~This essay originally appeared in The Southern Review (2013).
In the seventies, my mother began storing paperbacks in an oval drum table kept in our basement. As an only child, I had long claimed our downstairs as my sovereignty, and I took great objection to this adult incursion into the kingdom of my toys, especially after I was issued explicit orders not to go anywhere near her books. At ten or eleven I already suffered from boring bouts of insomnia, so on nights I could neither sleep nor relax, I would sneak out of my adjoining bedroom to rifle this forbidden stack. I was curious to know what knowledge I, the son of a teacher, could possibly be prohibited from learning.
The question wasn’t long in the answering. Among the titles in my mother’s collection was Coffee, Tea, or Me?, a steamy pulp featuring swinging stewardesses; a self-help manual called The Sensuous Woman by someone so salacious she could only publish under the pseudonym “J”; and a memoir whose title deeply perplexed me because it was the exact nickname my father gave me whenever I tried to shoot baskets, one-handed, over his head: The Happy Hooker. Needless to say, I found these books equal parts enthralling and confusing.
The one that would have the greatest impact on me wasn’t read until much later. I can remember flipping through its pictures, however, because one specific image gave me nightmares. I’ve since come across that photo countless times in my research, and never without experiencing the same shock of recoil. The photograph is of a slightly stooped woman with cadaverous cheeks bundled in a fur coat staring listlessly at the camera. Her expression is forlorn and faltering, self-protectively irresolute, as if by submitting to a pose she was relinquishing something of herself she would never get back. I would need a poetry class or two to find a phrase to describe that face: ’tis the distance on the look of death.
The picture wasn’t of Emily Dickinson but of Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s not an especially famous photo, but a telling one, taken in February 1930 during a vacation to the
Constantine gorge in Algeria only a few months before
the breakdown that would land her in a Swiss sanitarium and thereafter render her
one of the more enduring cautionary tales in American literary history. The
book itself was Nancy Milford’s biography, simply titled Zelda. It recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and though not
as controversial today as it was in 1970, it still possesses the power to
polarize. In Telling Women’s Lives: The
New Biography, Linda Wagner-Martin summarizes its legacy: “What struck
readers in 1970 was that Milford’s
story of Zelda’s life with F. Scott Fitzgerald had so often been told
inaccurately. By most accounts, Zelda’s drinking and bothering of her writer
husband had led to his drinking and his inability to get work done.” In
contrast, “ Milford
enabled readers to find in her protagonist a woman that nearly everyone could
identify with. Zelda’s story became its own drama,” a story of “rebelling at
the prescribed roles beautiful women were made to play.”
For other scholars, however, Zelda is the source of the most pernicious canard to haunt Fitzgerald’s work—namely, that he “plagiarized” her very essence in creating the iconic character of the flapper, often stripping her letters and diaries of specific, enchanting passages. Every so often I’m invited by a reading club or academic group to dilate on this debate, and so I iron my tie and fire up the PowerPoint and do my best to be balanced. I’ve also spent many a literary conference adjudicating the argument, often unwillingly over dinner tables and bar tops where, honestly, I’d rather be exploring topics that didn’t leave me wondering if I have a life outside of work. In recent years I’ve actually grown less interested in the biography’s influence on literary studies, and more intrigued by its sway on everyday readers who sent it spiraling onto the bestseller lists.
Readers, in other words, like my mother.