Sunday, March 30, 2014

Young F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have devoted March to making a survey of humor writers who were active during the period from about 1900 until the end of The Great War.  F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) belongs to the literary period right after, the period labelled by Fitzgerald himself as The Jazz Age.  So, why do I rope F. Scott Fitzgerald into my survey?  Back in 1916, Fitzgerald, then an undergraduate at Princeton University, wrote a burlesque in an attempt to imitate the style of Stephen Leacock.  The burlesque was retitled "Jemina, the Mountain Girl" and reprinted (presumably to capitalize on Fitzgerald's growing fame) in Vanity Fair in 1921.

Fitzgerald burst onto the American literary scene in 1920 with the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and his first collection of short stories, Flappers and Philosophers.  After the burlesque I have included some introductory paragraphs from each of these works to show how much Fitzgerald's style matured by 1920.

Initial publication: The Nassau Literary Magazine , Issue 72, pp. 210-215, Dec 1916
Reprinted: Vanity Fair vol 15, no 5, January 1921

Jemina, the Mountain Girl

One of Those Family Feud Stories of the Blue Ridge Mountains
with Apologies to Stephen Leacock

It was night in the mountains of Kentucky.  Wild hills rose on all sides.  Swift mountain streams flowed rapidly up and down the mountains.

Jemina Tantrum was down at the stream, brewing whiskey at the family still.

She was a typical mountain girl.

Her feet were bare.  Her hands large and powerful, hung down below her knees.  Her face showed the ravages of work.  Although but sixteen, she had for over a dozen years been supporting her aged pappy and mappy by brewing mountain whiskey.

From time to time she would pause in her task, and, filling a dipper full of the pure invigorating liquid, would drain it off — then pursue her work with renewed vigor.

She would place the rye in the vat, thresh it out with her feet and, in twenty minutes, the completed product would be turned out.

A sudden cry made her pause in the act of draining a dipper and look up.

"Hello," said a voice.  It came from a man clad in hunting boots reaching to his neck, who had emerged from the wood.

"Hi, thar", she answered sullenly.

"Can you tell me the way to the Tantrums' cabin?"

"Are you uns from the settlements down thar?"

She pointed her hand down to the bottom of the hill, where Louisville lay.  She had never been there; but once, before she was born, her great-grandfather, old Gore Tantrum, had gone into the settlements in the company of two marshalls, and had never come back.  So the Trantrum, from generation to generation, had learned to dread civilization.

The man was amused.  He laughed a light tinkling laugh: the laugh of a Philadelphian.  Something in the ring of it thrilled her.  She drank off another dipper of whiskey.

"Where is Mr. Trantrum, little girl?" he asked not without kindness.

"She raised her foot and pointed her big toe toward the woods.

"That in the cabing behind those thar pines.  Old Tantrum air my old man."

The man from the settlements thanked her and strode off.  He was fairly vibrant with youth and personality.  As he walked along he whistled and sang and turned handsprings and flapjacks, breathing in the fresh, cool air of the mountains.

The air around the still was like wine.

Jemina Tantrum watched him entranced.  No one like him had ever come into her life before.

She sat down on the grass and counted her toes.  She counted eleven.  She had learned arithmetic in the mountain school.

A Mountain Feud

The years before a lady from the settlements had opened a school on the mountain.  Jemina had no money, but she had paid her way in whiskey, bringing in a pailful to school every morning and leaving it on Miss Lafarge's desk.  Miss Lafarge had died of delirium tremens after a year's teaching, and so Jemina's education stopped.

Across the stream there stood another still.  It was that of the Doldrums.  The Doldrums and the Tantrums never exchanged calls.

They hated each other.

Fifty years before old Jem Doldrum and old Jem Tantrum had quarreled in the Tantrum cabin over a game of slapjack.  Jem Doldrum had thrown the king of hearts in Jem Tantrum's face, and old Tantrum, enraged, had felled the old Doldrum with the nine of diamonds.  Other Doldrums and Tantrums had joined in and the little cabin was soon filled with flying cards.  Harstrum Doldrum, one of the younger Doldrums, lay stretched on the floor writhing in agony, the ace of hearts crammed down his throat.  Jem Tantrum, standing in the doorway, ran through suit after suit, his face alight with fiendish hatred.  Old Mappy Tantrum stood on the table wetting down the Doldrums with hot whiskey.  Old Heck Doldrum, having finally run out of trumps, was backed out of the cabin, striking left and right with his tobacco pouch, and gathering round him the rest of his clan.  Then they mounted their steers and galloped furiously home.

