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The Virtues of Dorothy Parker

Literary biography is often an opaque filter for the work of modern writers.  The interference comes not so much from the cockeyed analysis we may encounter of an artist’s life but from the mass of irrelevant detail.  We read the novels and short stories of Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger but also know the events of their lives recorded in newspapers, magazines, books, newsreels, movies, television interviews, memoirs, court documents, and websites.  But what does any of that biographical detail have to do with the merits of A Farewell to Arms or Franny and Zooey?

Attempting to separate Dorothy Parker, even for a few minutes, from the mystique of her life—the awful details, if you like—is not easy.  She came of age as a writer in the first great morning of modern publicity just before and after World War I.  She wrote for the first- and second- and third-rate magazines that Franklin P. Adams and P.G. Wodehouse and H.L. Mencken wrote for and joked about in the 1910’s.  In the 20’s, she was a founding member of the Algonquin Roundtable; one of the first writers for the New Yorker; a friend of Woollcott, Thurber, Ross, Benchley, et al.; and became famous for her smart remarks in conversation, gossip columns, book reviews, and drama notices.  She was one of the first generation of Hollywood scenarists and won an Oscar for best screenplay...

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