The ABP Journal
Fall 2006, Vol. 2 No. 1

Rebecca Mitchell is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas, Pan-American. She has published articles and reviews on topics ranging from composition pedagogy to the material culture of the contemporary paperback, but her primary interest is nineteenth-century realism. Her current project focuses on intersubjectivity in Victorian fiction and visual arts.

[journal table of contents]

"Parker did not keep her correspondence, and her self-deprecation was so complete that one cannot be certain of her work processes.  Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that Parker’s literary genealogy has remained murky."


 


As with Bierce, Parker’s biography has
often overshadowed her work.  The 2006
edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker
seeks to earn a wider audience for her
writing.
 

Résumé

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.

 

The other day a poor devil
named Linton, or Dobbs, or
Goschakoff, or something
that sounds like that, cut his
wind-pipe entirely off with a
very dull chisel because he
could not get work.  He
immediately obtained all the
work he wanted: he had to
work very hard to breathe.

 



Dorothy Parker in 1945


 
"To be aware of Bierce’s
position as a predecessor
to Parker increases the
pleasure of reading her
works.  In addition,
exploration of the connection
between their work may
lead to a more generous
understanding of their
respective literary situations.
"
 
"Bierce’s work anticipates
the Modernist movement.  
His caustic wit and self-
deprecation can be seen as
direct precursors to those
aspects in Modern literature
that depend upon
misanthropy, self-conscious
introspection, and direct
expression of dissatisfaction
with society or one’s place
in it." 
 



Bierce was regarded as a master of the
written insult.  As portrayed above, his
pen could wound as effectively as the
sharpest blade.

 
 
 

DOROTHY PARKER AND AMBROSE BIERCE:
A SARDONIC TRADITION

LAWRENCE BERKOVE OPENS his most recent study of Ambrose Bierce by noting that “it is difficult to write about [the author] without being caught up in his personality or, rather, an image of his personality.” [1]  The very same could be said in regard to Dorothy Parker, whose drama-filled, jazz age life casts such a long shadow over her literary achievements that it is difficult for critics and biographers to extricate one from the other. [2]  It was an interesting life to be certain, but even her famous “wit” does not rescue her reputation, especially in the popular press, from the lasting impression of her personal trials; note Andrew Calcutt’s description of Parker in his Cult Fiction, A Reader’s Guide: “A woman who stumbled through unhappy love affairs, had abortions, attempted suicide, drank excessively and was escorted by gigolos (many of whom were homosexual), whose celebrity status was used openly by men to further their own careers.” [3]  Further complicating matters is the difficulty that Parker scholars face when trying to ascertain even basic facts about her life.  Marion Meade’s 1987 What Fresh Hell is This? was painstakingly researched and marked an improvement in the quality of Parker biographies, but even Meade admits the limitations she faced.  Parker did not keep her correspondence, and her self-deprecation was so complete that one cannot be certain if her descriptions of tortured work processes were accurate or not.  Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that Parker’s literary genealogy has remained murky.

In the vacuum of critical scholarship on her writing, it has been easy to dismiss Parker’s work as inconsequential and almost wholly divorced from the modernist ideology and techniques that her fellow writers were forging.  Andrea Ivanov-Craig sums up Parker’s position: “[her] popular reputation becomes a means of locating Parker’s work as the doubly trivial – ‘trivial’ because it is humor, and ‘trivial’ because it concerns the lives and perspectives of women.” 
[4]  Restoring Parker’s works to a state of relative value requires new critical attention, a trend signaled by Rhonda Pettit’s 2005 The Critical Waltz, the first compilation of critical studies of Parker’s work.  Such a restoration also depends upon recognizing the literary, poetic, and comic heritage into which Parker was writing.  Petitt’s A Gendered Collision (2000) sought to locate Parker within the tradition of her contemporary Modernists as well as (and more importantly for Petitt’s project) within the tradition of nineteenth-century sentimental writing, especially women’s sentimental writing: her argument addresses the common critique of sentimentality leveled at Parker’s fiction.  There is another tradition that is equally significant for Parker studies and for humor studies: comic and satirical writing.  Ellen Pollack reaches back to the early eighteenth century in her study of the Swiftian elements of Parker’s prose, but there are additional models much closer to Parker’s milieu. [5]

One forbearer stands out: Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), turn-of-the-century American humorist and social critic whose definitive biography – both personal and literary – remains as opaque as Parker’s. [6]  The link between Dorothy Parker’s tone and subject choices with those of Ambrose Bierce is remarkable, and remarkably ignored by the scholarship on either; never is he mentioned in any of Parker’s biographies, and in Berkove’s latest book, Parker is left out of an otherwise thorough list of artists influenced by Bierce. [7]  No record could be found of Parker speaking or writing about Bierce, but because so little evidence of her life exists outside of her recorded interviews and published works, this is not surprising.  Parker biographer Marion Meade opens her book with the acknowledgement that “Parker herself left no correspondence, manuscripts, memorabilia, or private papers of any kind,” noting further that Parker was “secretive about her origins.” [8]  But this lack of “proof” has not inhibited scholars from assessing the fruitful connections between Parker and her predecessors.  Ellen Pollak, for example, observes in her aforementioned study of Parker and Swift that the relationship between those two writers “cannot be established with empirical certainty, since Parker makes no direct reference to Swift either in her reviews or elsewhere in her work.  She left no library in which to forage, nor any complete, firsthand inventory of her voluminous reading.” [9]  Textual analysis must then trump “empirical certainty” when it comes to establishing influences on Parker’s writing.  Even without evidence that Parker read Bierce’s work, the two do remain curiously linked in some books: one’s best bet for finding them in proximity is in a table of contents of an anthology of short stories or quips, or in the number of works on alcoholism and the creative process that include Bierce and Parker in their lists of suspected or confirmed alcoholic writers. [10] 

