There’s a story Dorothy Parker told about herself in an interview in the Paris Review. It concerns one of her first jobs, working as a theater critic at Vanity Fair, with Robert Benchley:
“Both Mr. Benchley and I subscribed to two undertaking magazines: The Casket and Sunnyside. Steel yourself: Sunnyside had a joke column called “From Grave to Gay.” I cut a picture out of one of them, in color, of how and where to inject embalming fluid, and had it hung over my desk until Mr. Crowninshield asked me if I could possibly take it down. Mr. Crowninshield was a lovely man, but puzzled.”
The two parts of this anecdote are perfect. The first part, of course, comes from the undertaking magazine. The picture of the corpse showing how and where to take embalming fluid could be the icon of modernism – it was the patient etherized upon a table taken to the next degree. It replaced piety with a cold and probing curiosity; it looked at our ends, and subtracted the transcendental purpose.
The second part comes from the response. “Mr. Crowninshield was a lovely man, but puzzled.” I think that sums up the critical afterlife suffered by Dottie Parker: a puzzled receptiveness. Such cruelty, or coldness, stemming from a woman. Even today, when there’s been a large shift in gender perceptions, Parker is often dismissed as a woman who refused to grow up. She was witty, we all agree, but in the end too disagreeably puzzling.
Of all effects, the one that irritates the puritan conscious the most is that of ‘puzzling’. We want identity. We want positions. We want the ism and we want it now. Puzzling, which delays the immediacy of intellectual gratification, might be allowed as a start: we have the problem, yes? And we have the solution. But the problem for its own sake? The puzzle as the answer? Forget it.
These reactions depend, of course,on the cultural currents. In the twenties, as consumerism replaced the great American economic force – agriculture – and the cities grew in tandem with the stock market – when the combine of organized crime, forbidden substance, and the expansion of the police became established as one of the basic forms of governance – writers took up the puzzle, the tease, and the wisecrack as valid responses to life within unclear parameters. Perhaps this is why of all decades, I love the twenties, a miraculous decade for literature across cultures. Parker was alert to all of it. She spotted Hemingway, Eliot, Faulkner. She understood the Mencken canon in which Dreiser figured as a great novelist and at the same time as an idiot when it came to general ideas. And in her greatest stories – like Big Blonde – she put in the pick and pumped in embalming fluid, destroying the mirror as the archetypal instrument of realism.
You can never be cold enough if you are going into that line of work.