Robert Benchley

From Love Conquers All (1922)


Without wishing in the least to detract from the praise due to Sinclair Lewis for the remarkable accuracy with which he reports details in his "Main Street," it is interesting to speculate on how other books might have read had their authors had Mr. Lewis's flair for minutiae and their publishers enough paper to print the result.

For instance, Carol Kennicott, the heroine, whenever she is overtaken by an emotional scene, is given to looking out at the nearest window to hide her feelings, whereupon the author goes to great lengths to describe just exactly what came within her range of vision. Nothing escapes him, even to shreds of excelsior lying on the ground in back of Howland & Gould's grocery store.

Let us suppose that Harriet Beecher Stowe had been endowed with Mr. Lewis's gift for reporting and had indulged herself in it to the extent of the following in "Uncle Tom's Cabin:"

"Slowly Simon Legree raised his whip-arm to [pg 275]strike the prostrate body of the old negro. As he did so his eye wandered across the plantation to the slaves' quarters which crouched blistering in the sun. Cowed as they were, as only ramshackle buildings can be cowed, they presented their gray boards, each eaten with four or five knot-holes, to the elements in abject submission. The door of one hung loose by a rust-encased hinge, of which only one screw remained on duty, and that by sheer willpower of two or three threads. Legree could not quite make out how many threads there were on the screw, but he guessed, and Simon Legree's guess was nearly always right. On the ground at the threshold lay a banjo G string, curled like a blond snake ready to strike at the reddish, brown inner husk of a nut of some sort which was blowing about within reach. There were also several crumbs of corn-pone, well-done, a shred of tobacco which had fallen from the pipe of some negro slave before the fire had consumed more than its very tip, an old shoe which had, Legree noticed by the maker's name, been bought in Boston in its palmier days, doubtless by a Yankee cousin of one of Uncle Tom's former owners, and an indiscriminate pile of old second editions of a Richmond newspaper, sweet-potato peelings and seeds of unripe watermelons.[pg 276]

"Swish! The blow descended on the crouching form of Uncle Tom."

Or Sir Walter Scott:

"Sadly Rowena turned from her lover's side and looked out over the courtyard of the castle. Beneath her she saw the cobble-stones all scratched and marred with gray bruises from the horses' hoofs, a faded purple ribbon dropped from the mandolin of a minstrel, three slightly imperfect wassails and a trencher with a nick on the rim, all that had not been used of the wild boar at last night's feast, a peach-stone like a wrinkled almond nestling in a sardine tin. Slowly she faced her knight:

"'Prithee,' she said."

And I am not at all sure that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Ivanhoe" wouldn't have made better reading if they had lapsed into the photographic at times. Mr. Lewis may overdo it, but I expect to re-read "Main Street" some day, and that is more encouragement than I can hold out to Mrs. Stowe or Sir Walter Scott.


We have so many, many problems in America. Books are constantly being written offering solutions for them, but still they persist.

There are volumes on auction bridge, family budgets and mind-training. A great many people have ideas on what should be done to relieve the country of certain undesirable persons who have displayed a lack of sympathy with American institutions. (As if American institutions needed sympathy!) And some of the more generous-minded among us are writing books showing our duty to the struggling young nationalities of Europe. It is bewildering to be confronted by all these problems, each demanding intelligent solution.

Little wonder, then, that we have no time for writing books on the one problem which is exclusively our own. With so many wrongs in the world to be righted, who can blame us for overlooking the one tragic wrong which lies at our door? With so many heathen to whom the word of God must be [pg 207]brought and so many wild revolutionists in whom must be instilled a respect for law and order, is it strange that we should ourselves sometimes lump the word of God and the principles of law and order together under the head of "sentimentality" and shrug our shoulders? Justice in the abstract is our aim—any American will tell you that—so why haggle over details and insist on justice for the negro?

But W.E.B. Du Bois does insist on justice for the negro, and in his book "Darkwater" (Harcourt, Brace & Co.) his voice rings out in a bitter warning through the complacent quiet which usually reigns around this problem of America. Mr. Du Bois seems to forget that we have the affairs of a great many people to attend to and persists in calling our attention to this affair of our own. And what is worse, in the minds of all well-bred persons he does not do it at all politely. He seems to be quite distressed about something.

Maybe it is because he finds himself, a man of superior mind and of sensitive spirit who is a graduate of Harvard, a professor and a sincere worker for the betterment of mankind, relegated to an inferior order by many men and women who are obviously his inferiors, simply because he happens [pg 208]to differ from them in the color of his skin. Maybe it is because he sees the people of his own race who have not had his advantages (if a negro may ever be said to have received an advantage) being crowded into an ignominious spiritual serfdom equally as bad as the physical serfdom from which they were so recently freed. Maybe it is because of these things that Mr. Du Bois seems overwrought.

Or perhaps it is because he reads each day of how jealous we are, as a Nation, of the sanctity of our Constitution, how we revere it and draw a flashing sword against its detractors, and then sees this very Constitution being flouted as a matter of course in those districts where the amendment giving the negroes a right to vote is popularly considered one of the five funniest jokes in the world.

Perhaps he hears candidates for office insisting on a reign of law or a plea for order above all things, by some sentimentalist or other, or public speakers advising those who have not respect for American institutions to go back whence they came, and then sees whole sections of the country violating every principle of law and order and mocking American institutions for the sake of teaching a "nigger" his place.[pg 209]

Perhaps during the war he heard of the bloody crimes of our enemies, and saw preachers and editors and statesmen stand aghast at the barbaric atrocities which won for the German the name of Hun, and then looked toward his own people and saw them being burned, disembowelled and tortured with a civic unanimity and tacit legal sanction which made the word Hun sound weak.

Perhaps he has heard it boasted that in America every man who is honest, industrious and intelligent has a good chance to win out, and has seen honest, industrious and intelligent men whose skins are black stopped short by a wall so high and so thick that all they can do, on having reached that far, is to bow their heads and go slowly back.

Any one of these reasons should have been sufficient for having written "Darkwater."

It is unfortunate that Mr. Du Bois should have raised this question of our own responsibility just at this time when we were showing off so nicely. It may remind some one that instead of taking over a protectorate of Armenia we might better take over a protectorate of the State of Georgia, which yearly leads the proud list of lynchers. But then, there will not be enough people who see Mr. Du Bois's book to cause any great national movement, so we are quite sure, for the time being, of being able to [pg 210]devote our energies to the solution of our other problems.

Don't forget, therefore, to write your Congressman about a universal daylight-saving bill, and give a little thought, if you can, to the question of the vehicular tunnel.