(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The Day household existed under the eccentric domination of Clarence Day, Sr., a Wall Street businessman who was convinced that he was always right. His son stood in awe of him. The boy’s greatest treat was to be taken to his father’s office on Saturday mornings. With Father dressed formally in silk hat and tailed coat, they rode downtown on the elevated train, and the boy gaped curiously into the windows of flophouses and wished that he could enjoy the luxury and freedom of being a tramp. He did not reveal that ambition to his father. Once he ventured to suggest that he would like to be a cowboy, but Father retorted that cowboys were shiftless people.

Father’s office seemed very mysterious to the boy, and he enjoyed the privilege of filling inkwells and running errands. Later, there would be luncheon at Delmonico’s. Father and his favorite waiter always chatted in French about the menu, and Father enjoyed himself greatly. The boy, however, did not think highly of the food. There was too little of it, scarcely enough to satisfy his appetite. Seeing the starved look on his face, Father would order a large chocolate eclair for him.

One of Father’s chief worries was the fear of becoming fat. The members of his club recommended long walks, but Father was already taking long walks. Then they suggested horseback riding. Accordingly, Father became a member of the Riding Club on East Fifty-eighth Street. Apart from stabling conveniences, the club had a park for riding, really only a little ring. It was tame enough for Father, however, who liked things to be orderly and suitably arranged for his use. In a very short time, he felt as if the park belonged to him, and if the leaves were not raked or if papers were lying around, he would take the neglect as a personal affront.

The first horse Father bought was an independent, rebellious creature. There was little love lost between them. The climax came one morning when the horse refused to obey. It reared and reared until Father gave up in disgust and went back to the club. Since the rest of the family wanted a horse of their own, Father gave them that one. He bought another for himself.

Having never been sick, Father became very annoyed whenever anybody else was ill; and he had no sympathy whatever for people whose illnesses he considered to be simply imaginary. Whenever he was unlucky enough to catch a cold, his method of treating it was to blow his nose loudly or to sneeze. Whenever he had a headache, he would not eat. After he had starved out his illness, he would eat again and triumphantly light up a cigar.

Father’s laws were regarded as edicts not to be challenged. Accordingly, young Clarence was amazed when anyone did not respond to...

(The entire section is 1126 words.)

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Life with Father is a series of essays, many of them originally published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The New Republic, in which Clarence Day describes, with affection and satire, what it was like to grow up in turn-of-the-century New York in a household dominated by Father, a larger-than-life-sized authority figure who loves his wife and children but is convinced that they need better management.

With Clarence, Jr., the oldest son and narrator, the reader is taken to Father’s office, the Day summer home, and various other locales. Father’s views of money management, religion, the employment of servants, illness and physicians, and the role of children in the household are described in individual, often hilarious essays.

During the course of the biography, the various Day children are introduced, as is Mother. Mother venerates Father but is astute enough to realize that his bluster hides a tender heart; she attends to his numerous lectures but in fact frequently acts as she wishes and holds her own views. Mother resists Father’s efforts to teach her money management, invites guests to dinner over Father’s protests, organizes her household as she pleases, and tries (with only partial success) to prevent Father from opening his son’s mail.

Although Life with Father is a biography, it does not span the senior Day’s life. The time frame of the work is partial, centering on the period of Father’s life while his sons are growing up; occasionally, through flashbacks, the reader is able to deduce something of Father’s younger years. Toward the end of the work, there is a time leap that describes Father facing serious illness. The final essay, dealing with Father’s choice of a cemetery plot, reveals him confronting the possibility of death with the same gusto and spirit as he has faced the various events of his life. He threatens to buy a plot on a corner, “Where I can get out.” Mother looks, “startled, but admiring,” at her son, the narrator. The book ends with her comment that “I almost believe he could do it.”