Fitzgerald: A Master of Love, Longing & Popular Girls



scott and his american girlBy Kirk Curnutt

In a 1922 letter to his agent, Harold Ober, F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed frustration that one of his most creative stories, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” didn’t fetch as much money in the short-story marketplace as the tales of flapper-and-philosopher love he cranked out for the Saturday Evening Post: “I am rather discouraged that a cheap story like “The Popular Girl” written in one week while the baby [daughter Frances] was being born brings $1500.00 + a genuinely imaginative thing into which I put three weeks real enthusiasm [sic] like [“Diamond”] brings not a thing,” he grumbled.

His frustration is understandable. Today, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is recognized as an inventive critique of the unstable monetary values of the 1920s, as close to sci-fi as the author of The Great Gatsby would come. Yet ninety years ago, as Fitzgerald’s recently digitized ledger reveals, it pulled in a whopping $300, barely enough to cover a bar tab. But just because “Diamond” stands as one of the Top Ten stories the author wrote doesn’t mean “The Popular Girl” is one of his ten worst. For most of the Twentieth Century, however, “cheap” is precisely how critics described the bulk of the 65 Post stories he produced between 1920 and 1937: they were mere entertainments written to finance “genuinely imaginative thing[s]” such as Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

the camels backWe probably have Ernest Hemingway to thank for turning this idea into conventional wisdom. In the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway took great pleasure in rubbing his rival’s nose in his reputation as a Post contributor, insisting Fitzgerald had confessed to dumbing down his work to appease its 2.7 million readers: “He had told me … he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories.… He said it was whoring but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books.”

To a certain extent, the reputation of Fitzgerald’s popular fiction has always reminded me of the reputation of the popular girls I went to high school with. For those of us who didn’t move the needle on the popularity meter, prom queens, cheerleaders, and student-council candidates were easy to deride as superficial and shallow. They were careerists and glad-handing phonies whose inner lives couldn’t possibly be as complex and conflicted as us overlooked, tortured souls. Conformity and insipidity had to be the currency by which they won friends and influenced people—how else to explain why profundists such as ourselves couldn’t entertain anybody’s eye? Yet if Molly Ringwald taught us nothing else in The Breakfast Club, it’s that popular girls have feelings, too, and those feelings hurt every bit as badly as ours when trampled. If Judd Nelson is man enough to learn that lesson, why can’t we literary critics who continue to assume that commercial fiction must equate to “cheap”?

When I reread the seven early Post stories collected in Gatsby Girls, I’m struck by how empathetic they are to their heroines’ romantic dreams and aspirations, as well as how fully aware they are of the limits of Jazz Age gender roles. These are plots that hinge on assuming disguises and creating spectacles to demonstrate that the excitement we demand of love is not only possible but sustainable.

off shore piratesIn “The Offshore Pirate,” a man presumed to be a bore reinvents himself as a pirate and hatches a cheeky kidnapping ruse to prove he’s no dullard. In “The Camel’s Back,” another man slips into a costume-shop camel suit to dupe his gal into marriage. And in the much-maligned “The Popular Girl,” a dashing beau plays dumb, allowing himself to be long-armed and toyed with so the deb of his dreams gains a measure of independence and resolve before he rescues her from financial ruin.

When the games and ruses work, the stories celebrate the mutuality we also expect of romance: the joke of “Head and Shoulders” is that Horace and Marcia are so compatible that they take on aspects of each other’s personality, reversing the roles of intellect and spirit in the relationship.

ice palace

First-time readers may be surprised to discover that these extravaganzas don’t always work. Wait—aren’t commercial stories obliged to end happily? Not in Fitzgerald’s world. In “Myra Meets His Family,” a debutante discovers that her flame hoodwinks her not out of ardor but of fear. He’s terrified she’s after his money. Insulted, Myra turns the tables on him in a way that teaches him to never again fall for the stereotype of the “husband hunter.” In “The Ice Palace,” a Southerner discovers that behind her Northern betrothed’s façade of gallantry are hardcore regional prejudices that will prove a deal-breaker. Even when the stories do end in matrimony, there’s recognition that not everything is automatically rosy. When Betty Medill agrees to marry Perry Parkhurst in “The Camel’s Back,” it’s not because she’s finally ready to jump the broom—it’s because the impatient Perry has contrived a booby trap that’s so fool-proof she has no other choice.

bernice bobs her hair2

Then there are stories that aren’t about love at all but about social customs, etiquette, and the perils of the social faux pas. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is a certified Fitzgerald classic because it wickedly captures his awareness of the way class customs shape character. At the end of the day, we may not remember that this story appeared in an era when Bible scholars pontificated against hairstyle revolutions and legislators actually tried to outlaw short hair on women; we delight instead in the revenge plot Fitzgerald contrives for his fish-out-of-water character and for the cheap shot her nemesis takes at Louisa May Alcott: “What modern girl could live like those inane females?” Marjorie rails against Little Women. To the emerging flappers of 1920, the March sisters were so your-mother’s-generation. And that’s also a charm of these stories: the dialogue is chockfull of spunk and verve. When Ardita Farnam in “Pirate” boasts that “[Men] tell me I’m the spirit of youth and beauty,” her captor asks how she responds to such compliments: “I agree quietly,” she smiles. You can almost feel young women across America stepping out of the dreary shadows of propriety to revel in such a coquettish strutting of stuff.

bernice bobs her hairFor all the vivacity and exuberance that marks these stories, they’re also streaked with trademark Fitzgerald melancholy. There’s something charmingly poignant about Sally Carrol Happer in “The Ice Palace” longing for a kiss that will make “all her smiles and tears … vanish in an ecstasy of eternal seconds.” Or of Yanci Bowman in “The Popular Girl” imagining the exciting life she would lead if only she lived in New York: “She adored New York with a great impersonal affection—adored it as only a Middle Western or Southern girl can. In its gaudy bazaars she felt her soul transported with turbulent delight, for to her eyes it held nothing ugly, nothing sordid, nothing plain.” Fitzgerald knew how to render his characters’ naiveté in a way that makes their dreams at once achingly palpable and unrealizable.

So what’s so “cheap” about “The Popular Girl” and her sisters in Gatsbyhood? Only the price of admission. These are stories that may have been written to charm the marketplace, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t rich and rewarding reads. They reverberate with beauty and joy and a desire to experience a word we don’t get to use much anymore: splendor.

(Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University’s Montgomery Campus in Montgomery, Alabama, where he also serves as a director of the Alabama Book Festival. His thirteen books include two novels—Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009)—and studies of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.)




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