Tag Archives: ZELDA FITZGERALD

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Making of the Jazz Age

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a key figure in the history of the Roaring Twenties. It was Fitzgerald, or “Scott,” as he was known to by his friends, who coined the term “Jazz Age” to describe the period. His best known novel, The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925, is a must read for anyone interested in America during the 1920s.

I have read The Great Gatsby several times and seen both the 1972 film version starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and the 2013 film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  The former is a classic that never disappoints, no matter how often viewed.  The latter is a paltry attempt to update a classic.  One would think that after many attempts Hollywood would learn that a remake seldom meets, much less exceeds the standard set by the original.

I am reading a number of books on the Roaring Twenties in preparation for an upper level American history class I will teach during the spring semester.  In order to get a “feel” for the era, I spent hours watching videos and listening to music from the twenties available on YouTube.  I decided to read some of the classic literature of the period, including a 1951 reprint of the original 1920 edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.

This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald’s first novel.  It is a coming-of-age story based on his early life.  He began writing it in 1917 shortly after accepting a commission as a second lieutenant in the army.  Joining the army was a ruse to divert attention from the fact that he was flunking out of Princeton University.  The finished manuscript, four chapters in length and titled “The Romantic Egotist,” was rejected by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1918, but with the suggestion that he rewrite and resubmit it.

Scott undertook a frantic rewriting of “The Romantic Egotist” in 1919.  He was in love with a beautiful Southern belle, Zelda Sayre, member of a prominent Montgomery, Alabama family with deep roots in the Old South.  He was sure he would soon be a rich and famous author; he only had to convince her.    Only then could he win the hand of the fair Zelda.  She was not the sort of girl likely to marry a man with great dreams only.

On September 3, Scott fired off the typed manuscript to Max Perkins at Scribner’s and returned to his mundane job roofing freight cars at Northern Pacific Railroad.  This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920.  The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out in just three days.  Eleven additional printings followed during 1920 and 1921 for a total of just under 50,000 copies.  It was a phenomenal success.

Scott telegraphed Zelda to join him in New York.  On April 3, 1920, barely a week after the publication of This Side of Paradise, Scott and Zelda were married in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, following which they set up housekeeping in an apartment on West 59th Street.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald became the poster couple of the 1920s. The romantic image we have of the Roaring Twenties as an era when life was one never-ending party, a dizzying swirl of jazz, flappers, bootleg booze, and gangsters is a creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his fiction and the lifestyle he and Zelda lived, he created and gave life to the theme of a “Lost Generation” searching hopelessly for meaning in an existential world created by the horrors of the Great War.

The post-World War I era was a period of spiritual emptiness.  Western Civilization was in its “golden age” during the decade and a half before an assassin’s bullet struck down the heir to the Austrian throne on June 28, 1914 in the picturesque Serbian town of Sarajevo.  In the four years that followed, the glamorous fairytale world portrayed in the popular BBC television soap opera, Downton Abbey, was shattered by images of a troglodyte world of muddy, rat and lice infested trenches filled with frightened and hopeless young men waiting for the command to “go over the top” into the face of rapid-firing machine guns and near certain death.

Those who survived the “war to end all wars” could not forget the stench of rotting bodies scattered about “no man’s land,” some hanging silently on rolls of barbed wire, a smorgasbord for overweight rats.  They couldn’t rationalize it.  They couldn’t believe, as did many, that it was possible to go “back to normalcy,” that is, “Ye Good ol’ Days.”  They knew that what was lost could never be restored.  Unlike Scarlett O’Hara in that closing scene from the movie, Gone with the Wind, they knew there was no going back to Tara Plantation.   They sensed that at least for them, there was no future.

In their novels and poems T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, and later Ernest Hemingway portrayed a postwar world that was a material and spiritual “waste land.”  Fitzgerald not only depicted it in his short stories and novels, especially This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, he and Zelda lived it in full public view, like stars in a reality television show.  “Sometimes,” Scott once commented, “I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.”

Can one find anywhere in the literature of the 1920s a better description of the lost generation than these closing lines from This Side of Paradise?

Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light – and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into the dirty grey turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all God’s dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…”

Amory, sorry for them, was still not sorry for himself – art, politics, religion, whatever his medium should be, he knew he was safe now, free from all hysteria – he could accept what was acceptable, roam, grow, rebel, sleep deep through many nights…

There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth – yet the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams.  But—oh, Rosalind!  Roaslind! . . .

“It’s all a poor substitute at best,” he said sadly.

And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed…

“He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
“’I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.’”

The ordinary American knew nothing of the new world inhabited by the so-called Lost Generation.  They did not read the literary works of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Eliot, Hemingway, and a host of others that are covered in American literature classes today.  Their names and the titles of their novels are known to a select group of educated person today, either because they have seen a movie based upon one of the novels, or, perhaps much less likely, actually read one or more.

