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The Subversive Art of Zelda Fitzgerald by Deborah Pike

The Subversive Art of Zelda Fitzgerald. Deborah Pike. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017. Pp. xv + 301. $45.00. (cloth).

Zelda Fitzgerald and her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald appeared on the cover of Hearst’s International magazine in 1922, held up as icons of the Jazz Age, of youth, talent, and burgeoning literary celebrity. This image remains one of the most recognizable of the couple. However, alongside this iconicity, Zelda Fitzgerald’s various diagnoses of mental illness have prompted critics both sympathetic and unsympathetic to remember her primarily in terms of the tragedy of her life—whether as the mad wife who brought about the downfall of her brilliant husband, or as the victim of patriarchal control and pathologization. This complex of madness, celebrity, and literary reputation persists despite Zelda Fitzgerald’s considerable artistic output: more than twenty hybrid story-articles; a published novel, Save Me the Waltz (1932); an unfinished and unpublished novel manuscript, “Caesar’s Things”; a lost novel manuscript; an intense period of training in classical ballet; substantial notebooks of artistic and spiritual reflection; and innumerable paintings and pieces of domestic art. Scholarship has constructed a cultural memory of Fitzgerald that Nina Auerbach sums up: “[s]mart, stylish, funny, unmoored, Zelda had always seemed the figurehead of a lost generation, but in 1970 she became the symbol of lost women.” As Auerbach’s comments would suggest, biographies and memoirs, such as those by Linda Martin-Wagner (2004), Sally Cline (2002), Koula Svokos-Hartnett (1991) and Nancy Milford (1970), still dominate the field, and the few major critical works that include Fitzgerald concentrate on either madness or the artistic betrayal of twentieth-century women writers.

When Deborah Pike’s overdue intervention, The Subversive Art of Zelda Fitzgerald (2017), calls for “serious critical attention” to her work, it is precisely this tokenism that she targets through a sustained and impressive study of Fitzgerald’s entire—published and private—literary and artistic body of work (6). This monograph has a unique patience with Fitzgerald’s more challenging texts, and Pike combines this with rich biographical detail, no doubt gained from a depth of access to Fitzgerald’s archival records unparalleled since Milford’s 1970 biography. She implicitly reveals some of the challenges of feminist historiography that a writer like Zelda Fitzgerald makes more urgent. How do we read texts that cannot retain an illusion of authorial intent, whose history is one of interference, which have been perceived as flawed at best and mad ramblings at worst? Pike’s strategy is to consider Fitzgerald’s public and private writing alike as literature, in particular as a minor literature, drawing from the theories that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari develop in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986). Fittingly, some of her most compelling readings are of unpublished manuscripts and private genres like letters and diaries across which she establishes stylistic and thematic continuities. This strategy should not be elided with methods that mine private documents for insight into an author’s intention, or those that construct genetic histories from manuscript to published work; instead, Pike sets up a flexible approach to the study and evaluation of creative impulse and vision across publication categories. 

The major contribution of this book lies in its final two chapters. Chapter Four contains Pike’s astute reading of “Caesar’s Things.” As a starting point for this chapter, Pike notes that scholars tend to struggle with and dismiss “Caesar’s Things.” They largely justify themselves by pointing to its incompleteness or to a perception that Fitzgerald’s madness is legible in the text, a justification that I interpret to demand that an author be perceived as integral, that she construct for herself a discourse of self-control and authority. Pike perceives the difficulty of the text as a feature instead of a bug: it “presents an uncoupling of the self, a self that oscillates between reality and unreality, inner and outer, objective and subjective. The result is a disorganization of forms and a fragmentary mode of expression. . . . its modernist impulse is authentic” (151). Through her stylistic observations, Pike constructs a tradition that places Fitzgerald’s work alongside Leonora Carrington’s and Unica Zürn’s surrealist prose writing. She also revitalizes the work of Louis Sass’s Madness and Modernism (1994), demonstrating the way Fitzgerald’s modernism explores the dynamics of subjectivity through the lens of psychology. Chapter Five, however, moves beyond this to posit that mystical experiences of subjectivity cannot be understood in clinical, or perhaps even modernist, frameworks. In the spiritual notebooks that form the chapter’s central texts, Pike reads “a shift in world view from a modernist, scientific paradigm to a wider, potentially more liberating way of thinking about and understanding subjective experience” (212). Like many mystics, Fitzgerald is preoccupied “with the idea of the soul’s cosmic purpose, with ideas of order and pattern, with experiences of time and nature, and finally with the idea of union”; among these preoccupations, Fitzgerald’s concern with constructing an ethical imperative around “follow[ing] the soul’s cosmic pattern” comes to the foreground as the guiding principle that aligns her with figures like Gerard de Nerval and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose mysticism focused on universal, spiritual principles (214, 215). In the balance of these two chapters is an important critical point: Fitzgerald’s writings, her representations of traumatized subjectivity, and her visionary world view are unintelligible to clinical discourses that emerged in the modernist period and are also integral to her oeuvre. While Pike’s monograph has ostensibly argued for Fitzgerald’s inclusion in modernism, here she suggests that Fitzgerald might at once qualify as modernist (experimental and surrealist) and move beyond modernist conceptual frameworks (her visions describe unique cosmologies).