More importantly, Parker’s writing shares enormous affinity with Bierce’s: the similar content; the adherence to short stories, poetry, or journalism; the cynical view towards love; the refusal to suffer fools gladly; and the Juvenalian satire [11]
connect her works to his.  Such links deserve to be explored, and this article seeks to begin that exploration.  While admitting that this sketch is not exhaustive, I hope this examination of the relation between Bierce and Parker inspires closer attention to the connections between their work, as well as their respective places in the literary canon.  In particular, situating Parker’s writing with regard to Bierce’s allows for a new appreciation of her standing in the American comedic tradition as well as in the feminist movement.

Parallels between their lives abound, and while I wish to avoid that usual trap of reading their works through their biographies, the similarities in their life stories may offer insight into the reception of their works and the perpetuation of their reputations.  Both earned fame by working in journalism – Bierce in San Francisco newspapers and Parker in New York magazines.  Both were founding influences in publications that would become landmarks: Bierce for the Examiner and Parker for The New Yorker.  Both were frustrated by their ultimately unsatisfying romantic relations.  Both were advocates for racial equality, and both came to defense of the underdog, often by skewering those in political, judicial, or social power.  Bierce was “an idealistic youth,” who chose to express his idealism through action, working for an antislavery newspaper and enlisting when the Civil War broke out.  Parker protested on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti (and was arrested for her action), lent her name to fundraising efforts for the Spanish Civil War, and left her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, upon his demise, the NAACP.  Despite their actions in favor of the oppressed, the two are most remembered for their biting wit – sometimes vindictive curmudgeons that were, despite or perhaps because of their vitriol, adored by many readers. Critics have been less uniform in their response.  While still overshadowed by his literary contemporaries, Bierce stands as an example of prolific output and stolid, dispassionate humor, and Parker’s reputation is only recently escaping the binds of her life’s narrative. 

“Those Boys in Other Centuries”

The vituperative cast of their writing has ensured that Bierce's and Parker’s work resists final characterization.  Is it satire or merely criticism of popular culture?  Wit or humor?  Light verse or serious poetry?  Critics are not alone in their inability to categorize the writing; though “satire” is a common label for their work, both artists protest the description.  Parker scoffed at the idea that she was a satirist, saying in a typically self-deprecating moment, “If I’d been called a satirist there’d be no living with me.  But by a satirist I mean those boys in the other centuries.”  She scoffed at many labels, but her objection to classifying her writing as satire rests on her self-conscious perception that her work lacked relevance.  About her contemporary so-called satirists, she says, “Their stuff is not satire; it’s as dull as yesterday’s newspaper. Successful satire has got to be pretty good the day after tomorrow.”
[12]  This response echoes Bierce’s contention that no modern writer could produce effective satire, not only because the talent wasn’t being produced, but because the audience – especially the American audience – could neither recognize nor value true satire: “If we had today an Aristophanes, a Jonathan Swift, or an Alexander Pope, he would indubitably be put into a comfortable prison with all sanitary advantages” and face, among other trials, women competing for his hand in marriage. [13]  Bierce includes himself in his appraisal of contemporary writers.

Perhaps the authors sell themselves short.  David Worcester, in his seminal The Art of Satire, outlines the practice of writing satire in terms that describe well both Bierce and Parker’s work.  After noting that no woman has made a mark in satire, Worcester argues, “[the] satirist must simultaneously appear amiable to his audience, hostile to his enemies," [14] a feat easily achieved by Parker.  Worcester admits that the line between pure insult and satire is often a fine one, and he defines satiric invective as critique or attack showing “detachment, indirection, and complexity in the author’s attitude." [15]  To heighten “dull abuse” to satire, one need only “heighten the language with bombast, novelty, or polysyllabic verbosity.” [16]  Again, the description applies to the work of both authors.  In fact, their self-described disavowal of satire may have less to do with satire as a form than with their shared discomfort of any sincerely positive self-evaluation.

Supporting this claim is Bierce's and Parker’s self-assessment of their poetry.  Both renounce the quality of the poems they write, consistently differentiating between verse writing and the true craft of poetry.  The protests anticipate the judgment that would be leveled at the work of both artists in the decades after their works’ publication, and as such hedge their critical reception.  As Bierce makes a critical distinction between poems and verse, he focuses particularly on the ego involved in fancying oneself a true poet:

To verse-makers, as verse-makers, I have no objection.  (I make verses myself and it is the unanimous testimony of others in the same line of literary business that they are very bad verses indeed.)  It is only when the verse-maker fancies himself a poetry-maker that he becomes offensive to the cultivated and discriminating taste – my taste.  It is important that the broad and sharp distinction between verse and poetry be as clearly perceived and sacredly respected by my brother rhymesters as it is by myself; and, God willing, I’ll hold their noses to the mark until they see it. [17]

Dorothy Parker, when asked in an interview about her process of writing poems in the twenties, responded: “My verses. I cannot say poems...My verses are no damn good.” [18]  Bierce finds his poems “very bad indeed” and Parker claims her are “no damn good.”  Despite this disparagement, Parker and Bierce were inventive poets who were adept at multiple poetic forms. Their disavowals could be read as preemptive strikes against critics who may regard their work as pretending to heights beyond its reach.  Such self-deprecation is in any case a continuation of the cynicism present within their works; perhaps it is unfair to expect a frank self-appraisal from such masters of irony.

