Poetry Friday: Dorothy Parker

In my ongoing mission to weave back and forth between the somber poems of death, war, and loss and the cheerful poems of life, love, and satisfaction, today is slated to be a more fun week, in the wake of G. M. Hopkins’ sonnet of depression seven days ago.  And so it commends to our attention a poet who, whether or not she was as happy as she led us to believe, always had a spark in her sentences and a quick jab at the end of every poem to turn a grimace into a knowing grin.  I speak of today’s birthday girl, Dorothy Parker, who would be 121 today if she was alive (and yet I’m sure she wouldn’t look a day over 107).

Happy birthday, Dorothy!

There’s an earnestness to those eyes, I’ll admit, but it’s the firm set line of that jaw that tells me she was no one to trifle with.

You know her work even if you don’t immediately recognize her name—her witty barbs were the centerpiece of the famous Algonquin Round Table, and her talents as a screenwriter earned her two Academy Award nominations, most famously for A Star is Born.  She had her dark side—a lifelong battle with depression, which culminated, like Robin Williams’, in suicide late in life (in Dorothy’s case, well into her 70s)—but the face she showed the world in her poetry was normally a brave one, tough enough to take the hardest life offered, and keen-eyed enough to see through society’s little games.  And so I offer, in her memory and as a birthday salute to her, Dorothy Parker’s poem “Interview”:

“The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints…
So far, I’ve had no complaints.”

Parker never clarifies how this is an “interview”—is this a set of remarks she envisions making to some fictional journalist, or is she casting heterosexual romance in the setting of a job interview (where what’s described and what’s expected are often two different things)?  Or something else entirely?  It’s hard to say.  What’s easy is to grab right away the poem’s key thesis, the casual way Parker describes the sheltered life of the supposedly desirable woman and how her eyes must gleam as she remarks to us, finally and so coolly, “so far, I’ve had no complaints”.  It makes me laugh every time—Parker’s ease in branding herself as a wild, untamed, painted woman, and her obvious amusement at the idea, proponed by goodness-knows-who, that men would find a woman like her anything but fascinating and desirable.  You feel it right away in all her phrases, which are almost condescending as she imagines the kind of person who would be scandalized by a “wicked word” (I think “wicked” is very intentional there) and are so innocent that they cannot even recognize when the man in front of them is suggesting a dalliance.  There’s a power to the poem, beneath (and intricately involved in) its humor: the strangeness of our society’s double standards for women seeking relationships with men, which suggest a norm of purity that few can live up to, and yet confront women simultaneously with the reality that impurity is encouraged rather than frowned upon by the other side of the equation.

It’s not subtle, despite how sly it is—you’ll note that Parker never actually admits to anything, herself, instead allowing us to infer whatever we will from the simple admission that she’s “had no complaints”—because Parker knows how easily she’ll win us over.  Even the most conservative among us, folks who well might see themselves as pure and who would in fact never read an erotic poem, would (I think) have to acknowledge that the saucy smile Dorothy beams at us in that last line is a winning one.  If she entered the room you were in, whether you wanted to imitate her or not, it’s hard to imagine you could take your eyes off of her.  Her poetry certainly has that fixating effect, for me, and for many others.  So I hope it brings a little smile to your Friday, and that those who like what they saw here will nose around a little to find some of Parker’s other stuff—not all of it is quite this level of genius, but most of it is just as cheekily irreverent (and therefore captivating).

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“She experienced a sudden intoxicating sense of power, of having all the tools at hand, of being the dea ex machina of the calamity.”

Sabine, the outsider returned to Durham after decades away, is realizing her pivotal opportunity to break open the little world of the Pentlands…whether or not she’ll take the chance is hard to guess.  What opportunity?  I’ll explain in a moment.

