Nancy McPhee's "Book of Insults" is a dandy little collection to bring out when the party begins to wind down. It's dandy, that is, if your guests are interested in language, historical figures, or literary and political feuds. For example, since the Washington area boasts more writers and editors per square foot than almost any other U.S. city, the rejection message sent by Gertrude Stein's editor is bound to arouse some lively response.
"I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only 60 minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardily one."
On the other hand, it also might deplete your liquor supply.
In any compilation of this type -- nearly 800 quotations ranging from the briefest sentence to lines and lines of vitriolic verbosity -- there are bound to be errors of organization. Thus, New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr could have been erroneously included in the Algonquin Round Table grouping simply because a batch of note cards got scrambled. Nevertherless, it seems rather a curious coincidence that four of McPhee's "Algonquin" entries, including Kerr's famous sideswipe at a long forgotten production, ("'Hook and Ladder' is the sort of play that gives failures a bad name"), also are grouped together in Rosner's "The Hater's Handbook," published in 1965. Rosner, however, does differentiate between the various periods.
But McPhee's sloppy research is much more annoying than her organizational aberrations. No, Sir Walter Raleigh was not "hanged, drawn, and quartered" because of his involvement with tobacco "and other sins." He was beheaded for a number of political reasons having nothing to do with tobacco. In addition, what is one to make of a full-page drawing of Henry VIII with Martin Luther's head tucked under his arm? Indeed, there were many unfortunates -- including two wives and Sir Thomas More -- who met this grisly end at Henry's command. But Martin Luther? Never.
Such troublesome factors aside, "An Amiable History of Insult, Invective, Imprecation, and Incivility" is a pleasant, civilized way to spend a chorting hour tr two. It might even provide a few conversational gambits for Washington's social whirl. This opener, bar: "Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?" Certainly, Sidney Smith's "I like him and his wife. He is so lady-like, and she is such a perfect gentleman" could get a lot of mileage on the political cocktail party circuit. For the height of effete one-upmanship, why not steal a few sour grapes from Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky: "I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard!" And while Mark Twain's pungent observation, "In the first place God made idiots; this was for practice; then he made school boards," may yet turn up on local picket lines; another of Sidney Smith's barbs, "He not only overflowed with learning, but stool in the slop," could set off a few new squabbles in any hallowed hall of scholarship.
Although the book is divided into four main sections dealing with general insults, writers and critics, countries and national groups, and politics and government, there is a great deal of overlapping. Much of chapter one, for instance, would fit very well in chapter two. Of all the material, the literary and political feuds are the most fun. The wit, venomous and rapier-sharp from poets and politiciians alike, is often presented in sequences of attack and counterattack resembling dialogue. Unfortunately, McPhee's predilection for Canadian politics creates a bit of an imbalance in the political section.
The strongest impression left by "The Book of Insults" is the amiability of both the material and its compiler. There is nothing hateful or vicious about it. The quotations used are witty, deliciously spiteful, vindictive, cheerfully misanthropic, almost always brilliant, and frequently inspired.... If only McPhee's research and backgrounders were as consistently on target.