“Can We Believe Our Eyes?” (E69)

  • Originally printed: Liberty Magazine, May 9, 1931  
  • First reprinted in:  No Poems; Or, Around the World Backwards and Sideways
  • Original Byline:  Unknown

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Comments:

Here we have a solid effort in a staple Benchley genre, a dithering dirge directed at the endless cascade of cosmic crockery battering every human effort to just not be wrong about everything, all of the time. Things were confusing enough before the scientific method got up and running, but here in the modern era, the spirit of “well, actually” trolls through all things. The more we ken, the less we can feel sure of, and the only certainty is that whatever shred of a sense impression you’ve been clinging to will swiftly evaporate under scrutiny.

Perhaps it has always been thus, as the madcap adventures of Socrates demonstrate. On the other hand, Socrates was just one guy marauding the streets of Athens, and a pretty old guy, at that. You could easily run away from him and believe whatever you wanted about the size of that arrow in the agora. Not so easy to dodge the infinite deferral of truth and meaning with the advertising industry now negging the public for its own hypnotic purposes.

Benchley keeps up the fight for as long as he can before taking refuge in the bottle. If you can’t get reality’s measure by looking at it, or hearing it, or smelling it, or touching it, what’s the point of being sober? Mix me up an absinthe and absinthe, bartender. There are also some jokes about British military ranks.

Favorite Moment:

“Which is the larger of these two arrows?” Of course, it is perfectly obvious which is the larger, but when you come to measure them you find that, through some trickery, they are both the same size.

I will put up with just so much of this kind of thing, and then I will stop measuring.

Reprint Notes:

  • Unable to compare text with original Liberty piece.
  • Why doesn’t the Toronto Public Library have the Gale Liberty Magazine Historical Archive? (Why can’t a regular person subscribe to it?)

“Camera!” (E68)

  • Originally printed:  The New Yorker, October 27, 1934
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Guy Fawkes

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Comments:

Can this really be our first Benchley essay from 1934? I guess it can – that sidebar category list wouldn’t lie.

Here we find Guy Fawkes in excellent form, musing upon the mysteries of facsimile photojournalism. Gone are the days of pacing the hallways waiting for some intrepid aviator to get those Transatlantic assassination pics to a press near you. Thanks to the magic of wireless image transmission, you can drink in last night’s European tragedy with your morning coffee, as long as you don’t mind seeing it through a glass very darkly. I located some of the connect-the-dot fiascos Fawkes describes (see images below) and he’s not exaggerating one bit – they’re like a glimpse into Tolkien’s Ring Wraith dimension. Honestly, if things are this bad, why not just have your reporter call in and describe the scene to a sketch artist?

The assassination of King Alexander and Mr. Barthou, undertaken by Macedonian nationalists with a Balkan beef against the makeshift Versailles state of Yugoslavia, is just another roiling reminder of the interwar political instability that would lead inexorably to the nightmare of 1939. Fawkes has little to say about the slain king and French foreign minister themselves – and who can blame him? A steady diet of these fridge art frauds would be enough to rub out any reader’s sense of reality.

Fawkes argues that the rising reputation of the shutterbug set is equally gauzy. Beyond the soft-focus celebration of the occasionally arresting moments captured for eternity by lucky lensers lies the unpalatable fact of fifty thousand photo ops that only a publicist could love. Benchley is more favorably impressed by current trends in baseball writing (they’re actually starting to deliver intelligible accounts of the games!) and in the general quality of writing on offer in the Herald Tribune (which he would prefer to deride, having once been dismissed from that august organ). He concludes by excoriating Theodore Dreiser’s coverage of the Robert Evans murder trial for the Post (“an example of bad newspaper writing – or any writing, for that matter”) and The American‘s singularly off-putting new page layouts (“masterpieces of chaos”).

All in all, a very satisfying Wayward Press piece, as you might expect.

Favorite Moment:

And so we see what advantages are ours in the days of modern photography. The day after an event has occurred in Europe, we can see a picture of something else! The only trouble lies in the advent of the old-fashioned, plodding originals a week later.   

“Busy as Bees” (E66)

  • Originally printed:  The New Yorker, July 12, 1930  
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Guy Fawkes

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Comments:

Guy Fawkes gives no quarter (no Sunday edition nickel either) to his nemeses on the New York Times editorial staff, who found themselves hoist by their Boys’ Own Adventure headline policy during the summer of 1930. After years of flogging takeoffs, landings, ascents, and polar perambulations, a perfect storm of derring-do caught the “paper of record” short of frontpage real estate, allowing The Herald Tribune, The World, The Telegraph, and The American to latch their lousy linotypes onto the gravy plane. Roger Williams’ non-stop Bermuda journey and the Hunter Brothers’ 553-hour endurance flight were among the exclusive “scoops” that slipped through the Times’ clutches while they were busy chasing that aeronautic will-o’-the-wisp Charles Kingsford-Smith.

