August 31, 2014

Dorothy Parker, Winnie the Pooh, and a proofreader's Fail

Two recent birthday shout-outs on social media that spoke to me were those for Winnie the Pooh on August 21, the anniversary of the day in 1921 when the real-life Christopher Robin received him as a present, and those for Dorothy Parker, poet, short-story writer, critic and notorious wit, on August 22, she having been born on that day in 1893, across the Atlantic in New Jersey, USA. Not just because I am a fan of both, but because coincidences delight me, and this is a very good one, especially when you add in a third august anniversary: August 25, 1928:  the day Dorothy Parker's famous review of The House at Pooh Corner came out in The New Yorker. The one where she sentenced "Tonstant Weader fwowed up".

Harold Ross had started up The New Yorker in 1925, and Dorothy Parker, a fellow-member of that Algonquin Round Table characterized by liquid lunches and sharp wit, was a contributor from the second issue on. She was perfect for the The New Yorker in its early, non-establishment era, of course, being fresh, urbane, sophisticated, and funny, and within a couple of years had found her niche as the author of the popular Reading and Writing column, signing herself Constant Reader, a term from Victorian times used when writing letters to the editor. Charles Dickens, for example, is noted for having written a Constant Reader letter to the Daily News, complaining about their numerous typos, and also the Editor's reply to the letter.

(Keep in mind: typos.)

Here's the story of Miss Parker's review of The House at Pooh Corner, as told by Marlene Wagman-Geller in  Eureka! : the surprising stories behind the ideas that shaped the world:

The House at Pooh Corner proved to be one pot of honey too many for the acerbic critic. The breaking point for Parker was when Pooh revealed that he added the "tiddely pom" to his Outdoor Song which Has To Be Sung In The Snow "to make it more hummy". Her caustic ink stated, "And it is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up."

Now, here's what Dorothy Parker's obituary in the New York Times, as posted by the Dorothy Parker Society on their website, has to say about the review:

Book Briefly Dismissed
She reduced A.A. Milne's sugary "The House at Pooh Corner" to water by remarking that "Tonstant Weader Fwowed up" after reading one too many of the word "tummy."

Tummy! Tummy!

Can't you just hear the proofreader?  "Hummy! What's a hummy? She can't have said hummy! It must be a ...a... tummy! That'll be it!"

You just know that mistake would not have been in the original obituary, which was written by the legendary Alden Whitman, the man who made an art of the obituary, the inventor of the "Interview with the still-living", the one where he'd meet with the meritorious before they died to get the story for the obituary he would eventually write for them. Apparently they quite welcomed the chance.

I found Alden Whitman's own obituary in the The New York Times, in their archives.You have to wonder if it were one that he wrote for himself. It does sound like it:
Mr. Whitman, short, amiable and professorial, worked 13 years as an editor on metropolitan and national copy desks of The Times. He became something of a clubman and literary figure in his later life, writing book reviews for The Times and other publications and donning a cape to sally from newsroom for luncheons with authors. 

Now, Mr Whitman would have read Dorothy Parker's review. But even if he hadn't, anyone who was a child in the '20s, as he was, and later a father of four children, would know that Winnie the Pooh is full of hums, Good Hums, Hopeful Hums, all sorts of hums, all modified with capitalised adjectives, as was A.A. Milnes's way, and that of any number of writers attempting to emulate the sacred mysteries of childhood, an annoying habit on their part which Miss Parker did not point out but could have.

Whereas 'tummy' not only does not appear in The House at Pooh Corner, but is simply not a word jazz-agers have trouble with, however much the Dorothy Parker Society might think they do. We even have the story of Hemingway on a clothes-buying expedition at Abercrombies exchanging quips with the belt clerk about his "hard tummy" (punching himself in the stomach with the clerk's hand), courtesy of Lillian Ross's Portrait of Hemingway, which first appeared in ... The New Yorker!

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 20:56


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