She wrote long, ridiculous set pieces about her various jobs. She wrote hilarious portraits of her bosses, who in her hands become one long parade of human oddity. She wrote fondly of her family’s eccentricities. But above all, she wrote with unflagging self-abasement. Her books twanged with the idea that one’s own ridiculousness was comedy enough. A good example of her rueful tone:
Until I started to night school, my life was one long sweep of mediocrity. While my family and friends were enjoying the distinction of being labeled the prettiest, most popular, best dancer, fastest runner, highest diver, longest breath-holder-under-water, best tennis player, most fearless, owner of the highest arches, tiniest, wittiest, most efficient, one with the most allergies or highest salaried, I had to learn to adjust to remarks such as, “My, Mary has the most beautiful red hair I’ve ever seen, it’s just like burnished copper and so silky and curly—oh yes, Betty has hair too, hasn’t she? I guess it’s being so coarse is what makes it look so thick.”
It almost goes without saying that she distinguishes herself in night school by being the absolute worst student in every class.
MacDonald was master of the comic memoirist’s first art: self-deprecation. Other types of memoirists value lyricism, or shock tactics. Comic memoirists are utterly dependent on knowing that they themselves are the silliest people in any given room.
I know whereof I speak—I am this year publishing a memoir about my own very, very ordinary life. Memoirists like me are writing what author Lorraine Adams has called “nobody” memoirs. As she said in a 2002 piece in the Washington Monthly, such memoirists are “neither generals, statesmen, celebrities, nor their kin.”
How, then, to proceed? You’re nobody. You want to write a memoir. Your first order of business is to let readers know that you know that they know you’re a nobody. So you must imply your unimportance as quickly as possible, and never, ever stop. By means of that simple dynamic, the memoirist makes a friend rather than an enemy of her reader.
In Anybody Can Do Anything, MacDonald fails again and again. It’s an entire book about failure: her own, and the economy’s. It’s also about persisting in the face of one’s own admitted shortcomings. What she wants is a job commensurate with her skills, which she presents as nil: “I wanted some sort of very steady job with a salary, and duties mediocre enough to be congruent with my mediocre ability. I had in mind sort of a combination janitress, slow typist and file clerk.”
Finally, she washes up safely on the sandbar of government work, taking a job at the Seattle branch of the National Recovery Administration, the New Deal agency started in 1933 and charged with organizing businesses under new fair-trade codes. There she felt right at home, surrounded by federal-level incompetence: “There were thousands of us who didn’t know what we were doing but were all doing it in ten copies.”
MacDonald is rarely remembered for her wry tone. When she’s remembered at all, she is preceded not by her own reputation, but that of the big-screen version of The Egg and I, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, which is pretty nearly unwatchable. In the film, Ma and Pa Kettle—neighbors who are fondly, if broadly, drawn in the book—have been turned into tobacco-spitting, raccoon-roasting caricatures. And the public loved them. On the movie poster, the faces of these two crackers loom huge; Colbert and MacMurray cower tinily in the corner. Ma and Pa Kettle proved so popular that nine more films were made about them and their fictional fifteen children, and Betty MacDonald lost all hope of being taken seriously as a writer.
Many years after all of this, I was having dinner with a British writer who had undertaken to write about the Northwest. “You have to be careful about using too much humor, otherwise you end up sounding like Betty MacDonald: housewife humor,” he said, finishing in scathing (if posh) tones. MacDonald has been trapped in this role of domestic lightweight. But her writing, with its quiet irreverence, has more in common with, say, Calvin Trillin or Laurie Colwin, than it does with a mid-century housewife humorist like Erma Bombeck. (Though, really, what’s so bad about Erma Bombeck?)
What MacDonald models in her writing is actually very freeing—self-deprecation as a kind of passport to the ordinary. With it, you can take your reader into the most mundane details of your life, and they will often go.