« Can't repeat the past? Well maybe not... » A Doomed Trip Down Memory Lane, in Francis Scott Fitzgerald's Southern Stories
Scott Fitzgerald n’est pas un écrivain du Sud, mais cette région des États-Unis tient une place importante dans son œuvre. En effet, plus qu’une simple toile de fond, le Sud apparaît comme lieu emblématique dans certaines nouvelles de l’auteur. La ville fictionnelle de Tarleton figure dans quatre d’entre elles: « The Ice Palace », « The Jelly Bean », « Dice, Brass Knuckles and Guitar » et « The Last of the Belles » Dans chaque histoire, le Sud n’est jamais analysé ou décrit de manière isolée, mais toujours par rapport à des régions plus septentrionales qui mettent chaque personnage à l'épreuve de l’exil et le ramènent inexorablement vers la terre de sa jeunesse et de l'innocence perdue. Le Sud, région par excellence de la tradition pastorale et de l’exaltation romantique, n’est plus qu'un paradis perdu où le passé ne peut se répéter et où l’élan nostalgique est inéluctablement voué à l’échec.
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1Scott Fitzgerald is not a Southern writer, but the South holds a significant place in his fiction. Indeed, Amory Blaine, in This Side of Paradise, meets Eleanor in Maryland; Anthony Patch in The Beautiful and Damned and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby are respectively introduced to Dorothy and Daisy while being stationed in South Carolina and Kentucky; Dick Diver, in Tender Is the Night, temporarily leaves Europe and returns to the United States to attend his father's funeral in Maryland. Finally, at the beginning of The Last Tycoon, a plane, en route to Hollywood, is forced to land in Nashville, Tennessee due to a storm. A lot of Scott Fitzgerald’s shorter fiction actually takes place in the South but this paper will only focus on a series of three short-stories known as « The Tarleton Trilogy » published between 1920 and 1929, with frequent references to The Great Gatsby, published in 1925.
2For the author as well as for most of his male characters looking for a land of adoption, the South turns out to be a lost paradise in the end peopled by corrupted Southern belles who defile their male counterparts’ utopian dream of rootedness and bliss. The old pastoral antebellum South has vanished along with its archetypal heroines, leaving in its stead a wasteland of strangers and drifters in their own land.
3More than being a mere backdrop in his novels, the South appears as a central setting in some of Fitzgerald’s shorter works. In each story, the American South is never analyzed or described for its own sake but always in comparison to northern places that put each character to the test and make them long for the land of their lost youth and innocence. The South, the archetypal land of pastoral traditions and romantic elation, becomes nothing more than a lost paradise where the past cannot repeat itself and where the trip down memory lane is ineluctably doomed.
4Besides using identical place names, these short-stories all share a common plot centered on a North/South divide, which allows Scott Fitzgerald to perceive and describe the South in a new and original perspective.
5The tension and contrast thus created between these two geographical poles can be accounted for by the very origins of the author. Many biographers and literary critics have pointed out the duality between Fitzgerald’s paternal lineage that embodied ancestral Southern values and his Irish origins on his mother's side:
- 1 Clarence Hugh Holman, « Fitzgerald’s Changes on the Southern Belle: The Tarleton Trilogy », in Jack (...)
Though he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and spent much of his life there before he went to Princeton, he saw himself as torn between the vigorous, successful, and aggrandizing North and an ancestral dignity, grace, and good manners associated with the South. His father, an ardent pro-Confederate advocate, was of Maryland ancestry stretching back to colonial times; among his ancestors Scott Fitzgerald was proudest of Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem1.
- 2 Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, , New York, Scribners, 2004, p. 252.
6The author’s multiple roots allowed him to identify the complex and even contradictory elements within the American cultural scene during the inter-war years. The writer, like many of his characters, became a rootless individual who never fully adapted and blended in. Scott Fitzgerald’s career and life seemed to respond to the pull of centrifugal and centripetal forces, like Nick’s in The Great Gatsby: « I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life2. »
7Despite his bohemian life, Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly settled in Maryland and more precisely in and around Baltimore. This choice was not accidental but can be explained by the author’s strong desire to keep his southern roots and lineage intact. Baltimore was his family cradle and the place where he felt he truly belonged as it offered a link between his tormented rootless self and his ancestry.
