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Dorothy Parker is quoted as saying, Im never going to accomplish anything; thats perfectly clear to me. Im never going to be famous. My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do Things. I don't do anything. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don't even do that anymore" (Parker, 45). She could not have been more erroneous. She did do things. Lots of things. The impression her scores of works of literature left on American society is astounding. She bolstered the women's rights movement of the 1920's, served as a refuge for heart-broken lovers, and produced classic short stories and poems all with the swipe of her pen. Throughout her works, several themes such as feminism, suicide, substance abuse, depression, and heartbreak can be found and all traced back to her personal life. She utilized several different styles and was able to master dozens of techniques. It is by doing these that she was able to have such a profound impact on American literature and society that is matched by very few.
Born to a prospering clothing designer and his wife on August 22, 1893, Dorothy Rothschild would have to begin her struggles in life from the day she was born: she was born two months premature, and her parents were on vacation in New Jersey when the time for birth came. Remarkably, young Dorothy was born healthy and was able to develop into a young woman without major issue. Unfortunately, Annie Eliza Rothschild, Dorothy's mother, passed away in 1897, when Dorothy was only three years old. Her father remarried, but Dorothy never developed a strong relationship with her new step-mother. Nonetheless, Dorothy and her three older siblings were mother-less again in 1903 when their step-mother passed away. Dorothy attended school at both Blessed Sacrament Academy (Morristown, New Jersey), and The Art Student's League (Manhattan). However, Dorothy never received her high school degree; she obtained her erudition through her constant reading. After she decided that she was done with school, Dorothy had to support her aging father, whose success in the clothing business had timed out. Dorothy made money as a dance teacher until her father died in 1913. She was able to break into the literary world by selling her first poem, "Any Porch," to the editor of Vanity Fair, a popular literary magazine of the time, Mr. Francis Crowninshiled. Crowninshiled would go onto set Dorothy up with a job writing for The Vogue in 1914. In 1917, she met her husband, Edwin Pond Parker, but the couple divorced less than a year after they married. Dorothy made her way up the ladder, and eventually found herself as a regular writer and literary critic for Vanity Fair. Parker stayed with this job until 1920, when she was fired for trashing the wife of a major advertiser for the publication. However, the friendships Parker developed with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Alexander Woollcott, and Franklin Pierce Adams during her time with the magazine would prove to be valuable. These men invited Parker to join them at the Algonquin Hotel in New York as a member of the Algonquin Round Table. This gathering was formed by some of the greatest writers of the time, and for Parker to be included was a huge deal regardless of the fact that she was a women. Throughout the 1920's Parker wrote for various publications such as Ainslee's. She took up the glamorous lifestyle of the "Roaring Twenties" by drinking despite prohibition, luxurious trips abroad, partying, and speakeasy bars. She published several volumes of poetry, which all were popular, among both consumers and reviewers. Despite her success in the public eye, Parker struggled through the 1920's with her love life. A rough break-up with contemporary writer Charles Mac Arthur left Parker pregnant. She had an abortion and failed in her suicide attempt. After another suicide attempt in 1925, she really started writing about pretentious men and their despicableness. Parker grew to become very open about being a liberal, and was arrested in 1927 while demonstrating in the street outside the Sacco and Vanzetti execution (Pettit, para. 2-5).
When scores of writers fled from New York City after the stock market crash in 1929, Parker quietly stayed behind, preferring to remain in her hometown. Parker wrote of the fascism and communism erupting in the world and highlighted the issues with capitalism in her stories. Despite knowing a period of unavoidable nostalgia was awaiting her, Parker moved in with her new husband Alan Campbell in Hollywood. She was able to embrace the atmosphere there by writing several screen plays, one of which was A Star is Born. Parker became a member of the Screen Writers Guild and donated funds to the loyalist causes in China, Spain, and Scottsboro. A trip to Spain during its civil war left an impression on Parker, who returned home to Hollywood and wrote two screen plays about the war: Soldiers of The Republic, and Who Might Be Interested. Parker was then picked to become an editor of Equality, a publication that preached the freedoms of democracy and un-biased fairness. Her repeated taking sides with communists, or what were thought to be communists, was taken note by the FBI, which put Parker on file. Parker acknowledged this and left any and all activities that could be viewed as suspicious. She took up writing from a domestic point of view during World War II. After the war, Parker and Campbell had a divorce. However, the lovers were reunited and remarried in 1950. They remained married until 1963, when Campbell overdosed on sleeping pills and died. A series of unsuccessful writings (both plays and magazine reviews) plagues Parker through the 1950's. In 1964, she returned back home to New York for good. In 1967, she died of a heart attack in her Manhattan apartment. Her ashes were cremated and scattered in the N.A.A.C.P. head quarter's garden in Baltimore, Maryland (Pettit, para. 2-7).
