Dorothy Parker

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Mervyn Horder (essay date December 1993)

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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 unimportant physical rotten-ness of whoever made it is well buried’, and turn to her work instead. This is conveniently available as The Collected Dorothy Parker in the Penguin Modern Classics Series.

None of her prose stories exceeds ten thousand words (the length of the average Sherlock Holmes short story), none of her poems forty lines (and some of the best are less than ten); but somehow her forlorn, querulous little voice is still to be heard when those of her robuster more chest-thumping contemporaries are silent for ever. She was a kind of female Housman, her speciality unrequited or misdirected love, her tone generally despondent, her vehicle verse of unfailing neatness, crying out to be read aloud and making an instant effect in that form. In addition to her original work, which is even more exiguous in extent than it sounds, a full third of her Penguin collection being taken up with her ephemeral book and theatre reviews, a hard core of her spoken remarks has been handed down in biographies and elsewhere, and in these the black diamonds of her wit coruscate as intensely as ever. Such collections of these sayings as have appeared here so far have not always been wisely edited; so that it is possible to offer below, in no particular order, some supplementary, less familiar, gleanings of merit from the harvest:

“Scratch an actor and find an actress.”

“I like to think of my shining tombstone. It gives me, as you might say, something to live for.”

To a New York cabby who said he was engaged: “Then be happy!”

“As far as I am concerned, the most beautiful word in the English language is ‘cellar-door’.”

To a woman in the theatre who asked her: ‘Are you Dorothy Parker?’: “Yes, do you mind?”

Taken to task by Harold Ross, her New Yorker editor, for not coming to the office to write her usual piece: “Someone else was using the pencil”.

In Monte Carlo, in 1926, the Casino refused her admittance because she didn't wear stockings. “So I went and found my stockings and then came back and lost my shirt”.

Asked what she did for fun: “Everything that isn't writing is fun”.

Returning in 1938 from ten days in Spain: “The crossing was so...

(This entire section contains 854 words.)

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rough that the only thing I could keep on my stomach was the First Mate”.

“Life is terrible!”

‘Don't you enjoy anything?’

“Certainly. Flowers, French fries and a good cry.”

In Hollywood Sam Goldwyn asked her: ‘Do you really say all those things the papers report that you say?’ “Do you?”

Working in Hollywood. “Unless someone comes near my office, I'm going to write ‘MEN’ on the door.”

‘How do you do it?’ women often asked her. “See your analyst; he might have a word with your ovaries.”

“Oh I said it alright. You know how it is. A joke. When people expect you to say things, you say things. Isn't that the way it is?”

“Did I enjoy the party? One more drink and I'd have been under the host.”

Asked if she knew Hemingway's age: “All writers are either 29 or Thomas Hardy.”

She spent some time in the company of a handsome sun-burnt young film star in Hollywood: “Ah yes, his is the hue of availability.”

Under interrogation by the FBI in 1952: “Listen, I can't even get my dog to stay down. Do I look like someone who could overthrow the government?”

“Wit has truth in it. Wise-cracking is simple calisthenics with words.”

“As I was saying to the landlord only this morning: ‘You can't have everything’.”

We might take our leave of her with the remark she made to Lillian Hellman, her executor, a few days before she died: “Lilly, promise me that my gravestone will carry only these words: ‘If you can read this, you're too close’.”


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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.

Regina Barreca (essay date 1995)

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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 poverty, economic and spiritual, upon women who remained chronically vulnerable because they received little or no education about the real world—the “real world” being the one outside the fable of love and marriage. But Parker also addressed the ravages of racial discrimination, the effects of war on marriage, the tensions of urban life, and the hollow space between fame and love. Of her domestic portraits one is tempted to say that, for Parker, the words “dysfunctional family” were redundant. She wrote about abortion when you couldn't write the word and wrote about chemical and emotional addiction when the concepts were just a gleam in the analysts' collective eye.

Parker approached these subjects with the courage and intelligence of a woman whose wit refused to permit the absurdities of life to continue along without comment. Irreverent toward anything held sacred—from romance or motherhood to literary teas and ethnic stereotypes—Parker's stories are at once playful, painful, and poignant. Her own characteristic refusal to sit down, shut up, and smile at whoever was footing the bill continues to impress readers who come to her for the first time and delight those who are already familiar with the routine. Her humor intimidates some readers, but those it scares off are the ones she wouldn't have wanted anyway.

She didn't court or need the ineffectual. She would not, for example, have wept too long for having frightened good old Freddie from the sketch titled “Men I'm Not Married To.” Freddie, she tells us, “is practically a whole vaudeville show in himself. He is never without a new story of what Pat said to Mike as they were walking down the street, or how Abie tried to cheat Ikie, or what old Aunt Jemima answered when she was asked why she had married for the fifth time. Freddie does them in dialect, and I have often thought it is a wonder that we don't all split our sides.” There, in brief, lies the difference between Parker's gift and much of what passed for humor in her own (and in our own) time: Parker's wit caricatures the self-deluded, the powerful, the autocratic, the vain, the silly, and the self-important; it does not rely on mean and small formulas, and it never ridicules the marginalized, the sidelined, or the outcast. When Parker goes for the jugular, it's usually a vein with blue blood in it.

Certainly the portraits of deliriously pretentious intelligentsia Parker poured onto her pages tweaked at certain readers, and it's probable that Parker herself was aware of the wince-inducing effect of some of her sharper prose as she left it out of the earlier collections of her work. What is certain is that a number of the stories printed here for the first time since their initial publication in various periodicals contain moments of satire so spectacular that those certain readers mentioned earlier might shrivel up in the manner of a vampire shown a silver cross.

Her silver crosses are fashioned along the lines of this miniature, presented in Parker's previously uncollected early sketch “An Apartment House Anthology”:

The minute you step into her apartment you realize that Mrs. Prowse is a woman of fine sensibilities. They stick out, as you might say, all over the place. You can see traces of them in the handmade candles dripping artistically over the polychrome candlesticks; in the single perfect blossom standing upright in a roomy bowl; in the polychrome bust of Dante on the mantel—taken, by many visitors, to be a likeness of William Gibbs McAdoo; most of all in the books left all about, so that Mrs. Prowse, no matter where she is sitting, always can have one at hand, to lose herself in. They are, mainly, collections of verse, both free and under control, for Mrs. Prowse is a regular glutton for poetry.

In passage after passage, Parker not only grasps the petit points made by self-proclaimed cognoscenti in order to mock them, but she grasps them hard 'round the throat, and hard enough to put them out of their misery.

Parker went about the business of writing in a very practical way: she did it and got paid for it. But it seems as if there is a fraternity of disgruntled critics who would like to make her pay for her achievement with her reputation. They speak of her “exile” to Hollywood, where she had the audacity to be successful as a screenwriter and the nerve to be nominated for an Academy Award for writing the cinematic masterpiece A Star Is Born. They argue that she “sold out” and “wasted” herself by writing about narrow topics.

Let's clear up this business about narrow topics: Parker concerns herself primarily with the emotional and intellectual landscape of women, the places where a thin overlay of social soil covers the minefields of very personal disaffection, rejection, betrayal, and loss. She manages throughout it all to make her work funny (and that she is funny is one of the most important things about her) while tilling away at this dangerous garden; and for that generations of women and men have thanked her by reading her, memorizing her, making movies about her, performing plays based on her, and writing books analyzing her—but also castigating her most ruthlessly, passing on untruths behind her back and since 1967 speaking most ill of the dead.

Narrow topics? It is true that Parker often viewed her large subjects through small lenses, and that sometimes—sometimes—her fanatic attention to detail can be mistaken for a passion for minutiae instead of a passion for sharply focused observation. But those disparaging Parker's accomplishments usually make only passing (if not parenthetical) reference to the fact that she has remained a popular writer for more than sixty years, a woman who constructed a literary reputation for herself by writing satirical and witty prose and poetry when women were not supposed to have a sense of humor, and writing about the battle between the classes with as much appetite and bite as she brought to the struggle between the sexes.

You might say that Dorothy Parker should be placed at the head of her generation's class, given her ability to willfully and wickedly push, prod, and pinch her readers into thought, emotion, laughter, and the wish to change the world as we've always known it. You might say that she has surely earned recognition by articulating that which is ubiquitous but unspoken, or you might say that she deserves kudos because she managed to say with wit and courage what most of us are too cowardly or silly to admit. Usually when authors manage to do this—write powerfully and passionately about an important and universal topic—they are rewarded.

Not so with Parker. Parker has been slammed for at least thirty years. One recent critic complains that Parker had “no disinterestedness, no imagination,” and another bows low to introduce Parker with the gallant phrase “The span of her work is narrow and what it embraces is often slight.” It's clear, however, that such critics write not out of their own convictions but out of their own prejudices. How else could they have read Parker with such blinkered vision?

Parker's work is anything—anything—but slight, concerning as it does life, death, marriage, divorce, love, loss, dogs, and whisky. Given the comprehensive nature of her catalog, it is clear that the only important matters untouched by Parker boil down to the impact of microchip technology, sports, and cars. And if you look carefully at her prose, Parker does deal with cars—if only in passing, and only those passing in the fast lane.

Not that Parker had a great wish to be counted among Those Who Appeal to the Well-Read. Her portrait of literary types, in both her fiction and her nonfiction, is about as flattering as a broken tooth. In another previously uncollected sketch, “Professional Youth,” we are introduced to “one of the leading boy authors, hailed alike by friends and relatives as the thirty-one-year-old child wonder”—uncannily resembling his modern counterparts, who continue to make up the vast population of large parties in large cities celebrating small achievements. Parker informs us about the way in which the junior author declares his greatness and originality:

Perhaps you have read his collected works, that celebrated five-inch shelf. As is no more than fair, his books—Annabelle Takes to Heroin,Gloria's Neckings, and Suzanne Sobers Up—deal with the glamorous adventures of our young folks. Even if you haven't read them, though, there is no need for you to go all hot and red with nervous embarrassment when you are presented to their author. … He has the nicest, most reassuring way of taking it all cozily for granted that not a man or a woman and but few children in these loosely United States could have missed a word that he has written. …

And what exactly is the original contribution to thought made by this radical young band of renegade writers?

They come clean with the news that war is a horrible thing, that injustice still exists in many parts of the globe even to this day, that the very rich are apt to sit appreciably prettier than the very poor. Even the tenderer matters are not smeared over with romance for them. They have taken a calm look at this marriage thing and they are there to report that it is not always a lifelong trip to Niagara Falls. You will be barely able to stagger when the evening is over. In fact, once you have heard the boys settling things it will be no surprise to you if any day now one of them works it all out that there is nothing to this Santa Claus idea.

Not that reading fares all that much better than writing. Parker implies that language should be considered a controlled substance, parceled out according to need and only in small amounts. Listen to what, in her classic late-night-alone monologue “The Little Hours,” she has to say about what she might call the “gorgeous” effects of books taken at a high dosage:

Reading—there's an institution for you. Why, I'd turn on the light and read, right this minute, if reading weren't what contributed toward driving me here. I'll show it. God, the bitter misery that reading works in this world! Everybody knows that—everybody who is everybody. All the best minds have been off reading for years. Look at the swing La Rochefoucauld took at it. He said that if nobody had ever learned to read, very few people would be in love. There was a man for you, and that's what he thought of it. Good for you, La Rochefoucauld; nice going, boy. I wish I'd never learned to read. I wish I'd never learned to take off my clothes. Then I wouldn't have been caught in this jam at half-past four in the morning. If nobody had ever learned to undress, very few people would be in love. No, his is better. Oh, well, it's a man's world.

“If nobody had ever learned to undress, very few people would be in love” is one of Parker's witty lines. It is not her autobiography. When an author's words are confused with her deeds, they too often act as substitutions for a truly conscientious consideration of her work and life. Yes, Parker married a few times, divorced a few times, drank, and wrote her heart out. Except for the astonishing ability with which she completed this last task, she lived a life much like those of the other writers of her day. It seems odd, then, for an article written on the centenary of her birth (in The New Yorker, ironically enough) despairingly to announce the shocking discovery that for Parker “success did not bring happiness.”

Why this prevailing wish to preserve Parker as a twentieth-century version of Dickens's Miss Havisham, a phantom swaying over the ghostly remains of the Algonquin Round Table, murmuring rhyming verse to herself, alone and abandoned? Why the wish to see her long life as a failure of the will to die rather than the triumph of a will to survive? Perhaps because the idea of a successful woman writer, one who deflated daily the pretensions of the world around her with a stiletto irreverence aimed at the hypocrisies of the cultural avant-garde, is unnerving even in this day and age. Why else preserve not the image of a wickedly laughing woman who enjoyed her heart's rush into the territories where angels feared to tread, but the vision of a sad, unfunny used up little old lady? (Who was that little old lady, anyway? Certainly not Parker. At seventy Parker wanted to start writing a column for Esquire and to publish a new collection of stories.)

On a bad day it's not hard to dream up a conspiracy plot which demands that all women writers who speak successfully with a satirical tongue get lacerated critically or, worse, that such women are presented as sad, shriveled shells of frivolous femininity, or—worse still, worst ever—that women who don't act nicely get left alone. But then such bad days are usually provoked by the realization that the woman writer is still regarded by certain critics as an intellectual and moral idiot because she doesn't write about fly fishing or pontificate on the bounty of the world so lovingly created (by men, need we add?) as her playground.

But Dorothy Parker was not meant to be Betty Crocker; the joys of womanhood were not on her agenda.

The complications, delights, humor, and frustrations of womanhood were, however, unflinchingly examined by Parker. Her business was to make fun of the ideal, whatever it was, and trace the split between the vision of a woman's life as put forth by the social script and the way real women lived real lives. The ordinary is the very heart of her material. It is the essence of much of her humor. In “Dusk Before Fireworks,” for example, we are privy to the following timeless exchange between a “very good-looking young man indeed, shaped to be annoyed,” and a “temperately pretty” woman who “half a year before … had been sweeter to see,” which takes place after the beleaguered girlfriend has just protested a little too much: “You know I haven't got a stitch of jealousy in me. Jealous! Good heavens, if I were going to be jealous, I'd be it about someone worth while, and not about any silly, stupid, idle, worthless, selfish, hysterical, vulgar, promiscuous, sex-ridden—”

Delicately annoyed, the young man stops her tirade with the word “Darling!” Using the term as a means of punctuation rather than a declaration of affection, he interrupts her only to ask the age-old question:

“Why do you want to work up all this? I watched you just sit there and deliberately talk yourself into it, starting right out of nothing. Now what's the idea of that? Oh, good Lord, what's the matter with women, anyway?”

“Please don't call me ‘women,’” she said.

“I'm sorry, darling,” he said. “I didn't mean to use bad words.” He smiled at her. She felt her heart go liquid, but she did her best to be harder won.

The gap between how life is dressed up to appear and what it looks like underneath its fancy trimmings is the gap where interesting writing begins, especially when that writing is satiric. The female satirist makes some people nervous. They don't feel all that easy around a woman who puts her “femininity” aside in order to make a point or a joke—and heaven help her if she wants to take a humorous perspective on a serious point.

But heaven help Parker, then, because she was nothing if not irreverent; nothing to her was sacred save human dignity. For the woman in “The Little Hours” who finds herself awake as a kind of penance for having retired early, in bed with only La Rochefoucauld for company, Parker can offer a virtual litany of irreverence. Listen to how well she mimics the authoritative voice, only to slash it to pieces with the edge of reality; listen to the way she demonstrates her perfect knowledge of the lines (making reference to, among others, Shakespeare, Browning, Milton, Marvell, Keats, Shelley, and Walter Savage Landor). Only after establishing proficiency in that most acceptable of lofty literary languages does Parker go on to savage its meaning by tossing it all into the blender:

This above all, to thine own self be true and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. Now they're off. And once they get started, they ought to come like hot cakes. Let's see. Ah, what avail the sceptered race and what the form divine, when every virtue, every grace, Rose Aylmer, all were thine. Let's see. They also serve who only stand and wait. If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. Silent upon a peak in Darien. Mrs. Porter and her daughter wash their feet in soda-water. And Agatha's Arth is a hug-the-hearth, but my true love is false. Why did you die when lambs were cropping, you should have died when apples were dropping. Shall be together, breathe and ride, so one day more am I deified, who knows but the world will end tonight. And he shall hear the stroke of eight and not the stroke of nine. They are not long, the weeping and the laughter; love and desire and hate I think will have no portion in us after we pass the gate. But none, I think, do there embrace. I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree. I think I will not hang myself today. Ay tank Ay go home now.

Smart as a kick in the shins and as on target as a stealth flyer, maybe Parker is more concerned with being considered witty than with being considered nice, especially if “nice” is synonymous with “agreeable” and “orthodox.” It's tough to be funny when you have to be nice, and Parker made it her business to be funny. Readers clearly adore her humor; critics have often disparaged it as shrill and self-indulgent. This can be put into perspective, however, when we realize that women who argue against their own subjugation are called shrill and those who point out the absurdities in life without offering an accompanying twelve-step program to fix it all up are deemed ethically irresponsible. A recent critic charmingly claimed that Parker remained “morally a child” all of her life. Parker was many things, but naive wasn't among them, and the idea of her suffering from a case of moral arrested development because she occupied her time in confronting emotional and social issues can hardly be regarded as a rational argument.

If Parker's work can be dismissed as narrow and easy, then so can the work of Austen, Eliot, and Woolf. Now that it's mentioned, their writing was also dismissed as small prose-potatoes for quite some time. Maybe Parker is in good company there in the crowded margins, along with all the other literary paragons of her sex. Aphra Behn didn't get cut much critical slack, either, when she was writing social satire in the 1670s; and like many women writers after her, she was said to have been unencumbered by the necessity of being ladylike.

(Wasn't it Behn who wrote in an introduction to one of her plays that she appeared as a woman, not as a playwright, to her critics, and that often her work was attacked for one reason alone: it “had no other misfortune but that of coming out for a woman's: had it been owned by a man, though the most dull, unthinkably rascally scribbler in town, it had been a most admirable” piece of writing? Surely the same can be claimed for Parker. This leads me to think that perhaps Parker should be pictured as seated at a table with these, her literary predecessors, rather than chained by the ankle and fixed in one amber moment at the restaurant of a middling Manhattan hotel surrounded by the boys. Perhaps we should place Parker among her peers, not merely her contemporaries. Surely Behn, Austen, Eliot, and Woolf have more in common with Parker than Benchley ever did, even if we imagine that Parker would have rather played with Robert than with Aphra.)

Parker can be summed up as a writer of depth and substance; to hiss merely that she was a rapid burn-out case is to sneer, when what is called for is prolonged and sincere applause. It's like saying that Virginia Woolf was melancholic, George Eliot couldn't handle her relationships, and Jane Austen wasn't much fun at a dance: you'd imagine that throwing rocks at the glass houses of major writers would get tiring after a while and certain critics would pack up their pebbles, heading home, where at least in their sleep they could do little harm. The trajectory of Parker's critical acceptance has often been charted far below that of her popular acclaim, a curious reversal of the situation of many other mid-twentieth-century writers, who are so often pushed to the front of the group by their very own personal critics, the authors looking a great deal like reluctant children, aware of their limitations, who are shoved onto the stage by aggressively solicitous parents eager for them to perform so that their own talents can be validated.

With Parker, the job is simplified. There is no need to resurrect her, because she has remained an author whose work has continued to sell strongly year after year, her readership gleefully resistant to the condescension of literary types who damn her with faint praise. But there is now, as there is every so often, a need to re-establish her footing in the “canon.” The stories collected here are evidence of that. The fact that these works have captured the flag of the reading world's attention and held it since 1944, when the first Portable Dorothy Parker was published, is additional evidence, should it be needed, of her strength and originality.

That Parker is brutally funny is no joke: the unforgiving nature of the humor she directed not only towards herself but towards any figures who took themselves too seriously is her trademark. Her wit is not a surprise to those who have read more than two or three of her works, whether stories, poems, plays, or reviews; the patterns of her humor become quickly familiar even to her new readers, since the effects of her style depend not so much on the ambush of the unexpected as on the anticipation of the inevitable.

You know that the woman—cleverly named Dorothy Parker by the author—in the 1928 New Yorker story “The Garter,” newly collected here, is best friends with the women in Parker's better-known monologues “A Telephone Call,” “The Little Hours,” and “The Waltz.” When her garter breaks as she sits alone in the middle of a party, “a poor, heartsick orphan … in the midst of a crowd,” she muses “To think of a promising young life blocked, halted, shattered by a garter! In happier times, I might have been able to use the word ‘garter’ in a sentence. Nearer, my garter thee, nearer to thee.” At this point, of course, she's off and running once again, with the applause and hollers of the audience a mere blur:

It doesn't matter; my life's over, anyway. I wonder how they'll be able to tell when I'm dead. It will be a very thin line of distinction between me sitting here holding my stocking, and just a regulation dead body. … If I could have just one more chance, I'd wear corsets. Or else I'd go without stockings, and play I was the eternal Summer girl. Once they wouldn't let me in the Casino at Monte Carlo because I didn't have any stockings on. So I went and found my stockings, and then came back and lost my shirt. Dottie's Travel Diary: or Highways and Byways in Picturesque Monaco, by One of Them. I wish I were in Monte Carlo right this minute. I wish I were in Carcassonne. Hell, it would look like a million dollars to me to be on St. Helena. … Suppose somebody asks me to dance. I'll just have to rock my head and say, “No spik Inglese,” that's all. Can this be me, praying that nobody will come near me?

If Parker isn't sure that it's her, we can reassure her on the matter: the voice is virtuoso Parker, and “The Garter” is one of her best monologues.

You know, too, that the supercilious mother in “Lolita” will be undone by her predatory envy towards the daughter who happily marries the man coveted by the mother herself; when the wry narrator informs the reader at the story's conclusion that Lolita's mother was “not a woman who easily abandoned hope,” you know that the mother's hope is a poisonous one, aimed to strike at her daughter's success. You know that the wise older woman in “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl” will herself duplicate the unwise habits of the younger woman seeking her advice, that she cannot live out the counsel she passes along. Perhaps, Parker implies, it is impossible for a flesh-and-blood human being to be as coolly manipulative, controlling, and controlled as thirty-nine-ish Miss Marion appears to be when she suggests to her nineteen-year-old friend Sylvie Peyton that she not permit herself to “become insecure,” and that she conquer her fears that her boyfriend will leave her by being “always calm.” Miss Marion coos, “You must wait, Sylvie, and it's a bad task. You must not telephone him again, no matter what happens. Men cannot admire a girl who—well, it's a hard word, but I must say it—pursues them. … Talk to him gaily and graciously when you see him, and never hint of the sorrow he has caused you. Men hate reminders of sadness.”

Who would like to bet there and then that, after the little Peyton girl has left Miss Marion alone with her own needy demons, the coolly collected older woman will not catastrophically pick up her telephone—more than once in the space of a few minutes—to call a certain Mr. Lawrence? Are we shocked to hear her inner voice send up the familiar lament “Oh, he said he'd call, he said he'd call. He said there was nothing the trouble, he said of course he'd call. Oh, he said so.” All the good advice is invalidated in a shadowy, lonely late afternoon for a single woman approaching forty.

In presenting the pattern for examination, Parker exploits the apparently trivial—telephone calls, social invitations—in order first to extract, and then to reveal, a theory concerning the larger implications of the difference between the sexes. The theory goes something like this, as she put it in a 1957 story titled “The Banquet of Crow”: “Two people can't go on and on and on, doing the same things year after year, when only one of them likes doing them … and still be happy.” It's a simple statement, but not an easy one to live through, especially for the likes of Miss Marion or, Parker implies, for the rest of us who cannot mummify our emotions.

You need not have read much Parker to know how these stories will turn out, but then her skill does not depend on the breathless rush towards the unknown but instead on the breathless rush towards the known—even, or especially, when that which is known is what should be known and avoided. The voraciously vulnerable woman will be hurt; the casually unfaithful man will call another more-than-willing victim to his side; the shopgirl who longs for jewels in a window will learn just how far from her reach these pearls lie; the son of a selfish mother will turn up on her doorstep hoping for unselfishness; the woman who dances with a lout will have her instep stepped on and will keep on waltzing.

The waltzing woman will inevitably keep her subtext to herself, and let her partner in on only those phrases he will be able to endure, telling him, “I was watching you do it when you were dancing before. It's awfully effective when you look at it.” She then goes on to tell us what she really thinks, and it isn't as winsome as what he hears:

It's awfully effective when you look at it. I bet I'm awfully effective when you look at me. My hair is hanging along my cheeks, my skirt is swaddling about me, I can feel the cold damp of my brow. I must look like something out of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This sort of thing takes a fearful toll of a woman my age. And he worked up his little step himself, he with his degenerate cunning.

Not that the reader is certain, by the story's end, whose voice is in ascendancy. The man is a figure to be satirized internally, perhaps; but that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep your arms around him just the same. The twinned-voice belongs to a woman who laughs at her partner but doesn't quite want to let him go. It's sad, Parker knows it's sad, and you know it's sad when Parker writes it. And yet we laugh.

Parker's characters are in most danger—and are most dangerous—when they threaten to break the silence. When the young woman in “New York to Detroit” calls to demand some verbal reassurance, she gets only the literalization of the bad connection that has no doubt existed between the lovers for months before his departure from Manhattan. We flinch to hear her say, no doubt against all her better instincts, “Darling, it hurts so terribly when they ask me about you, and I have to say I don't—” only to have him reply, “This is the damndest, lousiest connection I ever saw in my life. … What hurts? What's the matter?” The repetition of her sentiment more than undermines its effectiveness; it renders her speech so useless that she attempts surrender: “I said, it hurts so terribly when people ask me about you … and I have to say—Oh, never mind. Never mind.” But she can't quite give up, and asks him for some sweetness to get her through the night—only to have him ring off to join a bunch of his friends who have just dropped by for a party. If you have to ask for love, according to Parker, you won't get it; but who, according to Parker, can manage to go through life without asking for love?

When she writes about a woman waiting for a telephone call, anyone who has ever waited by the phone can understand what Parker's character is putting herself through, sensing the ferocity of the struggle against speech when words can only lead to further ruin:

I must think about something else. This is what I'll do. I'll put the clock in the other room. Then I can't look at it. If I do have to look at it, then I'll have to walk into the bedroom, and that will be something to do. Maybe, before I look at it again, he will call me. I'll be so sweet to him, if he calls me. If he says he can't see me tonight, I'll say, “Why, that's all right, dear. Why, of course it's all right.” I'll be the way I was when I first met him. Then maybe he'll like me again. I was always sweet, at first. Oh, it's so easy to be sweet to people before you love them. … They don't like you to tell them they've made you cry. They don't like you to tell them you're unhappy because of them. If you do, they think you're possessive and exacting. And then they hate you. They hate you whenever you say anything you really think. You always have to keep playing little games. Oh, I thought we didn't have to; I thought this was so big I could say whatever I meant. I guess you can't, ever. I guess there isn't ever anything big enough for that.

Writing with the full force of true passion—writing the way this character speaks—Parker has indeed been chastised for believing that the literary world was big enough to let her say, in all honesty, whatever she meant. Even as her character misgauges her beloved, so did Parker misgauge a gang of critics who sought to punish her for the authenticity and lack of pretense in her writing. And yet even as her character makes us look at ourselves, and makes us the laugh in the mirror image presented, so does Parker hold a glass up to life, lightly. She wins, finally, because her success affords her the last laugh.

Principal Works

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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

Ken Johnson (essay date 1995)

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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 marginality.

Yet Dorothy Parker produced a substantial body of work in a range of literary modes, including three volumes of poetry, three plays, several screenplays, a significant number of book and play reviews, and three volumes of short stories, as well as other uncollected stories, poems, and articles. Her career spanned more than four decades, from the late 1910s to the early 1960s, and from the beginning of her popularity until the time of her death, her name carried celebrity status—in other words, once she established herself as a writer and gained an appreciative audience, she never completely faded from the public memory, regardless of her progressively dwindling output. More importantly, in terms of American literary history she was one of the formative voices of the influential New Yorker magazine, as well as one of the few women writers of short stories in America during the 1920s and 1930s who put out popularly best-selling collections of stories (Laments for the Living, 1930; After Such Pleasures, 1933; Here Lies, 1939) that have remained in print into the 1990s (in their reincarnation as The Portable Dorothy Parker from Viking Press). In contrast, other women fiction writers contemporary to Parker, such as Ruth Suckow, Ellen Glasgow, and Zora Neale Hurston, often saw their works pass out of print, for various reasons, during their lifetimes.

Also, Parker's stories were admired not just by the purchasing reading masses, but by other short story writers acclaimed in their own right both then and now. In 1929, Fitzgerald encouraged Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's to publish Parker (Fitzgerald 25), and in 1938 he commended his daughter for reading (and “liking”) Parker's stories (Fitzgerald 215). Parker's short stories, the most substantial portion of her output, display many of the same structural techniques hailed as ground-breaking experiments in the stories of Lardner, Faulkner, and Hemingway: the dramatic monologue, the “dialogue” story, and the juxtaposition of internal and external realities. One of Parker's fortes, the soliloquy story, has no exact precedent in the history of American short stories. Considering all these factors that would suggest the need for a closer study of Parker's work, it is curious indeed that sustained critical attention has rarely been given to her writing.

Four of her stories (“A Telephone Call,” “Here We Are,” “The Waltz,” and “From the Diary of a New York Lady”) demonstrate Parker's unique handling of the short story form, and the technical sophistication of stories such as these should secure her a stable position within the canon. What Parker generally brings to the short story form, and to these four in particular, is a unique use of repetition, creating a kind of eternal perpetuum mobile that consigns the stories' characters to an endless experiencing of their own superficiality and emptiness. Whether the structural handling of such stories prefigures or even imitates the technical approaches of Hemingway, Lardner, or Faulkner is less important for this essay than how Parker's stories expand on the possibilities of the form in her own way. Before examining Parker's use of repetition, however, a brief consideration of critical responses to her oeuvre is necessary in order to appreciate the ironic paradox that the most significant structural and thematic aspect of her fiction—repetition—is also the aspect that has probably contributed most to the frequent dismissal of her work as shallow, usually by male critics. On the other hand, feminist critics have been slow to reevaluate Parker's work for reasons that are not altogether clear.

The typical posthumous critical appraisal of Parker's overall achievement has been neatly, and nattily, summarized by Brendan Gill in his introduction to The Portable Dorothy Parker: “The span of her work is narrow, and what it embraces is often slight” (xxvii). Gill's introduction is a study in supreme condescension, which is especially unfortunate since The Portable Dorothy Parker is the only collection of Parker's works in print. Gill writes approvingly of other writers from the 1920s and early 1930s, such as Fitzgerald, Lardner, Hemingway, and “the other boys in the back room” (xxii), and then as a sop to the reputation of their erstwhile female companion, he states that it is not “surprising that there should pop up among them, glass in hand, hat askew, her well-bred voice full of soft apologies, the droll, tiny figure of Mrs. Parker” (xxii).

Gill's backhanded dismissal of Parker and her writing differs from other critical judgments only in its extended explicitness. Mordecai Richler, while defending the selections for his anthology The Best of Modern Humor, pauses briefly to explain why Parker was not included: in 1980 her style seems, to him, too “brittle.” Academic critics have also tended to avoid Parker: she rates only a few references in passing throughout the first two volumes of No Man's Land, Gilbert and Gubar's monumental study of twentieth-century American women writers, and no attention at all is given to her in a large-scale reference work such as American Women Writers: Bibliographical Essays.

While noting the resurrection by feminist scholars of so many previously forgotten American women writers, one might wonder why Dorothy Parker's works have not been likewise resuscitated during the past two decades. For one thing, the reanimation of literary reputations seems to occur more frequently with nineteenth-century women writers—for example, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, or Margaret Fuller—in order to demonstrate a number of points: that women were indeed producing substantial writing in an otherwise male-dominated writers' marketplace, that women writers were frequently depicting the unique experiences of female characters from distinctly feminist viewpoints, and that such women writers and their works have been silenced through the hegemony of patriarchal criticism.

Of these concerns, only the last one really applies to Parker's case. Early in her career she cracked the publishing market: Vanity Fair began publishing her poetry in 1914, and her first published story appeared in H. L. Mencken and George Nathan's The Smart Set in 1922. Once established, Parker was sought after on the basis of her ability and popularity, and she has never been completely swept into the dustbin of literary amnesia, as was the case for many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women writers. While Parker's fiction is filled with female characters, many of whom dominate the center of their respective stories, her work is generally devoid of the approaches to women's experiences that often appeal first to academic feminist critics: the kind of overt feminist agenda associated with the fiction of numerous later twentieth-century women writers such as Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, or the depiction of a successful (or doomed) awakening of a female protagonist, or a celebration of a community of independent, self-sustaining women. Nonetheless, in her interview for the Paris Review in the 1950s, Parker labeled herself a feminist who had been active in the women's movement since the time when New York City “was scarcely safe from buffaloes” (77). But in the same passage she criticizes the lack of artistry in the works of women writers such as Edna Ferber and Kathleen Norris and condemns their proliferation as a result of the very struggle for equality in which she claims to have been a participant. During most of her career she seemed indifferent, even adverse, to placing herself within a tradition of women's writing: in 1929, while working on a novel she would never complete, she wrote in a letter to Alexander Woollcott, “Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman. For Jesus Christ's sake, amen” (Meade 203). Finally, Parker has probably missed out on a warm embrace from feminist critics in part because, after all, she has been dead only since 1967, and while her reputation has languished, the fact that it has never been firmly established or dismissed places her in a weird nebula where she seems to need neither reevaluation nor rescue—when actually she needs both.

Parker's work has regularly been dismissed, moreover, on the basis of triviality, in content, style, and technique, usually with the implication underlying such a critique that the content, style, and technique of her contemporary male short story writers are hallmarks of substance and depth. Apparently bullfights, African safaris, washed up expatriate writers in France, and ill-starred southern gentry and field hands serve as more suitable subjects for fiction than the lives of middle- and upper-class white urbanites, usually women. Certainly Parker's subject matter does not encompass a wide range of social classes or situations, but the same could be said of Faulkner's subject matter, or Fitzgerald's, or just about any writer's, depending on the slant from which it is described. Instead of merely cataloguing the number of different topics an author chooses to deal with, a better way to consider an author's subject matter might be to study the methods in which it is presented. Parker's female characters rarely lead lives beyond the role defined by patriarchy (mother, wife, mistress, housekeeper, secretary), and their abiding concerns often revolve around the status of a relationship with a man. These women are frequently the victims of the roles created for them by society, but Parker's stories do not deal solely with the oppression of women: Parker's male characters are no less victims of their own circumstances. More importantly, all of Parker's characters, male or female, usually create their predicaments in the same degree to which other forces contribute to those predicaments.