- 3 Andrew Turnbull (dir.), The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, , London, Penguin Books, 1982, p. (...)
Baltimore is warm and pleasant. I love it more than I thought – it is so rich with memories – it is nice to look up the street and see the statue of my great uncle and to know Poe is buried here and that many ancestors of mine have walked in the old town by the bay. I belong here, where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite. And I wouldn’t mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some old graveyard here. That is really a happy thought and not melancholy at all3.
- 4 Edvard Munch, quoted in J. William Thompson, Sustainable Landscape Construction: A Guide to Green B (...)
8Although Fitzgerald alludes to physical putrefaction, his wish to be buried in the South with his wife is not morbid. His final resting place becomes the ultimate love-nest away from the moral corruption and spiritual decay in the North. Death, as Scott Fitzgerald sees it, is not an end in itself and should not be feared because it is a necessary part of the natural cycle of life. It is a testimony of the past but also a transition that provides some permanence between generations. Remembering the dead ensures the continuity of humanity. The graveyard becomes a living place, the seat of eternity: « From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity4. »
9However complex and multifaceted Fitzgerald’s vision of the south is, it is in keeping with his depiction of southern female characters who are no longer iconic representations of the « Old South ». The heroines of « plantation novels » have been replaced by whimsical and impetuous young women who remains deeply rooted in southern traditions. But their strong sense of place is defiled by their carelessness and frivolity, an attitude more akin to that of the flapper type than to that of the archetypal Southern Belle.
- 5 Arthur Mizener, Scott Fitzgerald and His World, New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972, p. 5
10Scott Fitzgerald met his future wife, Zelda Sayre, at the « Country Club » in Montgomery, Alabama in July 1918. Consequently, the South became the ancestral land where passionate love could come to life. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was described as « a quiet gentlemanly man with beautiful Southern manners5 ». Zelda, on the other hand, introduced him to a different version of the South in all its dissipation and excess. These two approaches, however divergent, exercised an undeniable influence on the author’s perception of this complex and appealing environment:
- 6 Scott Donaldson, « Scott Fitzgerald’s Romance with the South », The Southern Literary Journal, vol. (...)
Scott Fitzgerald’s attitudes toward the American South were shaped by the two most important relationships in his life: with his wife, Zelda Sayre of Alabama, and with his father, Edward Fitzgerald of Maryland. Born and bred in the North, Fitzgerald nonetheless developed an early tug toward the country of his father’s youth, sympathizing with the lost cause of the confederacy and admiring the impeccable manners of the Old South. This tendency to glamorize the South, inherited from his father, Scott Fitzgerald never lost6.
11At that time, Zelda was already an emblematic figure of the South, the « femme fatale », a mix between « the Southern Belle », with her legendary charm and charisma, and the Flapper, who defied codes of decorum. She thus bore little resemblance to heroines found in « plantation novels » such as John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (1832), William Gilmore Simms's Woodcraft (1852) and Caroline Lee Hentz’s The Planter’s Northern Bride (1854). Indeed, Zelda did not belong to the upper class and her attitude was more flippant and frivolous than indolent.
12The modern version of the « Southern Belle » was no longer an iconic representation of chivalric traditions that those who remained nostalgic for the « Old South » had tried to preserve. This new female archetype was complex because it tried to adapt to the socio-economic trends of the moment. The South could no longer isolate itself from the rest of the American continent and its literary heroines had to fit in to be popular and credible. This yearning for new trends and directions in southern literature and for the reshaping of the Southern Belle archetype was clearly stated in an editorial dated March 1921 and published in the Double Dealer, a literary journal in New Orleans:
- 7 Kathryn Lee Seidel, The Southern Belle in the American Novel, Gainesville, University Press of Flor (...)
We are sick to death of the treacly sentimentalities with which our lady fictioneers regale us. The old traditions are no more. New people, new customs prevail. The Confederacy has long since dissolved. A storied realm of dreams, lassitude, pleasure, chivalry, and the Nigger no longer exists. We have our Main Streets here, as elsewhere7.