A cursory glance at the lists of bestselling novels in the United States during each year of the 1920s reveals that not one of the authors commonly included in a list of the lost generation is included.  That’s right, not even F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The popular authors of the twenties included Gene Stratton-Porter, Harold Bell Wright, and especially Zane Grey.

Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise sold approximately fifty thousand copies in 1920, while Harold Bell Wright’s The Re-Creation of Brian Kent, also published in 1920, sold close to a million copies.  Wright was the first American author to sell a million copies of a single novel, and the first to become a millionaire from writing fiction.  Five of his novels each had sales equal to one percent of America’s population at the time.

To illustrate further how different were the reading habits of the literate masses during the 1920s from those who read the works of the lost generation writers, I need only mention that the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs sold more copies than those of Stratton-Porter, Wright, and Grey combined.  Burroughs’ Tarzan adventures and other bestselling fiction were not considered serious enough to be included in the Publishers Weekly’s list of bestselling novels.

Was the decade of the 1920s really what is portrayed in the fiction written by Fitzgerald and his compatriots, or is the “jazz age” merely a bit of a self-appointed intellectual elite’s nostalgia for a mythical past no more connected to reality than the antebellum South found in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind?

Odd, isn’t it?

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Historian’s Almanac: March 10, 2015

It was 67 years ago today that Zelda Fitzgerald died tragically in a hospital fire.  Since 1936 she spent various periods as a patient in Highland Hospital in Ashville, North Carolina being treated for mental illness.  On the night of March 10, 1948, Zelda was locked in her room awaiting electroshock treatment when a fire broke out in the hospital’s kitchen.  The fire swept rapidly through the hospital.  Zelda was one of nine patients who died in the fire.

I suppose most of us think of Zelda, if indeed we do, only in association with her famous husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald.  To know Zelda only as “the first American Flapper,” as she was nicknamed by Scott, is to know only an image and not the whole person.  She was much more than half of a twosome known for their hard drinking and exhaustive partying, the living embodiment of what is remembered as the Jazz Age.  The very term “Jazz Age” was coined by Scott.  But she was more than just Scott’s wife.  She was a talented artist and author.

As a writer, she published only one novel, Save Me the Waltz (1932), a semi autographical novel written while being treated for schizophrenia in a Maryland clinic.  The novel was not well received by the critics.  Rather than being proud of her and offering her encouragement, Scott was angry.  Apparently jealous, he called her a “third-rate writer.”  She began writing a second novel, Caesar’s Things, but died before finishing it.

Zelda also wrote articles and short stories for magazines.  “The Iceberg,” a short story Zelda wrote when only seventeen or eighteen was discovered recently and published in The New Yorker in December, 2013 (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-iceberg-a-story-by-zelda-fitzgerald).  The story won the then high school student a prize and was published in in the Sidney Lanier High School Literary Journal.

Zelda was a gifted artist as well as writer.  She drew sketches and painted throughout her life until her tragic death.  It would be much too difficult for one such as me to even attempt to describe her artwork.  For a suitable discussion of Zelda’s art I refer the reader to “The Art of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Anne Margaret Daniel (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-margaret-daniel/the-art-of-zelda-fitzgera_b_6185126.html).

In remembering Zelda Fitzgerald, I can only wonder if what is known today about mental illness and its treatment were available to those who tried to treat her illness during the 1930s and 1940s how different her life might have been.

  • “By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future.”
    – Zelda Fitzgerald

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always walk under the mercy.

Zelda Fitzgerald: An Autobiographical Novel

Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided to read Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD by Therese Anne Fowler (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2013) after viewing Woody Allen’sMidnight in Paris” (not once, but three times!), visiting the grave of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Rockville, Maryland, and viewing once again the 1974 version of “The Great Gatsby.”  There is just something about the interwar era and its ambience which draws me to anything associated with that period.  Whatever the case, I could not resist reading Z.

The novel is written almost as an autobiography.  In fact, I had to keep reminding myself that it was, in fact, a work of fiction.  Ms. Fowler has Zelda relating the story of her life from 1918, when she first met Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald, until Scott’s death in 1940.   The reader is able to see and experience the “Jazz Age” through the eyes and emotions of Zelda.

As I journeyed through the two decades of Zelda and Scott’s turbulent life together, I kept wondering how much of Zelda’s struggle to establish her own identity, apart from always being known as “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife,” was true.  I felt sorrow for Zelda as she tried repeatedly to love Scott despite his obvious obsessive jealousy.  Scott himself struggled with his own doubts about his talent as writer and his fear of slipping into the shadows behind a wife whose potential success as a writer threatened his own self-image.

I felt sorrow for Zelda as she fought a mental illness that neither she nor the doctors of that time were able to understand.  Today, she would likely have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a treatable illness.  Unfortunately for Zelda the best knowledge about mental illness of that time was very limited.  Much of the treatment she apparently received was not what some someone suffering from bipolar disorder would receive today.

Although Ms. Fowler wants the reader to remember that Z:  A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD is a work of fiction, she does inform us of the extensive research she undertook in order to write the novel.

