- 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.
But we can discuss all this at our meeting, which I hope will be soon, as your hat looks like hell on me.
- Reprinted in its entirety with no alterations
- Originally printed: The New Yorker, November 12, 1932
- First reprinted in: Never reprinted
- Original Byline: Robert Benchley
Benchley apologizes for being otherwise engaged while the literary world celebrated the life and works of Walter Scott on the 100th anniversary of his death in September of 1932. RB explains that he meant to say something earlier, as his “particular lack of interest in Scott” gives him a different perspective on the 19th century icon’s career. Warming to his subject, RB jestingly scrambles Scott’s Waverley cycle of novels with the, if anything, even more obnoxious “Leatherstocking” books that they inspired on this side of the Atlantic. He then presents his credentials as a teen-aged victim of Ivanhoe poisoning. After being forced into the lists against this medievalist monstrosity at every new high school he attended, the battered Benchley felt compelled to gather a few facts about their creator, if only as a means of self-defense.
Omitting any further discussion of the books themselves, Benchley focuses on the fabulous wealth Scott amassed by dint of his best-selling assault upon the annals of history. Strongly implying that these legendary sums have kept Scott’s name alive long past its aesthetic expiration date, RB digresses into a manic passage trumpeting his discovery of the £ sign on his typewriter. For a moment, the tone becomes genuinely jubilant. But from that point on, the piece proceeds to plot every line of Scott’s prose, poetry and correspondence onto a literary ledger, with the ridiculous expense of Abbotsford on the other side. One finishes this tribute with the sense that the wily old Tory spent wisely on his citadel, which certainly makes a better conversation piece than his reactionary ramblings.
It was here that Scott dined with Coleridge and made his famous remark: “Sam, the more I see of gooseberries, the sicker I get of them. Honest, I do.” He got £15,000 for this.
- 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
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.
’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.
“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.
“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.”
- 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.
“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.”
- Originally Published: Syndicated Piece, News Publishing Co. (spotted in the Oakland Tribune and The Charlotte News, among other outlets), August 14, 1921
- First Reprinted: Love Conquers All
- Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley
Nearly 20 years before Silesia became a flashpoint in Hitler’s monstrous Anschluss aggressions, Benchley subjects East-Central Europe’s ruling classes to a whimsically withering historical inquiry. Mocking the practice of dignifying dizzyingly stupid aristocratic and irredentist spats with naming conventions derived from mathematics, RB proposes a novel answer to the “Silesian Question.”
Describing a series of political production numbers scarcely less absurd than the Habsburg Vanities and the Polish Partition Follies of 1772, 1793, and 1795, RB takes the reader on a mellifluously mad journey into the heart of anti-democratic darkness. I refer here, of course, to the epochal Summoning of the Storkrath, where the political will of the Duchy’s assembled nobles, welterweights and licensed pilots coalesced around a policy of strict indifference (at best) to the actual needs of everyone else in Silesia.
“And he was the kind of man who would stop at nothing when it pleased him to augment his duchy.”
- Topical reference to France and England “splitting” over the Silesian problem has been removed from the version in Love Conquers All. Presumably they got over it.
- Title in The Charlotte News: “Silesian Problem Clear”
- Title in the Oakland Tribune: “Silesia Row is Explained By Benchley”
- Originally printed: Vanity Fair, May 1918
- Reprinted: Chips Off the Old Benchley
- Original Byline: Brighton Perry
Written under the pseudonymous Brighton Perry byline, Benchley winces waggishly in the gloved grip of Great Wartime public discourse. The piece opens with a knowing nod toward the three thousand war correspondents whose most insightful writing on the conflict will remain under intellectual quarantine until accessed by future scholars looking to find out what the hell actually happened. Benchley gets in a jab at topical super patriot James M. Beck and teasingly begs Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson not to ban Vanity Fair from the mails just for daring to have a little fun with the concept of soft news during hard times.
The remainder of the essay presents an alternate history of the Revolutionary War in which Paul Revere’s wild midnight ride is replaced by a Sunday section puff piece on picturesque stops for Redcoats on a walking tour of New England and George Washington’s trip across the Delaware is stage managed by military police who function like (21st century) movie location security guards.
Benchley worked as a military aircraft information censor for the U.S. Government in early 1918, so he knew whereof he joked.
“…the great (numerically speaking) American public..”
- Major excisions from topical preamble on World War One Censorship
- Topical reference to jingoistic blowhard James M. Beck removed
- Teasing request not to be banned by the Postmaster General removed
- Favourite moment (above) was a casualty of the excision process and does not appear in Chips Off the Old Benchley – too anti-patriotic for the HUAC era?