- 8 Francis Pendleton Gaines, The Southern Plantation: A Study in the Development and the Accuracy of a (...)
13The desire for openness and growth is also visible in Scott Fitzgerald’s Southern heroines. They leave their protective cocoon, brave the unknown, and travel the world, driven by their ambition and their desire for personal success. The « Southern Belle » à la Fitzgerald is no longer a paragon of purity and virtue. She flouts decorum, ignores the rules of etiquette and rejects moral taboos. As Francis Pendleton Gaines once wrote, « The Magdalen has eclipsed the Madonna8 ».
14As the archetype of the southern belle was an ideal that was already being viewed as obsolete even in the South, the quest for the lost South was doomed to failure. The land of decadent charm had become a lost Eden.
15Like his fictional male counterparts who were stationed in the South, Scott Fitzgerald, once a young lieutenant based in Alabama, was a Northern man in a foreign land. He discovered, on this occasion, the deep fracture, both economically and culturally, which separated and isolated one region from the other. Fitzgerald’s southern stories, far from being a glorification of a vanishing heritage, tend to focus on the rootlessness of those who vainly try to recapture their past in the land of their youth.
16This gap is the main theme of his « Tarleton trilogy », a name given by C. Hugh Holman to a series of three stories written between 1920 and 1929: « The Ice Palace » (May 1920), « The Jelly-Bean » (October 1920) and « The Last of the Belles » (March 1929).
- 9 Matthew J. Bruccoli, The Short-Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York, Scribners, 1989, p. 450.
17Bitterness, disillusion, the passage of time and the erosion of youth are themes present in the trilogy, especially in « The Last of the Belles » in which a young army lieutenant, Andy, falls in love with a Southern Belle, Ailie Calhoun, « the Southern type in all its purity »9, while being stationed in the fictional town of Tarleton, Georgia. Returning there after six years of absence, Andy hopes to erase the years that took him away from Ailie and tries to relive an idealized past. However, this attempt to recapture his youth only leads to disillusionment and bitterness. Ailie’s vitality and recklessness of days long gone are no more. The Belle he had left six years before has become a stable, mature and laid-back woman. The idealism and romanticism that once characterized her have been replaced by pragmatism. Whereas Andy tries to reconnect with his past, Ailie is never overcome with regret and melancholy.
18Unlike Nick who goes back to the Midwest at the end of The Great Gatsby to give meaning to his existence again, Andy returns to a region in which he feels disoriented, disconnected. After living on Long Island, Nick goes back to the land of his youth and can now lucidly analyze the various stages of his life back East. His rootedness is borne out of disillusionment and experience whereas Andy’s rootlessness originates in his melancholy attitude and deep emotional state of nostalgia. He tries to recapture his past in an environment in which he has no root, no deep connection. Any integration process is vain and leads to disillusionment. Places of passion, of romantic elation and innocence become tarnished under the weight of time. The Old South, the former seat of courtliness and romantic passion, has now become a wasteland. Andy goes through this painful experience during a doomed trip down memory lane with Ailie, trying to recapture the lost golden girl and reclaim the land of his youth while visiting his former military camp where he had been stationed as a young lieutenant:
« Now, would you do something for me? »
« Anything. »
« Ride out to camp. »
« But there’s nothing left there, honey. »
« I don’t care. […] I want to find where I used to live. »
An old race course, inconspicuous in the camp’s day of glory, had reared its dilapidated grandstand in the desolation. I tried in vain to orient myself. […] It might have been here. That would make the company streets down there and the mess shack, where we dined that night, just over the way.
The taxi driver regarded me indulgently while I stumbled here and there in the knee-deep underbrush, looking for my youth in a clapboard or a strip of roofing or a rusty tomato can. I tried to sight on a vaguely clump of trees, but it was growing darker now and I couldn’t be quite sure they were the right trees. […]
- 10 Ibid., p. 462-463.
No. Upon consideration they didn’t look like the right trees. All I could be sure of was this place that had once been so full of life and effort was gone, as if it had never existed, and that in another month Ailie would be gone, and the South would be empty for me forever10.
