Gems from Dorothy Parker’s Book Reviews

dorothy parker

Dorothy Parker often applied her rapier wit to book reviews she wrote as “Constant Reader” for the New Yorker from 1927 to 1933 and for Esquire from 1957 to 1962. Here’s a selection of gems from Dorothy Parker’s book reviews from the venerable publication.

The prevailing attitude toward Parker’s work as frivolous changed once her stories started being published in the New Yorker in the 1920s. After that, her work became a staple in the magazine, with frequent stories as well as her regular book review column which made good use of her wit and snark. 

Parker appreciated a well written book and beautifully turned phrase. She wasn’t always prickly, but was definitely the most fun to read when her talons came out. Here are selected gems from some of her New Yorker and Esquire reviews.


The Private Papers of the Dead

I think that the Journal of Katherine Mansfield is the saddest book I have ever read. Here, set down in exquisite fragments, is this record of six lonely and tormented years, the life’s end of a desperately ill woman. So private is it that one feels forever guilty of prying for having read it … only her dark, sad eyes should have read its words. I closed it with the little murmur to her portrait on the cover. “please forgive me,” I said.   (October, 1927)

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An American Du Barry

The President’s Daughter is the most amazing work that has yet found its way into these jittery hands. It is the story of the affair between Nan Britton and Warren G. Harding; Miss Britton takes you through the romance in a glass-bottomed boat, as it were.

The book bears the subtitle Revealing the Love-Secret of President Harding, which is but a mild statement. For when Miss Britton gets around to revealing, Lord, how she does reveal. She is one who kisses, among other things, and tells.   (October, 1927)

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The Socialist Looks at Literature

Upton Sinclair is his own King Charles’ head. He cannot keep himself out of his writings, try though he doesn’t. Let him start off upon an essay on a subject miles away from his own concerns, and in half a minute there he’ll be, popping up between the sentences with a tale of some old but still throbbing grievance, or of some recent wrong that has been worked upon him.   (December, 1927)

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Mrs. Post Enlarges on Etiquette

The rules for finding topics of conversation fall damply on the spirit. “You talk of something you have been doing or thinking about — planting a garden, planning a journey … or similar safe topics. Not at all a bad plan is to ask advice: “We want to motor through the South. Do you know about the roads?”

Or, “I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?” I may not dispute Mrs. Post. If she says that is the way you should talk, then indubitably, that is the way you should talk. But though it be at the cost of that future social success I am counting on, there is no force great enough ever to make me say, “I’m thinking of buying a radio.” (December, 1927)

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Dorothy Parker at her typewriter

 8 Short and Not-So-Sweet Verses by Dorothy Parker
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Poor, Immortal Isadora

My Life, the posthumously written published autobiography of Isadora Duncan, is to me an enormously interesting and a profoundly moving book … She was no writer, God knows. Her book is badly written, abominably written. There are passages of almost idiotic naiveté, and there are passages of horrendously flowery verbiage.

There are veritable Hampton Court mazes of sentences. There are long, low moans of poetry, painstakingly interpolated. There are plural pronouns, airily relating to singular nouns … Out of this mess of prose comes her hope, her passion, her suffering; above all, comes the glamour that was Isadora Duncan’s.   (January, 1928)

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Re-Enter Miss Hurst

A President is Born — no, it is not a companion piece to the Nan Britton book, and if I never hear any such crack again, it will be too soon — is the latest Fannie Hurst novel. I have a deep admiration for Miss Hurst’s work; possibly in your company I just admit this with a coo of deprecating laughter, as one confesses fondness for comic strips, motion-picture magazines, chocolate-almond bars and like too-popular entertainments.

There have been times when her sedulously torturous style, her one-word sentences and curiously compounded adjectives, drive me into an irritation that is only relieved by kicking and screaming. But she sees and feels, and makes you see and feel; and those are no small powers.   (January, 1928)

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Far From Well: The House at Pooh Corner

“Well, you’ll see, Piglet, when you listen. Because this is how it begins. The more it snows, tiddely pom —“
   “Tiddely what?” said Piglet. (He took, as you might say, the very words out of your correspondent’s mouth.)
   “Pom,” said Pooh. “I put that in to make it more hummy.”
    And it is that word “hummy,” my darlings that marks the first place The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.   (October, 1928)

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Jack Kerouac: The Subterraneans

I think … that if Mr. Kerouac and his followers did not think of themselves as so glorious, as intellectual as all Hell and very Christlike, I should not be in such a bad humor. (May, 1958)

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Katherine Anne Porter: Ship of Fools

Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools took twenty years in the writing. There is never a slackening of its pace, never a lazily written passage, never a portrait roughed in. To those of us who, after filling a postcard, are obliged to lie down and have wet cloths applied to our brow, this is not a book. It’s the Pyramid. (July, 1952)

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Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

There is still sunshine for us. The miracle is wrought by Shirley Jackson, God bless her, as ever unparalleled, more than ever in her latest book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as leader in the field of beautifully written, quiet, cumulative shudders. This novel brings back all my faith in terror and death. I can say no higher of it and her. (December, 1962)

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Dorothy Parker and her dog

Read Dorothy Parker’s review of Ice Palace by Edna Ferber

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