Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Zelda Fitzgerald

This post, and in fact this blog, was borne out of antics on the internet.

I recently dropped an aside into another internet forum, and to my genuine surprise, it provoked some interest. When I went to link to sources, however, I half-panicked, thinking I'd have to scan print pages. And I don't have a scanner. An internet claim I couldn't immediately substantiate because of print media?! Does that even happen any more?

But luckily, I didn't even have to scan or upload anything (though I do highly recommend reading the books linked to later). Because, lo and behold, when I went to verify a detail on Wikipedia ... the information I'd referenced was all right there in front of me. Out in the open, on a mainstream web page.

Frankly, this surprised me too.  It is essentially a public admission of guilt, yet most would read it as a celebration of the thief or a condemnation of the victim!
Just like I was when O.J. Simpson tried to publish his how-to manual book about how he "didn't kill" killed murdered Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, I was struck dumb.

That shouldn't surprise me, though. It proves the larger point: that intellectual theft from women, especially female spouses (like domestic abuse and even murder of women, especially female spouses) is so widespread as to be widely acceptable, such that people can admit to it publicly without threat of repercussion.
Hey, no biggie, right? It's just a chick. She wanted him to do it.

Wikipedia isn't exactly the journalist's or historian's gold standard in terms of info, but it's right there on the internet for all to see. So therefore, I am linking to it.

Modern radical feminists have a colloquial internet name for third-wave 'choice' feminists: "funfeminists." Sheila Jeffreys writes in The Spinster And Her Enemies (available in print form here and discussed here) that this brand of feminism was also prevalent in the 1920s, after women began to find increasing economic opportunities and freedoms.

Zelda Fitzgerald was an early funfeminist. Like many women today, she sought refuge from a stodgy upper middle class Southern family and enjoyed "flippin' it to the man" by smoking, drinking, dancing, and fucking. She wore fashionably scandalous clothing as an outward indicator of rejecting the social norms of the day, and as a way of announcing her sense of freedom. Zelda was also a writer, which was not an acceptable vocation for women of the day (perhaps arguably, to this day), and kept prolific journals of her work.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was quite enamored of Zelda, and courted her aggressively. He also stole freely from Zelda's notebooks, whether she liked it or not, and used her as inspiration for characters in his novels. (As their relationship wore on, his characterizations of her became less and less flattering, but from a modern viewpoint, no characterization of an intelligent, outgoing young woman as a mere vapid object and plot device is 'flattering.')

Zelda returned Scott's affections, perhaps thinking that marrying a smart and creative man would mean he'd accept her own intelligence and creativity. However, Scott proved himself as traditional in his thought patterns as he was rebellious in his actions. By many accounts, he resented her work, and he certainly, openly continued to steal from her without attribution. The couple began to fight, often and publicly, to the point of notoriety, but due to societal limitations (Scott was a famous white man highly regarded as an emerging artiste, while women, such as Zelda, had only recently earned so much as the right to vote in the United States), Zelda could find little to no external support. Her behavior spiraled into alcoholism and public rudeness, at least by the standards of the day.

Frustrated that his beautiful wife, who he had deemed "the first flapper", was not the docile little ingenue he'd so desired, Scott embarked upon affairs with other women. Zelda's actual opinion of this behavior is unknown. However, her understanding of a woman's expected place and actions are widely known, as Scott used the words she spoke about her own daughter ("I hope it's ... a beautiful little fool") in his novel The Great Gatsby.

Eventually Zelda gave up even trying to forge her own identity. In order to pursue his relationships with other women, Scott decided to have her committed to a sanitorium. Zelda was heard to remark that she preferred living in the asylum to being in her marriage. Ultimately she died of suffocation when the building caught fire, and she couldn't even summon enough desire to get out of bed. She fucking gave up, and she died in bed.

F. Scott never officially credited her influence on his books, except by openly admitting that he had lifted entire phrases from her speech and writings. His wikipedia page, and hers, blatantly state that he stole perhaps even the bulk of his material from her. The entirety of this article from the link on Zelda's name to here is a paraphrasing of her wikipedia page, just as Fitzgerald's body of work is possibly a paraphrasing of Zelda's work. Unlike Scott Fitzgerald, however, I cited my sources. His readers will never know where he ended and she began, as she is still not cited in or given official attribution for anything he wrote.

"Why does this matter?" readers may ask. "Maybe those feelings were hers, and maybe she dictated them to him. In any case, I'm glad they were projected out into the world in such an engaging fashion. I mean, when it comes to art, who did it might be kinda important, and it might need be engrossing to figure it out for political purposes, -- but in the more exalted world, isn't the most important thing that it exists?"
(Thanks, Stacy, for that excellent paragraph. See -- attribution. It's possible.)

Again, to directly quote another historian, feminist scholar, and avid F. Scott reader:

"[Even] 'stole material from' is very different from 'ruthlessly emotionally exploited and [emotionally] abused, and then literarily exploited and then abused again.' He banked on her suffering, and stole very serious emotional ideas from her."

And that, in fact, is bad.

"But why is intellectual theft bad?" readers may wonder. "People do it all the time."

To which I encourage readers to read How To Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ, available in full print form here, in excerpt form here.

Historically and in modern times, women and women's art have been marginalized. See a brief list of the hows here. (Interestingly, 'Theft' is not even explicitly stated on the list; perhaps it falls into the category 'Denial Of Agency.') Scott Fitzgerald similarly marginalized Zelda and her art, and he is not alone. Like many others, he got away with it and continues to get away with it, because of the way society sees women and their art.

It's okay that he stole from her. It wasn't even stealing. Because she was a woman. Because she was in a relationship with him. Because she let him see her journal. Because she must have wanted him to have her material. Because she never said no.

Did she. DID she.

She did say no, actually. Or sometimes she didn't. Either way, she knew it wouldn't matter. He was just going to take it anyway, and get away with it.

Know what else this sounds like justification for? (A subject which the blog author also encourages readers to google in a feminist context if necessary, to gain a better understanding of why this parallel is drawn.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote quite impressive books, introducing ideas to the middle- and upper-class mainstream that perhaps had not been considered by many: critiques of consumerism and capitalism, the emptiness of modern life, et cetera. His prose is highly regarded as visionary and widely considered emotionally engaging. However, he also stole from and emotionally maligned his wife, to a degree that scholars can't be sure how many of his ideas were his versus which were hers. This is a pattern perhaps unshockingly typical among members of the current literary canon, and it is certainly not unique to their relationship.

At the same time, that doesn't make it right. In fact, it's FUCKING WRONG. (Thanks.)

Now, how do these lives ultimately stack up?

Scott's books are still published, and are required reading in many high schools and colleges.
Zelda, the woman who long spoke of living for today, could no longer bring herself to envision a tomorrow -- by the time she was all of 48. She died because she could even not get out of bed when the building was burning down around her. Whether physically or emotionally incapacitated, she gave up, and she died. Silenced. Canon.

The fact that this -- immortality of the male, malignment and untimely death of the female -- is not an uncommon pattern among artists, especially of the day, is still not excusable. IT IS, in fact, FUCKING WRONG. Not just illegal: FUCKING DISHONEST, and WRONG.

The answer is perhaps not to stop reading or publishing editions of (in this case) F. Scott Fitzgerald. But, you know, maybe to credit Zelda as well. At least in a foreward. At least in lit classes. At least in public knowledge. That's the least we can do. Is it the best we can do?

(More on Zelda here.)

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