F. Scott Fitzgerald, “All of the Belles: The Montgomery Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald”; Introduction by Kirk Curnutt (NewSouth Books, Montgomery, 2020); ISBN 978-1-58838-423-2; 112 pages; $23.99.
By Mike Thomason
F. Scott Fitzgerald met and fell passionately in love with Zelda Sayre while he was in military training for World War I at Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery. Sayre was a native of the capital city. Fitzgerald was from St. Paul, Minnesota. She was the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge and a prominent member of Montgomery society.
Initially, she declined to marry him as he had few prospects. But when Scribner’s, having rejected his first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” reversed that decision, the couple did marry at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and shortly thereafter returned to Montgomery, where they lived in the city’s historic Cloverdale neighborhood. He continued to write, as that was his only way to earn the money they both spent rather freely.
Fitzgerald wrote the first two of the three short stories now collected in “All of the Belles: The Montgomery Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald” there in the beginning of the Jazz Age: “The Ice Palace” and “The Jelly Bean.” At the end of the ’20s, he added “The Last of the Belles.” All three feature heroines modeled on Sayre and describe the world of young privileged whites. The stories are set in Tarleton, Georgia, to spare her family embarrassment, but they describe Montgomery. They remind us of Mobile a century ago, also.
The three short stories in “All of the Belles” have never appeared in a single volume before. They and the wonderful introduction by professor Kirk Curnutt, Ph.D., chair of the Troy University English department and noted Fitzgerald scholar and author, are a fitting introduction to their era, the South and Fitzgerald’s awesome talent as an author.
Fitzgerald wrote over 160 short stories in the course of his all-too-short career. He died in 1940, but his work in the ’20s and early ’30s is lucid and compelling. His characters and their world leap off the pages. In these three short stories, the author, though a native of Minnesota, accurately describes the lives and times of young white Southern men and women a hundred years ago.
“The Ice Palace” contrasts life in the upper class white South with life in St. Paul, where the fictional character Sally Carrol Happer is taken for a visit. It is a long way from home for a belle of the deep South and it climaxes with her being trapped in a palace made from blocks of ice — not something she would ever see in her hometown.
The second story, also set in Tarleton, he wrote half a year later. In “The Jelly Bean,” Jim Powell is in love with Nancy Lamar, another iteration of Sayre, but he is a lethargic young man with little money and few prospects. He fails to attract her romantically and she is briefly lost to a man from Savannah, Georgia, who is buoyed by his father’s razor blade fortune.
Finally, in 1929, the last story, “The Last of the Belles,” provides a final description of Sayre as Ailie Calhoun. Her admirer, known simply as Andy, did not get into the Great War, and Fitzgerald did not either. Ailie dallies with him, as she did with many other men, never marrying anyone. Andy and Ailie simply stay on in Tarleton and watch the old South decay around them.
The world so vividly portrayed in the three stories is far from a full description of the South a hundred years ago. There are virtually no African Americans, or discussion of slavery or the Ku Klux Klan, who then ruled Alabama. To the young, privileged white people, older people were not especially important, while exploring new styles and fashions were. As the author observes, at the end of the Jazz Age his generation had come of age without growing up.
There are many reasons to read this short book, but the one that seemed so vividly true to me was how much the South has changed in the past century. There is little reason to regret this development. The South is no longer a stagnant section of the nation living in the past. Some people may be, but they are an increasingly small part of our region’s population.
The Jazz Age will be featured in 2020’s books on that era. “All of the Belles: The Montgomery Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald” is an excellent introduction.
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