However, Parker usually portrays her characters within only a brief time frame (the consequences of which will be discussed shortly), frequently avoids giving them distinguishing idiosyncratic characteristics, and often uses the speaking passages of a central character to reveal characterization. Indeed, Parker develops many of her typical female characters through their speech rather than through narrative exposition—reflecting Rosalind Coward's assertion that in the twentieth century “above all, the female protagonist has become the speaking sex” (39)—and in all of Parker's stories mentioned earlier (except “Here We Are”), the speech or writing of the female protagonist is the story. Parker clearly intends to work with surfaces, an intention that is neither accidental nor a botched attempt to analyze the motivation of her characters. Paula Treichler has observed that a “language-centered analysis” of Parker's stories is crucial due to their stylistic intricacy (46-47). Unfortunately, a result of Parker's constant stylistic repetition of action and language, coupled with the naturally repetitive cadences of a character's pervasive speaking voice, has often been the critical charge of shallowness. The point of so many Parker stories, however, is to portray shallowness itself as it occurs in the lives of her characters. In fact, Parker's technique of repeating action and repeating language creates an innovative fictional effect of perpetual motion in many of her stories that would seem to extend the lives of her characters beyond the beginning and ending boundary of each story.

Much of this sense of perpetual shallowness is achieved through the time frame established in Parker's stories. Arthur Kinney has described her fiction as “radically condensed” (143), and it is especially in her more original short stories (such as those mentioned earlier) that the shortened time frame contributes to the thematic effect of superficiality. Indeed, Jean Pickering has suggested that all the elements of a short story, including “structure, theme, characterisation, language … are influenced by [their] particular relation to time” (53). The dancer in “The Waltz” thinks her poisonous thoughts only throughout the duration of a single waltz; the voice of the soliloquizer in “A Telephone Call” speaks as long as it takes to mull through six pages of stream-of-consciousness thinking; and the newlyweds in “Here We Are” converse for about half an hour while their train approaches New York City. “From the Diary of a New York Lady” follows, obviously, an altogether different structure with its five-paragraph daily entries and therefore a different kind of time frame, yet the tone of each entry gives the sense of hasty composition, in part through the capsule references to repeated and similar activities. In each case the time frame of action is severely limited, and consequently all aspects of the respective stories are affected, the most significant being characterization. None of the characters in these stories achieves the kind of full development that critics, and readers, often seek. As a matter of fact, none of the characters in these four particular stories is even given a name.

But Parker is not attempting to dissect the psyches of these characters; her intent seems closer to that of Poe with his nameless, deranged characters in their dramatic monologues, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which the speakers relate their involvement in gruesome murders, often detailing physical action with sordid precision, but rarely pausing to examine the motivation behind their actions or their confession. The tales horrify as much because of their gruesome content as because of the superficially conceived tone of the narrators' voices. Parker's stories do not rely on Gothic horror to draw out the psychological shallowness of her characters, but her characters in these four stories do share with Poe's characters that anonymity, in both name and personality, which heightens the sense of the characters' superficiality and reinforces what is surely one of the author's thematic concerns about the horror of shallow self-understanding.

The short time frame in each of Parker's stories does not allow for complex psychological development of the characters. Even though, in the case of three of these stories, the central character does all the speaking, how much depth can a character believably reveal within one fifteen-minute speech, especially when the speech is permeated with a single, obsessive concern? Valerie Shaw has warned about the problem of character free will, and consequently of characterization itself, inherent to the “tightly controlled quality” of the short story form:

[it reduces] the possibility of showing characters making free, let alone complicated choices. Willpower often seems to have become the privilege of the author alone: paradoxically, [her] desire to give a story inevitability may have the effect of depriving [her] characters of any self-determining power, making them appear to be locked in a structure which has been specially designed to fate them to passivity and sameness.


For authors who intend to portray highly developed, individual characters (and for the readers who expect to read about them), Shaw's caveat certainly carries weight, but a conception of the importance of this kind of character development excludes the uses (the necessity, even) of other types of characterization. In fact, Shaw's statement implies that an author has some sort of responsibility for creating characters with absolute free will. (Here, one might remember that when questioned whether his characters take on independent realities of their own during the process of creation, Vladimir Nabokov snorted in negation and referred to his characters as “galley slaves.”) What about an author who wants to make a deterministic point about “passivity and sameness”?

While Parker's characters are not necessarily at the mercy of overwhelmingly deterministic forces and consequently do not come across as helpless pawns in some inscrutable chess game, her characters do often seem limited in their choices. But such limitations come about through an inability to rise above or see beyond obsession and pettiness. The soliloquizer in “A Telephone Call” could attempt to move on with her life by simply moving beyond the range of her telephone. The dancer in “The Waltz” could decline another dance. The newlyweds in “Here We Are” could go to bed and get past the initial trauma of sexuality. The socialite in “From the Diary of a New York Lady” could surely look beyond the color of her fingernail polish.

Of course, it is Parker herself who does not allow these characters to make such substantial changes in their actions and personalities: superficiality is the aim of these Parker stories, but superficiality for a purpose. Not only are the characters illustrative targets of a satiric ideal of shallowness, but they also give the impression of eternal sameness, and in this way, Parker's stories are often every bit as horrifying as Poe's stories because they imply an everlasting repetition of superficiality and emptiness; in a Poe story the gory action has already occurred in the past and is being remembered, or even confessed, for unexplained reasons by one of the nameless participants, whereas Parker's stories imply ongoing action (indeed, the events of “The Waltz” and “A Telephone Call” unfold in the present tense while the first-person narrators speak) that will continue forever. In other words, these four Parker stories resist closure. Of course, open-ended fiction is hardly a revolutionary construction, but the open-endedness of Parker's stories results not so much from a range of ambivalent interpretations—Parker's satiric intentions are not so subtle as to be inscrutable; rather, the open-endedness of her stories comes about through the implication of continuing, repetitive action.

Parker achieves this implication through both the content of the stories and the stylistic device of repetition. In “Here We Are,” the greatest portion of Parker's satire is given over to the unstated anticipation of the sexual consummation of the honeymoon night, with the husband barely concealing his squirming expectation with the verbal tic “I mean—I mean” whenever his statements veer too closely to references about the approaching night. Parker also takes aim at petty marital discord—in this case, taken to the extreme since the couple has been married for only a few hours. Their entire conversation is a study in vacuity: they discuss how the bridesmaids looked, they discuss the wife's new hat, they discuss the millions of marriages that must have occurred concurrently with theirs, they discuss how quickly the day has passed. And they quarrel. The wife accuses the husband of disliking her family, disliking her new hat, making eyes at one of the bridesmaids; the husband accuses the wife of wanting to marry an old boyfriend, misunderstanding him. Does this unlikable couple suffer merely from a case of honeymoon jitters? Hardly, since readers discover from the wife seven pages into the bickering, after the husband exclaims, “Hell, honey lamb, this is our honeymoon. What's the matter?” that “[they] used to squabble a lot when [they] were going together and then engaged and everything, but [she] thought everything would be so different as soon as [they] were married” (131). Clearly this couple has been quarreling since they met; Parker shows them at a brief, key point in time in their relationship—during the honeymoon, the official beginning of the new life together—still quarreling. At the end of the story, the husband's mind is still focused on the approaching sexual activity, and Parker concludes with a final repetition of the husband's verbal tic as well as another more subtle repetition in the closing words of both characters:

“Pretty soon we'll be regular old married people. I mean. I mean, in a few minutes we'll be getting in to New York, and then we'll be going to the hotel, and then everything will be all right. I mean—well, look at us! Here we are married! Here we are!”

“Yes, here we are,” she said. “Aren't we?”


The final line of the story would seem to freeze the action of these two characters as well as of the entire story, in part because it is the final line, but also because the words refer to a specific juncture in time and space, both literal and figurative: end of train journey / beginning of wedded life; train compartment / temple of marriage. Yet Parker's construction of the story, with its repetition of content and speaking style in this couple's dialogue, implies continued and continuing motion, so that the final printed statements of the husband and wife, spoken by each (“Here we are”), are really just another step in the series of actions and speeches that Parker has constructed for this pair to send them into their fictional eternity—especially since the concluding statements also serve as the very first words that Parker allows these characters to speak in the opening of the story.

Parker's characters never become aware that they are doomed to a fictional infinity of superficiality; the newlyweds in “Here We Are” might delude themselves momentarily into expecting a peaceful future, but readers know better from Parker's depiction of them. The socialite whose diary is reproduced in “From the Diary of a New York Lady” has no power of self-criticism whatsoever, and it is especially in this highly stylized story that Parker uses repetition of content to underscore both a projection into eternity for this character and a damnation of her shallowness. This story shares a structural similarity with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” in its use of diary entries of a nameless female protagonist who has lost control of her life. Gilman's protagonist is fully aware of her powerlessness while consigned by her doctor-husband to a “rest” therapy in the country; the grim irony of the story asserts itself at the end when the diarist, confident that she has regained control of her sanity, has actually lost it.

In contrast, Parker's protagonist never seems aware that she lacks control of her life: the emptiness of her daily life is a secret shared by Parker and her readers. During five consecutive nights she cannot decide which dress to wear to the opening night of five new plays with titles like Never Say Good Mornin,Everybody Up, and Run Like a Rabbit (even these titles imply continuing movement), and then flits off to parties (always escorted by some flunky named Ollie Martin, after failing to land one of her “new cute numbers”) at which the same Hungarian musicians in green coats perform, and where the same cutup named Stewie Hunter always vies for attention by leading the band with a lamp or a fork or some other outrageous pseudo-baton. Each morning she recovers from a hangover, sends messages to unreceptive “new numbers,” and worries about the condition of her fingernails. The story has no conclusion in any traditional sense: the entries merely stop after the fifth day, having presented a sequence of actions that is a representative slice of a much longer sequence of the same actions. The interest in such a story lies not in finding out what ultimately happens to the diarist because there is never any sense of “ultimateness” or climax, as in the more traditionally plotted “The Yellow Wallpaper,” where a climax occurs when the diarist finally disintegrates psychologically. Rather, the interest in Parker's story lies in discerning the pattern of the diarist's life and realizing that the pattern never changes in substance or direction, only in detail and sequence (e.g., What new calamity will befall the diarist's fingernails? When will the diarist again damn Miss Rose, her manicurist?). Parker has set this woman into a literal perpetual motion, like a top, consigned night after night to spinning through the emptiest of lives with the most vacuous of companions.

Parker's masterful use of repetition and variation distinguishes a story like “From the Diary of a New York Lady,” but it also serves to propel the perpetually repeating superficiality beyond the final line of the story. Parker uses the same technique in her best soliloquy, “A Telephone Call,” in which a female speaker agonizes while waiting for a male acquaintance to call. She begins countless sentences with the word “maybe,” as she runs through every conceivable possibility for why he has not called. She carries on a one-sided dialogue with God, asking, begging, pleading, threatening—working through every rhetorical device available in order to arrive at an understanding about the man's apparent rejection of her. And she counts. In the second paragraph of the story she decides that the phone might ring by the time she has counted to five hundred by fives; she makes it to fifty before reverting to her stream-of-consciousness meanderings. Nearly halfway through the story she decides to count again to prove that a supplication to God will bring about results by the time she reaches five hundred by fives; she makes it to fifty-five. At the very end of the story she decides to count a third time, and the soliloquizer is last heard at the number thirty-five followed by an ellipsis. That she would reach five hundred is doubtful considering her previous attempts, and the ellipsis is certainly Parker's way of dooming this anonymous, speaking neurotic to endless repetitions of the same cycle.

Because of its content (as indicated by the title), “The Waltz” best illustrates Parker's use of structural repetition in conjunction with a story's content to fling a character into everlasting motion. In “The Waltz” a female character traps herself into dancing with a man: she warmly accepts the dance invitation (the words of which Parker represents in italics) and then launches into an interior diatribe against her partner and his dancing ability. This woman has the opportunity, in the first place, to decline the dance invitation, but she only exacerbates her unhappiness when she coyly blames herself (in the words she speaks to her partner) after he stomps on her feet, inwardly cursing him. To herself she claims the dance has lasted “thirty-five years” and envisions being trapped with her partner “throughout eternity” (50). Yet she agrees to dance throughout the band's encore, and in the story's final paragraph, Parker leaves the woman speaking to her partner:

Oh, they've stopped, the mean things. They're not going to play any more. Oh, darn. Oh, do you think they would? Do you really think so, if you gave them twenty dollars? Oh, that would be lovely. And look, do tell them to play this same thing. I'd simply adore to go on waltzing.


Despite nearly five pages of inward griping, the speaker has consigned herself to another waltz, one of which has already dissolved the boundary of her perception of time. When she falsely declares that she would “simply adore to go on waltzing” it is clear that Parker has granted that wish in terms of the structure of the story: As the story concludes, the speaker will be seen whirling off into her fictional eternity on a dance floor with a klutz, sharing the fate of perpetual, superficial motion that Parker visits upon her other characters.

Each of these stories exhibits Parker's skillful ability to use the structural device of repetition in a unique way, producing stories that embody endless motion through an overall structuring uncommon to most American short stories. While this aspect of her stories represents one contribution to the short story form, it also indicates a useful approach to her work for feminist scholars: despite Parker's own prayer that she not “write like a woman,” the lack of climax in many of her stories, her abiding use of stylistic repetition, and the open-ended nature of the action of her stories all point to what some critics view as a distinctive women's way of writing. This assessment complements the arguments of Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi, who maintains that the repetitive nature of the traditional domestic existence of women has influenced the way women writers structure their work: the progressiveness of the Aristotelian plot is replaced by a structure favoring stasis and cyclicity (163-167). With the structural spin that she initiates for most of her characters, Parker may have been writing “like a woman” whether she wanted to or not.

In any case, Parker rarely seems to have much sympathy for her characters, male or female; certainly they do not seem to realize that their personalities have trapped them in an eternal spin. Of course, it is Parker herself who orchestrates the action of each story and creates the participating personalities, and it is she who does not allow her characters to realize what has happened to them. The fate that Parker devises for her characters might be expressed in the same words that congressional clergyman and theologian Jonathan Edwards used to warn his congregation of everlasting damnation: “There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all.” Unlike Edwards's God, however, Parker gives her characters no warning, no chance for repentance and redemption. Instead, she has created the particular situations with her own distinctive fictional technique of repetition, demonstrating Nancy Walker's assertion that American female humorists create “forms suited to their own lives and needs” (12), to satirize superficiality in a number of its manifestations, and to condemn such superficiality to eternal, repeating perpetual motion.

Works Cited

Coward, Rosalind. “The True Story of How I Became My Own Person.” The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender & the Politics of Literary Criticism. Eds. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989, pp. 35-47.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ed. Andrew Turnbull. New York: Scribner's, 1963.

Gill, Brendan. Introduction. The Portable Dorothy Parker. New York: Viking, 1973.

Kinney, Arthur F. Dorothy Parker. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? New York: Penguin, 1989.

Parker, Dorothy. Interview. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1958.

———. The Portable Dorothy Parker. New York: Viking, 1973.

Pickering, Jean. “Time and the Short Story.” Rereading the Short Story. Ed. Clare Hanson. New York: St. Martin's, 1989, pp. 45-54.

Rabuzzi, Kathryn Allen. The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework. New York: Seabury, 1982.

Richler, Mordecai, ed. Introduction. The Best of Modern Humor. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Shaw, Valerie. The Short Story: A Critical Introduction. London: Longman, 1983.

Treichler, Paula A. “Verbal Subversions in Dorothy Parker: ‘Trapped Like a Trap in a Trap.’” Language and Style 13.4 (Fall 1980): 46-61.

Walker, Nancy A. A Very Serious Thing: Women's Humor and American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Further Reading

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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.

Amelia Simpson (essay date October 1996)

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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” (90). By shifting our sights to consider the function of three seemingly minor black characters in Parker's “Big Blonde,” we are given a penetrating view of the divides of American identity, and of one white author's attempt to write that identity. Parker's story compellingly exposes the way gender and race are mutually constitutive, and how blackness constructs and contests the privilege of whiteness.

“Big Blonde” won Parker the national O'Henry Prize for the best short story published that year. Arguably her strongest work, it is generally viewed as an unusually affecting tale about feminine vulnerability. The story is frequently read as a kind of “autobiographical fiction,” and it contains many echoes of the author's own failed relationships with men, her drinking problems, and her loneliness and suicide attempts. But the connection is probably more subtle. Parker's writing and her life reveal a drama of negotiation with the urge to challenge on the one hand, and to surrender on the other. As Nina Miller points out, Parker's public persona was “desirable to the extent that she was … modern and reassuring to the extent that she left certain basic femininities intact” (767). Parker's biographers suggest she was both liberated and constrained, exploited and self-exploiting. The nasty tongue she cultivated earned her a name as one of the founders of the male-dominated Algonquin Round Table, yet the record shows little room at that table for moods not witty or cynical. Parker's trademark mouth gave her entry to a masculine domain she evidently aspired to join, but much of her work is devoted to complaining relentlessly about the terms by which women are forced to operate in a male-dominated world. Her telephone stories, for example, find women always on the short end of the conversation. Parker invented herself as a bad girl, and she was original in her badness, but often sorry in her girlness. She successfully wisecracked her way to a seat at the table with the boys, but she is frequently remembered more for that status than for her writing.

The 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle does little to disturb the conventional view of Dorothy Parker as a clever but self-aggrandizing and troubled personality. The “vicious circle” seems to refer as much to Parker's drinking habits and penchant for sleeping around as to the sharp-tongued crowd she joined regularly for banter at the Algonquin. Not much is made of her literary talent. The film is sprinkled with poems, but they are delivered in a slurred and mumbled undertone that is difficult to decipher and hints at manic depression and drunkenness more than the idea of serious literary endeavor. An editor of Parker's once complained that her work didn't amount to much more than a series of “asides” (Acocella 78). But Parker was a gifted writer who struggled seriously alongside others engaged in mapping the social and moral contours of American culture. She is more than a camp follower, as John Updike implies when he writes: “[Her] life brushed against most of the strands of American literary life from 1920 to 1950” (112).

Parker survives in the push and shove of contradiction that gives a story like “Big Blonde” a hold on us still. In that text, the author produces a narrative about the subjugation of white women in America, using the scaffolding of blacks in America. Three Africanist figures who at first glance appear to serve only the interests of narrative expediency, are in fact the key to Parker's architectural paradox. Their presence problematizes the text beyond its interrogation of the cultural construction of the “big blonde” as an ideal of femininity. The question of gender resonates in another, more suggestive way in the presence of Africanist figures who reveal that such a construction is also informed by views of race. The proximity of the historically bought black body to the kept white one contaminates and opens the narrative to a wider contemplation of the institutions and practices of slavery.


“Big Blonde” is the tale of Hazel Morse. The story's title gives a familiar formula for femininity, a code tapped out by the appropriately named Morse. Her surname reminds us that the dumb blonde, like any stereotype, is human identity reduced to uninflected code. Her given name records the haziness of the view from inside such a construction. The author uses blondeness to eroticize the character and give her a badge of shallowness.4 Morse is the blonde built for amusement and display, a woman “of the type that incites some men when they use the word ‘blonde’ to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly” (275). Morse and her women friends, “other substantially built blondes,” are supported by such men who call up when they are in town on business (276).

Morse is a woman whose identity is something others bestow on her. When the story begins, she is a dress model in her twenties. By the end, she is a tired party girl in her mid-thirties, surviving in an alcoholic haze, self-destructing before ever building a self. She is dumb blondeness reduced to a blur, to “flabby, white” flesh made slow by age and alcohol (275). Morse's body is Parker's subject. The author details its decline in increments of degradation, from the “inexpert dabblings with peroxide,” to the feet squeezed each night into undersized “champagne-colored slippers” (277, 292). Morse, like the other blondes in the story, is passed around from man to man, yet, “in her haze, she never recalled how men entered her life and left it” (292).

Parker's protagonist is distinguished from the others by a more radical emptiness. The author has her materialize out of nowhere. Her only relative, a “hazy widowed mother,” dies when the story begins (275). Morse surfaces intact, a big blonde in her mid-twenties, in New York City, in the 1920s, a woman with no history, no future, and only a vague sense of the present. She is no different a decade later: “At her middle thirties, her old days were a blurred and flickering sequence, an imperfect film, dealing with the actions of strangers” (275). Morse is a permanent stranger with a familiar face.

Parker insistently presses her protagonist into the corsetted role of the party girl. A brief marriage is an experiment with emotional liberty: “To her who had laughed so much, crying was delicious” (278). But the experiment fails; Morse is unreadable except as the party girl, the “good sport.” She is permitted only one mood, that of gaiety, and her role is rigidly enforced:

She was instantly undesirable when she was low in spirits. Once, at Jimmy's, when she could not make herself lively, Ed had walked out and left her. “Why the hell don't you stay home and not go spoiling everybody's evening?” he had roared.


Morse is quickly and brutally punished for the least deviation. Apart from her role as party girl, she hardly exists, and indeed tries not to: “She slept, aided by whisky, till deep into the afternoons, then lay abed, a bottle and glass at her hand, until it was time to dress and go out for dinner” (293). Eventually Morse longs only for escape: “She dreamed by day of never again putting on tight shoes, of never having to laugh and listen and admire, of never more being a good sport. Never” (293). She buys a quantity of sleeping pills and sinks into unconsciousness.

At this juncture, Parker introduces a set of three new characters. It is no coincidence that they are black. These figures bear the heavy body of the sleeping Morse across the narrative bridge back to speech. They rescue her, and they do more. They illuminate Morse's condition, and they complicate the narrative. They engage the story of the blonde in a deeper dialogue with her keepers. Morse's “colored maid” Nettie, the “Negro” elevator attendant George, and a “dark girl,” constitute the Africanist presence in “Big Blonde.” Nettie keeps house and, after Morse's suicide attempt, carries out the “ugly, incessant tasks in the nursing of the unconscious” (302). It is Nettie, too, who discovers Morse in a coma and goes to George for help. Together, they find a doctor in the building, interrupting him while he is entertaining a “dark girl,” evidently a prostitute, in his apartment. Although the “dark girl” is not explicitly identified as black, the adjective and her working status contrast conspicuously with the blondeness and nonprofessional status of Morse and her women friends.

The white figures (Morse, the doctor) and the black figures (Nettie, George, the prostitute) emerge in sharp contrast to each other. Morse herself has become a blank, drooling slab of a body:

Mrs. Morse lay on her back, one flabby, white arm flung up, the wrist against her forehead. Her stiff hair hung untenderly along her face. The bed covers were pushed down, exposing a deep square of soft neck and a pink nightgown, its fabric worn uneven by many launderings; her great breasts, freed from their tight confiner, sagged beneath her arm-pits. Now and then she made knotted, snoring sounds, and from the corner of her opened mouth to the blurred turn of her jaw ran a lane of crusted spittle.


The doctor's approach to the medical emergency is professional, impersonal, and remote. He barely speaks, and regards Morse as nothing but a “nuisance” (301). The black figures, on the other hand, negotiate a range of emotions, from fear, wonder, and excitement, to compassion, irritation, and scorn. Their manner is impulsive, intimate, and indiscreet. The black figures are set apart by their expressiveness, and by other markers as well. They are portrayed as childlike, their speech is different, and they have no names or first names only.5 Although they are adults, the black characters are referred to as “boy” and “girl,” where the whites are “men” and “women.” The black figures are even shunted off to the end of the narrative, positioned away from the body of the text.

From the start, then, the text formally establishes a disjuncture between black and white. That structural and figurative separation exposes white as central, commanding, and controlled, while black is shown as peripheral, subordinate, and undisciplined. Parker is clearly implicated in the conventions of representation that place blackness in a sphere inhabited by primitive or childlike Others. From that position, the black figures serve to highlight white stature and authority. The segregating structure, however, also allows blackness to inform whiteness in other, unintended ways. As Morrison observes in another context, “there are unmanageable slips” (58). If blackness shows white in control, it is also seen as detached and lifeless. The inhumanity blackness ascribes to whiteness shapes and sharpens the author's vision of femininity, while yielding unanticipated significance as well.

Nettie is the most important of the three black figures in “Big Blonde.” One wonders why the other two are there at all. The answer lies in their function as surrogates, stand-ins for missing registers of experience. In this case, and in keeping with the well-documented history of blackness as a sexualizing trope in Western discourse, the two characters foreground the theme that is implicit throughout the story, starting with the title itself—that of illicit sexuality.6 The conspicuous fashion in which two minor black figures raise the subject of sexual commerce and desire contrasts to its muted treatment elsewhere. Morse and her crowd represent a marketplace where men pay and women are kept, but the commercial nature of the transaction is masked by a logic of social alliances. Racial difference undercuts that logic to expose a politics behind Morse's abandonment of her own body. She is depicted as sexually indifferent, neutral to the advances, for example, of boyfriend Ed:

It became his custom to kiss her on the mouth when he came in, as well as for farewell, and he gave her little quick kisses of approval all through the evening. She liked this rather more than she disliked it. She never thought of his kisses when she was not with him.


The expression of sexual awareness, desire, and agency is displaced onto the Africanist figures of the elevator attendant and the prostitute. Called to the bedside of the comatose Morse, George prods her “so lustily that he left marks in the soft flesh [of] the unconscious woman” (299). The prostitute, in turn, cries after the doctor as he reluctantly departs to tend to the emergency: “Snap it up there, big boy. … Don't be all night” (300).

Along with their usefulness to the narrative design, these two, apparently marginal, black characters function discursively to underline the theme of illicit sexuality. The dark girl makes transparent the nature of the transaction that commodifies the big blonde in America. She articulates and links the codes of commerce and sex. By introducing race to the gendered field of sexual commerce, her meaning also spills over into another trade in bodies to connect Morse to the historical text of the black body. George, too, functions through his blackness. The contact between his blackness and Morse's whiteness makes his poking at an unconscious body more than just sexual taboo.

Only a page after the episode in which Parker has George prod Morse's soft flesh, the author describes the doctor's treatment of the same body:

With one quick movement [the doctor] swept the covers down to the foot of the bed. With another he flung her nightgown back and lifted the thick, white legs, cross-hatched with blocks of tiny, iris-colored veins. He pinched them repeatedly, with long, cruel nips, back of the knees.


The infliction of a series of pinches, which Parker pointedly labels as “long” and “cruel,” indicates an impulse to punish. Since the doctor's duty is to police the border Morse has attempted to cross, his reaction to her is necessarily punitive as well as professional. But it is possible to imagine another border here as well—one that is challenged by the sexualized contact between the black male (George) and the white female (Morse), and between the black female (the “dark girl”) and the white male (the doctor). It is worth noting, in this regard, that the author calls attention in the passages depicting these episodes to the whiteness of Morse's body. The intervention of the Africanist figures, whose presence serves but also threatens to disrupt racial hierarchy, elaborates on the meaning of Morse's “punishment” by placing her in the context of a disintegrating self that is explicitly white.

Although their roles are brief, George and the prostitute draw attention to the function of the racial Other to serve and also to complicate and disturb. The third of Parker's Africanist figures—Nettie, the “colored maid”—has a larger role in “Big Blonde.” Nettie is central to the narrative play of accommodation and disruption that the Africanist presence represents. On the one hand she is a serviceable figure. She cooks, cleans, and runs errands for Morse. Yet for all her serviceability and subaltern status, Nettie is pivotal. She is particularly important to the narrative denouement. Nettie foregrounds and inflates the white woman's unfolding drama of isolation, and she can do so because her blackness guarantees her separateness. Parker reminds us explicitly each time Nettie appears that she is the “colored maid,” as if to give special emphasis to her difference. Nettie becomes the final enforcer of the social code that imprisons the big blonde. It is Nettie who delivers the last blow. Parker makes the black figure the embodiment of the bonds of slavery.

The maid makes three appearances in “Big Blonde,” each linked to a stage of Morse's descent into increasingly bewildering confinement and dependence. Nettie first surfaces when Morse's short-lived marriage fizzles and Ed, the first boyfriend, takes possession. He persuades Morse to move to an apartment more convenient to him, near the train station:

She took a little flat in the Forties. A colored maid came in every day to clean and to make coffee for her—she was “through with that housekeeping stuff,” she said, and Ed, twenty years married to a passionately domestic woman, admired this romantic uselessness and felt doubly a man of the world in abetting it.


The maid facilitates an arrangement that deepens Morse's isolation and renders increasingly conditional her apparent freedom. Nettie gives coherence to a domain explicitly framed to serve male interests. The maid's function is to keep the narrative house in order. Yet, while Nettie allows the author at this point in the text to foreground a paradigm of gender oppression, the regular reminders of racial difference introduce another element to the developing theme of freedom and enslavement.

When Nettie next appears, she is buying liquor for the suicidal alcoholic. Morse has managed to purchase a quantity of veronal tablets, and she addresses the tablets with religious fervor. Nettie hovers helpfully nearby, an “angel” of deliverance:

She put the little vials in the drawer of her dressing-table and stood looking at them with a dreamy tenderness.

“There they are, God bless them,” she said, and she kissed her fingertip and touched each bottle.

The colored maid was busy in the living-room.

“Hey, Nettie,” Mrs. Morse called. “Be an angel, will you? Run around to Jimmy's and get me a quart of Scotch.”

She hummed while she awaited the girl's return.


When Morse takes the final step and swallows her pills, the maid will be the net that catches her in her fall. She is Parker's solution to the problem of how to end the story. Without Nettie, Morse dies in a haze, pleasantly knocked out, herself cheated, and cheating us, of the full spectacle of her misery. A rescued Morse, on the other hand, is a woman without the blinds, finally and fully alive and aware. The character who saves Morse assumes the ungenerous, dismissive, inhuman qualities of all of the blonde's keepers. Nettie becomes, in effect, the punishing voice of the social body that creates and destroys Morse. Rather than embrace across the racial divide, the two women mark it. Nettie is the net that catches, but also traps. Although she nurses Morse back to life, no understanding grows between them. The gender identity that Parker explores through the figure of Morse is inscribed in a hegemonic discourse of racial difference.

Nettie's role after Morse regains consciousness is an example of the ironic reversal that Michele A. Birnbaum notes in her analysis of the literary function of the racialized Other in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899). In “Big Blonde,” as in Chopin's text, the racialized Other can serve as a marker of the status quo of social hierarchy. In this context, “the oppressed become the oppressors” (Birnbaum 308). When Morse finally comes out of a coma, able to do little more than weep at the “saturating wretchedness” that slowly returns with consciousness, Nettie only looks “coldly at the big, blown woman in the bed.” “You can thank you' stars you heath at all,” the maid scolds (302). Nettie irritably prompts Morse to express gratitude for the care: “Here I ain' had no sleep at all for two nights, an' had to give up goin' out to my other ladies!” (302). Parker brings in Nettie to witness but not treat, to rescue but not save. When Morse asks “Didn't you ever feel like doing it? When everything looks just lousy to you,” Nettie's response is a cool rebuke: “I wouldn' think o' no such thing” (302).

Immediately following this exchange is another which Nettie initiates and which effects a fundamental transformation in Morse. Her voice will split open for the first time and become knowing. She will shed her speechlessness, the vacuum of cliché, and speak for the first time with irony. The shift occurs after Nettie's scolding when she continues, using the same words Morse has heard many times before from her various escorts: “You got to cheer up. Tha's what you got to do. Everybody's got their troubles.” Lying in what she had hoped would be her deathbed, Morse's response, “Yeah, I know,” is her first declaration of self, of knowledge of her place in the world (303). This is the first ironic Morse we have seen.

Parker ends her story by repeating the epiphany. Morse has persuaded Nettie to pour them both a drink and she proposes a toast:

“Thanks, Nettie,” she said. “Here's mud in your eye.”

The maid giggled. “Tha's the way, Mis' Morse,” she said. “You cheer up, now.”

“Yeah,” said Mrs. Morse. “Sure.”

Morse's “Yeah … sure” is, again, a signal of recognition. She has emerged finally from a verbal world of formula—where small talk is all the talk there is—into the grip of powerful, disabused utterance. Enforcement of the code of the party girl has fallen to Nettie, its brutal tyranny displaced onto the black figure, whose giggle marks her difference and her indifference.

It is Nettie who is assigned the racial identity that erects a barrier between the two women. When the maid does not stay to share a drink with Morse, but instead, “deferentially [leaves] hers in the bathroom to be taken in solitude,” the social code that is played out is structured by a racialized paradigm. The mistress/servant dichotomy casts the relationship as one of domination and subordination (303). The white woman's status, gradually eroded in the course of a narrative of gendered subjugation, is nevertheless still marked as a position of privilege in relation to the black servant. Thus if the rhetoric of racial oppression emerges suggestively in relation to Parker's theme of gender oppression, the text continues to operate on another level to reinforce, not interrogate, racial difference. When Morse hits bottom, for example, and survives to feel misery “crush her as if she were between great smooth stones,” she compares herself to “weary horses and shivering beggars and all beaten, driven, stumbling things”—but not to Nettie (303).

The doctor is the one white figure who participates in Morse's “rescue.” He saves her, but without piercing her isolation. Parker's ambivalence about assigning that role to a white character is reflected in the way she taints him, making him not quite white. Through his contact with the “dark” prostitute, the doctor is distinguished from the other white men in the story who prefer blondes. He is linked to blackness through George as well. There is a similar element of violence in the way the two men pinch and poke as they handle Morse's unconscious body. The two men meet across her body, as well as across the racial boundary where each seeks sexual contact. Blackness releases the doctor from the exacting codes of whiteness. His grayness makes possible his indifference to Morse's fate, an attitude that American slang tells us is not “white.”7


Parker's black figures divulge a departure from personal to social pathology, from the solitary, pitiable drift Morse embodies to the menacing current in which she is caught. At the heart of “Big Blonde” is the commerce of human bodies. The Africanist presence alludes to that commerce, but also conceals it. Parker uses the subordinate, othered, inconsequential Nettie to outline the dilemma of captivity. She and the other Africanist figures in “Big Blonde” both serve and shield the author. They make it possible for her “to say and not say, to inscribe and erase” (Morrison 7). Parker's narrative is thus rhetorically implicated in the perpetuation of racial difference and inequality.

It may be useful to imagine the consequences if Africanism were not available as a discursive device for Parker to employ, if there were no black figures in “Big Blonde,” if the maid, the elevator attendant, and the prostitute were white. Certainly, the distance between that group of characters and Morse would be reduced. She would be familiarized, rather than estranged, by the surrounding figures. She would be more like them, one among them. In the absence of blackness, Morse would be less white, less innocent, less alone. She would be less effective in dramatizing her story of estrangement and alienation, and less able to contain and isolate the germ of another idea: That all American freedom is broadly and historically conditional.

Parker's narrative burrows into the vagueness of Morse's flesh in order to express a hard bone of truth about femininity. The racial implications of the big blonde are remarked only indirectly. She is regarded above all as an icon of male desire. But blondeness is liminal, not democratic. Blonde hair on nonwhite skin is a marker of difference, appropriation, or deviation. Gender displaces race in the consumption of the image of the blonde, yet the ideology that fuels that elision still binds the two together. In the context of Parker's story, blonde is connected to black through the vulnerability of the body. The leaks that allow race to surface in “Big Blonde” are a consequence of the author's willingness to expose fully the vulnerability of the female body.

