Blaspheming Dorothy Parker

by Michelle Dean

I was checking out The Millions’ Year in Reading again this morning and came across the entry of one William Giraldi. Giraldi is a critic I’ve run into a few times before. He once wrote a weirdly angry review of two books by an acquaintance of mine. This got him pilloried all over the internet. It was really more of a reap-what-you-sow moment than an outrage moment. I think if you write something angry, you should probably be prepared for people to respond in kind.

What I am about to describe is not something angry he wrote though. It’s just something that made me stop short, before I’d even looked at the byline in my RSS feeder:

Imagine the irredeemably WASPish, cloistered Connecticut world of John Cheever if rendered by James Thurber, or John Updike’s suburban New England strivers and cheaters delivered by Oscar Wilde, or, better yet, imagine if you could make an alloy of H.L. Mencken’s irreligious perceptions and Dorothy Parker’s cagey sapience, and you might come close to beholding the vibrant abilities of Peter De Vries.

I’ve never read Peter De Vries. Let’s stipulate that he’s probably wonderful in all the ways described. I Young_Dorothy_Parkersuspect, though, that this sentence would have benefited from about four fewer names included in it. The adjectives could have left too. I am no stranger to long, looping, complicated sentences, and in fact it annoys me that in my own work I have to use the shorter ones so often. The windup here simply goes on too long.

None of these are what bother me, though. What bothers me is this reference to Dorothy Parker’s “cagey sapience.” It’s so totally wrong it took my breath away. An insane overreaction, I know. This is the problem with writing a book about dead writers: you sometimes find yourself with highly developed opinions about other people’s tossed-off remarks about them.

So, caveat emptor, this is a nitpick. But I’m going to unpack it anyway in the interest of intellectualism and all that.

Which, by the way, Parker was never very much for. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be serious. She had a strong interest in politics, which you can see in the fact that she left the rights to her work to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP, thereby forever incurring the wrath of her friend Lillian Hellman, who had hoped to inherit that herself.

But “sapience”? That word implies that Parker believed herself to hold wisdom. For all her meanness, for all her pose of authority in her Constant Reader column in the New Yorker, her style does not present itself as wise. Parker did think of herself as funny, but as we know, there’s often a hollow core to humor. There’s often a punishing self inside. This was certainly true of Parker, and not because of the caricatures that posit her as perenially suicidal (she wasn’t always) nor falling-down drunk (more like “tipsy,” most of the time, people said).

Besides, all her work was founded on doubt. Doubt that people were as wise or as talented or even as important as they said they were. And putting yourself out there as a doubter and a ridiculer is not the same as wisdom. If anything I feel like half of Parker’s problems with herself came from her keen awareness of the gulf between “funny” and “wise.” So forget “sapience.”

Second, this matter of “cagey.” How was she withholding or careful or secretive in her work? Reading the better half of it she is in confessional mode. Her stories and poems often correspond closely to events in her own life. That’s not the same thing as saying they’re purely autobiographical, of course. But Parker wasn’t hiding, not remotely, in her poems and fiction. If anything I think she thought they were too honest, too close to what she perceived as her own weaknesses. She’d often plead to write as something other than herself: “Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman.” Which is very sad to think about, especially given that so many people found her “self,” that Dorothy Parker persona, pleasant enough to buy her books in droves.

My point, I guess, is if you going to lard Parker up with adjectives you should at least use ones that indicate more than surface familiarity with her work. Pick up the Dorothy Parker Reader instead of the thesaurus. Or else risk offending Parker pedants like me.

(Photo via Wiki)