Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Such a Congenial Little Circle": Dorothy Parker and the Early-Twentieth-Century Magazine Market

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Such a Congenial Little Circle": Dorothy Parker and the Early-Twentieth-Century Magazine Market

Article excerpt

Not long after a young Dorothy Parker sought work in New York City after her fathers death in 1913, she was hired to write for Edna Chases Vogue. By 19 17, the writer soon to be famous for her scathing wit was a staff writer at Vanity Fair. In 1919, Parker joined the infamous Vicious Circle as they began their "ten year lunch" at the Algonquin Hotel The next year, in 1920, prohibition settled in, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, and Parkers quick wit got her fired from Vanity Fair. Soon after, Parker divorced her World War I-veteran husband (whom she had married hastily before the war) when he returned from Germany addicted to barbiturates. Amid this turmoil, she contracted to write a series of sketches for Ladies' Home Journal, an opportunity to tap a market of nearly two million American women. Parker s work provides a useful starting point for understanding the ways in which women magazine writers, an often invisible category of authorship in American literary studies, constructed, situated, and circulated their professional identities in the first American mass media market. At Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Ladies' Home Journal, Parker marketed herself as a journalist-observer, building trust with her authence while employing satire as a rhetorical strategy to distance herself from her subjects. When magazines showed conflict and contradiction in social ideas about gender identity, Parker consistently sorted it out as an observer, identifying faults and problems with the constructions, especially those linked to magazine culture. During a time when American consumer culture shifted identity toward image and personality, Parker took on the primary images of women circulating in the magazine market. Targeting iconographie categories of women in each publications authence, Parker revealed that the magazine market s advertising and conflicting values-based messages aggravated deep American cultural debates about gender and consumerism and forced female readers into self-deception. Parkers method of investigation and critique and the repetition of categories across years of poems, sketches, and essays indicates that she saw little promise for an authentic state of happiness and self-awareness for American women, herself included.

It isn't surprising that Parker took her critique directly to the magazine market. As Americans first mass market, magazines changed the way Americans did business and the way people understood work, family, and gender. At the center of these changes were dozens and dozens of female writers like Parker vying for publication opportunities in one of the only venues open to them - popular magazines. To be successful, female writers had to walk a fine line between expectations of femininity and the renunciation of strict gender roles that their status as paid writers implied. In the 1910s and 1920s, a rapidly expanding magazine industry cashed in on (and often exacerbated) readers' fears and confusion, fears that often centered on changes in gender roles, changes exacerbated by advertising and consumerism. Rapidly developing printing technologies and reduced-cost postal services supported the professionalization of the advertising industry in the United States. In turn, advertising financially supported largescale distribution of magazines. A single page of advertising in the Ladies' Home Journal in the early 1920s, for example, cost an advertiser upward of nine thousand dollars (Mott 1938, 551). As the resulting commercial culture grew, debates about gender roles, sexuality, race, and class inevitably raged within the pages of the country's ongoing magazine "revolution," to use Richard Ohmann's phrase (1996). Magazines were numerous, quickly produced, and often ephemeral. Their heavy reliance on imagery opened new avenues for the construction of meaning. As hybrid publications, they included multiple print genres alongside advertising. The heterogeneity of the form allowed it to embody contradictory meanings, and those meanings shifted with time. …

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