Robert Benchley and Me

image (If you click on the text, it will get bigger.)

Told you I just got my Hal 9000 iPad. One more today. I’ve written about Robert Benchley before, perhaps too dismissively. He had a self deprecating style of humor that seems oddly piercing today, when everyone pretends to know everything and nobody knows much of anything.

He belonged to the famous Algonquin Round Table, a 1920s cabal of New York writers, critics, and performers who were as talented as, and definitely more witty and scandalous than, the Rat Pack of the Sinatra generation. Names still remembered include New Yorker editor Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott, playwrights George Kauffman, Robert Sherwood, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Marc Connolly, notorious actress Tallulah Bankhead, Harpo Marx, novelist Edna Ferber, et cetera. The first time I went to New York as an adult I walked to the Algonquin and had a drink in the bar. I wanted to feel them sparking. But it was a small sad place after all. All I could feel was them drinking. So I remembered the first one I knew of. Him I could feel. Of them all, Robert Benchley was the good guy.

The Algonquin crowd would have chewed up and spit out the pretenders who publish the New York Times today, as well as what’s left of the New Yorker and other Big Apple publications. They could outdrink everybody, outcurse everybody, outshock, outtalk, and outwrite everybody on the scene today. Mostly, now, I wouldn’t want to meet them. But I would love to see the takedowns. They would be stupendous, memorable, brutal, like Hemingway’s killing of the bull. And then I’d like to sit in the corner and talk about piffle with the nice one.

It’s said the funniest moment ever on Johnny Carson’s 1960s Tonight Show (look it up) was when diminutive comedian George Gobel appeared late, preceded by multiple superstars, and said, “Did you ever feel like everybody else was a tuxedo and you were a brown shoe?” That was Benchley.

Why I thought of the piece above. Sometimes there are simple truths that put us all in our place. Or should. Benchley’s essay “Mind’s Eye Trouble,” excerpted above, is one of those. He admits that his own imagination of great dramas, great things in general, is hostage to a handful of reliable images from his youth.

He speaks of Worcester, Massachusetts. I can speak of Greenwich, New Jersey, in whose backwoods I fought the battles of the Revolution and the Civil War, and much of the secret agent Cold War, with an air-pump popgun and later with a .38 caliber snub nose in a Mattel shoulder holster. The caps sounded convincing in the echo of a viney and tree-laden creek valley that could have been Saratoga, the Wilderness, or the Black Forest. Still, despite my subsequent travels, what I think of first.

Then there was Mercersburg. Brutus and Marc Antony spoke over the dead body of Julius Caesar on the white steps of Main Hall, just three blocks from Jack’s drugstore and the best hot ham hoagies you’ve ever had. Yes, I’ve been to Italy since and the memories overlap, but one place they never will is in the realm of distance measurement.

When I think of a hundred yards, or even a mile, to this day, as old as I am, I am immediately returned to the varsity football field of Mercersburg. I am standing in front of the home scoreboard staring at the opposite goalposts. I can see exactly what a hundred yards looks like. And because what lies beyond that goalpost is rolling open country, I can also see and feel what a mile is.

Benchley was right. We are all imaginationally catalyzed and limited in this way to some degree. Experience is supposed to break us free of what are clearly childish inventions of times and events we did not, could not have witnessed.

I think I can prove we never transcend these elementary touchstones, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves we have. I won’t take a lot of time doing this. In the past year I have had three apocalyptic dreams. One about the arrival of a gigantic spaceship, sinister and overwhelming. One about the detonation of a thermonuclear device. And one about the disintegration of the back half of a town to flakes of rust. In each of these dreams, the apocalypse occurred in the same place — the intersection of Grant and Market Streets in my home town. In each case I was stopped for the light. On the left was Jang’s Dry Cleaners. On the right was St. John’s Parish House. Then it happened.

This picture is the best I can do. It’s from the Internet and not the complete vista. I’d wanted to do a pic myself but I’m just back from a bad couple days and the Hal 9000 is insisting I go with what I have.

Twin it. Looks this way on both sides. Alley of bricks and trees and endless sky beyond.

Twin it. Looks this way on both sides. Alley of bricks and trees and endless sky beyond.

Hal is insisting because this post is a foundation for a much more difficult and demanding one I’ll have to do tomorrow. It’s about how we have to start understanding the brilliant nitwits who want to put us in a gulag.

Maybe Robert Benchley wasn’t quite the lightweight he always pretended to be. Amazingly, the whole text of his “best” as collected by his son Nathaniel (not to be confused with his grandson Peter Benchley of Jaws fame) can be found here. He died at 56. He was a lot nicer than me. Hemingway was 62. I guess nice has nothing to do with it.

See you tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *