Robert Benchley Essay - Critical Essays

Benchley, Robert


Robert Benchley 1889-1945

American humorist, essayist, critic, actor, and screenwriter.

One of the most popular American humorists of the early twentieth century, Benchley is best remembered for his essays and film monologues depicting a slightly befuddled average man struggling to cope with the complexities of modern life. His self-described middle-class perspective shaped his commentary on such subjects as the peculiarities of business, nature, and human relationships. With Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, and others, Benchley was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of highly influential American writers of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Biographical Information

Benchley was born and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University, where he quickly developed a reputation as a humorist. His drawings, satires, and parodies appeared regularly in the Harvard Lampoon, along with those of classmate Gluyas Williams, who would later illustrate Benchley's collections of humorous essays. During his college career, Benchley also enjoyed success as an actor, specializing in the amusing, rambling monologues which would later characterize his works as both an essayist and a screenwriter. Following two decades as a prolific writer, during which he worked as an editor for Life and a drama critic and essayist for the New Yorker, Benchley turned his attention to acting in short films based on his popular essays. An avid party-goer and a popular host, Benchley was also devoted to his family, from whom he drew both emotional support and inspiration for many of his essays. His son, Nathaniel, became a well-known journalist and novelist, and his grandson, Peter Benchley, is the author of the best-selling novel Jaws.

Major Works

During his prolific career Benchley produced more than six hundred essays for a variety of magazines, weekly drama reviews for the New Yorker, and scripts for numerous films—many of which he also acted in. Benchley's first book, Of All Thingsl (1921), is a collection of his popular essays originally published in Vanity Fair, the New York Tribune, Collier's, Life, and Motor Print. Subsequent volumes were patterned after this model, comprised of a cross-section of comic essays, literary parodies, and sharp commentaries on life according to Benchley. In 1928, Twentieth Century-Fox released the film version of "The Treasurer's Report," starring Benchley. During the next decade, Benchley divided his time between writing and acting, winning an Academy Award in 1935 for the MGM short film "How to Sleep." Benchley wrote his final drama review for the New Yorker in 1940, and during the next five years his work centered on his film monologues. Several collections of essays appeared after he announced his official retirement as a writer, including the posthumously published Benchley-Or Elsel (1947) and Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949), which some critics believe contains some of Benchley's finest essays.

Critical Reception

Throughout his career Benchley enjoyed the approval of his peers and the public for his humorous, self-effacing approach to life in the early twentieth century. He was also highly regarded as a genial and tolerant drama critic whose observations were always well-considered. Commentators generally applaud Benchley's unique brand of humor, echoing James Thurber's assessment that the critics who underrate Benchley have overlooked "his distinguished contribution to the fine art of comic brevity."

Principal Works

Of All Thingsl (essays) 1921

Love Conquers All (essays) 1922

Pluck and Luck (essays) 1925

The Early Worm (essays) 1927

20,000 Leagues under the Sea; or, David Copperfield (essays) 1928

The Treasurer's Report (essays) 1930

No Poems; or, Around the World Backwards and Sideways (essays) 1932

From Bed to Worse (essays) 1934

My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew (essays) 1936

After 1903—What? (essays) 1938

Inside Benchley (essays) 1942

Benchley Beside Himself (essays) 1943

Chips off the Old Benchley (essays) 1949


Edmund Wilson, Jr. (essay date 1922)

[Wilson was an American poet, essayist, lecturer, editor, and social and literary critic. In the following review of Of All Things! he lauds Benchley's wit and suggests that his satire ought to be more sharply focused on issues of wider societal concern.]

Mr. Benchley's collected burlesques are, of course, exceedingly funny: they are a little like Stephen Leacock, but more urbane than Leacock. Mr. Benchley, if he has not the force of Mr. Leacock's violent and barbarous imagination, has not developed Mr. Leacock's vice of making five bad gags to one good one. He nearly always makes you laugh and he never makes you ill—which is high praise for an American humorist.

