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Home » Culture and Criticism

Beautiful Fools

Submitted by on September 27, 2011 – 8:21 PM27 Comments

By the time I turned twenty, I had come to despise Zelda Fitzgerald. It was no fault of hers. I knew nothing about her, really, except that she had married F. Scott and lost her mind, but Zelda had come in for championing by that sorest of college nemeses — the Pitilessly Resentful Sophomore.

The PRS interrogated texts, it seemed, based primarily on whether their authors might have found more fun in life than she (a safe bet) — incorrect, wasteful, exploitive fun with absinthe and pretty girls they hadn't married, after which someone somewhere might have cried. The PRS always "interrogated" texts. Merely to read a poem or a novel without lying in wait for its offenses, to discuss it without swerving towards tears, to admire a turn of phrase and not indict its author in the next breath was for blinkered collaborators. The PRS would turn her blinding light on the canon and await the shivering confessions of Hawthorne and Hemingway, because every dick move ever perpetrated by a man in the Norton oppressed her personally.

I found this sort of dispositional sourness posing as feminism so annoying that I developed actual, dermatological symptoms in response — fierce itching under my watch strap or between my shoulder blades that I could only relieve by arguing, say, that Milton had created the first great villain in modern English literature, along with most of the Latinate words we still use today, at night, in his head, in the darkness he lived in at all times, waiting for his transcriptionist to arrive and take dictation in the morning, so if once upon a foggy day he got a beej from the school-age girl who brought the eggs and cream, why don't we let his ledger balance? I didn't consider Hemingway an attractive interpersonal prospect either, but since he didn't cheat on us and he shot himself in the head and the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms is a perfect egg thrown into a soundless chasm, could we agree to leave it at that? Or do I have to take a position I don't actually agree with in defense of the short stories with the damn elephants until the preceptor uses her Birkenstock as a gavel?

One of the PRS's favorite stalking horses: the idea — never offered as such, but rather as black-letter crit law — that F. Scott Fitzgerald had stolen all his best work from his fanciful young bride, then hounded her into the bughouse to cover his tracks. I naturally dismissed it out of hand, since it came from the PRS, and besides, what had he gotten for his trouble? Gatsby did only all right, and Fitzgerald set seriously about drowning himself and it took 15 years. Before anyone even invented pantyhose, he paid, and died, so just please, please, shut up.

Wait. The "beautiful fool" is Zelda's. The beautiful fool is us. It's complicated.

Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald: A Marriage keeps an even tone throughout most of the book, but sides with Zelda on the matter, as it should — Scott did steal from her. He did it openly, at first, when it didn't occur to her to mind, when she considered it par for the course as the great writer's wife. Later, when she did mind, he kept doing it, but turned it on her, made it out like she was stealing from him by withholding. The manipulation is revolting — but it didn't create Zelda's schizophrenia, and it didn't create Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald could sketch a period from his childhood like so:

He begins to remember many things, a filthy vacant lot, the haunt of dead cats, a hair-raising buck-board, the little girl whose father was in prison for telling lies, a Rabelaisian incident with Jack Butler, a blow with a baseball bat from the same boy — son of an Army officer — which left a scar that will shine always in the middle of his forehead." (39)

He didn't need Zelda to do this, or for the green light or poor dead Myrtle. But he saw that she could do it too, that someone else could draw the world in two strokes that way. "The marshmallow odor of the Biltmore" is a phrasing of hers — gorgeous. Perfect. To explain what I think she means, I would need four grafs. In her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz — which her husband "edited" and functionally ruined, then talked shit about for years — she says of her protagonist that she "wants to be told what she is like, being too young to know that she is like nothing at all." She described a mental hospital in one letter as looking "as if it was constructed to hide bits of Italian marble from the public." Yes. What? Yes.

