Even Zelda Fitzgerald Thought Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf Were a Bit Much

Over the weekend, I picked up a copy of Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at my local library. And while I wouldn’t always call them “love” letters, exactly, the correspondence that makes up the greater part of the book is engaging, well-crafted, and endlessly surprising.

Zelda Fitzgerald initially rose to fame by setting the pace of the ’20s as the consummate Jazz Age socialite, but by the 1930s her talents and ambitions were overtaken by mental illness. Doctors diagnosed her psychiatric struggles as schizophrenia, and she spent years in and out of treatment facilities across France, Switzerland, and the States.

As friends of Hemingway, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, and other celebrated literary figures of the era—and, of course, as writers themselves—the Fitzgeralds naturally expressed some intriguing opinions on their peers and competitors. I laughed out loud reading the following request from Zelda during the spring of 1931, sent to Scott from Prangins Clinic in Nyon, Switzerland:

I have been reading Joyce and find it a night-mare in my present condition, and since my head evaporates in a book-store it would be much easier if you would send something to me. Not in French, since I have enough difficulty with English for the moment and not Lawrence and not Virginia Wo[o]lf or anybody who writes by dipping the broken threads of their heads into the ink of literary history, please—

My takeaway from this solitary letter: Zelda Fitzgerald may have been much saner than we thought. Joyce, Lawrence, and (sometimes) Woolf still write the plot of my own literary nightmares, and I never had to meet any of them in person.


#5 The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is always an American crowd-pleaser, right up until we realize it’s actually a metaphor for all the things that are wrong with us. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American Dream had a lot to answer for—and in no way was it self-evident that all men are created equal. Gatsby is a story about how dreams die, and how love dies, and how people die, and how—for the most part—nobody cares.

There’s this whole element of symbolism between the West and the East, but really everyone is pretty much the same: shallow, self-involved, and rich as a cheesecake. The tension between the social classes drives the story, just as it drove the Roaring Twenties and The O.C. 

The whole situation erupts on our narrator’s 30th birthday. (His asshole entourage, naturally, can’t stop assholing long enough to bake him a cake.) At Gatsby’s funeral, Nick realizes that choosing style over substance may win you fans, but not friends—and after the party that was Gatsby’s life, Nick is the only one left with a hangover.

I can’t be the only one who finds it unspeakably awkward that the controversial Daisy Buchanan was based on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda. Also that Jordan Baker was named for two car companies in a book where all cars are vessels of evil. This probably speaks for itself in terms of women’s representation—and it speaks volumes about the era.

Will the upcoming movie similarly favor style over substance? Under director Baz Luhrman, probably YES. But maybe that’s exactly how it should be. Money, scandal, sex, murder, drugs… Just add a pregnancy out of wedlock, and Gatsby is a Maury episode waiting to happen.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It has GREAT in the title. This is not a world of subtlety.

Favorite Quotes:

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Read: 2003 maybe? Or 2005?