Parker's writing was a good example of a modern day American Jeremiad (Tu, para. 5). Sacvan Bercovitch touched on how Puritans tied their culture and beliefs into their literature in his book, American Jeremiad (Bercovitch, p. 80-88). Many social issues of the 1920's came up in Parker's writings: feminism, the Depression, and even fascism. Parker was able to expertly portray her issues with the culture she was a part of with her short stories and poems. She often took sides with "morally bankrupt" individuals (Breese, p. xvii), and this made her overwhelmingly popular with such people. Liberalists flocked to Parker's writings and praised them as their social Bibles (Breese, p. xvii). As a result of her coming about as a literary figure during the "Roaring Twenties," a time of large-scale obsession with celebrities and their lifestyles, Parker's stories and poems aren't inspired only by her own experience with the high life, but also the new "pop-culture" that was developing (Helal, p. 78).
Parker lived in a "time of large scale political movements and social changes among women," (Breese, p. xv). The "new women" of Parker's time pushed for the same rights as men. As opposed to before, women living in the 1920's weren't feeling pressured to marry and start a family (Breese, p. xv). Instead, they "claimed for themselves the territory of art," (Breese, p. xv). Despite this, Parker is quoted as saying, "please God don't let me write like a woman," (Breese, p. xvi). "Parker writes her poems to show her disappointments toward American society," (Tu, para. 9). She wanted to write the same way as men, and not fall into the stereotypes of feminist writers of the time. Parker did her best to distinguish herself. She was the only female member of the Round Table in New York City and wrote for Ladies' Home Journal (Weaver, para. 1). The first poem published under Parker's name was "Any Porch." In it, nine women are introduced, talking about an array of subjects such as female suffrage, the Great War, and famed dancer Irene Castle's peculiar hairdo (Parker, p.57). In "Any Porch," Parker used wit to mock the disadvantages women were born into. Women were casually regarded as below the servants and the final phrase of the poem satirically reads, "I think the poor girl's on the shelf, She's talking about her "career,"" (Parker, p.57). In another poem Parker wrote early in her career, "Unfortunate Coincidence," she warns female readers about getting married:
"By the time you swear you're his Shivering and sighing, And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying -Lady, make a note of this: One of you is lying" (Breese, p.104)
This goes back to the feminist desire to avoid the social expectations from men of women. Parker would go onto mock how men treat women and gave an insight to the social revolution in her poem "Experience." She "placed women in classic female situations, then subverted them; her satire occurs because we recognize the futility of the situation, not that of the speaker," (Breese, p. xvi). Her short stories focused on everyday life for women, which many men of the time failed to acknowledge, or even understand. Rhonda Pettit hit the nail on the head when she pointed out Parker "criticized pretentious and hypocritical men who hid behind leftist policies and art in several of her poems," (Pettit, para.4). For example, most men couldn't relate to The Standard of Living, which featured two women making sub-par salaries and fantasizing about their dreams. Alexander Woollcott worked with Parker at the Round Table. He disparagingly described her as an "odd blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth," (Woollcott, 15:414). He would go onto accuse her of "vein dispraise," (Woollcott, 15:414). This is just one example of how men of Parker's time felt about her. However, Parker was not ignorant to the fact that many men couldn't relate to her stories. She one wisely pointed out, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses," (qtd. in Tu, para. 7). Parker uses a female voice as narration in "A Telephone Call," "The Garter," "But the One on the Right," "Sentiment," and "The Waltz." In each of these stories, she openly describes an altruistic "politeness that belies the bitingly satirical mentality within"(Helal, para. 1). Only in a couple of those stories, "But the One on The Right" and "The Garter," have parker identified the narrator or main character as herself. At the point in her career when those two stories were publishes, her work was widely reviewed and criticized, and she was used to having her witty one-liners repeated back at her. (Helal, para.1). Parker's feminism extended beyond her writings: she had an abortion, had several unsuccessful marriages, and served as an inspiration to feminists: feminist writer Stevie Smith lists Parker as her main inspiration (Pettit, para. 9). Thomas Masson went as far as to claim, "Parker used her literature as self-defense,"(Masson, 280). Regardless, "her voice is confined for the most part to women and what was important to them,"(Masson, 280). Parker's "instinct for exposure" led to feminism being an eminent theme in her stories and poems(Masson, 276).