Bromfield’s growing on me as an author.  He gives Olivia Pentland some really rich relationships—her relationship to her husband is really rocky (as I mentioned in the last post), but her relationship to her father-in-law is very close.  It’s a strange relationship, not loving so much as trusting.  Old John Pentland can’t bring himself to trust much of anyone, but when there are decisions to be made, he doesn’t turn to his sister or his son, but rather to his daughter-in-law, the Irish girl who may never belong but whose strength it seems the family could not do without.  Bromfield is good at the slow reveal with Old John…we know from the beginning that it’s a bit scandalous that he shows so much attention to a local woman he’s been friends with for years (they play cards together).  It seemed at first like it was a class issue—no Pentland ought to be associating with someone low, but no one can challenge Old John, the paterfamilias.  But occasional off-handed mentions of “her”, and needing to care for “her”, build a realization that John’s wife is still living…that she has lived out the last 20 or 30 years as an invalid, so mentally unstable that the family lives in fear of having to have her committed.  And yet John is no Mr. Rochester.  He visits his wife every morning, despite her inability to connect with him or have a meaningful conversation.  And then he goes for a ride on his cantankerous old mare, and perhaps looks in on that woman friend of his, old Mrs. Soames.  I get the sense that nothing has ever happened between them; that nothing ever could happen.  It’s an interesting scenario.

And this is not the only interesting scenario.  Briefly, the power alluded to at the beginning of this post, the power Sabine has, relates to the Boston Irish O’Hara, who has bought Sabine’s old family home and refurbished it.  He scandalizes good old members of society (like Aunt Cassie, who is the most vocal defender of the Pentland family honor) simply by being.  Anson Pentland is horrified that O’Hara is taking an interest in Anson and Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, by riding with her in the afternoons—he wants it stopped.  But O’Hara has revealed to Sabine that what really interests him is the radiant and lively Olivia Pentland: he is in love, he says, and he wants Sabine to help him find a chance to talk with Olivia alone.  She wonders what to do—she asks him if this is quite moral, and of course he cannot answer yes, but only that he’d thought she would understand.

I like where the book has taken me so far.  It’s not The Age Of Innocence, which was about whether a person can escape this kind of rule-bound confining society.  It wants to explore something else…how long these societies can last, burdened under the weight of hypocrisy and secrecy.  If John runs off with Mrs. Soames, and Olivia with O’Hara, that will be the end of whatever “Durham society” has been for centuries, and poor old Aunt Cassie will probably keel over into an early grave.  But I think society’s stronger than that, and I wonder how these tensions will play out.  Bromfield’s got me hooked—I want to know what happens next.

“There was a ball in the old Pentland house because for the first time in nearly forty years there was a young girl in the family to be introduced to the polite world of Boston and to the elect who had been asked to come on from New York and Philadelphia.”

So begins Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn, the 1927 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.  A bit uninspired, no?  It is, at least, not a very engaging or intriguing way to begin.  And what follows is, well, not entirely original.

It seems this world will revolve around the women associated with a fading New England family, whose high opinion of themselves may once have been warranted but is slowly becoming a groundless affectation.  We have them in pairs, at present—old Aunt Cassie and her simpleton of a companion, Miss Peavey; Sabine Callendar, a worldly middle-aged woman and the former ward of Aunt Cassie, and Sabine’s cousin (?), the graceful and ladylike Olivia Pentland; and lastly, the girl for whom the ball is given, Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, home from schooling in Paris, and her cousin (?) Therese Callendar, who is also being introduced to “Durham society” as she spends the summer at Pentlands.  At the present it feels a bit like a poor man’s Edith Wharton—lots of society conversation and perceived mis-steps, a handsome convention-flouting woman who’s been away for twenty years and is now returned to scandalize folk just a little, the sense that, having escaped society (as Sybil and both Callendars have) it is impossible to return to it on its own terms.  It’s not that this is bad fodder for a novel, but given that I’ve read an excellent example of one already, I’m wondering what Bromfield will do to mix things up.

