“The Boys Go Literary” (E54)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, November 5, 1927
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Guy Fawkes

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Comments:

In this early installment of The Wayward Press (so early it’s called “The Press in Review” instead), Guy Fawkes expresses grudging admiration for a fit of aberrantly elevated expression which gripped the city’s newspapers in October 1927. Writing in an appreciative mood more reminiscent of Robert Benchley, Broadway’s most doggedly delighted dramatic critic, than of Guy Fawkes, celebrated foe of the Fourth-Rate Estate, the author heaps promiscuous acclaim upon the various outlets’ moving memoranda on the deaths of Mexican General Alfredo Quijano and NYC underworld figure James “Little Augie” Orgen.

Fawkes does recover some of his wonted facetiousness in time to question the World’s step too far into sonorousness in its October 22nd issue, which he describes as a series of short story prize entries laid end to epiphanic end. Benchley stays with that much-abused organ as he coasts toward the close on a tongue-in-cheek treasure hunt for the faltering World’s late 1920s signature dog, cat, and pony show puff pieces on companionate creatures. He locates only one in this unusually highfalutin month of issues, although he briefly considers lumping a press release on the Rockefellers at play in with the rest of the animal antics.

Favourite Moment:

Once again, we must complain of the World’s household-pet news. After a frantic search of the files for the past three weeks, the only really exclusive story in this field appears to be the one on October 19 in which it is told (with two photographs) how Ethelbert, the cat in the County Clerk’s office, sits by the mail chute watching the letters drop past and tries unsuccessfully to stop them. A very pretty story, and told in that sharp, incisive manner which characterizes all the World’s animal news, but hardly sufficient for three weeks’ reading.

“This Boys’ Camp Business” (E53)

  • Originally printed: Detroit Athletic Club News, January 1927
  • First reprinted in:  The Early Worm (1927)
  • Original Byline:  Robert C. Benchley [with drawings by Rea Irvin]

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Comments:

Concerned that the youth of America are in danger of maturing into a squadron of toothsome, early rising goons, Benchley aims to dissuade this cohort’s fading fathers and mothers from succumbing to the summer camp magazine ads in the slicks. The author propounds a bleary-eyed anti-vision of masculine independence with the strength of character to resist the bugle call of back-slapping, raft-capsizing bonhomie. Admitting that his resistance to the trend owes at least a little to his own loss of prestige on family swimming parties since a filial exile to the great outdoors came home leagues beyond the old man in the nautical arts, RB makes his slouching stand based primarily on principle. Benchley raises the alarm (the only alarm his idealized snoozer will accept) against the coming Hobbesian orgy of citizens pushing each other off rafts and into an abyss of mirthless, muscle-toned laughter.         

Favourite Moment:

In the first place, when your boy comes home from camp he is what is known in the circular as ‘manly and independent’. This means that when you go swimming with him he pushes you off the raft and jumps on your shoulders, holding you under water until you are as good as drowned – better, in fact.

Reprint Notes:

  • Reprinted in full, with the Irvin drawings replaced by two new Gluyas Williams illustrations.

“The Birth of a College Comic Paper” (E47)

  • Originally printed: Life Magazine, June 2, 1927
  • First reprinted in: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield
  • Unable to Access Original Text at This Time – Benchley Data will analyze any excisions/amendments when Life 1927 enters the Public Domain (in 2023)
  • Original Byline: Not Available

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Comments:
An extremely off the cuff entry in the Benchley canon – but one with its heart on its sleeve. Here, the author takes us behind the scenes at The Razorblade, a fictional entrant in the college humour sweepstakes of the 1920s, where Messrs. Youling, Beamish, Roffen, and Phielo take their bi-weekly half-assed stab at putting together a passable periodical. It is a truism that no one wants to see how the sausage gets made, but in The Razorblade’s case, it seems pretty clear that encountering this sausage at any stage of its life cycle would be a mistake.

Benchley’s disdain for puerile sex jokes, which he considered a substitute for actual humour, comes through pretty clearly in this piece, as does his irritation with an epidemic of ersatz nonsense churned out by Boston Bro-mins whose approach to the mirthful metier lacks any tinge of cosmic absurdity. These charmless chums, whose every “anarchic” act or statement comes embalmed in quotation marks, seem to conceive of comedy as a fraternity hazing ritual perpetrated upon the public. Rah rah rah!

Favourite Moment:
Eighteen poems, five of them to Milady’s ankle, and twenty-nine necking jokes. If we use them all, we are still five whole pages short.

“The Beginning of the Slump” (E39)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, September 3, 1927
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Guy Fawkes

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Comments:
Guy Fawkes takes stock of the calm that descended upon the New York papers in the days following the flashpoint execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. The author expresses admiration for the purity and elegance of the “pre-war” layout (8 discrete one-column heads) which graces the front page of The Times, whenever that paper finds itself with nothing to say.

There had certainly been plenty to say earlier in August, and Benchley had read every word of it with ever-deepening disenchantment. The humorist had played an unusually active role in the public furor surrounding the fate of the railroaded Italian immigrants. Abandoning his customary observer’s stance, RB had returned to Massachusetts in order to offer testimony against Judge Webster Thayer’s conduct while presiding over this celebrated miscarriage of justice. All to no effect, of course, and The Times edition for August 23rd, 1927 had carried the following headline across the entire width of the front page: “Sacco and Vanzetti Put To Death Early This Morning: Governor Fuller Rejects Last-Minute Please For Delay After A Day of Legal Moves and Demonstration.”

