The Portable Dorothy Parker

Introduction

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was an early 20th century writer and wit among a large crowd of the names that echo to our day.  I don’t mean to say she was insignificant, but rather a member of an unofficial anti-establishment establishment common throughout history.  The gang’s all there and Parker was one of the brightest.  We remember their names, but rarely inquire into the work.  Those that do, are the deep sea divers that overwhelm with their knowledgability.  Finding The Portable Dorothey Parker (1944, 2006) on the shelf, this can more appropriately be considered a fishing expedition.  And like an Old Man I once read of, it took me farther asea than I intended to be.

A depressive, outspoken, a productive writer, and a bad cook.  She wrote poetry, short stories, reviews, screenplays, and journalistic fare.  You will never meet her face to face, so that’s enough of that.  I am far less interested in biography than bibliography.

Without the Kindle to electrify my highlighting and note taking–recall I found this on a bookshelf–this will be a challenging review for me.  Instead, I will be typing my notes along the way.  When I quote, I will supply a page number (so long as I remember).  Those who look for ibids may seek closer unaided inspection of their colon.  That could be construed as pun, but only one was intended.

First things first—despite the fact that I was well into events when the thought occurred—get yourself online and find yourself the voice of Dorothy Parker.  Sadly, Youtube is being a complete bore and an impossible failure in the cause.  Instead, you have to acquire RealPlayer and click on eighty-to-ninety year old recordings.  No, there’s nothing for it.  You must commit her accent to memory.  Reading is a hard enough business without purposefully ignorantizing yourself of the voice of your host.  You get to the middle of sentences and find you’ve added or deleted commas to suit your natural rhythms and turned things into a nonsense.  Too much Hemingway or too much Hume and you’re up a creek without even a coffee stirrer.

For what it’s worth, I would hazard that the voice is that of a Harvard thespian.  Now that I’ve mastered it, I love it.  Oh no, lost it again.  Anyway…  Shall we begin?

Reviews

Short Things

I’ve read (or heard) rather few pieces from the same short writers—Chekhov, Maupassant, Poe.  Those are the ones I’ve read outside a Norton Anthology for high school students, at any rate.  Of those, Parker is in alliance with the former two masters more so than the latter.  If we wanted to be vague, we’d say she wrote of “human nature.”  If we wanted to be vulgar, we’d say she wrote of “the human condition.”  Fairly new or barely used.  There’s a phrase crying out for a pun, “barely used.”  The pig faced lady was a bear shaved of its fur and made to do tricks in a dress—barely used, indeed.

So long as humans are involved, I can’t see how anything decent could be written that wasn’t about “human nature.”  Nor, in fact, can anything be so badly done as to fall outside our aptitude.  So long as we have the Nazis, all things in fiction are possible.

Human nature is typically sown up in the short’s punchline.  If you looked in a short story thesaurus, entry 312.6 (“humanity”) would include, defying all alphabetization, “Hypocrisy, self-justification, self-deception, jealousy, greed, and the other six to boot.”  Short writers are so Catholic in their sensibilities.

Parker, however, does have a few things to say that aren’t quite so sinful.  The phenomenon of politeness overcoming your preferences and not even having the decency to be passive aggressive about it.  The hilarious hyperbole one will often use to populate the internal monologue.  Well, at least Dotty and I do.  She has these and other personal amusements.  She also has the sin.  She also has, to her credit, the earliest story of a man “being there for his girl” and supplying the funds to “take care of it.”

I like her most when she’s making these sorts of points.  Her comic style, which is in word choice and pegging a character, is better suited to the simpler emotions.

There is a school of criticism that I don’t fully understand.  This school wants to tell you “what it’s really about.”  It’s an interpretation, a translation in the most literal sense.  “Ah,” says the critic, “on its face a less sophisticated reader may think it to be about a woman’s who cannot find a pencil.”  He takes a pause for a short cough of condescending laughter.  “No,” he continues, “this is a story about man’s search for God.”  He points.  “She needs a pencil sharpener.”  He leans towards you sincerely.  “She never finds the point, you see,” his eyes are gravely swollen, now, “the point.”  Ugh.

