Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Young Robert Benchley

I have been searching out short comic articles written by British humorists around the time of the Great War.  It is only fair that I turn to the other side of the Atlantic and examine comic articles from this period by American writers.  Robert Benchley (1889-1945) made a start as a freelance writer of comic articles with his first submission to Vanity Fair in 1914 called "Hints on Writing a Book."  (See below.)  He placed another five articles with Vanity Fair in 1915.

During this period, comic writing in the English language was dominated by British writers — if you would allow me to lump the English-born Canadian writer Stephen Leacock with this crowd as well.  Punch and other London-based humor magazines were preeminent.  Vanity Fair, to imitate the high-toned literary humor of its rival British magazines, went directly to the source and hired P. G. Wodehouse to supply multiple articles per issue, under his own name and also under a variety of pseudonyms:  J. Plum, Pelham Grenville, P. Brook-Haven (after the Long Island town near Bellport), C. P. West (for Central Park West), and J. Walker Williams (from the vaudeville team of Walker and Williams). 

For example, in the November 1915 issue of Vanity Fair, in the "All Seriousness Aside" section, there were three P. G. Wodehouse articles, one Robert Benchley article, one Stephen Leacock article, and three lesser articles by American journeyman wits:

Thanksgiving Dinner with the Boss by Harry Grant Dart
The Habit of Picking on New York by P. G. Wodehouse
A Visit to the Chambers Fiction Plant by J. Walker Williams
The Scourge of the Golf Child by Pelham Grenville
The Tin Wedding [a short domestic scenario] by Jules La Rue
Writing Down to the Editors by Robert C. Benchley
The Inevitable Topic by Stephen Leacock
The Wise One of All Times by Carolyn Wells

In his Vanity Fair articles Benchley clearly strove to capture the wordplay, the comic digressions, and the elevated style that were the stock in trade of the British humorist of that era.  His first article "Hints on Writing a Book" could have found a home in the pages of Punch.  

Vanity Fair, vol 3, no 2, p. 41
October 1914

Hints on Writing a Book
You've No Idea How Hard It Is to Begin It — To Say Nothing of Finishing It

by Robert C. Benchley

My idea was to create something big in fiction.

Perhaps not exactly a Les Miserables — that would take such an unconscionable time and I have my insurance business that I must give my days to — but a book that would further some good cause, one way or another, a book which my publishers might advertise as "charmingly written in that delightful style which the public have come to know so well, yet, at the same time, pregnant with a real, vital message, which every man, woman and child would do well to take to heart."  That's the kind of stuff I think I could do fairly well.  In fact, my English-Composition teacher in the High School told my mother that I could.

It seemed as if there ought to be some worthy cause that needs help.  There is the condition of the oppressed working classes, for instance.  I am told, on no less authority than our elevator-man, one of the working class himself, that the way in which the poor of this country are being downtrodden by the rich is really distressing.  Is there no way for the public to know of this?  Shall the masses succumb to the tyranny of predatory wealth for lack of a champion?  That's the way I felt about it, and I talked it over with my wife and she felt very much the same way.  It was evident to both of us that something had to be done.

I felt that a rather attractive volume might be put out, perhaps bound in limp leather, with the leaves uncut in places, to be placed on the table with the bon-bon dish and the cream-colored copy of Emerson's Essay on Friendship.  Strong, you know, and uncompromising in its language, yet something you wouldn't be ashamed to put in leather and have your friends surprise you with on your bon-bon dish table.

I had even gone so far in this work of reform as to have a typewriter inserted in the card room at home.  When you open the wood-closet door half way and turn off the heat in the radiator there is a cozy nook between the two into which the typewriter fits exactly and you may either pull up baby's rocker before it or crouch on your haunches and work to your heart's content, at the same time giving the auction lovers at the card-table plenty of room in which to double and redouble.

The machine inserted, the next thing to do was to acquire a certain facility in its manipulation, for the speed with which I typewrote (that word doesn't look right) at that time was truly lamentable.  And even now that I can express, with only one or two misplaced dollar signs, that stirring exhortation for all good men to rally round the party standard, I somehow can't feel that the letters on the average keyboard are arranged with anything more definite in mind than a general desire to get them all on.

Not that I think I could make a better arrangement, mind you.  No doubt the good man had good and sufficient reason for scattering the alphabet about like that, and everyone will agree that the typewriter is a vast improvement over the old-fashioned papyrus-and-toothpick method of the — er, papyrus-and-toothpick period.  In fact, I know of a case, a cousin of my wife, who cured himself of biting his nails by working constantly on a typewriter.  He carried a portable machine about with him and whenever he felt the old craving coming on he would immediately unstrap his typewriter and begin to write as fast as he could, "This is a sample of the work done on this machine  thes is as ample of the work doen on thism achine this is a saplme of he wook done un thism ac$ine, etc.," and not being able to bite his nails and work the typewriter at the same time, he finally overcame the habit — the habit of biting his nails, of course, not of working the typewriter.  So I always hesitate to express myself over the mal-arrangement of typewriter keys, because, goodness knows, it's little enough good we can do in this world without finding fault.

