Today in Literary History- May 2, 1859 – “Three Men in a Boat” author Jerome K. Jerome is born

Jerome K. Jerome, the Victorian era humorist and the author of the charming book Three Men in a Boat, was born on May 2, 1859.

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Jerome’s father (an eccentric ironmonger who was also a lay preacher) was named Jerome Clapp, but at some point and for some unknown reason he changed his name to Jerome Clapp Jerome.

When Jerome was born he was named Jerome Clapp Jerome, Jr. Jerome Sr. later changed his infant son’s name to Jerome Klapka Jerome, after the exiled Hungarian general, György Klapka (again for some unknown reason), hence Jerome K. Jerome.

Jerome Sr. was constantly in debt and the family lived a precarious existence. He died when Jerome was only 13 and the family was left completely impoverished. Jerome had to leave school and make a living gathering bits of coal that had fallen from coal trains along the railroad tracks.

When he was 18 Jerome decided he wanted to be an actor and spent three years touring with a repertory company under the name Harold Crichton but found no success.

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After that he spent years working at various jobs while indulging his new passion of writing comic vignettes. At first this was no more successful than his acting career had been, but eventually Jerome had his pieces published in various magazines, particularly a newly founded humour magazine called Home Chimes.

Jerome published his first book in 1885, On the Stage – and Off, a comic memoir of his failed acting career. A year later he published Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, a collection of his Home Chimes pieces. It had modest sales, but is held in high regard today.

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Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (to give it its original title) was published in 1889 and serialized in Home Chimes. It received terrible reviews, most complaining about the book’s use of slang and its disorganized structure. Still, it struck a chord with the public and became a runaway bestseller.

Jerome’s publisher said at the time “I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them.”

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Three Men in a Boat is narrated by Jerome (known as “J” in the book) and involves his two friends, Harris and George. All three are feeling the aches and pains of approaching middle-age and the stresses of work and family life. They decide that what they need is a break from “modern life” and set off on a two week boating trip along the Thames River.

The upper reaches of the Thames had recently been cleared of commercial traffic and pleasure boat sailing and rowing trips were hugely popular. Although Harris and George are based on two close friends of Jerome, the trip is a fiction, based partly on a similar trip Jerome and his wife took on their honeymoon. J’ s dog, Montgomery, a lively character himself, is wholly fictional.

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Jerome continued writing humorous sketches and books, including a sequel to Three Men in a Boat, Three Men on a Bummel in 1898, with the three friends reunited for a cycling trip in Germany. He died in 1927 at the age of 68 after suffering a stroke.

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