In other non-news, Benchley raps knuckles on both sides of the political aisle for the epidemic of bad faith arguments propounded by the Democans in support of and in opposition to the latest tariff law. Apparently, Hoover’s supporters contended that the new act had no connection whatsoever to an unfortunately timed dip in the already anemic 1930 Stock Market, while the Democratic organs naturally averred that Hoover’s policy would merely compound his economic felonies. Then, everyone turned on a dime (Benchley wouldn’t pay that either), adopting the opposite positions when trading ticked upward the next week. Through it all, much was made about the impact (or irrelevance) of “dominant bear” activity on Wall Street.

The author also takes the Treasury Department to task for pretending there’s no such thing as a “deficit” until the American people (in this case, the soon-to-be-famous Great War bonus veterans) actually need financial assistance. Then, suddenly, all of those Chamber of Commerce prosperity tales about bountiful national surpluses evaporate into hysterical mists of austerity. Some things never change.

Guy Fawkes isn’t all gunpowder this time out, though. He finds space for a paragraph in praise of the New York Times’ “French Correspondent”, who delivered an unaccustomedly graceful appraisal of the Allied evacuation of the Rhineland in the July 1st edition of the paper. And he ends on a note of mock-exhilaration in anticipation of keeping cool with ex-president Coolidge’s daily column for the remainder of the summer!

Favorite Moment:

Just as we were beginning to worry about light paragraphs for this department and to wonder if it might not be well to discontinue for the summer, the Herald Tribune starts in on daily sermonettes by Calvin Coolidge. So far, we have seen only followups to his old “Have Faith in Massachusetts” routine, evidently extending the series into “Have Faith in the Republican Party,” “Have Faith on the Lower Mississippi,” and “Have Faith in the Rockies,” but they are sufficient to make us cancel our passage to Europe. We can’t miss those.

“Bunk Banquets” (E65)

  • Originally printed:  Liberty Magazine – issue not identified/year not known
  • First reprinted in: The Best of Robert Benchley (1983)
  • Original Byline: Unknown

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Comments:

Benchley anatomizes and anathematizes the machinations behind the plague of banquets afflicting the American social scene. As in “Accustomed As I Am–” (E3), our hero knows he is a voice crying unheard beneath the din of clinking glasses and cleared throats, but he can’t resist getting up to say a few words. Our intrepid reporter takes us step by step through an exposé outlining the hypothetical conception, promotion, and successful realization of a sham event hosted by the American Academy of Natural and Applied Arts, an organization invented for the sole purpose of giving this very banquet.

Not a single attendee suspects there is anything amiss with the proceedings; and, in fact, Benchley concludes, perhaps there isn’t. As with so much else that transpires at the executive level of American business culture, sheer spuriousness spurs the whole corrupt enterprise along. We can hardly condemn good ol’ H. G. Wamsley for skimming a little profit off the top hats when his marks are so eager to co-sign the grift.

RB is past caring about the ethical implications of such consensual chicanery. In fact, he is far more concerned about the thousands of “good faith” banquets clogging halls across the country. “Cui bono?” our detective asks himself. And comes up with: “no one.” Not the organizers. Not the guests. And certainly not Benchley, who must live with this knowledge. Ultimately, he leaves us with the chilling suggestion that most of these abominations occur for no reason whatsoever.

Favorite Moment:

There are certain banquets which it is probably hopeless to try to forestall. Trade conventions, associated college clubs, visiting conventions, all more or less demand a culminating celebration of some sort, and a banquet is the only thing that our national imagination seems capable of devising. But there are banquets which have not even the justification of camaraderie or the brotherhood of selling the same line of goods.

Reprint Notes:

  • Unable to compare text with original Liberty piece.

“Browsing Through the Passport” (E64)

  • Originally printed:  Detroit Athletic Club News, August 1930
  • First reprinted in:  Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949)
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley; Drawings by Gluyas Williams

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Comments:

Here Benchley details the first world torments of the bourgeois caught in bureaucratic amber on the deck of a homecoming Transatlantic liner. The indignities of international travel are bad enough, RB says, without the U.S. government making an open question of the sojourner’s right to return to their native shore, or at least to get away from the gang of floating drips they’ve been cooped up with for a few thousand nautical miles. We get a lot more Benchleyan bashing of red tape and protocols designed expressly to catch a man halfway between his favorite speakeasy and the 12-mile limit.

