Dorothy Parker

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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.)

Alexander Woollcott

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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.

Arthur Voss

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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.∗

Brendan Gill

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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...

(This entire section contains 942 words.)

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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, bitter, and unwomanly in their presumed cynicism. They gave the average reader an impression of going recklessly far in asserting a woman's equal rights inside a sexual relationship, including the right of infidelity. The verses do not seem brusque, bitter, and unwomanly today; moreover, the verses that at the time of their first publication appealed to readers as the real thing, full of a pain of loss splendidly borne, are the ones likeliest now to set our teeth on edge, as being tainted with a [false] glib gallantry…. (pp. xvi-xvii)

[Mrs. Parker] flinched from thorough self-examination: the depths were there, and she would glance into them from time to time, but she was not prepared to descend into them and walk their bounds. Her true literary mentor was that forbidding male spinster, A. E. Housman, who with the help of high intelligence, classical learning, and an exquisite ear, contrived to turn a reiterated whining into superior poetry…. Housman pretended to look into the depths, but they were other people's depths and not his…. [He] often moved Mrs. Parker to strike just the wrong note of lofty, sentimental not-caring; her verses are also marred on occasions by "lads" if not "chaps," and she shares Housman's tendency to shower congratulations upon anyone who takes his life when young. (Like Mrs. Parker, Housman was to live into his seventies and die of natural causes. He believed in suicide, but with this proviso—that it was for others.) Mrs. Parker wrote what was essentially light verse; it was not Housman's perennial ruefulness that she ought to have imitated, but the witty aplomb of her contemporary, Ogden Nash…. [Edmund Wilson wrote:] "She writes well: her wit is the wit of her particular time and place, but it is often as cleanly economic at the same time that it is 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, and that is what I am pleading for in poetry."

Wilson expressed that opinion of Mrs. Parker nearly fifty years ago; it continues to be a sound one, and the poems that we admire today are those that most ably sum up her particular time and place…. If it is easier to visit the world of the twenties and thirties through Mrs. Parker's short stories and soliloquies than through her verse, it is also more rewarding; to a startling degree, they have a substance, a solidity, that the poems do little to prepare us for. Not the least hint of the Round Table is detectable in the stories—no sassy showing off, no making a leg at the reader. The author keeps her distance, and sometimes it is a distance great enough to remind one of Flaubert. She has written her tales with grave care and given them a surface as hard and smooth as stone, and there is no need for her to flutter about in the foreground and call attention to her cleverness. We perceive from one sentence to the next that we are in the hands of a skilled and confident guide…. (pp. xviii-xix)

Brendan Gill, "Introduction" (copyright © 1973 by Brendan Gill; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), in The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker, revised edition, Viking Penguin, 1973, pp. xiii-xxviii.

Arthur F. Kinney

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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. Like Horace, she writes satires that are seen as a form opposed not to tragedy (that would be comedy) but to epic. She deals with the commonplace, the everyday, even the trivial if it reveals something useful. (p. 79)

Like Horace, Dorothy Parker weighs every word; she employs both its conventional context and the context in which she places it; she notes the attitude of the persona, the reader, and the poet. Hers is an art which unwinds its meanings. Like Horace, her work only appears extemporaneous; it is really skillfully fashioned. And like Horace, who wanted to become Rome's leading satirist by applying his personal stamp, she finds her own tone, reveals her own sensibility. Repeatedly her attitude is that of a woman who is lazy or carefree but is nevertheless put upon, exploited, unfortunate in life and love. When Dorothy Parker is careless, her work goes flat, words function unequally, and her attitude can collapse into sentimentality. The poems, plays, and stories become thin, or, worse, maudlin and bathetic. Her achievement is not consistent. But at her best—in the art of the epigram or the brief word portrait—she is without peer in her time. (p. 80)

[Her typical poem exhibits] simplicity of diction, clarity of stance, easiness of rhyme, and settledness of form and presentation; each has its own lapidary effect. Such common qualities—which distinguish all her best poems—are neoclassical and together they define all the mature work…. Roman poetry lies just behind the epigrammatic poems of Dorothy Parker. (p. 103)

Confessional yet highly disciplined, conversational yet poetically rendered, the work of both [Catullus and Dorothy Parker] displays a controlled imagination. Distanced reflection and careful analysis merge. And both poets are structurally similar, opening with a summary sentiment, continuing by amplification and parallelism, and concluding with a bright summary or, more often, a turn or counterturn frequently involving a change in attitude, sometimes involving a pun. Catullus and Dorothy Parker share a forced (and threatened) personal integrity before failed love affairs and a disintegrating society…. [They] juxtapose a grim reality with a struggle to preserve the image of an ideal lover; for both, cynicism results. (pp. 104-05)

Dorothy learned much of her art of poetry from Catullus and the Catullan tradition in England and America, but it was the Horation tradition that taught her the inevitability of man's failings, and that led to her rueful and cocky tones…. Structurally, Horace's Satires, like Dorothy's, often begin with a hyperbole, develop by antithetical ideas, or end with a surprise, a twist. Horace wrote his fashionable poetry for his own inner circle, the friends of Maecenas resembling for him what the Algonquin wits did for Dorothy Parker…. (pp. 106-07)

