Black on Blonde: The Africanist Presence in Dorothy Parker's 'Big Blonde'

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Author: Amelia Simpson
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,972 words

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In the following essay, Simpson explores how Parker renders race in “Big Blonde,” and shows it to be an integral part of the story.

The story “Big Blonde” (1929) articulates some of the ambivalence with which Dorothy Parker's work approaches feminist inquiry. There is a vicious style to Parker's compassionate portrait of a woman hopelessly trapped in social codes of femininity. Just as intriguing, however, is the way race is inscribed in a text so overtly marked as a reflection on gender. Foregrounding the Africanist presence in the text discloses the real source of the story's power to disturb. Blackness surfaces in Parker's story in a way that provides an unusually clear example of the use of racial difference in white America's contemplation of itself. In concert with the critical project Toni Morrison pursues in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), the present observations represent an effort to “avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.” By shifting our sights to consider the function of three seemingly minor black characters in Parker's “Big Blonde,” we are given a penetrating view of the divides of American identity, and of one white author's attempt to write that identity. Parker's story compellingly exposes the way gender and race are mutually constitutive, and how blackness constructs and contests the privilege of whiteness.[Parker] produces a narrative about the subjugation of white women in America, using the scaffolding of blacks in America. Three Africanist figures who at first glance appear to serve only the interests of narrative expediency, are in fact the key to Parker's architectural paradox.

“Big Blonde” won Parker the national O'Henry Prize for the best short story published that year. Arguably her strongest work, it is generally viewed as an unusually affecting tale about feminine vulnerability. The story is frequently read as a kind of “autobiographical fiction,” and it contains many echoes of the author's own failed relationships with men, her drinking problems, and her loneliness and suicide attempts. But the connection is probably more subtle. Parker's writing and her life reveal a drama of negotiation with the urge to challenge on the one hand, and to surrender on the other. As Nina Miller points out [in American Literature], Parker's public persona was “desirable to the extent that she was . . . modern and reassuring to the extent that she left certain basic femininities intact.” Parker's biographers suggest she was both liberated and constrained, exploited and self-exploiting. The nasty tongue she cultivated earned her a name as one of the founders of the male-dominated Algonquin Round Table, yet the record shows little room at that table for moods not witty or cynical. Parker's trademark mouth gave her entry to a masculine domain she evidently aspired to join, but much of her work is devoted to complaining relentlessly about the terms by which women are forced to operate in a male-dominated...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420022924