“Nastiness that Exalts and Refines”

With sarcasm in common, it is not surprising that Bierce's and Parker’s works illustrate a number of shared themes.  What is surprising is the extent to which those themes are effected in similar manner.  Most striking is their mutual deference to suicide as a possibly respectable, if not an honorable, choice for those fed up with life or for those with whom the author is fed up.  Whether this admiration of suicide is to be understood as sincere or as a posture is uncertain, but they do share almost uncanny parallels in content and tone.  A comparison of Bierce’s 1869 piece “Suicide as an Art” and Parker’s “Résumé” is illustrative of this trend:

A word to unfortunates: Razors are good in their way, but some knowledge of the location of the jugular vein must precede their use.  Don’t attempt to use more than one at a time, and go about it deliberate… Give yourself at least half an hour after business hours.  Saw from left to right. A pistol is objectionable; it makes too much noise and wakes baby…Hanging will do on a stretch, and arsenic may be taken in a pinch… We tender this advice gratis, in the interest of art. The bungling now so prevalent cannot be too strongly condemned.


"Résumé"

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.

Similarities in the recitation of devices for suicide are striking, and each author recounts the drawbacks to each method.  Bierce frames his meditation as advice, as an effort to ameliorate the embarrassment of the botched suicide – a subject that both he and Parker address.   It is a protest based in part on the aesthetic impact of the act.  Parker’s objection to acid is neither because it is painful nor because it is ineffective, but because it causes stain. [19] 

A shining example often explicated in Parker scholarship, “Résumé” tends to be read as a reflection on the author’s experience of failed suicide attempts: the message seen as one ultimately endorsing life over death.  Emily Toth cites the poem as an example of “feminist subject matter,” [20] though it is difficult to distinguish between Parker’s subject choice, admittedly unusual for a woman, and her tone, which treats that subject in a manner at once cavalier and tender.  Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl write about Parker’s verse, “Here the irony is not that the poem advocates suicide but says the opposite.” [21]  Irony in Bierce’s piece comes not from the collision of superficial advocacy of suicide and underlying admonishment, but in his stalwart dedication to the endorsement of suicide.  He goes, in a sense, further than Parker, and draws comedy from his very allegiance to an ideal which is so beyond the pale that readers can only conclude that he must, in spite of or because of his tendency to the macabre, not mean what he writes.  But Bierce also expresses a resignation to life as ironically as Parker does in “Résumé”:

"Desperation"

My days all are wasted in vainly
            Contesting the fields against Fate;
My nights with remorses insanely
            Are swarming, and specters of hate.
“O for rest! O for peace!” I cry madly –
            “Let me fall, for I faint in the strife.
To be dead, to be dead, I’d give gladly
            All, all that I have, except life.”
[22]

In “Desperation,” as in Parker’s poem, it is unclear to what extent the speaker actually wishes to die – if he lacks the courage to follow through on an earnest wish, or if the poem is simply expressing that irony of “advocating suicide but saying the opposite.”  The ambivalence of the poem accounts for some of its cynical feel, especially in the turn of the final line.  Other times, Bierce is less ambivalent.  Failure at suicide makes repeated appearances in his oeuvre, most often drawing his ire or impatience with those who cannot seem to get it right.  His attitude is one of refusal to suffer fools, and is seemingly devoid of sympathy or empathy.  Bierce’s “An Altogether Clumsy Bungler” (1871) shows another side of this stance:

The other day a poor devil named Linton, or Dobbs, or Goschakoff, or something that sounds like that, cut his wind-pipe entirely off with a very dull chisel because he could not get work.  He immediately obtained all the work he wanted: he had to work very hard to breathe.  There was a loaded pistol in the room, with which he might just have easily taken himself out.  There are some men who will play the fool even in fulfilling their most sacred obligations to society.  Apparently this fellow is one of them. [23]

The author plays with a straightforward objection to the more pressing social ill – unemployment – through the distraction of suicide.  Complaining that the depressed, desperate man failed to fulfill a social obligation may throw the more genuine concern into relief.  Parker’s “Big Blonde” (1929) exhibits a similar lack of empathy coupled with genuine social criticism, though she locates the active judgment outside of the narrative voice. In the short story, considered her best and her most autobiographical, the main character makes a failed attempt at suicide.  Weary Mrs. Morse, exhausted from a life that required she “be a sport” to attract men, takes twenty pills; when the doctor arrives to resuscitate her, his reaction is one of irritation and disgust, not with the act, but with the actions required of him to revive the woman: “What did she want to go taking that tripe for?  Rotten yellow trick, that’s what a thing like that is.  Now we’ll have to pump her out, and all that stuff.  Nuisance, a thing like that is; that’s what it amounts to.” [24]

Such lassitude becomes itself a trope, not only coloring narratorial responses or reactions to events, but comprising the source of the event.  Bierce, for example, bemoaned the omnipresence of the Bore: “Abundant bores afflict this world, and some/ Are bores of magnitude that come and – no,/ They’re always coming, but they never go.”   Dorothy Parker dedicated one of her Hymns of Hate to the Bore: “I hate bores; they take the joy out of my life.” [25]  Each wrote a poem, more bitter than sweet, on Christmas: Bierce’s “An Unhappy Christmas” and Parker’s “With Best Wishes.” [26]  
Dispassionate frustration with the opposite sex is evidenced in cynical treatments of love, legion in the oeuvre of both authors: frustrated affection or desire is no new theme in poetry, but Parker and Bierce foreground any details of the lover, or of the relationship, with their own irritation or ennui.

