Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Review of Zelda by Nancy Milford



When it comes to American literature, nothing can quite compare to the Lost Generation of writers that lived and produced during the 1920s. This group included such legends as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein (who is credited with having coined the term), Ford Maddox Ford, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, and Hart Crane. Also chief among the Lost Generation writers was F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda.

Many people of course recognize F. Scott Fitzgerald as the author of such classics as The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, Tender is the Night, and numerous short stories. However, most people don't realize that Zelda Fitzgerald was also a published author and had ambitious career plans of her own. However, there were several circumstances in her life, including mental illness, that prevented her from realizing her dreams. In the book Zelda: A Biography, author Nancy Milford endeavors to take readers behind the scenes of Zelda's life and show them how and why Zelda's career got sidetracked.

In typical biographical fashion, the book starts out by telling the reader about Zelda's childhood and then moving on to her adult years. The book is divided into four sections that the author feels corresponds with the major parts of Zelda's life. These four sections are called: "Southern Girl," "The Twenties," "Breaking Down," and "Going Home."

The "Southern Girl" section deals with Zelda's coming of age as the daughter of prominent Judge Sayre in Alabama. According to Milford's account, Zelda led the rather privileged life of a typical Southern belle from that era. Personally, I found this part of the book to be a bit boring. Usually, biographies will tell about a subject's childhood in order to give the reader a frame of reference that might help explain decisions or actions taken later in the person's life. However, I didn't find that to be the case with Zelda. I suppose it could be argued that the childhood portrait as presented by Milford helps explain Zelda's later fascination with ballet or to provide a contrast for how her life actually turned out, but I didn't see it that way. So I was relieved when the book finally turned to life in "The Twenties" and Zelda's relationship with Scott.

Even casual fans of Scott Fitzgerald know that Zelda was his muse. As unbalanced or erratic as she might have been, she was the one who inspired him and kept him going when writer's block, lagging book sales, and harsh critics got him down. If you want evidence of this, you need only check the short, poignant dedication of The Great Gatsby. Fortunately, this aspect of Scott and Zelda's relationship is clear in the Milford account. The reader is treated to excerpts from Scott and Zelda's early correspondence, and we can easily see that Scott needs her. A lot of the credit for his success can and should go to Zelda.

The last half of Milford's book deals with Zelda's mental illness and frequent breakdowns. She was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but back in the 1920s, there weren't any real treatments for the condition. Apparently, it wasn't understood very much, so the only thing the doctors could do was recommend that Zelda be locked up in a sanitarium.

This part of the book is deeply disturbing on several levels. First, of course, the reader has to feel a bit sorry for Zelda. Yes, she had a mental illness, but it seems that she wasn't getting the required support from the people around her. When I was reading the book, I tried to envision the episodes that Milford described as happening today. Would we in today's society be so quick to dismiss Zelda as a schizophrenic, or would be embrace and encourage her "differences"? It's hard to say.

Second, from the way Milford writes about Zelda's life, it's evident that the author doesn't harbor any sympathies towards the woman. Instead, she pretty much turns the focus of Zelda's confined years back on Scott. He comes off as being a tireless, patient husband who drove long distances to visit Zelda only to be rebuffed in the waiting room if she was having "an episode." When reading the book, I got the feeling that Scott was somehow the victim in all of this, which is probably not the way it played out at all. Although I obviously don't have access to all the information that Milford did when she wrote the book, I can't help but feel that Zelda got the short end of the stick on that one.

Another problem I had with Milford's account of Zelda's life was the way that the author seemed content to just present the facts in many critical places. One of the things that readers expect when reading a biography is to get a little bit of analysis from the author along with the facts. Anyone can spend time researching Zelda's life and cobbling together a timeline of important dates and events. But Milford is supposed to be an expert on the subject matter and should therefore give readers a bit of extra insight into the events that she reported. This was lacking in many places, which was extremely disappointing.

On the whole, however, I think the book was very well-researched and well-written. I didn't have any problems with the chronological presentation of the material or with Milford's narrative. I thought that it was an informative look at Zelda's life and gives readers a solid introduction into her world. However, if you are already familiar with some parts of Zelda's life (particularly her relationship with Scott) from other sources, then you might find that Milford's portrayal doesn't ring true all the time. While no one would say that Zelda was the perfect wife or companion to Scott, I think most would stop short of implying that she drained the life out of him. Unfortunately, that's precisely the impression I got of Zelda after reading Milford's biography.

The Fitzgeralds were a prominent couple in the height of the Roaring Twenties in the United States and abroad. Their tumultuous love affair and life together made headlines and provided grist for the rumor mills of the time, and their story is still as relevant today as it ever was. While most biographies tend to focus on Scott because of the fame he achieved as a writer, Zelda's life was every bit as fascinating. If you want to get to know Zelda, I suggest reading the biography by Nancy Milford. You may not agree with the author's viewpoint on Zelda, but nevertheless, the book is filled with facts that will help you form your own image of this remarkable woman.

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