“The Brave Illusion” (E55)

  • Originally printed:  Collier’s, May 20, 1922
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Robert C. Benchley (with illustrations by Ray Rohn)



Sooner or later, every Benchley fan, biographer, and encomiast must reckon with a defining aporia in the humorist’s life – the moment he reinvented himself as exactly the same person he had always been. During the past couple of hundred years, thousands – probably millions – of men have morphed from budget-conscious, maritally faithful, teetotalers into financially reckless debauchees. No other human being has ever made this transition without the slightest change in the quality of their humour, their sense of commitment to other people, and their basic stance toward the cosmos.  

Only Robert Benchley.

Even if he’d never written a word, Benchley would’ve made an irresistible subject for an inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of wry good humour raised to a Transcendental value; but it is impossible to conceive of Benchley without his words – the pixelated exoskeleton that held his genial essence intact once he crossed the alcoholic Rubicon in 1920.

What does any of that have to do with this piece from Colliers? Not much, probably, although this is a very early (pre-emptive?) formulation of the thesis that still makes its way into many bullet-pointed accounts of his baffling trajectory – i.e. after opposing the consumption of alcohol on moral grounds throughout the 1910s, Benchley reversed himself after the passage of Prohibition laws and took up residence in a bottle on a contrarian lark. This essay likens the impulse behind that act (attributed to Benchley’s friend “Lou”) to the naturally libertarian whims of irresponsible youth – whims that the author deems “a bore”. Writing in 1922, Benchley could not have known what the next 23 years held in store for him, but from our perspective we can infer that, regardless of the specific reason for his decision to take that first drink, his decision to continue down that road long past Prohibition’s expiration date may have had a great deal to do with his sense of himself as a bore.

We know he was no such thing – but that doesn’t help much, does it?          

Favourite Moment:

Better a stolen raw potato passed from hand to hand than the cookies of respectability.

“The Benchley-Whittier Correspondence” (E41)

  • Originally printed: Life Magazine, May 11, 1922
  • First reprinted in: Love Conquers All
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Inspired by then-current efforts among literary historians to establish the trajectory of a letter written by Mary Shelley to Byron and then possibly forwarded onto a third person who doesn’t ever appear to have received it, Benchley moves to set the record straight regarding his own epistolary interactions with New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Casting his mind back to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1890, RCB recalls a lecture hall cloakroom mishap which resulted in a fateful hat switch.

Disliking Whittier’s hat intensely, and also craving an audience with the legendary abolitionist, the younger man’s (Benchley was 1) first missive strikes a tender balance between Puritan plain speaking and Transcendental enthusiasm. With no letters coming back the other way, Benchley’s tone becomes increasingly irritable as he laments Whittier’s negligence. He abandons all talk of introducing the Quaker versifier to influential musical comedy people and finally drops the matter of exchanging hats, after committing a mild curse to the mails in a letter dated three months prior to the inciting incident at the Save-Our-Songbirds meeting. A very strange year, that 1890.

Favourite Moment:
But we can discuss all this at our meeting, which I hope will be soon, as your hat looks like hell on me.

Reprint Notes:

  • Reprinted in its entirety with no alterations

“Bad News for Synura” (E34)

  • Originally printed: Life Magazine, February 9, 1922
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: R.C. Benchley


Here R.C. Benchley takes up the cause of the single celled synura, whose only transgression has been to impart a slight aftertaste of cucumber to the city’s water supply. Objecting to numerous public pronouncements by county officials concerning their efforts to isolate the little fellows in the Kensico reservoir (with a view toward eradicating them entirely), Benchley asks his readers to consider the underdog’s point of view. Okay, sure, some people think their oil savors more of strychnine, and maybe that’s a point against them, but the important thing is, they are not strychnine! And the synura have rights, too. To elicit sympathy from his bourgeois audience, RCB dwells primarily on those upwardly mobile algae who’ve spent long hours at night school prepping to catch a current down into the metropolis, where dreams come true.

To call this piece “slight” would be to ascribe far too much importance to it, but the author shows admirable commitment to his one-joke premise and carries it through to a final appeal for a filibuster of these filtration machinations.

Favourite Moment:
“And then came the official edict. The reservoir gates are to be closed. The open road to New York is to be barred. And in the rural fastnesses of Kensico there is at least one synura who swims idly about, with his life’s ambition thwarted.”

“All Up For ‘Citizenship Day’” (E13)

  • Originally Published: Life Magazine, October 26, 1922
  • First Reprinted: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: R.C.B.


Even the Apostle of Applesauce had his limits, and RB reaches his in contemplating the proposed advent of yet another Patriotic Holiday. This little Battle Ahem of the Republic suffers greatly from its attempt to confront the abyssal absurdities of American Civic Religion head on. With the gaudy austerities of the roaring twenties in full swing and the tumorous open secret of Jim Crow lynch law pressing heavily upon the nation’s frontal lobe, ol’ Uncle Sam’s huzzah-haunted hypocrisy was just too big to foil at this time (one can only hope the condition isn’t permanent). Benchley’s targets are too self-evident and too painfully unassailable; and his mock allegorical floats of fancy never leave the ground.

On a brighter note, “Citizenship Day” did fail to reach red letter day status on November 4, 1922 – a fizzle RB must have drunk to. However, the concept did eventually gain country-wide traction, metastasizing into Pact With Hell and Covenant With Death (aka Constitution) Day.

Favourite Moment:
“At the other end [of an allegorical float representing the Dignity of the Law] is shown New York City enforcing the Prohibition laws. Someone seems to be accepting money from someone else in this group, but you can’t quite make out who the parties are.”