Barnstable Patriot review

The Lost Algonquin Round Table

The Barnstable Patriot – November 6, 2009

Written by Edward F. Maroney

The Lost Algonquin Round Table

Humor, Fiction, Journalism, Criticism and Poetry from America’s Most Famous Literary Circle

iUniverse, Bloomington IN, 2009

Paperback, 278 pgs., $18.95

If only Robert Benchley had given himself a pen name.

The gentle humorist of the 1920s and ‘30s might have tapped his wider range if he could have employed the fig leaf that Sam Clemens granted himself as Mark Twain. Instead, as Benchley’s grandson notes in his introduction to this collection, “… he used to read texts in German, but he kept them in the closet in between readings, so that no one would think him pretentious.”

Ironic, that, given how Benchley skewered pretension wherever he encountered it: on the stage, at the movies, on radio, and in his send-ups of academic mustiness and boardroom blather. Here are fresh pieces such as one that compares Shakespeare and Chaplin and pokes fun at those who exalt the first as art and condemn the second as slapstick trash.

Driven to boredom by a dull play about free love and free verse in Greenwich Village, Benchley resorts to reviewing the theater program whilst being agitated by “interruptions” from the stage.

Benchley is the star of the reunion staged by his grandson Nat and collaborator Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, founder of the Dorothy Parker Society, in The Lost Algonquin Round Table.

Parker is still the smartest girl in the class, observing that “Mr. Weldon’s fingernails are as precious to her as a small boy’s hard-won collection of marbles” and, “There is nothing like an exclamation point to put a full stop to a reader’s interest.” Her poem, “Women: A Hate Song,” could have inspired Stephen Sondheim’s Ladies Who Lunch (“There are the Domestic ones/They are the worst/Every moment is packed with Happiness/They breathe deeply/And walk with long strides, eternally hurrying home/To see about dinner.”)

Alexander Woolcott is still a pompous ass, maundering on about the demise of the Young Men’s Upper West Side Thantopsis and Inside Straight Club and dropping enough names to trip a nimble cat.

When readers can’t fight through the crowd around Benchley and Parker, they can stop by the tables of prominent members of the class such as George S. Kaufman. The playwright’s 1919 sketch of Al Jolson is a precursor of the “New Journalism” of the 1960’s (see Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra has a cold.”) in its immediacy: “Although his coat was off, no six-inch monogram could be observed on his shirt-sleeve, and he had caused not a single photograph of himself to be set tastefully here and there about the room.”

In your tour of the reunion hall, don’t overlook that dark-countenanced gentleman in the far corner. It’s John V. A. Weaver, described as “sullen and cantankerous” by the editors, who quote H.L. Mencken’s claim that the poet “opens the way for a ballad literature in America.” It’s hard to imagine someone capable of such dirt-under-the-fingernails writing nestling in with the Algonquin crowd, but so he did.

Weaver’s is among the useful biographical sketches in the back of the book, which also includes tips for further reading in print and on Web sites.

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