So we got the typewriter fitted in the card-room, and it began to look for a while as if the book would be ready for the public as soon as I could decide on a subject.  I had, in the meantime, given up the cause of the working classes, owing to an unpleasant altercation I had had with the man who puts in our coal.  He seemed to feel that there was little difference between the coal-shute and the window to our preserves-cellar, and I had insisted, and rightly, so I feel, that there was, and I had threatened that the next piece of coal he deposited on our jellied cherries I should immediately throw out again.  So I had grown all out of patience with the working classes as such, and really didn't care whether they were oppressed or not.  I felt rather guilty about deserting them like that, but a man has some rights of his own and it had taken my wife half the summer to put up those preserves.

As a second choice, it seemed that the present tendency toward immorality on the stage would be a good field to stir up, because there isn't much doubt in my mind but that there is a great deal of that sort of stuff being put before the public nowadays and the public ought to know about it.  Of course, it is a rather difficult subject to handle, but I felt that it could be couched in terms sufficiently opaque so that only those who had seen a good deal of life could understand.  And I know that right in our own family, there are lots of books we get which we wouldn't think of reading if we didn't feel that we really ought to in order to converse intelligently when we are out at dinners and things.

So I decided that the thing to do, if I intended to write a book on the immorality of the stage, was to see just how immoral the stage really was.

Entirely in the interests of my story, I stopped at the theatre at which one of the more "frank" plays was running.  The chorus man behind the ticket cage was holding facetious conversation over the telephone with some female artiste, but between sallies he took opportunity to utilize his knowledge of the sign language and as much of the corner of his mouth as he could spare to say that all he had left was one seat behind the chandelier for four weeks from Tuesday.

Suiting the action to the word he inserted the check half way into a little envelope and shoved it at me as if there could be but one possible decision on my part.  Now I did not want to sit behind the chandelier and I knew that I couldn't go anyway on four weeks from Tuesday as I was going to Ottawa on four weeks from Monday, but I was seized with a panicky fear of seeming impecunious before this person who was — from all appearances — in such intimate touch with the female theatrical world, so I grasped, like the craven that I am, at the envelope, handed him two dollars, with a poor attempt at sang-froid, and fled.

As I stood in the Subway with my mouth in the velvet bow on a lady's hat I thought of all the caustic retorts I might have handed the ticket-seller instead of handing him my two dollars.

By the time I had reached home I was so disgruntled about the whole affair that I had resolved to throw the whole stage idea over and let the drama and its immorality and its dangers to debutantes and its menace to the unmarried and the public all go hang.

My wife agreed with me on this point.  She also maintained, and not without reason, that we had the accounts to go over some time that week, and we had simply got to have the Dodds over to dinner, and then where is your week gone?

We decided that perhaps some quiet little story of disappointed love, with just enough psychic interest to make it unintelligible and therefore "well worth reading," would, in the end, be better than a tremendous work on present day tendencies, appalling as they are.  Often one can accomplish just as much by appealing to people's emotions as by arousing their sense of whatever they have a sense of.  Personally, Uncle Tom's Cabin has much more effect on me than anything Lincoln Steffens ever wrote, possible because I finished Uncle Tom's Cabin.  And my mother is that way, too.

So I sat down at the typewriter after dinner, having read selections from the better known authors to get into the swing of the thing, and started in on the title.  I have always had a theory that, in these days of short snappy alliterative titles, a novel with a long, man-sized name, taking two breaths to enunciate, would be a decided novelty.  For instance, a novel entitled NO MATTER FROM WHAT ANGLE YOU LOOK AT IT, ALICE BROOKHAUSEN WAS A GIRL WHOM YOU WOULD HESITATE TO INVITE INTO YOUR OWN HOME would attract attention in the book store windows.  And imagine the fun people would have asking each other, "By the way, have you read NO MATTER FROM WHAT ANGLE YOU LOOK AT IT, ALICE BROOKHAUSEN WAS A GIRL WHOM YOU WOULD HESITATE TO INVITE INTO YOUR OWN HOME?"  There would be less time devoted to dancing and to moving picture shows if the books one talks about had names like that.

Working on this theory, I got as far as the title for this story when Son Nathaniel awoke with the raucous announcement that he believed that one of his initial teeth had suddenly sprung into existence, and would I mind please looking into the matter and perhaps holding him awhile until he felt a little more like himself.

So here was an end to what might have been a really big piece of work.

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