Scott found her ways of putting things fascinating, and useful; I disapprove strongly of the denouement, which lasted about 50 times as long as the rest of their story — but I admire his taste in theft. And how fluky that two people with the same matchless gift for giving you the world in two strokes should get married to each other. This is what the book illuminates, as well as investigating how, or if, the Fitzgeralds created and/or destroyed each other.

It's a solid narrative, written well by Kendall Taylor, who lived with the material a long time. (I've just started Milford's Zelda, which is quite good too and pushes the quotes harder.) It touches on Fitzgerald's fundamental distance from his characters, from people, that he could sum up and judge environments quickly but that that detachment (and, it's strongly suggested, his inability to stay sober enough to remember most interactions) kept him from feeling much for them. It touches on the hopelessness of Zelda's treatment at that time, before pharmaceuticals could manage her disease. It glances on and then quickly away from their deaths, as if the fire and drink that consumed them were only incidental. Taylor could have explored those things more fully, but there is a frantic sadness to their lives, singly and together, that only either of the Fitzgeralds could have summed up — two aches shouting past one another.

Scott found [Gertrude] Stein fascinating, but Zelda detested being relegated to a tea table at the back of the room with [Alice B.] Toklas, and recalled the atmosphere as so smoky and mysterious that "a young poet vomited out of sheer emotion." (146)

That. Yes. I wish I hadn't despised Zelda for so long; it seems we'd have gotten along fine. And the PRS too, perhaps. It was complicated.

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27 Comments »

  • Lis says:

    Ok, seriously? This. Perfect. AND? I got i SO MANY arguments with the PRS, one specifically vehement one in defense of Hills like White Elephants in fact. I don't remember what my point was now, or even what the opposing point was, but I will always remember the STRONG feelings I had and how at the end of whatever long winded (I'm sure) statement on the piece I was making the professor actually said "Hmmm… you may be right. I've never heard it put that way" which I chose to take as a victory. Now I want to go find my Norton and read it again, because I know my notes are in the margins and I want to feel like a genius again after the shit day at work where everything broke and I spent 4 freaking hours sopping up a leaky ac unit's drip tray that no one else seemed to be bothered with. Being an office manager (which is generally what a bachelors in English lit gets you if you don't write I suppose) is SUPER FUN… maybe it's time to go back for my masters.

  • Melanie says:

    1) The PRS ruins everything! Try taking a class reading The Handmaid's Tale with her. Stop weeping and gnashing your teeth, NOW, or I will CUT YOU, 'kay?

    2) Fuckin' A, Zelda. This is why we need time travel.

  • Maya says:

    I'd be interested to hear what you think of the Milford—read it at a formative age and it really colored my perception of their relationship and Fitzgerald's work. Curious how it holds up, especially compared to this book (which I'm adding to my library queue as we speak).

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Annnnnnddd…that is why part of me always has always sympathized a bit with the PRS..es. They were strident and loud and self-righteous and had read exactly one feminist text and that made them Empress Presidenta of all English Literature Forever…but they weren't always wrong. You got furious with them, and never more so when they made a point you had privately concluded the night before.

    Exactly how much am I supposed to admire F Scott's gifts when he apparently didn't admire them enough to not steal FROM HIS WIFE? How much slack do I cut Hemingway's depression and alcoholism and abuse of every woman who was more involved with him then giving him his change because of his writing? It just seems, sometimes, that the guardians of writing have assumed this slack-giving and admiration for me, and yeah, the PRS swung that pendulum over past "debate" into "strident asshole", but I couldn't be 100% annoyed at them for it.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Gah. Only the word "for" was supposed to be italicized there. I apparently had a PRS moment in my comment.

  • Cimorene says:

    I'm just saying, but saying that Milton "created the first great villain in modern English literature, along with most of the Latinate words we still use today" AND that he was a shitty misogynist bastard isn't a contradiction.

    I can even hate Paradise Lost because it's breathtakingly sexist (OH MY GOD FOR REAL), and still love Paradise Lost because it's construction of satanic subjectivity is (also) breathtaking (seriously).