Their criticism and poetry consider other authors, often demonstrating that the two shared a similar disdain, or affected a similar disdain, for certain writers.  Both, for example, weigh in on Oscar Wilde, taking issue with his wit.  It is a curious objection for Bierce and Parker: they were known for their wit, and keenly felt the pressure of being expected to produce witticisms on command.  Like Wilde, it is their one-liners that subsequent generations have remembered, instead of their longer works of fiction or poetry.  Yet such an affinity does little to ensure sympathy for the Irishman.  Bierce, reviewing Wilde during his lecture tour, wrote about the talk: “It lacks even the nastiness that exalts and refines his verse.  Moreover, it is obviously his own; he had not even the energy and independence to steal it.” [27]  
The last sentence is nearly Wildeian in its use of paradox, an effect Bierce certainly intended, and while the review in full reads like an invective of Wilde, the second phrase is unclear.  What, precisely, is he criticizing in Wilde’s lecture?

Parker approximates these ambivalent attitudes in her brief rhyme on Wilde, one of a series of small poems on authors under the umbrella title, “A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature.”  She, like Bierce, raises questions about the authenticity of Wilde’s quips, bemoaning the fact that her well-turned phrases may be attributed to him:

"Oscar Wilde"

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
[28]

Parker writes about Wilde after his death.  By the time of she wrote the epigram, Wilde’s reputation had coalesced with greater precision than when Bierce wrote his contemporary critique.   Both authors’ comments parallel Wilde’s sportive attitude towards ownership of his words and actions.  The consummate self-promoter, Wilde knew the power of forwarding his reputation for wit.  After London was buzzing over his (apocryphally) having walked down the street with a lily, he noted that to have done it was one thing, but to make people think he had done it was a far greater achievement.  Bierce and Parker are aping and/or appropriating Wilde’s game by cultivating literary personas which are immediately identifiable. Their excessive viciousness becomes acceptable and even endearing when it is an element of the persona, just as Wilde’s foppery was acceptable within the boundaries of his performance of the dandy. 

The canonically-respected poets fare little better than Wilde does in the verse of Bierce and Parker.  Compare the following two short poems on Victorian poets, Bierce on Browning and Parker on Tennyson:

"With a Book"

Words shouting, singing, smiling, frowning-
      Sense lacking.
Ah, nothing, more obscure than Browning,  
     Save blacking.
[29]


"Alfred, Lord Tennyson"

Should Heaven send me any son,
I hope he’s not like Tennyson.
I’d rather have him play a fiddle
Than rise and bow and speak an idyll. [30]

The tone of the two poems is nearly identical: Bierce’s “With a Book” could easily be mistaken for a Parker poem.  Their playfulness should not be confused as an indicator of the authors’ lack of taste or sensibility about poetry.  Quite the contrary is true. While their critiques of their own writing were unsparing, and while anxiety about their places within or without the canon is evident in their epigrams on the Victorians, neither Bierce or Parker was simply dismissive of any work that they felt rivaled their own.  Both were firm defenders of what they regarded as good writing.  As vicious as Parker can be in her negative literary reviews, she equals the degree of passion with the praise of her positive reviews.  On Nabokov’s Lolita, which was then facing harshly negative press and charges of obscenity, she opines, “It is in its writing that Mr. Nabokov has made it the work of art that it is…His command of the language is absolute, and his Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book – all right, then – a great book.” [31]  Bierce too used his considerable power in the press to forward the careers of those he thought worthy.  That he was a fan and advocate of Ezra Pound, for example, is clear from his correspondence in which he speaks of offering “high praise” for Pound’s “admirable” poem “The Ballade of the Goodly Fere.” [32]  As noted above, the line between verse and poetry is an issue for both as well; the subtlety of the difference – especially for Bierce who wrote extensively on the subject – indicates that the epigrams on writers are informed by a healthy respect and admiration for the craft. 

“People Whom I Do Not Love”

Self-inflicted pain and death via suicide serve as regular motifs in Bierce's and Parker’s work, and their self-directed criticism is among the harshest either received.  Yet their skill at directing that bile at others ensured that it is in the arena of invective and insult that both authors’ personal, if not literary, reputations are fixed.  Derision of bungling depressives or critique of canonical authors seems mild when compared to their pieces directed specifically towards the elimination of enemies:

"Contemplation"

I muse upon the distant town
            In many a dreamy mood.
Above my head the sunbeams crown
            The graveyard’s giant rood.
The lupin blooms among the tombs,
            The quail recalls her brood.

Ah, good it is to sit and trace
            The shadow of the cross;
It moves so still from place to place
            O’er marble, bronze, and moss;
With graves to mark upon its arc
            Our time’s eternal loss.

And sweet it is to watch the bee
            That revels in the roses,
And sense the fragrance floating free
            On every breeze that dozes
Upon the mound, where, safe and sound,
            Mine enemy reposes. [33]             


"Frustration"


If I had a shiny gun,
I could have a world of fun
Speeding bullets through the brains
Of the folk who give me pains;

Or had I some poison gas,
I could make the moments pass
Bumping off a number of
People whom I do not love.

