“Blurbs” (E48)

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



We discern intimations of Benchley’s Guy Fawkes persona in this piece, which applies the Wayward Press treatment to the unctuously undiscerning literary criticism in vogue during the Fall of Calvin Coolidge’s accession to the Presidency. Benchley begins in a mood of mock amazement, basking in the froth of fiction’s self-styled apotheosis. One recent barrage of ballyhoo heralded the arrival of no less than 38 all-time exemplars upon the literary landscape – just in time for Christmas! A veritable embarrassment of rich exaggeration.

And yet, the author has no pointed quarrel with any of the esteemed works on that year’s publishing schedule. He cites a number of critics for contempt of their own métier, but negs nary a modern masterwork. Doubling back to poke fun at the stuffiness he had exhibited during the opening paragraphs of the piece, Benchley admits there is nothing inherently ludicrous in imagining that some of these “instant classics” of the early 1920s might indeed emerge triumphant from the chrysalis of damnation by attainted praise. In the final analysis, it is the paucity of perspicacity that Benchley abhors in these peripatetic paeans – a defect he would continue to dog in his mass media interventions of the late 1920s and 1930s.

Favourite Moment:

The Boston “Transcript” uses the word “unique” a bit more cagily, in speaking with characteristic New England repression of another book. “A more unique self-revelation,” it says, “has perhaps never been given to the world.” There may have been an equally unique self-revelation. The “Transcript” reviewer does not let himself go to the extent of denying this. But the point to be emphasized is that, since man first began drawing picture-stories on the walls of his cave, there is every reason to believe that the world has never seen a “more unique” personal record than this.

“The Autocrat of the Modern Breakfast-Table: Showing Just How Far Oliver Wendell Holmes Would Get Today” (E30)

  • Originally printed: Vanity Fair, December 1917
  • First reprinted in: Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Brighton Perry


Another early Benchley effort published under the Brighton Perry moniker (an alter-ego necessitated by Vanity Fair’s official policy of one-item-per-issue for its writers). Here, the author imagines the fate of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s Yankee Sage figure when transplanted from his Mid-Victorian boarding house to an analogous establishment during the go-go war year of 1917. Despite every intention of imposing his brand of pseudo-philosophical monologue upon the new century, the Autocrat finds himself, not deposed, but rather lost in a dissonant swarm of similarly single-minded speakers sloughing their own half-baked thoughts all over the morning meal.

Doing his level best to elevate the conversation by seizing upon the various bits of chaff for thought offered by his media-conspiracy, inflation, and alcohol-addled tablemates, the Autocrat is thwarted time and time again by some new eruption from another untoward quarter. Finally, the commuter train and the telephone clear the room, leaving him alone with thoughts that a new generation (Autocrats all!) doesn’t even have the attention span to ignore.

Favourite Moment:
“How often that is the case in this life,” I began again. “The man who has influence, wields it, and the man who has no influence, has none to wield. There used to be an old proverb that whoever ate of the tree of the magnesia-berry—”

“Another Sensational Discovery Shakes the Art World” (E17)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, August 16, 1930
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley


Here RB intervenes in the fashionable furor over forgery and false fronts in the fine arts, as seen in such keen sociological treatises as Animal Crackers. The piece parses out the purport of an allegorical stag hunt substratum reprieved from obscurity by an overzealous museum cleaner, whose critical scrubbing skills helped put a phony Rembrandt-Romney to rout (and to rinse). Who could have guessed that old George Romney (the portraitist, not his descendant the Mitt-maker) had concealed such medievalist mental states beneath his staid social miming stocks in trade?

Knowing that such flights of feudal fantasy didn’t pay the bills during the Age of Enlightenment, the ambitious Romney apparently thought so little of his creation that he scrupled not at scribbling the odd commercial calculation or dalliance digits across its bestiological bottom half. And leave it to Benchley to get in a cheep cheep cheep shot at his avian enemies along the way!

Favourite Moment:
“To carry the stag-hunt story down into the foreground, where the dolphin and the lion are, would seem to be folly. They seem to be part of another idea entirely.”