I’ve never told you about the time my fiancé went out of town so our dog took it upon himself to be the man of the house. In retrospect, the anecdote is pretty funny and worth recording, but things like this happen so often around our house that they feel too ordinary to commit to paper. My perspective has shifted, however, after reading My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber. Thurber’s little compilation of hilarious short stories all take place in and around his home in Columbus, Ohio, and the book reminded me that Home is too a place where interesting and entertaining things can happen that are worthy of retelling. Sometimes you don’t even need to leave the house to end up with a story to tell! And Thurber’s book also reminded me that nobody can resist a good dog story, or better yet, a bad dog story…
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Read these short stories:
- The Night the Bed Fell
- The Night the Ghost Got In
- The Dog that Bit People
Also, you’ll want to read another of Thurber’s short stories:
- The Unicorn in the Garden
James Thurber, well known as a writer and illustrator for the New Yorker and author of short stories, is considered the foremost American humor writer of the 20th century. There’s even an annual Thurber Prize for American Humor Writers awarded each year at which time anybody who’s anybody in the American humor writing scene gathers in Columbus, Ohio. And I just so happened to be in Columbus, Ohio this year on that weekend! Unfortunately, my invite to the humor award event must have gotten lost in the mail, but an invite to a friend’s wedding showed up for that weekend instead, so I would have had to turn down the invite for the award event anyway.
Despite being slightly bummed at not being recognized as this year’s most humorous writer, I was actually really excited that while in Columbus, I’d be able to visit the Thurber House museum and walk through the rooms where Thurber’s stories took place. And not only that, I planned to pay my respects at Thurber’s grave at the cemetery, but mostly due to the statue there of Muggs, the worst dog the Thurber family ever owned!
When I started blogging, my goal was to become the next Bill Bryson. Or possibly the next Dave Barry. I am not making this up (If you’re a Dave Barry fan, you’ll see what I did there!). I’ve wanted to follow in the footsteps of a humor writer for so long that writers Bill Bryson and Dave Barry even factored into my process of narrowing down which college to go to. When I started considering colleges and anybody asked me if I had a top choice, I told them I had two: One of them was Dartmouth simply because the humor/travel writer Bill Bryson was living in Hanover, New Hampshire at the time, and I hoped that maybe if I went to school in the same city I’d run into Bryson on the street.
The second was Haverford College, because humor/sometimes travel writer Dave Barry was an alumni of the school and I thought I might like to follow in his footsteps by majoring in English and becoming an author. I did end up going to Haverford, I did not end up majoring in English, but I have used my blog as a means to become somewhat of a travel writer. Though whether I have achieved the humor level of the writers who have inspired me is subjective (and please don’t feel it necessary to leave a comment on this post disabusing me of the hopes that I have).
I tell you this in order for you to understand just how truly excited I was to not only to walk “in the footsteps” of one of the greatest American humor writers, but to walk the floorboards of his home! And not only that, but to visit the same house where so many of the writers that have inspired me have also passed through, including Dave Barry and Bill Bryson!
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember I’ve written about Bill Bryson on multiple occasions:
The Thurbers lived near the Ohio State University campus while James was a student there between 1913 and 1917. Since the Thurbers lived there, the house has seen many different occupants, fell into disrepair, was slated for demolition, was saved, renovated, and restored to look as if the Thurber family just moved out, leaving a few large furniture pieces behind. Upon opening the door and walking inside, I found myself in the front hall. No ticket desk, nobody to greet me. It was like I’d just let myself through the Thurbers’ unlocked front door. I honestly stopped a moment and listened, waiting to hear the commotion of Thurber and his two brothers as young boys and a dog tumbling over each other upstairs and for their mother to start wailing about intruders and throwing shoes. Nothing.
“Hello?” I called into the silence.
A young woman appeared from the back of the house, handed me a brochure which contained a self-guided tour of the first two floors, and then she retreated back to where she’d come from and I was left to wander through the rooms at my leisure.
Some rooms contained no more furniture than display cabinets either against walls or in the center of the room. The lack of home furnishings was made up for by the information about Thurber, his works, historic photographs of the Thurber family, and original illustrations and written pages by Thurber that covered the walls. While it was all very fascinating to me, I did wonder in the back of my mind how the Thurber family would feel if they were able to see the rooms of their former home now. Would Thurber’s mother upon seeing her son’s funny drawings all over think every wall in the house now looked like the front of the refrigerator?
Other rooms had one or two pieces of furniture in them, but it was just enough, combined with the reproduction of cartoons straight out of My Life and Hard Times that made the room come alive around me, at least in my head.
For example, in the dining room there was a table in the middle of the room under a chandelier that hung from the ceiling and a reproduction of Thurber’s cartoon from the story The Car We Had To Push near the doorway. It depicted his grandmother sitting in a chair while “electricity dripped” from the chandelier. My brain then added to the room an old lady rocking in a chair and worrying about this new-fangled electricity stuff dripping out of sockets.
Shaking myself back to the present, I proceed to walk a slow circle around the table, listening to my footsteps as I did so. Thinking of Thurber’s story The Night The Ghost Got In, which starts with Thurber hearing footsteps around the dining room table on the floor below him, I wanted to hear the footsteps on the wood floor as he would have. He had just stepped out of the bathroom at the top of the back stairs when he heard the footsteps. He next heard them run up the stairs towards him, except he saw nobody on the stairs. So I continued my path up the stairs at the back of the house and straight into the bathroom. The same bathroom Thurber had run back into to hide due to fright. Thurber’s brother, similarly having come out of the room next door, heard the footsteps, saw nobody, and ran back into the room next door. The slamming of the two doors by both boys woke their mother who, according to Thurber’s story, began throwing shoes and wailing about intruders.
