Parker, Dorothy (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Dorothy Parker 1893-1967
(Born Dorothy Rothschild; also wrote under the pseudonym Constant Reader) American short story writer, poet, critic, playwright, and screenwriter.
The following entry provides criticism on Parker's works from 1993 through 2000. See also Dorothy Parker Literary Criticism and Dorothy Parker Poetry Criticism.
In the 1920s and 1930s Parker emerged as a literary celebrity whose often-quoted witticisms were as well known as her short fiction and light verse. In her stories she examined the social mores of intellectual middle-class Manhattanites, specializing in bitterly cynical portrayals of unhappy love affairs. Parker regarded herself as a social satirist rather than a humorist, and critics note that she wrote from a liberal sensibility, alternating between outrage and sentimentality. While she used her sardonic wit to attack hypocrisy and intolerance, she was generous in her sympathy toward victims of sexual, racial, and economic oppression.
Parker was born on August 22, 1893, and raised in New York City, the fourth child of a wealthy Jewish garment manufacturer and his Protestant wife, who died soon after Dorothy's birth. She attended a finishing school and convent academy before leaving home, determined to support herself with a literary career. In 1916 she joined the staff of Vogue magazine as a copywriter. Her editor, Frank Crowninshield, was impressed by her work, and made her drama critic of the fashionable magazine Vanity Fair. She was eventually fired from this post, but she went on to win favorable recognition as a critic, with her most notable commentary appearing in the book review column signed “Constant Reader” in the New Yorker, where most of her short stories were first published. During the 1920s Parker became well known in New York literary and theatrical society as a member of the Algonquin Round Table, which also included writers Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, and George S. Kaufman. This circle of acquaintances, who met regularly for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, became famous when newspaper columnists such as Adams reported their activities and quoted their witty conversations. After the success of her first poetry collection, Enough Rope (1926), Parker retired from regular magazine work in order to concentrate on poetry, fiction and other creative projects.
Parker's personal life was punctuated by heavy drinking, depression, numerous love affairs, and attempted suicide. Parker's most enduring relationship was with her second husband, actor Alan Campbell, whom she married in 1933, divorced in 1947, and remarried in 1950. They collaborated on sixteen filmscripts, their most notable effort being A Star Is Born (1937), which was later nominated for an Academy Award. Her association with left-wing political groups during the 1940s impelled the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate her as a possible Communist subversive during the 1950s. She refused to cooperate with the investigation, but no charges were filed against her. During this time Parker also wrote two plays, The Coast of Illyria (1949) and The Ladies of the Corridor (1953), the latter being an account of two embittered old women living in a disreputable hotel in mid-Manhattan. Finding it increasingly difficult to write because of ill health, Parker only published an occasional book review during the 1960s. She died on June 7, 1967.
Parker's first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, became a national best-seller shortly after its publication in 1926. Throughout the volume Parker explored the disappointment and loneliness of lost love and exposed the hypocrisy and sentimentality of romantic jargon. Parker's second volume of verse, Sunset Gun (1928), also won widespread popular acclaim. In this collection Parker continued to chastise vows and false promises she associated with love, and experimented with traditional literary forms, including a cycle of epigrams known as “A Pig's Eye View of Literature.” With Death and Taxes (1931), Parker's verse became increasingly pessimistic and introspective. By the time her collected poetry was published in 1936 under the title Not So Deep as a Well, Parker had turned almost exclusively to writing prose.
Parker's early short fiction frequently appeared in The New Yorker, marked by the precise, economical language and simple plot structures often associated with that magazine's style. Focusing on the emotional idiosyncrasies of anxious, narcissistic women in the midst of tragicomical crises, Parker demonstrated her belief that self-absorption hampers communication and leads to emotional isolation. Parker's first short story collection, Laments for the Living (1930), comprised of thirteen narratives previously published in The New Yorker and other periodicals, was simultaneously praised for its satiric prose and sensitivity and faulted for its reliance on dialogue and recurrent themes. Like many of the protagonists in Laments for the Living, the female characters in Parker's second volume, After Such Pleasures (1933), are often socialites who attempt to hide their insecurities behind grandiloquent language and pompous behavior. Parker again sought to expose the superficiality of such individuals, but some commentators noted that with this collection Parker also began to demonstrate a deeper understanding of interpersonal relationships and human emotion.
