Fitzgerald Story Strikes Chord
When Jazz Age author F. Scott Fitzgerald visited with James and Katharine Boyd in Southern Pines in June 1935, he brought along copies of his recently published book of stories "Taps at Reveille."
Unfortunately, sales of the new book had been weak, and Fitzgerald was already deep in debt to his publisher and his agent. Moreover, his financial and professional situation was exacerbated by his alcoholism and his inability to work.
So it's not surprising that his visit to Southern Pines wasn't as pleasant as it might have been.
In early July, Fitzgerald wrote a thank-you note to the Boyds from Baltimore: "In better form I might have been a better guest but you couldn't have been better hosts even at a moment when anything that wasn't absolutely - that wasn't near perfection made me want to throw a brick at it. One sometimes needs tolerance at a moment when he has least himself."
While staying at Weymouth, Fitzgerald presented the Boyds with a copy of "Taps at Reveille" in which he wrote a long inscription.
The late Sam Ragan showed me the book in the early 1980s, and I read Fitzgerald's words with interest - but I failed to make a copy of the inscription, which ran more than two pages.
When Sam died, the book disappeared. (I'm reasonably sure who now has Boyds' copy of "Taps at Reveille"; the location of the book is the topic for a future column.)
James Boyd wasn't particularly impressed with "Taps at Reveille."
On July 22, 1935, he wrote to Fitzgerald: "I read 'Babylon Revisited' [the story most often anthologized from 'Taps'] again before I left. In feeling, rendering and design, it's one of the completely satisfying jobs. I don't know anyone else today who can so economically yet meticulously produce his effect and of course a wholly different one.... Some of the lesser things [other stories included in the collection] have got no business in there with it at all. I know even the best of the boys can't do a 'Hamlet' every time out of the box, but in 'Taps at Reveille' there's too wide a spread to be inside the same covers."
During the Christmas holidays, I reread "Taps at Reveille," and found myself in agreement with Boyd. Many of the stories are stylistically stilted and owe too much to Henry James. But one story stands out - "The Last of the Belles." Originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in March 1929, the story is one of Fitzgerald's more successful commercial pieces.
Like many of his stories, "The Last of the Belles" is based on his early relationship with his future wife, Zelda Sayre.
But what's particularly impressive is Fitzgerald's skill with transitional sentences:
"And now the young men of Tarleton began drifting back from the ends of the earth - some with Canadian uniforms, some with crutches or empty sleeves. A returned battalion of the National Guard paraded through the streets with open ranks for their dead, and then stepped down out of romance forever and sold you things over the counters of local stores."
And although the conclusion is a trifle mawkish, there's no denying its effectiveness when taken in the context of an older man harkening to his youth:
"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 forever."
If you'd like to read "The Last of the Belles," Google the title. And if you'd like to know more about Fitzgerald's relationship with James and Katharine Boyd, pick up a ticket for "A Thousand Things Time Will Never Let Us Say," which will be performed at the Weymouth Center in late March.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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