As a youth, Parker attempted suicide four times(Breese, p. x). Parker's depression can be traced back to her childhood, when she lost her mother as a two year old and later watched her step-mother pass away as well. Naturally, suicide and depression showed up several times in her writings. For example, in her poem "Rise Against Living," Parker exclaims how she "basks in dreams of suicide," and how "lucky are the dead,"(Parker, p.17). In her poem "Coda," she realizes the troubles of life aren't worth the struggle, so she asks to go to hell. The epitome of Parker's suicide writings can be found in her poem, "Resume":
"Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live (Tu, para. 8)."
She even went as far as to write her own eulogy, which can be found in the poem "Braggart": "you will be frail and misty with peering furtive head, while I am young and lusty among the roaring dead," (Tu, para. 9). This may have been a note to her husband at the time Allan Canbell, whom she divorced then remarried. Parker died of a heart attack shortly after she was widowed by Canbell (Pettit, para.6). The first few poems of her volume of poetry Enough Rope are all "love lamentations and reiterate the desire for death in a dismal tone," (Puk, p. 343). Parker went through several unsuccessful marriages, and it is these heart breaks that may have depressed her to the point of suicide. Broken-hearted characters subsequently often show up in here literature. Her poem "Fighting Words" expresses further her dissatisfaction with men at the time, blaming this unhappiness on her broken heart (Parker, p. 101). In "Threnody," a sobbing narrator speaks out after a recent break-up (Tu, para. 9). Thus, she appealed to many lonely or heart-broken lovers, and was widely popular among that group.
Over the course of her career, Parker was able to expertly utilize the technique of wit. According to Rhonda Pettit, Parker "offers a witty and often acerbic assessment of human affairs- whether they concern romantic love, the family, war, racism, self-deception, economic disparity, or the intersection of these issues,"(Pettit, para. 1). Parker put women in hypothetical situations and was able to give an outcome that somehow or another makes fun of the way of like, particularly the American society's attitude in the 1920's. Her words "remain in print and are a testament to her vision,"(Pettit, para.7). She used "leftist politics to depict pretentious men,"(Breese, p. xx). For example, after the FBI put her on file for sympathizing with revolutionaries and she was denied a passport (preventing her from becoming a World War II correspondent), she wrote two stories about the ongoing World War II: The Lonely Leave and The Song of A Shirt 1941. Both were very, even overly, patriotic and "examined the war from a domestic point of view,"(Pettit, para. 7). This could have been Parker "sticking" it to the FBI. According to Colleen Breese, Parker's attitude "toward human folly was satiric; her poems mock and undermine as they unfold through repetitions that underscore and heighten her satirical intent," (Breese, p. xxi). This is exemplified in Parker's quote: "can't teach an old dogma new tricks," (Tu, para. 9). Parker obviously was discontented with the way things were working in the 1920's. She "forced readers to read behind and between the lines of her deceptively simple situations and messages in order to appreciate full and understand her art,"(Breese, p.xix). Regina Barecca summed up Parker's wittiness rather bluntly: "Parker's wit caricatures self-deluded, the powerful, the autocratic, the vain, the sill, and the self-important; it does not rely on men and small formulas, and it never ridicules the marginalized, the sideline or the outcast. When Parker goes for the jugular, it is usually a vein with blue blood flowing in it," (qtd. in Tu, para. 3). Parker showed women can have individual personalities outside of those expected from the times using her signature tongue-in-cheek manner.
