June 1st, 2011
Disclaimer: This piece is a little heavy, but tomorrow I’ll take pictures of the beach to make you feel better!
F. Scott Fitzgerald met his wife Zelda Sayre at a dance in Montgomery, Alabama. In those days, southern belles like the beauty Zelda had a dance card where young gentlemen would sign up for dances with ladies. Fitzgerald met her at the preceding reception, and immediately signed his name to every slot on the double sided card. In the words of Willie Thompson, curator of the world’s only Fitzgerald museum located in Montgomery, “That was exactly the sort of grand display Zelda would have loved.”
Zelda refused to marry Scott until his book had been published and he became instantly wealthy. Scott adored Zelda, Zelda seemed to adore Scott’s wealth, social standing, and love for her. Arguably, she adored him as well, but of that I saw little evidence at the museum. The sad story of her gradual decline into insanity and his alcohol induced heart attack is as inevitable as Gatsby’s death. Scott and Zelda were given wealth and power at 24 and 19, respectively, and as the stars faded, reality set in and destroyed them. Scott’s father and grandfather had both been alcoholics and it had killed them. Zelda had been destined for wealth by her ambition and beauty, but always expecting the best made her delusional.
Not expecting to spend three hours in a two room museum, it was 1 pm by the time I left for lunch. I spent most of that time discussing writing, travel, religion, politics, and of course the Fitzgerald family with the museum’s curator, author Willie Thompson. Expecting to find an older man or woman hobbling around the wooden floors, it was refreshing and enjoyable to meet a 28 year old who gave a damn about preserving the past. In hours of excited conversation we couldn’t seem to stop, I made another new friend.
Spending time with Gatsby’s author gave me the opportunity to spend some time thinking about the character himself. The most powerful image of The Great Gatsby to me is the idea that events that take place when we are young—first love, in Gatsby’s case—can be so powerful as to define and destroy a life. Having only experienced youth thus far, I wonder how common Gatsby’s plight actually is. A radio show I was listening to brought up how often those who marry young get divorced, which is not surprising. Then it discussed how often those same couples ended up remarrying, sometimes as much as twenty years later.
The book’s last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” This theory of literature is reinforced by music. I could not count the number of songs which look back fondly on youth. Anecdotal evidence seems to say the same. Those “back in my day” stories? How about “when I was your age”? The time when the world was novel enough to be exciting and interesting, when nobody is jaded to new experience. Everything I read, hear, and view seems to say: The best days of your life are your youth, and then you have your memories.
Whether or not this is true, I have no basis on which to suppose. I do think though that it is important to remain close with the people from your childhood. Eventually, our parents will pass, our childhood homes will be sold, and we’ll live in cities and towns all over the world. Instead of looking back at what we had, I see no reason why not to simply continue friendships, close relationships with siblings, and regular visits to the places we loved as children. I guess what I am suggesting is that if we are doomed to be borne ceaselessly into the past (up in the air still, to be clear) we should embrace it and enjoy it with each other.
I admit that is one of the more depressing things to take from the book, but it is brought up so often it is hard to avoid. I’d like to be able to say “On a lighter note,” but my afternoon was spent at the Civil Rights memorial in downtown Montgomery, a beautiful memorial specifically dedicated to the often unheard of victims of racial violence during the struggle for equality. The museum is not for those who enjoy their ignorance, but it is irresponsible to try and understand southern culture without looking at its darker side. I won’t write anymore about it, but I think the pictures and captions tell the story better than I could.