“Botany Exam” (E52)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, June 14, 1930
  • First reprinted in:  No Poems; Or, Around the World Backwards and Sideways (1932)
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley



Ambushed by pedantry on the footpaths of Central Park, Benchley plots to claw back civic quietude from the clutches of municipal overreach. Things were bad enough for anxiety-ridden greenspace seekers when they were forced to contend with Latinate horticultural labels bent on literalizing the landscape, but now the botanists have used their pull with Tammany to salt the earth with demoralizing quiz inscriptions. No one, the author argues, heads to Central Park in search of further proof of their own ignorance. And yet, this is the inevitable result of the city’s current initiative. Benchley imagines Mayor Jimmy Walker himself lurking in the bushes in judgment.      

Refusing to wither altogether under this harsh light cast upon his defective understanding of the life sciences, RB conceives a text-based revenge scheme of his own. If the government wants to go around forcing embarrassing questions on people, it had better be prepared to face a return volley of the same. He does his best to incite a kind of grassroots, pretechnological Yelp campaign in the streets of Gotham, with the citizens leaving passive-aggressive placards about town in hopes of securing a cease-fire with the know-it-alls in the New York Parks Administration.    

Favourite Moment:

The only way in which we, as citizens, can get back at our tormentors is to ask them questions in return. We may not be erudite in our questions, but we can be embarrassing. We can put a sign over that hole in Forty-Fourth Street asking: ‘How much macadam would it take to fill up this hole, and why the hell isn’t it done?’ On every street corner, we could string up little signs reading: ‘what belongs here for the reception of waste-paper?’

Reprint Notes:

  • Reprinted in full, with a new Gluyas Williams illustration.

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