At the risk of sounding like some 12-year-old who keeps telling everyone how awesome the Sex Pistols are as if she is the first person to discover this: You guys, Dorothy Parker was so fucking awesome. I have, of course, long known about her and admired her, mainly for those pithy quotes we all see attributed to her from time to time. When former President Calvin Coolidge died, she said, “How could they tell?” Her suggested epitaph for herself: “Excuse my dust.” Again, contemplating her death: “That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
But now I am reading the entirety of The Portable Dorothy Parker, and I am blown away by her true literary talent. I knew she was witty and could write a scathing review. But her short stories are divine; I have read no one else who chooses words more carefully. She suggests lifetimes in a few pages. Later in her life, she played down her own contributions to culture, as well as those of her fellow Algonquin Roundtable regulars:
These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days—Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them… There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth…
I think, however, that she deserved to be remembered at least as much for her literary writing as for her wisecracks. I suspect she wasn’t for two reasons: One is, naturally, sexism; the other is that short stories often get short shrift. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway aren’t remembered for their short stories. They’re remembered for their Great American Novels. I personally find poems and short stories the hardest to write—such economical forms leave little room for error. But she nailed them consistently. She also rendered the female experience of the time in heartbreaking detail: the emotional roller-coaster of waiting for a husband to return from war, the absurdity of wedding-night sex, the terror of being stuck dancing with some dolt you can’t stand. One suspects this didn’t work in her favor during her era, either.
Of course, feel free to keep quoting Mrs. Parker; her bon mots are hard to resist. But do read her literature, too. You won’t be sorry.
I’ve found a few of her best stories in full versions online, but you’ll get all of these and much more in The Portable Dorothy Parker: