“Bobby Goes A-Bicycling” (E50)

  • Originally printed: Life Magazine, December 23, 1926
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley



A rather lackluster entry in the Benchley family phantasmagoria. Throughout his career, RB showed a decided fondness for the depiction of barbed interactions between grade schoolers and their guardians. This could sometimes generate real hilarity (see “Another Uncle Edith Christmas Yarn” – E18); but, in this case, we get an unfunny filial fizzle.  Purportedly written by young Bobby Benchley Jr. (aged 7 in 1926), the piece announces itself as the chronicle of Benchley père et fils’ efforts to join in the then-current race to the North Pole, with the dubious help of some kibitzing crony called Lieutenant Commander Connelly. From the start, however, the author is more interested in establishing his portrait of Young Mister Benchley as a precocious practitioner of dire dad jokes at his own pop’s expense.

As you might expect from such a trio (or however many people there are in this two-wheeled caravan), they don’t get very far, stalling out somewhere near White Plains, New York. Along the way, the son-persona jabs mercilessly at the patriarch’s pet peeves, triggers, and insecurities, without occasioning much mirth. Benchley deprecating himself is generally a delight – but Benchley delegating that task to a prepubescent print golem of his own flesh and blood forces the author’s sense of guilt over his increasingly absentee parenting a little too palpably onto the page.

Favourite Moment:

Four days out from Scarsdale, the expedition is now somewhere around North White Plains, N.Y. If things go on at this rate, we’ll need a new map before long.

“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

“Back For the Big Game” (E31)

  • Originally printed: DAC News, November 1928
  • First reprinted in: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Or David Copperfield
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley (with drawings by Gluyas Williams)


Benchley’s addressee in this anti-nostalgic excursion (“Weekins, 1914”) never makes it anywhere near the big Harvard/Yale game. A lifelong fan of the contest himself, RCB examines the role of the national media in helping to preserve the solidaristic totems of America’s collegiate stratum. As is so often the case with Benchley, the author both buys into and bitterly questions America’s accepted pieties – and during the late 1920s, you weren’t likely to find any piety further up there in the sky than the Ivy League’s autumnal ascendancy.

By no means born to the Crimson, RCB found his way to the Yard through a series of unlikely events kicked off by the death of his beloved older brother Edmund in the Spanish-American War. Reeling from this terrible misfortune, Edmund’s wealthy fiancée Lillian determined to stake the younger Benchley (only 9 at the time) to every advantage that she could, as a feat of Emersonian compensation. (She may also have half-wanted to groom the boy to take his sibling’s place in her romantic plans, although this is strictly a matter of conjecture among his baffled biographers.)

Knowing that he’d reached Harvard – and the incredible social network (I’m not talking about Facebook) it gave him an entrée to – on a tragedy-tainted fluke goes a long way toward explaining the author’s inimitably affable absurdism. Coming of age amongst America’s most favoured citizens – and coming to understand them in their utter ordinariness as human beings – helped to demystify the country’s repressed class arrangements, gifting Benchley with the power to burlesque the bourgeois without resorting to the stridently moralistic critiques offered up by many of his contemporaries. It may also have made him a little too comfortable with the system, or, at any rate, a little too dubious of any possibility of changing it.

What does all of this have to do with three well-to-do old sports page partisans who make tracks back to New England in search of lost homecomings and find themselves ejected from a frat house festooned with irrational numbers? Not much perhaps, except: the fourth estate is a lot more solicitous of its valued customers’ feelings than the fourth dimension is.

Favourite Moment:
“You go to the fraternity house (another concession on my part to my Middle West readers) and announce yourself as “Weekins, 1914.” (My class was 1912, as a matter of fact. I am giving myself a slight break and trying to be mysterious about the whole thing.) … The old place looks about the same, except that an odd-looking banner on the wall says “1930,” there being no such year.”

Reprint Notes:

  • Reprinted under the title “Back to the Game” in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Or David Copperfield
  • Only one change to the text in the reprint, with slight softening of the language:
  • “I remember you,” says Feemer, “you certainly were an awful ass.” (original text)
  • “I remember you,” says Feemer, “you were an awful pratt.” (reprint)

“Agenda” (E10)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, February 8, 1930
  • First reprinted in: Never Reprinted (for all practical purposes)
  • Original Byline: Guy Fawkes


Writing as Guy Fawkes, RB notes the failure of the London Naval Conference to make waves commensurate with the attention paid to it. Correctly identifying this supposed sea lane to everlasting world peace as yet another smug salvo in the USA and UK’s effort to maintain maritime supremacy at discount prices, the author chides the New York papers for sending half their collective staffs across the pond just to make wild, quasi-official-sounding guesses at the kinds of terms the talks might produce. Less dangerously, but more obnoxiously, the media’s thirst for naval-tinged news had led to the publication of pieces like the NY Times item clipped above, in which conference secretarial staff member Hurley Fisk’s impressions of London greenspaces were deemed page 3-worthy.

Fawkes looks more favorably upon The World’s deadpan daily dispatches from a Conference clearly headed nowhere, and not even nowhere fast. Nevertheless, with hundreds of pages to fill every day, the city’s sheets couldn’t help but cover a few matters of actual import. The Hearst papers, we hear, actually bucked the transatlantic trend, preferring to spotlight a home front hot war between telephone service providers. More civic mindedly, The Telegram took Harvard College to task over its vile treatment of its custodial workers, and The World did its best to tamp down the NYPD’s truncheons in its true blue zeal to take capital’s side against “reds”.

On the other hand, The World also appeared to be developing a very bad habit of printing their front page headlines verbatim from various Hollywood studio publicity dispatches – and the soon-to-be-defunct paper baffled Benchley by “revealing” that poet Edna St. Vincent Millay had once published articles under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd, about 5 years after the last person who cared about this transparent literary imposture had forgotten all about it.

Favourite moment:
“The big excitement in the newspaper offices during the past month has been the Naval Conference in London. The excitement did not spread. [NYC Fire] Chief Kenlon, at a late hour last night, gave out the statement that it was now confined to a small corner of the newspaper offices and that, by tomorrow, the department expects to have the whole thing out and wet down.”