~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.
I feel pretty safe saying that she didn’t pick up the Avon paperback because she had a premonition that, twenty years down the road, her son would wash up in Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda’s hometown. Or that, another decade on, he would ascend through sheer Machiavellian manipulation to the vice-presidency of a literary society devoted to the divine Mrs. F’s husband. (I only slightly exaggerate). The book came into her possession, rather, thanks to an ad-hoc reading club that began meeting at our house in the waning days of Emperor Nixon. To call this group a “club” is a little misleading: it was a small circle of five or six fellow teachers, all intent on making the most of summer vacations by biking to the farmer’s market, shopping, playing tennis, and discussing books together. The women in the circle were younger than my mother, who was herself barely thirty, though she was the only one then with a child. My constant presence irritated at least a few of them, if only because I was too old to be a surrogate son and yet too young to be that kid brother never had.
I won’t lie and say I recall them reading Zelda. I can still see them stretched out in loungers around the water, talking in that coded language adults like to believe children are incapable of translating. Eavesdropping inevitably led me to sneak my own peek into their books, which included Fear of Flying, Go Ask
The Bell Jar, and Rubyfruit Jungle. One book I remember
them howling at was Teachers Pet,
supposedly a saucy memoir of two student teachers exposed to the lubricious
atmosphere of a typical Midwestern high school caught in the fervor of the
sexual revolution. Years later, tracking down this title, I wasn’t surprised to
learn that both it and Coffee, Tea, or
Me? were actually written by a man—the inexhaustibly prolific Donald Bain,
now best known for pumping out some forty Murder,
She Wrote novels since the late eighties. I suspect that my mom and her
gang chortled so uproariously because they intuited that, despite these books’
veil of sexual liberation, their bite really came from decidedly wolfish male
What I can only guess at is how Zelda fit into their program.
is hardly anyone’s definition of a summer read. It’s difficult to imagine my
mother’s friends pondering the long descent into mental illness and marital
recrimination without a damper getting put on their day. I suspect they read Zelda more dutifully than enthusiastically; for their generation it was already
something of a rite of passage. These were women who didn’t identify themselves
as feminists, and yet by any 1970s’ measure, they were progressive. They spoke emphatically
of wanting to excel in their careers, and the married ones, my mom the
foremost, traded stories about putting their husbands in their place when the men
attempted to seize the purse strings. Whatever their salacious appeal, these
books gave my mother and her friends access to a dialogue about the intricacies
of their empowerment. The ideas they presented about women’s need for economic
independence and their right to sexual self-definition would’ve likely sounded
too serious and threatening if read in the voice of Betty Friedan, Germaine
Greer, or Gloria Steinem. The very pulpiness of them—the escapism, the
exclamatory prose, the disarming use of profanity—was a distraction. It allowed
these women to grapple with the importance of insisting on equality outside of
the contentious theater of politics, under the radar of diversion.
They would go nuts.
That, anyway, is the official history of
Milford’s biography. It’s
corroborated across Internet sites by the personal testimonies galore from
women—not all of them academics—describing how the book encouraged them to
avoid the fate of its subject. Milford herself has recounted how Zelda’s life inspired
her to hit the ejector button on an unrewarding marriage, and of how in the
aftermath she resolved to never again write about a woman who could be
considered a “victim” of her husband. Yet there’s a whole secret history to Zelda that hasn’t been discussed. That’s
partly because evidence of it is merely anecdotal, and partly because the
canonical importance of Milford
is too central to the way our literary history has since been shaped to trifle
with something as frivolous as the purpose it came to serve during my own
coming of age. That purpose, simply stated, was as a badge of fashion.
My initiation into this secret history took place about a decade after my mother’s informal reading club dissolved. When I went to college I noticed how prominently artsy girls displayed Zelda on their bookshelves. Whenever I could at parties I talked my way into I checked their insides for inscriptions. I realized that most of these Milfords had been handed down by mothers, or perhaps stolen from the downstairs stacks that had piled up in their own childhoods. The fact I’d done that very thing with my mom’s copy was a jolt to my masculinity—I was suddenly struck by the fact that I’d brought nothing of my father’s with me to school. Could it be that those breezy seventies’ summers by the pool surrounded only by books and women had led me to over-identify with the feminine?
