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Our Favorite Lines from Dorothy Parker’s Most Scathing Reviews

Dorthy Parker was born on this day in 1893 at a beach cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, and was raised at 214 West 72nd Street in Manhattan. Before she died, she suggested “excuse my dust” as her epitaph. When she passed away on June 7, 1967, at the age of 73, she left her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By this time, Parker had written loads of poetry, fiction, and reviews for The New Yorker as a member of the Algonquin Round Table, though she got her first break at Vogue, then moved on to a staff writer position at Vanity Fair, which is where the fun really started. Parker adopted the moniker “Constant Reader” when she wrote book reviews for The New Yorker in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and was known for her humor, wit, and vicious critiques of second- and third-rate novels. By 1956, The Paris Review found her living in a hotel in midtown with a fluffy white poodle, still throwing out barbs. We’ve included excerpts of some of her reviews as “Constant Reader” from The New Yorker below. So, raise a glass to Ms. Parker today, kids. It’s the least you can do.

Joan Acocella writes in The New Yorker, “The Constant Reader columns are not really book reviews; they are standup comedy routines. You don’t have to listen to her opinion, she says. If she didn’t like the book, maybe that was just her hangover speaking.”

Parker on Kathleen Norris’s novel, Beauty and the Beast:

“I’m much better now, in fact, than I was when we started. I wish you could have heard that pretty crash Beauty and the Beast made when, with one sweeping, liquid gesture, I tossed it out of my twelfth-story window.”

From her review of Caste, a novel by an illustrious gent named Cosmo Hamilton:

“Until today, I walked square-shouldered among my fellows, looking them in the composite eye, and said in unshaken tones: ‘Anyway, there are two things I have never done. I never resisted an officer, and I never read anything by Cosmo Hamilton.’ Today only the first half of that ringing boast is true. I made, as usual, the wrong selection.”

From a theater review in The New Yorker:

“If you want to, you can pick me out of any crowd, these days. I am the little one in the corner who did not think that the ‘Barretts of Wimpole Street’ was a great play, nor even a good play. It is true that I paid it the tribute of tears, but that says nothing, for I am one who weeps at Victorian costumes.”

From her review of Nathalie Colby’s novel, Black Stream, Parker notes the uncanny similarities to Virginia Woolf’s prose:

“In her first few chapters she has so skillfully emphasized the less fortunate mannerisms of her instructress that the strong-minded and generously inclined among her readers give her credit for an admirably sustained and a delicately cruel bit of burlesque.”

From her review of Will Durant’s novel, Transition, she writes:

“Dr. Will Durant, the worst reporter that the Snyder-Gray trial ever had (and that’s no faint praise), says of his book, Transition, which has a sub-title ‘A Sentimental Story of One Mind and One Era,’ that he just dashed it off by way of a holiday. Dr. Will Durant should stick to business.”

 From her review of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Dodsworth:

“I can not, with the slightest sureness, tell you if it will sweep the country, like ‘Main Street,’ or bring forth yards of printed praise…My guess would be that it will not. Other guesses I which I have made in the past half-year have been that Al Smith would carry New York state, that St. John Ervine would be a great dramatic critic for an American newspaper, and that I would have more than twenty-six dollars in the bank on March 1st. So you see my my confidence in my judgment is scarcely what it used to be.”

From her essay, “The Wallflowers Lament”:

“It has lately been drawn to your correspondent’s attention that, at social gatherings, she is not the human magnet she would be. Indeed, it turns out that as a source of entertainment, conviviality, and good fun, she ranks somewhere between a spring of parsley and a single ice skate.”

From her review of The Technique of the Love Affair:

“You know how you ought to be with men? You should always be aloof, you should never let them know you like them, you must on no account let them feel that they are of any importance to you, you must be wrapped up in your own concerns, you may never let them lose sight of the fact that you are superior, you must be, in short, a regular stuffed chemise. And if you could only see what I’ve been doing!”

Parker on the novel, Gay Agony:

“I tried Gay Agony — eventually these trick titles will get me, and I will be found in a small, quiet place, completely surrounded by iron bars, sitting looking at my hands all day — by H.A. Manhood. Well, if it’s the man’s name, can I help it?

From her review of the Best American Short Stories of 1927:

“I read about bored and pampered wives who were right on the verge of eloping with slender-fingered, quizzical-eyed artists, but did not… I read tales proving that Polack servant girls have their feelings, too. I read of young men who collected blue jade, and solved mysterious murders, on the side.”

Parker on André Gide:

The Counterfeiters is too tremendous a thing for praises. To say of it, ‘Here is a magnificent novel’ is rather like gazing into the Grand Canyon and and remarking, ‘Well, well, well; quite a slice.’ Doubtless you have heard that this book is not pleasant. Neither, for that matter, is the Atlantic Ocean.”

 Parker’s review of French conversation books:

“Annually I drag out the conversation books, and begin that process called brushing up. It always happens about this time, when the wanderlust is as overpowering as the humidity, and I develop my yearly case of the get-away-from-it-alls. And it seems to me only the part of wisdom to dust off the Continental tongues, because you can’t tell–maybe any time now one of the steamship lines will listen to reason and accept teeth instead of money, and I will be on my way back to the Old Country.”

From her review of Robert Hyde’s book:

Crude is the name of Robert Hyde’s first novel. It is also a criticism of it.”

On the use of “hummy” for “honey” in A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner:

“It is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”