With a not-so-subtle desire to “blazon her mark” upon the world, Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967) became a social and literary titan in the 1920s and 1930s. Her epigrammatic writing—quick, bright, and often caustic—appeared in The New Yorker for three decades, where she helped define The New Yorker Short Story genre.
The Collected Dorothy Parker features Parker’s short stories and poems originally published in 1944 as The Portable Dorothy Parker and book reviews Parker wrote for The New Yorker from 1927 to 1933.1
Parker produced the kind of cynical critique and social commentary that we herald and even take for granted today, but when she first published, this kind of comedic diminishing was new. Vital. Vibrant. It edged in a group—including Hemingway—of celebrated and famous writers.
Parker on Hemingway:
Ernest Hemingway wrote a short novel called “The Sun Always Rises.” Promptly upon its publication, Ernest Hemingway was discovered, the Stars and Stripes were reverentially raised over him, eight hundred and forty-seven book reviewers formed themselves into the word “welcome,” and the band played “Hail to the Chief” in three concurrent keys.
Parker’s writing was greatly elevated by her social network, The Algonquin Round Table, and other “middle class, urban intellectuals.”
Do not, however, let that distract you from her trenchant observations of her environs and their limitations.
My life and my arms are now and hereafter consecrated to the services of the Society for the Abolition of Charm. It would be advisable, perhaps, for the Society to make a drive for the new members […] yet there is little reason to fear that the Society will pine and die for want of new blood.
In the height of her popularity, Dorothy Parker was fearless. Parker on Vladimir Nabokov’s highly controversial novel Lolita:
No. There is no good, I see at this late moment, to try to melt down the story. It is in its writing that Mr. Nabokov has made it the work of art that it is. Mr Nabokov—the same man, you know, that wrote the delicate stories in Pnin—started writing in English long after his first youth. His command of the language is absolute, and his Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book—all right, then—a great book.
Ultimately, Parker became a victim of the same social whims she stoked and fed. Her writing lost critical momentum after The Depression because, according to Brendan Gill’s introduction, she was never as sophisticated or talented as her clamoring social circle had others believe.
Above all, Parker struggled to rejigger her work to the conservative austerity of post-War New York.
Her post-War poem “Frustration” is painfully inappropriate:
If I had a shiny gun,
I could have a world of fun
Speeding bullets through the brains
Of the folk who give me pains;
Or had I some poison gas,
I could make the moments pass
Bumping off a number of
People whom I do not love.
Parker wrote for magazines and journals until her death in 1967 but never published volumes after The Portable Dorothy Parker.
Dorothy Parker resonated much more than expected. In fact, it is fair to say her writing in The Collected Dorothy Parker was a bit of a revelation.3
She shows barely contained pain, longing, and a self-awareness crying to be seen. I doubt anyone would label Parker’s work “mournful,” but it can be.
Her mind lives in a quiet room,
A narrow room and tall,
With pretty lamps to quench the gloom
And mottoes on the wall.
There all the things are waxen neat,
And set in decorous lines;
And there are posies, round and sweet,
And little, straightened vines.
Her mind lives tidily, apart
From cold and noise and pain,
And bolts the door against her heart
Out wailing in the rain.
Accompany The Collected Dorothy Parker with the personal journals of the young Hemingway, a man Parker compared to the Grand Canyon, or Italo Calvino’s lucid self-positioning in a universe of uncertainty.
E.B. White, a generation behind Parker at The New Yorker, once wrote: “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is one of general interest.”
I think Dorothy Parker presented to be this person in every possible way.