Parker's work suggests she regarded women as crucially expressive of the American identity. Her fiction and poetry are all about them. Most of Parker's women are closely attached to the American landscape. They evoke the stylish abandon and “modern love” of the twenties, the slippery pleasure and curse of American money, the rise and fall of one's place on the social ladder. Parker's women are caught up in the space and movement of loosening times. They are not introspective, not grounded or protected. They are placed in a gendered narrative with the view that ease of circulation is attached to a condition that menaces, entraps, and often dooms. Parker's women are not free. The authority they wield is contingent, and so they are rendered vulnerable, easily disabled, replaced. To the degree that Parker compares the status of women like Morse to that of slaves, “Big Blonde” represents a radical confrontation with American identity.

But if Parker places women in the same arena of vulnerability and oppression as blacks, at the same time she makes use of the codes of racial separation to create her narrative. That apparent contradiction, or sympathetic break, introduces to Parker's tale a breach that exposes the convergence of race and gender. Through that gap we see that the privilege of the big blonde is granted by racially-constituted desire. Concerning the intersections of the oppressions of gender and race expressed in antebellum feminist-abolitionist texts, Karen Sanchez-Eppler observes that “although the identifications of woman and slave … occasionally prove mutually empowering, such pairings generally tend toward asymmetry and exploitation” (15). Many decades later, Parker's story reflects the same struggle. The association of the condition of women with that of slaves in “Big Blonde” unfolds virtually exclusively through the story of a white woman.

Parker's use of racial difference is not the same as racism. The author was sensitive to racial prejudice, and denounced it explicitly in two stories from her major collections—“Arrangement in Black and White” (1927) and “Clothe the Naked” (1938). Unlike in those tales, however, the Africanism in “Big Blonde” is not studied. Indeed, it is likely inadvertent. As such, it is revealing of a different register, of blackness not as a theme but as a mechanism of and for the imagination. The blackness in “Big Blonde” brings race into the story of gender oppression, but the oblique approach leaves unexamined their interdependence and the consequent possibilities for negotiating positions of otherness.

Morrison shows how black characters in American literature by white authors do not have to be mere background detail, simple props for setting up action, but rather that they “ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis” (viii). She explores Africanism in literary expression as a device that develops from the need to write a social identity that rests in a fundamental sense on a shudder of recognition. American literature tells again and again the compelling story of “a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression” (xiii, original emphasis). Literature is one site where the unfree body is put to work to guarantee the free one. Reading the Africanist presence in Parker's story not only illustrates how crucial blackness is to American literary expression, but also helps to explain an elusive author. To ignore the way American Africanism shapes the visions and structure of works by writers like Dorothy Parker depletes us. Morrison warns that “all of us, readers and writers, are bereft when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice a disrupting darkness before its eyes” (91). If Hazel Morse is more than a forgettable floozy, it is because Parker's story charts a passage of cultural conception and deception through the channels of gender and race in America.8


  1. This article is dedicated to my father, who kept a little salmonpink Dorothy Parker book around the house for me to read young and remember years later.

  2. The words “race” and “gender” are used throughout to indicate the “common sense” meaning deployed within Western hegemonic discourse.

  3. I use the word “America” here in the narrow sense to mean only the United States.

  4. A number of examples from Parker's stories and letters record her use of blondeness in women to designate the superficial and the foolish. In “The Standard of Living,” two shopgirls strolling along Fifth Avenue and fantasizing they are rich are blonde fluff. The “assisted gold” hair of the protagonist of “Arrangement in Black and White” underlines her ignorance. Blondeness is used similarly in Parker's letters from Meade 37, 38, 90, and 121.

  5. Karen Sanchez-Eppler points out that one of the comparisons early feminist activists drew between the woman and the slave was the loss of her name. The author cites Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1856: “A woman … has no name! … like the Southern slave, she takes the name of her owner” (19). In “Big Blonde,” Parker underlines the acquisition of a male name as a ritual of female identity. Before her marriage to Herbie Morse, Hazel Morse is just a “big blonde.” Her female friends adopt the surnames of “dimmed spouses” from whom they are divorced or separated (289). But Nettie, the one female black figure with a name, has no surname at all. She is “owned” in a different way.

  6. The association of blackness and eroticism in Western discourse is explored by a number of authors. See Mary Ann Doane, “Dark Continents: Epistemologies of Racial and Sexual Difference in Psychoanalysis and the Cinema,” Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1991) 209-248; Richard Dyer, “White,” The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations (London: Routledge, 1993) 141-163; Sander L. Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” “Race,” Writing and Difference, ed. by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985), 223-261; Jill Matus, “Blonde, Black and Hottentot Venus: Context and Critique in Angela Carter's “Black Venus,” Studies in Short Fiction 28:4 (1991): 467-476; and Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994).

  7. The use of “white” as an adverb to mean “in a fair upright manner” as in “treated us white” is listed in Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 1981). “White” as a slang usage synonymous with “upright,” and “honest” is listed in Roget's International Thesaurus (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1950).

  8. I would like to thank the editors and readers at College Literature for their valuable help in preparing this article.

Works Cited

Acocella, Joan. “After the Laughs.” The New Yorker 16 (1993): 76-81.

Birnbaum, Michele A. “‘Alien Hands’: Kate Chopin and the Colonization of Race.” American Literature 66: 2 (1994): 301-23.

Dyer, Richard. The Dumb Blonde Stereotype. London: British Film Institute, 1979.

Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? New York: Villard, 1988.

Miller, Nina. “Making Love Modern: Dorothy Parker and Her Public.” American Literature 64:4 (1992): 763-84.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Parker, Dorothy. “Big Blonde.” Dorothy Parker. New York: Viking, 1944. 275-304.

Sanchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Updike, John. “Witty Dotty.” The New Yorker 25 April 1988: 109-12.

Ellen Pollak (essay date 1996)

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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.

—George Santayana

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.

—Edmund Wilson

In November 1927 Dorothy Parker, one of the most trenchant satirists of modern times, published a short review in the New Yorker entitled “The Professor Goes in for Sweetness and Light.” Her subject was a book called Happiness by William Lyon Phelps, a Yale Professor of English well known as a women's club lecturer and a molder of public opinion. Affectionately known in Yale circles as “Billy the booster” because of the inimitable capacity of his endorsements to create best-sellers overnight, Phelps would become popular in the 1930s as “tastemaker of the airwaves” through his weekly radio appearances on the “Swift Hour” variety program; hence his recent dubbing by author Joan Shelley Rubin as “Swift's Premium Ham.”1

The purpose of this essay, whose title playfully adapts Rubin's already playful epithet, is to suggest an intertextual relationship between Parker's review of Phelps and the writings of Jonathan Swift, especially his two early prose works The Battle of the Books (1704) and A Tale of a Tub (1704). Such a relationship cannot be established with empirical certainty, since Parker makes no direct reference to Swift either in her review or elsewhere in her work. She left no library in which to forage for editions of Swift's writings, no letters, no memorabilia, nor any complete, firsthand inventory of her clearly voluminous reading. Emily Toth records her impression of a general, though not necessarily direct, Swiftian influence in Parker's satire and biographer Leslie Frewin testifies to Parker's delight in and admiration for Swift, whom he claims that “she adored” and whose work “she loved reading.”2 But more compelling as evidence of Parker's deployment of Swift as an operative point of reference in “The Professor Goes in for Sweetness and Light” is a careful reading of the text itself within both its immediate and extended cultural and political contexts. Such a reading strongly suggests that Parker not only knew Swift but meant to invoke him—at least in the minds of some educated readers.

Parker's attack on Phelps is scathing enough without the added force of blows delivered through her sly intertextual triggering of Swift's texts; it does not require an educated reader. Reading Swift in her satire, nevertheless, helps one to apprehend “The Professor” with a richer, more plural sense of its layered ironies. For despite its slight length, barely over a thousand words, “The Professor Goes in for Sweetness and Light” is more than a local critique of a current best-seller; it is also a devastating analysis of the gender, class, and ethnic biases inherent in the social and intellectual values of the Ivy League. Parker uses Swift both to level an attack on Phelps as a modern “hack” and to articulate her own problematic status as a woman writer positioned simultaneously inside and outside the historically male-dominated traditions of literary criticism and satire.

“The Professor” takes the form of a mock-defense, one of Swift's favorite satiric strategies. Assuming the voice of a female speaker at a women's club luncheon—perhaps addressing the sort of audience Phelps himself often addressed—Parker begins by enlarging upon the magnificent simplicity of Phelps's diminutive work:

Professor William Lyon Phelps, presumably for God, for Country and for Yale, has composed a work on happiness. He calls it, in a word, Happiness, and he covers the subject in a volume about six inches tall, perhaps four inches across, and something less than half an inch thick. There is something rather magnificent in disposing, in an opus the size of a Christmas card, of this thing that men since time started have been seeking, pondering, struggling for, and guessing at.3

While one might assume that Parker here merely indulges in satiric hyperbole to belittle Phelps's book, the material object itself testifies both to her narrator's literal-mindedness and to the accuracy of her own physical account. A gift item on the scale of, say, Charles Schulz's 1960s best-seller, Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, Phelps's Happiness in fact neatly fits the dimensions given in Parker's text.

Parker's narrator is deferential and a bit inept. She digresses, but is unable to explain the logic of her own peregrinations. Her mode of argument appears less rational than impressionistic and heavily anecdotal. Phelps's book, she remarks with self-effacing dismissiveness, reminds her

though the sequence may seem a bit hazy, of a time that I was lunching at the Cap d'Antibes (oh, I get around). I remarked, for I have never set up any claim to being a snappy luncheon companion, that somewhere ahead of us in the Mediterranean lay the island where the Man in the Iron Mask had been imprisoned.

“And who,” asked my neighbor at the table, “was the Man in the Iron Mask?”

My only answer was a prettly crossed right to the jaw. How expect one who had had a nasty time of it getting through grammar school to explain to him, while he finished the rest of his filet, an identity that the big boys had never succeeded in satisfactorily working out, though they gave their years to the puzzle?

Somewhere, there, is an analogy, in a small way, if you have the patience for it. But I guess it isn't a very good anecdote. I'm better at animal stories.


What is the analogy that the reader is being asked—under the guise of the narrator's self-deprecating evasion—to have the patience for? What is the point, if there is one, of Parker's anecdote? Why does she say she is better at animal stories? Unlike Phelps, this narrator does not presume to compete with the “big boys.” The definition of happiness is a puzzle for greater minds than hers, an historical enigma as inscrutable as the Man in the Iron Mask, that mysterious prisoner whose identity remained concealed behind a mask of black velvet throughout his life and who eventually died unnamed in the Bastille in 1703. This “little woman” is in no position to take on such a daunting task; she will stick to bedtime stories.4

At another level, though, the narrator's reference to animal stories is misleading. For beneath her display of humility and authorial incompetence lurks both an erudite allusion and an intellectual savvy glimpsed only in that worldly aside where she cynically assures the reader that she “gets around.” Wasn't it a fictionalized version of that renowned animal fabler Aesop, after all, who coined the phrase “Sweetness and Light” in his long descant upon an argument between a spider and a bee in Swift's mock-epic history of The Battle of the Books?5

Phelps is a professor, a learned man; Parker's narrator is merely an uneducated woman, an American tourist in France with enough of a smattering of European popular culture to make dinner-table conversation but with an utter lack of intellectual authority. When her male luncheon companion asks a stupid question, disclosing his lack of knowledge of the “identity” of The Man in the Iron Mask (“Who was the man in the Iron Mask?”), it is her inability to respond rather than the ignorance prompting his question that becomes the object of self-deprecating humor. This is quintessential Parker. The narrator's self-mockery is, of course, disingenuous—an exposé of the social hypocrisy of gender relations masquerading as an attack on female vacuity. Regardless of the facts, the mask of male superiority remains intact—as unyielding as iron or as the narrator's seemingly inescapable mask of velveteen femininity.

But the full force of Swift's ghostly presence is not felt until somewhat later in Parker's text, when readers learn that the magnitude of Professor Phelps's arrogance, like that of the narrator's male luncheon companion, is directly proportionate to his ignorance. In his lack of indebtedness to his literary and philosophical forbears, he is more like Swift's self-generating and self-sufficient modern spider, who “scorns to own any Obligation or Assistance from without,” than like the diligent, ancient bee whose “infinite Labor” and far-ranging pursuit of beauty and truth bring home “Sweetness and Light” (Battle, in Swift, Tale, 234-35):

The professor starts right off with “No matter what may be one's nationality, sex, age, philosophy, or religion, everyone wishes either to become or to remain happy.” Well, there's no arguing that one. …

“Hence,” goes on the professor, “definitions of happiness are interesting.” I suppose the best thing to do with that is to let it pass. Me, I never saw a definition of happiness that could detain me after traintime, but that may be a matter of lack of opportunity, of inattention, or of congenital rough luck. If definitions of happiness can keep Professor Phelps on his toes, that is little short of dandy.

We might just as well get on along to the next statement, which goes like this: “One of the best” (we are still on definitions of happiness) “was given in my Senior year at college by Professor Timothy Dwight: ‘The happiest person is the person who thinks the most interesting thoughts.’” Promptly one starts recalling such Happiness Boys as Nietzsche, Socrates, de Maupassant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake, and Poe. One wonders, with hungry curiosity, what were some of the other definitions that Professor Phelps chucked aside in order to give preference to this one.


Promptly the well-informed reader of Swift starts recalling one definition Professor Phelps has either dismissed or overlooked. “What is generally understood by Happiness,” observes Swift's narrator in A Tale of a Tub, “ … will herd under this short Definition: That, it is a perpetual Possession of being well Deceived. … The Serene Peaceful State of being a Fool among Knaves” (Swift, Tale, 171-74). Parker may indeed be a victim of lack of opportunity and congenital rough luck, but inattention seems to be a trait more peculiar to “Billy” Phelps, that privileged son of Yale. We begin to understand what Parker means when she implies that her professor does not always “go in” for sweetness and light; like the peripatetic bee, she is indeed the one who “gets around.”

Does Parker considerately prime the reader for an allusion to Swift by including her own tale of a tub? “[T]here is this to be said for a volume such as Professor Phelps's Happiness,” she remarks off-handedly.

It is second only to a rubber duck as the ideal bathtub companion. It may be held in the hand without causing muscular fatigue or nerve strain, it may be neatly balanced back of the faucets, and it may be read through before the water has cooled. And if it slips down the drain pipe, all right, it slips down the drain pipe.


Admirers of her work may well object that since Dorothy Parker did not attend college—according to one biographer, her formal education ended when she was only fourteen6—she would be unlikely to have read Swift, especially not such rarified works as The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub. Although first used by Swift in The Battle of the Books, the phrase “sweetness and light” became familiar only later, when Matthew Arnold appropriated it in his 1869 treatise Culture and Anarchy, a work Parker was more likely to have known. As Rubin has documented in her recent study, The Making of Middlebrow Culture, Arnold's program of diffusing “sweetness and light” through the dissemination of “the best that has been thought and said in the world” sustained currency and ongoing cultural significance in the efforts of early-twentieth-century culture-makers to define literary standards and sensibility within a distinctly American and increasingly consumer-oriented context. Living in New York as a staff writer for Vanity Fair between 1915 and 1920, Parker may well have known—or known of—Stuart Pratt Sherman's 1917 Matthew Arnold: How to Know Him, a work celebrating Arnold's lifelong effort to make “aristocratic taste prevail in a world which was becoming rapidly democratic.”7 And she may have been familiar with the climate of heated criticism and debate surrounding Sherman's subsequent celebration of the Anglo-Saxon Puritan tradition in his 1923 book, The Genius of America, which because of its disdain for unassimilated immigrant populations was roundly condemned in The Nation by one of her Algonquin set associates, Ernest Boyd, as a brand of “Ku Klux Kriticism” (723).8

While neither Swift nor Arnold is mentioned explicitly in “The Professor Goes in for Sweetness and Light,” Arnold's express concerns (as well as those of his American followers) do dovetail ironically with those of Parker, whose review provides an indirect commentary on the murder conviction and subsequent execution of the famous anarchist radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The title of Arnold's treatise, Culture and Anarchy, neatly epitomizes the sinister connection that Parker's review seeks to expose between what she views as Phelps's disturbing cultural elitism and the political scapegoating and persecution of two working-class Italian immigrants who had been tried and found guilty of the murders of a factory paymaster and guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts, on 5 April 1920. In Boston on 10 August 1927 (when, after almost seven years of legal maneuvering, Sacco and Vanzetti were scheduled to die), Parker had been arrested, jailed overnight, and fined five dollars for participating in a demonstration advocating a stay of execution. Late in her review, moreover, she expressly invokes Sacco and Vanzetti's cause through a reference to Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell and his role on the Fuller Committee, which had investigated the fairness of their trial but ultimately found in favor of the court. Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair on 22 August 1927—on Dorothy Parker's thirty-fourth birthday. Matthew Arnold's concern with the relationship between culture and anarchy, though with an ironic twist, was Parker's too.

It would appear, then, that in criticizing Phelps, Parker was using Arnold's idea of “culture” ironically to debunk the inherent hypocrisy of an educated American elite who, under the guise of democratizing learning, sought to homogenize and purify American intellectual life by reconciling genteel, Arnoldian values with the demands of an increasingly commercialized publishing industry. In doing so, she participated in an already well-established intellectual tradition of criticizing the politics of American middle-brow culture-makers, the so-called merchants of light.9

Still, while Arnold may have held more influence in Parker's day, there is no reason to assume her ignorance of Swift. As Parker once remarked for a newspaper interview during her tenure in the early 1960s as Distinguished Visiting Professor of English at California State College in Los Angeles, “Because of circumstances, I didn't finish high school. But, by God, I read.”10 Indeed, while there remains disagreement among biographers as to how many years Parker actually spent at Miss Dana's finishing and college preparatory school in Morristown, New Jersey, where she followed a standard course of study including Latin, English, the Bible, and history, all seem to agree that the young woman who would later become known to New Yorker readers as “The Constant Reader” did in fact read constantly. According to Frewin, Parker had already sampled an impressive array of British authors before she arrived at Miss Dana's, largely in spite of the curriculum at Blessed Sacrament Academy, where she attended elementary and secondary school. Included, in addition to Swift, were works by Pope, Dickens, Hardy, Carlyle, Shakespeare, and Thackeray (whom she claimed to have first discovered at age eleven).11 At Miss Dana's she also became acquainted with Horace, Virgil, Catullus, Aristotle, Socrates, Goethe, Montaigne, Martial, and La Rochefoucauld; in addition, scholars have commented on the subsequent influence of classical poetry on her work.12

By 1927, moreover, Parker had maintained close, longtime working friendships with Harvard graduates Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, whom she had first met in May 1919 and with whom she regularly lunched in the early 1920s at the famous Algonquin Round Table with such other notable literary types as Heywood Broun and Edna Ferber. In such an atmosphere of sophistication and educated wit, itself resembling the ambiance of the Scriblerians, it would hardly be frivolous to speculate that Swift might have come up. According to his son Nathaniel, Robert Benchley had resolved at one point to write a history of the humorists in the age of Queen Anne and by 1927 had “a growing collection of books about the Queen Anne period, of which he finally gathered about a hundred.”13 Parker, who had intimate knowledge of Benchley's intellectual pursuits, would have had access not only to his thoughts during this period but also to his library. Nor would there have been any paucity of editions of Swift's work generally available to her. A volume of Selections from the Prose Writings Of Jonathan Swift, edited with notes and an introduction by Cornell University Professor F. C. Prescott, was published in New York in 1908, and another New York edition of A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books and Other Satires was brought out by E. P. Dutton & Co. in 1909 with three subsequent reprintings (in 1911, 1916, and 1920). In addition to Humphrey Milford's 1919 Oxford edition of Gulliver's Travels, A Tale of a Tub, and The Battle of the Books, two editions of Gulliver's Travels with introductions and notes followed in 1925 and 1926.14

The conspicuous absence of direct reference to Swift in Parker's review would perfectly suit her satiric purposes. Since Parker undertakes to lodge her critique of the professor through the medium of a distinctly “feminine” (and thus not well-educated) persona, it makes eminent sense for her to mask her debt to Swift, even as her allusive context enables Swift's own words to deliver the crowning blow to Phelps. That she slyly omits explicit mention of Swift in her ironic inventory of representative “Happiness Boys” seems less a sign of his irrelevance than a way of pointing through parody to the dismissiveness and incompleteness of that version of intellectual history represented by Phelps's own privileging of the “modern” genius of Timothy Dwight (a Yale professor like himself, no less) over the wisdom of diverse continents and ages. In a gesture of ironic narration that might be characterized as Swiftian in its complex handling of masks, Parker manages simultaneously to perform a masquerade of “femininity” and, through an indirect display of erudition, to demolish Phelps's claims to cultural superiority. In the process she blasts Phelps's false presumption that intelligence correlates with cultural privilege, producing a withering political commentary on the disturbing dogma that emanates from the elite American academy. Happiness, she demonstrates, is not just a silly book, a diversionary piece of harmless sentimental poppycock: its underlying assumptions are dangerous.

Phelps begins Happiness, as Parker's narrator notes, with a number of self-evident and irrefutable assertions. He invokes the universal human desire for happiness regardless of nationality, sex, age, philosophy, or religion, and later he seems to understand that “Happiness is not altogether a matter of luck” but “is dependent on certain conditions” (463). The narrator responds to the first of these pronouncements with characteristically submissive reverence:

The author has us there. There is the place for getting out the pencil, underscoring the lines, and setting “how true,” followed by several carefully executed exclamation points, in the margin. It is regrettable that the book did not come out during the season when white violets were in bloom, for there is the very spot to press one.


Beside Phelps's indelibly printed words the narrator's responses remain tentative and marginal; she uses a pencil and yearns to mark his text by pressing only white violets, whose petals leave no stain. But Parker's moral outrage is never very far from the surface, manifesting itself not only in deadpan assertions like “The author has us there” (which suggest that, to her, Phelps's platitudes have a certain coercive edge), but also in the incongruities created by her narrator's indiscriminate admiration for Phelps, despite his frequent and inadvertent self-contradictions. Parker evidently wants readers to see that even as Phelps expresses truths that seem to recognize the social bases of happiness, he indulges in a blithe obliviousness to the realities of social inequality:

Money is not the chief factor in happiness. … I am certain that with the correct philosophy it is possible to have within one's possession sources of happiness that cannot permanently be destroyed. … Many go to destruction by the alcoholic route because they cannot endure themselves.


Against the backdrop of the Sacco and Vanzetti execution, Phelps's assertion that “correct philosophy” can provide “sources” of happiness that “cannot permanently be destroyed” assumes some rather sinister implications. Phelps at one point makes a statement so inanely optimistic that Parker (who by 1927 had weathered a broken marriage, a failed love affair, an abortion, two suicide attempts, and several bouts with alcoholism) cannot refrain from directly addressing it in an aside:

“Life, with all its sorrows, perplexities, and heartbreaks, is more interesting than bovine placidity, hence more desirable. The more interesting it is, the happier it is.” (Oh, professor, I should like to contest that.) “And the happiest person is the person who thinks the most interesting thoughts.”


Parker establishes her assessment of Phelps's sentimental whitewashing of social reality when she has her narrator extol his book's utter inoffensiveness. By now her use of the term “happily” has acquired a complex layering of ironic resonance:

Here is a book happily free from iconoclasm. There is not a sentence that you couldn't read to your most conservative relatives and still be reasonably sure of that legacy. … I give you my word, in the entire book there is nothing that cannot be said aloud in mixed company.


Here, if only momentarily, Parker cannot resist trading her mask of timid propriety for one of cynical irreverence. There may be nothing in Phelps's book that cannot be said aloud in mixed company, but

there is, also, nothing that makes you a bit the wiser. I wonder—oh, what will you think of me—if those two statements do not verge upon the synonymous.


A swipe at women? Or at a culture that justifies its own complacence on the grounds that women need protection from the seamy side of life? Wisdom, Parker seems to be saying, resides in exploding lies, in telling the truth about life, even if that means indecorously betraying that men are sometimes self-serving and corrupt or that women have voices, bodies, eyes, and minds.

To Parker, Phelps's offensiveness depends upon his community of readers. When one's greatest catastrophe in life is losing one's rubber duck down the bathtub drain, it may be easy to be happy. But when one is unhappy about the conditions under which one lives, Phelps's denial of human evil and misery, his linking of intelligence and happiness—with its implication that those who are unhappy with their lot in life are neither interesting nor smart, and its unimaginative assumption that people drown their sorrows in alcohol only because they cannot endure themselves may seem offensive. Such readers might be happier with Parkeresque irreverence.

It becomes increasingly apparent as Parker proceeds that what initially may have seemed a relatively lighthearted attempt to ridicule one foolish Brahmin of higher education is actually a serious political critique with wide-ranging social significance. Parker's swipes at Phelps may look like prettily crossed rights to the jaw, playful blows delivered just in fun, but in fact they constitute serious indictments of a male WASP power elite—indictments leveled by Parker not just on her own behalf (as excluded woman and half-Jew), but also on behalf of other politically, culturally, and economically disenfranchised groups (like political anarchists, Italian immigrants, or factory workers). Although Parker's penchant for irony and masks makes it impossible ever to construe her personal gestures as entirely transparent signs, the fact that she left the bulk of her estate, some twenty thousand at her death in 1967, to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom she admired but had never met), with her bequest to King to pass it on to the NAACP at his death seems consistent with the spirit of her review in its material expression both of commitment to the promotion of social justice and of respect for the realities of American cultural heterogeneity.

The final paragraph of “The Professor” registers Parker's bitterness and establishes its political context unmistakably:

These are the views, this is the dogma, of Professor William Lyon Phelps, the pride of New Haven. And, of course, at Harvard there is now—and it looks as if there might be always—President Lowell, of the Fuller Committee. I trust that my son will elect to attend one of the smaller institutions of higher education.


Parker is disturbed not just by Phelps's inveterate superficiality but also by the brutal complacency of his willful blindness to social injustice. Such blind complacency, she suggests, has become institutionalized in bastions of higher education and has devastating human implications. “The Professor Goes in for Sweetness and Light” is her expression of disgust at the massive immorality of this circumstance, an immorality underscored by the magical immunity that certain individuals, here represented by President Lowell, seem to acquire. Unlike Sacco and Vanzetti who, like white violets, easily (and apparently bloodlessly) bloom and die, leaving no trace behind, Lowell—son of the wealthy and influential Lowell family of Massachusetts—has cultural force and something like institutional permanence: “there is now—and it looks as if there might be always—President Lowell” (464). The intellectual folly of providing facile solutions to difficult problems, whether definitions of happiness or identities for the Man in the Iron Mask, may have political ramifications that take their toll in human terms. Was this the case in identifying the Braintree murderers? In a famous article in The Atlantic Monthly published in March of 1927, Felix Frankfurter asserted that the “only issue” at the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti “was the identity of the murderers”:

the killing of Parmenter and Berardelli [paymaster and guard] was undisputed. … Were Sacco and Vanzetti two of the assailants of Parmenter and Berardelli, or were they not?

On this issue, there was at the trial a mass of conflicting evidence.15

Would it be possible to say that, given what Frankfurter called the “elements of uncertainty”16 at their trial, the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti was, like Phelps's magnificently efficient explication of happiness, based on a mix of arrogance and ignorance? While at the literal level Parker's narrator modestly takes for granted that no son of hers could ever possibly aspire to so much greatness as that embodied by Phelps and Lowell, the irony of her message is quite clear: as a woman with no direct power to prevent the values of such cultural icons from being reproduced, she can only “trust” that her college-bound son will wisely exercise his dubious privilege of choosing whether to pay homage to the “big boys.”17

But no matter how ugly Parker's prettily crossed rights to the jaw become, they are never as distasteful to her readers as is Phelps's “pretty tribute to what he calls the American cow” to her. This is the “animal story” with which the eminent professor concludes his little book:

The cow, he points out, does not have to brush her teeth, bob her hair, select garments, light her fire and cook her food. She is not passionate about the income tax or the League of Nations; she has none of the thoughts that inflict distress and torture. “I have observed many cows,” says the professor, in an interesting glimpse of autobiography, “and there is in their beautiful eyes no perplexity; they are never even bored.” He paints a picture of so sweet, so placid, so carefree an existence, that you could curse your parents for not being Holsteins. And then what does he do? Breaks up the whole lovely thing by saying, “Very few people would be willing to change into cows. … Life, with all its sorrows, perplexities, and heartbreaks, is more interesting than bovine placidity.”


Does “the American cow” represent Professor Phelps's ideal of woman as a vacuous reproductive vessel? One is somehow reminded, though the sequence may seem a bit hazy, of that filet on the plate of the narrator's male companion at Cap d'Antibes, or of those “dams” whose children Swift's modest proposer so relishes the thought of cooking up.18 Cannibalism notwithstanding, even animal life is not always as happy as it seems.19 In any event, there is something profoundly disturbing to Parker—something chillingly like Gulliver upon his return from Houyhnhnmland—about a mentality that sentimentalizes cows, femininity, purity, and life (with all its miseries) while tacitly sanctioning the execution of human beings. Swift's definition of happiness thus once more comes to mind. Phelps is not simply a fool, but something much more troubling: a fool among knaves. Parker has produced a portrait of a world turned upside down. But it is not just the categories of wisdom and folly that are reversed in her review, or even those of culture and anarchy. In typical Swiftian fashion, she probes the very order of civilization and savagery and finds that order skewed. A woman needs not only irony but a mask of iron—some self-protective shield against facile knowledge of who and what she “really” is—when she registers so much savage indignation.

“Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses,” quipped Dorothy Parker, apparently innocently, in a short poem called “News Item” written in the summer of 1926.20 Now, more than sixty years later, the aphoristic fame of these lines has superseded popular knowledge of their authorial provenance. Indeed, their anonymous appropriation by recent feminist theory, most notably by film critic Mary Ann Doane, who, in her landmark essay on the female gaze, uses them as the verbal corollary of an important cinematic commonplace, is itself moot testimony that Parker had tapped into a powerful cultural cliché. The image of the woman who wears glasses, argues Doane, “is a heavily marked condensation of motifs concerned with repressed sexuality, knowledge, visibility and vision, intellectuality and desire.”21 When Dorothy Parker, as female critic, scrutinizes the willful blindness of Professor William Lyon Phelps, she assumes a spectatorial stance that paradoxically “womanizes” and desexualizes her. (According to Parker's epigrammatic logic, the girl who wears glasses becomes an intellectual woman but thereby loses her girlish sex appeal.) To protect herself against rejection for her usurpation of the masculine-coded subject position of intellectual womanhood, therefore, Parker must deploy precisely the strategy identified in 1929 by Joan Riviere in her now-classic essay “Womanliness as a Masquerade”; she must produce herself as an excess of girlish femininity, masquerade as a blissfully myopic “little lady” who needs glasses but, like Gulliver, either does not know it or will not wear them, so girlishly smitten is she by seeing only what Swift elsewhere once called “the Superficies of Things” (Swift, Tale, 174), by being placidly and complicitously well-deceived.22

Why would Dorothy Parker be thus inclined to align herself with Swift? One might point to similarities in the way both writers were positioned, or positioned themselves, in relation to major sites of cultural power. Parker shared with Swift an attraction to wealth and power laced with a sense of personal injury at not properly belonging to their ranks, and for both writers, this sense of personal injustice translated into championship of the downtrodden and oppressed. Swift's entire career was defined by a series of social, ethnic, and professional self-divisions. A writer who made his living by the Church, a clergyman who satirized religion, the son of English Protestants living in Ireland yet first seeking refuge in England and then in Ireland, at one time hungry for advancement in English political life and for a deanery in England, at another time champion of the Irish against the English, choosing finally “to be a freeman among slaves, rather than a slave among freemen,”23 Swift was the living site of multiple and often conflicting loyalties.

Like Swift, Parker moved in circles of wealth and influence where she never felt fully like either an insider or an outsider. Frequenting such offices and homes as those of Condé Nast and Herbert Bayard Swope, she was part of the upper class but not quite of them.24 In 1917, as the half-Jewish Dorothy Rothschild, she had married the Hartford-born Edwin Pond Parker II, “a descendent in the ninth generation of William Parker, who had arrived in Hartford from England in 1636.”25 Estranged from her father, Dorothy had long rejected her Jewish roots. But as biographer Marion Meade notes, when Eddie's grandfather, the Reverend Edwin Pond Parker—Connecticut's “leading Protestant clergyman and one of Hartford's most distinguished citizens”—referred to her upon their first meeting as “a stranger within our gates,” she experienced a heightened sense of her own ethnic identity:

Stupefied at his mean spirit, she was harshly reminded of the chasm separating New England Congregational pulpits and the Lower East Side sweatshops. If she had felt no harmony with the Jews, it was now clear that she had even less in common with these Hartford Brahmins, “toadying, in sing-song, to a crabbed god.”26

Thus, when Parker later lambasted the New Haven- and Hartford-bred Professor William Lyon Phelps, son of a Baptist minister and descendent of that William Phelps who settled at Windsor, Connecticut, in 1638,27 she was attacking not only a particular instance of academic folly but also those strongholds of cultural privilege for whose comforts she longed but from whose inner circles she somehow felt constitutionally excluded. Yale, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Lowells were simply institutionalized displacements of her (by that time all-but-former) New England inlaws, bastions of corrupted power that protected private interests in the false name of the larger community.

Parker mounts her critique of Phelps by creating for herself endlessly displaced identities. In poses akin to Swift's alternating masks of the cynic and the naif, she by turns impersonates the “little lady” and the slightly sluttish “woman of the world.” In addition, she mercilessly subverts her readers' ability to distinguish fact from fiction by sprinkling her narrative with various “interesting glimpses of autobiography.” (She had, for example, actually spent part of the summer of 1926 at Cap D'Antibes at the villa of her new acquaintance, Yale graduate Gerald Murphy, heir of the New York leather goods store Mark Cross.) Historically, critics have all too often mistaken Swift's masks for the man himself, but Swift never goes out of his way as mercilessly as Parker does, misleadingly, to tantalize his readers with incidental autobiographical details. Situating herself only partly in the world of her own experience, Parker heightens our sense of the illusory or invented nature of even her “real” identity, itself always already mediated by culturally constructed versions of womanhood. If femininity is a fiction—a pose or mask behind which this author hides—so too, we are led to understand, is the “real” woman it professes to conceal.

