Book Report: The Best of Clarence Day by Clarence Day (1948)

When (if) you think of Clarence Day, you think of Life With Father. And with good reason. Not only was that middle-1930s reminiscience of growing up in the 1880s Manhattan a good bit of nostalgia that really caught on, including a Broadway play of the material, but it’s really about the only good thing Day wrote.

This volume includes: Life with Father, which collects a number of memoir essays that Day published throughout the Manhattan publishing world of the 1920s and 1930s; Life with Mother, a collection that tried to recapture the success of the earlier work, but was published by his widow and contains scraps and fragments and does not work because Mother was not the character that Father was; This Simian World, his first published book that muses upon civilization as a collection of apes, complete with wondering what civilization would be like if ruled by catmen or elephantmen; and a collection of drawings with short bits of doggerel below them.

I read Life with Father in 1999 or 2000, right after I got married. I was not yet 30, so I identified a lot with the narrator of the pieces, Day and his double-effect narrator self-appointed omniscience. Although I would not have applied those adjectives and adverbs then. He was the young guy, and Father was the old man stuck in his ways. Upon re-read, I identify more with Father, bellowing for his dinner or his way after working all day at the stock brokerage. The character of Father is seen through the eyes of a child, retold by that child as an adult. As such, Father is a bit of a cipher and a bit of a caricature. But he’s providing a damn good life for his wife, a lightweight deb of the postbellum world, and his four boys. Underneath the buffoonery of his wanting his own way and throwing what look like temper tantrums to get them, he’s a good man and the son knows he cannot emulate the father.

Aside from the father/son relationship, this book is great for the view of New York City in the 1880s. Gas lights. The installation of telephone replacing the bell you ring for a message boy. The horses and carts riding underneath the El to the farmland north of Central Park. Fascinating. I started reading this soon after I read The Virginian; in that book, the Virginian tells a tall tale that involves the New York restaurant Delmonicos sometime in the recent past. In Life with Father, Father takes the son to Delmonicos, probably right about the time the story from the western was set. Interesting confluence of my reading.

Life with Father, frankly, is the best of Clarence Day. The other things really aren’t worth much.

Interesting side note: This is a 1948 edition of the collection (I can’t imagine there were many more); the previous owner used a photocopy or reproduction of an industry article from 1948. The bookmark was in the early part of Life with Father, so the previous owner did not make it far into the book at all.

Books mentioned in this review:

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