Most of Robert Benchley’s best essays were written during a 20-year period following the end of World War I, when he was writing columns and serving in various editorial positions, first with Vanity Fair, then with the Life magazine of his day, and finally, from the late 1920s on, with the New Yorker. In addition to his regular columns, Benchley often wrote freelance essays for his own and other periodicals during this productive period. In the late 1930s, fearing that he was beginning to repeat himself, and often short of money, he gave up writing professionally to concentrate on his more financially rewarding alternative career as a radio and motion-picture performer. Books that appeared after 1940 are comprised mostly of pieces written earlier.
Apart from occasional parodies and skits, Benchley showed little interest in writing fiction or drama, and his books were simply compilations under catchy titles of essays published previously in magazines and newspapers. While he wrote many drama reviews and did some other more or less serious journalistic work, he was essentially a humorist and an essayist. Benchley’s concentration on humor, often humor of a very playful, almost nonsensical sort, and his apparent disregard for theme, source, or time of original publication in compiling his books encourage the misconception that he took his work lightly. In fact, he wrote with a strong sense of obligation to maintain the quality and freshness of his humor and to resist relying on the stock devices and situations he attacked in his drama reviews; in addition, his diligent, almost obsessive revision made meeting deadlines a constant struggle.
Benchley’s style is difficult to characterize because, within the limits of his chosen form, he was so versatile. Moreover, he frequently adopted the voices of personas, worked with parody, and employed stylistic incongruity for humorous effect. Even when writing more or less as himself, Benchley deliberately inflated his style; for the kinds of humorous effects he wanted, a degree of pomposity was essential. The seriousness with which Benchley’s central persona took himself, his insecurities, and the things that annoyed him accentuated by contrast the silliness of what he had to say. In general, the further a persona was from Benchley himself, the more pronounced this incongruity between style and substance became. It should be added, however, that most of the inflation in Benchley’s prose involved diction and general tone. On the whole, apart from occasional humorous interruptions, his style profited from his early work in newspapers in being syntactically straightforward and easy to read.
As well as being, in his narrow field, a creative, highly original artist, Benchley was also a craftsman, and there were few humorous devices he did not employ effectively. A few suited him particularly well, however. Benchley specialized in logical and structural confusion, usually delivered through an earnest, self-important persona who gave no indication of wanting to be funny. He particularly liked long, apologetic, or selfjustifying openings, which he often followed with incongruously short, increasingly illogical essays that set readers up for anticlimactic endings. These structural games supported another of Benchley’s favorite devices—satirical reduction through misinterpretation and oversimplification. As usual, working through a persona, characteristically one self-deluded about his grasp of his subject and excessively eager to appear as an authority, Benchley would expose the pretentiousness and sham he saw in some specialized field in the course of attempting to explain it. He frequently used parody to the same end. Psychoanalysis, scientific fads, overly erudite literary criticism, the jargon of professional sports, conventions of operatic plots, stylized crime reporting, obscurity in modern art and literature—such were the typical targets of Benchley’s satire.
These basic techniques for deflation were hardly new in American humor, but Benchley raised the level. He wrote not for people who distrusted urban values and cultural innovations on principle, but for an audience which, while sharing his dislike of overspecialization, pseudo-sophistication, and needless obscurity, was interested in and informed about the subjects he made fun of.
But Benchley lacked the anger of a true satirist. He used his gift for discovering and revealing the ridiculous side of serious subjects more to amuse than to reform, and he was inclined by temperament to make fun of himself more than any other subject. Many of his best essays were based on humorous experiences in his own life: the challenges and aggravations of parenthood, the frustration of mastering machines and gadgets, the annoyances of traveling and dining out. Even Benchley’s eccentric dislike—mutual, apparently—of birds became part of his literary act. This comic representation of himself as a bumbling, insecure, somewhat neurotic, middle-class American male challenged to comprehend and cope with the rapid social and technological changes of his time was central to his popular appeal, as both a writer and a performer. Despite his weaknesses and eccentricities, the central Benchley persona often displayed an estimable pluckiness in situations largely beyond his control. He also embodied, in exaggerated form, a skepticism about trends and fads of the period with which many readers would have identified.
Benchley played a central part in the sophistication of popular American humor that took place between the World Wars. While he maintained the vitality and adapted basic techniques of folk humor and its literary offshoots, he dramatically raised the tonal and intellectual level in order to reach a better educated, more cultured, urban audience. His craftsmanship, originality, and wit won him a following not only among readers but also among other writers, and his influence is especially noticeable in the work of such younger contemporaries as S.J.Perelman, James Thurber, and E.B.White.
See also Humorous Essay
Robert Charles Benchley. Born 15 September 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Studied at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire, 1907–08; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1908–12, B.A., 1912; president of the editorial board, Harvard Lampoon. Worked for Curtis publishers, 1911–14, and in the personnel office of a paper company, Boston, 1914–15. Married Gertrude Darling, 1914: two sons. Editor and contributor, New York Tribune and Tribune magazine, 1916–17, and the Tribune Graphic Sunday supplement, 1918. Secretary, Aircraft Board, Washington, DC, 1917– 18. Managing editor, Vanity Fair, 1919–20; columnist of “Books and Other Things,” New York World, 1910–21; dramatic editor, 1921–29, and editor, 1924–29, Life magazine; contributor, 1925–40, and dramatic editor, 1929–40, the New Yorker. Founder, with Dorothy Parker and others, Algonquin Hotel Round Table, 1920. Also actor: with the Music Box Revue, 1923–24, and in many films (mostly shorts), 1923–45; radio broadcaster, from 1938.
Awards: Academy Award (Oscar), for short film, 1936.
Died (of a stroke) in New York, 21 November 1945.
Essays and Related Prose
Of All Things, 1921
Love Conquers All, 1922
Pluck and Luck, 1925
The Early Worra, 1927
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; or, David Copperfield, 1928
The Treasurer’s Report and Other Aspects of Community Singing, 1930
No Poems; or, Around the World Backwards and Sideways, 1932
From Bed to Worse; or, Comforting Thoughts About the Bison, 1934
My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew, 1936
After 1903—What?, 1938
Inside Benchley (selection), 1942
Benchley Beside Himself, 1943
One Minute Please, 1945
Benchley—or Else!, 1947
Chips off the Old Benchley, 1949
The “Reel” Benchley, edited by George Hornby, 1950
The Bedside Manner; or, No More Nightmares, 1952
The Benchley Roundup, edited by Nathaniel Benchley, 1954
Benchley Lost and Found: 39 Prodigal Pieces, 1970
Benchley at the Theatre: Dramatic Criticism, 1920–1940, edited by Charles Getchell, 1985
Other writings: 14 screenplays.
Ernst, Gordon E., Jr., Robert Benchley: An Annotated Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995
Altman, Billy, Laughter’s Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley, New York: Norton, 1997
Benchley, Nathaniel, Robert Benchley, a Biography, New York: McGraw Hill, 1955; London: Cassell, 1956
Gehring, Wes D., “Mr. B.”; or, Comforting Thoughts About the Bison: A Critical Biography of Robert Benchley, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992
Rosmond, Babette, Robert Benchley: His Life and Good Times, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970
Yates, Norris W., Robert Benchley, New York: Twayne, 1968
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