Parker, Dorothy 1893–1967
Parker was an American poet, short story writer, critic and journalist. She began her career as a drama critic first for Vanity Fair and later for the New Yorker. The wit and sardonic humor characteristic of all her work is evident in these early pieces, revealing Parker's cynical yet lively critical sense. A member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, Parker was extremely popular at the height of her career, but has fared less well with contemporary critics who find her rather narrow in scope. She collaborated with her husband, actor Alan Campbell, on a number of film scenarios and wrote the play Close Harmony with Elmer Rice. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Mrs. Parker's published work does not bulk large. But most of it has been pure gold and the five winnowed volumes on her shelf—three of poetry, two of prose—are so potent a distillation of nectar and wormwood, of ambrosia and deadly nightshade, as might suggest to the rest of us that we all write far too much. Even though I am one who does not profess to be privy to the intentions of posterity, I do suspect that another generation will not share the confusion into which Mrs. Parker's poetry throws so many of her contemporaries, who, seeing that much of it is witty, dismiss it patronizingly as "light" verse, and do not see that some of it is thrilling poetry of a piercing and rueful beauty. (p. 144)
[She] is so odd a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth. (p. 149)
It will be noted, I am afraid, that Mrs. Parker specializes in what is known as the dirty crack…. [In] her writing—at least in her prose pieces—her most effective vein is the vein of dispraise. Her best word portraits are dervish dances of sheer hate, equivalent in the satisfaction they give her to the waxen images which people in olden days fashioned of their enemies in order, with exquisite pleasure, to stick pins into them. Indeed, disparagement to Mrs. Parker is so habitual that she has no technique for praise, and when she feels admiration, can find no words for it. (p. 150)
Alexander Woollcott, "Our Mrs. Parker," in his While Rome Burns (copyright © 1934 by Alexander Woollcott; copyright renewed 1962 by Joseph P. Hennessey; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1934, pp. 142-52.
Of the writers of the 1920's and 1930's who produced stories on the order of those of Ring Lardner, only [Dorothy Parker] came close to matching his telling irony and satire and his ear for recording common speech. Narrower in range than Lardner, she excelled in witty and humorous monologue and dialogue rather than in storytelling, as attested to by most of the pieces in her two collections of sketches and stories, Laments for the Living (1930) and After Such Pleasures (1933). Undoubtedly her finest story is "Big Blonde," a trenchant portrait of a shallow woman devoid of any inner resources who becomes an alcoholic. (p. 284)
Arthur Voss, "Social Protest and Other Themes in the Short Story, 1930 to 1940," in his The American Short Story: A Critical Survey (copyright 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press), University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 262-87.∗
Readers coming to Mrs. Parker for the first time may find it as hard to understand the high place she held in the literary world of forty or fifty years ago as to understand the critical disregard into which she subsequently fell. The first precaution for such readers is to bear in mind the fact that the so-called world that gave her her reputation was really only a province, and, like all provinces, it considered itself much bigger and more important than it was…. The small literary set that centered on New York in the twenties and thirties and that hailed Mrs. Parker as one of its leading lights was made up largely of second- and third-raters. Mrs. Parker perceived this in her middle years and passed judgment on her old colleagues…. She pointed out that the major American writers of the period had not been members of any set; they had lived and worked far from the coterie of self-promoters who gathered under the heading of the Algonquin Round Table. Hemingway, Faulkner, Lardner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Cather, Crane, and O'Neill were not to be found cracking jokes and singing each other's praises or waspishly stinging each other into tantrums on West 44th Street. (p. xv)
Mrs. Parker's reputation suffered from the literary company she kept; it suffered also from the fact that the milieu that was her natural subject matter—the narrow sector of American society that could be summed up as Eastern, urban, intellectual, and middle class—underwent a sudden and overwhelming change during the Depression. The people Mrs. Parker had kept under close scrutiny and about whom she had written with authority seemed so remote from the realities of the post-Depression period as to be stamped, for a time, with a kind of retroactive invalidity. In the forties and fifties they simply did not matter any more, and the reading public was tempted to conclude, mistakenly, that they ought never to have mattered. (p. xvi)
No doubt it will strike young readers as odd, but the twenties in which Mrs. Parker began work were considered an era of extreme and perhaps dangerous permissiveness, especially in regard to the social experiments being carried out by women…. [Mrs. Parker's] verses, which became something of a national rage, were thought to be strong stuff: brusque,...
