R12 S04 H22

Office hours: By Zoom appointment

Phone: 183-2162


Dorothy Parker and All That Jazz

Mondays 14-16

R12 R04 B11

The writer and celebrated conversationalist Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) remains overshadowed by the legends about her. Active during the Depression and the Jazz Age, she was then known as a wit, as the only female member of the Algonquin round table, and as a poet of light verse and amusing, but slight, short stories.  Her satiric, shrewd analyses of American life, however, earned her a place on Hollywood's blacklist as well as, in 1988, the year the first scholarly biography of Parker was published, a memorial plaque from the NAACP, where until very recently Parker's ashes were interred:  "Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker  . . . humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights.This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people."  Parker herself had suggested as an epitaph merely the phrase "Excuse my dust."

Because she did not appear to take herself seriously, she was, until relatively recently, considered a lightweight by the more influential literary critics and contemporaries.  Her interest in civil rights, in feminism, in gender roles, in social inequalities, is increasingly recognized, one of the defining testaments to her literary and cultural worth being the frequency with which she has become a subject for scholarly biography.  

This course will cover Parker's major works as well as critical and biographic writings about her by Ann Douglas, Marion Meade, Barry Day, and others.  We will set Parker mainly in the context of the twenties and thirties, the decades in which she left her mark through stories and poems demonstrating the impact of poverty, lack of education, social ideas about gender and alcoholism on women, as well as crusading commentary on race relations in the United States long before the civil rights movement.   Some selections from writers contemporary with Parker will be covered in order to put her work in context.

Students should purchase The Portable Dorothy Parker, ed. Marion Meade, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (or look at online copy) and Marion Meade, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? If possible, get a copy of Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (not as easy to find as the others).

N.B.: We’ll work our way through the Marion Meade biography, but if you’re short on time, focus on Parker’s writing. The Meade biography offers an excellent background and plenty of context; you’ll understand Parker’s work better if you read Meade. But in a pinch, choose Parker over Meade.

Recommended reading (not required)

Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker, ed. Stuart Y. Silverstein.  Scribners, 2009.

The Algonquin Wits: Bon Mots, Wisecracks, Epigrams, and Gags, by Robert E. Drennen.  Carol, 1990.

A Journey into Dorothy Parker's New York, by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick.  Roaring Forties Press, 2005.

Requirements:  All students speak for five minutes on an assigned topic:  the purpose of this talk is to share your insights about the material with the class--NOT to deliver factual or biographic information available on Wikipedia or other internet sources.  M.A. students should offer talk of about fifteen minutes using some criticism. All students will complete one brief writing assignment.

4 April April Introduction to Dorothy Parker:  her origins, her tragedies, the stock market crash and the jazz age, Why she was seen as a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth. Her humor:

• A girl's best friend is her mutter.

• On money: “I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.”

• You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.

• Ducking for apples -- change one letter and it's the story of my life.

• Brevity is the soul of lingerie.

• News Item: Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses.

• This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.


The Jazz Age:

2017 Cooper-Hewitt Museum exhibition of The Jazz Age:

“Hot Sounds of the 20s and 30s”

Atmosphere: see The Great Gatsby:

Prohibition: the 18th Amendment, ratified in 1920 and repealed in 1933

Rise of the Speakeasy:

Speakeasy scene from The Great Gatsby (2013):

(atmosphere genuine—music not)

Speakeasy scene from Some Like it Hot:

Dorothy Parker’s early life:

Later Career:


11 April Begin poems collected in Enough Rope (1926) in The Portable Dorothy Parker. If you’ve read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, look through it again; if you haven’t, now’s the time for a speed read (optional, but it will enhance your understanding of Parker’s world). Marion Meade, Introduction through chap. 2.

18 April HOLIDAY: Easter

25 April Enough Rope. Dorothy Parker Timeline (in reader) and Marion Meade, chapters 3-5.

2 May Selections, Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty, first chapters. Enough Rope continued. Marion Meade, chapters 6-7.

9 May Parker, stories:  "The Lovely Leave," "The Sexes," "The Standard of Living," "The Waltz." Meade, chapters 8-9.

16 May Parker, stories: "Arrangement in Black and White," "Mr. Durant," "The Wonderful Old Gentleman," "Song of the Shirt." Marion Meade, chapters 10-12.

23 May Start "Big Blonde" (1929) read selections from Barry Day (in reader): "Dogs: A Digression," "Hooray for Hollywood," and "You Might as Well Live." Marion Meade, chapters 13-15.

30 May “Big Blonde”

Optional: 1980 TV movie version with Sally Kellerman:


13 June "A Telephone Call," "Here We Are," "Dusk Before Fireworks," and "You Were Perfectly Fine."  Listen to Talullah Bankhead's 1951 recording of "A Telephone Call": Marion Meade, chapter 16.

20 June "Miss Hofstadter on Josephine Street," "Soldiers of the Republic, Too Bad," "The Last Tea." Sunset Gun (poems) and Death and Taxes (poems) "War Song" (poem). Marion Meade, chapter 17.

27 June "Just a Little One," "Lady with a Lamp," "The Little Hours." "Horsie," "Glory in the Daytime," "New York to Detroit." Marion Meade, chapter 18.

4 July " Later Stories: "I Live on Your Visits," "Lolita," "The Bolt Behind the Blue." Play Reviews from Vanity Fair (1918-1920) Marion Meade, chapter 19.

11 July "Constant Reader" Book Reviews and Uncollected Articles.










Dorothy Parker: Excerpts from the Reading


Lilacs blossom just as sweet

Now my heart is shattered.

If I bowled it down the street,

Who’s to say it mattered?

From “Threnody”

By the time you swear you’re his,

            Shivering and sighing,

And he vows his passion is

            Infinite, undying—

Lady, make a note of this:

            One of you is lying.

From “Unfortunate Coincidence”

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.



Annabel and Midge came out of the tea room with the arrogant slow gait of the leisured, for their Saturday afternoon stretched ahead of them. They had lunched, as was their wont, on sugar, starches, oils, and butter-fats. Usually they ate sandwiches of spongy new white bread greased with butter and mayonnaise; they ate thick wedges of cake lying wet beneath ice crem and whipped cream and melted chocolate gritty with nuts. As alternates, they ate patties, sweating beads of inferior oil, containing bits of bland meat bogged in pale, stiffening sauce; they ate pastries, limber under rigid icing, filled with an indeterminate yellow sweet stuff, not still solid, not yet liquid, like salve that has been left in the sun. They chose no other sort of food, nor did they consider it. And their skin was like the petals of wood anemones, and their bellies were as flat and their flanks as lean as those of young Indian braves.

From “The Standard of Living”