Pike’s choice not to discriminate between published and unpublished work serves her well. She largely lets go of contexts of circulation and market, and restricts these aspects of criticism to biographical stage-setting. This approach, however, is less convincing in the first three chapters. These span Fitzgerald’s magazine writing and early love letters to Scott, the letters from Fitzgerald’s first confinements to psychiatric institutions, and her only published novel, Save Me the Waltz. Respectively, these chapters concentrate on her construction of modern feminine self-hood, her ontological crises in the wake of diagnosis, and the context of her collaboration and competition with her husband’s literary career. Like her husband, Zelda Fitzgerald was deeply concerned in her early career with the construction of public personality, the manipulation of an emerging literary celebrity culture, and the discourses of artistic seriousness and legitimacy subject to debate in the period. These aspects of Zelda’s early career make Pike’s decision to elide the marketplace an unreasonable one. Pike seeks to account for a bifurcation in Zelda’s early and late career by espousing a theoretically eclectic approach, claiming to “[resist] the totalizing nature of any singular theory” (8). However, a critical apparatus that thinks more explicitly about the relationship between the market, public and private personae, and private and public writing would have provided the manuscript with a conceptual seriousness to match its call for serious consideration of Fitzgerald’s writing.

In fact, the monograph’s reliance on frequently trod theoretical ground—theories that often emerged alongside the biographies that still dominate scholarship on Fitzgerald—frequently crowds out nuanced arguments that would bring new significance to Fitzgerald’s writings. In addition to Deleuze and Guattari, Pike cites complementary methodologies like Leigh Gilmore’s Autobiographics (1994) and Shari Benstock’s The Private Self (1988). She invokes a diverse range of theoreticians like Julia Kristeva, Sigmund Freud, David Trotter, Pierre Bourdieu, and Plato. This theoretical overdetermination buries Pike’s voice. For example, she compares the protagonists of Save Me the Waltz and Tender Is the Night (1934), novels frequently read as companions: “While Nicole [Driver]’s madness is entirely romanticized and contained in a heroic (major) narrative, Zelda’s account of madness is more shocking, and thus more real (minor)” (182). While this parenthetical communication of Deleuze and Guattari’s theoretical terms is not typical in Pike’s writing, a willingness to point out that Fitzgerald’s writing simply fits definitions of minor literature, or, elsewhere, of modernist experimentation or surrealistic expression, is a common argumentative strategy. In a related vein, the monograph has moments of fascinating argument that deserve to be explored further. For example, Pike points out that in scenes about the childhood traumas of Janno, the protagonist, of “Caesar’s Things,” hallucination and fear often coincide with a confrontation with a racialized other. As a result,

[t]wo tropes of the black person are recycled in the text: the primitive savage who threatens the white world of civility and order and the conjuring witch doctor who has the power to create disorder; both stereotypes deny humanity to the black person. By producing the dissimilarities between Janno and the black person, Zelda reproduces the imperialist and colonized subject in terms of universalized moral and metaphysical binaries. Indeed, blackness in this text becomes a powerful signifier of “non-identity,” the very phenomenon with which Janno herself is threatened. (166)

For Pike, the significance of this observation is an indication of the “narrator’s color-coded psyche” (167). However, this reading could also have illuminated the broader racial politics of a white, Southern writer like Zelda Fitzgerald, whose literary celebrity persona in her youth was a paradigm of normative modern femininity. There is room here to explore the way that Southern American identity and “color-coded psyche” may have in fact been an underlying force in the construction of modernist personality, and that Fitzgerald’s early and late writings together reveal this to us.

Pike’s contribution to the field is substantial and ambitious. While it suffers in the context of a scholarly field still dominated by biography and is hesitant to make new theoretical claims emerging from Fitzgerald’s writing, it also offers some of the first compelling readings of aspects of her work. For me, it has provided new avenues to think about Fitzgerald—to read simultaneously the lines of privilege and marginalization that cross her life and work, to think about the political continuities across her oeuvre, to analyze discursive categories like seriousness, and to continue to make space for Fitzgerald’s writing in our cultural and critical memory.


I'm convinced. I'll read the book!