Life with Father, by Clarence Day

Life With Father

Life with Father, from 1935, is author Clarence Day’s reminiscences about his boyhood in the late 1800s.

Really, though, as indicated by the title, the book is about Day’s father, Clarence Day, Sr. (or “Clare” as his wife calls him). Day, Sr. is the central figure of the book, as one gathers he was very much the central figure in the family, with everyone else playing supporting roles.

The book is structured as a series of short chapters that each contain some anecdote or anecdotes meant to convey what “Father” and “life with Father” was like. So certainly it’s Day, Sr. we get to know best. Gradually you can pick up a fair amount about the mother (“Vinnie”) and the author himself. The author’s siblings get very little attention. (I was under the vague impression he had two brothers. Apparently it’s actually three. But that’s an indication of how infrequently they’re even mentioned.) Once in a while a household servant, work acquaintance, or social acquaintance appears in a story, but none of them is even close to a main character.

Life with Father paints a portrait of a man who was a tyrant in his way, and had at least his share of unappealing traits, yet the stories are told in an affectionate, whimsical way. Not uncommonly, Day, Sr.’s tirades turn out to be empty bluster, and the author discerns with appreciation that underneath the attempts to dominate those around him by the sheer force of his personality, his father truly loved his family and tried to do right by them.

Day, Sr. is an at least moderately wealthy Gilded Age capitalist, working on Wall Street. He is a man utterly lacking in self-doubt, taking for granted that he and other men like him deservedly rule the world. (A large part of the humor of the book is how this figure who is larger than life in so many ways is often reduced to a sitcom-style befuddled husband by the antics of his family, especially his wife, who is so irrational and inscrutable to him.) He has no use for people not of his own kind, and indeed seems to rarely notice they exist, except when they do or say something that gives him an opportunity to self-righteously denounce them.

Workers, politicians, and writers of newspaper editorials are among the targets of his wrath, their main crime seemingly being that they are not sufficiently like him. Indeed, he takes it as a personal affront when people do not acknowledge the obvious fact that the kind of life he has built for himself is the ideal that everyone should aspire to.

Faced with an exhibit on Hottentots at a World’s Fair, he declares that he had no idea people lived like that, that he would have assumed doing so was “not allowed.” I don’t know if he is responding to their lack of alarm clocks, their drumming, their women being topless, or what, but to him their lifestyle is evidently an egregious example of people insisting on irritating him just out of sheer orneriness.

One sentence stood out to me as nicely epitomizing the kind of person he is: “He also enjoyed talking to people about whatever came into his head, and he seldom bothered to observe if they listened or how they responded.” Everything is about him, to a degree that borders on the solipsistic.

Though his arrogance and utter lack of self-doubt is obnoxious, I also find something strangely fascinating and admirable about people like that. There’s an honesty, a purity, about the unapologetic, self-confident way they live their lives.

Indeed, I find I’m of two minds in general about Day, Sr. On the one hand, I appreciate the author’s fondness for his father, and I agree that in his strange way he is doing the best he can as the only kind of man he knows how to be, and for all his vehemence he doesn’t seem to have much malice in him. Day, Jr. is a fine storyteller, and to a significant degree I can enjoy the humor and warmth of the stories in the same way I enjoy James Thurber’s tales from his Columbus childhood.

On the other hand, once you leave nice, homey stories for the real world, people like Day, Sr. do enormous damage to countless lives. Day, Sr.’s self-importance is presented here as humorous, and to a degree it is, but people like him are not in fact entitled to rule the world whatever they might think, and the capitalist system that puts them at the top and keeps them there causes enormous suffering to the poor, women, minorities, workers, gays, etc.—all the people that Day, Sr. typically has such distaste for.

He isn’t better than the oppressed, and arguably he’s worse than most of them.

Life with Father is a welcome reminder of the humanity and the redeeming qualities of a man like Day, Sr. I empathize with him. It’s not like I root for some kind of Maoist revolution where people like him who live high on the hog in blissful ignorance are tortured and “reeducated.” I don’t have hatred like that in me. But at the same time, in the back of mind as I read about a humorously lovable tyrant like Day, Sr. I’m picturing workers being shot down in the streets for having the gall to demand a minimally decent life in exchange for the lifetime of labor they contribute to the world, and people like him reacting with satisfaction that they got what they deserved.

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