August 17, 2009
F. Scott Fitzgerald: May Day
Melville House’s Art of the Novella series just gets handsomer and handsomer. Of the five titles recently added, I decided to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s May Day. My previous experiences of him were limited to a couple of reads, in my younger and more vulnerable years, of The Great Gatsby, and abortive attempts to get through the many-feted Tender is the Night. (There was also the Pat Hobby stories, but what remains in my mind is not the stories but the introduction, detailing Fitzgerald’s relentless pleas for more money for their publication in Esquire. “I wish you’d wire the money if you like this story. … I’d like to do some more of these if your price made it possible.”)
May Day (described by the author as a ‘novelette’) first appeared in 1920 and was collected in Fitzgerald’s 1922 volume ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’, but this Melville House edition is the first time it has been published alone. There is to me something inherently satisfying about reading a story published alone – the sense of completeness and even occasion which it carries with it is something like the difference between seeing a film in the cinema rather than on TV.
We are introduced to a wide range of characters, though really there are only two types: the fortunate and the unlucky, the haves and have-nots. Fitzgerald could hardly make the distinction clearer than in the substantive opening chapter, which reacquaints old Yale graduates Gordon Sterrett (“his eyes … framed below with the blue semicircle of ill health, heightened by an unnatural glow which coloured his face like a low, incessant fever”) and Philip Dean (“blond, ruddy and rugged … Everything about him radiated fitness and bodily comfort”). Sterrett is down on his luck, and Dean finds that “there was something in his present misery that repelled him and hardened him, even though it excited his curiosity.” By the end of the chapter, when Dean has loaned Sterrett five dollars, “they quite suddenly and definitely hated each other.”
The setting is New York City at the end of the First World War (“There had been a war fought and won and the great city of the conquering people was crossed with triumphal arches and vivid with thrown flowers of white, red and rose”). The conflict is not only between rich and poor but also between soldiers returning from war and left-wing journalists. In the offices of the New York Trumpet, one of the journalists, Henry, explains to his girl Edith why the crowd of soldiers are shouting and yelling in a demonstration outside.
“All crowds have to howl. They didn’t have anybody with much initiative in the lead, or they’d probably have forced their way in here and smashed things up. … The human race has come a long way, but most of us are throwbacks; the soldiers don’t know what they want, or what they hate, or what they like. They’re used to acting in large bodies, and they seem to have to make demonstrations. So it happens to be against us. There’ve been riots all over the city tonight. It’s May Day, you see.”
Edith is one of those characters Fitzgerald does so well, probably because his satire of them only thinly masks a real fascination and affection. She is a sort of prototype Daisy Buchanan, her language “made up of the current expressions, bits of journalese and college slang strung together into an intrinsic whole, careless, faintly provocative, delicately sentimental.” Edith, who knew Gordon too, is in love with the memory of him, which doesn’t match the reality when they meet again:
“I was always queer – a little bit different from other boys. All right in college, but now all wrong. Things have been snapping inside me for four months like little hooks on a dress, and it’s about to come off when a few more hooks go. I’m very gradually going loony.”
Fitzgerald would soon know about what he wrote. His own distanced privilege is given a nod in one of the soldiers who appears in the story “named Carrol Key, a name hinting that in his veins, however thinly diluted by generations of degeneration, ran blood of some potentiality.” (Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.) In the introduction to May Day for Tales of the Jazz Age, he described it as a “somewhat unpleasant tale”, and was not satisfied that he had woven the elements of the story into a satisfying “pattern”. I can see what he means, as there is a messiness to the story (which nonetheless may diminish on rereading), but much of this is forgotten in light of the dramatic ending, which unfortunately is famous enough that I knew it before I got there. It may have inspired another American short story with a similar, and similarly famous, ending, though to say more than that would risk ruining both.