Essays and Criticism
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...
(The entire section is 1,565 words.)