Dorothy Parker: The Extraordinary Writer

Categories: Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker was an extraordinary woman. Extraordinary in her writings and extraordinary in what she achieved with her writings. Her books of poems and her short stories were bestsellers and her columns in The New Yorker were extremely popular. She was one of the only women and a central figure of the Algonquin Hotel Round Table, where all the great literary geniuses of her time would eat their lunch. Newspaper columnists qouted her and two Broadway plays were written about her.

Briefly,she was one of the most talked about woman of her time. What is striking is that her fame came from her writings. So much fame for a woman’s writings is unusual nowadays but let aside in her time. And besides that she was not a minor writer but her literary output in the end was quite small: two volumes of short stories and three of poetry.

The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth was a time of large scale political movements and social changes among women.

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A new generation of women writers emerged with Dorothy Parker as their most famous one. More oppurtunities for writers existed before the dominance of radio film and television. The newspapers and magazines flourished and only the area of New York City alone published 25 daily newspapers. The “New Women” as they were labeled were worried with winning women’s rights: the vote, education, economic freedom, acces to a career and a public voice.

These women were educated and progressive and wanted a break with the conservative past.

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Women writers of the era did not see marrying and having children as their ultimate goal in life. They rejected the traditional women’s sphere and claimed a the territory of arts that had been a complete male territory before. Many feared to be thought of as “women writers”. Dorothy Parker said that her most fervent prayer had been “Please, God, don’t let me write like a woman”. Parker’s writings on the other hand were for the most part confined to women and to what is important to them. What made Parker so succesfull? What made that era crave her writings?

In order to understand Parker’s succes we need to view her works in the context of the time they were written. Dorothy Parker was born in 1893. The most striking evidence of change of the role of women in society at that time was the emergence of the college educated and self supporting new woman. By 1870 there were eleven thousand women students enrolled in higher education (21 procent of all students) and a decade later there were forty thousand women students enrolled in higher education (32 procent of all students). After they graduated they had to choose between a traditional role of domesticity and young marriage or a career of paid work. On August 26, 1920 women officially earn the right to vote by the 19th Amendment. Although women did not become a strong political force right after that the Amendment did increase the power of women to effect change. Another important aspect of the changes in women’s postion in society these years was the first world war.

Although the United States participated in the war for a relatively short time and did people not really have a clue about what was going on in Europe the war did change American culture significantly. More than four million American men were were mobilized and sent off to Europe. One of the outcomes of this was that women entered the workforce in increasing numbers. Working not in only jobs that were particulary feminine jobs like nursing but also in offices and factories, in stores and governmental agencies and more. Women found themselves working in previously male-dominated fields and they were earning higher wages than in the past. These changes gave women a new notion of indepedence and self-confidence. In 1920 23.6% of the workforce was female with 8.6 million females, ages 15 and up, working outside the home. In 1920, for the first time in American history more people (54.3 million) live in cities than rural areas (51.4). As people became to move into the cities their lifestyles changed. Cities have more activities like going to the theater and nightclubs.

Women in the cities were more likely to work in restaurants or offices and other locations that took them away from home. All these factors together created an environment of freedom that women had never seen in the past. One of the most visble outcomes of this freedom was the emergence of the Flapper girl. The breakdown of the Victorian sexual norms was a gradual process but slowely the American society was ready for newer ideas about sexual norms. The young working class woman had been known for her flamboyant dresses and love of nightlife and dancing. .They were relatively economically autonomous and freed either by work or school from intense familial supervision, and began to find a more individualistic culture for themselves. Women’s appearance changed to a slender and smaller silhouette no longer restricted by petticoats and corsets.When the war began women started to favor more practical, shirtwaist-style dresses.

These dresses gave more freedom of movement and a greater exposure of skin. First they inched up to calf length then up to knee length. Flappers didn’t show their feminime curves, cut their hair short and wore dark eyeshadow. As the United States was becoming more and more urban, industrial production increased by 60 percent during this decade while population growth was 15%. Mass production requires mass consumption. Advertising became more important tempting people to purchase the latest fashions and newest cars and spend money on nightclubs and restaurants in the cities.