Taking a last look back at this defining defeat for roaring twenties liberals and radicals alike, Fawkes applauds the Times’ unusually fair-minded coverage of the affair’s dire denouement. Meanwhile, in The World, Benchley’s fellow Vicious Circler Heywood Broun found his column contradicted at every turn by the copy that surrounded it, due to the paper’s cowardly capitulation to the supposedly neutral Lowell Report, which rubber stamped the preordained exoneration of Judge Thayer. Broun and The World would soon part ways. But Benchley singles out The Sun’s piece of Thayer theatre for particular censure, citing comments praising the judge’s gentlemanly conduct and refusal to engage in controversy with the “persons [i.e. Robert Benchley] who have most maliciously assailed him.” Satire of the first order, RB asserts.

In the article’s second page, Fawkes examines the kinds of stories that were apt to find their way into 1927 newspapers whenever the state found itself temporarily deprived of opportunities to engage in red-baiting show trials and judicial murder – notably, picture laden spreads on young female competitors at the Caledonian Games and other rural contests involving farm implements. Oh yes, and the Herald Tribune saw fit to sound an utterly unnecessary front page alarm when President Coolidge spent a little bit longer than usual on a fishing trip and found himself without an overcoat as the evening cool fell upon Lake Yellowstone.

Favourite Moment:
As if this were not enough news for one day, The World, in the same issue and even on the very next page, gives us a two-column photograph of Miss Helen Barnaby, of North Danville, NH, who is the champion woman scythe-swinger and, “until a day or so ago” [that would make it about August 23 – ED.] “the champion mower of New Hampshire.”

“Beating Nature at Her Own Game: At Last a Substitute For Snow” (E38)

  • Originally printed: DAC News, November, 1927
  • First reprinted in: The Early Worm
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley (Drawings by Rea Irvin)

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Comments:
Here we find Benchley ensconced in an absent-minded/oversharing brand ambassador persona which anticipates the vitamin researcher of E16 (Liberty, 1931); however, this earlier effort yields far more high-spiritedly insightful dividends. Beginning from the supposed premise that modern consumers are eager to embrace any artificial alternative to a naturally occurring substance, so long as the ersatz product requires no assembly or other effort on the part of the purchaser, our speaker hits upon the notion of going for broke as a snow manufacturer. At first, the reader assumes that, somewhere in the back of this person’s frozen brain, there must have been some inkling of the value that might be attributed to on-demand blizzards by Hollywood producers or skiing enthusiasts; but the spiel, as written (and who it is written to is an open question), dwells instead on the myriad ways in which this miserable stuff impinges upon and thwarts humanity’s best efforts to remain warm, dry, and moderately comfortable.

But Benchley takes pains to show us that there’s no mistake here (at least, not at the conceptual level – it’s true their formula doesn’t seem to work).

If they ever figure out how to churn out this cruel commodity, the addled ad man stands ready to mush on to the crux of his pitch. Why be vexed and drenched by real snow, which pours down upon us at the oddest times, prompted by atmospheric conditions so inexplicable that they are almost as annoying as their product, when you can be pelted and bedeviled by new “Sno” any time you want?! Of course, it all sounds insane when you put it this way, especially when you appear to be putting it this way to a room full of business and marketing executives; and it is insane. However, that puts it right in line with the dominant political imperative to manufacture and impose artificial harshness and austerity upon the majority of our world’s citizens, as a way of naturalizing the scramble for security and resources that keeps capitalism humming.

Favourite Moment:
The problem of distribution thus unsatisfactorily met with, the next thing was to decide what other attribute our “Sno” must have that would give it a place in the hearts of millions of snow-lovers throughout the country. Someone suggested “wetness,” and in half a second the cry had been taken up in all corners of the conference room – for we were in conference by now – “Wetness! Wetness! Our ‘Sno’ must be wet!”

Reprint Notes:

  • Drawings in The Early Worm are by Gluyas Williams
  • Title in The Early Worm shortened to: “At Last A Substitute For Snow”
  • Text mainly reprinted verbatim, with one minor excision:
    • Original Text: ‘then indeed might we cry “Eureka!” or even “Huzzah”
    • The Early Worm: ‘then indeed might we cry “Eureka!”
  • No Huzzahs in hardcover?
  • My version of The Early Worm is a Blue Ribbon Books edition re-issued in 1946 and it does contain some typos: “curse” instead of “course” and “snow-show” instead of “snow-shoe”. Uncertain whether these typos appeared in the 1927 printing of the book.

“Bayeux Christmas Presents Early” (E37)

  • Originally printed: Life Magazine, December 1, 1927
  • First reprinted in: Chips Off the Old Benchley
  • Unable to Access Original Text at This Time – Benchley Data will analyze any excisions/amendments when Life 1927 enters the Public Domain (in 2023)
  • Original Byline: Not Available

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Comments:
True to its title – rooted in the Vicious Circle’s patented portmanteau patois – this festive bauble careens from concept to concept through a series of dissociative leaps. Given the announced subject matter, experienced Benchley readers would almost certainly have been expecting to encounter a little good-natured tugging at the tired threads of medieval mise en tapis, along with some anachronistic agonizing over the problem of what to buy the liege lord who has everything (including a rainy new realm). But the mysterious transatlantic transposition of a strip of this Old World wonder to the New Jersey suburbs (if Bayeux, NJ is, in fact, Bayonne) comes out of nowhere, like those Golden Plates unearthed by Joseph Smith in upstate New York. Then Benchley hefts that old oaken bucket (see passage quoted below) and we get a genuine splash of dementia praecox in our collective faces.

The second half of the piece proceeds along more conventional lines, with the author taking pot shots (or is that pot sherds?) at the astigmatic aesthetics of Pre-Renaissance Europe; but they’re fun pot shots, and well-deserved, in the bargain.

Favourite Moment:
’Going home for Christmas?’ must have been the question on all lips, framed in probably the worst Norman-English ever heard. ‘Noël’ they probably called it. The old oaken bucket that hung in Noël – to put it badly.