Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
How does Dorothy Parker create the sardonic humor and wit in her works?
What is the role of the repetition of lines, images, and events in Parker’s works?
To what extent do social forces oppress or victimize the speaker or female protagonist? To what extent do these speakers or protagonists set themselves up for destruction or make themselves victims?
How do the end stanzas, lines, or scenes demonstrate a reversal of what came before?
How does the tone of voice change or shift in Parker’s poetry and fiction?
What are Parker’s attitudes toward romantic love in her poems and stories?
Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Dorothy Parker’s principal writings, identified by Alexander Woolcott as “a potent distillation of nectar and wormwood,” are short stories and verse—not serious “poetry,” she claimed. Her poetic volumes include Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), and Death and Taxes (1931)—mostly lamentations for loves lost, never found, or gone awry. She wrote witty drama reviews for Vanity Fair (1918-1920), Ainslee’s (1920-1933), and The New Yorker (1931); and terse, tart book reviews for The New Yorker (1927-1933) and Esquire (1959-1962). “Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up,” her provoked, personal reaction to A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner (1928), typifies her “delicate claws of superb viciousness” (Woolcott). Parker’s major plays are The Coast of Illyria (about Charles and Mary Lamb’s tortured lives) and The Ladies of the Corridor (1953; three case studies of death-in-life among elderly women).
Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Dorothy Parker’s career flashed brilliantly out in the 1920’s and early 1930’s and then faded equally quickly as the world she portrayed in her stories and poems disappeared into the hardships of the Depression. Her stories are sharp, witty portraits of an age when social and sexual conventions were changing rapidly. Her dramatic monologues, usually spoken by unself-confident women, her sharp social satires, and her careful delineations of scenes and situations reveal the changing mores of the 1920’s. They also, however, portray the attendants of rapid social change: anxiety, lack of communication, and differing expectations of men and women on what social and sexual roles should be. These problems continue into contemporary times, and Parker’s incisive writing captures them well. Her writings are like herself—witty and sad.
Her stories, verse, and reviews appeared in, and helped to set the tone of, the newly founded The New Yorker, which began publication in 1925, and she remained an occasional contributor until 1955.
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
In addition to Dorothy Parker’s verse—not serious “poetry,” she claimed—her principal writings, identified by Alexander Woollcott as “a potent distillation of nectar and wormwood,” are several collections of well-crafted short stories: Laments for the Living (1930), After Such Pleasures (1933), and Here Lies: The Collected Stories (1939). These stories focus on the superficial, pointless, barren lives of middle- and upper-class Manhattanite women of the flapper and early Depression times, unhappily dependent on men for their economic support and emotional sustenance. Parker also wrote witty drama reviews for Vanity Fair (1918-1920), Ainslee’s (1920-1933), and The New Yorker (1931); and terse, tart book reviews for The New Yorker (1927-1933) and Esquire (1959-1962). “Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up,” her provoked, personal reaction to A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner (1928), typifies her “delicate claws of . . . superb viciousness” (Woollcott). Parker’s major plays are The Coast of Illyria (pr. 1949, with Ross Evans), about Charles and Mary Lamb’s tortured lives, and The Ladies of the Corridor (pr., pb. 1953, with Arnaud d’Usseau), three case histories of death-in-life among elderly women.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Dorothy Parker’s poems, stories, and reviews, wisecracking and wary, were the toast of New York in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. She presented a brittle, world-weary, cynically urban view of life appealing to pseudosophisticates—who, indeed, were the subjects of many of her writings. Her literary coterie, the verbally glib, self-promoting journalists of the Algonquin Round Table, were minor writers in relation to their major contemporaries, such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Eugene O’Neill, and later estimates see her work as flashy but not penetrating. Although many of her characters seem superficial, her women being “self-absorbed snobs, her men philanderers, scoundrels, or subservient husbands” (Arthur F. Kinney, Dorothy Parker, 1978), Parker’s stories have remained perennially popular. Critics have noted that the repeated themes of Parker’s poetry and prose are ever contemporary: anxieties, social hypocrisy, waning or unequal love between the sexes, failures of human sympathy and communication.
A few poems and various bons mots continue to be anthologized (“Men seldom make passes/ At girls who wear glasses”), though since the advent of World War II, Parker’s poetry, itself highly derivative, has had little or no influence on subsequent writers of verse, light or otherwise. Today, as the poetry of the contemporaries with whom she was most often compared, Elinor Wylie and Edna St. Vincent Millay is being treated with renewed critical respect, Parker’s reputation continues to languish. To call her, as Kinney does, “the most accomplished classical epigrammatist of her time” is praise of very limited scope. Some feminists perceive Parker as a kindred spirit in her concern for the chronic, debilitating, and also demeaning dependence of women upon their husbands or lovers.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Calhoun, Randall. Dorothy Parker: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A helpful guide for the student of Parker. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Freibert, Lucy M. “Dorothy Parker.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Short Story Writers, 1910-1945, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel. Vol. 86. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. Freibert’s excellent entry on Dorothy Parker provides some general biographical information and close readings of some of her most important stories. Includes a bibliography of Parker’s work and a critical bibliography.
Keats, John. You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. Keats’s book was the first popular biography published on Parker and it is quite thorough and readable. Supplemented by a bibliography and an index.
Kinney, Arthur F. Dorothy Parker. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1998. In this excellent study of Parker’s life and work, Kinney incorporates facts recorded for the first time and provides the first full critical assessment of her writing. Kinney calls Parker the best epigrammatic American poet of her century. Contains a bibliography and extensive notes and references.
Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?...
(The entire section is 406 words.)