“When the telephone was invented and was ready to use, hardly anybody cared to install one. We all stuck to our buzzers. Messenger boys were quite enough of a nuisance, suddenly appearing at the door with a letter and expecting an answer. But they came only a few times a year, and a telephone might ring every week. People admitted that telephones were ingenious contraptions and wondered just how they worked, but they no more thought of getting one than of buying a balloon or a diving-suit.”— Clarence Day, “Father Lets in the Telephone,” in Life With Father (1935)
A prior post of mine discussed Clarence Day—or, as he and his family thought of the comic memoirist, because of the presence of their larger-than-life patriarch, Clarence Day Jr.—and the circumstances surrounding his once-celebrated publishing, theatrical and cinematic success, Life With Father. But today, 140 years after his birth, it seems worth remembering him again, since he is so little read today. (Even the appearances of adaptations of Life With Father for the stage, big and small screen are not as frequent as they once were. Considering the stellar resumes of co-stars William Powell and Irene Dunne, the 1947 movie is not run on Turner Classic Movies as much as their other films; the 1950s TV series, having filmed only four episodes, has disappeared since its original run; and—and most remarkable for the longest-running non-musical play in Broadway history, it has not been revived on the Great White Way since ending its eight-year run in 1947.)
The New York Public Library contains a set of extensive papers, manuscripts and archives associated with Day and his family, but I wonder how much it is used today. It would have been a far different story even as late as the 1950s, I suspect.
By the 1930s, when Day was concluding his reminiscences of his lovably blustering stockbroker father, the 1880s—when the buzzer was about to be replaced by the telephone—would have been an object of nostalgia, in much the same way that the 1960s—when black-and-white televisions began to give way to the color variety—have become for baby boomers today. Today, of course, the Victorian Era might as well be on the far side of the moon for many of us.
Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, notes how Life With Father epitomized and benefited from two trends in the decades surrounding its publication. First, he observed in his history of The New Yorker, About Town (2000), the now-legendary magazine had, in its early years, felt the need to fill space created by its burgeoning advertising. Editor Harold Ross committed to more text—and, specifically, more continuing series.
From 1933 to 1938, Ross published 44 of the writer’s wry sketches about his father—pieces that, unlike much of the material the magazine would issue then (or later), could be read independently of each other. The material, about life at a turning point for Gotham's upper crust, held special appeal for The New Yorker’s affluent subscribers. Small wonder, then, that Ross (who, by this time, had become a friend of Day’s) told another contributor, Frank Sullivan, “If I had never done anything but publish Clarence Day, I would be satisfied.”
Second, unlike the confessional, trauma-triggered memoirs so common in the last two decades, personal accounts from the 1920s to 1960s were light, exuding “the shared sense that the United States was the best place on earth, capable of overcoming any setbacks and fixing any flaws,” Yagoda writes in his 2010 survey of the genre, Memoir. Day’s breezy, even nostalgic ruminations were consumed eagerly by a public that also took to Ruth McKenney’s My Sister Eileen and Sally Benson’s Meet Me in St. Louis. In contrast, Yagoda has written that if Day had written a memoir today, “it would in all likelihood center on his battle with [rheumatoid] arthritis.”
Nobody paying attention to Day’s wry narrative voice, a reflection of his essentially convivial nature, could have had the slightest inkling of this medical condition that had plagued him since his service in the Spanish-American War. To ease the joint inflammation, stiffness and lacerating pain that resulted, Day resorted to massage and bed rest, writing or drawing (yes, he published caricatures, too) with his hand suspended over the pad by a trolley and sling.
You can tell the initial high regard for Life With Father in the first few decades after its publication from its frequent appearances in comic anthologies. That hasn’t happened so often in recent years, undoubtedly because the book has gone out of print.
In another sense, though, the influence of Life With Father—and the man who created it—has rooted itself deeply into American culture. Like I Remember Mama, another exercise in nostalgia based on family experiences (in the latter case, Kathryn Forbes’ immigrant grandmother), it set a template, in book, play, movie, and TV form, for the domestic comedy genre that, in a more contemporary setting, dominated American television from Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show to, more recently, The Cosby Show.
(The image accompanying this post comes from the 1947 film adaptation of Life With Father, featuring co-stars William Powell and Irene Dunne. As his medical condition dramatically worsened in the mid-1930s, Day was ready to sell the rights to his stories to Paramount Studios until he heard of its casting choice for the paterfamilias: W.C. Fields. It is doubtful that the comedian, no matter what his gifts, could have brought to the role what Powell did.)