Back in college, I first read Zelda Fitzgerald's "Save Me the Waltz" one semester when I took a course on F. Scott Fitzgerald. It struck me as a fascinating book, a book that reverberated in troubling and illuminating ways off of the writing of Scott Fitzgerald. But Zelda's novel was never discussed as part of that course -- in fact, it was never even mentioned. She was a person you didn't talk seriously about.
That wasn't very long ago. But Zelda's come a long way since then.
Now, in fact, she's something of a cottage industry. You can buy copies of "Save Me the Waltz" in bookstores and on Amazon (my paperback copy, a ratty version picked up in a used bookstore, was treasured because it was out of print).
And you can glimpse even more of Zelda in a stream of recent books on her life, her impact on Scott's work, and the streams of letters that she and Scott exchanged throughout their abbreviated lives. (Scott died in 1940, at age 44, of a heart attack; Zelda died in 1948 when the mental institution in which she was living burned down.)
The latest entry in this canon comes from Linda Wagner-Martin, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina. A prolific author, Wagner-Martin has written biographical and critical studies of many American writers, including Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Anne Sexton. Her work in this book, as in many of those previous efforts, excels in its efficiency, clarity and readability.
Wagner-Martin takes subjects we may have read about many times before and sheds light on them in new ways. With Zelda, it's no different.
In this book, she argues that Zelda should be interpreted not through the lens of flapperhood -- the Jazz Age personification of the American woman that Zelda helped pioneer -- but through an earlier incarnation, one more fundamental to Zelda's deepest self. Growing up in Montgomery, Ala., Zelda Sayre was, at bottom, a popular Southern belle, a social role that carried with it certain standards of living and codes of behavior, Wagner-Martin asserts. (This emphasis on the young, single Zelda is signaled by the book's title -- many books about Zelda do not identify her using her maiden name.)
In this vein, Wagner-Martin argues that Scott Fitzgerald -- himself a Midwesterner and Northern boy who lived in his youth in St. Paul, Minn., and Buffalo before meeting the teenage Zelda at a Montgomery dance -- did not fully understand that role and that self-definition. This disjunction contributed to the Fitzgeralds' marital problems, Wagner-Martin argues, as they careened between Europe and the United States on a crazy, alcohol-fueled tour of a mismatched marriage.
Since her death, Wagner-Martin writes, Zelda has been remembered largely as the flashy flapper on Scott Fitzgerald's arm, not for any of her own accomplishments or qualities. Zelda was a writer and a ballet dancer, both with some degree of success. As for the flapper image, Zelda's own behavior undoubtedly did contribute to that perception, according to Wagner-Martin. She argues:
"Her often outrageous behavior reflected on her husband, and made him the notable man about town that his years at Princeton and then in New York as a single person had denied him. Zelda was Fitzgerald's success. Even as he pretended that his new assurance came from 'This Side of Paradise' having sold 33,000 copies, it came more directly from having a stunning wife on his arm."
Well, it was probably both. Wagner-Martin occasionally lapses into the biographer's trap of blaming too much on the spouse -- in this case, the talented, insecure, drunken Scott. In another place, she blames the couple's secondary infertility problems (they couldn't conceive a second child after Scottie, their daughter) on Scott's drinking, without any mention of the fact that a previous illegal abortion Zelda underwent might have damaged her reproductive organs. By and large, however, Wagner-Martin is fair to Scott, taking a neutral tone toward him in this book.
Zelda and Scott ended up, of course, as a star-crossed couple who could not bear to be together and could not survive apart. Each lived from one flash of glory to the next, and each died pathetically. Their lives -- both together and apart -- deserve reflection.
Wagner-Martin thus does readers a service by pushing forward the boundaries of what we know about Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, even as she argues for an expanded perspective on the Southern woman's life and legacy. In all, she makes a convincing case.
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
An American Woman's Life
By Linda Wagner-Martin
Palgrave/Macmillan, 251 pages, $25
Charity Vogel is a frequent News book reviewer.