For Big Blonde, Parker’s most famous work (apparently), it would run like this:

“The horse is her,” sayth Critic, “she sees herself in its plight.  The use of animals in allegory is terra firma for the short story writer.  She falls into her lot, like the horse, and then worked to misery as a good sport.  A good sport, you see.  Much as the piece is autobiograhical, that much is clear, Parker also failed in her suicide attempts, she saw herself in the plight of Hazel.  Hazel was at the party to laugh and be beautiful.  Dorothy’s job was o create laughter with her wit.”

This analysis is tied up in our critic’s sense of goodness.  What is good is subtext, context, hidden, and requiring extra knowledge.  I myself gauge a thing on whether it is readable, cleverly done, expressing a meaning either deep, true, or both.  Obviously, I prefer a comic.  The thing should be good right there in front of me.  If it is enhanced by external knowledge and subtext, then all the better.  Meaning is easily hidden, it is harder to express.

She has the knack, in her short things, to key into some great, small moments.  In Too Bad, for example, a husband and wife we know will separate (due to a first “chapter”) are both so concerned with the other’s views that they destroy the relationship.  They let annoyances, like a dark dining room, pass because they think the other likes it.  They are perfectly in tune, but they believe the opposite is true.  The observation is good, the expression is better.

Between her cruel joke and sadder, traditional fare are these stories that are near impossible to place.  I am thinking of Horsie (260) which spends a great deal of time building a comical portrait of a lady that could not exist and then, brutally, slaps you in the face with a final paragraph that makes you feel disgusted with yourself.  It is touching and memorable, but would possibly never be held up as a work of Parker’s as it veers from the clear narrative.  However, Horsie and other works–From the Diary of a New York Lady (327)–show her for the Class-A observer of her society.  A book of this size holding…counting…over a hundred pieces, not counting her poems separately, may inspire some diping and wandering, but this is to be avoided.  You may dip, but please, dip thoroughly.

Poetry

Enough Rope (by me)

Am I a suitable judge
To say that that is good?
My conscience gives a nudge
And tells me that I should.

But what have I to say?
I am not well-read.
Is anyone in this day?
Or are they all quite dead?

Still, I can appreciate
A form that comes to fore
But as for me to date,
ABAB’s a chore.

But what of substance
You pathetic hack?
If it’s all with death a dance,
I want my money back.

Wash my brain with soap,
See if I can to cope,
Prove myself a dope,
Write just enough rope.

This isn’t really like her stuff.  She is far stricter about syllables and isn’t exclusive to the ABAB rhyming—which I dislike as it’s tougher to read than a couplet.  To decipher two lines is one thing, but four?  And then you expect me to think about the poem as a whole?  Goodness.  If she weren’t monogamous to her resignation towards love as tragic, a lie, and a failure, I don’t know where I’d be.  Her whimsical view of suicide is the daughter of Parker and her theme, but that’s a family affair.

I don’t begrudge Adele or Etta James their catalog of a single theme, but poetry is so active and each line is decoded for meaning and feeling.  Then you get to the last line and it says “I loved them until they loved me” (105).  A lack of variety, unaccompanied by the sound of music, gives me a sense of wasted time.  Still, her focus does result in some poignancy—after all, these are pretty good topics for poetry.

Some examples:

Unfortunate Coincidence (96)

Resume (99)

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.
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.

Inventory (96)

Wail (80)

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.
Love has gone a-rocketing.
That is not the worst;
I could do without the thing,
And not be the first.Joy has gone the way it came.
That is nothing new;
I could get along the same—
Many people do.Dig for me the narrow bed,
Now I am bereft.
All my pretty hates are dead,
And what have I left?

Only a few of them seem to share the same style of humor as her short things.  More frequently, they are, as above, aphoristic expressions of a sad moment.  Less present is the wit, observation, and lighter zest I find most attractive.  Here’s one:

Verse for a Certain Dog (102)

Such glorious faith as fills your limpid eyes,
Dear little friend of mine, I never knew.
All-innocent are you, and yet all-wise.
(For Heaven’s sake, stop worrying that shoe!)

You look about, and all you see is fair;
This mighty globe was made for you alone.
Of all the thunderous ages, you’re the heir.
(Get off the pillow with that dirty bone!)

“Whatever is, is good”–your gracious creed.
A skeptic world you face with steady gaze;
High in young pride you hold your noble head,
Gayly you meet the rush of roaring days.
(Must you eat puppy biscuits on the bed?)

