[(essay date 2016) In the following essay, Lyons discusses the Fitzgeralds’ identification with the Jazz Age and their literary “afterlives.”]
Much work—both critical and artistic—has been paid to the Jazz Age, and Zelda Fitzgerald in particular in recent years, not least because the Jazz Age has entered the pop cultural vernacular and imagination as a time both spirited and despairing, a perfect thematic concoction of fragile humanity masquerading under the guise of vulgar materialism. These themes still resonate poignantly for contemporary culture, especially given the mystery that continues to surround the lives of one of the twentieth century’s most illustrious couples. That the Roaring Twenties are never dead is a rhetoric well played out in popular culture, notably in Woody Allen’s critically acclaimed Midnight in Paris when the whimsical Gil Pender quotes William Faulkner, stating: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ It is through this attachment to the past that the ghosts of these figures remain. Thus the rampant and arguably pathological act of constantly looking back is a symptom of a ‘nostalgia culture’ that partly defines today’s generation, especially where the Jazz Age is concerned.
As theorist Arjun Appadurai notes, society relies on a system of ‘nostalgia without memory’ (1996). Appadurai’s concept of ‘nostalgia without memory’ is also understood as ‘imagined nostalgia’; here, we witness the idealisation of the past without an actual lived experience, as opposed to nostalgia that is fuelled by a remembrance of one’s own past. Appadurai links this concept to the American media and the technologies of the twenty-first century, which facilitate a romanticisation of past times. He discusses what he calls a ‘social imaginaire,’ and notes that ‘Americans themselves are hardly in the present anymore as they stumble into the mega-technologies of the twenty-first century’ (30). Illustrating Appadurai’s observations that society relies on a system of “nostalgia without memory,” contemporary artists and readers use both F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as the Jazz Age’s tragic spokespersons, reinterpreting the Jazz Age with increasing fascination and melancholy, and focusing on the period’s reliance on social veneers, beneath which a more despondent shadow exists.
That the deaths of both Scott and Zelda were dire and attached to tragic narratives of lost hope and unfulfilled potential lends itself to the way in which the ghosts of the Jazz Age are currently deployed as a metaphor for the price of extravagance, the fickleness of love, and the burden of the ‘tortured genius.’ What this suggests, among other things, is that contemporary culture has been unable to relinquish the ghosts of the Jazz Age, in particular the ghosts of Scott and Zelda, and in its dissatisfaction with the couple’s ultimate fate, has thus reinterpreted these figures in order to soften their tragic lives with a more sentimental afterlife. So poignantly do their stories register it is as though readers and writers are attempting to alleviate the grim ends of the Fitzgeralds by giving them a kind of sentimental epilogue, a posthumous narrative that many consider to...