June 16, 2005,
As a rule, I try not to look into mirrors any more than is absolutely necessary. Things are depressing enough as they are without my going out of my way to make myself miserable. . . .
The allegedly sinister-looking fellow who wrote these words and thousands of equally funny ones was Robert Benchley, an early 20th-century humorist who wrote countless humorous essays for newspapers and magazines from the 1920s through the early 1940s. There is good news today for those who have enjoyed Benchley’s work, and for those who have yet to do so: His 1922 collection of humor essays, Love Conquers All, is now available in electronic format.
Benchley is best known for his New Yorker humor essays and his 46 short, comical films made for Hollywood studios, such as How to Sleep (for which he won an Academy Award), The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928), The Courtship of a Newt (1938), and How to Take a Vacation (1941). Benchley also wrote for and acted in feature films, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1945) and was one of the noted wits of the Algonquin Round Table and surely the most beloved at the time.
I have never seen a meaner face than mine is in the hat-store mirror. I could stand its not being handsome. I could even stand looking weak in an attractive, man-about-town sort of way. But in the right-hand mirror there confronts me a hang-dog face, the face of a yellow craven, while at the left leers an even more repulsive type, sensual and cruel.
In addition, Benchley served as drama critic for Life magazine and the New Yorker, but it is for his short humor essays that he is best known. Born in 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Benchley began life as a journalist after graduation from Harvard in 1912.
After serving in World War I he really hit his stride, composing humorous articles by the dozen, examining the complicated life of a twentieth-century man trying to fit into a rapidly changing society while retaining some small shred of dignity. Benchley assumed the persona of a harassed common man trying to wend his way through the minefield of modern life, avoiding a world of terrifying hazards such as mirrors, literacy campaigners, sports fans, salesmen, operas, avant-garde artistes, child-raising experts, dentists, weather forecasters, dogs, socially conscious writers, tariffs, and Girl Scouts.
Benchley’s humor pieces were collected into books bearing informative titles such as My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew; From Bed to Worse, or Comforting Thoughts About the Bison; The Early Worm; and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, or David Copperfield. Most, alas, are long out of print.
Furthermore, even though I have had a hair-cut that very day, there is an unkempt fringe showing over my collar in back. . . . My suit needs pressing and there is a general air of its having been given to me, with ten dollars, by the State on my departure from Sing Sing the day before.
As government, big business, new media, and social changes increasingly intruded into the private realm and forced rapid adjustments in domestic life and people's employment situations, humor and satire flourished in American newspapers and magazines. Writers such as James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, E. B. White, and Frank Sullivan comically documented the changes, delighting their audiences with a stream of zany and pointed commentaries on the great ambitions of America's government, business, scientific, technological, and communication elites.
As a result, these authors may seem to be somewhat conservative, but actually they were nearly all liberals, especially in the social sense. That is to say, they wanted people to be free to live as well as possible, which included a necessary measure of help for those not given advantages early in life. In this way, they can be said to have anticipated the great middle of American politics today, as manifested in both political parties.
Benchley's essay on W. E. B. Dubois's book Darkwater is an excellent entry into this serious side of the humorist's thinking, as he mockingly notes the great amount of progress still to be achieved in American race relations.
But for an unfavorable full-length view, nothing can compare with the one that I get of myself as I pass the shoe-store on the corner. They have a mirror in the window, so set that it catches the reflection of people as they step up on the curb. When there are other forms in the picture it is not always easy to identify yourself at first, especially at a distance, and every morning on my way to work, unless I deliberately avert my face, I am mortified to discover that the unpleasant-looking man, with the rather effeminate, swinging gait, whom I see mincing along through the crowd, is none other than myself.
Benchley was in many ways the dean of American humorists until his death in 1945 at the height of his fame. Perelman was often funnier, Parker was sharper, White more respected as a thinker, and Thurber more widely loved, but Benchley was the most consistently delightful. Where Benchley was perhaps most notable was in the unfailingly cheerful nature of his writing. As confusing and silly as modern American life could be, Benchley never became bitter or despaired at least not in his writing. (In real life, his consumption of alcohol was dreadful and almost certainly damaged his health.)
A boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.
In his frequently assumed persona of scientific investigator, Benchley was the clear model for later humorist Dave Barry's style of writing, in which the author comically tries (and fails) to explain how various things work in the baffling contemporary world. Christopher Buckley's puckish view of the absurdities of America's elites is another clear descendant of Benchley's work. To this day, Benchley remains a model of concise, literate, intelligent, humor writing.
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't.
Benchley’s essays and short films are still extremely funny. As electronic publication of public domain works makes more of Benchley's work available again, we may hope that the influence of both his style and substance will reach new heights and spread the laughter.