Sunday, November 27, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Flappers and Philosophers (1920)

The best thing about Fitzgerald's first short-story collection is its title.  Seeing it, and knowing of Fitzgerald's reputation as poet laureate of the Jazz Age, and maybe being familiar with his later knowing, sympathetic portraits of wild women and enchanted men, you're probably going to expect a completely unbridled, unsobered-up collection of hot jazz fantasias.  Specifically the title seems to suggest that the collection will present a contrast between the body-centered concrete liberation represented the flapper and the mind-bound abstract repression represented by the philosopher, and that this contrast will redound (scandalously) to the Flapper's benefit by suggesting that she is the true Philosopher (in the sense of having the most persuasive access to Truth and Understanding).  The title does all this (for me, anyway), and what's even more exciting is that it does it all with such perfect music in the language - the three words of the title.  I mean, think of the orthography and how it relates to the sounds.  In the word "flapper" an "f" sound like an "f" and a "p" sounds like a "p":  straightforward, honest, no nonsense, intuitive.  In "philosopher" a "p" is denatured, abstracted by an "h" until it stands in for a displaced "f":  letters are one or two steps removed from their reflexive, direct sounds.  They're processed through the brain, rather than proceeding naturally from the lips.  The words work, in this instance, like the readings they're meant to evoke.  "Philosopher" is fake nonsense:  "flapper" is real.

I wanted to read that book.  Unfortunately, Fitzgerald's book only has a couple of stories worthy of that title.  "The Offshore Pirate" and "Head and Shoulders."  The latter really does translate the ancient mind/body split into contemporary (Jazz Age) terms, with its pairing of a Broadway ingenue and a Yale prodigy who in the end switch places.  The former presents a really indelible sketch of a flapper, Ardita, "slender and supple, with a spoiled alluring mouth and quick gray eyes full of a radiant curiosity," who is seduced by, or maybe seduces, a modern-day pirate.  Despite the condescending O. Henry twists at the end, these stories display the kind of louche brassiness that one might expect from the title of the book.

But the rest of the stories are not that.  At their best they're deft character studies (like "The Ice Palace" or "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"), and at their worst they're alarmingly conventional ("Benediction," "The Cut-Glass Bowl").  Either way, they're much more mundane than I've come to expect from Fitzgerald.  Middle-brow magazine fodder, which is I guess what they were.

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