Robert Benchley: The Brow-Elevation in Humor



The Robert Benchley essay I want to share today is an unusual one in my selections. It’s from Love Conquers All, as often happens here. But it’s from the back half of the book, which collects his various book reviews. This review is a split between a little talk about Mark Twain, whose well-managed estate was putting out new books a decade after Twain’s death, and a book collecting the poetry of Franklin P Adams.

I’ve used some of Adams’s verse here, although not anything from the reviewed book. What interests me, though, is Benchley’s point about American humor. While it’s got a long anti-intellectual history, there’s also always a streak of good, popular stuff that is not. There are a lot of people who want jokes that assume intelligence and broad knowledge on the part of the audience.

That said, could there be a Franklin P Adams today? I don’t know. The kinds of classical allusions he would depend on seem to be less part of the common cultural pool. On the other hand, plenty of people still know this stuff, and it ought to be easier for them to find an author who writes about the kinds of things they like now. And it seems to be rather easy to come across a reference and use that to learn new things, and it can be great fun to find a writer that coaxes you into learning new things. I don’t deny that anti-intellectual is always around, but I would be interested to know how well intellectual can do.


After an author has been dead for some time, it becomes increasingly difficult for his publishers to get out a new book by him each year. Without recourse to the ouija board, Harper & Brothers manage to do very well by Mark Twain, considering that all they have to work with are the books that he wrote when he was alive. Each year we get something from the pen of the famous humorist, even though the ink has faded slightly. An introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine and a hitherto unpublished photograph as a frontspiece, and there you are—the season’s new Mark Twain book.

This season it is Moments With Mark Twain, a collection of excerpts from his works for quick and handy reading. We may look for further books in this series in 1923, 1924, 1925, &c., to be entitled Half Hours With Mark Twain (the selections a trifle longer), Pleasant Week-Ends With Mark Twain, Indian Summer With Mark Twain, &c.

There is an interesting comparison between this sample bottle of the humor of Mark Twain and that contained in the volume entitled Something Else Again, by Franklin P. Adams. The latter is a volume of verse and burlesques which have appeared in the newspapers and magazines.

In the days when Mark Twain was writing, it was considered good form to spoof not only the classics but surplus learning of any kind. A man was popularly known as an affected cuss when he could handle anything more erudite than a nasal past participle or two in his own language, and any one who wanted to qualify as a humorist had to be able to mispronounce any word of over three syllables.

Thus we find Mark Twain, in the selections given in this volume, having amusing trouble with the pronunciation of Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci, expressing surprise that Michael Angelo was dead, picking flaws in the old master’s execution and complaining of the use of foreign words which have their equivalent “in a nobler language—English.”

There certainly is no harm in this school of humor, and it has its earnest and prosperous exponents today. In fact, a large majority of the people still like to have some one poke fun at the things in which they themselves are not proficient, whether it be pronunciation, Latin or bricklaying.

But there is an increasingly large section of the reading public who while they may not be expert in Latin composition, nevertheless do not think that a Latin word in itself is a cause for laughter. A French phrase thrown in now and then for metrical effect does not strike them as essentially an affectation, and they are willing to have references made to characters whose native language may not have been that noblest of all languages, our native tongue.

That such a school of readers exists is proved by the popularity of F.P.A’s verses and prose. If any one had told Mark Twain that a man could run a daily newspaper column in New York and amass any degree of fame through translations of the Odes of Horace into the vernacular, the veteran humorist would probably have slapped Albert Bigelow Paine on the back and taken the next boat for Bermuda. And yet in Something Else Again we find some sixteen translations of Horace and other “furriners,” exotic phrases such as “eheu fugaces” and “ex parte” used without making faces over them, and a popular exposition of highly technical verse forms which James Russell Lowell and Hal Longfellow would have considered terrifically high-brow. And yet thousands of American business men quote F.P.A. to thousands of other American business men every morning.

Can it be said that the American people are not so low-brow as they like to pretend? There is a great deal of affectation in this homespun frame of mind, and many a man makes believe that he doesn’t know things simply because no one has ever written about them in the American Magazine. If the truth were known, we are all a great deal better educated than we will admit, and the derisive laughter with which we greet signs of culture is sometimes very hollow. In F.P.A. we find a combination which makes it possible for us to admit our learning and still be held honorable men. It is a good sign that his following is increasing.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

4 thoughts on “Robert Benchley: The Brow-Elevation in Humor”

  1. I must say that I question your belief (but not to the extent that I’m inclined to take the time to argue the point) that “we are all a great deal better educated than we will admit.” I suppose it depends on one’s definition of “better.”

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    1. Well, it’s Benchley’s conclusion, but I do basically agree with it. By “better” educated, I believe Benchley just means that people know a greater variety of things, and a greater depth of those things, and enjoys knowing those things, than the stereotype of a person indicates.

      The writers on Mystery Science Theater 3000 found, for example, that it didn’t much matter if they were making an allusion to something obscure. More people than they imagined knew it, or were able to work out what was meant by it, or were so intrigued they learned something about it. And they won a lot of their hardest-core fans by assuming a broad and deep cultural literacy from their viewers. (Admittedly, the show was one that had a mostly casual audience, people who liked it but didn’t care much about it one way or another. But we live in an era of small yet hardcore fan bases.)

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  2. I see your (or Benchley’s) point. I was thinking more in terms of broad-based knowledge than of specialized fields or “hardcore fan bases” in which people are heavily invested.

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    1. Well, I think there is something to broad-based knowledge too, though. It’s especially become easy to hear about a thing, be curious about it, and get at least a tolerable introduction to it. This knowledge might be shallow, but then not everybody can have a specialist’s understanding of every subject.

      And when someone’s learned a thing, it’s fun to get to use that knowledge. It might be used for nothing more than to make a joke slightly more complicated, or to get a joke that was otherwise unnoticed.

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