The Secret Life of "The Secret Life of."

Triggered by the pennies question, what is the history of this phrase? It is used often, but what is the first time, Walter Mitty?

I suspect that it predates Thurber’s Walter Mitty story (first published in 1939). Here’s the Google Ngram Viewer for the phrase "the secret life of," and there are a number of mild spikes for the phrase pre-1939 (and the spike in 1939 isn’t even that high). I have no idea what the context is for the earlier uses of the phrase, however.

Huh, what a good question. It’s such a common phrase in titles but it doesn’t really mean anything all that specific anymore.

I can find a brazillion examples of this being used as a title, but none BEFORE “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” so right now, that looks like the spark. It is, after all, one of the most famous short stories ever written.

I am quite sure Thurber wasn’t the first person to ever put that phrase together, but 99.9% of its use is probably because of him.

(Side personal trivia: back in college one of my fiction writing professors used her own short story The Secret Life of Bees as a classroom example–more than a decade later it became a movie. And thus one of my lame brushes with fame.)

Barring any additional information, this sounds about right to me.

Hmmm. But when I check the Ngram Viewer for just the phrase “secret life” there’s a steady rise from 1919-1931, then a steady drop until 1942, then it rises again.

I’m going to make a wild-ass guess that “secret life” and “secret life of (name)” were used in the True Crime types of tabloid newspapers and pulp magazines. The three pioneering newspaper tabloids, the New York Daily News, Daily Mirror, and Evening Graphic all started in 1919-1924. Hedda Hopper took her gossipy style to Hollywood in 1925. Those are just the types of material that would use something like “the secret life of John Doe” to grab readers’ interest.

That graph shows use of the phrase from 1800 to 2000. Change it to 1700, and see the results.

Clicking on 1700-1778 gives three examples, the secret life of grace, the secret life of a Christian, and the Secret Life of my [Antecedent] Justification.

Clicking on 1779-1791 brings up a host of “the secret world” and no examples of the secret life.

None of the other examples before Mitty are titles. Secret lives abound but on no single topic.

When I searched ABEBooks by reverse publication order (because Amazon’s search system is garbage) I found two things: 1.) People don’t give a damn about putting correct publication dates and 2.) there was a book published in 1913 titled The Secret Life of the Ex-Tsaritza. Amazing Disclosures By Her Maid-of-Honour and Confidante, The Baroness Zeneide Tzankoff. I doubt that was exactly a top seller, though.

“My Secret Life” is a now-somewhat-famous book of Victorian autobiography/pornography, privately published in the 1880s/1890s. I don’t imagine it would have been widely known at all, but perhaps was more known among authors and publishers than the general public.

“The secret life of” was a phrase in regular use for hundreds of years. The Google hits indicate that most usages were either about people who were famous or pious, those who present a public face that might hide less savory aspects.

Thurber turned this around. He said that everybody around us might have unexpected and interesting depths, even that meek, henpecked guy in the corner. (His favorite subject, of course: his thoughts on women would make him a pariah today.) That insight into human psychology is what made the story famous. He picked a good title for it, evocative and yet widely applicable, which is why everybody has a secret life today.

I checked all my Thurber biographies - turns out I have six* - and none of them give any history to the title. Even the theme isn’t all that original. One passage is taken directly from Conrad’s Lord Jim and an author threatened to sue Thurber for plagiarism, having just done the theme in his novel. Thurber’s success came from his lifting of daydreaming from a casual timekiller to a statement of personality and also, no doubt, from its catchy, unforgetable label.
*Curses upon Harrison Kinney’s 1200-page doorstop, whose index numbers do not align with the page contents!