Writing Well Is the Best Revenge

Dorothy Parker? Susan Sontag? Alix Nelson? Ross Macdonald? Kenneth Millar? Tom Samet? Edmund Wilson? Anne Ruggles Gere? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Yesterday, while reading an acerbic episode within a stylish memoir I recalled the following adage:

Writing well is the best revenge.

These words are often credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker, but I am skeptical because I have never seen a good citation. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker died in 1967, and QI has not yet found any substantive evidence that she employed this saying. QI has found instances in 1976, but that is a surprisingly late date. Perhaps future researchers will build on this research and locate earlier occurrences.

In August 1976 Alix Nelson, a New York-based journalist and copywriter, published a book review in “The New York Times”. One of the book’s primary characters was portrayed very harshly, and Nelson likened that figure to Alexander Portnoy who was the lead in an influential work published seven years prior titled “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1976 August 8, New York Times, Section: New York Times Book Review, The Girl That He Marries by Alix Nelson, Start Page 10, Quote Page 10, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Never has an ordinary man been rendered with such glee. For those of us who’ve been waiting around for Alexander Portnoy to get his, author Rhoda Lerman here “hulls him from the belly button like an overripe strawberry” to prove that writing well is the best revenge.

The other early instance was from the pen of the famous mystery writer Ross Macdonald (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) who in 1976 wrote the expression in a book dedication for fellow mystery writer William Campbell Gault. The inscription was mentioned in a profile article about Gault published in the “Los Angeles Times” in 1984:[ref] 1984 December 14, Los Angeles Times, An Author From the Old School: For This Writer, There’s No Mystery About What Sells by David Wilson, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)[/ref]

In 1976, Ross MacDonald dedicated his last book, “The Blue Hammer,” to him, writing in his copy: “To Bill Gault, who knows that writing well is the best revenge.”

The article by David Wilson containing the words above also included many quotations from Gault and a description of the interior of his home; hence, QI believes Wilson visited Gault’s home and directly inspected the book’s dedication.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

This saying is part of a family that can be traced back to the 1600s when a compilation of “Outlandish Proverbs” assembled by orator George Herbert appeared containing the following:[ref] 1640, Outlandish Proverbs, Selected by Mr. G. H. (George Herbert), Proverb Number 524, Printed by T. P. (T. Paine) for Humphrey Blunden; at the Castle in Corn-hill, London. (Early English Books Online)[/ref]

Living well is the best revenge.

The adage about “living well” continued to circulate in 1962 when it appeared in a profile in “The New Yorker” magazine of the famous expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy. Gerald spoke the line to F. Scott Fitzgerald:[ref] 1962 July 28, The New Yorker, Profiles: Living Well Is the Best Revenge by Calvin Tomkins, Start Page 31, Quote Page 54, Column 2, The New Yorker Magazine Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans at archives.newyorker.com)[/ref]

“I believe you have to do things to life to make it tolerable. I’ve always liked the old Spanish proverb: ‘Living well is the best revenge.’

In 1976 Alix Nelson and Ross Macdonald employed the saying “Writing well is the best revenge” as described previously in this article.

The Summer 1978 issue of the literary journal “Criticism” published a book review by Tom Samet of Douglass College. Samet attributed the sentiment to the prominent critic Edmund Wilson, but Samet omitted quotation marks signaling that the statement was not a direct quotation:[ref] 1978 Summer, Criticism, Volume 20, Number 3, Section: Book Reviews, Book Review by Tom Samet of Douglass College, (Book Review of “Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1912” by Edmund Wilson), Start Page 325, Quote Page 327 and 328, Published by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan. (JSTOR) link [/ref]

Fitzgerald long ago remarked that Wilson had for twenty years been his “intellectual conscience,” and all through the twenties and thirties we find him calling friends to account—criticizing, harassing, commiserating, and always insisting that writing well is the best revenge.