But it is not of Mr. Benchley's farces that I propose to speak in this review. Indeed, if he were only an Irvin Cobb, there would be no reason to review him at all. But there is a phase of Mr. Benchley—(and of the humorists of whom he is the leader)—which has a certain intellectual importance and which might have a great deal more. They are perhaps unconscious of it but it is nevertheless true that Mr. Benchley and his companions amount to something like an antidote to the patent medicines administered by the popular magazines. The great function which they perform is making Business look ridiculous. It is not enough that people should laugh at Mr. Addison Sims of Seattle: they must also learn to laugh, as Mr. Benchley teaches them to, at Window Card Psychology and the Woonsocket Wrought Iron Pipe—nor must they forget Mr. Joseph L. Gonnick and his Cantilever Bridges. Mr. Benchley's burlesques of Business and...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Edwin Clark (essay date 1925)

[In the following excerpt from a review of Pluck and Luck, Clark praises Benchley's development as a satirist.]

It is our duty to confess that Mr. Benchley is changing. No longer can the book seller honestly tell you that this is just good, clean, wholesome humor. It isn't so. His carefree spirit has been darkened by the presence of satire. Acid has risen in him and given expression to bitterness just when he seemed about to be nice and funny. The tendency to fancy has increased. He is always slipping away from this orderly and practical world into a world of incongruous fantasy. Really, it is rather irreverent, this neglect of this best of all possible worlds, particularly, as in the world of fancy, he seems to be making faces at this nice practical world he has slipped away from. So perhaps it should be said that Mr. Benchley has joined with Ring Lardner, Donald Stewart, Frank Sullivan and such exponents of our new crazy humor.

Being funny is quite often difficult and trying, isn't it? He isn't like the conventional essayists, improvising upon a theme until he gets a quaint aspect. His subjects are the headline events in a fellow's life and are treated precisely.

We are blessed with papers on "The Church Supper," "How to Watch Football," "Christmas Pantomimes," "The Musical Club Concert," "Paul Revere," "Editha's Christmas Burglar," "The Big Bridegroom Revolt," "The Romance of Digestion," "French for Americans," "Amateur Theatricals," "The Last Day," and several probing pieces upon science and recent discoveries of great illumination.

"Kiddie-Kar Travel" has both luminosity and terrific human insight. It will bring joy and gladness to those who have children and those who have no children. This record of the high adventure of little Roger is unique in sustaining this two-way interest. His antics are a constant cynosure—no other word could possibly describe it—for all eyes.

He doesn't act like this at home. In fact, he is noted for his tractability. There seems to be something about the train that brings out all the worst that is in him, all the hidden traits he has inherited from his mother's side of the family.

The brief note on Paul Revere is a historical document. We suspect that Mr. Benchley rather fancies this one with affection. Certainly, with us, it is prize winning. Revealed to Paul is a vista crammed with people:

He saw fifty million of them trying to prevent the other sixty million from doing what they wanted to do and the sixty million trying to prevent the fifty million from what they wanted to do.… He saw ten million thin children working and ten thousand fat children playing in the warm sands. And now and again he...

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Walter Blair (essay date 1942)

[Blair was an educator, editor, and critic who is recognized as one of the first American scholars to appraise humor academically. In the following excerpt from his Horse Sense in American Humor, he distinguishes Benchley as one of the most popular humorists of his day, and suggests that the uniqueness of his sketches derives from the neurotic nature of his protagonists. ]

Mr. Robert Benchley tells of the trouble he had when, like Ward, he became worried about grammar and the sound of words. It all started when he tried to figure out the present tense of the verb of which "wrought" is the past participle:

I started out with a rush. "I wright," I...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)

James Thurber (essay date 1949)

[James Thurber was a celebrated American humorist best known for his essays, stories, and cartoons published in the New Yorker during the 1930s and 1940s. In the following excerpt from his review of the posthumously published Chips Off the Old Benchley, Thurber commends Benchley's skill as a humorist and suggests that other critics have overlooked Benchley's gift for "comic brevity."]

