- Two 1955 Lolitas:Vladimir Nabokov’s and Dorothy Parker’s1
By the early 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov and Dorothy Parker were going in opposite directions as writers. Both in their fifties (Nabokov early, Parker late), one was experiencing the most profound slump of her writing career; the other was well on his way to becoming a literary sensation. Their relationship with The New Yorker was emblematic of such polar trajectories. Dorothy Parker, who had been instrumental in establishing the magazine in the 1920s and making it what it eventually became, was nowhere to be seen on its pages throughout most of the 1940s and early 1950s, while Nabokov, first with the help of Edmund Wilson and then solely through his own merit, kept publishing there first his stories and then chapters of his autobiography Conclusive Evidence and of his novel Pnin. Then in 1955, within a month of each other, the two writers happened to publish works with the very same title—Lolita.
Before 1955, the last New Yorker story Parker produced was “The Standard of Living,” which appeared in the 20 September 1941 issue. It was a narrative about two young women who worked as stenographers at the same office and liked to play a game imagining what they would buy first if they inherited a million dollars.2 Parker spent most of the 1940s in Hollywood, occasionally writing screenplays, but by 1952 she was back in New York. A year earlier, Harold Ross, the founder and chief editor of The New Yorker and Parker’s close friend, had died, and her relationship with the magazine appears to have become even more distant. Parker told friends at the time that “she had given up poetry and could not write short stories anymore. … There was no work for her in Hollywood and … she did not [End Page 487] know what she would do or what would become of her.”3 The reason there was no work for her in Hollywood was that the House Un-American Activities Committee had blacklisted her for communist sympathies and affiliations.4 Since Nabokov’s spectrum of “radicalism” was not that different from Senator McCarthy’s—this mainly because of Nabokov’s experiences of having to flee Russia after the revolution and of following closely the Stalin purges—for him Parker’s views would place her to the left of Edmund Wilson, with whom Nabokov was having very lively political debates. And even Wilson himself regretted in 1944 that Parker, while in Hollywood, was not always more discerning in her political activities: “Once away from her natural habitat, New York, she succumbed to the expiatory mania that has become epidemic with film-writers and was presently making earnest appeals on behalf of those organizations which talked about being ‘progressive.’ … She ought, of course, to have been satirizing Hollywood and sticking pins into fellow-travellers, but she has not, so far as I know, ever written a word about either.”5
As Parker was feeling alienated from her editors at The New Yorker, Nabokov’s relationship with his editor, Katharine White, was mostly blossoming. White could not wait to see the new novel Nabokov was working on. “Don’t forget,” she wrote to him on 4 November 1953, “that you promised to let us read the manuscript of your novel. … One can never tell … and sometimes a chapter or several chapters can be made into separate short stories. This is why we ask to read book length manuscripts.”6 Even though Nabokov did not believe separate stories were possible with this novel, once he finished Lolita at the end of 1953, his wife Véra contacted White on his behalf to arrange for her to see the manuscript. “He finished his novel yesterday,” Véra wrote to White on 9 December, “and is bringing two copies, one for you, the other for the publisher. There are some very special reasons why the MS would have to be brought by one of us for there are some things that have to be explained personally.”7 The Whites were away in Maine and thus missed the planned delivery (their cook, apparently not knowing who it...