“A Brief Study of Dendrophilism” (E60)

  • Originally printed:  The New Yorker, February 18, 1933
  • First reprinted in:  From Bed to Worse (1934)
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley



Always a dicey proposition when an early 20th century writer dabbles in mock-anthropological and/or mock-psychotherapeutic discourse. Here, Benchley essays both, with results that fail to justify the gamble. Sprouted from the unimpeachable (although by now axiomatic) kernel of a connection between the aficionado and the fetishist, the piece soon gets lost in the thorny underbrush of the Eurocentric unconscious, projecting all manner of outré tree trysting upon the usual targeted demographics before doubling back to take stock of the photosynthetic perversions being practiced “right here where we live”. I always want to give Benchley the benefit of the doubt when he slips into these callow catalogues of counterfeit cultural relativism. Certainly, the wild sociology of the period required caustic pruning back, but when an author resorts to mere ridicule by reproduction, the roots of the enterprise are blighted.

Favourite Moment:

In America, dendrophilism has not gained much headway, owing to there being so many other things to take up people’s minds, although Kiernan, in the Detroit Lancet, does mention a case of  a woman who was under suspicion of going pretty strongly for an old elm, which she claimed had been in the family for a hundred years and which she wanted to have brought into the house just to keep her company.

Reprint Notes:

  • Illustration not reprinted

2 thoughts on ““A Brief Study of Dendrophilism” (E60)

  1. “Always a dicey proposition when an early 20th century writer dabbles in mock-anthropological and/or mock-psychotherapeutic discourse.”

    Yes. I recently took a look at “Carnival Week in Sunny Los Las” (or is it Las Los?) and the stereotypes were not cute. I hadn’t read the piece since the early 1970s.

    Most of his writing holds up well. Another piece on African art (“I wouldn’t give it houseroom”) is regrettable, but Bob did better than most other humorists of that period. A lot less bigotry in his writing than Irvin Cobb or George Ade.


    1. agreed – one of the great things about this project is that it will (eventually!) give me a pretty comprehensive understanding of the ways in which Benchley conformed to and stood out from his contemporaries on an incredible range of topics and themes… In particular, it is fascinating, edifying and undeniably unsettling to see how a committed white civil rights liberal like Benchley made use of racial imagery in his humor pieces… We know from his (not nearly so rare as people think) political pronouncements that the one major progressive issue he did hold dear was opposition to segregation and racial oppression in the United States, and he clearly just couldn’t see how the use of anthropological stereotypes in some of his jokiest items could contribute negatively to the discourse… no one escapes their cultural context!


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