“Barnum and the Birth Rate” (E36)

  • Originally printed: The Forum, July 1923
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Asserting that no one, not even English readers who derive all of their ideas from Dickens’ American Notes, has less insight into the mind and character of the “Average American” than the Average American, Benchley challenges popular delusions concerning Phineas T. Barnum’s status as a cultural exemplar. Deploring the tendency to place Barnum’s genius for manipulation on some imagined continuum with the legendary “shrewdness” of the foxy grandpas on Main Street, RCB argues that Americans are in fact the most easily stampeded herd of front-page fundamentalists ever assembled. For Benchley, Barnum is the American antitype, in that his achievements rested entirely on his perception of his fellow citizens’ passion for being led around by the headline. Observing fewer critical faculties in the ink swilling millions than in any illiterate mass of medieval peasants, the piece lays bare a despairing streak in Benchley that would find a full-throated outlet in “The Wayward Press” four year later.

The author does find a way to knit Barnum back into the American quilt before the end of the article, but only on the basis of the financial gullibility he demonstrated in losing his first fortune in the collapse of the Jerome Clock Company during the 1850s. But even here, Benchley discerns a difference between Barnum and the American “everyman”, whose eagerness to take up nearly any claptrapsical crusade he encounters in the papers is exceeded only by his terror of taking any single fellow being at their word. Barnum, for all of his misanthropic pronouncements against the masses, believed in his friends. Luckily for the momentarily embarrassed impresario, the reservoir of suckers remained to buoy up his bankbook throughout the succeeding decades.

Favourite Moment:
“To point to Barnum, however, as a ‘typical American’ is like pointing to a cat as a typical mouse. The ‘Typical American’ was Barnum’s meat.”

“Après la Guerre Finale” (E19)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, February 23, 1935
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Guy Fawkes


Guy Fawkes expresses concern for the media veterans whose wild experiences covering the “Trial of the Century” are bound to leave them dissatisfied with the ordinary tragedies to come. The author anticipates the emergence of a new “Lost Generation” in the aftermath of Bruno Hauptmann’s death sentence, as the city’s reporters, whose January and February copy had been inflated by previously untapped psychical insights into the malign consciousness of “The Most Hated Man in America”, are forced to refocus their speculative apparatuses on the mundane tales of neighborly animus and political inertia which are a daily paper’s common fare. RB likens this cohort’s easily observable sense of unfounded omnipotence to the kind of temporary elation described by non-career officers tossed into the trenches of the Great War, where their every panicked command carried unaccustomed consequence.

Making no bones of his disgust with the entire affair, from the tone of its reportage to its morbidly salutary effect on “kidnap ladder” sales, Fawkes scrupulously avoids all mention of the Lindberghs. He was the only person laying off that soon-to-be-tarnished name during the winter of 1935. In his hierarchy of journalistic culprits, RB singles out The Evening Journal as the furthest gone offender (alas, that organ doesn’t appear to be archived anywhere within my reach), while the The New York Times appears to have steered clear of the worst excesses (presumably because no “reds” were involved in the case). The modern reader can only imagine what Guy Fawkes would have made of the OJ Simpson frenzy sixty years later.

Favourite Moment:
You can’t blame a writer for taking his head when it is given him, even if it isn’t much of a head.”