Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Portable Dorothy Parker, originally published in 1944, contained verse and stories composed by Parker that had been published in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Parker, known for her caustic comments and witticisms, had her first collection of poetry published in 1926. Called Enough Rope, it not only sold its entire first printing but also became a national best-seller. Most poetry anthologies were expected to be meager sellers; however, because of Dorothy Parker’s reputation, the book enjoyed enormous success, surprising her publisher, her friends, and, most of all, Parker, who always had great trouble with her own talent.

As a magazine caption writer, Parker learned that brevity must be the soul of wit. From that position at Vogue magazine, she was promoted to temporary theater critic at Vanity Fair magazine, where she established lifelong friendships with Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood. These three, along with Alex Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun, Charles MacArthur, and other notable writers of the day, dined together at the Algonquin Hotel at a round table and established what became known as “The Round Table” group, which exerted tremendous influence on the direction of American letters between the wars.

The group’s members quoted one another in print. They were quoted by others in print. They were fictionalized in novels. They were dramatized in plays. No one was more quoted, copied, and admired for humor than the only female member of the club—Dorothy Parker. Yet, for all of her apparent effervescence, she was a woman in great pain. She had one alcoholic husband and one homosexual one and a very tragic, although comfortable, childhood. She was expected to be perennially witty, and indeed she was, but her poetry and stories reveal the sorrow...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

It has been noted in the biographies of Parker that she had a terrible relationship with her father and with successive lovers. In fact—except for men with whom she shared professional interests—she viewed men as incomplete and withholding human beings. Her male characters, such as Hazel’s husband in the “Big Blonde” and Mr. Durant, embody the cold and shallow man with whom Parker’s female characters were continually involved and by whom they were perennially hurt. The theme of women hurt by love is a constant issue in the stories and poetry of Dorothy Parker.

Who, then, is the modern woman in Parker’s story? She is passionate, assertive, and solitary. Mimi, in “The Lovely Leave,” has a career and lives alone while her husband is off at war. Hazel lives alone after her husband leaves her. She goes to bars to meet men and is tolerated only when she is amusing. Her suffering must be done in private. The young secretary, Rose, in “Mr. Durant,” works in a city where she has no family. She is forced to abort her pregnancy, pay for part of it, and make no demands on her lover. These women jump into love affairs without thinking about the consequences, like Parker herself and her “flapper” contemporaries in the 1920’s. These women are sad because their passions meet no counterpart. They are also worthy of respect because somehow they manage to survive.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Frewin, Leslie. The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker. New York: Macmillan, 1986. This book makes an interesting study of the role of Round Table members in bringing wit and sophisticated culture to the masses, much as their counterpart Bloomsbury and Fonquet groups did in London and Paris. There is a very useful bibliography of works by and about leading intellectuals and artists of modernism. The author is British and is very interesting in tracing Parker’s travels and her interest, in general, in becoming an international figure.

Keats, John. You Might as Well Live. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970. The biographer has researched his subject well, but he often creates little atmospheric meanderings. These “imaginings” cause the reader to doubt Keats’s accuracy in some cases. A competent if not comprehensive bibliography is included.

Kinney, Arthur F. Dorothy Parker. Boston: Twayne, 1978. The definitive study of the life and work of Parker. Kinney’s critical analysis is perceptive, and his study of literary influences on Parker’s poetry and stories is essential to understanding her methodology. An intelligently compiled bibliography is provided.

Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? New York: Villard Books, 1988. This biography is a collage pieced together through the letters, photographs, and recollections of Parker’s friend. Some of the episodes recounted are suppositions, and they lend an element of fictionality to this less-than-accurate biography. A tabloid-style piece of writing rather than a scholarly effort.

Woollcott, Alexander. “Our Mrs. Parker.” In The Portable Woollcott. New York: Viking Press, 1946. As her colleague and friend, Woollcott presents biographical information about Parker and her role as a member of the Round Table. He notes her talent and assumes that she will be read a hundred years to come. He sees her as a great feminine talent in a sea of male voices.