Sunday, March 16, 2014
Learning Something New
Author: Marion Meade
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books
Much of the 21st century classic literature list in many high schools draw from the American writers of the 1920s - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thurber. But more neglected are the women writers of the time - Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber. I stumbled on this audiobook through my library and am very glad that I did. It has given me a new perspective of these writers and my image of the Roaring Twenties.
Each of these woman resisted the traditional image of what women could do and be during the early part of the 20th century. Each of them earned their own money as a writer and made a lot of their own choices in where they lived, who they lived with and what assignments to take. Parker was married, but was most often without her husband. Zelda, often known as the wife of Scott, was a writer in her own right (at times, earning more than Scott) and pursued professional dancing later in life to prove that she could do it. St. Vincent, as a young woman, was dynamic and irresistible to many men. She flitted from man to man until she settled, a bit with one who became not just her husband, but her manager, secretary and nurse. Ferber, author of Showboat and Cimarron, wrote fiction, non-fiction, articles and was both a serious journalist and a playwright.
Like the famous men of the era, these women spent the Roaring Twenties roaring. alcohol was the foundation of most social engagements and binge drinking was more the norm than unusual. The literary circle in New York was fairly small - meeting at the Algonquin Hotel and using the same publishers and editors - and the circle greatly influenced each other. Many writers of the time also lived for extended time in Europe, and especially Paris, where Hemingway's influence became more pronounced.
However, what most surprised me was the portrayal of the 1920s. It was difficult to imagine the setting with model T Fords, grainy sepia pictures and short flapper dresses rather than the modern New York of crowded streets, high fashion and business, and constant travel. At times the story reads like a Kardashian reality show - with affairs, drugs, abortions, attempted suicides, nervous breakdowns, and rivalries. Although I know the 1920s was an era of massive change - socially, politically and economically - my image has often been more like ancient history, rather than modern. This books made me re-adjust how I think about the time period and has led me to re-discover these writers.
The style of the book is chronological - each chapter is a year and the narrative switches between each of the authors and highlights important events or incidents during the year. Therefore the book
is written a bit more like sound bites, rather than an authoritative biography. Marion Meade has also written a more detailed biography of Dorothy Parker and there are many other biographies of the other women. But, when a book spawns further investigation into its subjects, I think that is a sign of a good book.