This is an intimate study of the dynamics of a New York City family in the late 19th century. Clarence Day, Jr., the eldest of three boys, writes descriptively and honestly about his parents, especially the control of his father-his word is law and that is it. However, his mother Vinnie is not a meek and retiring wife; she simply knows how things must be done in the house. She is not cowed or intimidated by Clarence’s insistence on things done his way or his verbal explosions when an unforeseen event threatens the sanctity of his well-oiled machine…I mean home!
The tensions, the joys, the mishaps and the victories of each family member reflect the professional class of which the Days are firmly a part. One of the fascinating aspects of this memoir is the detail of daily life in New York City as well as a peek into the historical events undertaken by the family such as, dining in the restaurant of the newly opened Waldorf Astoria, the special feeling a lunch at Delmonico’s brought to young Day when out with his father, an excursion to Washington Irving’s house and Sleepy Hollow, a trip to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and a discussion of Henry Ward Beecher.
While it is easy for eyebrows to raise while reading of one more negative outburst from Clarence senior when something doesn’t go his way, the author makes an astute observation when, as an older boy, he has visited the homes of many of his friends. He describes his shock and discomfort at the sullen or silent reaction fathers give to their wives and children when things go awry in their house or the constant criticism of a husband toward his wife. He understands that though he grew up with a loud, emotive, stern father he was never cruel and never sadistic as he found in the homes of his friends. He may have thought he ruled with an iron fist, but it was only in his mind. He was genuinely loved by his family who saw through the big bully to see the vulnerability and the comedy in everyday life.
Highly recommended for history buffs and classic literature lovers for its realism of 1880s/90s New York. First published as stories in the The New Yorker Magazine then published in book form in 1935. On November 8, 1939, it opened as a play on Broadway.
I’ve heard about the play, Life with Father, all of my life, because it featured in the early courtship of my parents. They met in their high school drama department and both were in this play with my dad in the lead role. The cast party was legendary and lasted longer than expected, which did not make my grandfather any too happy with my dad, as he yanked my mom into the house without a word to him when he drove her home.
It’s hard to imagine my father playing such an overbearing and authoritative character, but apparently he got great reviews in the local press and there was always a little twinkle in his eye when he talked about the play and how much he enjoyed it.
Title: Life with Father
Author: Clarence Day, Jr.
Publisher: The Sun Dial Press
Year: 1935, 1947