According to the museum website, staff in the museum have experienced unexplainable phenomenons themselves which has led them to believe that Thurber may not have been altogether incorrect in deciding what happened that night was in fact paranormal activity. Luckily, I neither encountered a ghost or a thrown shoe as I entered the upstairs bathroom. Interestingly, it seems in renovating the house, this bathroom was made quite usable for guests, though I assumed museum staff would frown if any went so far as to try the tub. It was the photographs framed above the tub, however, that caught my attention.
The Thurber House is not only a historic author house museum, but a non-profit literary arts center, so the third floor has been turned into an apartment for visiting writers who are invited to do month-long residencies to work on their writing projects. Photographs of these visiting writers filled the walls along with photos of Thurber Prize finalists and winners. The photos filled the stairwell, the wall above the tub in the bathroom, and the walls of the bedroom next door, the one Thurber’s brother ran back into on the night the ghost got in.
In the once bedroom-turned photo display room I found Jon Stewart’s photo, who won the Thurber Prize in 2005 as a co-author of the book America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. Bill Bryson was a finalist for the Thurber Prize in 2001 for In a Sunburned Country, but lost to David Sedaris. I assumed both their photos must be somewhere in this room as well, however I stopped when I spotted the photo of Dave Barry. Barry was a finalist for the Thurber Prize in 2013 and 2020. In 2020 he was up for Lessons from Lucy, a book about his dog! I really don’t see how that didn’t make him an automatic winner, considering Thurber’s affinity for dogs.
Staring at Barry’s photo it hit me, he’d been here. They’d all been here! Here, where I was currently standing. But neither Bryson or Barry had yet won the Thurber Prize, so I was in good company. I am not making this up.
Unfortunately for me, as the third floor is now an apartment, I couldn’t continue up to the attic where there was once an unstable bed that became the crux of Thurber’s story The Night The Bed Fell, so after silently vowing that someday I’d return here as a Thurber Prize finalist myself, I headed back downstairs and out the front door to see the Dog Statue Garden beside the house. In the garden beside the house, along with a couple benches that looked like inviting places to sit and write, there are five statues of dogs that are based on drawings done by Thurber. The statue I was interested in seeing, however, isn’t located here, but at Thurber’s grave.
But before leaving the museum I ran across the street to compare the statue of a Unicorn to Thurber’s drawing that accompanies his story The Unicorn in the Garden.
Muggs, The Dog That Bit People
James Thurber was born and died in Columbus, Ohio and he’s buried with his family in Columbus’ Green Lawn Cemetery. Not being more than a 15 minute drive from the museum, it’s worth a visit. The cemetery is a lovely park-like setting with posted bird-watcher placards, ghost walking tours, Geocaches, and of course several interesting mausoleums, statues, and headstones. In August of 2021 the Thurber family plot joined the ranks of graves worth visiting due to the accompanying statue at the site.
The Thurber family had a number of dogs- remember the dog garden next to the house- but for some reason Thurber’s mother became particularly attached to one, a dog named Muggs. He was an Airedale Terrier known city wide for his habit of biting people. And now remembered even wider thanks to Thurber’s short story, The Dog That Bit People. Thurber writes at the end of his story that his mother hoped the dog would be buried at the cemetery with them, but he convinced her, whether it was true or not, that that “was against the law.” So instead when Muggs passed away, the family buried him somewhere along a road with a board that said in Latin, “Beware of the Dog.”
In 2021, thanks to the efforts of some Thurber descendants and cemetery officials, a statue of Muggs, designed to look not like the real dog, but instead the cartoon of Muggs that James Thurber drew to accompany his story, was installed at the family plot. Now cartoon Muggs sits on a pedestal under a tree watching over his family, and thankfully not biting anyone. His monument has the words from Thurber’s story:
“Nobody knew exactly what was the matter with him. Cave Canem [Beware of the Dog]”The Dog That Bit People, My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber
Grave location: Green Lawn Cemetery – 1000 Green Lawn Ave. When you come to a large traffic circle keep to the left, passing Sections 39, 47, and 77. Turn right when you get to section 85. Muggs is located at the Thurber family plot, in Section 50, under a tree, about 30 yards west of the fisherman grave. (Directions from RoadsideAmerica.com)
Had I thought about it, I might’ve brought a dog biscuit to leave at Muggs’ monument, but what I did bring was a pencil to leave at James Thurber’s grave. So often when I’ve visited authors’ graves I find them surrounded by pens and pencils, so this time I planned ahead. Surprisingly, there were no offerings surrounding Thurber’s stone. I knelt and placed my pencil. Now there was one.
While I still think I’d like to be the next Bill Bryson when it comes to travel writing, from now on I’m going to be keeping in mind that home is also an entertaining place and perhaps aspire to be the James Thurber of writing about home, except with a much better behaved dog.
And as for that anecdote about my own dog, Finn:
As soon as my morning alarm went off, Finn marched out of his crate to the mostly-closed bedroom door and flung it open with his paw. Then he stood there and stared at me like, “Well somebody needs to make sure you get up!” Now, to be clear, Finn is not a morning dog. He does not normally wake us in the morning for food or to go outside. He will stay in his crate until noon if we let him. So, once he accomplished his task of making sure I got out of bed, he went right back to his crate and back to sleep!