Study Guide

Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker Essay - Parker, Dorothy (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Parker, Dorothy (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Complete Poems (poetry) 1999

Criticism

Mervyn Horder (essay date December 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 854 words.)

Regina Barreca (essay date 1995)

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,...

(The entire section is 5740 words.)

Ken Johnson (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 5165 words.)

Amelia Simpson (essay date October 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 5511 words.)

Ellen Pollak (essay date 1996)

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

...

(The entire section is 7833 words.)

Nancy A. Walker (essay date 1997)

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,...

(The entire section is 4753 words.)

Sondra Melzer (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 3267 words.)

Arthur F. Kinney (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 9906 words.)

Rhonda S. Pettit (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 15163 words.)