There is one quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway, whether in fact so or a creative invention of Ms. Fowler’s, that I feel sums up the ambience of that period for which Scott coined the descriptive term, “the Jazz Age.”  “Nature tests you, and if it finds you worthy, it lets you live another day.”  In reality, all the glitz and glamor associated with the Jazz Age was only an illusion that hid the pain felt by a generation wounded by the Great War and all that followed from it.  Perhaps the Jazz Age was a distraction, an attempt to ignore psychological pain.

I seldom read novels, but when I do, I want one that is more than just a story, a brief diversion from everyday boredom.  Therese Anne Fowler’s Z:  A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD fit the bill, and so I award it five stars.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always walk under the mercy.

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Someday I Want to Write a Novel

Someday I would like to write a book, a real book, the kind that people purchase to read while sitting in an airport waiting for their flight, or while seated in their favorite chair with a cup of Jo on the end table and a noble beast asleep on the rug.  I mean a novel, the sort of book that reviewers after reading it refer to the one who wrote it as an “author.”

I am frightened by the thought of attempting to write fiction.  Writing ordinary prose such as you are reading is something anyone can learn to do.  It is all about technic, whereas fiction requires talent.

Not long ago, I joined a local group of individuals interested in writing.  They call themselves the “Clinton Ink Slingers.”  The purpose of the group is to encourage each other by gently critiquing each other’s writing.  Shortly after joining the group, I tried my hand at writing a short story.  I even took a chance and posted it on my blog.  A few individuals read it and complimented me on it, but they were mostly friends, relatives, and members of the Clinton Ink Slingers. 

I have written books, all of them history books.  Most are read by students forced to slug through them by a frustrated and disillusioned professor ever on the quest for the perfect text dumbed down enough to hold, however briefly, the limited attention span of today’s “young scholars.”  My use of “young scholars” is a humble attempt at sarcasm.  I do not think there is a textbook on the market with enough bells and whistles to draw the average student away from his or her iPhone for more than a fleeting moment.

What started me thinking about writing and my dream of one day writing a novel are several things.  The first was a visit to the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, in a small church cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.  One of the priests at the parish church assumed I was just another of many pilgrims who stop by from time to time.  One such pilgrim who preceded me left an empty wine bottle, two mini whisky bottles, also empty, a single red rose, and a hand written letter to Scott and Zelda.

A second stimulus came in the form of an advance readers’ edition of a new novel by Therese Anne Fowler titled Z:  A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD.  It will be on-sale in April.  Although fiction, it is well-researched and very interesting.  Anyone who has seen and enjoyed Woody Allen’s recent movie, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011), will enjoy reading Z.  Ms. Fowler does an admiral job of communicating to her reader what it must have been like to be among that group of American expatriates known as the “Lost Generation.”

Finally, it was 87 years ago that the Book-of-the-Month Club was born.  Its first selection was LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  It is an early feminist novel about a woman who sells her soul to the devil, and in return becomes a witch.  The novel is still in print.  There is even a Sylvia Townsend Society which seeks to keep interest in the too often neglected author.

The Book-of-the-Month Club was the creation of Harry Scherman, Max Sackheim, and Robert Haas.  At a time when books were sold through bookstores in urban areas, Scherman looked for a way to sell books to people in rural areas.  Scherman was a member of a group of bohemian intellectuals living in Greenwich Village during and after World War I.  They had in common a love for fine literature and the desire to find a means of marketing books to the literate masses beyond the big cities. 

The first Book-of-the-Month Club selection, LOLLY WILLOWES, was mailed to 4,750 members in April, 1926.  Membership rose to 46,539 by the end of the year, and stood at just under 100,000 in 1928.  Record numbers continued over the decades.  In 1946, the club mailed its 100 millionth book. More than 22 million books were shipped to over 3 million members in 1993, alone.

A book’s success was virtually guaranteed if selected by the club’s editorial board.   The board’s original function was to “select the best new books each month.”  Sales were important, but for many decades the editorial board selected books that were likely to endure as “literature” rather than be remembered, if remembered at all, as “best sellers.”  During the board’s first sixty years the Book-of-the-Month Club offered books by 25 authors who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and 79 who won the Pulitzer Prize.   

A case in point is J. D. Salinger’s novel THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (1951).  At one point in the story, Holden Caulfield makes a disparaging remark about “guys who belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club.”  Salinger had no idea at the time that that “goddam Book-of-the-Month Club” would help establish THE CATCHER IN THE RYE as one of the all-time great American novels.  After having sold more than 65 million copies, it remains on the shelf of any respectable bookstore or library.

I do not expect to ever win a Pulitzer Prize or become a Nobel laureate, but I do continue to dream of writing a novel.  Two members of our little group of Ink Slingers recently signed contracts with “real” book publishers.  Dreams do come true, but not if one merely sits dreaming.  Persistent hard work is necessary.  I think I will write a short story beginning with the line:  “It was a dark and stormy night.”  

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always walk under the mercy.