Thus while Parker's use of Swift may illuminate her affinities with him, it also reveals some telling differences. Parker the reviewer and ravenos reader seems in the end to have identified as much with Swift's monstrous female embodiment of literary criticism in The Battle of the Books—that malignant deity of the Moderns, Criticism—as she did with Swift himself. A voracious, rotting, self-consuming, maternal presence who lies “extended in her Den, upon the Spoils of numberless Volumes half devoured” as at her “Teats … a Crew of ugly Monsters … greedily [suck]” (Swift, Tale, 240), Criticism is roused from her epic lethargy only by the necessity of preventing the destruction of her worshipers, the Moderns—especially that of Wotton, her favored son. To assist him without dazzling or overwhelming him with her divine repulsiveness, Swift's hungry goddess undergoes a miraculously dematerializing metamorphosis in which she is transformed corporeally from a physically sprawling maternal body into the neatly delimited compass of a male-authored text:

She … gathered up her Person into an Octavo Compass: Her Body grew white and arid, and split in pieces with Driness; the thick turned into Pastboard, and the thin into Paper, upon which, her Parents and Children, artfully strowed a Black Juice. … In which Guise she march'd on towards the Moderns, undistinguishable in Shape and Dress from the Divine B-ntl-y, W-tt-n's dearest Friend.

(Swift, Tale, 242-43)

Having thus disguised herself, Criticism takes “the ugliest of her Monsters” (243), flings it invisibly into Wotton's mouth, and vanishes in a mist.

Parker, one might argue, manages an analogous transformation of active rage into apparently demure textuality when—by means of a narrator also concerned for the well-being of her son—she decorously, though no less cannibalistically, “makes mincemeat” of Professor Phelps. Vaguely anorexic (despite her “hungry curiosity” about definitions of happiness, it is in fact only the narrator's male luncheon companion whom we actually see eat), this narrator's criticism is more admiring than analytic; it has the timidity of pencil marks and the arid innocuousness of pressed white (not purple) violets. Through it, Parker deftly dodges the stigma Swift himself attaches to female rage. (For surely Swift is never quite so repulsed by Gulliver, even in the latter's angriest and most misanthropic moments, as he is by the splenetic Mother of all Gall). By surreptitiously mobilizing Swift's satiric texts, Parker's assaults—like Swift's own monstrous goddess's—are rendered indirect, flung, as it were, into another critic's mouth.

Ironically, nevertheless, it is through this very self-transformation that Parker most compellingly establishes herself as a locus of moral outrage. For it is precisely in her identification with Swift's angry goddess that she is able most pointedly to differentiate herself from Phelps. Parker recognizes Phelps as a fellow literary critic, one whose word—like hers—has the power to make or break a book. But just as there is for Swift a difference between the malicious and protectionist lies produced by Lilliputian or Walpolian hypocrisy and those produced by the elusive masquerading satirist, so too there is for Parker a difference between the sophisticated literary hoaxes she perpetrates in the interest of brutal veracity and the intellectual charlatanry (with its truly brutal consequences) of the “academic” Phelpses of the world. Phelps and Parker may both go in for artificial sweetness, but only Parker's counterfeit invites detection or produces light. Parker's review may be intellectually demanding, may even invite the attention of a certain highly educated class, but ultimately, and with deliberate irony, it is more genuinely “populist” in spirit than Phelps's “popular” little tome of platitudes. Through its appeal to a common sense of human suffering and shared humanity—that of women and Italian immigrants not excepted—it is far more accessible to the general public, if we understand that public in the truest sense to be constituted not by but across lines of class, ethnic, gender, and educational privilege.


  1. Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 281.

  2. Emily Toth, “Dorothy Parker, Erica Jong, and the New Feminist Humor,” in Regionalism and the Female Imagination, ed. Emily Toth (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1985, 71; Leslie Frewin, The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 16 and 17. Frewin's claims remain undocumented.

  3. “The Professor Goes in for Sweetness and Light,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, rev. ed. (New York: Viking, 1973), 461. All subsequent references to “The Professor,” cited parenthetically by page number in the text, will be to this edition.

  4. On the Man in the Iron Mask, see Sidney Dark, introduction to The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas (New York: Norton, 1955), 11-14. On the topos of the “little woman” in Parker's work and in that of other American female humorists, see Nancy Walker, “Fragile and Dumb: The Little Woman in Women's Humor, 1900-1940,” Thalia 5, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 1982-83): 24-29.

  5. Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books, in Swift, Tale, 233-35. All future references to The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub, cited parenthetically by page number in the text, will be to this edition.

  6. Marion Meade contends that Parker stopped attending classes at Miss Dana's school for girls in 1908 during the spring of her freshman year (What Fresh Hell Is This? [New York: Villard, 1988], 27-28). In contrast, Frewin claims that there is solid evidence that Parker remained at Miss Dana's until the fall of 1910 (The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker, 13); John Keats notes that Parker entered Miss Dana's as a member of the class of 1911 and, although he never specifically asserts that she actually graduated, he seems to assume that she did (You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970], 21-28); and Arthur F. Kinney claims that Parker graduated from Miss Dana's in 1911 (Dorothy Parker [Boston: Twayne, 1978], 27).

  7. Stuart Pratt Sherman, Matthew Arnold: How to Know Him (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1917), 1-2.

  8. Stuart Pratt Sherman, The Genius of America (New York: Scribner's, 1923); Ernest Boyd, “Ku Klux Kriticism,” The Nation (20 June 1923): 723-24. Interestingly, Parker's implicit charges against Phelps in her review (charges I attempt to explicate below) echo many of Boyd's charges against Sherman. The following two passages from Boyd's text, which disdain Sherman's hankering after American ethnic purity, seem especially pertinent: “Sinister Jews and Irishmen, apparently in the mistaken belief that they have any rights of self-expression in this great Anglo-Saxon republic, are actively engaged in the damnable work of undermining the Puritan stamina of the American people. Be Anglo-Saxon or be forever silent is, I gather, the exhortation which Mr. Sherman and his colleagues extend to the articulate few in the welter of races, creeds, and traditions which make up the America of today” (723); and “Before Mr. Sherman appeals to the artist on behalf of the community, he will have to make up his mind that the community is something vastly more complicated and less homogeneous than is dreamt of in his Ku Klux philosophy” (724). According to Clare Booth Luce, Boyd was one of Parker's “intimate friends and great admirers” and a member of the Algonquin set (Keats, You Might as Well Live, 49).

  9. Rubin, Middlebrow Culture, chaps. 2 and 5. See also Daniel Aaron's “Merchants of Light,” review of Rubin's book in The New Republic, 6 July 1992, 34-36.

  10. Meade, What Fresh Hell Is This?, 28.

  11. Frewin, The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker, 12-14.

  12. Kinney, Dorothy Parker, 103ff.

  13. “He left a standing order at the Holliday Bookshop that any book about that period, or any book relating to it in any way, should be sent to him, and he read them all as they came in. … After he had done a monumental amount of reading, beginning with all the works of the all the humorists, he came to the reluctant conclusion that not one of them was funny” (Nathaniel Benchley, Robert Benchley, a Biography [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955], 190).

  14. H. Teerink, A Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of Jonathan Swift D. D. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1937), 146-48.

  15. Felix Frankfurter, “The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 1927, 410.

  16. Ibid., 415.

  17. Parker in fact did not have children.

  18. A Modest Proposal,” in Swift, Prose, 12: 110. It is perhaps germane here to quote a passage from Phelps's book that Parker regrettably omits from her review. Phelps is in the process of ruminating on the American cow: “After eating for an hour or so … she begins to chew the cud. Her upper jaw remains stationary, while the lower revolves in a kind of solemn rapture; there is on her placid features no pale cast of thought; the cow chewing the cud has very much the expression of a healthy American girl chewing gum. I never see one without thinking of the other. The eyes of a cow are so beautiful that Homer gave them to the Queen of Heaven, because he could not think of any other eyes so large, so lustrous, so liquid, and so untroubled” (William Lyon Phelps, Happiness [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1927], 45-47).

  19. Parker's love of animals was well known. “That inveterate dislike of her fellow creatures which characterizes so many of Mrs. Parker's utterances is confined to the human race,” wrote Alexander Woollcott. “All other animals have her enthusiastic support. … [A]ny home of hers always has the aspect and aroma of a menagerie. Invariably there is a dog. There was Amy, an enchanting, wooly, fourlegged coquette whose potential charm only Dorothy Parker would have recognized at first meeting. For at that first meeting Amy was covered with dirt and a hulking truckman was kicking her out of his way. This swinish biped was somewhat taken aback to have a small and infuriated poetess rush at him from the sidewalk and kick him smartly in the shins (“Our Mrs. Parker,” in While Rome Burns [New York: Viking, 1934], 151).

  20. The Portable Dorothy Parker, 109.

  21. Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Screen 23 (1982): 82.

  22. Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan (London: Methuen, 1986), 35-44. Riviere's article was originally published in The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 10 (1929): 303-13. According to Frank Crowninshield, who as the editor of Vanity Fair had published a number of Parker's early works, Parker herself “wore horn-rimmed glasses, which she removed quickly if anyone spoke to her suddenly” (quoted in Frewin, The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker, 29). “She wore glasses at work because she was badly nearsighted,” writes biographer John Keats. “But she always took them off when anyone stopped at her desk, and she never wore them on social occasions” (You Might as Well Live, 86). Donald Ogden Stewart, Dorothy Parker's longtime friend and Algonquin Round Table compatriot, later reminisced about the Dorothy Parker of the 1920s. “Every girl has her technique,” he observed, “and shy, demure helplessness was part of Dottie's—the innocent, bright-eyed little girl that needs a male to help her across the street” (Frewin, The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker, 66).

  23. Swift to Alexander Pope, Dublin, 8 July 1733, Swift, Corresp., 4: 171.

  24. Kinney, Dorothy Parker, 43-44. “I hate almost all rich people,” Parker once remarked, “but I think I'd be darling at it” (Marion Capron, “Dorothy Parker,” in Writers at Work: The “Paris Review” Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley [New York: Viking, 1958], 80).

  25. Meade, What Fresh Hell Is This?, 38.

  26. Ibid., 41.

  27. Current Biography (1943): 582, s.v. “Phelps, William Lyon.”

Nancy A. Walker (essay date 1997)

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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 of her literary sensibility. Whether serious or comic, Parker's reviews ring with the utmost candor; although she creates distinctive personae in the presentation of her opinions, 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.

The tone and style of the early New Yorker encouraged the kind of book review that seemed to come naturally to Parker. New Yorker founder Harold Ross and the young writers he hired were deliberate in their attempt to appeal to the urban sophisticate or would-be sophisticate, and the magazine thus fostered a stance compounded of gaiety and world-weariness, in which little was considered sacred and decided tastes regarding the arts were not merely welcome, but cultivated. Few articles—including book reviews—were signed with the authors' actual names; New Yorker writers typically used their initials or such labels as Parker's “Constant Reader.” Yet within this near-anonymity, the writers developed distinctive voices that marked their pieces as their own, and they often used the first-person pronoun as a means of both personalizing their remarks and seeming to speak directly to the individual reader. Thus, for example, Robert M. Coates, who signed his book reviews “R.M.C.,” opens his review of A. S. M. Hutchison's novel Big Business in August of 1932 by throwing himself on the mercy of the reader: “What are you going to do—do you mind if I ask you a personal question?—if you're a book-reviewer and you find yourself face to face with an Important Book that you can't possibly read?” (New Yorker, 13 August 1932). Such admission and appeal to the reader's understanding were not to be found in the New York Times book review section, nor in the reviews in Harper's or Atlantic, where the New Yorker's engaging “I” was replaced by the distancing pronoun “one.” The New Yorker thus sought to establish a different kind of authority for its reviewers than did these more staid and venerable periodicals. Instead of being “experts” in the field of the book being reviewed—often with academic credentials and/or affiliations—the New Yorker reviewers during this early period were intended to replicate the ideal readers of the magazine: people with taste and intelligence, but without pretence to superior knowledge or insight. Whereas a reviewer for the New York Times would calmly assess the flaws of a book that he (occasionally she) found lacking in merit, the New Yorker reviewer could be imagined flinging down the book in disgust. Indeed, in the review cited above, “R.M.C.” reports quitting Big Business on p. 74, and giving up on Kurt Heuser's The Journey Inward on p. 106.

Even in the context of the New Yorker ethos, however, Dorothy Parker developed—or revealed—a much more distinctive personality than did her peers. Moreover, as though her pseudonym “Constant Reader” were prophetic, her book reviews in Esquire three decades later are so clearly from the same pen as to suggest that the reviews were an important forum for Parker's views on life as well as the literary scene. If The New Yorker fostered the authority of the individual reader rather than that of specialized expertise, Parker took the process a step further: she derives her authority precisely from seeming not to be one at all, projecting personae composed of enthusiasms, prejudices, and personal quirks, and developing a distinctive style—a style in which to deliver her no-nonsense opinions. “R.M.C.” might occasionally confess to not finishing a book, but the “Constant Reader” did so more colorfully. In a single New Yorker review in 1931, she reports giving up on two books because of the authors' egregious style; in both cases she quotes passages to illustrate her point, and concludes, respectively, with “So I thought I wouldn't play any more,” and “So I got the hell out of that” (New Yorker, 4 April 1931). In a 1961 Esquire review of Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, she reports her frustration with fictionalized biography: “I wish people would either write history, or write novels, or go out and sell nylons” (Esquire June 1961). The juxtaposition of the lingerie salesman to the writer conveys her scorn more effectively than would a paragraph of explanation, and it suggests as well that she consciously writes as a woman.

The variety of female personae Parker creates are one of the major sources of humor in the reviews. One of the most common of these poses is the mock innocent figure who pretends surprise at or enlightenment by the book being reviewed. This innocent figure is a direct descendant of one of the most time-honored humorous devices in American literature: the untutored observer whose common-sense remarks unmasked pretension or hypocrisy. Parker's pose of innocence often greets a book written with great earnestness by an author intent on explaining something; she adopts the role of willing pupil with such hyperbole that both her pretense and the book's overbearing nature become clear. Preparing to skewer Elinor Glyn's novel It, for example, Parker claims to have led a life too sheltered to be acquainted with Glyn's steamy romances: “I have misspent my days. When I think of all those hours I flung away in reading William James and Santayana, when I might have been reading of life, throbbing, beating, perfumed life, I practically break down” (465). She pleads a similar ignorance at the beginning of her review of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's In the Service of the King when she posits that she should have been able to predict that this “Somewhat Different Entertainer” would write a book. Since she has not, she notes, “I really must make a note on my desk calendar to have my head examined one day next week. I am beginning to have more and more piercing doubts that my fontanel ever closed up properly” (497). Perhaps Parker's most sophisticated use of this wide-eyed innocent stance occurs in her 1927 review of Emily Post's Etiquette, in which she mingles bits of Mrs. Post's advice with the creation of her persona:

I am going in for a course of study at the knee of Mrs. Post. Maybe, some time in the misty future, I shall be Asked Out, and I shall be ready. You won't catch me being intentionally haughty to subordinates or refusing to be a pallbearer for any reason except serious ill health. I shall live down the old days, and with the help of Mrs. Post and God (always mention a lady's name first) there will come a time when you will be perfectly safe in inviting me to your house, which should never be called a residence except in printing or engraving.


Something of Parker's intent in employing her mock-naive pose can be surmised from a comment in another review. Having called a book both “naive” and “annoying,” she remarks, “those two adjectives must ever be synonymous to me” (457).

Even when employing the mock-innocent stance, however, Parker is in some ways far removed from this figures's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors. Whereas they tended to be rustic men who spoke in regional dialects, Parker, in contrast, creates herself as urban, urbane, and distinctively female. While a Jack Downing or a Sam Slick represented the earthy values of the country in sharp distinction to the city, Parker is the consummate urbanite, making frequent references to landlords, cocktails, dinner parties, doormen, and city streets. Returning from a trip to Switzerland, she writes, “God keep me from chauvinism, but New York is beautiful” (528). Her reviews are peppered with literary and other cultural allusions, and in one review she refers to “making whoopee with the intelligentsia” (508). Against Upton Sinclair's anger in Money Writes! about the economic privilege of many of America's authors, Parker defends an author's choice to write about “jade and satin and the shining surface of old furniture” (470); no hayseed, she knows and articulates the difference between imitation and real pearls: “The neat surfaces of the imitations shine prettily; the real glow from within” (480).

References to pearls and satin help to feminize the voice of Parker as reviewer, but we need no subtle clues to the fact that she writes as a woman; she makes her gender overt again and again—not to suggest that her literary taste is in any way formed by it, but instead to establish a rapport with her readers. As critic, Parker is not a remote, objective figure, but rather an individual with distinct characteristics: she is a mediocre bridge player, is subject to insomnia, hates spring, loves dogs and horses, and delights in word play. Her stance is often that of the coquette, especially in the New Yorker reviews. Preparing to deliver negative reviews of novels by Fannie Hurst and Booth Tarkington in 1928, Parker offers a mock apology by claiming to have a bad case of the “rams,” brought on, she assures readers, by a stalk of bad celery, because surely her consumption of “two or three sidecars, some champagne, … and a procession of mixed Benedictines-and-brandies” would not have brought her face-to-face with “a Little Mean Man about eighteen inches tall, wearing a yellow slicker and roller-skates” (483). She employs a somewhat different strategy to deflect the negativism of her review of Sinclair Lewis' The Man Who Knew Coolidge in the same year. In her pretence that a friend “is trying to make a lady out of me” in part by refusing to let her use the word “rotten,” she manages to use the word six times in the review, along with such words as “heavy-handed,” “clumsy,” and “dishonest.”

In the later Esquire reviews, Parker also writes as a woman, sometimes defending the female sex against stereotypical assumptions. In her review of Errol Flynn's My Wicked, Wicked Ways, she notes that Flynn attempted to woo Olivia de Havilland by putting a dead snake in her underwear. “But do you know,” Parker comments sarcastically, “not even this caused her heart to soften! Ah, women, women, where, where thy sense of humor?” (Esquire March 1960). Two years later, reviewing Jeannette Bruce's The Wallflower Season, she rails against literature aimed at the female market:

[Bruce] chose to make it what is called a woman's story, which is undoubtedly profitable. A woman's story, a woman's movie, a woman's book—these are so many slaps against the conglomerate face of the sex. Apparently it is believed that women's little heads cannot contain anything that is not cheerful and cozy, with a delightful, comfortable and permanent ending.

(Esquire April 1962)

Also in these reviews of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Parker sometimes refers to herself as “Mother,” creating an admonitory persona that seems in keeping with her advancing age, though her tone is as sprightly as ever. Reviewing a novel set in Scotland, for example, she writes, “as one who has been through many such novels, Mother was somewhat nervous about bursts of quaintness” (Esquire January 1962). Far more bored than shocked by The Memoirs of Casanova, Parker writes, “Mother gets awfully tired of the calisthenics. There is a certain lack of variety” (Esquire March 1961).

Neither Parker's mock-innocent nor her “Mother” persona is used to soften her criticism or undercut her authority. On the contrary, her posture as the somewhat vulnerable, self-mocking woman who has difficulty with foreign languages and fears retribution for negative comments—on not having been able to read Lewis' Elmer Gantry: “I shall undoubtedly fry in hell for my failure” (509)—is undercut by its own hyperbole, which strengthens the authority of her observations. The “little old me” facade is a velvet glove covering an iron fist. In her review of Benito Mussolini's youthful novel The Cardinal's Mistress (released in English translation in 1928), Parker first reports that she begged to be allowed to review it—“Please teacher, may I have it to take home with me?” (515)—but that she was “absolutely unable to read my way through it” (515). Perhaps the best-known punch that Parker-as-reviewer delivered occurs in her review of A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, which ends with the line, “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Frowed up” (518). But other swipes are equally pointed. Quoting from the overwrought rhetoric of Aimee Semple McPherson's autobiography, Parker comments, “You see? And she can go on like that for hours. Can, hell—does” (497). Of the nearly six hundred pages of Theodore Dreiser's autobiography Dawn, she comments, “God help us one and all if Mr. Dreiser ever elects to write anything called ‘June Twenty-first’!” (541).

Indeed, Parker's mock-innocent stance is most often employed in her negative reviews; as a humorous device, it provides the ideal setup for what often amounts to ridicule of a book she dislikes. In reviews of books she admires, there is no need for the humorous frame, and her tone can be almost reverential. The Journal of Katherine Mansfield she describes as “exquisite,” and so intensely personal that she reports murmuring “Please forgive me” to its author as she finished it (451-52). No such personal response colors the prose of Edwin Clark, who reviewed Mansfield's Journal for the New York Times. Clark found the book “introspective” and “beautifully told,” and notes passages of “enchanting loveliness,” but he ends on the impersonal note of “one can discern that her letters are to be eagerly awaited” (New York Times Book Review, 9 October 1927). For Parker, Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women is “a truly magnificent work. … I do not know where a greater collection of stories can be found” (460). Reviewing Hemingway's collection of stories for the New York Times, Percy Hutchison uses such words as “arresting,” “passionless genius,” and “masterly,” but Hutchison also feels the need to make cautionary statements, wondering whether Hemingway's “originalities” will “fail to stand the test of time,” and warning that “Hemingway is without a philosophy of life; his fidelity is all to surface aspects” (New York Times Book Review, 16 October 1927). Parker finds the collected stories of Ring Lardner so good as to be difficult to review: “What more are you going to say of a great thing than that it is great?” (526). And Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita she describes as “a fine book, a distinguished book—all right, then—a great book” (566).

This is not to suggest that there is no humor in Parker's favorable reviews. Her style is frequently witty, and sometimes downright comic, but instead of creating a comic persona, the humor is used as a means of driving home a point in a memorable way, in much the same way as the final lines of her poems serve as the punchlines. Thus, of the murder mysteries of Dashiell Hammett she writes in 1931 that he is “so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn” (539). In 1958, defending Lolita against accusations of pornography, she notes wryly that it was banned in France: “As it was written in English, there does seem to have been a certain amount of oversolicitude that the French masses would have had their morals upended by the reading of it” (565). Reviewing Katherine Anne Porter's long-awaited novel Ship of Fools in 1962, Parker notes with awe that Porter worked on it for twenty years: “To those of us who, after filling a postcard, are obliged to lie down and have wet cloths applied to our brow, this is not a book. It's the Pyramid” (573).

Given such straightforward—even blunt—assessments, it is little wonder that taken together, Parker's reviews for The New Yorker and Esquire provide an index to her literary tastes. Much the same could be said of anyone who writes book reviews over a period of time, but Parker's insistent use of the first-person pronoun lends a particular vibrancy to her sensibilities. Like most book reviewers, Parker appreciated good writing; for her, this meant writing that was clear, forceful, and spare—as she says of Hemingway, whom she admired greatly, “prose stripped to its firm young bones” (460). Whereas Aimee Semple McPherson exhorts, and Theodore Dreiser is verbose, Hemingway “keeps his words to their short path” (461). For Parker, style is sufficiently important that she cannot get past the flaws she finds in Dreiser's writing. She is impatient with critics who downplay Dreiser's style: “‘Of course,’ each one says airily, ‘Dreiser writes badly,’ and thus they dismiss that tiny fact, and go off into their waltz-dreams” (541). Indeed, her fellow New Yorker reviewer Robert M. Coates comes close to doing just this in his review of Dreiser's Tragic America. Although he does not claim for Dreiser “a mighty message,” he remarks that “I'm not going to start complaining now about that much-mentioned style of his” (The New Yorker, 30 January 1932). In her review of Dreiser's Dawn, she states clearly her impatience with such a critical stance:

It is of not such small importance to me that Theodore Dreiser writes in so abominable a style. He is regarded, and I wish you could gainsay me, as one of our finest contemporary authors; it is the first job of a writer who demands rating among the great, or even among the good, to write well. If he fails that, as Mr. Dreiser, by any standard, so widely muffs it, he is, I think, unequipped to stand among the big.


Parker's attacks on bad writing are often couched in a wit that lends them added force. Puzzling over the title of Fannie Hurst's God Must Be Sad, which she finds “strangely offensive,” Parker surmises that “He must have been sad when he saw Miss Hurst's hanging participles” (Esquire January 1962). She complains about one author who “has taken to himself a trick of diction that causes me to summon the men in the white coats to carry me away from it all. That is the transformation of nouns into verbs—thus, if you go to a lunch counter to buy a cup of coffee, you are not served with a cup of coffee; you are coffeed; and when you have drunk the brew, you dime the counter … the book and I parted company when the traveling brother saw a child who lilac'd a grave” (Esquire April 1960). Occasionally, Parker pulls herself up short when her own writing violates one of her own rules. Having commented that an author has not created a “fun book,” she continues parenthetically:

(I'm fighting what experience tells me is a losing battle against the use of the word “fun” as an adjective: he's a fun person, it's a fun play, it's a fun book. I had to give up on “divine,” “fabulous,” and though I still take on about the use of “diction” when what is meant is “enunciation,” I have a terrible fear it will go into the language. But “fun” as an adjective, no, a thousand times no.)

(Esquire June 1961)

Only rarely does Parker give good marks to a book that she concedes is poorly written. One example is Isadora Duncan's My Life, the style of which Parker also describes as “abominable,” but whose passion and struggle redeem the account, so that Parker can write, “somehow, the style of the book makes no matter” (480).

Such an exception points to another of Parker's literary standards: a marked preference for candor, courage, that which is deeply felt and rings true. Not for her the name-dropping and self-importance of Margot Asquith's Lay Sermons (1927), which “has all the depth and glitter of a worn dime” (456). Parker is particularly put off by Asquith's self-centeredness: “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature” (456). In her disdain for the book, Parker was at odds with John Carter, who reviewed it for the New York Times. While Carter concedes that “pietistic literature … cannot altogether escape the blight of the pulpit,” he nonetheless finds Asquith's essays “packed with common sense” and “occasionally brilliant” (New York Times Book Review, 23 October 1927). Writing that suggested personal superiority acted as a red flag to Parker, and some of her greatest praise goes to books that strike her as “honest” rather than pretentious. Of Harlan Ellison's Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation, for example, she writes, “Mr. Ellison is a good, honest, clean writer, putting down what he has seen and known, and no sensationalism about it” (Esquire January 1962). She finds a hubris similar to that of Asquith in William Lyon Phelps' small volume titled Happiness, which seems to her merely a collection of unenlightening platitudes, suitable, she notes, for reading in the bathtub, “and if it slips down the drain pipe, all right, it slips down the drain pipe” (462). Although she admires Sinclair Lewis' Main Street and Babbit, she finds his The Man Who Knew Coolidge “dishonest” (509); precisely the opposite is true of James Thurber's portrait of New Yorker founder Harold Ross in The Years With Ross, which “proves its protagonist to be a breathing man” (572).

As consistent as Parker's dislikes are her enthusiasms. She championed the short-story form against the greater popularity of the novel, noting in 1927 that “literature, it appears, is here measured by a yard-stick” (459). This comment appears in her review of Hemingway's short-story collection Men Without Women, in which she points out that despite the excellence of his first book of stories, In Our Time, Hemingway was not “discovered” until he published The Sun Also Rises.In Our Time, she says, “caused about as much stir in literary circles as an incompleted dogfight on upper Riverside Drive,” whereas upon the publication of his novel, “eight hundred and forty-seven book reviewers formed themselves into the word ‘welcome’” (458). She also admired the stories of Ring Lardner, Max Beerbohm, and Rudyard Kipling, but had little patience with the repetitious plots of stories in mass-circulation magazines, those that “separated the Ivory Soap advertisements from the pages devoted to Campbell's Soups” (473), and in her review of The Best Short Stories of 1927 she includes wonderful parodies of the openings of half-a-dozen formulaic plots. Plot formulas did not trouble Parker, however, when it came to detective mysteries. In a review of Ellery Queen's The New York Murders in 1959 she confesses, “I am become a confirmed user of Whodunits” (567), but much earlier, in 1931, she raved about the work of Dashiell Hammett, wondering why there was “entirely too little screaming” about it from what she calls the “literary lads” (538).

The phrase “literary lads”—and “booksy folk” in the same review—is a key to Dorothy Parker's method in her book reviews, which is to separate herself from “real” reviewers and critics and speak to readers as one of them: not “literary” or “booksy,” but simply an intelligent, discriminating reader, like thousands of readers of The New Yorker or Esquire. Such a method is closely related to Parker's faux-innocent persona, but it is far more specific in establishing her relationship to a reader who might feel cowed by the critique of an H. L. Mencken or a Malcolm Cowley. Parker's most explicit statements of her position occur in her 1928 review of Fannie Hurst's novel A President is Born. She begins by acknowledging her “deep admiration” for Hurst's other work, and then directly addresses the reader: “possibly in your company I must admit this with a coo of deprecating laughter, as one confesses a fondness for comic strips, motion-picture magazines, chocolate-almond bars, and like too-popular entertainments.” Then, having made it known that she is no fan of A President is Born, she continues: “This is, they say, her Big Novel. (If you were a real book reviewer, you would say, ‘Miss Hurst has chosen a far larger canvas than is her wont.’ I wish I could talk like that without getting all hot and red.)” (485). Another telling parenthetical address to the reader occurs in her commentary on a book titled Appendicitis, by a doctor named Thew Wright. Her set-up for an hilarious account of the book (similar to her review of Emily Post's Etiquette) is a discussion of her insomnia, which Appendicitis has done a fine job of curing; at this point she remarks, “(Well, picture my surprise when this turned out to be a book review, after all! You could have knocked me over with a girder.)” (505). Reviewing Christopher Isherwood's Down There On A Visit, she reports delaying her remarks about it until late in her column “because I thought fitting words for it would be wafted to me. Well, they didn't waft—who are those cheats who get the right words told to them in their dreams?” (Esquire May 1962).

Not only does Parker's method serve to distance her from “literary lads” and those she calls in one review “they of the cool, tall foreheads” (459); her humor also undercuts their authority. In a 1928 New Yorker piece that is more an essay than a review, she writes of the “Literary Rotarians” that swarm New York, and reports that she once went to a literary gathering filled with “people who looked as if they had been scraped out of drains,” including one man who had won a prize from “Inertia: a Magazine of Poesy for the best poem on the occupation of the Ruhr district” (493). The piece ends with an indictment of intellectual snobbery:

An enviable company, these joiners-up, with good cheer and appreciation for their daily portion. And about them always, like the scent of new violets, is the sweet and reassuring sense of superiority. For, being literary folk, they are licensed to be most awfully snooty about the Babbits.


More subtly, Parker coyly questions the authority of major reviewers as she writes an early—and largely negative—review of Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth: “And how am I to know, until I have read the Book Supplement of the New York Sunday Times, whether or not this is a truly important work? I cannot, with the slightest sureness, tell you if it will sweep the country, like Main Street, or bring forth yards of printed praise, as did Elmer Gantry. My guess would be that it will not” (523). Years later, Parker sounds a similar note when she says of a novel she likes, “I do not know if this is an important book—people lately talk so competently about importance, that it is hard to know whether they mean it for themselves or for the rest of us” (Esquire March 1960).

It is through Parker's refusal to claim authority, then, that her book reviews achieve it. She presents readers with an unpretentious, sometimes self-mocking voice that, while it expresses strong opinions, pretends no Olympian knowledge or status. Her use of humor is even-handed: she uses it to make fun of shallow, silly, or just plain bad published work, but she also turns it on herself in order to personalize her critiques. If at times this technique constitutes a conscious pose, it is not a mask behind which Parker hides, but instead of means of conveying what she values. And, as a bonus, the reviews contain some of her own best, most spirited writing, which is the reason, finally, that we continue to read them with such pleasure.


  1. Dorothy Parker, “The Private Papers of the Dead,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, revised ed. New York: Viking, 1973, p. 451. Subsequent in-text references to numbered pages will be to this edition of Parker's work.

Sondra Melzer (essay date 1997)

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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.

Although a new understanding of woman's roles in literature has begun to take hold, virtually no critics have sought to furnish serious consideration of the view of women in the works of Dorothy Parker or to explore her treatment of women from a feminist perspective.

The purpose of this work [The Rhetoric of Rage] is to provide fresh perspective on the portraits of women that Dorothy Parker created and to present contemporary analyses that offer insight into female experience. This book grows out of a need to examine the fiction of Dorothy Parker as serious social commentary, to reinterpret the humor in her stories as a masking device for muted anger toward a traditional society, and to adjust the critical perspective on Parker's position as a feminist writer.

This book, furthermore, locates links between the author's life and the fiction, and aims to set the stories within a biographical context where such connections seem fruitful. Biographers agree that as a writer, Dorothy Parker drew heavily on her personal experiences as a woman. Because a woman writer has direct access to female experience, her work is imbued with a particular “consciousness” which “informs” her literature and reflects her experience and the way she perceives it. As Elaine Showalter suggests, this “consciousness” and self-awareness translates itself into literary form with specific and uniquely female patterns.

Though ‘biographical speculations” can carry inherent risks, Parker's personal history, a disturbing struggle for stability and happiness, interwoven with her fictional treatment of women, furnishes a rich dimension to a feminist evaluation. Her biography was the quintessence of the Jazz Age with all its contradictions. Dazzling, flippant, reckless, and rebellious on the outside, inside, her life was marked by abject sadness, incurable pessimism, failed relationships with men, mordant moodiness, self-doubt, and self-punishment. As her life fed her fiction, her fiction elucidated elements of life.

Although, Parker's work has recently been recognized as “women's literature,” and is beginning to be included in academic texts dedicated to representing women writers, nevertheless there is a notable absence of substantive scholarship on Parker in American literary criticism. Her work, critically ignored and undervalued, commands renewed attention and fresh interpretations from feminist thinkers who are seeking truthful portraits of women's lives to replace the old counterfeit models that have been handed down.

As Adrienne Rich has suggested, “redefining” women in established literature is essential as a feminist project. Feminist critics, she argues, must “re-read, re-see, re-vise,” seeking valid modifications of existing images and ideals, placing them in a new context, free of old conventions. It is true that women writers may to some extent dominate their own experiences by writing about them, as Elaine Showalter and Ellen Moers argue, but still women are part of a larger cultural system which dictates not only to them, but to the way in which their work is perceived.

Hence, the arbiters of taste who praised Parker for her brisk, wry humor at her prime and then condemned her to critical disregard years later, failed in two ways to authentically assess Parker's value to contemporary feminist thinkers. The milieu from which Parker drew her subject matter may have been narrow, but her work was not trivial.

Dorothy Parker's stories seen from the perspective of modern feminist theory, shed new light on the way in which a woman's image, status, social roles, sexual behavior and relationships are to be read in literature. While drawing playful attention to the stereotypical behavior of women, Parker's ironic humor disguised implicit criticism and outrage toward a repressive and patriarchal society.

Comic stories depicting pathetic alcoholics, wisecracking “broads,” submissive housewives, or love-sick girlfriends, can now be viewed from a feminist framework as socially significant statements, symptomatic of the hidden discontent and buried conflicts in women's lives.

