Dorothy Parker

The Collected Dorothy Parker

“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?”

Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967) was a social and literary titan in the 1920s and 30s. Her epigrammatic writing was short, quick, bright and often caustic. This collection is an up-to-date version of reviews, essays plus her prose originally included in her 1944 publication The Portable Dorothy Parker. 

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 world “welcome,” and the band played “Hail to the Chief” in three concurrent keys.

Parker produced the kind of cynical critique and social commentary which we take for granted today but when she wrote, it was new and it edged in a group – including Hemingway – of celebrated and famous writers.

Parker’s poetry was elevated by her social network, The Algonquin Round Table, and other “middle class, urban, intellectuals.” But do not let that distract you from her trenchant observations of her environs and their hypocrisy.

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.

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 us believe. Parker struggled to rejigger her work to the conservative austerity of post-War New York.

Her Pre-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;

Of 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 additional volumes.

I find her writing deceptively heavy with things unexpressed. She had an awareness of death, of love’s futility, and especially her own limitations of meaningfulness. From “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?

Parker covers her existential life-questioning with splashy rhymes and observations, but between the bars, it’s there: a smile, a smirk, a sadness. Doubts of purpose while she lies awake at night that remind me of Patti Smith’s Woolgathering, prose written from melancholy.

Many have sought answers to similar themes, Parker is not unique but she is more resonate than expected. Accompany this collected work 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.