The October 1978 issue of “College Composition and Communication” contained the following article title and author. The saying did not appear in the body of the piece:[ref] 1978 October, College Composition and Communication, Volume 29, Number 3, Writing Well Is the Best Revenge by Anne Ruggles Gere, Start Page 256, Quote Page 256, Published by National Council of Teachers of English. (JSTOR) link [/ref]

Writing Well Is the Best Revenge by Anne Ruggles Gere

In 1980 the journal “Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews” printed the following in an editorial:[ref] 1980 July, Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), Volume 2, Number 2, Editorial by Eugene Eoyang and William H. Nienhauser Jr., Start Page 165, Quote Page 165, Published by Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR).(JSTOR) link [/ref]

There is a Spanish saying that “Living well is the best revenge.” Both Ssu-ma Ch’ien and the author of Chin P’ing Mei—so different in other respects—would subscribe to a variant on that Spanish aphorism: “Writing well is the best revenge.”

In 1981 journalist Robert Cox writing in “The Evening Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland employed the saying:[ref] 1981 June 17, The Evening Sun, At last, we’re aware of what’s happening in Argentina by Robert Cox, Quote Page A11, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Jacobo Timerman, expelled from Argentina and stripped of his citizenship and most of his property by the military regime, is demonstrating that writing well is the best revenge.

In 1982 “The New York Times” published a profile of prominent essayist Susan Sontag during which she employed the adage:[ref] 1982 October 24, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Susan Sontag: Past, Present and Future by Charles Ruas, Quote Page 11, Column 3, New York, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

She leaned back in her chair, smiling, and cupped her hands behind her neck. “Writing well is the best revenge.”

In 1983 Cyra McFadden used the expression within a book review printed in the “Chicago Tribune”:[ref] 1983 April 17, Chicago Tribune, Section: Bookworld, Ephron cooks up a fine, funny first novel by Cyra McFadden, (Book Review of “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron), Start Page E1, Quote Page E7, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)[/ref]

If Nora Ephron’s first foray into fiction is a roman a clef, it’s proof that writing well is the best revenge.

Also in 1983 the Canadian writer Mordecai Richler employed a variant statement within an essay about humor:[ref] 1983 November 19, The Gazette, Section: Books, It only hurts when you don’t laugh by Mordecai Richler, Quote Page I1, Column 3, Montreal, Canada. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Obviously, humor can conceal or even heal pain. The best revenge on experience is writing well, recalling past humiliations not so much in tranquility as with laughter, biting back the anger, making it all seem wonderfully absurd in retrospect.

In 1986 “The New York Times Book Review” published a piece with this title and author:[ref] 1986 July 27, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Writing Well Is the Best Revenge by William H. Pritchard, Quote Page BR1, New York. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Writing Well Is the Best Revenge by William H. Pritchard

Also in 1986 an article in “The New York Times” about negative depictions of Hollywood in novels contained the following:[ref] 1986 August 17, New York Times, Film View: Why Some Novelists Cast Hollywood As the Heavy by Walter Goodman, Quote Page H19, Column 4, New York, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

As Fitzgerald did not quite say, “Writing well is the best revenge.”

In April 1987 the notion was ascribed to Dorothy Parker in the pages of “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Australia:[ref] 1987 April 18, The Sydney Morning Herald, Section: Saturday Review, When ‘Writing Well is the Best Revenge’ by Don Anderson (academic, essayist and critic), Quote Page 31, Sydney, Australia. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

Of him might it be observed, in a sense quite different from that Dorothy Parker had in mind when she said it, that “writing well is the best revenge”.

In December 1987 the notion was again ascribed to Dorothy Parker in the pages of “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Australia:[ref] 1987 December 5, The Sydney Morning Herald, Behind the Lands: Farms are bankrupt, kids won’t walk away, by Don Anderson, Quote Page 75, Column 2, Sydney, New South Wales. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

These stories are written by the parents, and may be a local version of the writing-well-is-the-best-revenge theory espoused by Dorothy Parker.

In conclusion, Alix Nelson and Ross Macdonald are currently the leading candidates for creator of this adage circa 1976. Yet, earlier citations may be discovered. The likely evolutionary source phrase: “Living well is the best revenge” has been circulating for centuries. The linkage to Dorothy Parker appears to be spurious.

Image Notes: Picture of person writing in notebook from StockSnap at Pixabay. Picture has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Mary Schmich, Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist of the Chicago Tribune, whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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