For women this industrial production meant that they were more likey to have vacuum cleaners, washing machines, refrigarators and other household appliances that lightened their household work. This increased their leisure time. Advertisements targeted women in the 1920’s. Women seemed to have more economic power than before and seemed to be in charge of the households money. However these advertisements still reflected traditional thinking of the women’s role in society. These advertisements stressed domesticity and pleasing men over any message of independence.

Dorothy Parker was born at the very start of this period of the “modern woman”. While men and women were now equal under the law, discrimination against women still persisted. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s women were still struggling against restrictions. For example, in several states women were denied to serve on juries till 1940. The economic advances for women, too, were minimal. There was still a strong sexual division of labor. Discrimiantion in family responsibilities, education, salaries and promotions remained plentiful. During the depression women lost the gains made in the career world during the 1920s. And a renewed emphasis on the woman at home crushed the recently gained hopes for equality. More and more a stereoype emerged that women during the 1920s were sexually active (the Flapper) but politically apathetic.

Parker’s work points a sharp finger at that stereotype and defies is. She keenly points out the ongoing struggles for women to break free. Parker began her professional life in 1915 when she went to work as a caption writer for Vogue at a salary of ten dollar a week. By 1917 she transferred to Vanity Fair and worked for editor Frank Crowninshield until 1920. From 1919 to 1923 Parker wrote poems, sketches, essays and columnd for more than thirty-five different literary journals and magazines.

Parker’s first poem “Any porch” pubished in Vanity Fair in september 1915 presents nine different female voices who discuss various topics as the vote for women, a game of bridge, someones new haircut and the war in France. In 1916 she wrote a series of “hate songs”, satiric descriptions of husbands and wives, actors and actresses, relatvies and so on. These “hate songs” made Parker very popular. She soon began to build a reputation as a sophisticated young writer with a witty message. In 1926 her first collection of poems was published. Parker soon played a distinctive voice calling for equality and social independence for women.

This distinctive voice calling for equality and social independence for women was not out there in a way the feminist movements of that era were calling for it. This voice was hidden between the lines of her poems and stories. “The Waltz” was published in The New Yorker in september 1933. The story reflects the thoughts and conversation of a girl who is dancing a waltz with a man who dances very badly. He steps al over her feet and kicks her in the shin every so often. She keeps saying that she’s not tired, that it didn’t hurt when he kicked her and when she gets past all feeling, the orchestra finally comes to a stop. When it does, she tells him that she wishes he’d tell them to play the same thing. She said that she would simply adore to go on waltzing even though she hates it. The two voices in this short story reflect the contrast between a polite public voice and a witty and angry private voice. These two voices reflect a clear statement of the woman’s outward conformity and inward rebellion. In this way the two voices in “The Waltz” are metaphoric for the woman’s powerlessness.

Right from the start of the story it is clear that the woman does not want to dance with this man. She does not want to dance at all but definitely not with this man. But still she gets up and dances with him. Parker is trying to point out that there is not that many young women out there who say what they think. There is not really an alternative for the woman in this story, how can she be rude? She can’t be rude to a man who asks her to dance. Women after all were supposed to please men. Parker does not judge the woman in this story for not saying what she thinks. She is not trying to bring young women who act like that down. She just simply wrote down how things like this work in a woman’s head and letting the world know that woman do not always smile from the inside when they smile from the outside.

In 1929 Parker published another short story with an hidden message about gender roles. In “Big Blonde” Parker tells the story of a talented woman, Hazel Morse. Men seem to like her and as Parker wrote “Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of men was a desirable thing”. Hazel Morse wants men to like her and “she never pondered if she might not be occupied doing something else”. She had been working for a couple years untill she met her husband. They got married and in the beginning everything seems fine. As the story goes on it becomes clear that Hazel Morse’s life revolves around pleasing her husband while she is so bored and unhappy at home. She gets divoced and gets married again a couple times but in the end in all her marriages and in the rest of her life she is never occupied with anything else than a desire for men to like her. One other desire Hazel Morse has is a desire for nice furniture and clothing.