But I have no lethal weapon –
Thus does Fate our pleasure step on!
So they still are quick and well

Who should be, by rights, in hell. [34]

Though unnamed, the “enemy” of Bierce and those whom Parker “does not love” are not merely criticized.  Their deaths (real, imagined, or potential) serve to delight the poets.  Indeed, these poems are constructed upon the speaker’s joy at the death of the enemy or irritation when that death is thwarted.  While not directly indicting an individual, the blasé tone of both poems guarantees that the effect is doubly strong: by under-emoting in an instance of extreme emotion – such as stating a wish for someone’s death – the severity of the desire is emphasized. 

This ambivalence within the poems is applicable to the directed insult as well.  In a chapter on “Invective and Insult,” Robert Adams advises that the best insults combine ferocious abuse with a disaffected or even happy demeanor: “A proper insulter rises above his own insult; it should be grossly rude, foul if possible, but happy in its delivery.  Neither the provocation nor the rebuke will touch the skilled insulter, isolated in his gaity.” [35]  The anecdote Adams uses to illustrate his maxim is among the most famous Parker stories.  Upon encountering Mrs. Parker at a doorway, Clare Booth Luce insisted Parker enter first, saying “Age before beauty.”  Parker retorted as she walked through, “Pearls before swine,” combining the imagery of a pig with the nobility of the phrase’s source.  The parallelism between Luce’s comment and Parker’s reply is also biblical.  Adams approves: “Crisp, ringing, and terminal, this phrase is a paragon of the modern throwaway insult.”

But throwaway insults do not literature make.  Aside from praise from such documenters of insult, Parker’s use of invective is overlooked in its literary value, continuing a tradition within textual studies.  Outside of antiquity, few writers’ insults are given analytical notice, and historical studies of invective are rare (notable exceptions include Worcester’s The Art of Satire and Kennedy’s The Tygers of Wrath, a collection of hate and anger filled and invective poetry, in which Parker and Bierce do not figure at all).  Compilations of insults exist, but most are ill-documented and a-historical, such as Dr. Clyde Crobaugh’s Abusive Words or How to Cuss Effectively.  A 1956 collection of “insult words,” its author is not a professor of linguistics but of finance, and its title page touts that Dr. Crobaugh is a member of the Insurance Society of New York Southeastern Actuaries’ Club.
  Perhaps the omission of insult from the critical canon can be blamed on the seemingly strict separation between insult and art.  In his seminal study of satire, Worcester notes difficulty of maintaining pure vitriol while attempting to create art: “The epigram, based as it is upon wit, cannot drop back into gross invective without ceasing to be an epigram.” [36]  Bierce and Parker challenge this contention.  The tradition of epitaphs, for example, is a long one: Robert Burns and Byron rank among practitioners of the form, and the two Americans find it especially handy as the recipient is dead and therefore unable to rebut the poet’s charges. 

From On Stone

For those this mausoleum is erected
Who Stanford to the Upper House elected.
Their luck is less or their promotion slower,
For, dead, they were elected to the lower.

Here Stanford lies, who thought it odd
That he should go to meet his God.
He looked, until his eyes grew dim,
For God to hasten to meet him. [37]
                       

From Death and Taxes

“Tombstones in the Starlight”

II. The Pretty Lady
She hated bleak and wintry things alone.
    All that was warm and quick, she loved too well –
A light, a flame, a heart against her own;
    It is forever bitter cold, in Hell.

III. The Very Rich Man
He’d have the best, and that was none too good;
    No barrier could hold, before his terms.
He lies below, correct in cypress wood,
And entertains the most exclusive worms. [38]

As examples of their humor and ability to skewer while maintaining authorial composure, these epitaphs demonstrate the kind of wit that, according to Bierce, “stabs, begs pardon – and turns the weapon in the wound.”  There is great pleasure in wit, and while pleasure and the form (epitaph in this case) may overwhelm the severity of censure in these examples, it must not overwhelm the place these poems deserve in the literary tradition.  Indeed, M.E. Grenander traces Bierce’s literary predecessors, arguing that to be unaware is to miss out on some of the pleasure; to be aware of Bierce’s position as predecessor to Parker would then increase the pleasure of reading her works.  

“I Cannot Make Me Care”

In addition to any increase in pleasure, exploration of the connection between Bierce’s work and Parker’s may lead to a more generous understanding of their respective literary situations.  The connection between Bierce’s work and Parker’s adds value to his reputation by securing his place in the pre-Modern tradition.  His oeuvre has been overlooked, to be sure, either forgotten or dismissed as comedic journalism.  As with recent advocates of Parker’s work, Bierce scholars are often compelled to justify their very interest in his writing.  M.E. Grenander opens the volume of Bierce poetry she edited with the admission: “Ambrose Bierce has always hovered on the margins of America’s literary canon.”
[39]  H.L. Menken – who wrote on Bierce and published Parker’s fiction, making him perhaps the least tenuous link between the two writers – notes that this marginalization had already begun in Bierce’s lifetime, concluding that the author “spent his last quarter century in voluntary immolation on a sort of burning ghant, worshipped by his small band of zealots, but almost unnoticed by the rest of the human race.” [40]  Despite being ignored by most “of the human race,” Bierce’s work anticipates the Modernist movement.  His caustic wit and self-deprecation can be seen as direct precursors to those aspects in Modern literature that depend upon misanthropy, self-conscious introspection, and direct expression of dissatisfaction with society or one’s place in it.  His championing of Ezra Pound illustrates his support for the future of literary work, especially of poetry; if he didn’t feel his poetry was worthy of canonization, he felt compelled to support those whose works he felt had a chance. 

