Saturday, September 24, 2016

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, on Beliefs and Age)

“People over forty can seldom be permanently convinced of anything. At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look; at 45 they are caves in which we hide."—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” in Flappers and Philosophers (1920)

That kind of statement could only be made by someone not yet close to 30—someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, born on this date 120 years ago in St. Paul, Minn. He was still only 23 years old when “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” was published in The Saturday Evening Post in May 1920.

I read somewhere that Fitzgerald could write a bad story, but never a bad sentence. The two sentences in the quote go a long way toward proving that point. They are perfectly balanced and illustrate their point perfectly well.

The problem with the passage lies not with its sound but with its sensibility. Fitzgerald is correct that youth are fearless, but he evinces no understanding that adults have much to lose—indeed, that even younger adults, just beyond the society-obsessed teens here, may already have lost a great deal.

This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, appeared the same year as “Bernice.” In both, the narrative voice drips with such irony toward the older generation that it seems to pass all too quickly from self-confidence to arrogance.

As part of perhaps the first generation of American youth to rebel openly against their parents and what they represented, Fitzgerald satirized the Victorian mores that held sway until the First World War: “it is well known among ladies over thirty-five that when the younger set dance in the summer-time it is with the very worst intentions in the world, and if they are not bombarded with stony eyes stray couples will dance weird barbaric interludes in the corners, and the more popular, more dangerous, girls will sometimes be kissed in the parked limousines of unsuspecting dowagers.”

A generation before J.D. Salinger gave a voice to Holden Caulfield, more than 60 years before filmmaker John Hughes made comedies about mid-American suburban youths, Fitzgerald highlighted, in “Bernice,” “the drama of the shifting, semicruel world of adolescence.” For much of the story, the female object of desire in this world is Marjorie, who, through her thoughtlessness, induces her cousin Bernice to lose her innocence. Few other writers have exceeded Fitzgerald's skill in capturing the breathless change in culture this new generation--epitomized by these girls and their swains, themselves uncertain and insecure, despite surface bravado--introduced.

That change was epitomized by their explosive interest in jazz. Fitzgerald not only summarized the new zeitgeist by coining the phrase “the Jazz Age,” but also noticed how the new music was undermining, almost through its nervous, staccato rhythms, traditional notions of cultural or even personality fixity: “Youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of foxtrotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious.”

In a passage such as this, Fitzgerald comes across like a cultural anthropologist explaining the customs of an unknown tribe to an older civilization—one that, as just seen, he has already mocked. By the middle of the Roaring Twenties, then into the Great Depression, he had forsaken this guise for another role, as moral commentator and critic of the corruption of wealth, in The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, the works of his maturity.

The tragedy was that Fitzgerald did not live to see 45, dying of a heart attack the year before he would have reached that milestone. In the decade before his death, though, as misfortune and despair pressed on him, hard experience might have made him wish for any “caves in which we hide."

"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" sprang from a 10-page letter Fitzgerald wrote his younger sister Annabel in 1915, in which he offered advice on such essential teen matters as conversation, poise, dress, dancing, and personality. Subsequently, his feelings about the story shifted, much like Bernice's about the value of the social experience initiated by Marjorie. In a note to critic-editor H.L. Mencken, he included the story in a category of his work that he labeled, simply, "Trash." But by the mid-1930s, he requested that it be included in a collection of his work.

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