Selfishness of the wealthy is another reoccurring theme found in Parker's writings. Again, she is found sympathizing with an underdog, this time with lower-class citizens. In The Standard of Living Parker presents her satire attitude towards human folly. Two women (no surprise there) play the main roles in the story, and have their dreams and aspirations crushed when they learn of the exorbitant price of a necklace they liked (Parker, p. 3). Who could it be that deflates the girls but an upper-class, perhaps snobbish, man? As in many of her stories, Parker associated men with being wealthy in The Standard of Living. Suzanne Bunkers noted how Parker is "hostile" to all rich people, not just men, but "rich bitches" and "simpering spinsters" as well (Bunkers, para. 1). Again, Parker used her literature as a way of voicing her opinion on a social matter. She was disturbed by the unequal distribution of wealth in America during the 1920's and let the world know that with her writing.
A keen style Parker is often found to have used is sentimentality. Rhonda Pettit pointed out "(sentimentality) became an increasing target from the mid-thirties through the sixties when New Critical values were taking hold in the century," (Pettit, para. 7). Undoubtedly, Parker helped to contribute to this. She participated in both the "socialist situations of problems created by capitalism" and "fascism in Europe and the Civil War," (Pettit, para. 5). As a result of this, the FBI kept a file on Parker. Parker was very public about her stance against prohibition. She drank regardless of the law or (more importantly) her social position. "Her poems give weary witness to the thrones of revolution," (Breese, p. xxvi). Obviously, Parker stood for feminism. She also stood for other underdogs, but particularly those oppressed by wealthy men or the government. Since many of her poems have to do with break-ups, she sympathized with heart-broken lovers. Parker wrote "False Friends Poem" lovesick and after going through a failed marriage. She proclaimed how "before my heart was whole," (Parker, p. 86). Parker was seeking from her marriage the same sentimentality she showed in her poetry. The sympathies she took in real life often could be traced into her writing.
Few women have taken a hold of the literary world as had Dorothy Parker. She was for the most part self-educated and made her way to the top of the literary world with her satirical and captivating writing. The styles she used proved to work, for millions of copies of her poems are read and studies throughout the world still today. Until present times, her work has been excluded from the "canon of serious or important literature," (Pettie, para. 7). New Critical values such as McCarthyism hindered the popularity of her writings through the third quarter of the twentieth century. The main concern with her literature was her sentimentality. Parker has been labeled as a humorist writer, a 1920's writer, and even a light verse writer. All these tags are commendable, but expose the "narrow context in which her work was read," (Pettit, para. 8). For example, Brendan Gill, a contemporary of Parker, wrote a foreword passage to a 1973 volume of Parker's poetry, Portable Dorothy Parker. He called her poems and stories works of the twenties (Parker, p. i-ii). However, Arthur Kinney may have saved Parker's reputation when he published the first biography on Parker in 1978. He attributes her accomplishments to her personal experiences, but goes beyond her period writing and points out her connections to traditional Greco-Roman poetry. A wave of literary feminism swept through the 1980's and subsequently brought about a second period of popularity for Parker's poems and stories. Emily Toth, Suzanne Bunkers, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Nancy Walker all wrote biographies on Parker. They interpreted her satire and wit as a "form of social protest against patriarchal and societal conventions," (Pettit, para. 8). In the 1990's Penguin released new versions of Parker's work that included well-constructed introductions. The 1990's also brought about a focus on primarily the writings of Parker, as compared to the focus on her life in previous decades. Nearly 50 years after her death, her works are as popular as ever. She is praised as one of the best feminist writers of all-time and is considered by some to be the best. She put in words the actual results and her disapproval of poverty and the expectations of women of the 1920's. Her writings provided a huge boost for the push for feminism and have inspired countless other feminist writers to follow in her footsteps. Parker's bold and revolutionary style spread like wildfire after her death. Many women writers have tried to replicate the success and prosperity Dorothy Parker earned with her writings. None have had the same signature wittiness and bluntness Parker showed off. Parker remains the golden standard of feminist writing and things look to remain that way for may years to come (Pettit, para.9).