Dorothy Parker 1893-1967
(Born Dorothy Rothschild; also wrote under the pseudonym Constant Reader) American short story writer, poet, critic, playwright, and screenwriter.
The following entry provides criticism on Parker's works from 1993 through 2000. See also Dorothy Parker Literary Criticism and Dorothy Parker Poetry Criticism.
In the 1920s and 1930s Parker emerged as a literary celebrity whose often-quoted witticisms were as well known as her short fiction and light verse. In her stories she examined the social mores of intellectual middle-class Manhattanites, specializing in bitterly cynical portrayals of unhappy love affairs. Parker regarded herself as a social satirist rather than a humorist, and critics note that she wrote from a liberal sensibility, alternating between outrage and sentimentality. While she used her sardonic wit to attack hypocrisy and intolerance, she was generous in her sympathy toward victims of sexual, racial, and economic oppression.
Parker was born on August 22, 1893, and raised in New York City, the fourth child of a wealthy Jewish garment manufacturer and his Protestant wife, who died soon after Dorothy's birth. She attended a finishing school and convent academy before leaving home, determined to support herself with a literary career. In 1916 she joined the staff of Vogue magazine as a copywriter. Her editor, Frank Crowninshield, was impressed by her work, and made her drama critic of the fashionable magazine Vanity Fair. She was eventually fired from this post, but she went on to win favorable recognition as a critic, with her most notable commentary appearing in the book review column signed “Constant Reader” in the New Yorker, where most of her short stories were first published. During the 1920s Parker became well known in New York literary and theatrical society as a member of the Algonquin Round Table, which also included writers Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, and George S. Kaufman. This circle of acquaintances, who met regularly for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, became famous when newspaper columnists such as Adams reported their activities and quoted their witty conversations. After the success of her first poetry collection, Enough Rope (1926), Parker retired from regular magazine work in order to concentrate on poetry, fiction and other creative projects.
Parker's personal life was punctuated by heavy drinking, depression, numerous love affairs, and attempted suicide. Parker's most enduring relationship was with her second husband, actor Alan Campbell, whom she married in 1933, divorced in 1947, and remarried in 1950. They collaborated on sixteen filmscripts, their most notable effort being A Star Is Born (1937), which was later nominated for an Academy Award. Her association with left-wing political groups during the 1940s impelled the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate her as a possible Communist subversive during the 1950s. She refused to cooperate with the investigation, but no charges were filed against her. During this time Parker also wrote two plays, The Coast of Illyria (1949) and The Ladies of the Corridor (1953), the latter being an account of two embittered old women living in a disreputable hotel in mid-Manhattan. Finding it increasingly difficult to write because of ill health, Parker only published an occasional book review during the 1960s. She died on June 7, 1967.
Parker's first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, became a national best-seller shortly after its publication in 1926. Throughout the volume Parker explored the disappointment and loneliness of lost love and exposed the hypocrisy and sentimentality of romantic jargon. Parker's second volume of verse, Sunset Gun (1928), also won widespread popular acclaim. In this collection Parker continued to chastise vows and false promises she associated with love, and experimented with traditional literary forms, including a cycle of epigrams known as “A Pig's Eye View of Literature.” With Death and Taxes (1931), Parker's verse became increasingly pessimistic and introspective. By the time her collected poetry was published in 1936 under the title Not So Deep as a Well, Parker had turned almost exclusively to writing prose.
Parker's early short fiction frequently appeared in The New Yorker, marked by the precise, economical language and simple plot structures often associated with that magazine's style. Focusing on the emotional idiosyncrasies of anxious, narcissistic women in the midst of tragicomical crises, Parker demonstrated her belief that self-absorption hampers communication and leads to emotional isolation. Parker's first short story collection, Laments for the Living (1930), comprised of thirteen narratives previously published in The New Yorker and other periodicals, was simultaneously praised for its satiric prose and sensitivity and faulted for its reliance on dialogue and recurrent themes. Like many of the protagonists in Laments for the Living, the female characters in Parker's second volume, After Such Pleasures (1933), are often socialites who attempt to hide their insecurities behind grandiloquent language and pompous behavior. Parker again sought to expose the superficiality of such individuals, but some commentators noted that with this collection Parker also began to demonstrate a deeper understanding of interpersonal relationships and human emotion.
Parker's literary reputation rests primarily on what W. Somerset Maugham called her “gift for seeing something to laugh at in the bitterest tragedies of the human animal.” However, in Parker's later years, she longed to be considered a serious and disciplined writer and believed that her reputation as a Algonquin Round Table wit prevented readers and critics from recognizing that her talents extended far beyond sarcastic repartee and whimsical quips. Critics of her short fiction have derided the slightness of her material and the predictability of her themes of middle-class smugness and unrequited love. While reviewers continued to praise Parker's incisive humor, sense of pathos, and her more serious attempts at satire, most found her explorations of gender roles and romantic relationships the most significant and lasting facet of her work. While her short fiction and poetry has sometimes been described as melodramatic, sentimental, and trivial because of its acerbic humor, many critics have noted that Parker's complex use of irony and satire enabled her to explore the contradictory nature of human behavior.