Parker’s reputation, conversely, suffers by comparison to her contemporary writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway in particular.  She acutely felt the imbalance between their output and hers, and continually recommitted herself to producing something she believed worthwhile – the novel that would secure her place with the best writers of the period.  Intent on defining her place among her peers, she accepted a commission to write a novel, but she was unable to finish it. [41]  She, like Bierce, faced a lonely end to her life, writing little and seeing few people.  Parker’s sense of inferiority, so present in her works through her self-deprecating voice, has been perpetuated.  Though her short stories do evidence interesting work in depicting spontaneous flow of interiority, she did little to challenge conventional forms of either the novel or poetry.  Placing her in the short story tradition – along with Colette, for example – or in the comic tradition of Bierce removes the overwhelming glare caused by the great novelistic and poetic achievements of her times.  Her work’s connection with Bierce’s strengthens the claim that Parker’s work matters.

Such a line of reasoning may feel like too strong a protest, especially since scholarly interest in Parker’s work is escalating.  Even assuming that Parker’s place in the canon grows increasingly secure, her status as a feminist does not.  Emily Toth, for example, argues that Parker speaks to the feminine condition by illustrating it accurately despite offering no recourse or escape: “[Had] she lived longer, she might have been able to create a more feminist vision of what should be rather than what is.” [42]  Suzanne Bunkers concurs, noting that Parker’s fiction “criticize[s] the status quo rather than defin[ing] new, three-dimensional female roles.” [43]  Merely being critical of the situations in which women find themselves as a result of social, political, or personal pressures, as these critics suggest, is not enough to earn the feminist title.  Parker does not advocate change, nor did she model an alternative in her own life, and though critics’ charge of ambivalent or incomplete feminism sits heavily on her work, she did not claim the mantle herself. The sarcastic, arch bend of wit that permeates her writing suggests critique, even social critique, and her work should be interrogated for its value as such.  My concern is that a
purely feminist approach may preclude direct consideration of the enmity present in her writing and its relation not only to a tradition of women’s writing, but to literature in general.  To put it another way, the fact Parker was a woman – a petite, attractive, soft-voiced women with tortured relationships – interferes with a straight reading of the power of her insult. 

One reason for the interference is Parker’s use of the subjective nature of a created first-person persona to hedge her harshest judgments.  Many analyses call attention to the double sided feminism that arises from this stance.  Parker challenges yet affirms femininity at the same time; she questions canonical assessments of literature, and challenges the value of patriarchic order, while couching her severe critiques in the safety of a purely subjective point of view, thus undermining her authority.  Such is the case, for instance, in the poem “Alexandre Dumas and His Son” from Sunset Gun (1926):

"Alexandre Dumas and His Son"

Although I work, and seldom cease,
At Dumas père and Dumas fils,
Alas, I cannot make me care
For Dumas fils and Dumas père. [44]

Is Dorothy Parker being self-deprecating?  Is the poem a critique of herself or of Dumas and his son?  The line “I cannot make me care” shifts the responsibility of the opinion onto her – of concern seems to be her inability to enjoy their work, not their ability to write enjoyable work.  But the poem is, at its base, an assessment of their writerly abilities.  Should one need to “work, and seldom cease” at an author to find his work interesting?  Isn’t the onus on the author, and doesn’t Parker, even within this brief verse, demonstrate the power of making a reader care?

Parker ingratiates herself to her readers through her stance of reflexivity and deprecation.  She also creates a space – albeit an ambivalent one – for critique of the very position she places herself in: a simple-minded female unable to grasp books considered classics.  Ellen Pollak argues that the similar narratorial stance of Parker’s short fiction is self-mockery; it is, “of course, disingenuous – an exposé of the social hypocrisy of gender relations masquerading as an attack on female vacuity.” [45]  Nancy Walker also notes that Parker’s “pose of innocence” offers a foil for critique.  These critical assessments point to Parker’s highly feminized kind of writing that seeks to escape the typical bounds of the female by exposing them.  But the self-referential posture of Parker’s work, as Walker acknowledges, is neither purely feminine nor purely Parker’s creation.  It is instead, “a direct descendant of one of the most time-honoured humorous devices in American literature.” [46]


Parker uses this “time-honoured” device with success in her literary reviews for The New Yorker, which ran under the heading “The Constant Reader,” a title she also used to refer to herself within the reviews.  She famously skewered A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner (1928), for example, by quoting a section from the text in which Winnie the Pooh refers to a song he’s written as being “hummy.”  Parker ended the review: “And it is that word “hummy,” my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.” [47]

Even in this small excerpt, the self-referentiality of the “Constant Reader” title is evident, as is its function – “my darlings” ingratiates the writer to the reader.  Moreover, the cruelty of the last line, in which she mocks Milne’s childish prose with outright babytalk and mocks his form with unnecessary capitalization, is striking.  Parker lays bare the inanity of Milne’s work here most effectively, and primarily by simply quoting it.  There are more of Milne’s words in the review than there are Parker’s, but Parker’s distinctive tone, voiced here through the “Constant Reader” persona, overwhelms Milne’s. [48]