Once I got over that anxiety—and, honestly, beer helped—the question of why these “artsy girls” owned Zelda intrigued me. Only later did I realize many considered themselves “post-feminist.” As children of the sexual revolution, these women considered themselves beyond the dangers of dependency
warned against. They took marital equality for granted and assumed that finding
a mate who understood that mutuality was non-negotiable was just a matter of
natural selection. Sooner or later, smart men would adapt to their needs, and
the dumb ones were welcome to go the way of the dodo. In the meantime, there
were things to learn and art to create, and if they happened to fall into
something approaching love, they were as apt to live with a guy as to marry
him—that way they could more easily light out for the territory if need be. I
can remember shyly admiring the strength these women exuded as they
commandeered stages at open-mic nights or continued coloring their chalk
sidewalk murals under the gray intrusion of a cloudbank. Here were Zeldas whom
no man was going to stymie, and yet they were still in the market for a Scott.
I was vain enough to think I could corner this market. This was the high age of Raymond Carver, after all, when the reigning style of literary manhood was at best emotionally reticent and at worst a wet blanket that only masochistic women could want to wrap themselves in. In practical terms that meant a lot of sad sacks sulked along the walls of those parties, all looking theatrically inebriated and affecting a deep need of redemption. I tried to be cool and read Cathedral, but all that stunted syntax and hangover mumbling.… It just wasn’t my bag, man. I liked words too much—the bigger the better, even if I didn’t quite grasp their meaning or, more often than not, their pronunciation. That’s why I made my bed in early Fitzgerald stories, the fun, flirty ones like “The Offshore Pirate,” “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” and “Winter Dreams.” They were impossibly coy, of course, halfway to cloying, and if I happened to stand next to some hirsute Bukowski wannabe as I evangelized over them, I looked as antiquated as Laura Ingalls Wilder. But I loved those stories for their enthusiasm, for their belief in joy and love, for the fact that their sadness didn’t descend on you from the outset like a strident plague of Nathanael West locusts. Eyeing those copies of Zelda, believing I’d wandered into a world of congenial spirits, I was certain all I needed was one of these artsy girls to take a shine to me, and I’d be cocked to drop Dick Diver’s immortal line to Nicole Warren in Tender Is the Night: “My God,” I could hear myself saying. “You’re fun to kiss.”
It’s probably not surprising that I had few takers on that offer. But I did have one, and it was through the good fortune of Zelda that we met. One day I visited the student newspaper where I’d managed to wheedle my own column. The editors happened to be compiling a literary supplement that would feature the first short story I ever published. I might’ve saved a few more copies if I’d known it’d be twenty years before a second made it to print. But more importantly, another contributor also happened to be submitting her manuscript. We’ll call her the Poet because that’s what she was. I’d seen her around before, usually in a circle of graduate students whom to my nineteen-year-old eyes roved the land like giants. They smoked, they drank (legally), they were writers, they seemed to have a lot of free time, but most enviably of all, they got paid to teach literature. The Poet was one of the few undergraduates allowed into this vaunted circle, no doubt because she was gorgeous, but also because she was creative. She wasn’t yet twenty but she was already a pet student of Garrett Hongo and Rod Santos, who a decade later would make her a character in his collection The City of Women. Every time I saw her she teetered at a forty-five degree angle from toting an armful of books on her hip. And on that particular day, which one might you guess topped her stack?
Reader, I do not lie.
Thus began an intense period of wooing that revolved mainly around reading. And what better way to fall in love than through books? Unlike movies, you could talk back to them without some crab shushing you from behind. Unlike music, they were concrete objets d’art that let you run your fingers across the lines, turn a page together, even take turns reading aloud to one another. That beat trying to squeeze two skullcaps between a pair of headphones for what was then a newly affordable Walkman. There were books other than
of course, but what I remember most are long afternoons in library carrels and
student lounges and Friday nights snuggled in pizza-parlor booths poring over Zelda—
Or its first five chapters, anyway. Those are the ones that cover the Fitzgeralds’ Montgomery courtship, and they include generous excerpts from what is the real source of Scott and Zelda’s appeal as a couple, the reason they regularly land on Top Ten lists of the all-time greatest love affairs: her letters to him. (Except for a smattering of telegrams, his to her from 1918-1920 are largely missing). There is no better testament to the power of this one-sided correspondence to intoxicate than the fact that the one flowery moment in Zelda comes when Milford describes her own first exposure to them in 1963: “Sitting up late at night in Henderson, North Carolina, in a small tourist home reading Zelda’s letters to her husband moved me in a way I had never been moved before, touched something in me that before those letters had been untouched.…”
What is that “something”? It’s nothing more, and yet everything more, than the exuberance of what language will allow. Back in those days, Zelda’s correspondence wasn’t widely available, certainly not in used paperbacks. Milford quoted enough of it in all its gaudy excess that you could experience the flowery intensity without—and this is my point—having to read the whole book, especially not the downward spiral that begins after page 104. Instead,
Milford quoted enough verbal foliage one
could make a bouquet compiling credos. Our favorite was, “I don’t want to
live—I want to love first, and live incidentally.”
