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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1565

In his ‘‘Afterward’’ to the current paperback edition of James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, noted essayist and Masterpiece Theatre host Russell Baker calls the book ‘‘possibly the shortest and most elegant autobiography ever written.’’ Now, generally, the words ‘‘biography’’ and ‘‘autobiography’’ are used to describe factual accounts of...

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In his ‘‘Afterward’’ to the current paperback edition of James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, noted essayist and Masterpiece Theatre host Russell Baker calls the book ‘‘possibly the shortest and most elegant autobiography ever written.’’ Now, generally, the words ‘‘biography’’ and ‘‘autobiography’’ are used to describe factual accounts of an individual’s life. There are, in fact, cases in which a work of fiction is written in the first-person voice and the narrator refers to herself or himself as ‘‘I’’; there are even such narratives that use the author’s name for one of the characters in the book. But no matter how close they come to the facts of the author’s life, these are still considered works of fiction, though their narrators quite naturally insist that the events they relate are ‘‘real.’’

It would seem that Baker did not take into account the whole scope of Thurber’s book. One powerful clue to whether the book is actually an autobiography might be the chapter titled ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In.’’ The factual presentation of a ghost, in the title as well as in the story, is not the kind of thing that fits well into a memoir. Here, it should be enough to show that, regardless of how much the details of the book resemble the details of Thurber’s own life, this is a work of fiction.

But there is one more element that has to be added to the assessment, as Baker most certainly knew. This book belongs in the category of ‘‘fiction,’’ but it is also clearly meant to be humorous. Humor changes the responsibilities of the author, as well as the expectations that are held by his readers. In an autobiography that is presented without any irony, giving a twisted version of the events that occurred amounts to a criminal act, breaking a sacred trust between author and audience. In a work of fiction, readers actually expect events to be filtered through the author’s imagination: The whole point of fiction is for readers to identify what has been spun from the author’s imagination and to think about why particulars were added or left out. With humor, the audience is invited to join the author in a cooperative adventure. It is quite un likely that Russell Baker actually believed that a ghost haunted the Thurber household in 1915, but acting as if he does believe it, because Thurber’s narrator presents it as a fact, is all part of being a good sport.

So, if Baker’s use of the word ‘‘autobiography’’ is not exactly correct, it just shows that he is going along with the spirit of the book. The confusion is not his fault; he is just going in the direction pointed out by the author. Still, critics and readers ought to take the responsibility straight to Thurber, and when reading his book, demand to know, Why isn’t this book an autobiography, or at least a fictionalized facsimile of one? If the presence of the ghost creates such a drastic change in the type of book this is, then maybe Thurber should have gone against his humorous inclination and not let it stand in the book.

Right away, care should be taken to point out how little this would change the overall story. Thurber could easily have added a line, or half a line, anywhere in ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In’’ that would have given readers enough reason to believe that the ghost was just the projection of a youthful imagination. A simple mention if a stirring dog downstairs, or a family member that might have been in the dining room at the time of the incident, or a draft down the chimney would have more clearly made this an imaginative autobiography, instead of a work of pure fiction.

It is very likely that Thurber might feel that he gave exactly such evidence, that his comic narrator is unreliable enough that readers certainly would not trust him when he talks about a ghost. Perhaps careful readers are not supposed to think that the author is telling them that there was a ghost in his house, only that the narrator, who witnessed the events as an impressionable young man, thought that there was. There are several good reasons not to believe the narrator’s claim.

For one thing, My Life and Hard Times is chock-full of exaggerations, which Thurber uses to show the sort of humorous exaggeration that was common where he grew up, or at least the sort of comic exaggerations that mark his style of writing. In other chapters, the young Thurber tells such tall tales as electricity leaking out of sockets into the open air, a rumor of a crumbling dam stampeding a whole town, a man catching chestnut blight from a tree, and a car dropping its engine on the road and then driving back to get it. These are the sort of things that various characters believe, as if the Columbus, Ohio, of Thurber’s youth was in the grips of a mass hysteria. Readers are not expected to believe that any of them are true.

The ghost claim is different, though. For one thing, there is the conspicuous absence of a rational explanation. As mentioned before, it would have been a simple thing for Thurber to include something that might really have made the noise that the characters in the story attribute to the ghost. Most ghost stories do in fact include something to show readers where the idea of the ghost came from. It almost seems as if Thurber, as author, went out of his way to insist that his narrator is right in claiming a there is a ghost. The cleverness, the sense of fun, diminishes if the author has to force it like this.

The main problem with this, though, is that it breaks faith with the reader. The voice in which Thurber tells this story is not the voice of a teenage boy from a Midwestern town at the turn of the century—that is just the person that this grown-up narrator remembers once being. The voice that tells ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In’’ is polished and sophisticated. It is the kind of complex voice that can weave together a phrase like ‘‘the thrill of heaving a shoe through a glass window had enormously taken her fancy,’’ combining the low vocabulary (‘‘heaving’’) and high (‘‘enormously’’) with the whimsical (‘‘taken her fancy’’). It is the kind of voice that knows to whet its readers’ appetites with an introductory paragraph that lays out all of the high points of what is to come, as he does in several of the book’s chapters. It is a voice that knows when to refer to the lawmen as ‘‘police’’ and when to call them ‘‘cops.’’ In short, it is not the kind of naïve observer that actually would believe in a ghost.

For this narrator to claim a belief in ghosts is dishonest, which might not necessarily be something that, if asked, he would deny. He probably would not admit to it either. A wink would have to suffice. The dishonesty is part of the humor of this piece. An intelligent writer like Thurber swearing that a ghost invaded his house has the same basic design as a bald-faced lie, but a lie ceases to be a lie if no one is expected to believe it. That is when it becomes a comic exaggeration. The aforementioned effect that humor has to bring the reader in on the trick forces Thurber’s readers to supply the information that he refuses to give them, making them draw a conclusion (that he, of course, does not think there was a ghost in his house) that his comic persona will not let him say out loud.

Calling My Life and Hard Times an ‘‘autobiography’’ still seems to be taking the joke a little too far. After all, critics and reviewers have a greater responsibility to the truth than writers and readers. It is easy to see, however, how anyone reading Thurber’s wild exaggerations would want to join in on the fun. ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In,’’ in particular, represents a case in which Thurber’s narrator, normally the cool observer who keeps readers informed about the bizarre behaviors and beliefs of the people who surrounded him in childhood, throws caution to the wind and joins in on the fun, stating beliefs that are just as daffy as, for example, his grandfather’s. That old man, in fact, may be the best example of the spirit with which readers should take Thurber’s narrator. He seems completely out of touch with reality, shouting that the policemen in the house are Civil War deserters and even shooting one, but the next morning, when they are gone, he is not confused about who they were and shows no sign that he ever was. If his family can accept his switch between delusion and clarity so quickly, then readers of ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In’’ should probably follow their lead and accept the idea of a ghost as a ‘‘phase’’ that Thurber was going through when writing this particular exaggerated comic piece.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.

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Thurber, James