It is important to remember that Parker operated in a male-identified group. As resident female wit and “Empress of the Algonquin Round Table,” Parker matched quips and word-play with George Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams and Robert Benchley. She attended Long Island parties at the Fitzgeralds and later in Hollywood and abroad befriended fellow writers S. J. Perelman, Nathanial West, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, whom she alternately revered and reviled.

In this atmosphere of predominantly male literati, Parker nurtured her talent for acid humor and quick repartee which she transmuted into fiction. Her short stories were marked early on by lacerating dialogue. Drawing characters from a narrow band of Eastern, American, urban, intellectual and middle to upper class society, Parker's fiction was popularized in The New Yorker magazine and soon identified as a type of genre, The New Yorker short story, characterized as smart, stylish, and amusing.

But, beneath the slick black humor, the subject matter of her work was distinctly feminist, with its preoccupation with women's problems, women's roles and women's relationships. Parker's mind bristled with female images of fashionable affectations, vacuous conversations, superficial relationships, failed romances, pointless infidelities, which she translated into sophisticated satires that had at its roots a cunning indictment of a society that permitted limited options for women and viewed them from a traditional male point of view.

It should be noted that the application of feminist theory to the works of Dorothy Parker does not assume that Parker had a specific feminist polemic or a consciously feminist intention. Indeed, what we now regard as “women's social criticism” is largely the result of Parker's unique exploration of female behavior, which inspires the contemporary critic to examine the forces in our society which drive that behavior.

An author may not set out purposely to expose aspects of sexism, or the domination of one sex by another. Although Parker does not actually present what have been called “women's issues” directly as the central focus in all of her works, nevertheless, in her portrayal of women characters, we ascertain underlying issues, situations, and attitudes of feminine concerns. In this way Parker indirectly exposes the restrictions placed upon women in a sexist society. Either consciously or without intention, Parker describes the debilitating effects of cultural oppression.

The stories in the book span Dorothy Parker's career as a short story writer, beginning in 1922 with her first published story, “Such a Pretty Little Picture,” and ending with her last, “The Banquet of Crow,” in 1957.

The chronological arrangement of the works enables us to observe that there is a progression and evolution in Parker's own view of women. As her life changed, her perspective changed. It would seem that as her own existence became more intolerable, Parker exhibits greater empathy with women. For example, the women of her later stories, such as Mimi McVicker (“The Lovely Leave”) and Maida Allen (“The Banquet of Crow”) are more mature and autonomous women than those in her earlier works. The portraits are more touching, and there are flashes in their behavior of female awareness and independence.

The stories selected are not propaganda for any particular bias towards women. Parker presents few feminine ideals; nor does she attempt to moralize about the female condition. The stories, we must remind ourselves, are written as literature, not pedagogy. Therefore, the structural analysis of women characters, i.e., who they are, how they are presented and how they are described, reflects primarily the way the author thinks and writes about women, not necessarily the ways we would like to see women portrayed in literature. Indeed, Parker frequently reflected ambivalent, sometimes negative attitudes toward her women characters.

The informing principle behind the selection of the short stories was limited to those stories in which women were principal figures and/or women's roles were central issues in the works. While most stories selected claim women as protagonists or primary narrators, some of them were chosen because a particular artistic treatment of women was considered valuable, whether it was a positive or negative portrayal.

Many of the central conflicts in the stories revolve around the inability of women to define their relationships with men: a wife's role with a weak husband (“Such a Pretty Little Picture”), the effects of army life on a young marriage (“The Lovely Leave”), the struggle of a middle-aged woman to adapt to her husband's desertion (“The Banquet of Crow”), the results of male abuse and abandonment (“Big Blonde”), the image of a lover's indifference and double standards of conduct to a young woman (“A Telephone Call”), a father's selective treatment of two daughters based on traditional patriarchal values (“The Wonderful Old Gentleman”), the tumultuous inner conflicts of a woman forced into a deceptive social situation with an unsuitable male partner (“The Waltz”), and the reactions of an unattractive woman to the hypocrisy and cruelty of traditional, and frequently also male-defined, standards of beauty (“Horsie”).

Indeed, all of the stories deal with issues that at their core are concerned ultimately with the way in which men and women struggle, and in most cases fail in their relationships. However, since almost all of the stories (as almost all of Parker's stories in general) focus on a woman's response to these relationships, Parker's cynical treatment of marriage, family, and sex roles suggests that the current state of sexual arrangements lacks satisfying resolution primarily for women. For example, despite accommodations, as in “The Waltz,” submissiveness as in “Mr. Durant,” or adaptation as in “Big Blonde,” women, for the most part, conceal their anger, outwardly play the role men expect of them, and accept whatever terms have been traditionally imposed on them.

However, we see in some cases that the actions of women such as Hazel (“Big Blonde”), Mimi McVicker (“The Lovely Leave”), and Maida Allen (“The Banquet of Crow”) indicate that these women characters gradually recognize the constraints on their lives and the roles they have assumed in their relationships, and are struggling in their own way to come to terms with this awareness. They strive to achieve a consciousness of their own, one which evolves out of their experiences as women.

In addition to the pervasive question of male-female relationships, the themes of these works suggest the author's interest in a wide range of female social concerns covering a spectrum of issues from abortion (“Mr. Durant”) to lesbianism (“Glory in the Daytime”), wife abuse (“Big Blonde”), and divorce (“The Banquet of Crow”). As a result of the breadth of this concern, the stories shed light on the twentieth-century image of women, as an integral part of society not only in their relationship to men, but to other women, their social place, and their cultural environment as well.

The feminist perspective, applied in this way to Parker's work, helps reveal aspects of the text which might otherwise be overlooked. Read in the light of new social awareness, Parker's treatment of women suggests more complexity and more hidden anger, particularly against men, than was previously noted by critics interested primarily in the satiric humor and urbane style of her work.

Also illuminated throughout the stories is the socialization process, which shapes not only the sex roles that individuals assume are a fixed and natural part of our society, but the forces both direct and indirect that structure the male and female temperaments in accordance with these roles. As Kate Millet suggests, the status accorded to men and women derives from the various values assigned to maintaining civilization.1

The female characters portrayed in many of the stories, though responsible for their own actions, are generally depicted within a social framework rooted in specifically socially defined roles, the result of what Karen Horney calls, the “culture complex.”2 Parker's characterizations of women may appear cynical, amusing, harsh, or stereotypical, but beneath the humor, the author affords the reader the opportunity to explore the origins of these roles, and the condition of women's lives which have often led to their behavior, whether aggressive, self-centered, pathetic, or submissive.

The stories bear out the view held by feminist writers suggested earlier, that this stereotypic behavior, seemingly in women's nature, is often a woman character's strategy for coping with a set of circumstances or an environment that presents limited alternatives associated with her condition.

Dominance (Mrs. Wheelock), submissiveness (Mrs. Durant), hysteria (narrator in “A Telephone Call”), bitchiness (Hattie), self-centeredness (Camilla), as portrayed in these stories, are traceable in part to the repressive and limiting environment of their lives as women, which cause them to act in ways that are traditionally, but perhaps mistakenly, regarded as endemic to their female nature.

Furthermore, while the two narrators in “The Waltz” and “A Telephone Call” are clearly outraged and abused as a result of their disappointment and humiliating experiences with men, we must bear in mind that these women exhibit another form of social conditioning that Horney calls “the soil for the growth of masochistic phenomena,” a certain “preparedness in women for a masochistic conception of their role.”3 Both these women appear to have a history of unhappy affairs with men and yet cling to arrangements which provoke their degradation and mistreatment.

Beneath the worldly bravado as a public celebrity, Parker herself dealt with the pain of being a woman. Broken love affairs that led to a string of suicide attempts, failed marriages, traumatic abortions, depression and drinking testified to the terrible despair of her private hell, a female place of insecurity, loneliness and fragility.

Feminist critics argue that cultural factors are so powerful an influence, that it is hard to imagine that any woman can avoid some degree of masochistic behavior in her relationship with men. Parker's characterizations of these emotionally dependent women are among her most unforgettable portraits, no longer regarded as comic “clinging vines,” but viewed as an effect of male ideologies that promote submissive traits more frequently desired by men.

Certainly it must be acknowledged that there are other causes that contribute to the restrictive behavior of women. Without minimizing the influences that social and cultural factors exert on women, or the effects of internalized patriarchal ideals, there are inherent “anatomical-physiological-psychological” characteristics innate to women and feminine development that govern their lives as well. Phyllis Rose, for example, acknowledges the “shadowy internal prohibitions and emotional phantoms”4 that haunted Virginia Woolf. The precise weight of these two groups of factors cannot be assessed, nor was it the intention of this study to do so. It is clear, however, that there is a confluence of forces at work in the lives of women that must be addressed by contemporary thinkers. Parker provides material to build a case for a feminist examination of those synergetic forces that forge a woman's history.

As previously pointed out, Parker's characters are not necessarily sympathetic. Indeed, like the domineering Mrs. Wheelock (“Such a Pretty Little Picture”), the vacuous Camilla (“Horsie”), and the bitchy Hattie (“The Wonderful Old Gentlemen”), they are often negative and unappealing. Nevertheless, Parker's perceptions of women help raise contemporary consciousness as to the causes of why women are this way. Thus, negative images and stereotypical images alike can be subject to analysis derived from new techniques of feminist criticism recently formulated and relatively uncharted during the author's lifetime. Since Parker's basic genre was satire, we must realize she presents a particular and unusual form of feminist awareness, not necessarily in her exhortations, but in her perceptions.

Obviously, prior critics have acknowledged the presence and portrayal of women characters in Parker's work. Still, as this study illustrates, the application of feminist theory calls for new approaches towards the way that women characters define themselves and their lives in fiction, and fresh understanding of the literary strategies of women writers who have generated a female tradition and style of their own.

Parker's fiction in particular provides a paradigm for the study of “women's language.” Each of the works in this study deals not only with women, but also contains the language traits, lexicon, speech patterns, vocabulary, idioms, and forms that have been associated with women's language. The topic of language and the sexes has drawn a wave of critical attention recently, both in published works and in ongoing research.

Robin Lakoff's book, Language and Woman's Place, suggests that the overall effect of “women's language”—meaning “both language restricted in use to women and language descriptive of women alone”—is that it submerges a woman's identity by “denying her the means of expressing herself strongly and encouraging her in expressions of ‘triviality.’” This linguistic phenomenon has the ultimate effect of systematically denying women access to power and encouraging them to feelings of inadequacy.

Parker's parodic and satiric language, the lexical traits of her female characters, viewed from the rigors of a feminist tradition, reflect these patterns of women's speech, now understood as the result of cultural conditioning, but nevertheless provocative of contemptuous stereotyping about women and their womanish ways.

Parker's career as a writer had a brilliant beginning, but sadly, an early demise. Despite the fact that Parker lived a protracted life, her powers as a writer diminished and her bitterness increased. By 1967 the majority of her friends were gone or alienated, and her popularity had become part of a vogue that had vanished. Unable to write, aging, ostensibly impoverished, assuaged by alcohol, and comforted by the only companion whom she had not estranged, her poodle, Troy, Parker died alone and in obscurity in a hotel room in New York, having long outlived her fame. In an irony that would have pleased her, most people who read of her passing thought that she had been dead for some time.

The literary audience of her own time recognized and celebrated her lively and vivacious wit. Her portraits of women were viewed as paradigms of satiric genius. It remains, however, for contemporary feminist thinkers to probe beneath the brilliant humor to discover the subtle rage and elusive wisdom, that consciously or inadvertently etched with canny skill the discontent of women's lives and the prescriptive environment in which they lived. The reader is invited to join in this discovery.

Parker's work suggests at its deepest level, that it is a very serious thing to be a funny woman.


  1. Millet argues that, “however muted its present appearance may be, sexual dominion obtains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power.” Sexual Politics (New York: Ballantine Books, 1969), p. 33.

  2. Karen Horney, Feminine Psychology (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1967), p. 230.

  3. Horney, p. 231.

  4. Phyllis Rose, Women of Letters, A Life of Virginia Woolf (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. xiv.

Arthur F. Kinney (essay date 1998)

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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.]


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 recognized by twentieth century women as peculiarly their own: the gut-searing loneliness of the women who have “careers,” the women who don't marry, the women who do but divorce; the women deprived of maternal warmth and comfort who are condemned to seek love forever in the barren soil of husbands and children and even animals; women howling primitively for nourishment, flanked on one side by rejecting mothers and on the other by rejecting lovers. Her verse began to acknowledge the timeless subject of female rage.

(Meade, 109)

In time she could even experience self-loathing as in the anti-Semitic “Dark Girl's Rhyme.” Her accomplished poetry, fiction, and criticism illustrate the success of this development.


Parker's maturity is clearly visible when we compare a late poem like “War Song” (see xiv) with an early poem from Enough Rope (1926), “The New Love.”

If it shine or if it rain,
          Little will I care or know.
Days, like drops upon a pane,
          Slip, and join, and go.
At my door's another lad;
          Here's his flower in my hair.
If he see me pale and sad,
          Will he see me fair?
I sit looking at the floor,
          Little will I think or say
If he seek another door;
          Even if he stay.(1)

“The New Love” is essentially negative, its wit grounded in a rueful attitude, self-depreciation, and world-worn cynicism; the poem has a kind of half-cheerful heartlessness that echoes early Millay. “War Song,” on the other hand, is more positive. The later poem is also more realistic and willing to settle for less, not self-deprecating but not boasting either; instead, the persona has reconciled herself to the way of the world. “War Song” is essentially generous in spirit and, if it has any echoes, they are of the mature A. E. Housman.

Yet these distinctions are subordinate to the similarities: the 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, whether they result from her Latin training at Miss Dana's or reach her by way of her contemporaries. Roman poetry lies just behind the epigrammatic poems of Dorothy Parker.


“Every good copy of verses is inspired by the elder poetry,” John Jay Chapman wrote in Vanity Fair for July 1919.2 Not one but two classical traditions merged during the period that Parker advanced from her light verse to her mature and substantial poetry; although no one has yet paid sufficient attention, these two strains caused a remarkable revival in interest in Roman poetry in the earlier part of the twentieth century. One tradition, the more learned and serious, stemming from Catullus, arose with Housman and reached Parker largely through the work of Millay and Elinor Wylie. The other, beginning with Eugene Field's imitations of Horace, reached Parker through later imitations by F. P. A. Her best poems marry both traditions, display both voicings.

One scholar has identified Catullus as the first Roman poet who shaped short lyrics by his own independent, wisecracking personality, reflecting personal sentiments rather than serving the larger community.3 Earlier, when Parker was writing Enough Rope, a popular book on Catullus held that he was “the pioneer … in the epigram and the lampoon,” that “[h]is language is sometimes that of the nursery, sometimes that of the drawing-room, sometimes that of the street corners; [in each] he wastes no words.”4 Catullus wrote 40 songs of hate, ranging from 2 to 40 lines, his work often revealing “his open contempt for shams. … It was Catullus who taught Europe, and America, how to sing tender songs of love, to phrase bitter words of hate; who ‘pointed the way to a more exact prosody and a richer versification’; who showed us how to flash on the mental retina whole pictures in a single word” (Harrington, 62, 219). Harrington quotes Walter Pater: “‘Catullus' expression of emotion: has the Greek qualities of definiteness, adequacy, point, and necessary limitation’” (Harrington, 218). Although the poetry was immediate in reference and impact, the moments chosen were eternal ones; Catullus compounded sharp wit, ingenuity, and elegance of expression from songs of beauty to poems of savage invective. His poems could be solemn or reckless in attitude, fostering an “urban consciousness”5 the clean precision of his lines and the economy of phrase resulting from quip and cliché with a relative absence of simile and metaphor. In all these primary characteristics, “He set the pace for epigram throughout the centuries” (Harrington, 220)—and he wrote verse astonishingly similar to that of Parker. As an example, here is number 70 in a contemporary translation by Horace Gregory.

My mother says that she would rather wear the wedding-veil for me than anyone: even if Jupiter himself came storming after her; that's what she says, but when a woman talks to a hungry, ravenous lover, her words should be written upon the wind and engraved in rapid waters.

Compare Parker's “Prophetic Soul” (Enough Rope, 66):

Because your eyes are slant and slow,
          Because your hair is sweet to touch,
My heart is high again; but oh,
          I doubt if this will get me much.

with Catullus's number 85:

I hate and love.
          And if you ask me why,
I have no answer, but I discern,
can feel, my senses rooted in eternal torture.(6)

Confessional yet highly disciplined, conversational yet poetically rendered, the work of both poets displays a controlled imagination grounded in irresolution. Distanced reflection and careful analysis merge problematically. 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 Parker share a forced (and threatened) personal integrity before failed love affairs and a disintegrating society. Catullus's misfortune with Lesbia, Parker's with many men, allow them to juxtapose a grim reality with a struggle to preserve the image of an ideal lover; for both, cynicism results.7

Catullus was revived in the work of A. E. Housman, a classicist known for reciting the Roman poet before his classes, even during battles at Vincy and Verdun, and who published an 11-page discussion on obscenities in Catullus and other Latin poets.8 “The unanimous verdict of the Housman admirers,” writes Cyril Connolly,

is that he is essentially a classical poet. Master of the Latin language, he has introduced in English poetry the economy, the precision, the severity of that terse and lucid tongue. His verses are highly finished, deeply pagan; they stand outside the ordinary current of modern poetry, the inheritors, not of the romantic age, but of the poignancy and stateliness, the epigraphic quality of the poems of Catullus, Horace, and Virgil, or the flowers of the Greek Anthology.9

Just how closely he resembles Parker can be seen in A Shropshire Lad, number 18:

Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.
And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they'll say that I
Am quite myself again.

But the cleverness of the poem is (like Parker's) misleading, because “quite myself” placed in apposition to “clean and brave” invites the reader to question the authority of the persona and, in doing so, separates the reader from (rather than fusing the reader with) the poet. As for American poets, Housman felt Millay “the best [one] living,” from whom he “got more enjoyment [than] Frost or Robinson.”10

Edna St. Vincent Millay studied Latin poetry as a child and as an adult carried with her a “tiny, shabby brown leather” copy of Catullus's poetry; in Greenwich Village, she talked about Catullus with Edmund Wilson over peach brandy. She was equally fond of Housman, once chasing him a half-mile through Cambridge “just to get a glimpse of his face, a nice face”; she was also close to Harrison Dowd, who set part of A Shropshire Lad to music.11 Both poets find a place in her poetry, in her recklessness and reserve, in her devotion to learning, in her creativity and rebellion.12 Like Parker, Millay deals with unrequited love and with sexual affairs that are “just as real and true as any other,” bringing to them “a pertness, a saucy impudence—even a certain heartlessness” that reminds us of Parker's poetry (Gurko, 124-25). For our purposes, A Few Figs from Thistles (1922) is illustrative. The opening poems are indistinguishable from Parker's.

First Fig
My candle burns at both ends;
          It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
          It gives a lovely light!
Second Fig
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!(13)

So is “Thursday”:

And if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday—
So much is true.
And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you Wednesday,—yes—but what
Is that to me?(14)

And, as with Parker, death as well as love becomes an omnipresent theme in Millay's poetry.15 Among other contemporaries, the “small, clean technique,” the miniaturist art of Elinor Wylie, has also been compared to her friend Parker's.16

Parker 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 troubling combination of rueful and cocky tones. There is some likelihood that the Odes of Horace that she knew at Miss Dana's School was that translated by W. E. Gladstone (1894), which emphasized the compression of his verse. Warren H. Cudworth's text (1917) appeared just as she was seeking out her own form; in his preface, Cudworth stresses the tight form of Horatian poetry.17 But Parker was far from alone in this interest; Louis Untermeyer's popular little book Including Horace pointed out ways in which he could be seen as contemporary.

Horace in his own mood [is] light, slyly mocking, petulant, often downright flippant. In spite of his immortal literary harem, his Lydias, his Chloës, his Pyrrhas, his Lelages, there is never in all of Horace's erotic rhymes the note of genuine passion. … The note is always that of sophistication. … Over and over again he tells us to enjoy the present and distrust tomorrow.18

Structurally, Horace's Satires are like Parker's, and often begin with a hyperbole, develop by antithetical ideas, 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 Parker; but as Grant Showerman wrote in 1922, Horace detached himself from the crowd so that he could see and comment on the folly of his fellow men. He is tamer and less involved than Catullus, although Horace too could use his own person as the subject or perspective for his poetry.19

The modern tradition of imitating Horace began with Eugene Field, who was taught classics by his father and whose managing editor on the Chicago Daily News, F. W. Reilly, persuaded him to try his hand. Field's methodology was a conscious one. “[Horace's] was a joyous spirit and certainly he would express himself rhythmically and with mirthful lightness if he were now on earth. So I try to interpret Horace in a way to bring his pagan poetry up to date. At least I give him the best I have in the shop.”20 Field's imitations appeared in his newspaper column Sharps and Flats; in the winter of 1890 he was convinced by a friend, Francis Wilson, that he should publish a whole book of such poetry. Echoes from the Sabine Farm appeared in 1896. Field's work was brief, colloquial, and critical—but never savage or trenchant like Parker's. He appeals frequently to Roman allusions in his originals, as in “To Chloë (II)”:

Chloë, you shun me like a hind
          That, seeking vainly for her mother,
Hears danger in each breath of wind,
          And wildly darts this way and t'other; …
But Chloë, you're no infant thing
          That should esteem a man an ogre;
Let go your mother's apron-string,
          And pin your faith upon a toga!(21)

Field perhaps gave his most serious attention to these imitations. He defended them at length in 1891, but he died before completing his ambition to write Horace's biography. His work was widely hailed and itself imitated (Dennis, 167-68).

F. P. A., who worked on Chicago newspapers during Field's last years, brought the idea of imitating Horace to New York City with him, and his own imitations became a popular feature in his “Conning Tower” column in the New York World; Parker herself tried her hand at them there. “The patron of the smart,” as Gilbert Seldes called F. P. A. (Seldes, 246),22 made it possible (in the words of Don Marquis) “to admit our learning and still be honorable men.”23 F. P. A.'s imitation of the same ode to Chloë (Book I, Ode xxiii) reads,

Nay, Chloë, dear, forget your fear,
          Nor like a frightened fawn outrun me;
No savage I to horrify—
          You shouldn't shun me.
Come Chloë, queen, you're seventeen;
          There's many a precedent to back us.
Why shouldn't you be Mrs. Q.
          Horatius Flaccus?(24)

His imitation of Book I, Ode v also uses a popular expression.

What lady-like youth in his wild aberrations
          Is putting cologne on his brow?
For whom are the puffs and the blond transformations?
          I wonder who's kissing you now.(25)

Long sections of each of F. P. A.'s early books, published during the time he was encouraging Parker, are given over to such imitations of Horace—and of Propertius, Catullus, and Martial.26

F. P. A. learned from imitating Horace the precision, simplicity, and compactness that distinguish his light verse as those distinguish Parker's poetry: he served her as an important model. He also turned to puns opening his verses, too, to multiplicity of meaning, as in “The Atmospheric Complex.”

Give me the balmy breezes!
          Give me the raging storm!
Give me the gale that freezes!
          Give me the zephyrs warm!
Give me the searing tropic!
          Wind on my cheek and hair!
And, while we're on the topic,
          Give me the air.(27)

Like Parker, F. P. A. was fascinated by the theme of unrequited love and challenged by the difficult word, as in “The Return of the Soldier.”

Lady, when I left you
          Ere I sailed the sea.
Bitterly I bereft you
          Told me you would be. …
Arguing ex parte,
          Maybe you can tell
Why I find your heart
          A. W. O. L.(28)

The legacy of Horace, summed Showerman in 1922, was “to be straightforward and rapid and omit the unessential; to be truthful to life; … to be appropriate in meter and diction” (Showerman, 135). Horace spawned such imitators because they, as he, were discontented with their lot (Book I, Satire i).

Still “the model and type of the epigram … which have not been surpassed in any literature” is Martial, and Parker may have known the Martial text by J. H. Westcott (1897). The chief characteristics of the Martial epigram are wit and point, as in “News Item” or “Two-Volume Novel” by Parker.

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

(Enough Rope, 85)

The sun's gone dim, and
          The moon's turned black;
For I loved him, and
          He didn't love back.

(Sunset Gun, 70)

Paul Nixon notes in A Roman Wit (1911) that Martial was an urban wit; his poetry offers as its reward an “intellectual appreciation, not an emotional reaction,” and it is Westcott's text that tells us most about how Parker's generation perceived the classical epigrammatist.

The fact that Martial's character was not a strong one, that he felt no consciousness of a moral mission, that he was neither greatly better nor worse than people about him, that he reflects so thoroughly the spirit of his age, makes him more interesting to us and more instructive in his way than many a sterner author. … His satire stings more than it wounds. And at his best he reveals a tenderness and pathos which prove a genuinely affectionate heart, or a refined delicacy which is hard to reconcile with coarseness of feeling. … Martial's versification is admirable, being clear, tasteful, and careful, without being pedantic or over precise.29

Nixon's 1911 translations illustrate these techniques.

Philo swears he was never known
          To dine alone:
                    He was not.
Dine at all, when it comes about
          He's not asked out,
                    He does n't.
Your client's applause for your poems,
Would prove not your metres but menus

“The point, whether dependent on a pun, or an ambiguous phrase, on a new meaning given to a word, or an antithesis,” writes Walter C. A. Ker in 1930, “is sharply brought out. And the words fall into their places with a fitness that suggests the solution of a puzzle: the reader feels that no other words could have been employed. He is never turgid or pompous: all he touches with a light hand.”31 The understanding the Algonquin wits had of Martial, as of Catullus and Horace, points the way to some resources of the various voicings of Parker's major poetry.


The polyphonic, polysemous quality of Parker's major poetry was perceived at once. J. F. [John Farrar] wrote in The Bookman for March 1927 that “Dorothy Parker in Enough Rope … collects some of her fragile verses, and the effect is devastating. Singly, they are lovely. As a volume, they are terrifying; but only as they reflect what seems to be a fiery, discontented personality.”32 The New York Times reported that “[i]n these verses, perfected with simplicity of words and fine craftsmanship, there is more than facility—there is an outspoken manner that explodes pretense sharply and turns its sorrow into mordant wit.” Other reviews described her various voicings in other ways.33 In Poetry for April 1927, Marie Luhrs added: “Here is poetry that is ‘smart’ in the fashion designer's sense of the word. … Mrs. Parker has her own particular field of frank American humor. She is slangy, vulgar, candid, and withal subtle, delicate and sparkling. The soul of wit distinguishes most of her pieces. … For all their pertness and bravado they mirror, in most cases, quite genuine and profound experiences.”34 Summarizing the reviews, Frewin writes that “[t]he book illustrated the elliptical Dorothy Parker at her best: The droll, almost bored, prismatic author, immersed in a desire for beauty, in love with the lacerating stillness of death in life, and always sardonic in her cerebral exercises” (Frewin, 117).

Enough Rope (1926) appeared from Boni and Liveright for two dollars, in a gray dust jacket with yellow lettering—“A woman supplies enough rope to hang a hundred Egos”35—and a dangling rope for illustration; it went through 14 printings, a phenomenal best-seller. For the uninitiated, the plaintive, self-pitying tone of the spurned woman must have seemed obvious and trite (“The Small Hours,” 12) or brightly, if superficially, sophisticated (“Wail,” 22). While the book's title suggests her conscious adoption of the role of satirist, one bemused by the human situation and sufficiently superior to poke fun at it, the poetry of part I, treating such commonplace themes as unrequired love, loneliness, death, and hypocrisy, makes the book appear commonplace. Attempts to be otherwise, as with “The Immortals” (44), strain self-consciously but are actually poor parodies of “serious” love poems.

But this is to take the worst poetry in the book as our norm. If we examine the best of it, we see already that terseness and strength whereby classical form supplies foundation and limitation to both situation and sentiment. Compare the apparently simple (because simply titled) “Anecdote”:

So silent I when Love was by
          He yawned, and turned away;
But Sorrow clings to my apron-strings,
          I have so much to say.


Here is the precision and distillation characteristic of Martial at his succinct best, but here too she manages to combine timidity, disappointment, despair, and frustration. This is a disciplined poem like “Threnody,” which opens the volume.

1 Lilacs blossom just as sweet
Now my heart is shattered.
If I bowled it down the street,
Who's to say it mattered?
5 If there's one that rode away
What would I be missing?
Lips that taste of tears, they say,
Are the best for kissing.
Eyes that watch the morning star
10 Seem a little brighter;
Arms held out to darkness are
Usually whiter.
Shall I bar the strolling guest;
Bind my brow with willow,
15 When, they say, the empty breast
Is the softer pillow?
That a heart falls tinkling down,
Never think it ceases.
Every likely lad in town
20 Gathers up the pieces.
If there's one gone whistling by
Would I let it grieve me?
Let him wonder if I lie;
Let him half believe me.


The explosive conceit of the heart as bowling ball is at once cocky and exaggerated, although it frees the quatrains, opening them up for the drama of a defeated, undefeated spirit. Parker knows already how form can constrict when density is sought and can just as easily loosen the spirit within the form when she wishes to dramatize a willful and even reckless vitality. Consequences of recklessness within this jocular poem are precisely the point: how are we to read (and in what tone hear) “Let him half believe me”? In such a context, grief and wonder become naturally, necessarily apposite.

However different the immediate tones of “Anecdote” and “Threnody,” close reading reveals the same careful plotting of diction and sound; they are exacting as voiced feelings. Simple language, taut or loose, coiled or sprung, is economic, direct, even astringent. In “Threnody,” moreover, “[t]hey say” (l. 7) is not a line-filler, but an indication of the persona's naive reliance on sophistication that is assumed, not real; the victory she attempts, then, in the last lines, assuring her alliance with the code of “them,” can be naive or wisely earned. Dissociated as we are from the persona's sentiment (ll. 1-2), her sudden loss of the one fine metaphor (wrenchingly changed in l. 17) shows us the ironic distance between poet and persona. The liberating metaphor (l. 3) is also misplaced and grotesque, a product of the personal. So too the authentic colloquialisms that insistently revert to clichés. In this equivocation that guarantees satire, Parker provides a wit as controlled as the Roman poets', yet in an idiom very much her own.

Enough Rope is dedicated to Elinor Wylie, whose personal copy was inscribed, “With love, gratitude, and everything.” This gift to a serious poet—not one of the light versifiers who contributed doggerel to Life and “The Conning Tower”—anticipates some serious changes Parker made when collecting these poems from earlier publication in the magazines.36 Some of the poems here are still early and unsuccessful (“A Portrait” [45], “Chant for Dark Hours” [50], “Verses for a Certain Dog” [57]), but others, like those she revised, already show her mastering her craft. The themes that run through the volume are those with which she was by now identified: unrequited love, loneliness, and death. Yet note her control in such poems as “For a Sad Lady”:

And let her loves, when she is dead,
Write this above her bones:
“No more she lives to give us bread
Who asked her only stones.”


If her imitations of Horace lack the wide-wheeling energy of F. P. A. (“Renunciation,” 62), when she brings her own voice to the classical form, she is unsurpassed (“Unfortunate Coincidence,” 51). That she manages in far briefer compass shows that she is primarily a miniaturist.

To appreciate the peculiarly successful poetic of Enough Rope, we must see how Parker starts with the briefest possible situation, catches it at a split moment, and dramatizes it through a voice unaware of the clichés on which it rests.

Because your eyes are slant and slow,
          Because your hair is sweet to touch,
My heart is high again; but oh,
          I doubt if this will get me much.

(“Prophetic Soul,” 66)

The interior monologue advances amusement through its innocent self-condemnation, or its jaded, world-weary cynicism: the choice remains open. Consider the technique of “Philosophy.”

If I should labor through daylight and dark,
          Consecrate, valorous, serious, true,
Then on the world I may blazon my mark;
          And what if I don't, and what if I do?


Every word is measured here; the polysyllables of line 2 add variety and counterrhythm to lines 1, 3, and 4, but they are defeated by the honesty, the rueful forthrightness of the monosyllables that completely enclose them. The poem, collapsing on a line that, removed from this freshening context, is one of the tritest lines of everyday conversation, shows us how we are, for the moment, suspended between a commonplace language and sentiment and a uniquely forceful—a memorable, mnemonic—poem.

Parker's poetry appears thin partly because it is dramatic, not ruminative. But by puns, clichés, and unfortunate 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, as with “Interview” (106).

The ladies men admire, I've heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They'd rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints …
So far, I've had no complaints.

The controlling idea lies in the exaggerated sentiment of line 1, the allusion to Millay in line 3, the excessive catalogue of lines 4-9, all set in conflicting tonal motion, whereas the last line sharply reverses course, leaving us suspended between the last two lines, emphasizing (and placing any possible resolution on) what is missing in the ellipsis. Even more embedded is the satire of “Pictures in the Smoke.”

Oh, gallant was the first love, and glittering and fine;
          The second love was water, in a clear white cup;
The third love was his, and the fourth was mine;
          And after that, I always get them all mixed up.


The inability of the persona here to rescue even her first lover from romantic jargon—to award him reality—is a certain indication of the hollowness of her own self, of her own attitude toward love. But whether personal promiscuity or social practice is the subject—whether the poem is public or private—goes unanswered.

This is not to deny a rueful laughter. Parker's poems can also contain humor. In assessing both the absurdity of human behavior generally and the foolishness of her personae in particular, Parker is much like the Horace of the Satires and of F. P. A.'s imitations.37 But Enough Rope remains an uneven collection throughout. Some poems are highly imitative of Housman (6, 26), Millay (11, 24, 29, 30), Eliot (32), and, even, medieval balladry (14, 49) and Herrick (89), although here too she supplies her own final signature (as in “Portrait of the Artist”). Her best work echoes Martial (25, 78, 83) with the forcefulness of childlike diction, masculine rhymes, and a strong reliance on nouns and active verbs. Her strange mixture of romantic and classic checks any wrong impulse or self-posturing aside from that of her persona, and supplies what Maugham calls her “many-sided humor, her irony, her sarcasm, her tenderness, her pathos” (Maugham, 15)—a stiff upper lip alongside haunting disappointment and implied recalculation (“One Perfect Rose”). As Genevieve Taggard has it,

This quaint, slightly cock-eyed world where men and women go around making chest developing gestures in the direction of each other, colliding like drunken electrons, apologizing (“So sorry!”), never looked more pitifully ridiculous through the lens of any poet's microscope than it does through Dorothy Parker's. It is hard to tell how she gets her hard-bitten comedy unless by the device of always correcting the way the specimen looks by the evidence of how it feels—or vice versa. Mrs Parker has such a corrective habit in her work … [that next to Millay, it is] whisky straight, not champagne.

(Taggard, VII, 7:2-4)

Shrewd and fastidious, in polysemous language and tight form, trenchant humor opposing clichéd love conventions surprises, engages, and amuses us, working dialogically, as in “Words of Comfort to be Scratched on a Mirror” in part II:

Helen of Troy had a wandering glance;
Sappho's restriction was only the sky;
Ninon was ever the chatter of France;
But oh, what a good girl am I!