The heavier critics have under-rated Benchley because of his "short flight," missing his distinguished contribution to the fine art of comic brevity. He would thank me not to call him an artist, but I think he was an artist who wouldn't give up to it, like a busy housewife fighting the onset of a...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Norris W. Yates (essay date 1964)

[Yates is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from his The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century, he characterizes Benchley's comic narrator as an ordinary man beset by the forces of nature. In addition, Yates examines Benchley's work as a literary critic.]

It is impossible to say just when the bemused householder and white-collar man became really prominent in American humor, but by 1910 Stephen Leacock, Simeon Strunsky, and Clarence Day, Jr. were writing pieces in which the disguise of each author was just that. As noted before, one of Benchley's direct models was Leacock, whose Literary Lapses appeared in that year. "Leacock [to quote...

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Norris W. Yates (essay date 1968)

[In the following excerpt from his Robert Benchley, Yates analyzes Benchley's approach to, and definition of humor.]

The closest Benchley came to defining humor was a hint that it depended much upon conventions shared by the humorist and his public: A joke is funny only if the jokester and his audience think it is. This view was not exactly original, nor was his feeling that analyzing a quip kills it and that "The chances are that the person to whom you have been explaining it won't think that it is funny anyway." Benchley implied that if the audience is larger than one, the likelihood of humorous conventions being entirely shared decreases proportionately. Naturally he took a dim view...

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Louis Hasley (essay date 1970)

[Hasley is an American writer, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, he provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Benchley's personal essays.]

[Robert Benchley] wrote humor, satire, reportage and criticism; but all of his writing that found its way into books may be broadly categorized as personal essays. These essays assumed various shapes, of course, including some narration and a substantial amount of dialog; they were always Benchley on, or off, some subject. And he was always more important than his subject. His writing career extended roughly from 1915 to 1945, during which time many hundreds of such pieces, originally published in magazines, were reprinted in...

(The entire section is 3595 words.)

Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill (essay date 1978)

[In the following excerpt from their book America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury, the critics distinguish Inside Benchley as the volume they consider to be most representative of Benchley's flair as a comic writer.]

The collection which we think displays Benchley at his most brilliant is the 1942 volume of reprints, Inside Benchley. The title page shows the Gluyas Williams caricature of Benchley peering into his bedroom mirror and seeing the image of Wimpy from Popeye reflected there. In the back of the book, we come upon an utterly worthless Glossary of Kin, Native and Technical Terms, a list of Abbreviations from the Old and New Testaments and the...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)

Eric Solomon (essay date 1984)

[In the following essay, Solomon focuses on the scope and significance of the "Wayward Press" and "Theatre" columns Benchley wrote for the New Yorker during the 1930s.]

During the Depression decade, Robert Benchley wrote nearly seventy-five casual essays for the New Yorker, most of which have been collected in the five books he published in the 1930s—The Treasurer's Report (1930), No Poems (1932), From Bed to Worse (1934), My Ten Years in a Quandary (1936), After 1903—What? (1938). Some of these pieces are brief humorous asides—similar to his contributions of the late 1920s, when he provided many fillers for an issue—some rank among his...

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Gerald Weales (essay date 1985)

[Weales is an American writer, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, he focuses on the "Wayward Press" columns Benchley wrote for the New Yorker from 1922-1939 under the pseudonym "Guy Fawkes.'"

A. J. Liebling's name is so firmly identified with the New Yorker's Wayward Press column—even now, more than twenty years after his death—that the work of his illustrious predecessor in that department is almost forgotten. Yet Robert Benchley wrote press criticism for the magazine from 1927 to 1939, and to read through his seventy-four columns, as I have just done, is not only to taste the pleasures of Benchley's prose but to recognize that he was a man with firm opinions...

(The entire section is 3579 words.)

Further Reading


Benchley, Nathaniel. Robert Benchley. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1955, 258 p.

Study of Robert Benchley's life and work written by his son. Includes a chronological list of Benchley's movies and eight pages of photographs.

Masson, Thomas L. "Robert C. Benchley," in his Our American Humorists, pp. 47-52. Freeport, N. Y.: Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1931.

Brief biographical sketch plus text of Benchley's essay "The Social Life of the Newt."

Rosmond, Babette. Robert Benchley: His Life and Good Times. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1970, 239 p.

Biography of...

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