    And, admiring a turn of phrase or a perfectly crafted paragraph and in the next breath indicting the author for being a douche/criminal, doesn't make the admiration for the paragraph any less legitimate.

    In my opinion anyway. I think it's important to recognize both–really important.

    Sincerely,
    A Graduate Student (Concentration: Feminist Theory and Shakespeare)

    (Also this totally made me want to read Taylor's book. Great review.)

  • Jen in Houston says:

    Nope, you would continue despising the PRS because she grows up to become the PRGS – Pitilessly Resentful Grad Student. And you would wind up in a Literature and the Environment seminar with her (because you would have decided to enroll at the last minute and all the good classes would already be full). And this would lead to endless diatribes about our cruelty to Mother Earth, and how if we're going to allow sheep to graze in Montana then we might as well fill the fields with factories and non-green buildings, and MY GOD BOYCOTT COCA-COLA FOR THEY ARE STRIPPING THE WORLD OF ITS FLORA AND OXYGEN AND… Lather, rinse, repeat.

    And we won't discuss what happened in the 18th Century Novel seminar. Deconstructionism is a plague upon mankind…

  • Jaybird says:

    Forgive me if this is too much of a digression, but. BUT. This post, and all it describes, makes me wish so hard that I'd actually gone to a school that gave half a crap about humanities, instead of engineering, because I am only now (at 44) learning things I should have hashed over and yelled about in college. In fact, I've learned more SINCE college than I ever did IN college, and considering how hard I worked to pay for that hellacious grind, I'm pissed.

    I'ma go read that book, though.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Cimorene: Agreed, completely. The trouble I got into with (over-)reacting to PRSes back in the day is that what I saw as their single-minded focus on bad IRL behavior made ME track single-mindedly in the other direction with my own analysis. In other words, "he's a bastard" is one angle, "there is only The Text" is another angle, and neither one will give you the full measure of the work. (Or the man.) I mean, Whitman was a weird, humorless guy who was probably inappropriate with soldiers in his care. The trick is getting that to co-exist with "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which is possibly the definitive elegy of American poetry.

    But it's a fascinating question: where do we put the line? I love "Gatsby," but knowing how overmatched Fitzgerald was by the prospect of handling his life graciously is helpful to my understanding of it; it doesn't take anything away from the text, for me — or from me for enjoying it, which is what I really hated about the PRSes' arguments and attitudes. Yes, Vergil wrote his women cray-cray, and there is an enjoyment he takes in annihilating Dido and her entire empire that is aback-taking, but finding the execution of that scene astounding doesn't make ME a bad or undiscerning person or Part Of The Problem.

    For the Roman Polanski angle on this discussion: http://tomatonation.com/culture-and-criticism/roman-polanski-wanted-and-desired/

  • Jenn says:

    The PRS always made me feel so dumb. Actually, most of the people I took literature classes with made me feel dumb. I was a writing major, and I had to take a bunch of lit classes, and they were always way over my head. You never feel so small as when your classmate says, "I spent last night reading aloud from Ulysses with my boyfriend. What did you do?" and you say, "Well, there was a new Gilmore Girls on…."

  • Isabel C. says:

    @Sarah: Heh, yeah. I did four years with the PRS myself–well, "four years"…I skipped a lot of class for perfectly good reasons that had nothing to do with boys, no, NOTHING AT ALL, and neither did the fact that sometimes when I went to morning class, it was in a silver glitter dress and knee-high boots, WHAT?…whoa, flashback.

    Anyhow, yeah. I agree, and part of the problem with the PRS and me is that a lot of what she considered "bad behavior"–like, just about anything to do with sex that is not rape or abuse–I considered "none of anyone else's damn business", much as I do today, and then there was stuff that was legitimately bad, e.g. Fitzgerald, and having to admit it in front of PRS? No, not doing that. Ugh.

