“A Breath from the Pines” (E56)

  • Originally printed:  Life Magazine, October 6, 1921
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Robert C. Benchley (column header: “The Latest Books”)



Benchley’s first impulse as a critic was never to reach for the knife (unless his Guy Fawkes persona had command of the pen), but sometimes only a knife will do. Your humble chronicler has never read Gene Stratton-Porter, but this piece makes an excellent argument against the advisability of taking the time to experience Her Father’s Daughter, at any rate. Celebrated in her day as a feminist and an ecological activist, Stratton-Porter appears to have embraced (in this late-career novel, at least) one of early-20th century Progressivism’s least savoury side-issues: white supremacist eugenics.

Benchley identifies the book’s protagonist – a homespun huckster for birth rates and “efficacy” – as a proto-Fascist. The term itself wasn’t available to him just yet, as Mussolini’s party was still a year away from power in 1921, so Benchley brings its American analogue into the discussion, nominating this vile character for a fictional leadership position in the distressingly resurgent Ku Klux Klan. What else can you do with a dismal dynamo named “Linda Strong”? As amusing as this takedown is, Benchley’s liberal disgust with all forms of jingoism and chauvinism emerges palpably from the piece, lending a crusading edge to the hilarity rarely seen outside the precincts of the Wayward Press.

Favourite Moment:

Linda Strong is the kind of girl who is ‘just a bully good pal to a fellow’. She is constantly going out on ‘hikes.’ She wears low-heel shoes and common-sense clothes and delivers little three-minute talks on their efficacy during occasional lapses in her ardor for ‘bucking up’ her boy-friends to make them do better in school. And she believes that every woman ought to have at least six children, training them to grow up into fine, strong, virile women and men, fit to fight the Japanese some day.

“America’s Greatest Movement: The Jaw Movement” (E14)

“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.

Favourite Moment:
“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.”