With every men that comes in to her life Parker describes wheter he is rich or not and what he buys for Hazel Morse. All this stuff does not make her happy either. At the end of the story Hazal Morse tries to commit suicide. What Parker tried to point out here is that women like Hazal Morse are only occupied by a desire for men to like them. This constant desire in the end makes women unhappy because they do not ask themselves what they want for themselves. She also targeted the new american consuming culture in this story. Parker stated that nice clothes and nice furniture are not going to make women happy in the end. Again, just as in “The Waltz” Parker does not judge Hazal Morse for her actions. But she does make very clear that the life of women who never ponder if they might be occupied with something else than pleasing men is not going to end well.

In her stories on gender relations Parker did not criticize women directly but she does have short stories and poems in where she criticized women directly. In one of her early poems (1916) called “Women: A Hate song” she writes in the first paragraph of the poem how much she hates domestic women. She thought they were “the worst”. In her poem she groupes them together, there are no individual housewives they are all just as worse. They claim to all be always happy in Parkers view and all they do is hurry home to provide dinner for her family. The rest of their days are filled with making dresses and trying out recipes. Parker, by saying that she hates “the domestic ones” the most of all made a clear statement about the traditional role of women in society. She hated it. She hated the idea of women staying at home their whole lifes to take care of their families. Interesting is that she did not only criticize housewives but she also became known for her condemnation of the flapper. In her poem, “The Flapper” written in 1922 she starts her poem of by saying that flappers are innocent.

Then she continues to say that flappers are not “what grandma used to be”. Women wanted to break from the traditions from the generations before them but in the way Parker said it in this poem it is not meant as a compliment. She also says that flappers are “girlish”. By saying this it becomes clear that Parker did not take them serious. They were not serious and grown up women but they were all young girls. She then continues to say that there is no more harm in them “than in a submarine”. Which clearly means that Parker thought they were capable of doing damage to the whole society. She also writes that the flapper girl is not “in control” and that people only focus on their pranks. They are only noticed for their unruly behaviour and not for any good that they do. She ends this poem by saying that the Flapper girls are young and that the life the live is a rough one. This poem makes clear that Parker did not agree with the way the Flapper girls were trying to break with the past. The way the Flapper girls were trying to challenge the norm was not the best or most productive in Parker’s eyes.

“Men seldom make passes, at girls who wear glasses” is one of Parkers most famous quotes. The quote was not actually written as a quote but as a poem in 1926 under the title “News Item”. In one line Parker was able to describe that men were usually not charmed by the smart women in society. (Since glasses are associated with intelligence or education). The modern woman had achieved more equality in education but as Parker describes men did not seemed to like these educated women.

The major themes in Parkers writings are a lack of communication between women and men, disintegration of relationships, motherhood, women’s emotional dependency upon men, the selfishness of the wealthy and the danger of empitness in women’s lives. Her audience was broad. She managed to write for men and women of different social classes. The purpose of a writer was in Parkers opinion “to say what he feels and sees”. “Those who write fantasies” she did not consider artists. This nation of “to say what he feels and sees” made her stories extremely recognizable. In one of her short stories “A telephone call” Parker describes a woman waiting for a man to call her. The man had promised to call her at 5 and at 7 he still has not called. Parker described what goes through the woman’s mind. Anyone who has ever waited on a wanted telephone call knows exactely what the woman in the story goes trough because Parker sets out the woman’s thoughts in so much detail. Her writings are satiric, which makes them fun and easy to read but behind and between the lines there is a clear message.