    What actually moved me toward the "you can have both" middle is that now I move in geek circles, and the PDF–Pitilessly Defensive Fanboy–is worse. God forbid anyone should point out that Heinlein's women are kind of ciphery and his libertarianism is…libertarianism, or that Orson Scott Card is a homophobic douchebag, or that maybe Frank Miller needs to shut up about the whores already. In getting fed up with "but mah lonely adolescence!" neckbeard whining, I was able to admit that PRS had a point sometimes. It's like a balanced scale of hate, or something.

  • MizShrew says:

    I agree that knowing that the author was an a-hole doesn't necessarily prevent enjoying the text, but does anyone find that easier with the classics than with more recent stuff? For some reason, I find it easier to put Fitzgerald and his work into historical context than I do someone who is still alive. If I discover that a current author is a jerk, I find it harder to enjoy their work on its own merits.

    When I went back to school I discovered a relative of the PRS, the Pathetically Earnest Evangelical. The PEE takes evening lit classes and finds a way to make Every. Single. Paragraph. a Biblical reference.

  • Eeek says:

    Jenn,
    Rory Gilmore at her most earnest would not do something so toolish. Do not feel small — your time was better spent. Ten bucks says the PRS was watching a Survivor rerun. And didn't have a boyfriend.

  • Sandman says:

    It's even stranger when you think that Milton's principal copyist was his daughter. There must have been some kinda "Oh, MY GOD, DAD, for real!" going through her head, right?

    I really want to read Taylor's book, too. (How is it I never heard of Zelda's contributions before this?)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    @Jenn, if it's any comfort to you, they're lying. Like, 99.9999999999% of the time. NOBODY reads Ulysses aloud with ANYBODY. Nobody. That PRS spent the night watching Jersey Shore reruns but she won't admit it, so she reached for the nearest intellectual trope to wrap around her shoulders and keep off the chill of her dishonesty.

    I'm not claiming she's never read Ulysses at all, but one of the more particular and noxious strands of English Lit/Humanities insecurity is that what they're doing is worthless in the real world: snotty gyrations in the void. So they pull the whole "I spent MY night listening to obscure Bach sonatas and power-slamming my eyeballs across the Canon, not mowing down chips and Phish Food while watching Snooki gyrate like an animate tangerine" so you'll blush and stutter and they can feel awesome and superior.

  • MsC says:

    'What actually moved me toward the "you can have both" middle is that now I move in geek circles, and the PDF–Pitilessly Defensive Fanboy–is worse.'

    Find better geeks? A good chunk of us are actually the first to tear into 'our' creatives for their mistakes, their faults, their weird idiosyncrasies. Yes, occasionally, you will find a fanatic who just cannot admit that their 'heroes' are flawed, but many of us love nothing more than to analyze the things we love to death. But granted, there tends to be at least one PDF in every group.

  • Rob says:

    @Isabel C. – Oh lordy, Orson Scott Card. I really don't know what to do about him. Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead were Books I Could Not Put Down, and yet the more I learn of his politics and homophobia and his Hamlet rewrite crap and stuff, the more it diminishes those pieces in a way that F. Scott is somewhat immune to, for me.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    snotty gyrations in the void

    Best.

  • Rachel says:

    @MizShrew – I'm with you on it being easier to put dead people into a historical context than with the living. I'm not a fan of Oprah and her book club, but when Franzen's "The Corrections" came out and there was all that kerfluffle with Oprah picking it for the club and him being a tremendouche about it… ugh. I couldn't like the book after that. I've tried. I just can't. Because… ugh. Whatever Oprah is or isn't, girlfriend was able to move a load of books and any author who claims they don't want that is a lying liar who lies (and cries after sex).

    Part of my pen name is Zelda. I love her, she's so textbook tragic. Makes you wonder what she would have been like with Lexapro.

  • MizShrew says:

    Isabel C., I so desperately wanted a "like" button for your post.

