My short story odyssey has begun with two American authors with stories set in the 1920s. Although I chose the authors for the period their stories were written, by chance both were Midwesterners and were born within a few years of each other. F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul Minnesota in 1896. Kay Boyle was also born in St. Paul in 1902. They lived vastly different lives however.
F. Scott Fitzgerald seems to be the epitome of what the "Jazz Age" meant. He actually coined the term. Although he appeared to live the life that he portrayed in his stories, he did not have the family fortune to sustain the lifestyle he craved. There was added pressure to succeed as a writer because he was enamored with Southern debutante Zelda Sayre. She wouldn't agree to marry him until his income would support her in the ritzy lifestyle she wanted to lead. All the stories in my collection were written in Fitzgerald's first year as a professional writer in 1919 and 1920. By 1920 he had published 15 stories, and sold his first novel, and Hollywood had purchased the movie rights to one of his short stories. During hist first year as an author he earned the sum of $18,000, no doubt a small fortune in 1920. F. Scott and Zelda lived tumultuous lives, however, and both died very young.
"One of the major reasons for the instant popularity of Fitzgerald's fiction was that it reflected the far-reaching changes in values, behavior, and appearance of the generation coming of age after World War I. Along with considerable disillusionment of young people after the war, came a sense of living in extravagant and daring times. Fitzgerald perceptively dramatized the new ways in which males and females related to one another, the kinds of conversations taking place and the new attitudes behind them, as well as conveying vivid details of clothes, entertainments, cars, houses, and hotels." (From the introduction in my book).
Inevitably when I enjoy something I read, I want to read and know more. Like every other American his school student I read The Great Gatsby years ago. It is one of the few books I read more than once as a youth. I'd like to read all his novels now. I read the story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" this weekend, which I greatly enjoyed. America in the 20s has always fascinated me, so I may be looking around for more novels with that setting.
Bernice is a nice, quiet, Midwestern girl visiting her cousin Marjorie, a knowledgeable, worldly-wise flapper. When Marjorie and Bernice go to parties and dances no one wants to dance with Bernice. She's a poor dancer and a worse conversationalist. Of course Marjorie knows how to work the floor. Marjorie is the sort of girl that prefers men as friends and thinks other girls are bores, and it's obvious to Bernice that Marjorie would prefer she wasn't around. Bernice decides to let Marjorie transform her into a new sort of woman. She gives her advice on how to change her appearance, dance, and chat with the men. She becomes an instant success, going so far as to steal away Marjorie's young man. I won't give away how things end, but this is an interesting (and entertaining) look at the changing mores of the time, and how artificiality and manipulation (at least in this case) are favored over the waning virtues of femininity. Very well worth a read!
Kay Boyle lived a long and distinguished life. She wrote more than 40 books, short stories, poetry, essays and children's books. She was active artistically and politically and during the McCarthy era was blacklisted. She was jailed twice for her opposition to the Vietnam War. Louise Erdrich wrote the introduction to Fifty Stories. I thought it was interesting that she says, "...like Albert Camus, she has always celebrated not the voices of those who make history, but the people who endure its workings: the silenced, the oppressed" (which you get a sense of in the story I read). Boyle's formal education consisted of one single 'grieving' day in Kindergarten. Instead she stayed home with her mother, to the happiness of both of them.
"At eleven, Kay was pondering the theory of Cubism and writing fiction that described such imaginary incidents as the daily ride of Kaiser Wilhelm II through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a story that her mother read to guests along with Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons."
According to Boyle, "In Mother's eyes Stein and I were of equal importance as writers of the modern school". How cool is that. Boyle is definitely another author I will be reading more of. I don't know how much of her work is still in print--no doubt nothing close to what she actually published. I read "White as Snow", which appears to be available online via Google Books (which I find sort of amazing as it is a fairly contemporary book). It is from her early group of stories written between 1927-1934.
I had no idea what the story was about and just chose at random. I will be giving away a few plot spoilers in case you'd like to read the story.
The story is essentially about the introduction of two young girls to racial prejudice. Carrie has come to the seaside as a nurse to two young girls on holiday with their family. Carrie was "colored sweet and even like sarsaparilla". It's obvious she is trying to pass herself off as white, however. Being at the seaside, she believes is beneficial for her--her hair seems to be getting straighter, "It seems the air on the beach, it's known it takes the curl out". She powders her face with white powder and talks as though "colored people" are a group apart from herself. She meets a young man (white) on the beach and makes a date to meet him at the movies. Carrie and the two girls set out at the appointed time--they must not walk with the young man. He walks apart from them as though he doesn't know them. He stops to buy taffy and passes it to Carrie surreptitiously. When they get to the theater the young man tells Carrie that he can't get four seats together, but he can get her a ticket to sit upstairs in the balcony. In the end he makes a fast exit saying he forgot he needed to be somewhere else. Of course being colored, Carrie wouldn't be able to sit in the main theater. It was a heart wrenching story to read. At one point Carrie told the young girls,
"You got no reason to care," she said. "Anything gets harmed for you, folks get you a new one. Anything that happens to me, it just stays that way. But I got a heart as red as yours, my blood runs the same color, if I was to cut my finger and you cut your finger, nobody's be able to tell the two of us apart."
Another exceptional story. Highly recommended.