And I’m a bit concerned.  On page 4, he refers to a local clergyman, Bishop Smallwood, and notes parenthetically that Sabine calls him “Apostle to the Genteel”.  Three or four pages later, in listing guests leaving the party, he mentions Bishop Smallwood…and again notes parenthetically that Sabine calls him “Apostle to the Genteel”.  So we have two options: one, he had no idea he repeated the exact same information within several pages, which suggests to me that our author and/or his editor were asleep at the switch, or else two, he actually thought that joke was funny enough to repeat twice in the first ten pages of his novel.  I don’t think either prospect is comforting.  And so far Louis has shown a tendency to caricature more than character.  Aunt Cassie and Miss Peavey are fat, old, disapproving types, who are childless and don’t seem to care much for the new generation.  Cassie as the New England dowager really feels quite cliche, thus far.  When I compare them in my head to Mrs. Manson Mingott, who was much more than she seemed…but I probably should spend less time dredging up memories of Wharton, if I’m going to enjoy this book.  I’m not sure it won’t be a pleasant read, and I’ll hold out hope for that.  And then may 1928 rescue me from Midwestern farm life and big city society life, since between the two, I don’t know how much more I can take.

1925: So Big, by Edna Ferber

Literary Merit:

A lot happens at the end of the book, much of which I’m still processing, but overall the sense I have right now is that Edna Ferber wrote the novel that Booth Tarkington set out to write in The Magnificent Ambersons.  Those of you who remember my reactions to that book may be a bit surprised….certainly this isn’t the way I’d envisioned starting this review, even as recently as 50 pages from the end of the book.  But in the end, this was a two-generation story about families growing up in the new American age.  Economic and social roles shift, and the author casts her lot firmly with one side while exposing the flaws of the other.  At the end of the book, a realization is reached by a young man who’d lived the wrong way.  I could have written that synopsis of Ambersons and been pretty much spot on.

What makes Ferber more successful in telling this story is a bit complicated to explain, and multiple reasons are overlapping here.  First of all, she’s too smart to hitch the main plot to a character as unlikable as Georgie Minafer—Selina DeJong is a delight (but sufficiently human to reveal some flaws), and her son Dirk DeJong (he of the “realization”) is at least a reluctant rich young jerk rather than an exuberant one (and he’s very conscious of not really wanting to be a jerk).  Second of all, Ferber is very sensible about the changes of modern life: her criticisms of “the modern woman” are smart in two ways.  She acknowledges clearly that not all modern women fit the stereotype (and is honestly fairly supportive of many advances for women), and even those modern women she opposes are described with a certain admiration.  She understands why so many young women angle for money and connections, why they put on such airs and play such games—she doesn’t approve of their antics, but she sees them as people like her in a way that Tarkington could never have managed.

What bothers me about Ferber is her willingness to draw lines sharply against Dirk.  The last portion of the novel leaves Dirk under absolutely no illusions regarding the fact that he’s made the wrong choices.  The woman who “loves” him has no real appeal, and the woman he loves (or thinks he does) is too down-to-earth to have anything to do with him.  His mother’s life as an asparagus farmer is richer and more exciting than his life among the rich, famous, and well-traveled in the best circles of Chicago society.  But it seems pointless to have shown him all this: the woman he loves (Dallas O’Mara) makes it plain to him that it’s too late for him to change.  That, at the ripe old age of his late 20s/early 30s, there’s nothing he could do to become the kind of honest, hard-working, tough young man that would ever really attract a woman like her.  I could understand this with Newland Archer—the whole point of that book was the inexorable gravity of his society pulling him down, with no opportunity for him to achieve exit velocity.  But Ferber didn’t do that with Dirk–he’s still close to a mother who is as grounded as anyone can possibly be (Dallas loves her), and as recently as a few years ago he was a young man fresh out of college and passionate about architecture.  If he doesn’t escape his life because he “can’t” or “won’t”, Ferber doesn’t take the time to make that choice believable.  In the end, Dirk’s decision to settle back into the life he hates seems inexplicable, and really a contrivance for the sake of ending the book the way she wants it to.