Lancelike your courage, gleaming swift and strong,
Yours the white rapture of a winged soul,
Yours is a spirit like a Mayday song.
(God help you, if you break the goldfish bowl!)

You wear your joy of living like a crown.
Love lights your simplest act, your every deed.
(Drop it, I tell you–put that kitten down!)

You are God’s kindliest gift of all–a friend.
Your shining loyalty unflecked by doubt,
You ask but leave to follow to the end.
(Couldn’t you wait until I took you out?)

More Damned Poems

I came upon her second book of poetry found in this anthology, Sunset Gun, with some trepidation.  It took me such a long time to work my way through the first book, Enough Rope, that I expected more of the same.  While there was plenty of the same subject matter, there was also a more mature selection of poems.  Here’s one of my favorites

Bric-à-Brac (215)

Little things that no one needs–
Little thing to joke about–
Little landscapes, done in beads.
Little morals, woven out,
Little wreaths of gilded grass,
Little brigs of whittled oak
Bottled painfully in glass;
These are made by lonely folk.

Lonely folk have lines of days
Long and faltering and thin;
Therefore–little wax bouquets,
Prayers cut upon a pin,
Little maps of pinkish lands,
Little charts of curly seas,
Little plats of linen strands,
Little verse, such as these.

There’s a special place in my heart for self-deprecation.  One more:

Interiors (215)

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.

There is also something she calls A Pig’s Eye View of Literature (beginning on page 219) which give little aphorisms on such individuals as Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens.  I cannot claim to understand them all, as I’ve not read them all, but those who know will doubtless find them amusing and possibly insightful.

Even More Damned Poems

The third set of poetry in this tome, Death and Taxes, is quite the same kind of thing as the first.  Of this set I’ll say no word, which is not to say that I demurred.  Instead I read it all complete and took great pride for the feat.  I cannot help but start and stop in rhyming and metering my words.

Other Writings

More Short Things

Parker made attempts at writing novels, but never succeeded.  Big Blonde (187) is her longest piece at (in this book) twenty-five pages.  I suspect it was a matter of selection, because some pieces show that she was clearly capable of the feat.  Look at The Game (390).  In The Game, a newly-wed couple hosts a party with their old friends.  In short time, there is clearly a back-story’s effects being played out.  That back-story and the results of the scene could well fill a novel.  She had it all right there.  It may well be her best short story.

One story, Advice to the Little Payton Girl, is inspiration.  A women of competence and experience counsels a young girl who is having troubles with a young man.  She gives the young girl some context:

“You see, Sylvie,” Miss Marion said, “men dislike dismal prophecies.  I know Bunny Barclay [the young man] is only twenty, but all men are the same age.  And they all hate the same things.” (385)

This story may be the source of the female counter-intelligence campaign that has pervaded the Gender Wars in my living memory.  Sadly, like all intelligence gathering efforts, findings are sometimes misinterpreted.  True, it is bad to see lost dignity, to be confronted with sadness, better to see easiness and gaiety, but Parker throws the baby out with the bathwater.  If she thinks that all men dislike affection, then she does us a disservice.  Cloying, neediness, yes, these are obviously unattractive, but affection quiet and clean is nothing but a joy.  It is inspiration, I say, because it instantly sprang to my mind a counter story.  That of the boy, spurned by a lady, with all the same confusions and instincts.

It is interesting to me that these “Other Writings” which were either kept out of the original Portable Dorothy Parker or post-dated them are some of the best.  Interior Desecration (445) is, in its briefness, one of the most insightful pieces (though not so broadly applicable) in the book.

Reviews

We are the cognoscenti. We have come because we can appreciate this thing—we are not as you, poor bonehead, who are here because you couldn’t get tickets for the Winter Garden. (473)

She’s certainly got a style.  It’s both uptight and drawling.  English in form, almost Woosterish, American in delivery.  I feel a certain resonance in that.  Is it arrogant to think of one’s self to write like Dorothy Parker or is it just strange?  But while my style is aspirational, she more often succeeds in hitting the thing on the head.  We talk about the same things—though I go with Hitchens and editorialize substantively when the mood strikes—but she grasps her meaning and draws it out.  That’s good.  When she hates a thing, that is when you buckle in and enjoy the thing best.