19The South of Andy’s youth is a mirage, a fantasy world where memory vainly tries to revive romantic passion and restore rootedness. The narrator finds it hard to believe in the destruction of his dream, his ideal of beauty, but the cruel reality of his present situation is exacerbated by this contaminated and dilapidated environment in which he is unable to reconnect with his past. Andy helplessly witnesses the desecration of this sacred place, the lost Edenic garden of his youth.
20Scott Fitzgerald uses feminine traits to describe the South. It is the place of reverie and contemplation, a region that contrasts with the harsh climate, the masculine, energetic world up North. Just a brief random encounter with an unknown woman at a train station is enough to rekindle the flame of passion in Andy and draw him back to Tarleton, the place of sentimental elation. The South becomes a poem, a song in praise of love and beauty:
- 11 Ibid., p. 460.
Oddly enough, a girl seen at twilight in a small Indiana station started me thinking about going South. The girl, in pink organdie, threw her arms about a man who got off our train and hurried him to a waiting car, and I felt a sort of pang. It seemed to me that she was bearing him off into the lost midsummer world of my early twenties, where time had stood still and charming girls, dimly seen like the past itself, still loitered along the dusky streets. I suppose that poetry is a Northern man’s dream of the South. But it was months later that I sent off a wire to Ailie, and immediately followed it to Tarleton11.
21Andy’s return to Tarleton turns out to be a delusory and poignant search for traces of his youth in the debris of a decaying and shabby environment. The romantic scene in Indiana only serves as a painful reminder of the irretrievability of the past.
22Andy’s pilgrimage to Tarleton, after long years of absence, is in no way a homecoming. The place he discovers does not fit his distorted, idealized vision. Andy thought his dream was indestructible but reality offers him the image of a desolate, arid world in which he has given up all hope of finding the love and happiness of days gone by. Ailie, however, remains deeply committed to the South and blends into her surroundings. Her past emotional troubles are but a mere interlude in her life. She mingles with the crowd of Tarleton, a city she seems never to have left. No gap, no mishaps can alter her existence. The ties between self and place remain complete and untainted:
- 12 Ibid., p. 461.
When we reached the country club, she melted like a chameleon into the – to me – unfamiliar crowd. There was a new generation upon the floor, with less dignity than the ones I had known, but none of them were more a part of its lazy, feverish essence than Ailie. Possibly she had perceived that in her initial longing to escape from Tarleton’s provincialism she had been walking alone, following a generation which was doomed to have no successors12.
23In Fitzgerald’s Tarleton stories, female characters change little and reflect this feeling of stagnation and apathy prevailing in Southern cities. Their various and short-lived escapades to Northern regions do not wipe out their lethargy and natural passivity. Back home, they quickly fall back into a state of perpetual drowsiness. Their homecoming suggests that nothing has changed in their lives. The apathy of Tarleton freezes them in time and space. Any change, any fluctuation is but a mirage. The South is still Ailie’s land of reverie but becomes a derelict, desolated environment to Andy, a vast wasteland, the graveyard of his own youth and passion.
24Scott Fitzgerald witnessed the defilement and desecration of this Edenic garden, the last bastion of pastoral ideals. The evocation of the South in Scott Fitzgerald’s stories is a song dedicated to the sensuality, femininity and indolence of this region, a hymn to the glory of a paradise lost:
- 13 Ibid., p. 458.
We drove through pine woods heavy with lichen and Spanish moss, and between the fallow cotton fields along a road white as the rim of the world. We parked under the broken shadow of a mill where there was the sound of running water and restive squawky birds and over everything a brightness that tried to filter in everywhere – into the lost nigger cabins, the automobile, the fastnesses of the heart. The South sang to us – I wonder if they remember. I remember – the cool pale faces, the somnolent amorous eyes and the voices13.
25The decline of the South coincided with the phasing out of a Jeffersonian vision of American society. The builder of the New World was no longer the farmer but the captain of industry, the businessman who irreversibly transformed the face of the American landscape. The decline of the pastoral ideal meant the loss of innocence, disillusionment and renunciation, the end of the American dream as conceived by Scott Fitzgerald.
