Edmund Wilson, Jr. (essay date 1922)

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[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.]

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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 of the Business magazines are surely the most inspired things in his book and, it seems to me, the funniest; there is almost a note of savagery about them which he all too seldom lets us hear.

But why does Mr. Benchley stop here? Why isn't he more savage? Why does he cling so long to the pleasant nonsense of The Harvard Lampoon? We know that he can write first-rate satire from his sketch "The Making of a Red". (Why has he omitted it from the book [Of All Things.], by the way? It is perhaps the best thing he ever did.) Why does he never let his private indignations get into his humorous work? Does he hesitate for the same reason that he hesitates (according to one of his sketches) about giving the number of his floor to the elevator boy? What self-consciousness, what timidity has divorced his convictions from his jokes?

The truth is, I suppose, that if Mr. Benchley and his friends do not set out to écraser l'infâme, it is because they are not sufficiently detached from it. In spite of the fact that they make fun of it, they still identify themselves with it. In order to attack it effectively they would have to tear themselves up by the roots. What might happen if they did, we have already seen in Main Street. Mr. Lewis burst bellowing from the advertising agencies and the popular magazines and gave vent to a bitter caricature of the life he was saturated with.—But what is to prevent Mr. Benchley, at least, from doing something of this kind? He has not the creative energy nor the violent reaction of Mr. Lewis, but he has at least a gift of burlesque, a nose for the silly and the cheap and a passion against intolerance. It is precisely such ridicule as his which can destroy the tyranny of our gods and he can surely not plead at this date that there is not an audience for it. Let him turn from an out-worn genre which should have passed away with Bill Nye and devote himself to the deflation of the gas-bags that crowd our world: the journalism, the commercial booming and the barbarous public opinion.

Edmund Wilson, Jr. "Mr. Benchley's Message to His Age," in The New Republic, Vol. XXIX, No. 382, March 29, 1922, p. 150.

Edwin Clark (essay date 1925)

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[In the following excerpt from a review of Pluck and Luck, Clark...

(The entire section contains 25639 words.)

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