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The Portable Dorothy Parker Paperback – December 9, 1976
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Before there was Fran Leibowitz, there was Dorothy Parker. Before there was practically anyone, there was Dorothy Parker. When it comes to expressing the pleasure and pain of being just a touch too smart to be happy, she's winner and still champion after all these years. Along with Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, and the rest of the Algonquin Round Table, she dominated American pop lit in the '20s and '30s; like Ginger Rogers, she did it all backwards. Parker's held up well--maybe the best of all of them.
This book is essential for any Parker fan, and an excellent way for new readers to make her acquaintance. It reprints her finest short stories and poems, some later articles, and all of her excellent "Constant Reader" book reviews from the Depression-era glory days of the New Yorker. The poetry, always light, has become brittle, sorry to say. But you've only to pick any story to be reminded that no middle-distance writer was better than Parker at her best.
Dorothy Parker doesn't just reveal the hypocrisies, vanities, myths, and foibles of her characters, she skewers them - in a style that is merciless, wickedly funny, and often sad. There is the rich and selfish Mrs. Whittaker: "Mrs. Whittaker's dress was always studiously suited to its occasion; thus, her bearing had always that calm that only the correctly attired may enjoy." And Mr. Durant, whose affair with his stenographer has taken an unfortunate, one might say pregnant, turn: "Mr. Durant wished to God that he had never seen Rose. He explained this desire to her." "The woman with the pink velvet poppies" repeatedly and at great length assures her host that she can't wait to meet the guest of honor because "I don't see why on earth it isn't perfectly all right to meet colored people. I haven't any feeling at all about it - not one single bit." Then there is Hobart Ogden, "a very good-looking young man indeed, shaped to be annoyed," who works his way through an unlimited number of women. Sometimes related in the first-person, sometimes by a third-person narrator, these stories show us what people can not, or will not, see themselves. Her stories, along with the play and book reviews that are included in this collection, are quick, sharp, and dazzling. -- For great reviews of books for girls, check out Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. -- From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Erica Bauermeister
To say that Mrs. Parker writes well is as fatuous, I am afraid, as proclaiming that Cellini was clever with his hands . . . Mrs. Parker has an eye for people, an ear for language, and a feeling for the little things of life that are so immensely a part of the process of living. -- Ogden Nash
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This style is still the pervasive one today.
Short stories were not all Mrs. Parker wrote. She wrote play reviews, and as Constant Reader book reviews. She could dismiss a play with "House Beautiful is Play Lousy," or take down her least favored AA Milne with "Tonstant Weader frowed up." She once spent the better part of a review complaining about her hang-over. She kept New Yorker readers coming back week after week, laugh junkies after a fix. And so she changed the voice of the reviewer as well. Previously, the reviewer voice had been detached and quite dry, rattling off obligatory lines about the costumes, the sets, the leading actor, the leading actress-- as predictable as the label on a shampoo bottle. The wonderful Libby Gelman-Waxner is her direct descendent. Pauline Kael is a niece, although she might have bristled at the suggestion. Andrew Harris and Elvis Mitchell can thank Mrs. Parker for their unfettered freedom.
The best thing about reading this collection is discovering the sheer joy Mrs. Parker took in writing. She was good and she knew it.
She once said, in reviewing the unfortunate book Debonair, that the curse of a satirist is that "she writes superbly of the things she hates," but when she tries to write of things she likes, "the result is appalling." Personally, I find Parker moving and eloquent in her reviews of the Journal of Katherine Mansfield, and Isadora Duncan's posthumously published autobiography, two books that touched and impressed her, but it is true that her distinctive voice croons most seductively when she doesn't like something. Unfortunately, one is left with the impression that she didn't like much other than gin, Seconal and dogs, but I don't think that's true. If she were as unhappy as is commonly believed, she would have escalated her suicidal behavior, and not have lived to the age of 74. She would not have had the passion to march for the acquittal of Sacco and Venzetti, to travel to Spain during the country's civil war, to volunteer as a war correspondent during WWII, and to join in voice and body the civil rights movement in her last decade.
I think disdain rather than anger is a better word for what she felt towards the targets of her wit-- and it is true that sometimes a retrospective view of her own behavior was the target, but the ability to laugh at oneself is the sign of, well, if not mental health, at least a well-rounded emotional self.
And by the way, since Parker had no heirs, she left her estate, including future earnings from her work, to Dr. Martin Luther King jr., and when he sadly died the year after she did, he passed on the right to profit from the Parker works to the NAACP, so for every copy of this book sold, the author's cut profits the NAACP.