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Throughout her life, Dorothy Parker was quick to sympathize with those who suffered or were indentured—those she could pity because of misfortune in politics, money race, or sex. She admired the servant class and those who, like her "Big Blonde," were defeated by conditions they could not understand or overcome. And she was as quick to attack the causes of their exploitation. From her early poetry of unrequited love to "Clothe the Naked" she attacks pretension and blindness in the middle and upper classes.
But it is equally clear, in studying her work, that she is also attracted to the status and possessions of those who are better off…. She combines the child's ambition and hope with an adult's sense of outrage and cynicism at shallowness and self-deception, at the uneven and unrequited distribution of favors in this world. She did not always understand that she held mixed loyalties, although they are the foundation for the rueful attitude of much of her early poetry and fiction as well as the disappointment and disgust that characterize her essays and criticism. That memory fixes her for us, as it should, looking out on one activity, looking away from another, yet associated with both, and caught between them. (pp. 13-14)
She had a genuine talent for trenchant light verse but also a remarkable talent for classical epigram; she could be sentimental in her fiction and conversational in her essays, yet even here is a sardonic and a corrosive touch, for the underside of her informality is always dismay, distrust, or even anger. You cannot, I think, understand Dorothy Parker by reading only selections [of her writing] …, nor can you approach her casually; the rewards then are superficial and misleading. Only when you understand that the discipline of her writing holds in a deep hatred and despair over much that she writes of—only when you sense that the "humor" of an essay in The Saturday Evening Post is as bitter, as acidic, as her disdain for the intolerant guest in "Arrangement in Black and White" caught in its very title, or when you realize that "Big Blonde" is about Herbie as well as Hazel Morse—only then do you come to appreciate what are the fundamental, if complicated, forces behind her work, behind … the "natural portrait of human folly and frailty." "Great vices are the proper objects of our detestation," Fielding writes in the 1742 preface to Joseph Andrews, "smaller faults, of our pity; but affectation appears to me the only true source of the Ridiculous." In her essential conversion of such dicta, Dorothy Parker made ridicule, in both her life and writing, the common means. (pp. 14-15)
Dorothy Parker's writing … sanctions not morality so much as compassion and proper behavior—"proper" meaning both "functional" and "refined." Usually her works insinuate her criticism, providing their own sense of decorum, while she herself practices a restraint, balance, and attempted urbanity that lends her work not so much tact and subtlety as an air of control even in the use of conversational diction. What she strives for is an elegant casualness. The discrepancy between the seriousness of her aim and the playful tone of her presentation provides not only a kind of cool satire but a forceful, because constricted, irony. Indeed, her work is so cool in its fundamental bitterness that she has from the first appealed to a very wide audience—both those wishing simple amusement and those who recognize her sardonic wit.
To locate Dorothy Parker's unique flavor, it is simplest to keep in mind her short poems where, despite the compactness of the form, all her attitudes and techniques are in play. Here as elsewhere she concentrates on a specific situation or moment, the foreground sharply focused in time and space. Her images and her diction (formal or informal) are synecdochical: she has a fine gift for appropriate selectivity of detail. Often, but not always, she extends her canvas by burlesque, pun, or paradox; often too the wit is reflexive, and irony becomes irony of the self (and even of the poem, of poetry). By restricting her scope, her concentration on the paraphernalia of life never clutters her line as in never clutters her point of view.
What is complicated, however, are the levels on which even her simplest poems and stories function. At first reading, they are commentaries about what is open to ridicule, about the ridiculous. They expose correctable human failings; her chief means are repetition, [dullness, and hyperbole]…. By such means we not only see but see through the pretense or shallowness she describes in her stories and dramatizes in poems and plays. Pushed harder, her works discuss failings not only of a poem's persona or a story's protagonist but equally of us, of her readers. When we are amused by her work (and only a mused) we are trapped, because we are never meant to agree with her characters. Sympathy, for her, does not mean consent. Our involvement, potentially if not actually, is what supplies irony to her work, gives it the double edge, the sardonic twist. Pushed hardest, the third level at which her works operate reveals her as author and her insistent desire to expose, which, because it becomes universal, reveals the mordant quality of her own mind. Here the tone is neither angry nor despairing; there is, rather, a rueful acceptance, an edged stoicism. It is this quality that has led some critics to find a certain "smartness" or "urbanity" in her work. Such descriptions may be accurate as far as they go, but the hardness they are describing is not so much an easy formula for writing as it is a consequence of her perspective. (pp. 77-8)
When Dorothy Parker wishes, her language has a kind of classical purity and vigor, a fine power of expression stemming from simplicity, lucidity, and economy; for her, disciplined language is also a matter of taste....
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