Tuesday, January 31, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tales of the Jazz Age (1922)

This is more like it:  more what I expected from Fitzgerald's famous flapper period.  The first four stories, at least - the ones grouped as "My Last Flappers."  They keep the promise, deftly evoking a society on edge, a society being stretched and frayed by the mystifying energies of young women ducking away from their handlers and the nearly beat cynicism of the young men who can't catch them either.  Yes he's still objectifying the women, still making them vessels of everything but their own humanity, but at least he's doing it wholeheartedly this time. 

The first four stories are easily the best in the volume, though.  "May Day," in fact, is one of the best things I've read in all of Fitzgerald so far.  Its successful evocation of various levels of society - the way it evokes, or maybe just fakes, empathy for the downtrodden as well as the downtreaders - certainly foreshadows Gatsby, but the limited temporal and physical setting of it give it a dramatic unity and therefore intensity all its own.

The rest of the stories are real hit and miss.  Some inane comedy pieces ("Mr. Icky" and "Jemina"), some sophomoric trick pieces ("Tarquin of Cheapside" and "O Russet Witch!"), and some clearly major but rather off-putting fantasies.  "Benjamin Button" (never seen the film, so don't ask) and "The Diamond As Big As The Ritz" are the latter.  I didn't think much of "Benjamin Button" one way or the other, but "Diamond" was interesting.

Interesting for obvious reasons - it's a vividly told parable of something - but also disturbing.  It forced me to confront something that I've found increasingly hard to ignore as I make my way through early Fitzgerald.  His racial attitudes.  In "Diamond" the problematic idea is that this Shangri-la is based on the labor of slaves who were never freed after the Civil War.  Certainly we're not meant to see this as unproblematic, and I guess you could make a point that Fitzgerald was being exceptionally clear-eyed about race by admitting that a certain kind of white paradise could only be built on the stolen freedom of blacks.  But I'm not sure that's his intent either.  I'm sure he thinks he's being a little bit daring by imagining this, but I don't know that he thinks he's exposing the heart of American darkness either, although I think that's what he's doing in effect.  That is, the Peach Blossom Spring that he invents in the Rockies works perfectly as a metaphor for the antebellum South, or the society that the Lost Causers want to bring back:  a place whose wealth is entirely bound up with the existence of an enslaved class, a system that by its very backwardness calls forth other relics of behavior - the vaguely Oriental (in the oldest sense, the one followed by "despot") air about the place plugs in here.  That's how the thing works, I say, but I worry that Fitzgerald isn't as horrified by this vision as we might be today.  (As I am, and as I hope you are.)

I worry because although I never noticed it in Gatsby (is it there?), I've noticed in these early works Fitzgerald often taking a very cavalier attitude toward race.  Portraying black characters in essentialist way, having white characters talk about them in racist ways, evincing a nostalgia for the Confederacy, buying into the whole myth of Southern chivalry and Northern barbarism.  Well:  Fitzgerald may be no more than a victim of his times.  But when Tom Buchanan says things like this in Gatsby, I'm accustomed to being horrified, to seeing him as a bad guy, and therefore Fitzgerald as being more enlightened than his times.  But maybe not.

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