Throughout my career I’ve heard Zelda’s letters “performed” in perhaps a dozen different one-woman plays. I usually tune out when I realize the actress will insist on rendering them in a Southern accent that’s straight out of Carol Burnett doing Scarlett O’Hara in that old curtain-rod-on-the shoulders skit. The Everyman Theatre in
recently staged one of the better versions for the closing banquet of a
Fitzgerald Society conference I played a modest role in running. The morning after
a good friend asked us at the breakfast table if anyone had ever received or written
anything as ornate in a love letter. I wish I could report that I said “no,” “never,”
“of course not,” “are you frickin kidding?” and maybe even “bah, humbug” for
good measure, but it’s not so. The Poet and I were an epistolary couple, even
when we sat no more than a foot apart in a series of ratty apartments. There
were love notes, diaries in which we served as each other’s ideal addressee,
marginalia in each other’s books, inscriptions on the backs of photographs, and
jottings in day planners. Sometimes we even wrote on each other’s skin.
Over the decades incinerators throughout the South have made full meals of old boxfuls of the Poet’s words I’ve junked. It’s not the embarrassment of having once been vulnerable enough to be voluble by trying to articulate one’s feelings in something other than a store-bought stationery cliché; it’s the knowledge that for all the creativity and invention that went into such expression that words are ultimately just that—just words—and that once you have a basic facility with them you can say similar things to different people and it’s no crime—it’s just … revision. But even more than that the chagrin comes from realizing how willfully we can misread a story if we so choose. After all, it’s not as if the Poet and I were unaware of the “correct” interpretation of Zelda. It just wasn’t relevant. I suppose that’s both the beauty and the danger of wanting to love a book, to love through a book, when you’re still wet behind the ears. The freedom of immaturity lets you ground the historical context down to dust, polish away the preface and afterward and other explanatory apparatuses, wax off the distracting mites of meaning until all that remains is a reflecting pane, a mirror for your own imagining.
Four days a week, four classes a semester, I teach critical thinking for a living. I belong to a generation that first learned its literature through the pedagogy of personal response. Somewhere in between is a balance I’m not sure that in the quarter century I’ve not been nineteen I’ve ever been able to strike. On the one hand, there is within me a stern professional who insists that texts deserve their autonomy. I tell students books should live apart from us and that if we’re at all respectful our reading won’t leave behind any trace of itself, that we’ll wipe the stain of our fingerprints off the vessels of their being. And I believe wholeheartedly that this objectivity, this loss of self, is necessary to learning from works that don’t immediately affect us emotionally. If I hadn’t gained that distance at some point I never could’ve matured as a reader to appreciate how much is said in the silence that resides between Carver sentences. Then other times I hear an echo of summers spent poolside eavesdropping on my mother’s friends as they found themselves in that motley assortment of paperbacks, and I think it’s a good thing—a cool thing—that a page of print can shape us as surely as some artist’s hand somewhere shaped it. I suppose there are pros and cons to both positions. About a year ago during a visit to my mother’s I rifled the downstairs hoping to find her stack. The oval drum table was still there, but the books themselves—gone. When I asked what had happened to them, she couldn’t say. Probably bagged and donated to the library, sold off in a yard sale, thrown away.…
Thrown away? That startled me because I don’t think I’ve ever tossed a book out. My life tends to be navigated through stacks of them. They pile up on coffee tables and in odd crannies and on the empty side of the bed where they stretch out to assume the contour of a body. When I croak, it won’t be inappropriate to outline me in softcover instead of chalk. I have a history with every book I’ve ever owned, and like Zelda, when each opens, the memories spill out, insistent as a landslide.