That night old man Doldrum and his sones, vowing vengeance, had returned, put a tick-tock on the Tantrum window, stuck a pin in the doorbell and beaten a retreat.

A week later the Tantrums had put Cod Liver Oil in the Doldrum's still, and so, from year to year, the feud had continued, first one family being entirely wiped out, then the other.

The Birth of Love

Every day little Jemina worked the still on her side of the stream, and Boscoe Doldrum worked the still on his side.

Sometimes, with automatic inherited hatred, the feudists would throw whiskey at each other, and Jemina would come home smelling like a French table d'hote.

But now Jemina was too thoughtful to look across the stream.

How wonderful the stranger had been and how oddly he was dressed!  In her innocent way she had never believed that there were any civilized settlements at all, and she had put the belief in them down to the dredulity of the mountain people.

She turned to go up to the cabin, and, as she turned something struck her in the neck.  It was a sponge soaked in whiskey, thrown by Boscoe Doldrum — a sponge soaked in whiskey from his still on the other side of the stream.

"Hi, thar, Boscoe Doldrum," she shouted in her deep bass voice.

"Yo! Jemina Tantrum.  Gosh ding yo'!" he returned.

She continued her way to the cabin.

The stranger was talking to her father.  Gold had been discovered on the Tantrum land, and the stranger, Edgar Edison, was trying to buy the land for a song.  He was considering what song to offer.

She sat upon her hands and watched him.

He was wonderful.  When he talked his lips moved.

She sat upon the stove and watched him.

Suddenly there came a blood-curdling scream.  The Tantrums rushed to the windows.

It was the Doldrums.

They had hitched their steers to trees and concealed themselves behind the bushes and flowers, and soon a perfect rattle of stones and bricks beat against the windows, bending them inward.

"Father, father," shrieked Jemina.

Her father took down his slingshot from his slingshot rack on the wall and ran his hand lovingly over the elastic band.  He stepped to a loophole.  Old Mappy Tantrum stepped to the coalhole.

A Mountain Battle

The stranger was aroused at last.  Furious to get at the Doldrums, he tried to escape from the house by crawling up the chimney.  Then he thought there might be a door under the bed, Jemina told him there was not.  He hunted for doors under the beds and sofas, but each time Jemina pulled him out and told him there were no doors there.  Furious with anger, he beat upon the door and hollered at the Doldrums.  They did not answer him, but kept up their fusillade of bricks and stones against the window.  Old Pappy Tantrum knew that as soon as they wre able to effect an aperture they would pour in and the fight would be over.

Then old Heck Doldrum, foaming at the mouth and expectorating on the ground, left and right, led the attack.

The terrific slingshots of Pappy Tantrum had not been without their effect.  A master shot had disabled one Doldrum, and another Doldrum, shot three times through the abdomen, fought feebly on.

Nearer and nearer they approached the house.

"We must fly," shouted the stranger to Jemina.  "I will sacrifice myself and bear you away."

"No," shouted Pappy Tantrum, his face begrimed.  "You stay here and fit on.  I will bar Jemina away.  I will bar Mappy away.  I will bar myself away."

The man from the settlements, pale and trembling with anger, turned to Ham Tantrum, who stood at the door throwing loophole after loophole at the advancing Doldrums.

Soon smoke began to filter through the floor and ceiling.  Shem Doldrum had come up and touched a match to old Japhet Tantrum's breath as he leaned from a loophole, and the alcoholic flames shot up on all side.

The whiskey in the bathtub caught fire.  The walls began to fall in.

Jemina and the man from the settlements looked at each other.

"Jemina," he whispered.

"Stranger," she answered.

"We will die together," he said.  "If we had lived I would have taken you to the city and married you.  With your ability to hold liquor, your social success would have been assured."

She caressed him idly for a moment, counting her toes softly to herself.  The smoke grew thicker.  Her left leg was on fire.

She was a human alcohol lamp.

Their lips met in one long kiss and then a wall fell on them and blotted them out.


Very well, compare the preceding burlesque with Fitzgerald's Jazz-age prose — replete with pumped-up adjectives and dashes — at the start of his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise:

Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.  His father, an ineffectual, inarticulate man with a taste for Byron and a habit of drowsing over the Encyclopedia Britannica, grew wealthy at thirty through the death of two elder brothers, successful Chicago brokers, and in the first flush of feeling that the world was his, went to Bar Harbor and met Beatrice O'Hara.  In consequence, Stephen Blaine handed down to posterity his height of just under six feet and his tendency to waver at crucial moments, these two abstractions appearing in his son Amory.  For many years he hovered in the background of his family's life, an unassertive figure with a face half-obliterated by lifeless, silky hair, continually occupied in "taking care" of his wife, continually harassed by the idea that he didn't and couldn't understand her.

