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Surviving the Precipice
Kendall Taylor's
Sometimes Madness is Wisdom

by Doug Childers

In Sometimes Madness is Wisdom, Kendall Taylor casts new light on Zelda Fitzgerald's mental health and raises intriguing questions about Scott Fitzgerald's reaction to it.

For many readers, the 1920s mark a high point in American literature. In that decade, Hemingway wrote many of his best short stories as well as The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury, and with his third novel, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what some literary critics claim is the Great American novel. And yet, for all the period's literary achievements (to say nothing of its festive verve), the roots of tragedy undeniably lay in its excesses. In an era driven by Prohibition and the commiserate glorification of the forbidden, alcohol brought down more than its fair share of writers--more, perhaps, than a decade should have a right to claim. Faulkner was eventually hospitalized for it, Hemingway killed himself at least partly because of it, and Fitzgerald, the role model of the Jazz Age, found himself in the 1930s writing cheap Hollywood scripts and drinking as much as thirty bottles of beer and a quart of gin a day while his wife Zelda languished in various East Coast mental hospitals.


Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, A Marriage
Kendall Taylor
Ballantine Books
443 pp.

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With hindsight, one might say: but of course. But none of the decade's literary stars, flush with the exuberance that followed what Edmund Wilson termed the Brown Decades (1865-1920), could ever have predicted it at the time. And therein, I suppose, lies the tragedy.

Fitzgerald is perhaps the writer most closely linked to the 1920s. He gave it its popular name, the Jazz Age, and wrote most memorably about the flapper as a central character, and, perhaps as importantly, his career didn't popularly extend well past the era's collapse. In some sense, Fitzgerald and his wife were the Jazz Age, and as the country slipped into the Depression and the notions of how one should live and what one should write about began to change, Fitzgerald found himself eclipsed by the younger writers (particularly Hemingway) who adapted better.

In her new biography, Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, A Marriage, Kendall Taylor argues strongly that--for all her husband's connection to the 1920s--Zelda Fitzgerald herself was really at the center of its self-absorbed, determined frivolity. It was, it seems, almost a grim contest for the young Zelda to have the most profane fun, from dancing with and kissing the most young men in high school to insisting after her marriage that Fitzgerald's friends watch her bathe. (Another Montgomery girl who happily matched her act for act was Talluluah Bankhead; their competitiveness drew Zelda to consider acting after Bankhead met with success on the New York stage.) The daughter of a judge (he would eventually serve on the Alabama Supreme Court), Zelda ignored his attempts to curb her impulsive acts, and as Taylor astutely observes, she self-consciously modeled herself on the heroine of one of the period's most popular novels (and later a popular movie), Owen Johnson's The Salamander. The salamander, according to Plato, could pass through fire untouched, and Johnson's heroine is likewise convinced she's invincible.


When The Salamander heroine Dore Baxter declares on screen: "I am in the world to do something unusual, extraordinary. I'm not like every other little woman....I adore precipices! It's such fun to go dashing along the edges, leaning up against the wind that tries to throw you over," it is easy to imagine Zelda's delight and instant identification with the character. For both, ordinary life "was too permissible and lacked the element of danger, of the forbidden."


In Taylor's analysis, Fitzgerald himself was--for all his party antics--often merely a determined observer, drawing his characters and even their dialogues from Zelda's diaries, letters and conversations. Initially, Zelda accepted that her life story should rightly be Fitzgerald's to use as he saw fit. He, after all, could make far more money from it than she could. But as Fitzgerald's popularity waned and his descent into alcoholism and Zelda's descent into schizophrenia began to warp and cripple their lives, Zelda began to see her own creative expression as a way out of her psychological crisis. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald disagreed, persuading Zelda's doctors to discourage her writing prose and push her into visual arts and ephemeral writing instead. His reasons were fairly clear: Fitzgerald undoubtedly wanted to keep his own problems secret, and he needed Zelda's life to drive his fiction. "Fitzgerald wanted to approve all her ideas," Taylor writes,


and insisted she not write fiction, and if she wrote a play that it not be on a psychological subject, or take place on the Riviera or in Switzerland. He claimed their life as his exclusive literary property and demanded she neither use the novel form nor write about her mental illness until Tender Is the Night was completed. Instead, he suggested she go to art school, study commercial design, become a cartoonist, or perhaps write "a series of short observations on things & facts, 'observed things' which she can sell and make money." But Zelda did not consider these valid options, and when [Dr. Thomas Alexander Cumming] Rennie asked what so fueled her ambition, she cited the one crucial issue of her life she had not surmounted. "It is the great humiliation of my life that I cannot support myself....I don't want to be dependent just in every way, that is all. I just don't want to be dependent on him....Here is the truth of the matter, that I have always felt some necessity for us to be on a more equal footing than we are now, because I cannot possibly--I cannot live in a world that is completely dependent on Scott."


At its most intriguing moments, Taylor's biography raises a series of profoundly compelling, if troubling, questions: what form would Fitzgerald's fiction have taken without Zelda as his model? What might have become of their lives if Fitzgerald had taken doctors' advice and stopped drinking? What might Zelda have achieved if Fitzgerald had not so thoroughly blunted her own struggle for creative expression?

Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom is undeniably a fascinating pageturner, even for readers familiar with the Fitzgeralds' story, and Taylor has added considerably to our understanding of Zelda's mental health and the various medical treatments applied to it. It inevitably has a tragic, painful quality, though, and Taylor manages brilliantly to win over even the most hard-hearted critic who is prone to think the Fitzgeralds brought their problems on themselves. Whatever their lives might have been like had they never met, an element of fatalism crept into their marriage, given their inability to move away from their greatest weaknesses. "Life moves over me in a vast, black shadow," Zelda wrote in a letter to Fitzgerald, "and I swallow whatever it drops with relish, having learned in a very hard school that one cannot be both a parasite and enjoy self-nourishment without moving in worlds too fatalistic for even my disordered imagination to people with meaning."


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