I doubt Nancy Milford would enjoy knowing she is my madeleine. I wasn’t the intended audience for that biography. And admitting that is humbling. Yet it’s also necessary. It’s what on most days helps my reading stick to this side of sentimentality—or, better yet, this side of solipsism. Only occasionally since falling in love to Zelda have I strayed too far into my personal attachment to the Fitzgeralds. I’ll close by narrating two instances.
About a year after the Poet and I began reading
together I studied The Great Gatsby formally
for the first time: English 3, Section 5: Introduction to Literature. Whether by
God or serendipity the instructor seemed just the man to compel all the
aesthetic contemplation that can come from simply opening a book. He was a Kim,
for starters, and if that wasn’t exotic enough, his surname seemed a semaphore for
the romance of reading: Lovejoy. The enthusiasm wasn’t mutual, however. I was
an overeager student. I had facts I wanted to share, not to show off, but just
to be part of a conversation. Did anybody know Gertrude Stein thought Gatsby’s dedication (“Once Again to
Zelda”) captured in miniature Fitzgerald’s poetic style? Did they appreciate why
“commensurate” in the famous closing passage might be the most telling verb in
all of Fitzgerald’s writing? So I ended up yakking and yammering throughout the
class meetings with Horshackian glee, and I showed up at office hours hoping to
chit-chat when the teacher was proofing his dissertation. (It didn’t help that
I had a bad Freudian habit of calling him Lovelace). Several years later I would rediscover the essay exam I
wrote for him in a carton of old folders. The question asked us to talk about Gatsby’s color imagery, and I was wowed by the perspicacity of my bold insights,
which ran along the lines of “Yellow is a symbol of gold” and “The green light
at the end of the dock shows how America was (and is) always on the go.” It
took a long while to forgive myself for not appreciating back then that words
ought to say something.
But what really sticks in my mind from that class is another artsy girl who carried
Milford around like a fashion accessory. I
want to say her name was Rowena, but I don’t really remember. All I do recall
is that she was the only other person on the roll who actually looked forward
to studying Fitzgerald, and in the early months of the semester, as the
seemingly endless sessions devoted to Moll
Flanders and Pride and Prejudice
passed in a tortoise crawl, she and I would wander off to vent our frustrations
at the one nearby bar that tolerated my fake I.D. Don’t worry: my intentions
were chaste. All I wanted was to belong to a community of fellow readers as my
As I discovered, some semblance of it already existed. Rowena’s boyfriend was a member. His name was Ed, he was older, and he was in the English department! Just two and a half years later when I started teaching at the same university I’d be assigned a desk kitty-corner from his. Rowena was long gone by that point, and it didn’t take my modest GRE score to realize he’d been her freshman comp teacher. She’d stuck with him only as long as it took her to get through the general studies curriculum. That explained why even when they were together Ed and Rowena had seemed such an odd couple. She was, petite and punky, and he—well, he looked like he landed in grad school after playing lead guitar for the Doobie Brothers ca. 1978. Needless to say, Ed didn’t cotton to me, and occasionally when Rowena and I snuck off for a beer, he’d track us down and then snuff the conversation. “I’m no threat,” I wanted to tell him on those occasions. “You have to understand: I was raised among women and books. This is just my natural habitat.”
But Ed felt the need to cockwoggle, and so he insisted on giving me his opinion of Fitzgerald: overrated. Too many words, too much emotion, and the beauty and delicacy of it all.… well, it was … faggy. As you might suspect, Ed fancied himself a minimalist.
Rowena was embarrassed by him, of course, but for the meanwhile she was with him, probably for no other reason than he was older and there is a need in some women at nineteen or twenty to experience an older man’s misanthropy, if only so they know what not to get stuck with for the rest of their lives. The exhilarating thing about our conversations was that we didn’t go anywhere near this personal stuff. I’d say Rowena and I were all business, except the privilege of getting to talk about books seemed the furthest thing in the world from business.
The closest it came to personal was when she invited the Poet and me to a costume party thrown by some English department colleagues of Ed’s. The idea was to dress up as one’s favorite literary character. There was no doubt about whom the Poet and I would be, of course. We spent an excited week scouring thrift shops, where I found a chalky, used tuxedo. When she couldn’t locate a flapper dress, she rented a sewing machine and made her own. When Saturday finally came I slipped a pair of spats over my Thom McAnns and together we skipped like excited children up the cobblestone blocks of our student slum. I’m not sure what I expected; I don’t think I was naïve enough to imagine we would stroll straight into chapter 3 of Gatsby, where all gardens are blue, the moon is a wafer whose glow softens the gaudiness of primary colors, and where a good party ends with a mascara tear sinking down a cheek like the stem of a quarter note on a musical staff.