Parker's literary reputation rests primarily on what W. Somerset Maugham called her “gift for seeing something to laugh at in the bitterest tragedies of the human animal.” However, in Parker's later years, she longed to be considered a serious and disciplined writer and believed that her reputation as a Algonquin Round Table wit prevented readers and critics from recognizing that her talents extended far beyond sarcastic repartee and whimsical quips. Critics of her short fiction have derided the slightness of her material and the predictability of her themes of middle-class smugness and unrequited love. While reviewers continued to praise Parker's incisive humor, sense of pathos, and her more serious attempts at satire, most found her explorations of gender roles and romantic relationships the most significant and lasting facet of her work. While her short fiction and poetry has sometimes been described as melodramatic, sentimental, and trivial because of its acerbic humor, many critics have noted that Parker's complex use of irony and satire enabled her to explore the contradictory nature of human behavior.
Round the Town (play) 1924
Enough Rope (poetry) 1926
Sunset Gun (poetry) 1928
Close Harmony, or The Lady Next Door [with Elmer Rice] (play) 1929
Laments for the Living (short stories) 1930
Death and Taxes (poetry) 1931
Shoot the Works (play) 1931
After Such Pleasures (short stories) 1933
Not So Deep as a Well (poetry) 1936; revised as The Collected Poetry of Dorothy Parker, 1944
A Star Is Born [with Alan Campbell] (screenplay) 1937
Here Lies (short stories) 1939; revised as The Collected Stories of Dorothy Parker, 1942
The Viking Portable Library Dorothy Parker (short stories) 1944; revised as The Portable Dorothy Parker, Revised and Enlarged Edition, 1973; also published as The Collected Dorothy Parker, 1973
The Coast of Illyria [with Ross Evans] (play) 1949
The Ladies of the Corridor [with Arnaud d'Usseau] (play) 1953
Constant Reader (criticism) 1970; revised as A Month of Saturdays, 1971
Complete Stories (short stories) 1995
Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker (poetry) 1996
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SOURCE: Horder, Mervyn. “Dorothy Parker: An American Centenary.” Contemporary Review 263, no. 1535 (December 1993): 320-21.
[In the following essay, Horder provides an appreciation of Parker's literary contributions.]
Transatlantic centenaries are not much observed, or even noticed on this side, and it comes as something of a jolt to find that two American entertainers whose products have earned an honoured place in the consciousness of most British intellectuals have already reached this venerable condition—Cole Porter last year, and Dorothy Parker this one. Dorothy Parker, Dotty to her friends and the journalists, died in 1967 but is still popularly referred to as ‘the immortal D. P.’. She had a lamentably disordered life—three times married (twice to the same man), abortion, attempted suicide, and progressive reliance on the Scotch bottle, which, as we all know, is apt to take away quite quickly whatever pleasures it gives. Her health can hardly have been improved by having to drink bootleg through the whole period of Prohibition in America, 1920-33, the years of her peak creativity.
Since her death there have been at least four full-length biographies chronicling her unhappy career in the pejorative manner now fashionable; so that now is the time to recall Ernest Hemingway's remark (in Death in the Afternoon) that ‘a major art cannot ever be judged until the...
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SOURCE: Barreca, Regina. “Introduction.” In Complete Stories of Dorothy Parker, edited by Colleen Breese, pp. vii-xix. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
[In the following essay, Barreca delineates the defining characteristics of Parker's short fiction and counters the negative critical assessment of her work.]
Why is it that many critics seem so intent on defusing the power of Dorothy Parker's writing that she appears more like a terrorist bomb than what she really is: one, solitary, unarmed American writer of great significance? Is it because so many of her critics—one might hesitate to underscore the obvious: so many of her male critics—seem to resent, half-consciously, her unwillingness to appease their literary appetites? Is it because Parker did not list among her many talents The Ability to Play Well with Others?