In the best of this book, Dorothy Parker is already the most accomplished classical epigrammatist of her time.


The unprecedented success of Enough Rope made critics and reviewers in popular journals more knowing in reviewing Parker's second volume of poetry, published two years later, in 1928. Nearly all of them sought characteristics to praise, as if the consensus gentium took on inviolable authority. Therefore, the reservation of the critic for the New York Times is worth remembering.

In these verses [of Enough Rope] perfected with simplicity of words and fine craftsmanship—there is more than facility—there is an outspoken manner that explodes pretense sharply and turns its sorrow into mordant wit.

Sunset Gun has the same exuberant vitality. And again there is the tinctured mixture of the sad and the gay, suggesting that it is better to laugh than cry. And if one may be pardoned such ungallantry—the girl grows older—a mature note of intensity is apparent in her lyric note. She does not now have to depend on the last line reverse twist for effectiveness. Happily, this is being acquired without losing the gem-like sparkle of her verse. Perhaps the most attractive thing of all is her puckish fighting spirit.38

“The poems are lean and quick as a snake,” Garreta Busey added.39

The book was originally called Songs for the Nearest Harmonica, but upon publication it appeared with another funereal title. Sunset Gun40 was dedicated simply “To John,” a current admirer (perhaps John Farrar) who, noted one friend, was replaced by another “John” (John Garrett) while the book was in press. This time there was a first printing of 10,000 copies as well as another 250 copies numbered and signed. It, too, sold for two dollars.

Sunset Gun shows Parker's attempt to expand the brief epigrammatic form by cycles of poems (“A Pig's-Eye View of Literature [30-32], “Verses in the Night” [57-59]), but except for these, often forced, there is only one poor poem (“For R. C. B.,” 23), for Benchley, which she later omitted from her collected poems. Occasionally, poems here seem easy or imitative (“There Was One” [24], “Frustration” [53]), but there is a dialogic unsettledness in them, both within the verse and in dialogue with one of her sources, the work of Housman:

New love, new love, where are you to lead me?
          All along a narrow way that marks a crooked line.
How are you to slake me, and how are you to feed me?
          With bitter yellow berries, and a sharp new wine.
New love, new love, shall I be forsaken?
          One shall go a-wandering, and one of us must sigh.
Sweet it is to slumber, but how shall we awaken—
          Whose will be the broken heart, when dawn comes by?

(“The Last Question,” 66)

Other Roman echoes of unreconciled wit can be found in “The Trusting Heart” (37), “The Gentlest Lady” (39), “Afternoon” (46), “The Whistling Girl” (51), “Landscape” (55), and the impressive “Liebestod” (60). Still other poems look back to Millay and capture, better than elsewhere in Parker's poetry, the gaiety of the 1920s (“On Cheating the Fiddler” [26], “Pour Prendre Congé” [71]).

But the best poems in the book still mine the epigrammatic tradition of Martial, still locate the visible grasp of tonal purity and economic wit with unreconcilable angles of vision. Here she shows considerable advance in her ability to energize a tired proverb and to pack into a quatrain level upon level of potential meanings all available to any careful reader. One such example is “Thought for a Sunshiny Morning”:

It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.”


A similar poem, “Daylight Savings,” conflates Roman form with the Elizabethan theme of the union of poetry and immortality, itself an allusion to the classical concept of art, in which small social acts become metaphorical indicators without surrendering their initial concrete signification:

My answers are inadequate
To those demanding day and date,
And ever set a tiny shock
Through strangers asking what's o'clock;
Whose days are spent in whittling rhyme—
What's Time to her, or she to Time?


Poems such as “Post-Graduate,” for all their simplicity, still have this impacted quality:

Hope it was that tutored me,
          And Love that taught me more;
And now I learn at Sorrow's knee
          The self-same lore.


“Superfluous Advice” (67) and “But Not Forgotten” (69) are similar achievements: “penning a tract against self-pity, cant, and affectation, and at the same time taking a kind of Pharisaical delight in putting herself on the perverse side of the text,” as Henry Morton Robinson has it in The Bookman.41

Moreover, Parker varies the basis of her irony. She still relies on reversal (“Surprise” [43]), but more and more she employs irony of situation (“Penelope” [34]) and irony of condition (“Wisdom” [74]). In poems of dazzling simplicity, she manages to imply allusions (“Two-Volume Novel” [70]); even the eternal battle of the sexes is rendered as openly metaphorical (“The Second Oldest Story” [29], “Mortal Enemy” [33], “Dilemma” [63]). Her new ability to jam questions of philosophy, attitude, and judgment into foreshortened space, the maturing wit that enables her to condense coordinates of time into reckless and yet provocative juxtapositions may be seen here in one of the best poems she ever wrote, “Partial Comfort”:

Whose love is given over-well
Shall look on Helen's face in hell,
Whilst they whose love is thin and wise
May view John Knox in paradise,


where a review of the lines shows how evenly balanced the choice is between “Helen” and “Knox,” “over-well” and “wise.” Read sardonically, the poem supports paganism; read meditatively, it supports individual conscience (Methodism). When we admit the variety of tonalities that the simple quatrain permits, it becomes almost impossibly equivocal in its twin condemnations.

Such expanding linguistic powers she appears to examine in “For a Lady Who Must Write Verse”:

… Show your quick, alarming skill in
          Tidy mockeries of art;
Never, never dip your quill in
          Ink that rushes from your heart. …
Never print, poor child, a lay on
          Love and years and anguishing,
Lest a cooled, benignant Phaon
          Murmur, “Silly little thing!”


Such deliberate caution, such quickening critical intelligence is especially necessary in a book that attempts, for the first time in any significant way, autobiographical poetry. “Bohemia” works because of the wisecracking bravado of the earlier “Resumé”:

Authors and actors and artists and such
Never know nothing, and never know much.
Sculptors and singers and those of their kidney
Tell their affairs from Seattle to Sydney.
Playwrights and poets and such horses' necks
Start off from anywhere, end up at sex.
Diarists, critics, and similar roe
Never say nothing, and never say no.
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man that solicits insurance!


The governing pun on “insurance” with its coy allusion to Eddie Parker—that which provides stability and hedges against future uncertainties, opposed to that which locks one into business so that life is here placed in opposition to “solicits,” which relates selling insurance to selling sex—then falls back into a greater allusive sweep by interrogating the solicitation on which “[a]uthors and actors and artists and such” depend; patronage as well as approval. Along with this mingling series of meanings, the poem manages a kind of quick singsong rhythm that parcels out lines like a businessman, even as it frolics more for amusement than instruction. Whichever way we take the poem, we cannot be so simple about it as the persona who speaks the final line.

This kind of autobiography-as-metaphor always works for Parker. Riskier, and less often successful, is the “serious” Parker who ventures the sonnet form in “A Dream Lies Dead.”

A dream lies dead here. May you softly go
Before this place, and turn away your eyes,
Nor seek to know the look of that which dies
Importuning Life for life. Walk not in woe,
But, for a little, let your step be slow.
And, of your mercy, be not sweetly wise
With words of hope and Spring and tenderer skies.
A dream lies dead; and this all mourners know.


The new, quietly lyrical, even mournful tone is still the product of a rueful surrender to the transient, even the unreachable, quality of happiness. There remains a fundamental skepticism of love's permanence, and so a residual resistance against idealistic notions of endurance. Sunset Gun begins to reveal in Parker's poetry an unstated conflict in loyalty between the disappointing truths of love's experience, of her life, and an apprehension of, for all time, people's inherent folly, of all lives.


Death and Taxes, Parker's third volume of poetry, was named for our only certainties. Published in 1931 by a new publisher (Viking), the book is dedicated, at last, “To Mr. Benchley.”

Reviewing Death and Taxes in the Saturday Review of Literature, Henry Seidel Canby remarked that

one should quote Latin rather than English to parallel the edged fineness of Dorothy Parker's verse. This belle dame sans merci has the ruthlessness of the great tragic lyricists whose work was allegorized in the fable of the nightingale singing with her breast against a thorn. It is disillusion recollected in tranquillity where the imagination has at last controlled the emotions. It comes out clear, and with the authentic sparkle of a great vintage … there is no frailty in her poetry, and its brevity is in space not in time.

(Canby, 891)

Raymond Kresensky noted in the Christian Century that “it is a well known fact that often the court jester is a serious philosopher beneath his cap and bells”;42 seeing the same dominance of seriousness, F. P. A. commented in “Books” that “[i]n this new collection the painful hunger for beauty and the heartbreak of its impermanence, the uncompromising idealism, are even acuter than in her previous volumes. It is her saddest and her best book.”43 Elsewhere, comments were generally favorable.44

Once again, Parker revised a number of poems that reappear here.45 But she did not eliminate “wisecrack verses” that hearken back to her earlier contributions to Life and to the Saturday Evening Post, such as “Prologue to a Saga” (61). This poem opens with a series of classical allusions that, in the forward march of chronology, are displaced in the second quatrain by medieval references. None of them, however, prepares us especially well for the last line: here the twist is fun for its slang and abruptness, but it is only a surprise; it does not reverberate, as good poetry always does. Other examples that seem a residue of her earlier moods and practices are “The Evening Primrose” (17), “Salome's Dancing-Lesson” (20), “Little Words” (24), “Purposely Ungrammatical Love Song” (49), and “The Danger of Writing Defiant Verse” (14). She also enjoys an easy joke on Catullus (“From a Letter from Lesbia” [48]) and still experiments with French verse forms (“Ballade of Unfortunate Mammals” [46], “Ballade of a Talked-off Ear” [56]).

But she has not in the process lost her ability to write fine epigrams. “The Flaw in Paganism,” resembling Martial in form, borrows its theme from Horace and Juvenal, and alludes to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (2.7.89 ff.; 3.13.182 ff.), the mingling allusions signaling the mixed voices:

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
          Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
          (But, alas, we never do.)


“Distance” (16) is something new—Housman's lexicon and spirit converted to the leanness characteristic of Martial—whereas “Sanctuary” returns again to a Horatian use of popular phrase.

My land is bare of chattering folk;
          The clouds are low along the ridges,
And sweet's the air with curly smoke
          From all my burning bridges.


Here our sense of plague or damnation in line 1 (a barren landscape) seems transformed by pleasant clouds (l. 2) when we learn that the clouds are not nature's doing, but the persona's; it is not really clouds but clouds of smoke, which, in turn, cause a geographical barrenness that resembles the barren love affair, the persona now left behind. When Parker so intertwines lines and vocabulary, her work is far superior to “Prologue to a Saga.” “Cherry White” is also lapidary, adding the familiar Parker corrosiveness.

I never see that prettiest thing—
A cherry bough gone white with Spring—
But what I think, “How gay 'twould be
To hang me from a flowering tree.”


The macabre humor of the final line both lifts and depresses our spirits as we read it. “In the Meadow” (37) is unusual for Parker because it works almost exclusively through natural symbol; idea and mood are equally well compacted in “The Apple Tree” (38). “Iseult of Brittany” realizes a deep psychological awareness of the fated medieval heroine: unlike Horace and Juvenal, who tend to portray types, Parker's poem frees the tragedy and the individuality of Iseult from the books of courtly romance. Again in Death and Taxes, she displays her powers by writing a cycle of epigrams, “Tombstones in the Starlight” (26-31).

What is fundamentally new in Death and Taxes, however, is a note of lyricism. There are faint anticipations of it in the lively and witty “The Little Old Lady in Lavender Silk” (32-33) if we notice how the choric line dialogically informs the spirit of the poem throughout, but it takes its newer and more characteristically solemn tones in “Midnight” (51) and in the satiric portrait of “Ninon de l'Enclos, on Her Last Birthday”:

So let me have the rouge again,
          And comb my hair the curly way.
The poor young men, the dear young men—
          They'll all be here by noon today. …
So bring my scarlet slippers, then,
          And fetch the powder-puff to me.
The dear young men, the poor young men—
          They think I'm only seventy!


Here the dialogic intrusion of the persona's choric line invites us to the questions underlying the poem: Who here is courting whom? And who is being victimized in the process? The answers, which may seem apparent, are not, finally, clear at all.

Quiet tone is married to classical simplicity in “Of a Woman, Dead Young: (J. H., 1905-1930)” (54). Here the sentiment is so honest and moving that Parker returns to vers libre, relying on assonance to do the work of her normally end-stopped lines and masculine rhymes; the whole effect is one of subdued but persistent bewilderment and admiration. This hushed tone, toward which the whole volume works, is heard also in “Prayer for a New Mother” (the Virgin Mary [50]) and “Sonnet on an Alpine Night” (58), which the China Weekly Review of Shanghai compared to a poem of Yang I (about 1000 A.D.): “Upon this tall pagoda's peak / My hand can nigh the stars enclose.”46

But the consummate poem, as poem, opens the book. “Prayer for a Prayer” uses the quiet tone to introduce a meditative moment that merges life and death, time and eternity, memory and forgetfulness, purpose and purposelessness.

Dearest one, when I am dead
          Never seek to follow me.
                    Never mount the quiet hill
                    Where the copper leaves are still,
          As my heart is, on the tree
Standing at my narrow bed.
Only, of your tenderness,
          Pray a little prayer at night.
                    Say: “I have forgiven now—
                    I, so weak and sad; O Thou,
          Wreathed in thunder, robed in light,
Surely Thou wilt do no less.”


The majesty and awe that prompt the final lines, reduced suddenly to the personal level, are neither mockery nor blasphemy, but the final lines work hard to bring to some reconciliation a poem that opens with personal choice juxtaposed to the forces of nature; and “Prayer for a Prayer” becomes here an unaccustomed cry for mercy for mercy instead of measure for measure. Here, as elsewhere in Death and Taxes, Parker breaks new ground—not new to Millay and Wylie, but new to her—while maintaining the lucidity, simplicity, and economy that distinguish her epigrammatic wit. Anguish is more openly displayed here, death closer to the surfaces of life, the laughter more hidden and more brittle. The increased seriousness really signals the end of her poetry—for her concerns will be turned over now, and more directly, to prose essay and fiction; it is as if with Death and Taxes she is already anticipating her famous statement in the years ahead of her: “There is nothing funny in the world any more.”


By 1936, when Parker's collected poetry was published under the title Not So Deep as a Well, she had married, moved to Hollywood, and given up most writing to devote her time to political activities. Not So Deep as a Well—the title is from Mercutio's sardonic death speech in Romeo and Juliet (3.1.97)47—reprints her three volumes of poetry, omitting only the least of her poems,48 and adds five new ones: “Sight,” “The Lady's Reward,” “Prisoner,” “Temps Perdu,” and “Autumn Valentine.” Although critics received the work well, they did so in the unwittingly reductive terms of Parker, Algonquin wit, as Louis Kronenberger remarked:

One comes back to Mrs. Parker's light verse with the greatest pleasure; with its sharp wit, its clean bite, the perfectly conscious—and hence delightful—archness, it stands re-reading amply. Here her high technical polish has great virtue, sometimes cracking out a surprise effect with an absolute minimum of wind-up, sometimes achieving a foreseen effect by means so dexterous it is exhilarating to watch them. Mrs. Parker can extend anticlimax to irresistible bathos by altering the pitch of her language (from the high-flown to the highly colloquial) at the exact moment she alters her meaning. But what, of course, is more important is the sense of personality that converts what might otherwise be merely a witty idea into a dramatic, however cockeyed, situation; a sense of personality that gives us not cynicism in the abstract but laughter applied to an objective. There is no one else in Mrs. Parker's special field who can do half as much. I suspect that she will survive not only as the author of some first-rate light verse but also as a valuable footnote to the Twenties, out of whose slant on existence that light verse sprang.49

But the new poems are a product not so much of the 1920s as of Parker's late serious poetry, of the early 1930s. Rather like “Prayer for a New Mother,” grounded in a dramatic tension between the stated beliefs of natural motherhood and the implied countercurrent of Christianity founded in love that shocks us to new and deeper truths about humility and sacrifice, so these new works too start simply, traditionally, only to lead in new directions. Consider “Sight”:

Unseemly are the open eyes
          That watch the midnight sheep,
That look upon the secret skies
          Nor close, abashed, in sleep;
That see the dawn drag in, unbidden,
          To birth another day—
Oh, better far their gaze were hidden
          Below the decent clay.


Here the ideas of Housman take on a more subdued tone, a more regretful attitude: Housman stoicism is displaced by Parker's mordant irresolution. “Autumn Valentine” (202) sounds more like earlier poems, but it too ends with a sad (and unanswered) refrain. “Prisoner” demonstrates Parker's continuing skill as epigrammatist.

Long I fought the driving lists,
          Plume a-stream and armor clanging;
Link on link, between my wrists,
          Now my heavy freedom's hanging.


Earlier end-stopped lines and full rhymes are reinforced by her later interests in assonance and consonance, drawing together in the wide uncertainties of “hanging.” Grief and death are given lingering and beguiling memorial in the appropriately titled “Temps Perdu” (201), where the verse is harder than Millay's, more clipped than Wylie's, yet holds the same sad lyricism that characterizes their work.

“The wittiest woman of our time suddenly took on stature,” William Rose Benêt said in response to Not So Deep as a Well;50 although she remained, as always, neither too obscure nor too erudite, Parker moves in her poetry in Not So Deep as a Well from countereffective surprise to memorable solemnity and memorably subdued tones. In the nexus of love and death that moved from the cocky response to the unrequited role women play in society to the deeper and richer awareness of death as impersonal, blind to distinctions of sex and customs of romance, she admits another kind of worldliness, reaches new audiences. We are reminded of Auden's lines—“Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches / The images out that hurt and connect.” She finally sensed that, too, behind her Iseults and her Martials, behind Horace's satires and Catullus's love for Lesbia were similarities that stoutly refused connection, steadfastly resisted closure.


  1. Dorothy Parker, “The New Love,” in Enough Rope, 31. Further references will be given in the text.

  2. John Jay Chapman, “The Poets of the Future,” Vanity Fair, July 1919, 45.

  3. Kenneth Quinn, The Catullan Revolution (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1959), 26.

  4. Karl Pomeroy Harrington, Catullus and His Influence (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1923), 46, 51-53; hereafter cited in text.

  5. E. A. Havelock, The Lyric Genius of Catullus (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1939), 98-100.

  6. W. B. McDaniel II, ed. The Poems of Catullus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931); the poems were being circulated earlier than that. Cf. Catullus, numbers 57, 69, 72.

  7. Compare “One Perfect Rose” (73) and “The Choice” (96) in Enough Rope.

  8. George L. Watson, A. E. Housman: A Divided Life (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957), 138, 203, 219. Reviews of A Shropshire Lad (161) point to qualities common to Parker's poetry; Housman too collected and published, with his brother, parodies and light verse. See Laurence Housman, A. E. H.: Some Poems, Some Letters and a Personal Memoir by His Brother (London: Jonathan Cape 1937), 229-47.

  9. Cyril Connelly in The New Statesman for May 23, 1936, quoted in Grant Richards, Housman: 1897-1936 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), 365.

  10. A. E. Housman, letter to Sydney Cockrell, January 15, 1932, quoted in Richards, 387; Watson, 213-14.

  11. Miriam Gurko, Restless Spirit (New York: Crowell 1962), 13, 240; hereafter cited in text; Anne Cheney, Millay in Greenwich Village (University: University of Alabama Press, 1975), 114; Watson, 213-14.

  12. Cf. James Gray, Edna St. Vincent Millay, University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers 64 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967), 45.

  13. Edna St. Vincent Millay, “First Fig,” “Second Fig,” A Few Figs from Thistles (New York: Harper and Bros., 1922), 9.

  14. Millay, “Thursday,” A Few Figs, 12. Other appropriate poems in Figs are on 13-15, 19-21, 23-26, 33, 34, 36, 37. Her attitude toward woman's independence as well as her tight form and classical allusions are common to Parker's work; Louise Bogan has spoken of it as Millay's influence (Louise Bogan to author, August 4, 1964). Figs was Millay's third book; but see also “Sonnet II” in Renascence (1919) and, in Second April (1921), 27, 37-39, 47-48, 56-57. “Vincent's first appearance on the Vassar dramatic scene was when she recited, in Latin and nestling in her hands a dead song-sparrow borrowed from the Museum of Natural History, Catullus' ‘Passer Mortuus Est’” (Gurko, 62-63); the poem is in Second April, 29. See also Millay's fourth book, The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923), 10, 11, 17, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 56.

  15. Cf. Gurko, 130. There are, in fact, too many connections to be studied here. Cf. Gray, 16: “Despite the many sidelong references to the physical relationship, the enclosing interest is that of human love as a total experience of the psyche involving, on the positive side, the endless warfare of two egos that cannot effect a complete surrender into oneness.”

  16. A good discussion of Wylie is in Thomas A. Gray, Elinor Wylie (New York: Twayne, 1969), chap. 2; for their friendship, see 18-19 above. Wylie's Collected Poems (1932) and Last Poems (1943) show more interest in the soft line and enjambment and a considerably more romantic cast. A comparison can be made with “Valentine” (Collected Poems [New York: Knopf, 1960], 41) and the contrast seen with “Restoration Love Song” (Last Poems [New York: A. A. Knopf, 1943] 90).

  17. Warren H. Cudworth, preface, Odes of Horace ([New York: Alfred A. Knopf], 1917), xi.

  18. Louis Untermeyer, Including Horace (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1919), xiii-xiv.

  19. These characteristics were associated then with Horace; see Showerman, Horace and His Influence and Tenney Frank, Catullus and Horace (New York: Henry Holt, 1928). Like Parker, Horace read widely but not deeply; he was especially concerned with society and manners and found it difficult, therefore, not to write satire. Housman published a number of papers on Horace and felt his Ode IV. vii “the most beautiful poem in ancient literature” (Tom Burns Haber, A. E. Housman [New York: Twayne, 1967], 96); Housman's own brief corpus of one hundred and three odes in four books may be a direct imitation of Horace. See Norman Marlow, A. E. Housman: Scholar and Poet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958), 60. Horace was popular with the Round Table, and Broun even named his Connecticut home Sabine Farm.

  20. Eugene Field, quoted in Charles H. Dennis, Eugene Field's Creative Years (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1924), 167; hereafter cited in text.

  21. Eugene Field, “To Chloë (II),” in Echoes from the Sabine Farm, in Works of Eugene Field (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1898), 6:380.

  22. Seldes recalls (245) that Adams used to quarrel about the quantitative meter in Horace.

  23. Don Marquis, quoted in Yates, The American Humorist, 253.

  24. Franklin P. Adams, In Other Words (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1912), 21.

  25. Franklin P. Adams, Tobogganing on Parnassus (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1916), 12.

  26. Besides In Other Words (9-43) and Tobogganing on Parnassus (6-29, 142), these also include By and Large (1914, 3-23), Weights and Measures (1917, 75-95), and Something Else Again (1920, 3-25), all published in Garden City, N.Y. by Doubleday, Page.

  27. Franklin P. Adams, So There! (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1923), 38.

  28. Franklin P. Adams, Something Else Again, 65.

  29. J. H. Westcott, One Hundred and Twenty Epigrams of Martial (Boston: 1897), 164, vi, x.

  30. Paul Nixon, A Roman Wit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 51, 52.

  31. Walter C. A. Ker, introduction to Martial's Epigrams, Loeb ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930), l:xiii. Nixon's collection is stuffed with close analogies to Parker's work; in the more recent translation by James Mitchie, The Epigrams of Martial (New York: Randon House, 1972), see 25, 27, 43, 47, 121, 141, 161, 189. Martial, the Twelve Books of Epigrams, trans. J. A. Pott and F. A. Wright (London: G. Routledge, 1925), is dedicated to Housman.

  32. John Farrar, “This Stream of Poets,” The Bookman, March 1927, 81.

  33. New York Times, “Three Poets Who Openly Prefer Laughter to Tears,” March 27, 1927, III, 6:1-3. Other comments: The Nation, “Books in Brief,” May 25, 1927: “a thread of traditional light verse, a wire of Edna Millay's, a hair of Elinor Wylie's …, and a thick strand of her own” (589); Russell Crouse, New York Evening Post notes a “reverberating mordancy”; Saturday Review, “Its laughter has a biting edge, its humors are satisfyingly terse, its wistfulness begets beautiful phrases”; Herbert Gorman, New York World. “The book is rich with those nuggets of gold that may be removed from their setting without losing any of their sparkle”; Providence Journal, “[A]ll the clarity of the finer sort of irony with no brutality. … Humor without scorn; wisdom without smugness”; Milwaukee Leader, “with a most every-day vocabulary, Miss Parker creates verses which are sometimes exquisite, sometimes comical; sometimes whimsical; but verses which are pointed and swift and earthy and vivid. She has, in short, done a new thing.” See Book Review Digest 23 (1927): 571-72.

  34. Marie Luhrs, “Fashionable Poetry,” Poetry, April 1927, 52-54.

  35. Cf. Rabelais (Works, chap. 62): “You shall never want rope enough.”

  36. “Epitaph for a Darling Lady” (The World, August 3, 1925, 11:1) originally read “shiny sands” (l. 1), “Pretty day on pretty day” (l. 5), “Gay and scented and alarming” (l. 10), and “very charming” (l. 12). The second stanza of the original version of “Story of Mrs. W—” (The World, June 13, 1925, 11:1) has been omitted. It read: “Here is no aching red of rose, / Nor are there cruel fragrances, / But each untroubling thing that blows; / The spinster flowers, that live to please.”

  37. Cf. Satires, I, x.

  38. New York Times, “Six Rhymsters in Caps and Bells,” July 1, 1928, Books, 10:3-4.

  39. Garreta Busey, “A Porcupine's View,” New York Herald Tribune, July 15, 1928, XII, 7:5. She continues: “We are willing to pursue Miss Parker to her extremest thicket in spite of, or rather for the sake of, her quick and cruel barbs.”

  40. The title refers to a gun fired at military bases such as those Parker visited when Eddie was stationed there; James R. Gaines notes on a visit to West Point this gun especially frightened Benchley, 5.

  41. Henry Morton Robinson, “Some Scrannel Pipings,” The Bookman, September 1928, 96.

  42. Raymond Kresensky, “Humor and Tragedy,” Christian Century, October 28, 1931, 1345.

  43. Franklin P. Adams, “The Parkerian Formula,” New York Herald Tribune, Books, June 14, 1931, 7.

  44. “Books in Brief,” in The Nation for September 23, 1931: “Such clever craftsmanship is reason enough for admiration, but there is more to be said: Mrs. Parker as a light verse writer is actually a better poet than many of our very serious composers in meter” (315).

  45. Originally, the last stanza of “The Danger of Writing Defiant Verse” (15) read: “He's none to come and wrench a kiss / Nor pull me in his lap … / Oh, Lord! I see, on reading this, / He is an awful sap!” (The World, March 15, 1929, 15:1). Originally line 2 of “Purposely Ungrammatical Love Song” (49) read, “Is willing to speed my woes away” (The World, December 25, 1928, 15:1); other changes were made in “Prayer for a Prayer” (11), “Distance” (16), “Little Words” (24), “The Crusader” (30), “Song for the End of a Sequence” (36), and “From a Letter from Lesbia” (48).

  46. China Weekly Review (Shanghai), August 22, 1931, 479:1.

  47. The reference also has the glib countermanding self-deprecation associated with Round Table wit; Mercutio's whole line (about his death wound from Tybalt) is “[t]is not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve.”

  48. Omitted from Enough Rope: “Verse Reporting Late Arrival at a Conclusion,” “Day-Dreams,” “Folk Tune,” “Spring Song,” “Finis,” “Autobiography,” “Biographies,” and “Song in a Minor Key.” Omitted from Sunset Gun: “For R. C. B.,” “Swan Song,” “Verses in the Night,” and “Directions for Finding the Road”; “To Newcastle” was retitled “The Counsellor.” Omitted from Death and Taxes: “In the Meadow.”

  49. Louis Kronenberger, “The Rueful, Frostbitten Laughter of Dorothy Parker,” New York Times, December 13, 1936, VII, 28:3-4.

  50. William Rose Benêt, “Deep, at That,” Saturday Review. December 12, 1936, 5.

Rhonda S. Pettit (essay date 2000)

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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.

Although Guilason does not use the term sentimental in relation to Parker, the characteristics he lists are often associated with the sentimental tradition. Furthermore, sentimental fiction shares many of the characteristics seen in sentimental poetry. Suzanne Clark and Joanne Dobson note the use of accessible language, style, and narrative conventions; Dobson and Jane Tompkins note the use of stereotypes (what Guilason calls “one-dimensional” characters). Passion and power are important and interrelated themes. The romance plot, argues Rachel Blau DuPlessis, subordinates female quest and adventure stories and is the dominant narrative for nineteenth-century women. But if the subject of love masks a discussion of power in heterosexual relationships, as Alicia Ostriker has argued regarding poetry, then the romance plot in fiction may do the same. Intense female feeling was also directed to women—mothers, sisters, friends. In either case, Tompkins and Nina Baym argue, sentimental heroines learn to conquer passion or intense feeling out of recognition that unbridled feeling can be destructive; the ethic of submission dominates. Not surprisingly, female tears become a permissible outlet for woman's rage. Nineteenth-century women writers, claims Tompkins, are concerned also with the general nature of power and who has it, a theme often manifested in the reform or instructional nature of their work; they often locate their own power center in the home and the maternal figure where the desire for human bonding is valued.2 Passion and power relate to another characteristic of sentimental fiction noted by Dobson and Nancy Walker, and of particular relevance to Parker—the presence of satire. The relationship between satire and sentimentalism dates back to the eighteenth century when, as R. F. Brissenden tells us, “There was … a well established tradition of antisentimental satire, often operating, paradoxically enough, in work which was ostensibly sentimental.” The best authors, Brissenden continues, use satire to critique the aspects of sentimentalism they often employed, as when a man of sentiment turns out to be a fool or villain. Nineteenth-century women writers, however, tended to direct their satiric venom at men, most often husbands and lovers, or at social and professional restrictions placed on women, rather than on the sentimental conventions they used. Thus, as in poetry, the use and critique of “codified gender roles” typically occurs in these works. The desire to impart a lesson or moral imperative—to convince the reader that the fiction reflects real-world problems—occurs in satire as well as sentimental fiction, and as Robyn Warhol argues, is a strategy used by Victorian women writers to “engage” the reader.3

We know from Marion Capron's interview with Parker a little about Parker's early reading in the sentimental tradition at The Blessed Sacrament School in New York:

We couldn't read Dickens, he was vulgar, you know. But I read him and Thackeray, and I'm the one woman you'll ever know who's read every word of Charles Reade, the author of The Cloister and the Hearth.4

As part of the British sentimental tradition, Dickens and Thackeray would have given the young Parker a taste for using fiction in the service of instruction, much the way Adelaide Ann Procter did with poetry. Reade's recurring theme of the struggle against sexual feeling may have influenced Parker's use of sexual conflict in her stories. Reading Victorian novels was not in all cases simply an early, passing interest; Parker re-read Vanity Fair throughout her life: “I was a woman of eleven when I first read it—the thrill of that line ‘George Osborne lay dead with a bullet through his head.’” Parker strongly identified with Becky Sharp, the novel's manipulative, self-promoting villain. And if we can assume that Parker read the authors she wrote about in her poem “A Pig's-Eye View of Literature,” then Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin might have been added to her repertoire. All of these writers may have influenced what Lynn Z. Bloom calls “an implicit plea for reform” in Parker's work, which occurs not only in stories about heterosexual relationships, but in stories about racism and war.5

However “modern” aspects of Parker's fiction style and content may be, we can see in her stories a merging together of sentimental and modernist sensibilities and attributes—a personal and impersonal point of view, a reliance on but distrust of romance, a dissatisfaction with the status quo and submission to its reality. As with Parker's poetry, the patterns of connection, both aesthetically and culturally, between Parker's fiction and that of women writing in the nineteenth century are most efficiently and effectively revealed by grouping together observations made by the feminist critics working in this field. The categories—Narrative Form and Space, Bonding and Bound, A Plea for Reform, and In Defense of Feeling—provide critical frames through which new readings of Parker's fiction can be offered.


Narrative Form and Space draws two connections between Parker's fiction and that of her predecessors in the nineteenth century. Her use of the sketch, while different in some respects from that of women writers of the nineteenth century, is nevertheless linked with the sketch tradition as outlined by Judith Fetterley, Elizabeth Ammons, Sandra A. Zagarell, and Josephine Donovan.6 In terms of content, the sketch offers realistic depictions of time and place. It also was an appealing form for women writers of the nineteenth century, argues Judith Fetterley in her introduction to Provisions, because the novel, by virtue of its larger form and great literary importance, “received the most interference from the male literary establishment” in terms of acceptable themes and conventions.7

Parker's use of the sketch in the early twentieth century could suggest that “interference” was still present, though we may see it to some extent as a positive influence. Magazine editors liked the sketch format. With its brevity and quickness, the sketch looked and sounded modern—an MTV version of prose—against a backdrop of overly rhetorical and descriptive nineteenth-century prose. Its concision was in keeping with the developing modernist aesthetic.8 For nineteenth-century women writers, the form's brevity had also been an advantage: sketches could be written in between domestic duties. At the time Parker was writing many of hers in the teens and 1920s, she had none of these, but she did write for a living, producing longer play reviews and essays in addition to her fiction and poetry. Although she did not write quickly, the sketch may have been a way of maintaining her fictive voice while writing more commercial pieces to support herself.

The sense of smallness and limitation embodied in the sketch form provides a more significant connection: Parker's use of space, even in her longer stories, reflects the kind of confinement and limited movement associated with cultural restrictions that kept nineteenth-century women in the home. And as seen in some of the spatial metaphors in her poetry, Parker's stories often use domestic settings. There are far fewer references to “ladies” in Parker's fiction compared with her poetry, but those present tend to be pretentious society types within domestic settings. These are odd strategies, for two reasons: (1) Parker spent relatively little time at home, and (2) she was writing at a time when women's options were supposedly expanding outside of the home. Parker's use of these strategies suggests that New Women continued to face Old Values.