At such times, the defenseless subject of Foucauldian discipline is wont to take solace in any means of distraction handy. But what is handy when you’re quarantined in a queue and your gear is stowed in a steamer trunk? Well… people… certainly… lots of people around, but Benchley has already made short sport of that option – this bunch of Babbitts all paid $3000 to sight-see during the depths of the Depression! All you’ve got, really, in this extremity, is the legalistic fine print and the arcane customs scribblings in your passport, which our author turns to with the desperate gusto of a child absorbing the B Vitamin complex data set on a box of Corn Crackos. You can’t fight city hall, but you can take refuge in its inane publications.   

Favourite Moment:

Standing in line waiting for Uncle Sam to look at your tongue or hanging around on deck waiting for the tide to turn, there is nothing like a little red passport to while away the time. And what a bit of reading-matter that is!

Reprint Notes:

  • None of the 3 Gluyas Williams illustrations from the original magazine were reprinted. A new Gluyas Williams drawing (with shortened caption “Shipmates suddenly seem very dull”) has been added.  
  • Topical 1930 reference to “all those Americans who weren’t going to Europe this summer because of the old Wall Street plague of last November” has been replaced with the prosperously straightforward: “all those Americans who went to Europe this summer.”

“Broadway By Candlelight: Simple Games For Young and Old to While Away the Long Dark Nights” (E63)

  • Originally printed:  Vanity Fair, March 1918
  • First reprinted in:  Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley 

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Benchley makes light of the somber state of affairs on the Faint White Way during the darkest days of World War One energy rationing. With the United States Fuel Administration, headed by the name-checked Doctor (Harry Augustus) Garfield, on an austerity rampage in early 1918, our author proposes a passel of pre-electric pastimes to the flaming youth of the soon-to-be-lost generation. Who knows? They may very well have lost themselves playing Blindman’s Buff in a blacked out alley back of Brown’s Chop House.

As with many of RB’s early Vanity Fair pieces, the title is way too long and the essay itself feels a trifle distended in its quest to elaborate upon a one-joke premise, which is essentially that it’s tough for a modern human-about-town to get around in the Great War gloom; but it certainly has its pleasurable aspects. It also provides an early glimpse of Benchley’s lifelong distaste for bureaucratic officiousness and the cant of expertise (would that be “Expertese” – a particularly obnoxious relative of Esperanto?). These objections are exacerbated in this case by his well-known opposition to the war itself.

We also get a palpable feel for his deep-seated resistance to anything that keeps people from leaving their homes. One shudders to imagine how RB would have reacted to some of the measures adopted during the COVID era. Fortunately, the march of time has spared your humble annotator from having to deal with the unwelcome image of our dinner-jacketed Diogenes hitching a ride on any kind of “freedom” vehicle.      

Favorite Moment:

But, gloomy as the situation may appear, our indomitable American sense of humor (which leads us through a six-day bicycle race every year without mob-violence being done to the promoters) should guide us in this crisis and help us to improve each shining kilowatt-hour.

“Bringing Back the Morris Dance” (E62)

  • Originally printed:  Detroit Athletic Club News, June 1929
  • First reprinted in:  The Treasurer’s Report and Other Aspects of Community Singing (1930)
  • Original Byline:  Robert C. Benchley; Drawings by Gluyas Williams

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Comments:

Patented Benchley refutation-by-recommendation, with the author pushing good old-fashioned Morris-dancing until the jig goes up in smoke. Adopting a one step forward, two steps back approach to physical fitness advocacy, the author trips repeatedly over his exhortation to orbit a pole. Soon, we reel haphazardly into history, as RB’s persona searches in vain to discover some deep-seated folk reason for engaging in the rhythmically strenuous life. Benchley takes issue with those who would draw a parallel between Terpsichorean worship and sexual congress – arguing that the caloric requirements of the former push all possibility of the latter into sometime next week – but he accedes to the contention that these frenetic displays might bear some metaphorical relationship to the chaotic forces which threaten to rip our cosmos asunder. Benchley’s ramble through the ages yields few factoids to entice himself or his readers away from their places at the bar – at least, not until he returns to his original notion that Morris-dancing ought to have something to do with Morris chairs. It doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop our author from sitting this one out.  