Viewing the “Constant Reader” role as a direct descendant of humor writing, as Nancy Walker suggests, lifts the cover persona from the most severe feminist critique – the role does offer self-conscious duplicity in text, and while Parker taps into the femininity of that persona, she usually does so to create an impression that allows for more vitriolic harangue.  (She was known for smiling to a friend’s face and disparaging her the moment she left the room.)  Sharing the insult with her readers in this manner – by asking them to indulge her whims – also curries favor among her audience.   According to social psychologists, the creation of a sense of intimacy is a primary function of insult or gossip: it can “establish” and “maintain” intimacy between individuals and in group settings. [49]

Bierce’s work offers an earlier example of this created “intimacy function,” and further supports Parker’s place as descendent of American humor: he employed a similar device in his column, “The Town Crier,” for the News Letter and Commercial Advertiser (1868-1872).  The title served both as the heading for the column and the persona Bierce employed to render his verdicts on aspects of social life from politics to entertainment, cultivating a self-deprecating personality separate enough from his own to offer harsh criticism or effusive praise without engendering violent responses: “The Town Crier is not ashamed to confess that the ordinarily calm depths of his gentle soul are agitated with a great joy, as if an angel had gone down there and troubled the waters by wading about.” [50]  Alexander Woolcott picked up the title, “The Town Crier” for his radio show, framing the work of another notable Algonquin circle member in Bierce’s tradition. [51]


Aside from the similar stance in non-fiction writing, Bierce’s poetry also offers a counter to Parker’s that provides insight into her reception to this day by challenging the pure femininity of her tone and stance.  His poem “An Average” could easily pass for a Parker work if the genders were switched:

"An Average"

I ne'er could be entirely fond
Of any maiden who's a blonde,
And no brunette that e'er I saw
My whole devotion e'er could draw.

Yet sure no girl was ever made
Just half of light and half of shade.
And so, this happy mean to get,
I love a blonde and a brunette. [52]

His oeuvre also contains critiques of women, equally funny, touching, and critical in their assessment as Parker’s poems on men:

"Serenade"

"Sas agapo, sas agapo,"
He sang beneath her lattice.
"'Sas agapo'?" she murmured—"O,
I wonder, now what that is!"

Was she less fair that she did bear
So light a load of knowledge?
Are tender looks got out of books,
Or kisses taught in college?

Of woman's lore give me no more
Than how to love. In many
A tongue men brawl; she speaks them all
Who says "I love," in any. [53]

His poems on women are not purely abstract, and when they are directed at a single woman, they show the very personal dejection so well represented in Parker’s work:

"Oneiromancy"

I fell asleep and dreamed that I
Was flung, like Vulcan, from the sky;
Like him, was lamed---another part:
His leg was crippled, and my heart.
I woke in time to see my love
Conceal a letter in her glove. [54]

A primary difference between the two poets is that Bierce’s work is regarded to reflect his love or spite towards his romantic partners only rarely – “Oneriomancy” is, for example, considered a rare direct response to his discovery that his wife had been sharing a correspondence with another man (he, like Parker, had a reputation for promiscuity that was certainly exaggerated, if not altogether unwarranted).  While Parker’s volumes of poetry are filled with odes to loves lost, Bierce saves most of his bile for his public adversaries or social issues, creating the impression of impersonality that leads to less biographical trolling by those searching for meaning in his works.  It also challenges the claim forwarded by Emily Toth, that this particular combination of the comedic and the tragic is “a Parker invention.” [55]  Indeed it is not, but an appropriation of a technique that seemed ideally suited for couching driving, sardonic assessments of her contemporary time and her contemporaries.

Scholars of Bierce are certain to find additional parallels between the works of the two authors.  Bierce’s extraordinary prolificacy (he published over four million words) makes a comprehensive survey difficult and is one area in which he strongly diverges from Parker.  Nevertheless, even in these pages the outline that has been drawn of sympathetic tendencies of tone and content shared by Ambrose Bierce and Dorothy Parker is enough, I believe, to demonstrate that the parallels are not simply coincidence.  The similarities of their reputations – both are relegated to the “margins” of the American canon – demand that academic scholarship must revisit the works of these two artists to better determine not only their relation to each other, but their relation to the broader movements in literature from which they are often excluded.  Despite his self-deprecation, his use of alternate personae in both criticism and narrative, and his considerable coverage of love (lost, desired, or derided), questions of gender roles or advocacy arise infrequently in the scholarship on Bierce.  Meanwhile, criticism of Parker seems to be fixated on her use of the same devices to support or refute feminist causes.  Shedding light on the relationship between their works could offer a means to escape the pigeonhole of Angry-Girl-Poet in which Parker’s reputation seems to reside.


NOTES

1. Lawrence I. Berkove, A Prescription for Adversity (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2002), ix.
           
2. Randall Calhoun, Dorothy Parker, A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), 83.

3.
NB: Meade’s biography details only one abortion.  Andrew Calcutt and Richard Shephard, Cult Fiction, A Reader’s Guide (Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 1999), 215.

4. Andrea Ivanov-Craig, “Being and Dying as a Woman” in The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker, ed. Rhonda Pettit (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 232.

5. Berkove demonstrates a similar link between Bierce’s work and Swift’s (190-1, n. 10).

6. C. Hartley Grattan, Bitter Bierce: A Mystery of American Letters (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1966), vii.