26In « The Last of the Belles », Fitzgerald explores once again the themes of the erosion of youth and the irreversible passage of time and, as such, is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. The difference between the novel and this short-story, published four years after the novel, is that Fitzgerald’s fiction and themes have matured and the writer is now able to adopt a more realistic and even disillusioned perspective. Indeed, both characters have to confront the irretrievability of the past but, although Andy shares the same predicament as Gatsby, he lacks the latter’s romantic imagination which transforms the aching sense of loss into a pain to be desired. Indeed, the sense of impermanence which pervades Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction pushes Gatsby into relentlessly trying to reach for an ideal that always recedes. Pain, in its Keatsian dimension, is not an accidental property of human nature but represents its fundamental and unavoidable core. Pain and disillusion, especially when mixed inseparably with the unyielding search for love and beauty, acquire a romantic dimension that turns pain into an aesthetics of loss that elevates the soul.
27Conversely, Andy is not enlightened by his abortive homecoming experience but crushed by his incapacity at turning his disillusion into a romantic and inspiriting experience. Here, the more mature Fitzgerald adopts a different attitude from previous lost-youth romances. Andy suffers a triple loss: loss of youth, loss of the South and loss of the golden girl, the last of the belles. Andy’s self-pity over his predicament is even scorned at by Fitzgerald at the end of the story.
28Fitzgerald’s Tarleton trilogy, which opens with intensity of purpose, vitalized imagination and youthful yearnings in « The Ice Palace », turns to disillusionment and nostalgia in « The Jelly-Bean », and ends with mature acceptance of reality in « The Last of the Belles ». As such, The Tarleton trilogy presents a microcosm of Fitzgerald’s thematic evolution. Most of Fitzgerald’s characters are sad young men and a lot of his stories end on a poignant note of loss. That is why places like cemeteries or junkyards are often used as final settings to metaphorically locate and bury the end of the dream, a lifelong desire to retrieve and revive what can never be recaptured.
29Instead of trying to find the remnants of a long-gone past in a junkyard, Scott Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, never really ceased to believe in the green light as well as the inexhaustible variety of life. The last Edenic garden he found was an artificial paradise, a world of pasteboard sets: Hollywood. Can't repeat the past? Well maybe not except perhaps on a film roll…
1 Clarence Hugh Holman, « Fitzgerald’s Changes on the Southern Belle: The Tarleton Trilogy », in Jackson R. Bryer (dir.), The Short-Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Approaches in Criticism, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1982, p. 53.
2 Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, , New York, Scribners, 2004, p. 252.
3 Andrew Turnbull (dir.), The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, , London, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 550-551.
4 Edvard Munch, quoted in J. William Thompson, Sustainable Landscape Construction: A Guide to Green Building Outdoors, Washington D.C., Island Press, 2008, p. 30.
5 Arthur Mizener, Scott Fitzgerald and His World, New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972, p. 5
6 Scott Donaldson, « Scott Fitzgerald’s Romance with the South », The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 5, n° 2 (spring 1973), p. 3.
7 Kathryn Lee Seidel, The Southern Belle in the American Novel, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1985, p. 2.
8 Francis Pendleton Gaines, The Southern Plantation: A Study in the Development and the Accuracy of a Tradition, , Whitefish, MT, Literary Licensing LLC, 2012, p. 176.
9 Matthew J. Bruccoli, The Short-Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York, Scribners, 1989, p. 450.
10 Ibid., p. 462-463.
11 Ibid., p. 460.
12 Ibid., p. 461.
13 Ibid., p. 458.Haut de page
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Pascal Bardet, « « Can't repeat the past? Well maybe not... » A Doomed Trip Down Memory Lane, in Francis Scott Fitzgerald's Southern Stories », Les Cahiers de Framespa [En ligne], 24 | 2017, mis en ligne le 22 janvier 2017, consulté le 26 avril 2017. URL : http://framespa.revues.org/4386 ; DOI : 10.4000/framespa.4386Haut de page
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