As I noted in an earlier review, there were really two books here.  I understand why she tied them together—putting Selina and Dirk in contrast to each other creates some meaningful opportunities.  But in the end, I felt she never really finished Selina’s story, and Dirk’s story feels only barely begun.  Ferber has enough talent (good characterization, a decent ability to describe social settings, dialogue that’s often a bit witty or insightful…admittedly a style that’s sometimes a bit too sentimental) to write a really good novel, and a much better personality and attitude than some other authors (poor Tarkington…I never miss a chance to bash him) which means her tone and her instincts are generally good.  She just tried to cram too many ideas into one novel, which leaves me a bit unsatisfied at the end of what was a pretty engaging read.

Historical Insight:

The latter half of the book is where this really shines.  Ferber’s good at depicting the growth of a “society life” in young, brash Chicago–she neither steals from Wharton (which would be easy to do: surely Ferber knew Wharton’s work well) nor strays so far from it that it makes Chicago feel foreign to the New York environment I’m accustomed to.  And this book is in the fascinating position of describing flappers just as they’re coming onto the scene (Ferber’s a bit wicked about them, but also a bit admiring), and Ferber’s attitudes about modern life gives her the advantage of guessing that the stocks-and-bonds boom time can’t last forever.  The book gave me enough of 1920s Chicago to sink my teeth into that I could add my knowledge about 1929 and what followed, to give a real poignancy to her story.  Ferber didn’t know that Dirk would be wiped out and penniless in 4 years, but I do.

There’s also a definite exploration of what Ferber thought it meant to be “American”—maybe more explicitly than any of the authors has since Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer confronted the differences between their worlds—and I think I was able to get a sense from her of what being American felt like at the height of the 1920s.  It’s nice to have ridden this train up from the Great War…I can sense the Crash coming but I don’t have to confront it just yet.

Rating:

I give So Big the rating “Read this after you’ve read about the 1920s”.  It’s definitely a good book, and definitely worth reading if you have any interest in the time period/setting.  But I think you should have dipped your toes into the 1920s somewhere else before this: whether you’re reading history, memoir, or another novel (like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), I think it will make this book a much richer experience when you do so.  Ferber’s good enough that I’m willing to seek out other books of hers, too.

The Last Word:

As I’ve said already, I think Ferber’s been awfully direct in this book about what she values about America and what she disapproves of.  She likes hard work, and artists who worship beauty, and good sturdy architecture.  She disapproves of imported Parisian fashions, and “posh” accents, and investment banking.  These lists could be much longer, but I’ll let Edna Ferber take us to the end of the review by indicating a bit more about Americans herself, in a conversation that Dirk DeJong and the woman he loves, the artist Dallas O’Mara, have while sitting in Selina DeJong’s farmhouse parlor, watching Selina talk animatedly to young Roelf Pool, an old friend.

Seated next to Dirk, Dallas said, in a low voice: “There, that’s what I mean.  That’s what I mean when I say I want to do portraits.  Not portraits of ladies with a string of pearls and one lily hand half hidden in the folds of a satin skirt.  I mean character portraits of men and women who are really distinguished looking—distinguishedly American, for example—like your mother.”

Dirk looked up at her quickly, half smiling, as though expecting to find her smiling, too.  But she was not smiling.  “My mother!”

“Yes, if she’d let me.  With that fine splendid face all lit up with the light that comes from inside; and the jaw-line like that of the women who came over in the Mayflower; or crossed the continent in a covered wagon; and her eyes!  And that battered funny gorgeous bum old hat and the white shirtwaist—and her hands!  She’s beautiful.  She’d make me famous at one leap.  You’d see!”

Alternate plots for The Age of Innocence

I know I moved on from The Age of Innocence a while ago, but I found this really interesting piece of information about the book that I thought was worth sharing.  It seems that, in her papers, Edith Wharton left behind her two different alternate plots for the story of Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska and the rest.  They’re stored in an archive at Yale: here’s the gist of each alternate plot.

