Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Bedside Manners in Dorothy Parker's "Lady with a Lamp" and Kay Boyle's My Next Bride

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Bedside Manners in Dorothy Parker's "Lady with a Lamp" and Kay Boyle's My Next Bride

Article excerpt

"Viciously unfair and unfunny," said Donald Stewart. (1) "Shrill ... clothes for an elephant on a mouse," wrote Pauline Pfeiffer. (2) Ernest Hemingway's poem about Dorothy Parker, "To a Tragic Poetess--Nothing in her life became her like her almost leaving of it," is famous for its nastiness. The poem, with its scurrilous references to Parker's Jewish background, suicide attempts, and abortion, "shocked and offended" Hemingway's friends when he gave a public reading of it at Archibald and Ada MacLeish's Paris apartment in 1926. (3) Though ostensibly about Parker, the cantankerous poem and its hostile reception also say much about the uneasy social, cultural reception of abortion in the early twentieth century.

At stake for the poem and its listening audience is the question of how to respond to women having abortions. In its representation of Parker, "To a Tragic Poetess" embeds its own response, expressing through satire its discomfort with the sentimental abortion speech it ascribes to Parker:

   To tell how you could see his little hands
   already formed
   You'd waited months too long
   that was the trouble.
   But you loved dogs and other people's children
   and hated Spain where they are cruel to donkeys.
   Hoping bulls would kill the matadors.

   To celebrate in borrowed cadence
   your former gnaw and itch for Charley
   who went away and left you not so flat behind him
   And it performed so late those little hands
   And were there little feet and had
   the testicles descended? (4)

The poem plays off a modernist revulsion against sentimentality to mark its aborting woman as a social pariah, self-indulgent, hypocritical, and unworthy of the sympathy she solicits; yet at the same time, the ruthlessness of the poem's parody cuts against itself to elicit from readers the very sympathy for the aborting woman that the poem ostensibly resists. In a layering of responses, the woman's sentimentality unnerves her audience (the poem's speaker), while at the same time, the anti-sentimentality of the speaker unnerves that other audience, the readers/listeners of the poem. An anxious and angry response that itself garnered an anxious and angry response, "To the Tragic Poetess," and the scandal that surrounded it, enact the awkwardness of responding to women having abortions and express as well an ambivalence toward sentimentalism's place in early twentieth-century abortion politics.

Though detractors of sentimentality often dismiss sentiment and sympathy as narcissist lip service, awash in emotion but unable to affect the crises they bemoan, (5) the context of criminalized abortion witnesses the material productivity of sympathy and sentimentality, showing them to be social currencies that profoundly affect women's lives. As Leslie Reagan observes, during the years of criminalized abortion, a woman's ability to procure an abortion often depended upon her ability to affect her doctor's sympathies. "Sympathy for their female patients," she writes, "drew physicians into the world of abortion despite legal and professional prohibitions." In the 1930s, this sympathy for women seeking abortions prompted a rewriting of the American Medical Association's abortion statutes. Swayed by the economic hardships of the depression, the AMA elected to liberalize its abortion policies to allow doctors to consider "social conditions" when adjudicating "therapeutic" abortion cases. Prosecutors, too, took a softer line on illegal abortion. Though more and more women were seeking and having abortions during the 1930s, the number of abortion interrogations and prison sentences for abortionists and women having abortions decreased during the depression. (6)

This essay looks at how two depression-era abortion narratives--Dorothy Parker's "Lady with a Lamp" (1932) and Kay Boyle's My Next Bride (1934)--recover a modern sentimentalism to broker the return of "deviant" aborting women to normative, middle-class society. …

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