Parker's short stories fall into three groupings: interior and dramatic monologues, dialogues with a minimum of narration, and longer, more fully narrated stories involving more than two characters. The first two groupings are often referred to as “sketches.” Two sketch types occur in nineteenth-century British and American literature; the one most relevant in terms of Parker's connection to the sentimental tradition is the village sketch, influenced in America by a British text, Mary Russell Mitford's Our Village (1832). The village sketch, sometimes called local color literature, is a form of realism used by early nineteenth-century American women such as Rose Terry Cooke, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Catherine Sedgwick, and continued later in the century by Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Kate Chopin, and others. Details of place and localized names typically occur in these works; their realism, argue Josephine Donovan and Sandra A. Zagarell, runs counter to the romance novel, or “Cinderella script,” so prevalent in the nineteenth century, and forge a tradition of women's literary realism that continues into the twentieth century. Donovan thus sets the village sketch outside of the sentimental tradition, but as the above scholars have shown, sentimental literature encompasses more than just romance; it features realism and an emphasis on community, both of which occur in the village sketch.9

The “village” in Parker's work is New York City, specifically Manhattan. Its particular localities include apartments, speakeasies, train cars, and cabs. Parker's concentrated attention to the physical details of character and place exemplifies her realism, as in the opening sentence of “A Terrible Day Tomorrow”: “The woman in the leopard-skin coat and the man with the gentian-blue muffler wormed along the dim, table-bordered lanes of the speakeasy.” Parker wrote a number of sketches that are entirely descriptive, and thus closely aligned to the nineteenth-century sketch.10 Her dialogue sketches, however, contain much less narrative; she renders her realism through conversation. While Parker's lack of narration is an aspect of modernist brevity, her ear for voice—whether of the sophisticated snob, the insensitive clod, or the lovelorn individual—creates the strong sense of place so crucial to the village sketch. The “clipped and fused” slang and clichés of the 1920s, as Philip Furia points out, circulated through flappers, fiction writers, light verse poets, and song lyricists. Ira Gershwin, for example, cut his lyrical teeth on light verse poets like Parker who had parodied flapperese, and then he returned the influence. A year after he wrote the song “S'Wonderful” for the musical Funny Face (1927), Parker created two characters whose conversation relies largely on the slang from Gershwin's song lyrics:

“… What a party this turned out to be!”

“And how!” she said.

“And how is right,” he said. “S'wonderful.”

“S'marvelous,” she said.

“S'awful nice,” he said.

“S'Paradise,” she said.

“Right there with the comeback, aren't you?” he said. “What a girl you turned out to be! Some girl, aren't you?”

“Oh, don't be an Airedale,” she said.11

If the borrowed language in this excerpt from “The Mantle of Whistler” seems like a superficial device, it nevertheless points to the superficiality of communication between the story's protagonists, Miss French and Mr. Bartlett. The couple, in effect, is parodying a parody of their own slang for communication. This verbal layering has its price; their conversation, at once realistic and superficial, gets them nowhere. Furthermore, the couple in this and other Parker sketches either come together for superficial or convenient reasons, or break apart, giving her work an element of anti-romance found in the village sketch tradition. The empty language used to linguistically capture the emptiness of heterosexual romance comments on both the particularities of 1920s culture and the difficulties of love in general—in any time and place. Ironically, Parker's success with this technique was interpreted by critics who labeled her a “period” writer as a limitation.12

Another paradox concerns Parker's form. It has been said that much of Parker's fiction is autobiographical in nature, an account of her own experiences or the experiences of those she knew. Thus, there is an element of movement and externality to her work, a sense of the author/narrator as reporter moving about the world and recording its people and events. Yet the sketch form does not allow Parker much room for narrative maneuvering; neither does Parker allow her characters much movement or space. More than thirty of Parker's stories have static settings and limited or no action. The stories take place in a variety of limited settings: in a room, at a table, or on the couch at a party in someone's home (“The Mantle of Whistler,” “Arrangement in Black and White,” “A Young Woman in Green Lace,” “Travelogue,” “Who Might Be Interested,” “Oh, He's Charming,” “But the One on the Right,” “The Garter”); over a table in a speakeasy or restaurant (“Just a Little One,” “You Were Perfectly Fine,” “The Last Tea,” “Soldiers of the Republic,” “A Terrible Day Tomorrow,” “Dialogue at Three in the Morning,”); in the home (“The Sexes,” “The Wonderful Old Gentleman,” “I Live on Your Visits,” “The Lovely Leave,” “Such a Pretty Little Picture,” “Mrs. Carrington and Mrs. Crane,” “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,”); in a bedroom (“Lady with a Lamp,” “The Little Hours,” “Cousin Larry,”); in the back of a cab (“Sentiment,” “The Road Home”); in the confines of a telephone call (“New York to Detroit,” “A Telephone Call,” “‘Sorry, the Line Is Busy’”); in a train compartment (“Here We Are”); and within a single dance where movement is paradoxically confining (“The Waltz”).13

Certainly the sketch form invites this kind of physical limitation, and yet even in Parker's longer, more heavily narrated stories, the change in location is typically from home to one or at most two external locations, and most of the story's action takes place in the home. Hazel Morse in “Big Blonde” moves from speakeasy to home; Mimi McVicker in “The Lovely Leave” briefly goes to her job and shops, but most of the action takes place in her small apartment; Miss Wilmarth, the begrudged home nurse in “Horsie,” leaves the Cruger home at the end of the story to return to the small apartment she shares with an aunt where she sleeps on a couch. Four stories feature spacious homes—“Horsie,” “The Custard Heart,” “The Bolt Behind the Blue,” and “Glory in the Daytime”—but in the latter two, activity is confined to one room.

Parker's settings prompt several observations. Their smallness can be attributed, in part, to their New York City realism; small apartments and hotel rooms, rather than spacious mansions, were the norm for Parker. The fact that so many of Parker's settings are home-based seems unusual, since she spent most of her time during the years she wrote the bulk of her fiction outside of her own small hotel room. Both of these attributes, however, have ties to social codes and narrative forms of the nineteenth century. A woman's place was in the home, claimed John Ruskin in “Of Queens' Gardens,” an influential essay which, as Kate Millet and Gillian Rose argue, helped to restrict Victorian women to the domestic sphere. “Confinement,” writes Rose in Feminism and Geography, “is a recurring image in women's accounts of their lives.”14 This is no less true in their fiction. Interpreting limited space as a positive, spiritual attribute, Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs claims:

all sentimental novels take place, metaphorically and literally, in the “closet.” Sentimental heroines rarely get beyond the confines of a private space—the kitchen, the parlor, the upstairs chamber—but more important, most of what they do takes place inside the “closet” of the heart. For what the word “sentimental” really means in this context is that the arena of human action … has been defined not as the world, but as the human soul.15

Tompkins is referring specifically to Christian salvation, an irrelevant issue in Parker's fiction, although moral judgments are clearly implied in “Clothe the Naked,” “Arrangement in Black and White,” “Soldiers of the Republic,” and “Who Might Be Interested.” Yet Tompkins's emphasis on heart—on feeling—is certainly relevant to the stories in Parker's oeuvre that focus on the heartbreak of relationships. Significantly, a number of Parker's sketches, as well as several of her longer stories, feature characters who suppress their emotions, desires, and conversation, who are as emotionally enclosed as they and their narratives are physically enclosed. In “The Last Tea,” a nameless woman won't confess her attraction or anger to a man who expresses interest in another woman. In “Here We Are,” young newlyweds are too embarrassed to discuss the upcoming consummation of their marriage, even though their conversation inevitably slides toward it. In “The Road Home” and “The Sexes,” conversation consists of ironic retorts designed to avoid open expressions of anger and resentment, yet anger and resentment build, and in “The Road Home,” culminate in violence. The suppression of conversation in stories relying heavily on dialogue is another paradox that Parker works to her advantage. She focuses on what her characters say in order to show what they cannot or will not say. Parker's suppression of space, movement, and communication not only is an aspect of modernist concision, but derives as well from gender-based behavioral suppression in the nineteenth century.


Bonding and Bound looks at the ways in which some of Parker's stories about love adhere to certain characteristics of sentimental fiction, or reflect cultural pressures associated with the nineteenth century. Although similar to the Gender Rigidity category used to discuss Parker's poetry, Bonding and Bound moves beyond the male-aggressive/female-passive dichotomy. This category incorporates the observations of Jane Tompkins and Joanne Dobson regarding the desire for human bonding found in sentimental fiction by women. “I think it is accurate to say,” writes Dobson, “that the sentimental imagination at its core manifests an irresistible impulse toward human connection; sentimentalism in its pure essence envisions—indeed desires—the self in relation.” In Parker's fiction, the “impulse toward human connection” manifests itself in her portrayal of heterosexual relationships, which are often governed by a code of behavior that limits female autonomy and agency. This code of behavior imposes a rigidity on heterosexual relationships in Parker's fiction that seems reminiscent of Victorian courtship rather than of “free” or “modern” love. Thus, Parker's female characters often find themselves bound by the rules they follow in order to secure their desired bond, that is, the love of a man. Another level of bonding that connects Parker with women writers of the nineteenth century concerns formal qualities and audience. Parker shares with her predecessors “an emphasis on accessible language, a clear prose style, and familiar narrative conventions and character types” that “defines an aesthetic,” argues Dobson, “whose primary impulse is also generated by a prioritizing of connection, an impulse toward communication with as wide an audience as possible.”16

Parker focused on heterosexual bonding for good reasons; the world of romance had changed. Early twentieth-century dating was complicated by increased personal and political freedoms for women in general, and by the notion of “free love” in particular. If, on the one hand, “free love” suggested an alternative to the pitfalls of marriage that Emma Goldman defined in her 1917 essay “Marriage and Love,” on the other hand it signified a lack of male obligation or responsibility to a female partner who could be damaged physically through pregnancy or venereal disease, or emotionally through society's sexual double standard and expectation of marriage.17 The actual number of women participating in “free love” may have been relatively small, but the “free love” atmosphere is pervasive in the works of the period.

Romantic relationships in Parker's fiction nearly always fail, yet the very fact that Parker returns to that topic suggests that she places high value on relationships and human bonding. At the very least, the desire for bonding, for a relationship that has the potential for permanence, is important to many of her female characters. Jane Tompkins considers the desire for human bonding in sentimental novels a positive attribute, but in Parker's fiction the desire often degenerates into dependency and confinement. Whether the course of action is “free love,” dating as a prelude to or part of a long-term relationship, or marriage, women in relationships with men are encumbered by rules that hint of Victorian rigidity, giving Parker's stories about “modern love” a sentimental twist. These rules concern the extent to which a woman can—or cannot—communicate her feelings to a man with whom she is romantically involved. At issue, of course, is the suppression and validation of women's feelings.

In Parker's “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl” and “A Telephone Call” the female protagonists know the courtship rules but show no ability to follow them. For all the irony this suggests, the rules nevertheless remain valid, for breaking them neither yields success nor eliminates the rules. Miss Marion, in “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” advises Sylvie Peyton on how to hold onto Bunny Barclay. The advice places Sylvie in a paralyzing never-never land: she should never talk things over with Bunny, never stay home and wait for the phone to ring, never remind him of the sadness he caused her, never ask him where he's been, never start a fight, never make him feel guilty, never let him know how important he is to her.18 Neither the Peyton girl nor Miss Marion follows these rules, and so to a certain extent the story satirizes the instructional fiction common in the nineteenth century. Yet the rules and their aura of propriety and female suffering remain in place.

These rules take on a near-cosmic proportion in an earlier story, “A Telephone Call.” This artfully integrated interior monologue is also an extended prayer that moves from rationalizing, to anger, to irrationality. The speaker prays to God to let her lover “telephone me now” because the rules prohibit her from calling him or displaying her feelings: “I know you shouldn't keep telephoning them—I know they don't like that. When you do that, they know you are thinking about them and wanting them and that makes them hate you”; “He'll be cross if he sees I have been crying. They don't like you to cry”; “They don't like you to tell them they've made you cry. They don't like you to tell them you're unhappy because of them. If you do, they think you're possessive and exacting. And then they hate you. They hate you whenever you say anything you really think”; “They hate sad people.” Within the frame of the story, the speaker abides by these rules, yet there is one rule she knows she has broken, described ambiguously as “that.” The speaker's “that” could refer to sex; it more likely refers to adultery, given the speaker's defensive and then angry posturing with God—“We didn't hurt one single soul; you know that. … It was bad. I knew it was bad. All right, God, send me to hell.”—and the fact that the lover never calls.19 Thus, the telephone call is never received, and the prayer is never answered, enlarging the irony of the story's title and subject: the telephone call that never takes place, the communication made conspicuous by its absence as in “‘Sorry, the Line Is Busy.’” Rules of romance and the punishment for rule-breaking are clearly associated with patriarchal authority, in both a human and godly sense.

Other pressures feed into this theme. Clock and time are repeated images, magnifying the speaker's desperation but also suggesting the ticking of the biological clock (Parker was thirty-five when the story was published). The lover was supposed to call by five, so the speaker tries to kill time by counting to five-hundred by fives. This occurs three times in the story, three being a biblical number and also suggesting the possibility of a love triangle between the speaker, the male lover, and the male lover's wife. The speaker lashes out irrationally at the telephone, the lover, God, and the “God damned lie” of romance novels that contain “people who love each other, truly and sweetly.” Yet for all her anger and protest, the nameless speaker of “A Telephone Call,” like Miss Marion, waits tearfully by the telephone.

Parker is clearly satirizing both the women and the rules, suggesting a modernist rejection of nineteenth-century rigidity; who would want to be with such desperate, dependent women? Their very dependency, however, reflects Parker's continuation of a nineteenth-century theme. In their desire for bonding, these characters subject themselves to rigid, gender-encoded rules that ultimately confine them physically and emotionally. Males are the active initiators of romance, while females remain passive—and at home. Parker may ultimately reject these rules via her satire, but her protagonists who strain against them do not.

“The Waltz” may be Parker's most famous example of gender-based rules of dating and their cost to women, and significantly the waltz was the preferred dance of Victorians. In this monologue by a woman who dances with a partner she secretly dislikes, we have a different rule—a woman never says “No,” as explained by the narrator: “But what could I do? Everyone else at the table had got up to dance, except him and me. There was I, trapped. Trapped like a trap in a trap.”20 The narrator then suffers a series of humiliations during the dance, including awkward steps, an inappropriately fast pace, kicks to the shin, a stomped foot. “The Waltz” is famous for its combination of exterior and interior monologues to reveal the paradoxical nature of a woman's experience: the narrator conducts polite, congenial conversation with her partner during the dance, but mentally slays him, leaving us uncertain as to her true feelings. Complementing this aspect of the story is the paradoxical image of confinement in motion. Not only was the narrator “trapped” at the table and forced to dance with this undesirable partner, she is now trapped in the dance itself and all it potentially symbolizes—sex, love, marriage: “And here I've been locked in his noxious embrace for the thirty-five years this waltz has lasted.” Read allegorically, this story turns a particular dancing incident into a commentary on the boredom, sexual dissatisfaction, and physical abuse found in twentieth-century marriage. The narrator's “movement” is as confining as the stasis endured by Miss Marion and the narrator of “A Telephone Call.”

The desire for human bonding constructs the frame of Parker's “The Lovely Leave,” a story set during World War II. Like “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” “A Telephone Call,” and “The Waltz,” the protagonist in “The Lovely Leave” struggles to control emotion, passion, and desire, what Jane Tompkins calls “the sentimental heroine's vocation.”21 Mimi McVicker is devastated when her husband Steve's twenty-four-hour leave from the army is shortened to less than an hour, and he spends that time bathing, shining his belt buckle, and thinking about his troops. Her preparations for his arrival, as well as the ensuing argument during his brief visit, underscore Mimi's conventional femininity, as well as the active-male, passive-female roles we find elsewhere in Parker's work. Mimi perceives Steve as “her warrior”; in honor of his visit, she buys an expensive, seductive black dress, a delicate nightgown, perfume and toilet water, and flowers for the apartment. She is proud of him—“He was an American officer, and there was no finer sight than he”—but her role as the waiting wife is more problematic. The “rules” Mimi learned to follow are framed by the special conditions of being a soldier's wife, yet their emphasis on cheerfulness is similar to the rules of Miss Marion:

Never say to him what you want him to say to you. Never tell him how sadly you miss him, how it grows no better, how each day without him is sharper than the day before. Set down for him the gay happenings about you, bright little anecdotes, not invented, necessarily, but attractively embellished. Do not bedevil him with the pinings of your faithful heart because he is your husband, your man, your love. For you are writing to none of these. You are writing to a soldier.22

The fact that Mimi had to “know the rules and abide by them,” that “there were rules to be learned,” tells us Mimi follows an expected code of suppression rather than choosing a strategy to protect herself from rejection.

If “letters were difficult” because “every word had to be considered and chosen,” actual conversation pertaining to Mimi's feelings is worse, degenerating into an argument that further ruins the leave. Mimi breaks the rules, telling Steve how his absence affects her, and revealing her dependency: “‘You have a whole new life—I have half an old one. … I can't get used to being so completely left out. You don't wonder what I do, you don't want to find out what's in my head—why, you never even ask me how I am!” ‘Uncomfortable with Mimi's discussion, Steve tries to dismiss it, asking her, “‘But aren't you feeling fairly sorry for yourself?’” and suggesting she go out more. Mimi, however, does not want to go out, preferring to stay at home. The argument continues until Steve, on his way out the door, tells Mimi he wants to be with her, but adds, “‘I can't talk about it. I can't even think about it—because if I did I couldn't do my job.’” Steve's retreat from feeling to the emotional desert of military duty may be emblematic of the rules he must follow, but it also manipulates Mimi into suppressing her feelings; she later tells a friend the leave was “lovely.”23 Like Miss Marion and the narrator in “A Telephone Call,” Mimi strains at the codes that bind her, but ultimately submits to them. This war story reenacts, on a domestic level, the kind of breakdown in communication that leads to war in the first place.

Why the emphasis on rules of courtship and communication in these three stories? The rules found in “The Lovely Leave” may reflect official documentation. The armed services provide manuals to wives of soldiers that instruct them on both military and domestic issues. In general, however, dating rules were in circulation in magazines and books, and Parker read at least one of them. In a 1927 Constant Reader review for the New Yorker titled “Wallflower's Lament,” Parker discusses The Technique of the Love Affair by an anonymous author signed “A Gentlewoman.” Parker summarizes the book's rules regarding how women should behave around men as follows:

You should always be aloof, you should never let them know you like them, you must on no account let them feel that they are of any importance to you, you must be wrapped up in your own concerns, you may never let them lose sight of the fact that you are superior, you must be, in short, a regular stuffed chemise.24

Parker concludes “bitterly” that the book makes “considerable sense.” By this time she had already written “A Telephone Call”; “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl” and “The Lovely Leave” were yet to come. Ironically, reflecting the “modern” times in which she lived meant Parker had to draw on values from a previous era.


A Plea for Reform shows how Parker's connection with her audience also embodies a desire for social change, a tendency found in women's fiction of the nineteenth century. Nancy Walker, Suzanne Bunkers, and Emily Toth have discussed Parker's use of humor in the service of social protest; my analysis focuses primarily on Parker's nonhumorous use of stereotypes, a weakness as far as modernist criticism is concerned. Jane Tompkins offers the most useful approach to reading stereotypes of nineteenth-century authors, not as a weakness, but as a tool needed to accomplish the narrative's “‘cultural work.’” Stereotypes are useful, she maintains, because they “are the instantly recognizable representatives of overlapping racial, sexual, national, ethnic, economic, social, political, and religious categories; they convey enormous amounts of information in an extremely condensed form.” Thus, the one-dimensional characters Thomas Guilason criticizes become agents of cultural change, for they “tap … into a storehouse of community held assumptions, reproducing what is already there in a typical and familiar form.” Their presence in a text can suggest that the author sees her work as something other than an aesthetic object to be interpreted and appraised as such.25

[Parker's] relationship with stereotypes, particularly racial stereotypes, is a complicated matter. Part of the complication stems from trying to write about Black culture with very little first-hand knowledge of the culture, that is, through the bias of White eyes. Another factor concerns aesthetics. Parker was writing during a period when writers, critics, and editors were moving away, though not completely breaking away, from prose forms that relied on didacticism and stereotypes. By analyzing two of Parker's stories, “Clothe the Naked” and “Big Blonde,” through the lens of Tompkins's concept of “cultural ‘work,’” the conflicting literary values underlying Parker's fiction rise to the surface. In “Clothe the Naked,” Parker uses offensive racial stereotypes for a worthy cause—to explore racism and the economic plight of African Americans—that may seem, at best, paternalistic to late twentieth-century readers. “Big Blonde,” often interpreted autobiographically as the story of one of Parker's suicide attempts, presents a different case. I argue that we can read “Big Blonde” as a corrective response to Anita Loos's novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a novel by one of Parker's contemporaries that helped to codify the “dumb blonde” stereotype. One story relies on stereotypes, seeing them, if somewhat blindly, as agents for social change. The other story sets out to examine and then negate a pervasive stereotype. One story focuses on race, the other on gender. Both stories address economic issues and rely on realism and sentiment to accomplish their “cultural ‘work.’”

[“Clothe the Naked”] was ridiculed for its sentimentality; Parker's heart, the critics argued, got in the way of Parker's head where political issues were concerned. No one doubted that Parker's intentions with the story were political or that, in Tompkins's words, the story had “cultural ‘work’” to do. We may never know if Parker read Uncle Tom's Cabin or ever took the novel as a model, but there are reasons to believe that she was familiar with the story. Her book reviews, as well as the allusions in her short story “The Little Hours,” suggest she read widely in both popular and serious forms, and the fact that she wrote about Harriet Beecher Stowe in “A Pig's-Eye View of Literature” suggests that she might have read the novel.26 In either case, a number of similarities between the two works invite comparison, and illustrate how Uncle Tom's Cabin and “Clothe the Naked” are involved in very similar “cultural work.”

Perhaps it is best to first recognize the obvious differences between the two works. One is a novel with more room for action and a larger number of characters, the other is a short story with less action and fewer characters. Stowe uses what Robyn R. Warhol calls an “engaging” narrator, frequently addressing the reader directly and assuming the reader agrees with her moralistic commentary.27 Parker's omniscient narrator offers no direct address. Uncle Tom's Cabin is about nineteenth-century American slavery. “Clothe the Naked” is about twentieth-century racism, though in many respects what Parker describes and enacts through her stereotypes resonates with an antebellum mentality. Stowe's protagonist is a Black man, Parker's is a Black woman; both are victims of an unjust system based on racial prejudice.

Parallels can be drawn between the characters and narrative structure of these works. Initially Tom, a slave belonging to the Shelby family, and Big Lannie, a laundress for several White families, are resigned to their positions and receive some form of compensation. Tom is trusted by the Shelby's to conduct family business across the Ohio River; Big Lannie is told by some of her customers that “she did her work perfectly,” though her wages are barely adequate, reminding us that one need not literally be a slave to receive slave wages. Both protagonists go through a period of profound loss. Tom loses his home, his wife, and his children when he is sold to pay off Shelby family debts. Big Lannie, who had lost her husband and three of her children to death, loses her only remaining child, Arlene, who dies giving birth to an illegitimate child named Raymond. His “light-colored” skin suggests his father may have been White, offering a possible reference to miscegenation, a theme Stowe touches on with the mulatto Eliza. Out of their loss rises a period of salvation whereby Tom and Big Lannie are the saviors. Tom saves the life of the White and physically delicate Eva and becomes her companion when Eva's father buys him in gratitude. Big Lannie gives up her jobs—much to the consternation of her employers, who “dressed their outrage in shrugs and cool tones”—to raise the light-skinned Raymond, whose physical delicacy is blindness.28

Another period of loss, in which we meet the antagonists, then follows. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eva dies and Tom is later flogged to death by his new overseer, Simon Legree, a transplanted Yankee from Vermont. There is no murderer, and no literal murder in “Clothe the Naked,” but there are modified versions of both. Where Simon Legree represents racial hatred at its most overt and deadly, Parker's Mrs. Delabarre Ewing enacts the upper/middle-class hypocrisy that masks racial hatred. Mrs. Ewing is perceived by Big Lannie just as she wishes to be perceived: the saving grace for giving Big Lannie work again when Raymond is older. Big Lannie subsists on a modern plantation of sorts, for without enough work or money, she is unable to buy winter clothes for Raymond, whose walks outside are one of his few daily pleasures. She begs Mrs. Ewing for clothing, which is begrudgingly offered in the form of an oversized suit of her husband's. The first time Raymond wears the suit on his walk, he is met with a ridiculing laughter that parallels Legree's whip:

It was not the laughter he had known; it was not the laughter he had lived on. It was like great flails beating him flat, great prongs tearing his flesh from his bones. It was coming at him, to kill him. It drew slyly back, and then it smashed against him. It swirled around and over him, and he could not breathe. He screamed and tried to run through it, and fell, and it licked over him, howling higher.29

When Big Lannie comes home, she finds Raymond “on the floor in a corner of the room, moaning and whimpering,” his clothes “cut and torn and dusty.”30 Her last act, and the story's conclusion, is the removal of the ill-fitting suit from Raymond's slight frame. Parker's moral lesson is not delivered by rhetoric but by the symbol of the suit, which points to the inappropriate response of Whites to the needs of American Blacks.

Two other points deserve attention. Stowe's novel takes up the fight for abolition while Parker's story deals with its aftermath. The economic issues Parker focuses upon are not just an aspect of her interest in communism in the 1930s; they are a key factor in twentieth-century race relations. A one-time gift cannot replace legitimate work, and only serves to further humiliate those who are made to depend upon it. Perhaps Parker believed that so general a truth needed the generalizing power stereotypes offer, or perhaps her limited exposure to Black culture did not allow her to see individuals. Either case leads to a second observation. Stowe's novel helped to create stereotypes, while Parker's story unfortunately helps to perpetuate them. “Clothe the Naked” was labeled sentimental in the pejorative sense of excessive emotion, but its true sentimental connection is in its use of feeling and stereotypes to achieve reform.

“Big Blonde” offers another opportunity to see the “cultural ‘work” of Parker's fiction, but makes a profoundly different move where stereotypes are concerned. This 1929 O. Henry Prize winner, which traces a woman's decline through a disappointing marriage and divorce, a series of boyfriends, depression, and alcoholism, is often praised as one of her best. Yet discussions of it often point to its autobiographical nature; Parker, like her protagonist Hazel Morse, tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills but was discovered in time. While this aspect of the story's relationship to the “real” (in contrast to the fictional) world serves to validate a woman's experience, and thus reveals its “cultural ‘work,’” I believe the story responds to another aspect of the “real” world, the “dumb blonde” stereotype codified in Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Before examining Loos's novel and how Parker's story responds to it, we should consider the events leading up to this stereotype which incorporates feminine youth and beauty, a lust for material goods, and ignorance thinly veiled as pseudo-sophistication. While the stereotype has its origins in observed behavior among females, its role as a target for ridicule has its origins with members of the Algonquin Round Table. As early as 1914, Franklin Pierce Adams created and mocked the “Dulcinea” character, the feminine sweetheart whose conversation consisted of little more than clichés or “bromides.” Though not necessarily blonde, she is necessarily inane. Dulcinea makes statements such as, “If only I could write I know I could fill a book.” Adams's character, initially appearing in the New York Herald Tribune and Vanity Fair, later became the “Dulcy” of George S. Kaufman's and Marc Connolly's popular comedy play Dulcy, reviewed by Parker in 1921; she praised it for its comedic powers in both her review and in a poem, “Lynn Fontanne,” titled for the actress who played Dulcy.

Meanwhile, another female type known for sexual independence, slang, and inane banter was on the horizon. F. Scott Fitzgerald, another friend of Parker's, had been publishing fictional and nonfictional accounts of flappers and their Jazz Age exploits in the Saturday Evening Post. They came out in book form in 1920 (Flappers and Philosophers) and in 1922 (Tales of the Jazz Age). In 1922 Parker acknowledged flappers in one of her Figures in Popular Literature poems, “The Flapper,” and then dismissed them in 1923 in “Ballade of a Not Insupportable Loss.” In effect, the flapper was an Americanized version of the British import, the New Woman. She represented a radical change of values primarily among post-World War I youth. The fact that the flapper became the target of ridicule, not only by Algonquin Round Table members but by a number of writers, editors, and cartoonists like John Held, Jr., may reflect the anxiety felt by an older generation essentially schooled in Victorian values.31

During this period Parker also reviewed several comedies or bedroom farces featuring female characters who either marry for money or are suspected of doing so. As time goes by, Parker's attitude toward these productions changes. In 1919 she praises the abundant humor in Avery Hopwood's popular farce The Gold Diggers. By 1922, however, The Gold Diggers becomes an ironic touchstone in her review of Lillies of the Field. Parker claims the play's author, William Hurlbut, “evidently saw The Gold Diggers and thought it was great stuff.” Hurlbut's play, argues Parker, has “a small and uniquely tedious plot” about a group of “ladies who lead the enviable life of Reilly at the expense of their gentlemen friends.” Later that year, Parker is equally testy in her review of Gladys Unger's remake of a French play, The Goldfish. The play's heroine marries three times to improve her economic and social status, but “suddenly sees the hollowness of it all, and returns to her first husband and those glorious days of poverty that were hers in the first act.”32 Revealing her modernist inclinations, Parker objects to the play's moralistic and unrealistic turn of events.

With respect to the development of the “dumb blonde” stereotype, two transformations take place between 1914 and 1922. First, a dumb female type, blonde or otherwise, becomes associated with or evolves into the era's symbol of female independence, the flapper. The fact that the flapper or protoflappers such as Dulcinea seek economic gain is in keeping with a decade characterized by an economic boom, speculative spending, and a surplus of leisure items and advertising. But the merger of the dumb with the feminine, especially as it appears in pervasive, popular forms such as comedic theater and mass circulation magazines, will do little to help women gain a foothold as equals in a patriarchal culture. Second, and significant for reading “Big Blonde” as a response to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Parker's tolerance for the type, and for simple, comedic ridicule of the type, has decreased. Her rejection initially aims at the very nature of the stereotype, that is, its predictability. In “Big Blonde” her critique becomes much broader.

Born the same year as Parker, Anita Loos traveled in roughly the same circles as Parker and would have been exposed to the same cultural dialogue regarding Dulcies and flappers. As early as 1915, Loos published a satire in Vanity Fair about a rural girl who comes to New York and marries a rich man. Her character Nella of “The Force of Heredity, and Nella,” who accepts a job as a manicurist with the confession that “she did not know how to cure manis,” is a prototype of the protagonist in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In 1963, however, Loos will claim a different and very particularized origin for her 1925 novel. Her fiction, she argues in an introduction to a reissue of the novel, was based on observed fact: H. L. Mencken, a close friend of hers, at times paid more attention to uneducated but attractive blondes than he did to Loos, an educated, attractive brunette. Loos therefore set out to satirize the “witless blonde.”33

Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is impossible to know if Parker read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but it seems highly likely. Parker knew Loos, who, though married to Round Table member John Emerson, was excluded from the group, though she attended other gatherings frequented by Round Table members. In any event, the novel would have been a difficult one for Parker to miss. When Gentlemen Prefer Blondes came out in 1925, it was enormously popular, going into sixteen printings between November 1925 and August 1926, and ultimately going into forty-five editions and thirteen translations after having been serialized in Harper's Bazaar in 1924. It would later inspire two stage productions and two films. Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia reports that some female readers read it as a valid how-to book for single women.34

Loos's novel is written in the form of a diary penned by Lorelei Lee, a blonde consolidation of the Dulcy and flapper female types. Her diary describes the events leading up to her marriage, many of them involving a friend who, significantly, is a sharp-tongued brunette named Dorothy. Although she has bobbed hair, Lorelei does not consider herself a flapper; she is instead “an old fashioned girl,” one who doesn't say exactly what she thinks as does Dorothy. Lorelei is more calculating than Dorothy; she embodies the gold-digging, “dizzy” or “dumb blonde” stereotype that has remained in currency for most of this century. Loos clearly had urban, elitist intentions regarding her protagonist and narrative. Drawing on Mencken's bias against provincial America, Loos used Arkansas as her protagonist's place of origin because she “wanted Lorelei to be a symbol of the lowest possible mentality of our nation.”35 While Loos achieves a great deal of humor with this strategy, there are moments in the novel where her satire backfires. As I will show, when we consider Lorelei in light of the acquisitive economy that is both the subtext and the context of the novel, we realize she is far too successful to warrant our derision. These moments of satiric failure, as far as Loos's claimed intentions for the novel are concerned, open the way for Parker to respond with “Big Blonde.”

Before focusing on these moments and Parker's response, it is worthwhile to consider what this underappreciated novel accomplishes. Its successful moments of satire go far beyond Loos's limited intentions. In her efforts to mock Lorelei, Loos satirizes a number of cultural pillars: highbrow notions of education, public institutions, and male vulnerability to female beauty, feminism and families, the diary form and literary authority, and romantic love, strands of which run through each of the other areas. For example, readers may define Lorelei's adventure as a quest for marriage, money, or happiness, but Lorelei defines it as a quest for education. The diary opens with Gus Eisman the Button King who, as Lorelei tells us, “is the gentleman who is interested in educating me, so of course he is always coming down to New York to see how my brains have improved since the last time.” Gus convinces her to keep a diary (“he said that if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book,” writes Lorelei, echoing Franklin Pierce Adams's Dulcinea, who appeared the previous year), read books he sends her, and travel, all under the guise of “educating a girl,” when in fact he is trying to keep her away from other men while he is out of town. Lorelei keeps her diary, but she avoids the books that bore her, and finds it “much more educational” to shop or talk with a small-time bootlegger than to visit the art museums of Munich. She equates education with monetary, rather than mental, assets, as her critique of Dorothy makes clear: “But Dorothy really does not care about her mind and I always scold her because she does nothing but waste her time by going around with gentlemen who do not have anything, when Eddie Goldmark of the Goldmark Films is really quite wealthy and can make a girl delightful presents.”36 Later in the novel, education and intelligence, insofar as they are represented by one of the great minds of the twentieth century, as well as psychoanalysis, are belittled when Lorelei meets Sigmund Freud and disproves his theories. By the time Lorelei closes her diary with a chapter titled “Brains Are Really Everything,” a life of luxury is at hand, aligning education with the acquisition of wealth.

Loos also takes aim at male vulnerability to female beauty in her anti-romantic romp. Older men, such as Sir Francis Beekman, rich men such as Gus Eisman and Henry Spoffard, and powerful men in the form of judges, prosecutors, and police officers find themselves seduced by Lorelei's powers. Even two Parisian con men are outconned by Lorelei as they try to retrieve the $7,500 diamond tiara given to Lorelei, after her careful planning and manipulation, by Sir Francis Beekman. The tiara with its crownlike appearance provides a fitting symbol for Lorelei's power over men. In addition to male vulnerability, several institutions are embodied in this ridicule: British aristocracy and royalty, capitalism, the American judicial system, and the American legal profession.

Feminism and families fare no better. As suggested by the diamond tiara, equality with men would be, for Lorelei, a step down. She pities Gerry Lamson, who felt pressure to marry a suffragette he doesn't love—“she was a suffragette and asked him to marry her, so what could he do?”37 And Lorelei's future sister-in-law, having found a certain amount of autonomy during World War I, is now an anomaly at home:

So it seems that Henry's sister has never been the same since the war, because she never had on a man's collar and necktie until she drove an ambulants in the war, and now they cannot get her to take them off. Because ever since the armistice Henry's sister seems to have the idea that regular womens clothes are effiminate. So Henry's sister seems to think of nothing but either horses or automobiles. … Henry's sister does not go to church because Henry's sister always like to spend every Sunday in the garage taking their Ford farm truck apart and putting it back together again. Henry says that what the war did to a girl like his sister is really worse than the war itself.


