‘Get ready! Get read-y!’ he would bellow, ‘The Worllld is coming to an End!'”  Somehow the man got mixed up with a production of “King Lear” and while the protagonist wandered blindly through a storm with Edgar, the Get Ready man added to the mayhem..King Lear would have lent a helping hand to fulfil GRM’s dire predictions.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!  (King Lear, Act III, scene ii)

I think the play would have lost its appeal once the old gentleman was ejected.

Thurber was surrounded by relatives–aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who cared for him and were an important part of his childhood. He recalls their eccentricities with affection and the laughter he evokes is never unkind.  There was this cousin Briggs who was afraid he would stop breathing if he went to sleep, and so he wanted to set his alarm clock to ring every hour.  Aunt Melissa Beall who was born on South High Street and was married on South High Street had a premonition she would die there as well.  Aunt Sarah Shoaf had a fear of burglars blowing chloroform under her door.  She would stack up her valuables every night outside her bedroom with a note telling the prospective burglar not to use chloroform.  His grandfather lived with Thurber; his not so lucid moments kept the family on its toes. The manner in which he was protected endears the readers to this lovely family. Nobody was ill-tempered or stubborn–they were willing to be led, to listen to reason.  To look on the brighter side of things was a lesson well learnt by Thurber and in a way, that is what he implores (in his chatty, casual style) his readers to do. Thurber wrote as though he were absent-minded. He took these little detours (cameos of his family)  in the middle of a story and rejoined it with an apology for straying.  It is all this ‘straying’ that gives us a wide-angled view of his world and his comic genius.

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