Yet from the minute we passed the threshold, we sensed an odd aggression, an anger even, toward the very books we were supposed to be pretending we lived in. It wasn’t just the sight of Rowena duded up as Hester Prynne, her stomach swollen with what must have been a prize pumpkin belted to her hips. It wasn’t Ed doing his best James Mason as Humbert Humbert, gyrating around with the face of an inflatable sex doll duct-taped to his groin. It was the guy who showed up with a toaster oven roped to his head, the one who backed every guest into a corner demanding they guess who he was. And when inevitably you came up short because for the life of you you couldn’t remember a book that prominently featured a toaster oven he’d grin with a malicious brutality and yell, “C’mon! I’m Sylvia Plath!”
No, this was not our audience. The literature we wanted to live in would teach us to love and to value poignancy over irony—not in easy, treacly ways, but in ones that cost us a pound of emotional flesh and gave us a counterbalance of conviction against the archness and flippancy of anti-aestheticism. The books we adored would drop us to our knees in humility and then fill our lungs with the breath of the humane. Suddenly wanting to be affected by beauty and sadness left us feeling very delicate, frivolous even. I spent most of that party hunched over a keg wondering if I could possibly be more of a hothouse flower in this icy temple of cool.
If this story were a fiction, that feeling would’ve come to a head with some terrible epiphany that chastened us with how little we belonged. Then the Poet and I would retreat into the soft dénouement of assuring each other we were better than all the rest put together. In real life, however, we weren’t that conceited, and so the party died more from the slow trawl of tedium. We gave it two hours of our time, and only then because we didn’t want to stop playing dress up. When we finally did leave, we kicked our way home through wet leaves, dodging raindrops. Only a sprint from our apartment I told the Poet I didn’t think I’d ever felt so young.
“I’ve never felt so old,” she replied. “And I’m not unhappy about it.”
Many years later, when the child we had together graduated high school, a moment of inebriated nostalgia led me to ask behind her husband’s back whether the Poet still had her copy of the
we’d once pored over together. I referred to Zelda as “the Milford”
because it’s a tic among scholars to refer to the biographies and critical
studies we read over and over by name, not title. My Fitzgerald friends and I
speak of our Bruccolis and Mizeners and Turnbulls, while in Hemingway circles
we have our Bakers and Reynolds and Donaldsons. My Faulkner companions go on
and on about their Blotners, and for a brief period when I aspired to be a Steinian
we constantly mentioned our Mellows and Wineapples. Even my Carver
acquaintances now have their very own Sklenicka. That
we speak of these books as if they were people, not just about them, reveals our
deep, enduring need to personalize our reading. And so on that particular
night, far away from work, I cupped a secretive hand to the Poet’s ear and
whispered the question, my head swirling with memories of running home in a
light rain to escape a hard party.
You can probably guess her answer.
Milford?” she wanted to
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
This essay is my first shot at a collection about the way books and reading intertwine with other daily routines, whether eating or listening to music, watching TV, and even sexuality. I'm a huge fan of “how-I-lived-within-this-literature” memoirs such as Elif Batuman's The Possessed and Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch. I'd like to do something similar except extend the discussion to the places that physical books occupy in our lives—where we carry them, where we read them, what else we're doing when we read them, how we glamorize our attachment to books by associating them with more adventurous activities than sitting and turning pages.
This particular piece is the romance chapter. I'm a very nostalgic person and was just remembering how exhilarating it was to be young and to love someone through shared books. The essay is also an effort to explore the cringe-worthy naiveté of that type of reading by exploring how at odds my personal attachment to one particular book was with its social history. So much of the appeal of literature is about personal identification, and yet so much of the work of critical reading is about growing beyond that initial lure. Sometimes we feel conflicted between why we read and how we read, and that, to me, is the most compelling dilemma to untangle.
ABOUT KIRK CURNUTT
Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University’s Montgomery Campus in Montgomery, Alabama, where he also serves as a director of the Alabama Book Festival. His thirteen books include two novels—Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and
Dixie Noir (2009)—and studies of Gertrude
Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. His latest book is Brian Wilson (2012), an entry in Equinox
Publishing’s Icons of Pop Music series