In the 1920s, American journalist and short story writer Dorothy Parker was a member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table in New York City. Though she collaborated on several film scripts and published numerous poems and stories, she is best remembered for her acerbic wisecracks and back-handed compliments.
While serving as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, Parker wrote this review of Emily Post's popular advice book, Etiquette. Notice how Parker uses brief examples and selected quotations from Post's book for humorous effect. "Parker's pose of innocence," observes Dr. Nancy A. Walker (1997), "often greets a book written with great earnestness by an author intent on explaining something; she adopts the role of willing pupil with such hyperbole that both her pretense and the book's overbearing nature become clear."
Mrs. Post Enlarges on Etiquette
by Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
Emily Post’s Etiquette is out again, this time in a new and enlarged edition, and so the question of what to do with my evenings has been all fixed up for me. There will be an empty chair at the deal table at Tony’s, when the youngsters gather to discuss life, sex, literature, the drama, what is a gentleman, and whether or not to go on to Helen Morgan’s Club when the place closes; for I shall be at home among my book. I am going in for a course of study at the knee of Mrs. Post. Maybe some time in the misty future, I shall be Asked Out, and I shall be ready. You won’t catch me being intentionally haughty to subordinates or refusing to be a pallbearer for any reason except serious ill health. I shall live down the old days, and with the help of Mrs. Post and God (always mention a lady’s name first) there will come a time when you will be perfectly safe in inviting me to your house, which should never be called a residence except in printing or engraving.
It will not be a grueling study, for the sprightliness of Mrs. Post’s style makes the textbook as fascinating as it is instructive. Her characters, introduced for the sake of example, are called by no such unimaginative titles as Mrs. A., or Miss Z., or Mr. X.; they are Mrs. Worldly, Mr. Bachelor, the Gildings, Mrs. Oldname, Mrs. Neighbor, Mrs. Stranger, Mrs. Kindhart, and Mr. and Mrs. Nono Better. This gives the work all the force and the application of a morality play.
It is true that occasionally the author’s invention plucks at the coverlet, and she can do no better by her brain-children than to name them Mr. Jones and Mrs. Smith. But it must be said, in fairness, that the Joneses and the Smiths are the horrible examples, the confirmed pullers of social boners. They deserve no more. They go about saying “Shake hands with Mr. Smith” or “I want to make you acquainted with Mrs. Smith” or “Will you permit me to recall myself to you?” or “Pardon me!” or “Permit me to assist you” or even “Pleased to meet you!” One pictures them all as small people, darting about the outskirts of parties, fetching plates of salad and glasses of punch, applauding a little too enthusiastically at the end of a song, laughing a little too long at the point of an anecdote. If you could allow yourself any sympathy for such white trash, you might find something pathetic in their eagerness to please, their desperate readiness to be friendly. But one must, after all, draw the line somewhere, and Mr. Jones, no matter how expensively he is dressed, always gives the effect of being in his shirt-sleeves, while Mrs. Smith is so unmistakably the daughter of a hundred Elks. Let them be dismissed by somebody’s phrase (I wish to heaven it were mine)--“the sort of people who buy their silver.”
These people in Mrs. Post’s book live and breathe; as Heywood Broun once said of the characters in a play, “they have souls and elbows.” Take Mrs. Worldly, for instance, Mrs. Post’s heroine. The woman will live in American letters. I know of no character in the literature of the last quarter century who is such a complete pain in the neck.
See her at that moment when a younger woman seeks to introduce herself. Says the young woman: “’Aren’t you Mrs. Worldly?’ Mrs. Worldly, with rather freezing politeness, says ‘Yes,’ and waits.” And the young woman, who is evidently a glutton for punishment, neither lets her wait from then on nor replies, “Well, Mrs. Worldly, and how would you like a good sock in the nose, you old meat-axe?” Instead she flounders along with some cock-and-bull story about being the sister of Millicent Manners, at which Mrs. Worldly says, “I want very much to hear you sing some time,” which marks her peak of enthusiasm throughout the entire book.
See Mrs. Worldly, too, in her intimate moments at home. “Mrs. Worldly seemingly pays no attention, but nothing escapes her. She can walk through a room without appearing to look either to the right or left, yet if the slightest detail is amiss, an ornament out of place, or there is one dull button on a footman’s livery, her house telephone is rung at once!” Or watch her on that awful night when she attends the dinner where everything goes wrong. “In removing the plates, Delia, the assistant, takes them up by piling one on top of the other, clashing them together as she does so. You can feel Mrs. Worldly looking with almost hypnotized fascination--as her attention might be drawn to a street accident against her will.”
There is also the practical-joker side to Mrs. W. Thus does Mrs. Post tell us about that: “For example, Mrs. Worldly writes:
“‘Dear Mrs. Neighbor:
“’Will you and your husband dine with us very informally on Tuesday, the tenth, etc.’
“Whereupon, the Neighbors arrive, he in a dinner coat, she in her simplest evening dress, and find a dinner of fourteen people and every detail as formal as it is possible to make it . . . In certain houses--such as the Worldlys’ for instance--formality is inevitable, no matter how informal may be her ‘will you dine informally’ intention.”
Concluded on page two