Books “There are writers who die to the world long before they are dead, and if this is sometimes by choice, more often it is a fate imposed on them by others and not easily dealt with.”
posted by August 22 at 12:25 PMon
Yeah, yeah, it’s Dorothy Parker’s birthday—hats off. But can we talk about her death day for a second? Heretical as this is to type, Dorothy Parker wrote very little that was better (in my opinion!) than Brendan Gill’s introduction to Penguin Books’ The Portable Dorothy Parker (wish I had this edition of it). The first sentence is committed to memory; it’s fun to come out with it at a party full of people who think of themselves as writers. The whole first paragraph is a coiling, chilly rumination on the vicissitudes of literary fame, written by a writer who absolutely deserved literary fame and never got it, not like Parker did.
For your reading pleasure, I just had an intern, Julia Mullen Gordon, type it up the first two paragraphs. Pour yourself a tumbler.
There are writers who die to the world long before they are dead, and if this is sometimes by choice, more often it is a fate imposed on them by others and not easily dealt with. A writer enjoys a vogue, and, the vogue having passed, either he consents to endure the obscurity into which he has been thrust or he struggles against it in vain, with a bitterness that tends to increase as his powers diminish. No matter how well or badly he behaves, the result is the same. If the work is of a certain quality, it survives the passing of the vogue, but the maker of the work no longer effectually exists. Even though he goes on writing, he dwells in the limbo of the half-forgotten, and his obituary notices are read with a flippant, unthinking incredulity: who would have guessed that the tattered old teller of tales had had it in him to hang on so fiercely? What on earth had he been waiting for? Hoping for? Dreading?
A protracted life-in-death is all the more striking in the case of writers who make a reputation in youth and then live on into age. It is most striking of all in the case of young writers whose theme is the pleasingness of death, and for whom it amounts in the world’s eyes to a betrayal of their theme when they are observed to cling far more tenaciously to life than their happier contemporaries have managed to do. Dorothy Parker’s career was of this nature. She enjoyed an early vogue, which passed, leaving her work to be judged on its merits, and because the subject of so large a portion of her verses was the seductiveness of a neat, brisk doing away with herself, many people were astonished to read of her death, in 1967, from natural causes, as an old lady of seventy-three. Under the circumstances, it seemed to them a tardy end, and by an irony that had been one of Mrs. Parker’s chief stocks in trade she would have been the first to agree with them. She had indeed taken an unconscionably long time to leave a world of which she had always claimed to hold a low opinion. Her husbands, her lovers, and most of her friends had preceded her; for a person who boasted of wooing death, she had proved the worst of teases—an elderly flirt of the sort that she herself at thirty would have savaged in a paragraph.
Hats off to Brendan Gill and all the other forgottens.