This portrait of Henry's sister, of course, is not one of a political being, but merely a caricature, a popular image of a feminist. At the same time, she seems odd in light of the conventional standards of feminine appearance and behavior that Lorelei uses to her advantage. By placing these two figures together, Loos unwittingly underscores an important point: In a market economy focused on consumers of youth and beauty, feminism is a hard sell. Henry's sister disappears both literally and figuratively from the novel; neither feminist nor conventionally feminine, her lack of identity and disappearance symbolizes the waning of feminist political activity after the passage of the nineteenth amendment. Furthermore, the novel seems to be suggesting that even if female self-assertion and feminist politics are as powerful as feminine wiles, they are far more frightening to men.

Other members of the family prove to be hypocrites. Beneath the twining veils of religious piety and old money, Henry's mother is a closet lush, his father a closet letch. Henry, a self-proclaimed moral censor, anxiously spends “all his time looking at things that spoil people's morals,” suggesting that the gentleman protests too much. Lorelei concludes: “Life was really to short to spend it in being proud of your family, even if they did have a great deal of money” [sic].39 The family, for Lorelei, is a kind of bank employing clerks and tellers no one else would hire.

Even the diary form itself, which in this case involves an actual author and a fictional author, is ridiculed. The novel forces the question: Which author is in control? While Gentlemen Prefer Blondes contains more wisdom than perhaps Loos intended, it withholds information and draws attention to its gaps, instead of providing the intimate disclosures we have come to associate with diary writing. Although Lorelei claims “to believe in the old addage, Say it in writing” [sic], her diary is significantly vague about whether she is sexually active or merely sexually promising. In her account of her trial, Lorelei tells us Mr. Bartlett “called me names that I would not even put in my diary.” She refuses to provide the details of government secrets she later learns from Bartlett, not out of regard for national security, but because they are “to long to put in my diary” [sic]. Regarding her conversations with Lamson and Freud, Lorelei admits to saying “things I would not even put in my diary.”40 Lorelei appears morally tainted by implication, by what is not said, a strategy Loos possibly felt was necessary to get her work published, and also suggestive of the Victorian reticence seen in Parker's work. These omissions also can be read as Lorelei's attempt to protect herself, to maintain the stance of innocence that is so useful in her acquisition strategies—the very strategies that undercut Loos's intended satire of Lorelei. If so, we are left to believe that the fictional author wrote this diary self-consciously, with an eye toward publication and payment. Even the rules regarding signification and meaning are questioned. Lorelei's sentence-level errors provide one challenge to writing norms; her rhetoric, characterized by a lack of transitional phrases, provides another.41 Most of Lorelei's sentences start with “I mean” and “So,” implying that Lorelei is unable to connect her thoughts logically, or to render complex relationships among events and concepts. Yet these limitations do not prevent Lorelei from telling her story clearly, thereby seducing a reading public. On one level, the economy-conscious, fictional author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes employs strategies that outwit the actual author.

It is in the area of Lorelei's intelligence, and its play with economics and romance, that Loos's satire falls short of her intentions. Lorelei thinks of herself and her life in economic terms. Recalling the attacks on her character by Mr. Bartlett, the district attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted her for shooting Mr. Jennings, Lorelei notes, “A gentleman never pays for those things but a girl always pays.”42 As a single woman living in a time when being financially independent meant working in low-paying labor or clerical jobs, Lorelei's quest is to make the gentleman—any gentleman—pay. She uses flirtation, tears, and sexual blackmail to manipulate a series of men into providing her with the best in jewels, travel, and champagne.

Lorelei's rise from poverty and her ignorance regarding history, culture, politics, and current events become the focus of Loos's ridicule. Therefore, Lorelei can only assume a pseudo-sophistication as she reveals a number of “halfbrow” preferences and assumptions: she prefers shopping to reading Benvenuto Cellini, Coty and Cartiers to Place Vendome; she thinks books by Joseph Conrad are about ocean travel, and that “bird life is the highest form of civilization.”43 Lorelei's diary may be a catalog of misused diction, improper grammar, wrong or missing punctuation, and misspelled words, but significantly she knows how to spell “chandelier,” “champagne,” “emerald bracelet,” “pearls,” “diamond tiara,” “the Ritz,” and other words associated with upper-class acquisition, as well as the names of men who buy her such gifts.

Given the cultural context in which Lorelei must survive—a culture that values money and the acquisition of material goods without providing women the opportunity to achieve them on their own—she is highly intelligent. Lorelei wants material comforts without the confines of a marriage that would deter her continued acquisition and her ultimate goal of becoming a film star. This process leads her to invert one of capitalism's primary tenets. Men, rather than the material goods they provide, embody accelerated, built-in obsolescence. Most of these men, much older than Lorelei, are content to have her as a showpiece, to parade her in the jewels and clothing they have bought for her. By using an unmarried protagonist, Loos (perhaps unwittingly) modernizes a turn-of-the-century figure found in the novels of Edith Wharton: that of the married, leisure-class woman whose primary function is to display the wealth of her husband.44 Unlike her married predecessors, however, Lorelei is aware of her commodity status, and she uses this knowledge to continue the acquisition of her own commodities. Falling in love, she declares, is dangerous for a woman, particularly if the lover in question cannot serve her financially: “When a girl really enjoys being with a gentleman, it puts her to a disadvantage and no real good can come of it.”45

Another example of Lorelei's intelligence can be found in the ironic subtext of her refrain “Fate keeps on happening,” for Lorelei leaves nothing to fate. She plans and executes a number of escapades, including assault, blackmail, espionage, theft, and pseudo-adultery before she finally marries Henry Spoffard, a rich, self-righteous man who agrees to launch her film career but who will more or less leave her alone. Lorelei's economic intelligence is thus aligned with the deromanticizing of love, making her a subversive figure in a patriarchal culture because she can manipulate rather than be manipulated by the passive, feminine role for women defined in the rules of courtship. At the same time, the novel offers the classic romantic ending: poor girl marries rich man. “Failure” is not a word in Lorelei's vocabulary; neither is “age.” Outside of flashbacks, the diary covers less than a year in Lorelei's life; our vision of her also aligns success with perpetual youth and beauty. Loos objected to economic readings of her novel, but its economic context cannot be denied.46 Loos's ridicule became a recipe because in a time of limited economic opportunities for women, Lorelei always won, and those she vanquished continued to love her. Youth, beauty, and money never faded.

The same cannot be said of Hazel Morse, the protagonist in Parker's “Big Blonde,” published in 1929 four years after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Parker's story does share, however, several characteristics with Loos's novel before taking them in new directions. As mentioned previously, Parker's story has an autobiographical component. Hazel Morse, the blond protagonist, attempts suicide, as did Parker on more than one occasion. This feature, combined with Hazel's drinking and her sentimental love for animals has led biographers to put too much emphasis on the autobiographical elements of the story. Yet several characteristics of Hazel that differ from Parker, combined with a number of textual markers that link “Big Blonde” to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, suggest that more was at stake than masked autobiography. Hazel was a large, blonde, full-figured woman; Parker was a petite brunette. Hazel associated with middle-class, traveling businessmen, not the writers and sophisticates Parker knew. Finally, Hazel's lack of an occupation after marriage and divorce is not at all parallel to Parker's experience as a writer in several genres. In terms of links to Loos's novel, “Big Blonde” includes, besides a blonde protagonist, the stereotyping of women, a series of affairs with men, economic concerns, jewels, clothing, drinking, and tears. When these elements are considered in conjunction with the story's suicide attempt, it becomes clear that Parker is offering a serious response to a particular situation.

“Big Blonde” has never been accused of stereotyping, but a type of woman certainly emerges in contrast to the slim, youthful, attractive Lorelei. During the period in which Hazel is working as a model, the narrator tells us, “it was still the day of the big woman.” When the narrator tells us that Hazel's “ideas, or, better, her acceptances, ran right along with those of the other substantially built blondes in whom she found her friends,” we are left with the impression that blondes, en bloc, think the same way. At one point shortly before her divorce, a male admirer affectionately calls Hazel a “dizzy blonde.”47 After her divorce, Hazel frequents a speakeasy called Jimmy's, where the women:

looked remarkably alike, and this was curious, for, through feuds, removals, and opportunities of more profitable contacts, the personnel of the group changed constantly. Yet always the newcomers resembled those whom they replaced. They were all big women and stout, broad of shoulder and abundantly breasted, with faces thickly clothed in soft, high-colored flesh. … They might have been thirty-six or forty-five or anywhere in between.48

Some of these women had a child in boarding school; all were divorced, “matronly,” and “fatalistic” about money, relying on a series of male admirers to pay their bills. Laughter was their calling card, but their evenings at Jimmy's would often end with “displays of kodak portraits and of tears.”49 This type of blonde characterized by the aging process has none of the glibness and glamour of Lorelei.

Before Hazel reaches this point, however, she exhibits the same kind of “good time” behavior with a number of men as does Lorelei, and is initially successful. But as we saw in “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” “A Telephone Call,” and “The Lovely Leave,” rules of behavior regarding courtship govern Hazel's actions:

Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men liked a good sport.50

Hazel must remain cheerful, suppressing any feeling to the contrary, if she is to attract and hold onto a man. Like her other blonde friends, Hazel never questions the rules behind her actions, hence the “Haze” of her name. Other words suggesting a lack of clarity—“hazy,” “foggy,” “blurred,” “dream-like,” “fogginess,” “‘Mud in your eye,’” “mist” and “misty-minded,” “cloud,” and “her days lost their individuality”—occur throughout the story. Hazel is thus doomed to suffer from her actions in a world that offers few alternatives. Instead of the successful calculation we see in Lorelei, Hazel allows events to push her along. The sexual freedom associated with flappers backfires in Hazel's case, and if we credit “Big Blonde” with a degree of realism, we have to wonder how carefree the Jazz Age was for women.

Parties, drinking, and marriage enter into both narratives, but the progression of these elements differs. Rather than end with a marriage, “Big Blonde” begins with one. Hazel is a full-figured dress model in her early thirties when she meets and marries Herbie Morse. As a model she has been on display, but in a context that distances her from wealth. Clothing is not a symbol of material acquisition for Hazel as it is for Lorelei. Hazel wears the clothes of others, not her own possessions. Furthermore, Hazel forces her feet into “snub-nosed, high-heeled slippers of the shortest bearable size,” symbolic of the ill-fitting role of the “good sport” she is expected to play at all times.51

In the early days of her marriage, Hazel adopts a “terrific domesticity” that we never see in Lorelei, but it fails to offer a preferable alternative to Lorelei's actions. Married life for Hazel constitutes a reprieve from the rigors of single life: “It was a delight, a new game, a holiday, to give up being a good sport. … To her who had laughed so much, crying was delicious.” Tears had been a useful tool of manipulation for Lorelei, but Hazel's tears for “kidnapped babies, deserted wives, unemployed men, strayed cats,” in short, for “all the sadness there is in the world,” repulse Herbie.52 He increases his own drinking and encourages Hazel to drink, which leads to the further deterioration of their marriage. Hazel's tears, however, are not just the weeping of a sentimental figure, but a sign of dissatisfaction with the world as it is; as such, they have to be controlled, and they ultimately—and ironically—lead to the manipulation of Hazel. Herbie eventually leaves her, and Hazel becomes the kept woman of a series of men who insist that she drink and remain cheerful. Hazel obliges, not with champagne, but with the Scotch whiskey they buy her.

Like some of Lorelei's men, Hazel's men exhibit a certain pride of ownership. The nature of that ownership, however, differs greatly. When Ed, the first of Hazel's men after Herbie, “had a good year,” he gave Hazel a sealskin coat, but such gifts were rare from middle-class men with wives and children. The typical “gift” was rent, food, drink, and other necessities. Where Lorelei modeled the wealth of her admirers in terms of jewels, Hazel the ex-model and kept woman was herself the sign of her keepers' success; she appealed to their middle-class sense of worldliness. Ed admired Hazel's “romantic uselessness”—she refused to do any housekeeping—“and felt doubly a man of the world in abetting it” by hiring a maid to clean Hazel's flat. In exchange for this support, Hazel provides not only sexual companionship, but the more difficult offering of constant gaiety. “‘What you got to do,’” Ed tells her when she is depressed, “‘you got to be a sport and forget it.’”53 Excessive sentiment breaks the rules of courtship. All of Hazel's men agree, keeping her in a haze of alcohol and denial.

Both Lorelei and Hazel are dependent on men for economic survival, and neither of them possesses deep feelings for these men (with the exception of Hazel's initial passion for Herbie). But there is no diamond tiara in Hazel's closet; Lorelei controls her men, while Hazel is controlled by hers. Hazel's men are not Lorelei's millionaires, but traveling businessmen. Hazel's drinking is not Lorelei's champagne enhancement, but Scotch whiskey's escape. “Alcohol kept her fat,” the narrator says of Hazel.54 Older and overweight by the end of the story, Hazel takes an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol, but does not die. Her botched attempt at suicide offers the harshest contrast to Lorelei's ongoing success.

Taken together, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and “Big Blonde” suggest that if, indeed, gentlemen prefer blondes, they prefer them perpetually young, thin, attractive, and cheerful; here is where the thematic similarities of these two narratives end. On a related but more serious note, Loos's novel and Parker's story respond in different ways to an economic system that in the 1920s increasingly targeted women as consumers and as objects to be consumed.55 In her attempt at ridiculing her female rivals, Loos both creates a figure who thrives in a capitalist economy, and ends up ridiculing many of the cultural and economic practices she means to protect from the likes of Lorelei. At the same time, the novel poses no real threat to these practices because its point of view is that of an uneducated rube who succeeds. Lorelei is not a “symbol of the lowest possible mentality of our nation,” but a cover girl for the American Dream. Parker, long before her declaration of communist sympathies in the late 1930s, may have appreciated the novel's humor, but must have recognized as well the danger of its false depiction of female success within patriarchal capitalism. Both Lorelei and Hazel play the commodities game with their male counterparts, but Hazel, through her physical, mental, and emotional decline, portrays the high price such a game exacts on the vast majority of women who play it. “Big Blonde” answers Lorelei's well-executed but glib success by offering a much harsher critique of the commodification of women.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes effectively deromanticizes romance, but “Big Blonde” takes the process a step further by presenting a character in process, a character who ages and changes with the passing of time. Hazel is also a character who feels. Excessive sentiment constitutes a significant part of Hazel's story, and while Big Blonde the character is criticized for it, “Big Blonde” the story was not. Hazel had to withhold sentiment to be successful, but her story to a certain extent did not, pointing to the complicated response modernist readers and critics have to the sentimental. Unlike Lorelei, Hazel is unable to use or pervert the rules against expressing excessive feeling to her advantage. By the end of the story, she is aware of the price she pays, but she sees no alternative other than to take her life. Here is where the story's irony takes charge, and not just because the attempt fails, but because of the nature of the act. Suicide is not simply a tragic act; it can be read as a highly sentimental one since it is motivated by intense, uncontrolled feelings. It is also an act alluded to in nineteenth-century novels and paintings about “fallen” women, and in at least one well-known, late Romantic poem by a poet Parker must have read, “The Bridge of Sighs” by Thomas Hood.56 Since Hazel's suicide attempt fails, we can see her as a character consistently denied expressions of sentiment (and it is this irony that no doubt makes the story's sentiment palatable to modernist readers). The result: Hazel returns to drink and a grim future. Although both narratives are grounded in realism and anti-romance, Lorelei Lee prompts our laughter, Hazel Morse, our sympathy.

Not surprisingly, “Big Blonde” received more critical acclaim than commercial success. It was published in the February 1929 issue of the Bookman, and later that year won the O. Henry Prize; there was talk of a film that never materialized. Four years later, in 1933, Parker would publish another short story, “From the Diary of a New York Lady,” in which she uses the diary form to ridicule the vacuous concerns of the upper class to which Lorelei Lee has ascended. By then, both Parker and Loos would be in Hollywood, a decade of speakeasy living and flappers behind them.


In Defense of Feeling focuses on a key issue regarding sentimental texts: the influence of feminine feeling in the interpretation of a text. This has implications beyond that of reading Parker's—or any author's—work. As Joanne Dobson points out, “A gendered anxiety equating ‘emotional’ with ‘feminine’ and nervously rejecting both has … operated as a primary shaping factor in the construction of the American literary canon.”57 The nervous rejection Dobson refers to stems from the suspicion that tears and feeling have been used in texts to emotionally manipulate the reader. This is undoubtedly true in some cases, for as Susan Harris argues, sentimental texts, like any text, can be subjected to value judgments; there is good and bad sentimental writing.58 Dobson, however, is pointing to a tendency among critics to consider all texts containing feminine emotion as sentimental in the pejorative sense without considering the cultural and aesthetic conditions under which they were written. Jane Tompkins, for example, has argued that tears became the acceptable substitution for female rage, an emotion deemed inappropriate for Victorian ladies. Nina Baym's remarks are perhaps more basic but no less valuable: “Need we say something in defense of women's tears?” she asks in Women's Fiction. “Women do cry, and it is realism in our authors to show it.”59

Rage and realism constitute one part of the convention of tears; satire forms another. Sentimental authors are not above satirizing their own conventions. Thus, when we confront a text with female tears, we need to ask to what extent female emotion is being validated or vilified, as well as examine the critical assumptions behind our reading. We have already seen how the issue of sentiment pervades “Big Blonde” in such a way that a defense of women's feelings is implied. Other stories by Parker take a more direct approach and deserve fresh consideration.

In a New York Times Book Review assessment of Parker's second volume of fiction, After Such Pleasures (1933), an anonymous reviewer describes the relationship between Parker's fiction and sentimentality. Parker's stories are most humorous, writes this reviewer, when they “are concerned with the regrettable but undeniable tendency of most of us to sentimentalize our emotions.” The reviewer suggests that Parker's work contains elements of anti-sentimentality when he writes, “She has the inestimable gift of jeering at sentimentality without utterly destroying it, so that though her love-sick girls may be ridiculous we can still regard them with sympathy and intense fellow-feeling.” Mark Van Doren also praises this aspect of Parker's fiction.60 The story these reviewers have in mind is “Sentiment,” an interior monologue consisting of female tears and self-pity.

An understanding of the relationship between satire and sentimentalism provides a critical context against which we might read “Sentiment.” Both the satiric and the sentimental are based in realism; they have the moral aim of improving society and produce an intense reaction in the reader. Ronald Paulson argues that the pairing of the satiric and the sentimental has its roots in the eighteenth-century novels of Mrs. Mary de la Riviere Manley and Eliza Haywood, who use romance conventions in their satires of government. An evil man raping a woman, for example, becomes the equivalent of a government's betrayal of its people. The merger of the two forms continues in the works of Sterne and Richardson, who often satirize the sentimental conventions they use, and reaches its peak in the nineteenth century novels of Dickens. In American women's fiction from the nineteenth century, Caroline Kirkland, Francis Whitcher, and Marietta Holley satirize sentimental women.61

Parker seems to be using the same technique in “Sentiment.” The speaker is Rosalie, who is suffering the end of a relationship in the back seat of a taxi. “‘Just keep driving,’” she tells the driver, though it is the reader who travels through the reminiscence and emotions of Rosalie.62 Apparently consumed in self-pity, she snaps out of it in time to suspect that the taxi is driving through the neighborhood she shared with her ex-lover, which sends her on a new round of agony; she then discovers from the driver they are on a different street. One reading of this story is that Parker is mocking the sentimental; Rosalie's excessive emotion prevents her from dealing with reality at hand.

Yet Rosalie remains aware enough of her emotional state to analyze it. After observing “an old charwoman on the street” who she assumes “is done with hoping and burning” about love, she imagines how her ex-lover would have criticized her for her assumptions:

“Oh, for heaven's sake!” he would say. “Can't you stop that fool sentimentalizing? Why do you have to do it? Why do you want to do it? … You don't have to dramatize everything. You don't have to insist that everybody's sad. Why are you always so sentimental? Don't do it, Rosalie.”63

Afterward, she self-consciously critiques her responses, an act of self-reflection that suggests Parker's use of emotion involves more than manipulation of the reader or satiric rejection of the sentimental. When she hears the rhythm of the taxi wheels saying her lover will not return, she thinks, “That's sentimental, I suppose.” When she ponders the sadness of returning to the places where she once knew happiness, she tells herself, “And that's sentimental, I suppose.” But her self-analysis also leads her to criticize those people—or readers?—who might be critical of her, those for whom “sentiment” is a dirty word:

I wonder why it's wrong to be sentimental. People are so contemptuous of feeling. “You wouldn't catch me sitting alone and mooning,” they say. “Moon” is what they say when they mean remember, and they are so proud of not remembering. It's strange how they pride themselves on their lacks. … And why, why do they think they are right? Oh, who's right and who's wrong and who decides?64

Rosalie's question can be interpreted as a validation of female feeling, and resides at the heart of feminist efforts to set Harriet Beecher Stowe and Caroline Kirkland alongside Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. In effect, Rosalie redefines the sentimental by reversing its association with shallow people. She says of those who criticize her: “The shallow people, the little people, how can they know what suffering is, how could their thick hearts be torn?”65 Rosalie's “shallow people” are not those who are sentimental, but those who reject the sentimental, who refuse to feel.

The fact that Rosalie's analysis of sentiment falls between her melodramatic opening—“Just keep driving”—and her sheepish recognition at the end that she is not in her old neighborhood, might have led readers to assume that her questions and comments comprise the sentimental rhetoric that Parker is rejecting. Yet the feeling of heartbreak in “Sentiment” is Parker's principal concern in story after story, and in many of her poems as well. She doesn't use the romance convention as a strategy to satirically attack a government, but her work in effect satirizes a period of history too often seen as carefree and glib as its titles indicate—the “Roaring Twenties,” the “Jazz Age.” Through Rosalie Parker abundantly returns what a male-dominated criticism would diminish—the validity of a woman's tears.

Tears occur elsewhere in Parker's fiction—“The Wonderful Old Gentleman,” “Lady with a Lamp,” “Mr. Durant,” “Soldiers of the Republic,” and “Dialogue at Three in the Morning.” With the exception of “Soldiers of the Republic,” the tears in these stories tend to be an element of what Nina Baym calls “realism” rather than a strategy tied to what Jane Tompkins calls the story's “cultural ‘work.’” Tears in these stories respond to a situation—a death, a lost love, an unexpected pregnancy, a punishment, a bruised ego—rather than offer a comment about the situation that generated them, or about tears themselves. War complicates somewhat the use of tears in “Soldiers of the Republic,” written in 1938 after “Sentiment” and included in Here Lies. In this story, the contrast between a baby's blue hair ribbon and its location in a war zone brings the narrator to the point of tears. Yet the narrator struggles to control her emotions in a self-reflexive moment similar to those seen in “Sentiment”:

“Oh, for God's sake, stop that,” I said to myself. “All right, so it's got a piece of blue ribbon in its hair. All right, so its mother went without eating so it could look pretty when its father came home on leave. All right, so its her business and none of yours. All right, so what have you got to cry about?”66

Given the narrator's location—a café in war-torn Spain crowded with soldiers and their impoverished families—the narrator is understandably wise in curbing her tears in the face of greater suffering by others. It is significant to note, however, that Parker at once acknowledges and limits female emotion in a story that Arthur F. Kinney compared favorably to works by Hemingway.67 By 1938, Parker may have been responding to not only the Spanish Civil War, but to, in Suzanne Clark's words, “the modernist … invective against emotion” as well.68


Parker's fiction is shadowed by contradiction: she writes at a time when women's options seem to be expanding, yet locates her protagonists in the confined space of the home; she relies on dialogue yet often her characters fail to express themselves clearly; the early twentieth-century love affairs she describes are riddled with rules that her characters can neither follow to success nor reject; and the hard-boiled, cynical “Mrs. Parker” describes her political and cultural scene with stereotypes and tears. As this chapter has shown, when we examine Parker's fiction within the broader context of her sentimental predecessors and the new interpretations of that work offered by feminist scholars, these paradoxes reflect a collision of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary values rather than a failure on Parker's part. In fact, the paradox of Parker may stem more from a reading of her that is grounded in—and therefore limited by—New Critical values that ignore the sentimental tradition.

In Sentimental Modernism, Suzanne Clark argues that early twentieth-century women writers were cut off from a rich female literary tradition that combined art and social activism by the modernist “revolt against the sentimental.”69 If women were discouraged from seeking models in their nineteenth-century predecessors, they nevertheless could not completely escape sentimental influences, as Parker's fiction clearly illustrates. If her themes are modern, if her prose tends to be sharper and more concise than the sometimes cumbersome rhetoric of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, she maintains a connection through her narrative form and enclosure, her use of gender role rigidity, her desire for reform, and her emphasis on feeling. In Parker we have a merging, rather than a separation of, the modern and the sentimental. It would be wrong, however, to assume that sentimentalism alone exerted an influence on Parker's work, or that she embraced those values uncritically. Nor can we say that Parker is simply a sentimental writer in the nonpejorative sense. Other influences dominating the fin de siècle—decadence and feminism—would filter into her work, further complicating Parker's modernism.


  1. Thomas A. Guilason, “The Lesser Renaissance: The American Short Story in the 1920s,” in The American Short Story 1900-1945, ed. Philip Sterick (Boston: Twayne, 1984), 92-94.

  2. Clark, Sentimental Modernism, 22; Dobson, “The American Renaissance Reenvisioned,” 164-82; Tompkins, Sensational Designs, xvi, 178; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 3-4; Ostriker, Stealing the Language, 34; Baym, Women's Fiction, 144.

  3. R. F. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 65, 135; Dobson, “The American Renaissance Reenvisioned,” 167; Robyn R. Warhol, Gendered Interventions, 40-41.

  4. Capron, “Dorothy Parker,” 76.

  5. For Parker's comments about reading Victorian novels, see Capron, “Dorothy Parker,” 78; Lynn Z. Bloom, “Dorothy Parker,” in Critical Survey of Short Fiction, vol. 5, ed. Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Salem Press, 1981), 2055; “A Pig's-Eye View of Literature,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 219-22.

  6. Judith Fetterley, Introduction to Provisions: A Readers from 19th-Century American Women, ed. Judith Fetterley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 1-40; Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, Introduction to American Women Regionalists 1850-1910, ed. Fetterley and Pryse (New York: Norton, 1992), xv; Elizabeth Ammons, Introduction to “How Celia Changed Her Mind” and Other Stories by Rose Terry Cooke, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986), ix-xxxv; Sandra A. Zagarell, Introduction to A New Home, Who'll Follow? or Glimpses of Western Life, by Caroline M. Kirkland (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990), vii-xxi; Sandra A. Zagarell, “‘America’ as Community in Three Antebellum Village Sketches,” in The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth Century Women Writers, ed. Joyce W. Warren (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 143-63; Josephine Donovan, New England Local Color Literature: A Woman's Tradition (New York: Frederick Ungar 1983).

  7. Fetterley, Introduction to Provisions, 14.

  8. Kinney, Dorothy Parker, 126. Kinney observes that Parker's sketches use the concision found in Hemingway and Joyce.

  9. Donovan, New England Local Color Literature, 22-23, and see her discussion of Mitford's work, p. 32. See also Zagarell, Introduction to A New Home.

  10. “A Terrible Day Tomorrow,” Complete Stories, 86-91. Also see the nine pieces labeled as “Sketches” in Complete Stories, which rely on the type of descriptive narrative found in many nineteenth-century sketches.

  11. “The Mantle of Whistler, Complete Stories, 96-98; Furia, Ira Gershwin, 10-11, 66-67.

  12. Wilson, “A Toast and a Tear,” 67-68.

  13. All of the stories mentioned can be found in the The Portable Dorothy Parker, except the following: “The Mantle of Whistler,” “A Young Woman in Green Lace,” “Travelogue,” “Oh, He's Charming,” “But the One on the Right,” “The Garter,” “Mrs. Carrington and Mrs. Crane,” “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” and “The Road Home,” Complete Stories, “‘Sorry, the Line Is Busy’” Life 77:2007 (21 Apr. 1921): 560; “Who Might Be Interested,” in Voices against Tyranny: Writing of the Spanish Civil War, ed. John Miller (New York: Scribner, 1986), 192-97 (the story originally appeared in a 1986 issue of Mother Jones magazine).

  14. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Avon, 1971), 126-51; Gillian Rose, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 144-46.

  15. Tompkins, Sensational Designs, 150.

  16. Dobson, “The American Renaissance Reenvisioned,” 170-71.

  17. Emma Goldman, “The Traffic in Women” and Other Essays on Feminism (New York: Times Change Press, 1970).

  18. “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” Complete Stories, 184-90.

  19. “A Telephone Call,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 119-24.

  20. “The Waltz,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 47-51; see also Paul Treichler's valuable discussion of this story in “Verbal Subversions in Dorothy Parker: ‘Trapped Like a Trap in a Trap,’” Language and Style 13 (1980): 46-61.

  21. “The Lovely Leave,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 3-18; Tompkins, Sensational Designs, 178.

  22. “The Lovely Leave,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 5-6.

  23. Ibid., 6, 11, 17, 18.

  24. “Wallflower's Lament,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 522.

  25. Tompkins, Sensational Designs, xv-xvi; Guilason, The Lesser Renaissance, xi, xvi.

  26. Some of Parker's book reviews can be found in the 1973 edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker and in Constant Reader (New York: Viking Press, 1970); see also “The Little Hours,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 254-59. “A Pig's-Eye View of Literature” is included in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 219-22.

  27. Warhol, Gendered Interventions, 33-34.

  28. “Clothe the Naked,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 360, 361, 361.

  29. Ibid., 368.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Franklin Pierce Adams, “Have You a Little Dulcinea in Your Home?” Vanity Fair, Sept. 1914, 39; “Comic Relief,” review of (with others) Dulcy by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connolly, Ainslee's, Nov. 1921, 154-59; both “The Flapper” and “Ballade of a Not Insupportable Loss” are in Silverstein, Not Much Fun, 105, and 157, respectively. Ann Ardis discusses the anxiety created in Britain by the New Woman in New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 10-28. Dulcinea was originally the sweetheart of Cervantes' Don Juan.

  32. “The First Hundred Plays Are the Hardest,” review of (with others) The Gold Diggers, by Avery Hopwood, Vanity Fair 13:4 (Dec. 1919): 37, 108, 110; “Take Them or Leave Them,” review of (with others) Lillies of the Field, by William Hurlbut, Ainslee's, Jan. 1922, 155-59; “The Comedy Blues,” review of (with others) The Goldfish, adapted by Gladys Unger, Ainslee's, July 1922, 155-59.

  33. Anita Loos, “The Force of Heredity, and Nella” (1915), in Cleveland Amory and Frederic Bradlee, eds., Vanity Fair: A Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s (New York: Viking Press, 1960), 16; Anita Loos, “The Biography of a Book,” (1963), introduction to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, (1925; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1992), 11-16.

  34. For Loos's relationship to the Algonquin Round Table, see Gaines, Wit's End, 82; and Meade, Dorothy Parker, 103. For publishing record and reader response to Loos's novel, see Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia, 3d ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 373, 580.

  35. Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 106, and “The Biography of a Book,” 106 and 13, respectively. Regarding the character of Dorothy, Gary Carey, in Anita Loos: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1988), claims that Dorothy is a composite of Loos and Connie Talmade (p. 100), but the name “Dorothy” as well as the hair color and the sharp wit she exhibits (“Dorothy said ‘paste’ is the name of the word a girl ought to do to a gentleman that handed her one” [p. 78] is one of numerous examples) suggest Parker as well. If Loos had intended Parker as part of her “composite” portrait, she would have been wise not to admit so publicly, as Parker's rebuttal could have been devastating.

  36. Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 20, 19, 114, 43.

  37. Ibid., 29.

  38. Ibid., 144-45.

  39. Ibid., 106, 145.

  40. Ibid., 126, 48, 48, 29, 126.

  41. A few examples include the following: misused diction, “So when he introduced us to each other I dropped her a courtesy” (123); improper grammar, “all of we real friends of his …” (23); wrong or missing punctuation, “womens clubs” (35), “others ways” (111); misspelled words, “authrodox” (22), “riskay” (31), “anteek” (63), “Eyefull Tower” (79).

  42. Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 59.

  43. Reportedly a “direct transcription” of actress Lillian Gish; see Carey, Anita Loos, 101.

  44. See Elizabeth Ammons, “Edith Wharton's Hard-Working Lily: The House of Mirth and the Marriage Market,” in Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905; reprint, New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1990) 345-57. Ammons refers to Thorstein Veblen's 1899 study, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions.

  45. Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 63.

  46. Ibid., 13.

  47. “Big Blonde,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 187, 187, 194.

  48. Ibid., 198.

  49. Ibid.

  50. Ibid., 187.

  51. Ibid.

  52. Ibid., 189.

  53. Ibid., 199, 197, 199.

  54. Ibid., 197.

  55. I am indebted to Cheryl Walker who applies this argument to Edna St. Vincent Millay in Masks Outrageous and Austere, 135-64. She cites another useful source: T. J. Jackson Lears, The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980 (New York: Pantheon, 1983).

  56. See, for example, Charles Dickens's Bleak House and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. Often the death of a heroine occurs in a context that suggests the possibility of suicide. Thomas Hood, “The Bridge of Sighs,” in Selected Poems of Thomas Hood, ed. John Clubbe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 317-20.

  57. Dobson, “The American Renaissance Reenvisioned,” 169.

  58. Susan K. Harris, “‘But is it any good?’: Evaluating Nineteenth-Century American Women's Fiction,” in The (Other) American Traditions, ed. Joyce W. Warren (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 267-79.

  59. Tompkins, Sensational Designs, 178; Baym, Women's Fiction, 144.

  60. “Dorothy Parker's Stories and Other Recent Works of Fiction,” review of After Such Pleasures, New York Times Book Review, 29 Oct. 1933, 6; Mark Van Doren, “Dorothy Parker,” English Journal 23:7 (Sept. 1934): 540-41.

  61. Ronald Paulson, Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 220-24. See also Brissenden, Virtue in Disstress; and Introduction to Redressing the Balance: American Women's Literary Humor from Colonial Times to the 1980s, ed. Nancy Walker and Zita Dresner (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1988), xxv.

  62. “Sentiment,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 354-59.

  63. Ibid., 355.

  64. Ibid., 356.

  65. Ibid., 357.

  66. “Soldiers of the Republic,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, 165.

  67. Kinney, Dorothy Parker, 1978, 142-43.

  68. Clark, Sentimental Modernism, 5.

  69. Ibid., 32-33.


Parker, Dorothy (Poetry Criticism)