“The Art of Being a Bohemian: After All, It’s Perfectly Easy If You Can Give the Time to It” (E23)

Originally printed: Vanity Fair, March 1916
First reprinted in: Never reprinted
Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


When Benchley’s early freelance pieces came back return to sender – and they did so with depressing regularity for a while there – they generally bore the scars of editorial disdain for their excessively “collegiate” nature. This one pager displays many symptoms of that core defect before leaving the Harvard Yard entirely during its final paragraphs. For the majority of the essay, RCB affects a tone that will be readily recognizable to anyone who has read a Twitter thread or Substack squib by a Young Person who hates Young People. You know the way that goes: “These damned hipsters are always already part of the Bourgeois system that they claim to oppose and their aestheticization of life on the margins amounts to nothing more revolutionary than a frilly frame around their parents’ society page photos. Besides, they probably aren’t even actually enjoying themselves.”

It’s a dead-end critique we’ve all heard a million times, and it wasn’t any great sociological shakes in 1916, either. Ah, but instead of pursuing his entirely extraneous inquiry to its bitterly foregone conclusion, RCB pulls up his stake in this toothless skewering and lays his literary dance card on the table. Then, to paraphrase Sam Spade, he is dangerous! He has no settled thoughts on “la vie de Bohème”, but he does have a good idea of what Vanity Fair will publish, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Favourite Moment:
“The only trouble with this pitiless exposé of Bohemia is that I know practically nothing about the subject at all.”

“America’s Greatest Movement: The Jaw Movement” (E14)

“America’s Greatest Movement: The Jaw Movement” (E14)
Originally Published: World Outlook, October 1916
First Reprinted: Never reprinted
Byline: Robert C. Benchley


A true oddity in the Benchley canon, in that it seems to be almost entirely about what it purports to be about, earnestly chewing over a set of facts filtered through the quaint, by 1916, lens of Victorian liberal free trade philosophy. There are glimmers of the author’s sense of humour in the introductory and concluding sections, but for the majority of its length, this article really does aim to communicate historical and economic information about chicle, the basic ingredient in chewing gum (until it was replaced by cheaper, synthetic materials during the middle of the century).

Printed soon after Wilson-Villa era tensions along America’s southern border reached their boiling point (US army “punitive raids” occurred throughout the spring and summer of 1916), the piece warns against any actions that might disarrange the “entente cordiale” between central American chicle gatherers, U.S. manufacturers and their millions of peacefully masticating customers. Most of this sincere tone is undoubtedly an artifact of the unusual publication venue – World Outlook was a typeset creature of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church – however, as every Benchley aficionado knows, there was an extremely earnest side to this genial exponent of absurdity and apostle of fair play in facetiousness. Presumably, the same impulse which led RCB to consider devoting his life to social work also allowed his journalistic muse to vibrate in tune with a magazine written by and for progressive clergymen; if only, thankfully, this once.

Favourite Moment:
“Thus it is that Mexico and the United States are joined by ties that transcend diplomacy, and woe to the Administration or the Opposition through whose machinations the supply of chewing-gum is cut off and the bulwark of our Democracy shattered.”