Where we differ is that when she wants to write only two paragraphs on a thing, she does it.  When I only want to write two paragraphs I look it over askance and go to my checklist of topics to comment freely and aimlessly—“Oh, the direction was…harmless….”  Instead, in her review of The Follies, she goes on for four significant paragraphs about the overinvestment of excitement in Christmas and ends it: “And that is the way it is with the ‘Follies.’  (You see, this is a review of the current shows, after all.)” (480)

As to her accuracy of comment, I can hardly offer any observation.  The quoted material above, however, in reference to an offering of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde (as you know), does carry its voice through time.  A number of these do.  But often her comment is that other critics found the acting dreadful while she found that dreadfulness to be appropriate.  It is not always in favor of the melodrama, so how much of those words were ironic rather than expressing quirky tastes I cannot be sure.

But those scenes in which he seeks to be a little more than kin and less than kind to his daughter Elizabeth—surely those are apocryphal.  Everything else we have all heard of him, but isn’t it late in the day to drag up incest?  He was bad enough just plain, without making him fancy. (482)

I will occasionally go on these flights of over-enthusiastic collection on the Amazon website for the free public domain books.  I suspect the vast majority of decent books I review here will be from this source.  But, as I say, things get out of hand and I’ll get two dozen at a time.  So, like Carlyle’s French Revolution (1837) disappointed my expectation—“What the hell is going on?  Don’t these people have proper names?—so much and so quickly that I dump it, but more common is to swipe by it while browsing for a half hour deciding what to start.  What is interesting is to come across reviews of hers on these public domain objects.  A review of Men Without Women (1927) by Ernest Hemingway with a discussion on how she didn’t really like The Sun Also Rises (1926).  That’s interesting.  Perusing Wilde’s Reviews is far less rewarding in pedigree, though I do see “Dostoieffski.”

Being a lover of the acerbic, I recommend “The Professor Goes in for Sweetness and Light” (1927, p. 497), “Just Round Pooh Corner” (1931, p. 485), “An American Du Barry” (1927, p. 491), “Ethereal Mildness” (1928, p. 507), “The Grandmother of the Aunt of the Gardener” (1931, p. 525).

“A Dorothy Parker Sampler”

I was a little put off at first by the title of this section of the book.  But, when you read it, you realize that there’s no more apt a name.  Some letters, some essays (if I can call them that), an interview, and lectures.  If you’re interested in the person rather than or as much as the work, then it is well worth the time.  They’re brief and easy and much of it is hilarious.  The letters, however, are sparse for entertainment for anyone but the voyeur–what am I saying?  If people read my emails, they would assume I was a drone.  That’s it, time to improve the quality of my correspondence.

Dear sir, I saw with interest your Facebook Post of the 17th of April and wish only to express my great pleasure at its content.  Those kittens, what will they do next?  I await, with interest, your “Like” or reply.

Yours, etc.
Prof. Ratigan

Conclusion

It started crisp and clean and full of color.  The spine had hard edges set like a ruler and corners that hurt if you pressed them too hard.  The months have been hard on this big book.  The lovely burnt magenta looks like East Berlin, the spine is bent and lined.  The edges are flared and are no longer edgy.  A book is like a Dorothy Parker character: only through destruction is there proof of affection.

You can say what you like about early 20th century literature, and I have very little to say positively on the subject, but the comedians were at their best.  It was dry, irreverent (even when it seemed neutral), and so witty.  So clever!  It is the cleverness of their comedy and the intended absurdity of their slang that is worthy of our adoration.  When slang moved from the contextual to the objective–that is, calling something a “bore” or “I don’t know what all” to the use of “cool” or calling people “Daddy-O”–people were no longer using the slang ironically.  They meant it.

It is a sad thing to mean the absurd things you say.  Hope only for a return to greater things.  We shall only return when we drink deeply in the words that were good and true.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here and take up knowledge and vision.  I leave you with an observation by the great lady herself.

But I give you my word, in the entire book there is nothing that cannot be said aloud in mixed company.  And there is, also, nothing that makes you a bit the wiser.  I wonder—oh, what will you think of me—if those two statements do not verge upon the synonymous. (499)

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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One Response to The Portable Dorothy Parker

  1. bkmom says:

    Well done. When will you be reviewing The Book Thief, I wonder?

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