    "but mah lonely adolescence!" neckbeard whining = genius.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    (and cries after sex)

    GAH. No more of that, please. And take off the damn hairshirt turtleneck while you're at it.

    Anybody who wants to see an historical take down of PSRs in the past, check out The Portable Dorothy Parker and read her book reviews. Her bitch-slappery of Sinclair Lewis's Money Writes–after first outright stating that she has "marched for years under a banner reading 'Sinclair Lewis For Pope'" is absolute fucking genius.

  • Isabel C. says:

    @MsC: Oh, for sure, there are better geeks out there–I hang out with a bunch of them. But, as you say, there tends to be one PDF per group, and on the Internet, they totally swarm to any public discussion of their heroes.

    There was some board where a guy showed up to claim that a) Niven/Heinlein/someone was totally fine for his times, no really, no, *reeaaally*, and when he got shot down for that, responded that b) he had to make that argument because admitting otherwise would have been a betrayal of his past lonely fourteen-year-old self. Seriously.

    And I was all "Dude, I don't know about you, but I have no problem admitting that I sucked at fourteen. There was photographic evidence. *Everyone* sucks at fourteen. We can move on."

    @MizShrew: Aw, thanks!

    @Rob: Yeah. I think it doesn't help, either, with still-living writers, because…I don't know, they're more immediate? I mean, I get that Lovecraft was a racist motherfucker, but it doesn't necessarily diminish my enjoyment–except, well, there are a couple of stories that puzzled me for years in re: why anyone found them disturbing, and then I found out about the racist-motherfucker-dom and was all "…oh. Ohh. This freaks you out if…race mixing freaks you out. Well, ew."

    So there is also that element of "well, but maaybe" re: PRS. For me, personally, knowing the worldview-failures of an author makes anything similar in their work stand out afterwards, at least a little. Like, watching Rosemary's Baby and knowing that Polanski is a creepy child rapist gave Guy's character, Mia Farrow's really delicate appearance and helpless acting, and the damn scene with the…Satan roofies?…a whole new and creepier meaning.

  • Sandman says:

    @Rob: Hamlet … rewrite? I'm sorry? And I thought Card was Dead To Me before. Yeesh.

  • MizShrew says:

    @Rachel: The Corrections is an excellent example of what I'm talking about. It's still sitting on my shelf, unread, too. Maybe that's unfair, since I love Gatsby in spite of Fitzgerald's flaws. Maybe it's just that I don't have to hear Fitzgerald whine on talk shows while trying to pimp his book tour at the same time.

    @Jen S 1.0: "Hairshirt turtleneck." Hee. So, so, right.

  • MsC says:

    @Isabel C. Yeah. That guy just cannot get off the internet. You know, 75% of what you loved at 14 you should probably never, ever return to. I have a box of cassette tapes that clearly demonstrates this.

  • Jessica says:

    I have a mild Fitzgerald obsession, to the point of rereading "Head and Shoulders" last night, and I've read Milford's Zelda but not this book, so bear with me –

    Milford's take is a little different: namely, that Zelda didn't have many options as a smart, unconventional woman growing up in 1910s Alabama, and so she made a bad bargain with Fitzgerald early on, to let him plunder her diaries. Then when she (understandably) wanted to create a new paradigm where they were both writers, he was drunk all the time, she had a history of erratic behavior and suicide attempts, and neither of them could renegotiate in good faith.

    The discussion of what happened to Save Me the Waltz is also different: Milford puts less blame on Fitzgerald (although she makes it clear that the fit he threw upon learning she had sent it out for publication was pretty ridiculous) than on Scribner's neglect of the manuscript. Maybe Taylor has better access to sources?…

    Having said all that, while I'm fascinated by the Fitzgeralds, there are a lot of authors I should check out but have a hard time with. V.S. Naipaul and Arthur Koestler being two primary examples.

  • Melissa says:

    Living in Montgomery, AL. not too proud of this town in general except I know Zelda was here.

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