Favourite Moment:

We are told that, in Merrie Englandie, one of the dancers was always decked out as Robin Hood ‘with a magpye’s plume to hys capp and a russet bearde compos’d of horses hair,’ which is as lousy spelling as you will see grouped together in any one sentence anywhere. At first, the only music was that of the bells, but that got pretty tiresome after a while and they brought out a flute or ‘tabor,’ which probably added nothing. I can, offhand, think of nothing more dismal than that must have been.  

Reprint Notes:

  • All text and illustrations reprinted

“Bring Needle Beer Back!” (E61)

  • Originally printed:  The New Yorker, April 22, 1933
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley

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Comments:

Famously an ardent Prohibitionist until the moment the law came into effect (at which point he took up drinking with the liver-curdling zeal of a Bizarro Blue Legislator), Benchley now doubles back upon his youthful track – arguing for a repeal of Repeal.  Noting the tepid qualities of the welcome back parties for 3.2% beer in April 1933, Benchley avers that the government sanctioned suds currently on tap haven’t a drop of creditable carousal in them. By restoring a veneer of respectability (or, at the very least, legality) to the imbiber’s art, those reverse-psychologizing killjoys down in Washington have robbed Depression weary drinkers of their last gulp of freedom. If we’re all going to have to suffer anyway, Benchley argues, is it too much to ask to be allowed to do it in subterranean speakeasies, where the acoustics are better for hiccoughs and harmonizing?

Favourite Moment:

Has beer brought back The Home? Has it restored American Womanhood to anything? Has it revived part-singing?

“A Brief Study of Dendrophilism” (E60)

  • Originally printed:  The New Yorker, February 18, 1933
  • First reprinted in:  From Bed to Worse (1934)
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley

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Comments:

Always a dicey proposition when an early 20th century writer dabbles in mock-anthropological and/or mock-psychotherapeutic discourse. Here, Benchley essays both, with results that fail to justify the gamble. Sprouted from the unimpeachable (although by now axiomatic) kernel of a connection between the aficionado and the fetishist, the piece soon gets lost in the thorny underbrush of the Eurocentric unconscious, projecting all manner of outré tree trysting upon the usual targeted demographics before doubling back to take stock of the photosynthetic perversions being practiced “right here where we live”. I always want to give Benchley the benefit of the doubt when he slips into these callow catalogues of counterfeit cultural relativism. Certainly, the wild sociology of the period required caustic pruning back, but when an author resorts to mere ridicule by reproduction, the roots of the enterprise are blighted.

Favourite Moment:

In America, dendrophilism has not gained much headway, owing to there being so many other things to take up people’s minds, although Kiernan, in the Detroit Lancet, does mention a case of  a woman who was under suspicion of going pretty strongly for an old elm, which she claimed had been in the family for a hundred years and which she wanted to have brought into the house just to keep her company.

Reprint Notes:

  • Illustration not reprinted

“A Brief Course in World Politics” (E59)

  • Originally printed:  Liberty Magazine, December 6, 1930
  • First reprinted in: Benchley Lost and Found
  • Unable to compare reprint with original text – Liberty Historical Archives not available at Toronto Public Library
  • Original Byline: unknown

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Comments:

Another smug entry that first saw the light of day in Liberty Magazine (a three-year gig that seldom brought out the best in Benchley). Whatever modicum of mirth the piece might have afforded readers at the time is very hard to discern beneath the intervening carnage of the 1930s and 1940s. Dulled by an admittedly brain-atrophying state of affairs on the domestic political front in 1930 (when Democrats and Republicans were even more anxious than usual to assure the electorate that neither entity could ever possibly stand for anything), Benchley’s decidedly anti-Fawkesian persona eschews any interest in trying to disentangle (or even take cognizance of) the political struggles and upheavals occurring elsewhere.

With its emphasis upon the author’s tendency to confuse and conflate various nation states with one another, to draw back in horror from ballots filled with multi-word party names, and to take offense at the very idea of national elections that don’t take place on regularly scheduled Tuesdays in November, the text does provide some ammunition for an against-the-grain reading of the essay as a satire of American ignorance and apathy, rather than of incomprehensible international squabbling. However, like “Back in Line” (E32), the predominant mode of address here appears to assume a readership afflicted with precisely those intellectual shortcomings.  

Favourite Moment:

As it stands now, I am likely to throw the whole thing up and go in for contract bridge. There, at least, you know who your partner is. You may not act as if you knew, and your partner may have grave doubts about your ever knowing, but, in your own mind, the issues are very clearly defined.