7. Berkove, Prescription, 189 n. 1.

8. Marion Meade, What Fresh Hell is This? (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), vii.

9. “Premium Swift: Dorothy Parker’s Iron Mask of Femininity,” in The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker, ed. Rhonda Pettit (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 201.

10. c.f. John William Crowley’s The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994) and Donald W Goodwin’s Alcohol and the Writer (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1988).

11. Jay Martin attributes to Bierce the first American use of humor in the tradition of Juvenal, noting further that it did not generally catch on in American humor until the “second half of the twentieth century.”  While Martin does not mention her, Parker surely had a hand in that shifting of the tides of humor.  Jay Martin, “Ambrose Bierce,” in Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, ed. Cathy N. Davidson (Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1982), 118.

12. Marion Capron, “An Interview with Dorothy Parker,” in The Paris Review 13 (Summer 1956).  Reprinted in The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker, ed. Rhonda Pettit (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 360.

13. M. E Grenander, ed., Poems of Ambrose Bierce (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 182.

14. David Worcester, The Art of Satire (New York, Russell and Russell, 1940), 14.

15.
Ibid., 19.

16.
Ibid., 24.

17.
Grenander, Poems, 184-5.

18.
Capron, “An Interview,” 358.

19.
Dorothy Parker, The Portable Dorothy Parker, ed. Marion Meade (New
York: Penguin, 2006), 99; Ernest J. Hopkins, ed., The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader: Selections from the Invective Journalism of the Great Satirist (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 117-118.  Hopkins provided the title "Suicide as an Art" for this piece.


20.
Emily Toth, “Dorothy Parker, Erica Jong, and New Feminist Humor,” in The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker, ed. Rhonda Pettit (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 139.

21.
Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl, Approaching Poetry: Perspectives and Responses (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).  

22.
George Barkin, ed., The Sardonic Humor of Ambrose Bierce (New York: Dover, 1963), 89. 

23.
Hopkins, Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader, 118.

24. 
Parker, Portable, ed. Meade, 208.

25.
Dorothy Parker, Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker, ed. Stuart Silverstein (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1996), 210.

26.
Barkin, The Sardonic Humor, 22; Parker, Not Much Fun, 82.

27.
Hopkins, Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader, 6.

28.
Parker, Portable, ed. Meade, 220.

29.
Ambrose Bierce, The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce (New York: Gordian Press, 1966): Accessed via Literature Online (Chadwyk); http://lion.chadwyck.com/.

30.
Parker, Portable, ed. Meade, 221.

31.
Dorothy Parker, The Portable Dorothy Parker, ed. Brendan Gill (New
York: Penguin, 1976), 566.


32.
Grenander, Poems, 187-89; “high praise” from Bierce’s 29 January 1910 letter to George Sterling and “admirable” from his 7 March 1910 letter to Sterling. Cited in S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds. Ambrose Bierce: Sole Survivor--Bits of Autobiography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 289-90.

33.
Barkin, The Sardonic Humor.

34.
Parker, Portable, ed. Meade, 231.

35.
Robert Adams, Bad Mouth: Fugitive Papers on the Dark Side (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 34.

36.
David Worcester, The Art of Satire (New York, Russell and Russell, 1940), 29.

37.
Bierce, Collected.

38.
Parker, Portable, ed. Meade, 300-01.

39.
Grenander, Poems, 187-89, xii.

40.
Menken, H.L. “Ambrose Bierce,” in Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, ed. Cathy N. Davidson (Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1982), 64.

41. Meade, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? (New York: Villard Books, 1988), 210.

42. Toth, “Dorothy Parker,” 143.

43. Suzanne L Bunkers, “I Am Outraged Motherhood: Dorothy Parker as Feminist and Social Critic,” in The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker, ed. Rhonda Pettit, (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 153.

44. Parker, Portable, ed. Meade, 221.

45. Pollak, “Premium Swift,” 203.

46. Nancy Walker, “The Remarkably Constant Reader,” in The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker, ed. Rhonda Pettit, (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 221.

47. Parker, Portable, ed. Meade, 513.

48. Neil Schmitz’s comment on the use of “alibis” is helpful here: “All the important humorists of the nineteenth century write behind assumed names, an alias that is their alibi. To break the rules of writing, humorists had literally to disappear into their characters, lose themselves in the style, discount their literary value, and so they did” (28).  Indeed, the comment may be applied to both Bierce’s work (à la the “Town Crier”) and – though it is of the twentieth century – Parker’s.  Neil Schmitz, Of Huck and Alice: Humorous Writing in American Literature (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1983).

49.
Ralph L. Rosnow, “Rumor and Gossip in Interpersonal Interaction,” in Behaving Badly: Aversive Behaviors in Interpersonal Relationships, ed. Robin M. Kowalski (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2001), 221. 

50. Hopkins, Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader, 7.

51. Connections between the Algonquins and other earlier writers have been, if not effectively explored, at least noted. In Alan Gribben’s “The Importance of Mark Twain,” he notes that a character in Twain’s “About Barber” was a prototype for one in Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” (35); Gribben also cites Alexander Woolcott, Heywood Broun, and Robert Benchley as followers of Twain (45) and suggests he would have been at home with Parker et. al. at the Round Table (46).  American Quarterly 37, no.1 (Spring 1985): 30- 49.

52. Bierce, Collected.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Toth, “Dorothy Parker,” 149
           


Copyright © 2006 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.