“The Big Coal Problem” (E44)

  • Originally printed: Liberty Magazine, February 18, 1933
  • First reprinted in: Benchley Lost and Found
  • Unable to compare reprint with original text – Liberty Historical Archives not available at Toronto Public Library
  • Original Byline: unknown


Benchley returns to the primal scene of his domestic frustrations – the suburban cellar. He begins with some topical discussion of rising coal prices and collapsing purchasing power during the infernal months between the November 1932 election and FDR’s forthcoming inauguration (the final one held in March). Okay, the author admits, this is a serious problem. Too serious for a Liberty humour piece. So, Benchley says, let’s talk about how coal doesn’t work even when you can afford it.

After more than 15 years of vain stoking, Benchley appears to have given up blaming his heating troubles on the Scarsdale furnace. In this piece, he places the onus for his failure directly upon the coal. Benchley’s lifelong feud with the mechanical world has passed into legend, but neither did he scruple to engage in hostilities with raw materials. The remainder of the essay lays out the details of his controversy with the unruly fuel. By 1933, it seems unlikely that the Biographical Benchley ever went near a furnace (he scarcely made it to Scarsdale), but the proto-Joe Doakes persona remained in the trenches, battling an implacable foe bent on gas lighting him with an assortment of carboniferous cantrips.

Favourite Moment:
I remember one night back in 1926 when I went down into the cellar to fix the furnace for the night (and what a misleading phrase that “fix the furnace” is!)

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