Dorothy Parker's poetry appears thin partly because it is dramatic, not ruminative. But by puns, clichés, and unhappy word choices, her poems invite us to reflect on the sharp difference between poet and persona. It is this implied contrast—one we as readers sense—that provides point and force. The unwinding process of thought is in us…. (p. 114)

Since even her lyrical poetry was essentially dramatic, she made her fiction equally so, like Hemingway deleting background material so as to focus on voices that would reveal situations even as they exposed shallowness and hypocrisy. In foreshortening time and space, Dorothy Parker's stories have surface similarities to "slice-of-life" fiction, but the real emphasis more nearly resembles Joyce. Whether acts and the people who perceive them are substantial or trivial, her fiction deals with epiphanic moments of self-awareness or self-exposure (hence our awareness) so that her fiction takes on a modern cast. (p. 126)

Short fiction is accomplished by restricting either the compass of the subject or the manner of presentation, or both. Dorothy Parker usually limits her focus by a single scene, the single perspective of an unreliable, innocent, or ignorant narrator, and the insinuation of background detail. As with her poetry, she uses dramatic narration to economize space and maximize effect; she does not identify herself with the narration, however, since she means to tell her stories ironically: her own perception is thus deeper and clearer than the narrator's. Her stories are occasionally dramatic …, but, more often, they are static—the change occurs not in character or circumstance but in the reader's awareness of what the author is really signifying. Whether she is writing soliloquy, monologue (this implies a second voice), or narration, she resorts, as in her poetry, to hyperbolic action or remark, repetition, parallelism, clichéd diction, and extravagant tone in order to convey to the reader a meaning somewhat different from that understood by her characters. Her scenes may be scenes of action, but they are more likely to be chains of dialogue that center around a trivial detail. Little elements—a snapped garter, clipping the hedge, false consent—dove tail into mockery of the mediocre, allowing us to understand and analyze both the subtlety and the acerbity of Dorothy Parker's fictional satires. We must learn to distrust the proud or spiteful misjudgments of her characters. Because Dorothy Parker carefully observes accuracy of nuance and precision of detail, her contracted space is, therefore, perhaps the most misleading thing about her fiction.

Dorothy Parker's practices are similar to Hemingway's, whose early short fiction she read with great admiration…. (pp. 129-30)

[Her] stories are, like Swift's, implicit in their satire: the terms for judgment remain outside the works. By asking us to supply the proper terms, she makes collaborators of us, enforces our involvement. By the same token, her satire is so broadened (because of a potentially wide readership) that she often is forced to distort her setting and to make people into caricatures to insure her meaning. Consequently, much of her fiction—despite its realistic base—seems to us more fable than story. (p. 143)

In retrospect, her work still invites our attention because she chose excellent models and lent to them her own identifiable voice, a voice both of a time and place (the "smart" age) and beyond it (the rueful, sardonic, and despairing feminine voice). She knew great poetry arises from intense experience such as Catullus' love for Lesbia or Horace's disappointment in Rome, and she brought her own life to her work; from their use of precision of detail, purity of language, and economy of expression, her own poetry took at its maturity their clarity of tone and compactness of form…. Even while the Algonquin wits restrained Dorothy Parker's humor to spoken bon mots and sarcastic repartee, she herself searched other modes—Horace's satire, Catullus' lyrics, Millay's sonnets. She saw the range of humor, stretching from open sarcasm to a tired and mordant stoicism, and her poetry reflects this wider perspective. (pp. 164-65)

She looked for the same characteristics in fiction and found them nearer home, in Hemingway and Lardner and the best of Fitzgerald. These became her models for fiction—for she felt, while proudly proclaiming her hardwon feminism, that thinking of herself only as a woman would ruin her. Although such sketches as "The Waltz" now seem thin and attenuated beneath the robust surfaces of situation and self-mocking characterization, these monologues and soliloquies like her stories are chiseled down to their elements, their bones wiped clean (as she remarked of Hemingway's style). She combined the impeccable grammar of "The Conning Tower" and The New Yorker with the casual attitude advocated by both, yet she brought to her colder, even reticent fiction a woman's eye for detail of place and costume, habitual gesture and social manner, observations so accurate and dialogue so reliable that they enrich and extend rather than dilute the acerbic satire that, from a sharply disappointed sentimentality, is the chief impulse of all her prose fiction. Her fiction is no more polished than some early essays and the middle and late criticism, but it is, in its way, less self-conscious and so less mannered. The fiction is all of a piece—the sketches, portraits, satires, and stories—but except in rare instances, such as "Dialogue at Three in the Morning," it never seems to reach toward self-parody. (p. 165)

[She had] unerring taste and leaves in the pages of Esquire some of the very best personal literary criticism of the modern and postmodern periods. But her greatest success remains the epigram, a form always more European than American. Here is her chief triumph: she is the best epigrammatic poet in our country, in this century. (p. 167)

Arthur F. Kinney, in his Dorothy Parker (copyright © 1978 by G. K. Hall & Co.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978, 204 p.


Dorothy Parker Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Parker, Dorothy (Poetry Criticism)