“Biography By Inches” (E46)

  • Originally printed: The Bookman, June 1925
  • First reprinted in: Pluck and Luck
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley (with sketches by Herb Roth)


Drawing fractured inspiration from Amy Lowell’s posthumously published 1,200 page long literary biography John Keats, Benchley admits that he has neither the time nor the particular genius that powered his late contemporary through her subject’s short life at the rate of 48 pages per annum. He pays homage to Lowell’s extrapolatorily encyclopedic method by executing a series of narrow deep dives into the stream of Victorian poet William Bodney’s consciousness. In 1925, Lowell’s book was making waves among critics, who disagreed sharply upon the merits and advisability of her approach, and Benchley would almost certainly have elicited similar responses from his own readers, if William Bodney had been a real person.

Given the special circumstances, RB tackles the fragmentary relics of Bodney’s imagined existence with even more confidence and gusto than Lowell had shown in teasing out her thick descriptions of a thinly documented life. Having made up his primary research materials in the first place, Benchley presses this advantage to provide maximum insight into the workings of the artist’s putative mind, whilst judiciously leaving some room for interpretation when confronting multivalent passages such as the reference to “open fires” in Bodney’s I wonder when, if I should go, there’d be.

Here, your humble annotater begs your leave to return to this entry in the future – once he has read Lowell’s John Keats (which, as I’m sure you can imagine, may take a while – but his curiosity is piqued).

Favourite Moment:
Of the boyhood of William Bodney we know but little. He was brought up as most of the boys in Suffix were brought up, except for the fact that he did not go out of doors until he was eleven, and then only to strike at the postman. He was kept in the house so much because of an old prejudice of Edna Bodney’s against fireflies.

Reprint Notes:

  • Herb Roth sketches not reprinted.
  • No Gluyas Williams illustrations for this one.
  • The opening preamble, which makes specific reference to Amy Lowell’s John Keats, has been excised – and once again this does damage the piece a little.
  • Parenthetical subtitle has been added: (Such as has recently been done for John Keats)

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