Art and Photography Books Classics Revisited

by Margaret Moser

I was fortunate to grow grow up around many books, titles that became as familiar as the Bible verses learned in Sunday school. As the years passed and these titles remained somehow relevant enough to stay in print, they seemed to be an odd kind of comfort. They were proof that my childhood had existed, after it was so rudely interrupted by my parents' divorce and disappeared in a haze of legal battles and family restructuring. The books that managed to survive the split and the moves became strangely divine as I continued to haul them around through various living situations over the years, as though having a hardback copy of Pelican's The Complete William Shakespeare was ever going to matter in the days when I spent every night at Raul's. Last week, easily 30 years since my daddy used it in teaching his classes, I used the Shakespeare book to reference the poem "Phoenix and the Turtle."

Indeed, Knopf's Everyman's Library, the Vintage International paperback line, and Random House's Modern Library reveal the retro-happy publishing industry is doing an admirable job of keeping classic contemporary books circulating and looking attractive. These lines continue a tradition of American literature with titles such as Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels by John Updike (Everyman's Library/Knopf, $30 hard), Collected Stories of William Faulkner (Vintage International, $19 paper), One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garciá Márquez (Everyman's Library/Knopf, $20 hard), Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (Modern Library/Random House, $20 hard), and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Everyman's Library/Knopf, $20 hard), which are welcome sights to these eyes. Knopf keeps current by adding newer titles such as Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (Everyman's Library/Knopf, $20 hard). But the title that most made me pause was The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker (Modern Library/Random House, $15 hard). Let me state unequivocally that I adore Dorothy Parker, her sharp pen having been dipped in such poisonous ink as to stain even those she loved the very most.

Parker has been somewhat in vogue of late, having been the subject of a recent film, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, a reference to a group of her fellow New York writers known as the Algonquin Round Table. Parker and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay were the best known of its distaff members, whose male contingent included Alexander Wolcott, George S. Kaufman, and Robert Benchley. Parker and friends shone as the literary lights of the Twenties and Thirties, and even the Forties, as they numbered among themselves both critics and playwrights.

For all the hosannas that Parker was heaped with, her personal life was an ever-changing play, a tragicomedy of Shakespearan proportions in which suicide attempts and heavy drinking played a large part. Out of her pain came her inspiration, and few writers have ever traded so successfully on personal problems. But Dorothy Parker gave a kind of legitimacy to those small frailties of humanity: jealousy, heartache, desire, pleasure. And, much to her disgust, Parker outlived most of her friends before dying of a heart attack in 1969 at 64 in a residential New York hotel.

There is nothing questionable about Dorothy Parker's writing. It is tart, acerbic, poison, and on the mark, whether parodying the trends of the day, Manhattan high life, or the vagaries of modern living. Her short stories in particular bear a good deal of real-life qualities that are unhampered by a slight datedness of surroundings. She honed and reshaped the American short story during her tenure at The New Yorker, leaving the mold well-crafted but appearing deceptively easy to fill.

This book is truly one of the great literary treasures of our times, as surely as Parker herself. Here are her famous short stories, "Big Blonde," "Dusk Before Fireworks," "A Telephone Call," and the tender elegance of lesser-known ones like "Clothe the Naked." Here, too, are the poems, with lines so often quoted -- "and I am Marie of Roumania," and "you might as well live." Parker's most infamous remark, the one about "men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses," is not among the writings included here, but then her literary criticism is not, either. It's just a collection of her poems and short stories, a legacy of personal pain and dissatisfaction expressed so exquisitely as to make it seem a prerequisite for being a writer.

Parker's style was out of vogue for a while, perhaps because for all her acid-tongued facility, she was a romantic all too willing to believe in the heart while the brain frantically signaled otherwise. That belief is evident in her writing, which never lost either its impact or craftsmanship. Almost 30 years after the death of Dorothy Parker, her writing is as much a standard to be lived up to now as it was then.

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