“Browsing Through the Passport” (E64)

  • Originally printed:  Detroit Athletic Club News, August 1930
  • First reprinted in:  Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949)
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley; Drawings by Gluyas Williams



Here Benchley details the first world torments of the bourgeois caught in bureaucratic amber on the deck of a homecoming Transatlantic liner. The indignities of international travel are bad enough, RB says, without the U.S. government making an open question of the sojourner’s right to return to their native shore, or at least to get away from the gang of floating drips they’ve been cooped up with for a few thousand nautical miles. We get a lot more Benchleyan bashing of red tape and protocols designed expressly to catch a man halfway between his favorite speakeasy and the 12-mile limit.

At such times, the defenseless subject of Foucauldian discipline is wont to take solace in any means of distraction handy. But what is handy when you’re quarantined in a queue and your gear is stowed in a steamer trunk? Well… people… certainly… lots of people around, but Benchley has already made short sport of that option – this bunch of Babbitts all paid $3000 to sight-see during the depths of the Depression! All you’ve got, really, in this extremity, is the legalistic fine print and the arcane customs scribblings in your passport, which our author turns to with the desperate gusto of a child absorbing the B Vitamin complex data set on a box of Corn Crackos. You can’t fight city hall, but you can take refuge in its inane publications.   

Favourite Moment:

Standing in line waiting for Uncle Sam to look at your tongue or hanging around on deck waiting for the tide to turn, there is nothing like a little red passport to while away the time. And what a bit of reading-matter that is!

Reprint Notes:

  • None of the 3 Gluyas Williams illustrations from the original magazine were reprinted. A new Gluyas Williams drawing (with shortened caption “Shipmates suddenly seem very dull”) has been added.  
  • Topical 1930 reference to “all those Americans who weren’t going to Europe this summer because of the old Wall Street plague of last November” has been replaced with the prosperously straightforward: “all those Americans who went to Europe this summer.”

“Back in Line” (E32)

  • Originally printed: Liberty Magazine, November 22, 1930
  • First reprinted in: No Poems; Or Around the World Backwards and Sideways (1932)
  • Unable to compare reprint with original text – Liberty Historical Archives not available at Toronto Public Library
  • Original Byline: unknown


Your postage may vary on this one, which has been reprinted no less than 5 times. An anti-systematic thinker in every sense of that term, Benchley’s pen could sometimes stumble a little too stolidly into the American grain, producing flaccid, Paul Harvey style kvetching about bureaucracy, taxation and the government. I’m sure many readers appreciate the respite from cosmic irony afforded by these hard headed little salvos against the temporal tyrannies of the Leviathan state, but I could do without them.

This particular piece takes on the “Simon Says” sadism of post office parcel regulations, and while RB gets in a few decent jabs against the machine, the litany rarely rises very far above the level of imaginative amplitude one associates with a vindictive Yelp poster.

Favourite Moment:
“Although bundles of old unpaid bills are about all anyone will be sending this Christmas, it doesn’t make any difference to the P.O. Department. A package is a package, and you must suffer for it.”