ZELDA: THE MADWOMAN IN THE FLAPPER DRESS My November Column at Bookslut

“Is a pen a metaphorical penis?” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar asked in their seminal study of women writers and the literary imagination The Madwoman in the Attic (1979, reissued 2011). Their answer was a resounding, if complex, yes, resulting in our most robust and far-reaching feminist literary theory to date.

“In patriarchal Western culture,” they wrote, “the text’s author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis. More, his pen’s power, like his penis’s power, is not just the ability to generate life but the power to create a posterity to which he lays claim.” This power further implies “ownership” over all his “brain children” — characters, scenes, and events. “As a creation ‘penned’ by man, moreover, woman has been ‘penned up’ or ‘penned in,'” radically reduced to stereotypes (angel or monster) that seriously conflict with her own sense of self, liberty, and creativity.

They show how the pen — indeed mightier than the sword — has for millennia excluded and silenced half the human race. Paradoxically, the author “silences [his characters] by depriving them of autonomy (that is, of the power of independent speech) even as he gives them life.” The authors quote the literary scholar Albert Gelpi: “The artist kills experience into art, for temporal experience can only escape death by dying into the ‘immortality’ of artistic form. The fixity of ‘life’ in art and the fluidity of ‘life’ in nature are incompatible.”

Gilbert’s and Gubar’s book explored how women, increasingly becoming authors themselves in the nineteenth century, coped with ubiquitous literary paternity. A distinctively female literary tradition emerged: “images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles functioned as asocial surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors — such patterns recurred throughout this tradition, along with obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia.” In response to being both locked up in, and out of, language, “female art has a hidden but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness.”

Nancy Milford’s fascinating and disturbing biography Zelda (1970, reissued 2011) tells the tragic story of a young woman from Montgomery, Alabama who had great self-confidence, ambition, intelligence, artistic talent, and sex appeal, and who was, in effect, “killed into art” by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald, the patriarchal culture she lived in, and herself. Her failed attempts to find artistic self-expression lead her to suffer from debilitating asthma, eczema, and mental illness.

Born in 1900, Zelda was the cleverest, prettiest, wildest, and most talented girl in town. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom she fell in love at seventeen and married at twenty, began his immortalization of her as the quintessential “Jazz-age” flapper in his first novel This Side of Paradise (1920) as Rosalind: “She danced exceptionally well, drew cleverly but hastily, and had a startling facility with words, which she used only in love letters… She was perhaps the delicious inexpressible, once-in-a-century blend.”

Much later Scott told Malcolm Cowley, “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda isn’t a character I created myself.” To create that character, however, Scott made a regular practice of using his wife’s persona, experience, diaries, and letters, often verbatim, for his work.

Early in the Fitzgerald’s marriage, George Jean Nathan, editor of the magazine The Smart Set, read Zelda’s diaries. “They interested me so greatly,” he said, “that… I later made her an offer for them. When I informed her husband, he said that he could not permit me to publish them since he had gained a lot of inspiration from them and wanted to use parts of them in his own novels and short stories.” Zelda didn’t object. Scott was the Great Male Writer, the chronicler and prophet of the age. She was his helpmate.

Asked to review Scott’s The Beautiful and Damnedfor the New York Tribune, however, Zelda expressed her ambivalence toward Scott’s thievery: “It also seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters, which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar… In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald… seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” When Zelda wrote stories and essays herself, they were often published either under Scott’s name alone or jointly.


Continue reading the column at Bookslut

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