Dorothy Parker wrote strong prose for most of her life, and she wrote a lot of it, remaining relentlessly compassionate regarding, and interested in, the sufferings primarily of those who could not extricate themselves from the emotional tortures of unsuccessful personal relationships. Her stories were personal, yes, but also political and have as their shaping principles the larger issues of her day—which remain for the most part the larger issues of our own day (with Prohibition mercifully excepted).
Parker depicted the effects of...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Ken. “Dorothy Parker's Perpetual Motion.” In American Women Short Story Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 251-65. New York: Garland, 1995.
[In the following essay, Johnson surveys the critical reaction to Parker's oeuvre and examines her unique use of repetition in her work.]
Somehow it has always been rather easy to dismiss Dorothy Parker and her writing from the collective literary consciousness. After all, she never produced a “big” work such as a novel, and her few plays did not achieve long runs. In addition, she shares the ironic fate of most writers who become identified primarily as humorists working with shorter literary forms: they are not considered “serious.” Parker's many celebrated, flip wisecracks (e.g., “One more drink and I'll be under the host.”) brought her the kind of notoriety that rarely carves a secure niche for itself in the Westminster Abbey of literary history. And worst of all, for those readers and critics who like to detonate a writer's achievement with unfortunate circumstances from her personal life, Dorothy Parker provides a perfect case of literary self-combustion. Her lack of self-discipline was notorious; her unsuccessful marriages, divorces, abortion, suicide attempts, and alcoholism invite snickering disapproval; and her dwindling output as years passed can reinforce a preconceived idea of...
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SOURCE: Simpson, Amelia. “Black on Blonde: The Africanist Presence in Dorothy Parker's ‘Big Blonde’.” College Literature 23, no. 3 (October 1996): 105-16.
[In the following essay, Simpson examines racial themes in “Big Blonde,” contending that the story provides “a penetrating view of the divides of American identity, and of one white author's attempt to write that identity.”]
The story “Big Blonde” (1929) articulates some of the ambivalence with which Dorothy Parker's work approaches feminist inquiry.1 There is a vicious style to Parker's compassionate portrait of a woman hopelessly trapped in social codes of femininity. Just as intriguing, however, is the way race is inscribed in a text so overtly marked as a reflection on gender.2 Foregrounding the Africanist presence in the text discloses the real source of the story's power to disturb. Blackness surfaces in Parker's story in a way that provides an unusually clear example of the use of racial difference in white America's contemplation of itself.3 In concert with the critical project Toni Morrison pursues in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), the present observations represent an effort to “avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served”...
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SOURCE: Pollak, Ellen. “Premium Swift: Dorothy Parker's Iron Mask of Femininity.” In Pope, Swift, and Women Writers, edited by Donald C. Mell, pp. 203-21. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Pollak traces the influence of Jonathan Swift on Parker's review essay “The Professor Goes in for Sweetness and Light.”]
To be happy one must be (a) well fed, unhounded by sordid cares, at ease in Zion, (b) full of a comfortable feeling of superiority to the masses of one's fellow men, and (c) delicately and unceasingly amused according to one's taste.
—H. L. Mencken
If artists and poets are unhappy, it is after all because happiness does not interest them.
It is true that Mrs. Parker's epigrams sound like the Hotel Algonquin and not like the drawing-rooms and coffee-houses of the eighteenth century. But I believe that, if we admire, as it is fashionable to do, the light verse of Prior and Gay, we should admire Mrs. Parker also. She writes well: her wit is the wit of her time and place; but it is often as cleanly economic at the same time that it is as flatly brutal as the wit of the age of Pope; and, within its small scope, it is a criticism of life. It has its roots in contemporary reality....
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SOURCE: Walker, Nancy A. “The Remarkably Constant Reader: Dorothy Parker as Book Reviewer.” Studies in American Humor 3, no. 4 (1997): 1-14.
[In the following essay, Walker asserts that “the medium of the book review allowed for an expression of personal tastes that can provide insight into a woman of integrity and high standards.”]