In one, Newland is already engaged when he meets Olenska.  He falls in love with Ellen, but goes through with the marriage to May.  His love for Ellen, though, cannot be silenced, and so he runs off with her for a secret tryst in Florida, with the idea that from there they’ll leave society behind (and he’ll tell May their marriage is over).  In Florida, though, he realizes that he will never feel at ease living outside the society he has always known.  Ellen, meanwhile, realizes how boring Newland truly is, and the two of them mutually agree that they really have nothing in common.  Newland returns to New York, no one the wiser, and settles down to married life, while Ellen leaves for Europe.

In the other alternate plot, May manages to convince Newland to break off the engagement.  May marries another man, and Newland marries Ellen.  They begin well, feeling truly in love and enjoying their honeymoon, but after returning to New York, they rapidly realize how ill-suited they are to each other.  Newland can never really be happy outside of the closed-off society he’s learned to move in all his life, and Ellen can’t bear to remain on this side of the ocean when a life of culture, etc., awaits her in Europe.  They agree to a simple and formal separation—Ellen moves to Europe to live on her own, and Newland moves in with his mother and sister to live out the rest of his days.

I found this really fascinating.  I’m wondering, for those of you familiar with the novel, what you think of these plots, why you think she chose to reject them, and whether she made the right choice.  I have my own opinions, but I’d like to hear from others first.

“She had now to practise an art that affords but a limited variety of methods, even to the expert: the art of seeming to have an escort or partner when there is none.”

I’m having trouble deciding how I feel about Alice Adams.  She isn’t Georgie Minafer….but not for lack of trying.  She has all the ability to be condescending, to value style over substance.  But because she is from a middle-class family, yet she wants to (and tries to) move in upper class circles, all her pretensions become pathetic.  She cannot remain full of herself for long, since the reality of how badly she is snubbed, how often she is laughed at, how out of place she often is, breaks through that facade and she feels something.

I’m not sure how I feel about this, in large part because I don’t know if I can trust Tarkington.  I worry that perhaps I’m supposed to root against Alice, and I don’t particularly want to find joy and humor in her being knocked down a peg by people (like her “most intimate friend”, the snobbish Mildred) who have it better than her to begin with.  But it’s also hard to hope that she triumphs in the end, since she has a personality that would use greater influence and prestige in the wrong way, I think.  So I’m left to feel vague sympathy with Alice, and wonder what the point of the story is.

Tarkington’s racism, which I’d mentioned being bothered by while reading Ambersons, is even more prevalent here.  If I knew better what to make of Walter, Alice’s unpleasant but probably wise brother, I’d know how to react to his simultaneously bashing Alice for never talking with African-Americans while describing those same African-Americans with some really unpleasant slurs.  I don’t know how these words were taken in 1922, but it’s hard for me to get comfortable with the conversation, mostly because I feel sure that Tarkington won’t really engage with race, won’t really try and alter the perceptions of his characters (or his readers) about race, but instead will use occasional stereotypical “colored people” to liven up the plot, and will otherwise ignore them.

Alice is desperate for a man, but the man who wants her, she doesn’t want.  Alice treasures her close friendships, though as her brother points out, none of them are friends of hers, and all of them look down on her.  Alice constantly berates her mother for causing stress to her father, and then stresses her father out.  I don’t know what to make of her, and I fear I’m in another “redemption” plot-line that I will scarcely be able to believe.  I hope I’m wrong.  We’ll see.

1921: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

I’m switching “Historical Value” out for the phrase “Historical Insight” for the reasons I mentioned in the review of The Magnificent Ambersons, but otherwise this follows the established format.

Literary Merit:

It’s hard to encapsulate the positive things I have to say about Wharton and this novel.  The ending was marvelous (so much so that I don’t want to reveal the very last events of the book: if you haven’t read it, I want you to experience it for yourself)—it combined being unexpected with being somehow the perfect fit with the rest of the novel.

