Has Dottie got legs? On the poetry of Dorothy Parker

From The New Criterion:


Hemingway, remarks are not literature,” said Miss Stein imperiously. In Dorothy Parker’s case, however, the remarks, the snappy comebacks, live on, no matter how inexpert the witnesses (Mrs. Parker included). Even if she never really followed Clare Boothe Luce’s “Age before beauty” with “Pearls before swine” or wrote of the young Katharine Hepburn “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B,” most of us, suffering from the delayed reaction times that wake us up a day or so later with the perfect rejoinder, envy the expert parry, the swift thrust of a Parker epigram, even a faux one. That she had no Boswell is, well, just as well, for the panache with which time has crowned her off-the-cuffs makes her loom larger in our cultural memory.

In life, however, she did not loom very large, around five feet by most accounts, and, though she battled weight problems periodically, she appears shrunken and mummified in photographs of her last years—too many Chesterfields, too much scotch. Born Dorothy Rothschild (“We’d never even heard of those Rothschilds!”), she first appeared while her Upper-West-Side parents were vacationing in New Jersey, getting back to her almost-native city just after Labor Day, 1893. Her Jewish father sent her to Catholic and Protestant schools, and, oddly, given her apparent lack of religious beliefs, the figure of the Virgin Mary appears in several of her most serious poems. She left school for good at fourteen and spent the next six years with her father, whose fortune had declined to the point that there was little estate to settle on his four children. After his death, she worked at a dance studio, either as an instructor or as a pianist, depending on whose account one reads.

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