Friday, 27 April 2012


Today, I'm posting an extract from James Thurber - from "The Dog That Bit People". It's a wonderful story, full of Thurber's humour. As readers of this blog will know, I think Thurber is one of the best humorous writers of the last century.

The story appeared in Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, a collection of short stories, in 1933. It's a brilliant evocation of the dog, but you also get to know Thurber's family.

Thurber's mother, in particular, comes across as a wonderful, lovable and totally eccentric character. I think that's probably true of mothers in particular. My own mother once, in a fit of exasperation at me replying "yes" to everything she said, threw an onion at me. I ducked, and it went through the kitchen window; the neighbours came out to see what had caused the sound of smashing glass.

Another time, she tried to open a very large glass jar of tomato ketchup (from a wholesale store) where the lid was around 9 inches in diameter. It wouldn't budge, so she came up with the idea of bashing it against a worktop. We heard a shriek, and came into the kitchen to see her standing there, with broken glass on the floor, and what looked at first sight like blood all over the place. Fortunately there was no blood there; only ketchup!

Here is Thurber's gloriously funny family, and a dog called Muggs!

From The Dog That Bit People...

Probably no one man should have as many dogs in his life as I have had, but there was more pleasure than distress in them for me except in the case of an Airedale named Muggs.

But the Airedale, as I have said, was the worst of all my dogs. He really wasn't my dog, as a matter of fact: I came home from a vacation one summer to find that my brother Roy had bought him while I was away. A big, burly, choleric dog, he always acted as if he thought I wasn't one of the family. There was a slight advantage in being one of the family, for he didn't bite the family as often as he bit strangers. Still, in the years that we had him he bit everybody but mother, and he made a pass at her once but missed.

That was during the month when we suddenly had mice, and Muggs refused to do anything about them. Nobody ever had mice exactly like the mice we had that month. They acted like pet mice, almost like mice somebody had trained. They were so friendly that one night when mother entertained at dinner the Friraliras, a club she and my father had belonged to for twenty years, she put down a lot of little dishes with food in them on the pantry floor so that the mice would be satisfied with that and wouldn't come into the dining room. Muggs stayed out in the pantry with the mice, lying on the floor, growling to himself-not at the mice, but about all the people in the next room that he would have liked to get at.

Mother slipped out into the pantry once to see how everything was going. Everything was going fine. It made her so mad to see Muggs lying there, oblivious of the mice-they came running up to her-that she slapped him and he slashed at her, but didn't make it. He was sorry immediately, mother said. He was always sorry, she said, after he bit someone, but we could not understand how she figured this out. He didn't act sorry.

Mother used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedale bit. The list finally contained forty or more names. Nobody could understand why we didn't get rid of the dog. I didn't understand it very well myself, but we didn't get rid of him. I think that one or two people tried to poison Muggs-he acted poisoned once in a while-and old Major Moberly fired at him once with his service revolver near the Seneca Hotel in East Broad Street-but Muggs lived to be almost eleven years old and even when he could hardly get around he bit a Congressman who had called to see my father on business.

My mother had never liked the Congressman- she said the signs of his horoscope showed he couldn't be trusted (he was Saturn with the moon in Virgo)-but she sent him a box of candy that Christmas. He sent it right back, probably because he suspected it was trick candy. Mother persuaded herself it was all for the best that the dog had bitten him, even though father lost an important business association because of it. "I wouldn't be associated with such a man," mother said, "Muggs could read him like a book."

We used to take turns feeding Muggs to be on his good side, but that didn't always work. He was never in a very good humor, even after a meal. Nobody knew exactly what was the matter with him, but whatever it was it made him irascible, especially in the mornings. Roy never felt very well in the morning, either, especially before breakfast, and once when he came downstairs and found that Muggs had moodily chewed up the morning paper he hit him in the face with a grapefruit and then jumped up on the dining-room table, scattering dishes and silverware and spilling the coffee.

Muggs' first free leap carried him all the way across the table and into a brass fire screen in front of the gas grate but he was back on his feet in a moment and in the end he got Roy and gave him a pretty vicious bite in the leg. Then he was all over it; he never bit anyone more than once at a time. Mother always mentioned that as an argument in his favor; she said he had a quick temper but that he didn't hold a grudge. She was forever defending him. I think she liked him because he wasn't well. "He's not may not have been well but he was terribly strong.

One time my mother went to the Chittenden Hotel to call on a woman mental healer who was lecturing in Columbus on the subject of "Harmonious Vibrations." She wanted to find out if it was possible to get harmonious vibrations into a dog. "He's a large tan-colored Airedale," mother explained. The woman said that she had never treated a dog but she advised my mother to hold the thought that he did not bite and would not bite. Mother was holding the thought the very next morning when Muggs got the iceman but she blamed that slip-up on the iceman. "If you didn't think he would bite you, he wouldn't," mother told him. He stomped out of the house in a terrible jangle of vibrations.


Lots of people reported our Airedale to the police but my father held a municipal office at the time and was on friendly terms with the police. Even so, the cops had been out a couple of times-once when Muggs bit Mrs. Rufus Sturtevant and again when he bit Lieutenant-Governor Malloy-but mother told them that it hadn't been Muggs' fault but the fault of the people who were bitten. "When he starts for them, they scream," she explained, "and that excites him." The cops suggested that it might be a good idea to tie the dog up, but mother said that it mortified him to be tied up and that he wouldn't eat when he was tied up.


In his last year Muggs used to spend practically all of his time outdoors. He didn't like to stay in the house for some reason or other-perhaps it held too many unpleasant memories for him. Anyway, it was hard to get him to come in and as a result the garbage man, the iceman, and the laundryman wouldn't come near the house. We had to haul the garbage down to the corner, take the laundry out and bring it back, and meet the iceman a block from home. After this had gone on for some time we hit on an ingenious arrangement for get-ting the dog in the house so that we could lock him up while the gas meter was read, and so on. Muggs was afraid of only one thing, an electrical storm. Thunder and lightning frightened him out of his senses (I think he thought a storm had broken the day the mantelpiece fell). He would rush into the house and hide under a bed or in a clothes closet. So we fixed up a thunder machine out of a long narrow piece of sheet iron with a wooden handle on one end. Mother would shake this vigorously when she wanted to get Muggs into the house. It made an excellent imitation of thunder, but I suppose it was the most round-about system for running a household that was ever devised. It took a lot out of mother.


(Above is a picture of the real life Mugg's that Thurber's family owned)

Muggs died quite suddenly one night. Mother wanted to bury him in the family lot under a marble stone with some such inscription as "Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" but we persuaded her it was against the law. In the end we just put up a smooth board above his grave along a lonely road. On the board I wrote with an indelible pencil "Cave Canem." [translation: "Beware of the Dog"] Mother was quite pleased with the simple classic dignity of the old Latin epitaph.


Alane said...

I totally love this piece! Thank you, Tony.

Muskie Dave said...

Great story.I named my current Airedale,Muggs.Seems to be quite a close resemblance to Thurber's Muggs.
This was my late fathers favorite story.I have read it a hundred times and still laugh myself to tears.great writing is timeless.Thanks for posting.
Dave from MN