But to say some broader things about why I think Wharton works.  She respects her characters—I’d almost say she likes them, but “like” might imply that she always casts them in a positive light, and she doesn’t.  The characters are their own people, and I never got the sense that they were being “used” to advance the plot.  It’s not just the main characters—the exotic Countess Olenska, the infatuated Newland Archer, the perceptive and not-to-be-trifled-with May Welland Archer (Newland’s wife)—even relatively minor characters like the Beauforts, or Mrs. Manson Mingott, or the van der Luydens seem real and honest in a way that none of Tarkington’s characters ever did.  One of the books’ greatest delights, for me, was that I was never forced to see any of these people as “good” or “evil”, and I remained engrossed in the story without having to choose, for example, whether I was rooting for May to win Newland’s affections back or rooting for Ellen to whisk him away to Europe.

Wharton’s use of the narrator was especially skillful.  Though the narrator is 3rd person, the perspective is so close to Newland that we are severely limited by his point of view, and limited in interesting ways.  We gradually become aware, as he does, of what New York society thinks of him, of how much May knows about him and how much she suspects, of what Ellen and May are really up to in their quiet side conversations.  The shifts are so subtle and lifelike that it’s hard to believe, once any particular truth is revealed openly to Newland, that I could have been in any doubt as to the realities of the situation, and yet if I am honest with myself, only a page before I would have been as deeply in the dark as the young Mr. Archer.

Lastly, I have to say (without saying too much) that Wharton manages an ending that is truly excellent.  Epilogues are hard in any novel, especially when an author (as in this case) moves ahead many years to follow the consequences of characters’ decisions.  J. K. Rowling, for example, attempts this at the end of her Harry Potter series (and did what I would call a disastrous job of it—poor enough to taint my positive memories of the series and toss the book down with some displeasure), and I’ve certainly seen other authors try and fail.  Wharton manages success here, as she often does, by letting the characters be real, by letting the reader only gradually understand the truth of a situation, and by not letting the conventions of storybook romance get in the way of what real love looks and acts like.  I can’t believe I’ve never read Edith Wharton before, and I intend to read more of her work.  Based purely on my assessment of her literary skill, and knowing nothing about the other novels of 1921, I have to say this is a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

Historical Insight

This isn’t a novel about the “problems” of contemporary America (as was His Family) or a frank assessment of how America was changing (as The Magnificent Ambersons was at least intended to be), so honestly it doesn’t rate as highly in this category as it perhaps might.  But it was fascinating to contemplate the existence in American society of a world as tense and shackled by convention as anything Jane Austen and the Regency authors might have experienced.  The van der Luydens may not be the Bingleys (and Mrs. Manson Mingott may not be Lady Catherine de Bourgh), but the stifling confines of upper class life, the way that a look or an apparently innocent comment can convey an ocean of contempt or scorn, the conflict between how people do live and how they believe they ought to live—these things dominate the lives of Newland and May Archer far more than I would have thought possible in post-Civil-War America.  I’d say it’s making me more aware of what it once meant to be “important” in the U.S., at least on the East Coast in the big cities, and that’s of interest to me.  But this doesn’t illuminate any of the larger questions of what it means to be American, as far as I can tell.

Rating:

My aversion to numerical or scale-based ratings continues, but in case it wasn’t obvious, The Age of Innocence gets my highest rating: “You Must Own This Book”.  It is, in my estimation, possibly the most accomplished and well-composed novel written by an American, at least of those novels I am familiar with.  I don’t know that it ranks as “The Great American Novel” (largely because of my hesitation on the Historical Insight of the book, see above), but it certainly deserves to rank among America’s greatest novels, and I’d recommend this book to essentially any literate friend I have.

Last Word:

As has become my custom, I leave you with a more extended snippet from somewhere close to the end of the novel (though this time I pull back a bit farther from the end, so as not to spoil it), allowing Wharton to close this thoroughly enjoyable chapter in my journey in her own distinctive voice.  Here, Newland sits at the head of the table at a farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska, who will return to Europe tomorrow, despite his unrequited desire to run away with her on his own.

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated somewhere between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.  As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another, he saw all the harmless-looking people engaged upon May’s canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy.  And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to “foreign” vocabularies.  He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.

It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.