In her review of the Journal of Katherine Mansfield in 1927, Dorothy Parker made a statement that could equally well apply to herself: “Writing was the precious thing in life to her, but she was never truly pleased with anything she had written.”1 Much later, in 1962, in her last book review for Esquire, Parker wrote of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle in a similarly revealing way, “this novel brings back all my faith in terror and death. I can say no higher of it and her” (575). Of all the forms in which Parker wrote—poems, stories, sketches, epigrams—her published book reviews, written as “Constant Reader” for The New Yorker from 1927 to 1933 and for Esquire from 1957 to 1962, may seem the most ephemeral parts of her career. Yet in her responses to the work of other authors, both in the heady years of the Algonquin Round Table and the emergence of The New Yorker, and thirty years later, when her work was all but forgotten, emerge some of the clearest and most telling indications...
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SOURCE: Melzer, Sondra. “Introduction.” In The Rhetoric of Rage: Women in Dorothy Parker, pp. 1-11. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
[In the following essay, Melzer offers a feminist perspective on Parker's work.]
It is astonishing that Dorothy Parker's universe remains essentially unexplored as serious literature about women. A gifted satirist, reputed as the wittiest woman in America, Parker lived with flamboyant flair in the 1920's and become legendary as a writer of verse and short fiction that depicted uniquely female experiences.
By all accounts, she was the leading light of the small literary set centered in New York during the Jazz Age. When she published her first collection of poems, Enough Rope, in 1926, the book was an instant best-seller—one of the few best-selling poetry books in American history. But people bought it because the author was a media celebrity, and they seemed to appreciate it more for the voguish humor, rather than for the subtle details of the subtext, which touched upon the little, painful, and poignant struggles of women's life.
Despite Parker's popularity and reputation, or perhaps because of it, her short stories have generally been regarded as playful fictional satires, depicting stereotypical female behavior and providing little more than comic pieces of amusement for either public or academic audiences.
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SOURCE: Kinney, Arthur F. “Her Accomplishment: Poetry, Fiction, Criticism.” In Dorothy Parker, pp. 86-153. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Kinney traces Parker's poetic development.]
PREMISES: “CALL HER BY MY NAME”
A rewarding way to study Parker's mature work is to see how she embodies in it more and more of her own life. We [can see] how a work as impersonal as Close Harmony can risk becoming trivial and how, conversely, a play as personal and autobiographical as The Ladies of the Corridor can gain richness, substance, and authority. Parker had learned in writing her plays, as she did in the evolution of her essays and light verse, the inherent value in imaginative application of experience, starting with a personal perspective as a handy persona and moving, more and more, toward a personal aesthetic. Voicings multiply, contradict, appear and recede, denote and imply. “The content of her verse began to change drastically, too,” Meade writes, as she began to expose and analyze her own experiences, her own hopes, fears, and betrayals.
Satin gowns turn into shrouds, decomposing corpses clinically observe the activity of worms, the living dead ghoulishly deck themselves with graveyard flowers. There were alarming glimpses, no more than a series of snapshots, of the tragedies that would be...
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SOURCE: Pettit, Rhonda S. “The Sentimental Connection II: Dorothy Parker's Fiction and the Sentimental Tradition.” In A Gendered Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker's Poetry and Fiction, pp. 121-53. Cranbury N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2000.
[In the following essay, Pettit regards Parker's short fiction as part of the sentimental tradition.]
If Dorothy Parker's twentieth-century poetry seems at times enmeshed in nineteenth-century sensibilities, her fiction offers no less an enigma. Whether she is considered a marginal modernist or outside the canon entirely, whether she is being critically hailed or hammered, Parker is typically referred to as a “modern” writer, particularly where her fiction is concerned. The characterization applies not only to her use of irony and abbreviated form, but to her content as well. Thomas A. Guilason, for example, writes that Parker “used the short story to advance her modern ideas concerning the plight of oppressed people, especially women, struggling for their rights and their independence.” He goes on to criticize Parker's fiction for its superficiality, unrelenting cynicism, one-dimensional characters, and reliance on “the standards set by the commercial magazines.”1 Guilason, his own standards apparently set by New Criticism, could be describing a nineteenth-century American woman writer of fiction....
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Silverstein, Stuart Y. “Introduction.” In Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker, Stuart Y. Silverstein, pp. 9-65. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Provides an overview of Parker's life and career.
Additional coverage of Parker's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20, 25-28R; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 15, 68; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 11, 45, 86; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 28; Poetry for Students, Vol. 18; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2; and Twayne's United States Authors.
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