A lot of the times this message were convictions on the existing gender relations in society. From her writings it becomes clear that Parker was a feminist. Later in her life she was quoted saying “I’m a feminist and God knows I’m loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when this city was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women.” She did however never join one of the organized feminists movements. The feminist movements of her time convicted the gender relations in a more serious and less humourous way. Her talent to convict these gender relations in a humourous way are undoubtly one of the reasons of her succes. The majority of the people was not interested in reading serious and bitter comments on the gender relations. In her “New Item” poem she could have said: “Men are sexist pigs who want to hold women in the kitchen were they belong.” Instead of that she wrote a brilliantly witty poem that everyone knows untill today.

Dorothy Parker might have been a feminist secretely fighting for women’s rights, she did not wanted to be associated with any sort of woman. In her short story “Women: a hate song” she basically stated that she hates every sort of woman. From the housewives to the Flappers. Parker wanted women to take advantage of the rights they had attained and she did not feel like enough women were doing that. What she rejected most of all were the standards for female writing and thinking. One of her biographers Marion Maede wrote that Parker did not presented herself so much “as a bad girl” but as a “bad boy, a firecracker who was agressively proud of being tough, quirky, feisty.”

Parker’s writings satisfied a craving for comments on this “modern women” and the new gender relations that were a part of that. Women in American society on the one hand were happy on the one hand with their new achievements of equality between men and women. On the other hand, they were dissapointed in the actual changes. Not only were the achievements in equality by law, in economic advances and education not what they had hoped for, they were also dissapointed in the new image of a stereotype women who was sexually liberated but in every way was the minor in relationships between woman and man. These dissapointments and discriminations of the modern women were not out on the surface. No one would have probably even been able to explain at that time what these dissapointments and discriminations exactly were.

Dorothy Parker could see the friction underneath the surface of a sophistication-thirsty, consumer-obsessed American society. In her short stories and her poems she was able to point a sharp finger at all these dissapointments and discriminations. She was able to do that in a humourous satiric way. Not in bold statements, but in a subtile way behind and between the lines of her writings. Her greatest achievement was that her writings were attractive to read for women and men. Popular writing for both sexes would be a great achievement nowadays but even more in that era in which the tensions between gender relations were at its sharpest. All these things combined made Parker succesfull in making her readers observe modern culture in a different way, and they all loved reading it.

Bunkers, Suzanne L. Dorothy Parker as Feminist and Social Critic (1987). Evans, Sara M. Born for liberty. A history of women in America (New York 1989). Keats, John. You might as well live. The life and times of Dorothy Parker (New York 1970). Keyser, Catherine. Girls who wear glasses. In A New Literaty History of America edited by Wernes Sollors and Griel Marcus (Harvard 2012). Parker, Dorothy. Complete Poems (1999).

Parker, Dorothy. Here Lies. The Collected Stories of Dorothy Parker (New York 1933). Sagert, Kelly Boyer. Flappers: A Guide to an American Subculture (2010).

[ 1 ]. John Keats, You might as well live. The life and times of Dorothy Parker (New York 1970) 9. [ 2 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xvi. [ 3 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xvi. [ 4 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xvi. [ 5 ]. Sara M. Evans, Born for liberty. A history of women in America (New York 1989) 147. [ 6 ]. Sagert, Kelly Boyer Flappers xiv.

[ 7 ]. Sagert, Kelly Boyer Flappers xiv.
[ 8 ]. Evans, Sara M Born for liberty 161.
[ 9 ]. Evans, Sara M Born for liberty 161.
[ 10 ]. Sagert, Kelly Boyer Flappers 15.
[ 11 ]. Sagert, Kelly Boyer Flappers 20.
[ 12 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xxv. [ 13 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xxvi. [ 14 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xxvi. [ 15 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xix. [ 16 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xix. [ 17 ]. Colleen Breese, introduction in Dororthy Parker Complete Poems (1999) xxvi. [ 18 ]. Catherine Keyser, Girls who wear glasses, in A New Literary History of America, edited by Werner Sollors and Griel Marcus (Harvard 2012).

Updated: Apr 29, 2023
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Dorothy Parker: The Extraordinary Writer essay
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