But Beatrice Blaine!  There was a woman!  Early pictures taken on her father's estate at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, or in Rome at the Sacred Heart Convent — an educational extravagance that in her youth was only for the daughters of the exceptionally wealthy — showed the exquisite delicacy of her features, the consummate art and simplicity of her clothes. A brilliant education she had — her youth passed in renaissance glory, she was versed in the latest gossip of the Older Roman Families; known by name as a fabulously wealthy American girl to Cardinal Vitori and Queen Margherita and more subtle celebrities that one must have had some culture even to have heard of.  She learned in England to prefer whiskey and soda to wine, and her small talk was broadened in two senses during a winter in Vienna.  All in all Beatrice O'Hara absorbed the sort of education that will be quite impossible ever again; a tutelage measured by the number of things and people one could be contemptuous of and charming about; a culture rich in all arts and traditions, barren of all ideas, in the last of those days when the great gardener clipped the inferior roses to produce one perfect bud.

In her less important moments she returned to America, met Stephen Blaine and married him — this almost entirely because she was a little bit weary, a little bit sad.  Her only child was carried through a tiresome season and brought into the world on a spring day in ninety-six.



Fitzgerald's next book, the short story collection Flappers and Philosophers (1920), continued his modern style.  Here is the beginning to his story "The Offshore Pirate":

This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colorful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children's eyes.  From the western half of the sky the sun was shying little golden disks at the sea — if you gazed intently enough you could see them skip from wave tip to wave tip until they joined a broad collar of golden coin that was collecting half a mile out and would eventually be a dazzling sunset.  About half-way between the Florida shore and the golden collar a white steam-yacht, very young and graceful, was riding at anchor and under a blue-and-white awning aft a yellow-haired girl reclined in a wicker settee reading The Revolt of the Angels, by Anatole France.

She was about nineteen, slender and supple, with a spoiled alluring mouth and quick gray eyes full of a radiant curiosity.  Her feet, stockingless, and adorned rather than clad in blue-satin slippers which swung nonchalantly from her toes, were perched on the arm of a settee adjoining the one she occupied.  And as she read she intermittently regaled herself by a faint application to her tongue of a half-lemon that she held in her hand.  The other half, sucked dry, lay on the deck at her feet and rocked very gently to and fro at the almost imperceptible motion of the tide.

The second half-lemon was well-nigh pulpless and the golden collar had grown astonishing in width, when suddenly the drowsy silence which enveloped the yacht was broken by the sound of heavy footsteps and an elderly man topped with orderly gray hair and clad in a white-flannel suit appeared at the head of the companionway.  There he paused for a moment until his eyes became accustomed to the sun, and then seeing the girl under the awning he uttered a long even grunt of disapproval.

If he had intended thereby to obtain a rise of any sort he was doomed to disappointment.  The girl calmly turned over two pages, turned back one, raised the lemon mechanically to tasting distance, and then very faintly but quite unmistakably yawned.

"Ardita!" said the gray-haired man sternly.

Ardita uttered a small sound indicating nothing.

"Ardita!" he repeated. "Ardita!"

Ardita raised the lemon languidly, allowing three words to slip out before it reached her tongue.  "Oh, shut up."



"Will you listen to me — or will I have to get a servant to hold you while I talk to you?"

The lemon descended very slowly and scornfully.  "Put it in writing."

"Will you have the decency to close that abominable book and discard that damn lemon for two minutes?"

"Oh, can't you lemme alone for a second?"

"Ardita, I have just received a telephone message from the shore —"

"Telephone?"  She showed for the first time a faint interest.

"Yes, it was —"

"Do you mean to say," she interrupted wonderingly, "'that they let you run a wire out here?"

"Yes, and just now —"

"Won't other boats bump into it?"

"No.  It's run along the bottom.  Five min——"

"Well, I'll be darned!  Gosh!  Science is golden or something — isn't it?"

"Will you let me say what I started to?"


"Well it seems — well, I am up here—"  He paused and swallowed several times distractedly.  "Oh, yes. Young woman, Colonel Moreland has called up again to ask me to be sure to bring you in to dinner.  His son Toby has come all the way from New York to meet you and he's invited several other young people.  For the last time, will you —"

"No," said Ardita shortly, "I won't.  I came along on this darn cruise with the one idea of going to Palm Beach, and you knew it, and I absolutely refuse to meet any darn old colonel or any darn young Toby or any darn old young people or to set foot in any other darn old town in this crazy state.  So you either take me to Palm Beach or else shut up and go away."


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