Cape May MAC Book Club: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

A recap of our book club discussion!

Our second-to-last book Cape May MAC Book Club book, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, was by far our funniest selection. A fair portion of our discussion was dedicated simply to recounting our favorite parts and laughing all over again. If you missed our live discussion, watch the recording here:

Or, read on for a recap!

Jerome K. Jerome is no pen name. Born in 1859 to a father named Jerome C. Jerome, Jerome K. Jerome left school at 14 and pursued a wide variety of odd jobs before finding his way into journalism and humorist writing. Three Men in a Boat — a runaway success — brought Jerome widespread recognition, and has never, since publication in 1889, been out of print.

Three Men in a Boat follows three friends: George, Harris, and “J” (Jerome himself), accompanied by their fox-terrier Montmorency as they take a boating holiday along the river Thames. The book is, to put it mildly, hilarious. From the mishaps of boating to the wandering thoughts and recollections of our narrator J, the so-called travelogue feels incredibly modern — and had all of us laughing out loud. The book sold so well upon publication that Jerome’s editor, commenting on how many copies of Three Men he sent out into the world, remarked: “I often think that the public must eat them.”

The boat was so popular that travel along the river Thames exploded the months following publication — boat-renting and tourism along the shores boomed as fans wanted to follow Jerome’s travel path.

So why is this book so little known? One theory we discussed was Jerome’s rivalry with Charles Dickens, and the disdain held for his work by critics at the time. Unlike Dickens and other very successful novelists at the time, Jerome spurned the earnest tone and verbose style of the Victorian era in favor of what critics would come to term (disdainfully) the “New Humorist” approach. His work was straightforward, easy to understand, and absurdly funny. Three Men in a Boat’s appeal to the masses — who, in light of education growing more accessible were more literate than ever — was proof of its “vulgarity” in the critics’ opinion.

Likely because of this intense reproach from critics, Jerome’s work generally faded from academic scholarship — except, hilariously, in Germany, where the sequel (Three Men on the Bummel) had lost so much humor through translation that it was printed quite seriously as a textbook.

It’s a shame that so few people have read this book, as it’s quick, engaging, and laugh-out-loud funny. A perfect beach read — or if you find yourself on a boat, even better.

Join us next Saturday, August 27th, for the final book club of the summer! We’ll be reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. See you then!

Evelyn Maguire (she/her) is on the Digital Marketing team at Cape May MAC. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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Some interesting tidbits from Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture). Cape May MAC has been helping people discover Cape May and its history since 1970.