Fans of American literature will know already that, only yesterday (24 of December), The New Yorker published (online) “The Iceberg”, a short story by Zelda Sayre (later Zelda Fitzgerald), which first appeared in 1918 in the Sidney Lanier High School Literary Journal and was rediscovered recently.
It is a very short short story, presumably Zelda’s first, which plays on and subverts the “Southern belle” trope. The heroine is Caroline Holton, who has enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the bosom of an aristocratic Southern family.
Although (in the words of her brother) Caroline is “a fine girl and good looking enough”, she has “no magnetism. A fellow might as well try to tackle an iceberg” (hence the story’s title). At thirty, and with no marriage prospects, Caroline decides to take typing lessons at a local business college. She soon excels, and is sent to work for “the mighty multi-millionaire Gimbel,” whom she ends up marrying.
At the story’s outset, Caroline, though not “particularly unhappy,” reflects that by remaining unmarried at thirty “she had mortified her parents and disappointed her friends.” The effect her spinsterhood has on her immediate family, if not on herself, is summed up in a striking simile:
Her two sisters, younger than she, were married and established for life long ago; yet here she remained at thirty years of age, like a belated apple or a faded bachelor’s button, either forgotten or not deemed worth the picking.
The apple simile (though, understandably, not the bachelor’s faded button) appears already in one of Sappho’s most memorable wedding poems (fr. 90), in which a bride —perhaps one who was getting a little long in the tooth— is compared to an apple ripening on the apple-tree’s topmost bough. Here is the fragment, in David A. Campbell’s translation:
As the sweet-apple reddens on the bough-top, on the top of the topmost bough; the apple-gatherers have forgotten it—no they have not forgotten it entirely, but they could not reach it.
In Sappho, the apple-simile is an item of praise: the bride may be marrying a little late in life, but this isn’t because no-one paid attention to her but because she was too rare and precious an apple for any old apple-gatherer to come and pick her. In Zelda, by contrast, the image turns into thinly veiled commiseration: Caroline was “either forgotten or not deemed worth the picking.” In both cases, however, the outcome is a conventionally happy one: eventually, Mr Right comes along, who is able to appreciate the value of the out-of-reach apple.
There may be more Sappho lurking in Zelda’s story. At her first typewriting assignment with Gimbel, Brown and Co., Cornelia performs exceptionally well, and
when lunch hour came, her face had flushed, and the little brown curls clung to her forehead with a slight moisture of effort. Cornelia was beautiful over her first conquest of the typewriter!
Before leaving her post for lunch, she addresses her boss for the first time in the story, with what seems to be a mixture of professional pride, embarrassment, and incipient amorous attraction:
As she rose to go, she blushed, and stammered, “Mr. Gimble, I’ll thank you not to tell my parents of this. They have no knowledge of my business enterprise and would be quite horrified. You know, nothing succeeds like success. I have been a failure long enough.”
Blushing, stammering, and sweat are also to be found, as the typical symptoms of erotic desire, in Sappho’s famous fr. 31 (adapted by Catullus in his poem 51). Here it is, again in David Campbell’s translation:
For when I look at you for a moment, then it is no longer possible for me to speak; my tongue has snapped, at once a subtle fire has stolen beneath my flesh, I see nothing with my eyes, my ears hum, sweat pours from me, a trembling seizes me all over, I am greener than grass, and it seems to me that I am little short of dying.
In Sappho’s poem, the unsettling erotic emotions experienced by the narrator are aroused by the sight of a beautiful woman. It may even be that the description of these emotions was part of the praise lavished on the bride on the occasion of her wedding. In Zelda, on the other hand, the blushing and the stammering appear to have a more conventional origin (heterosexual attraction), and the sweating is, more prosaically, produced by the effort of typing. This no doubt comes across as a steep fall from the sublime to the mundane, but this may be precisely the point: Zelda reinvents Sappho’s high-flying nuptial poetry as a bit of low-key imagery underlying and accompanying her down-to-earth little story — a story which, however, is implicitly sublimated through comparison and contrast to classical poetry.
Although Zelda did not attend a university, she was a gifted child and a voracious reader from an early age. As her biographer puts it,
For Zelda, part of her love of reading might have stemmed from her trying to attract her father’s attention. The bookcases throughout 6 Pleasant Street were filled with matching sets of Henry Fielding, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Ouida, and the Greek and Latin classics.
(Linda Wagner-Martin, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald: An American Woman’s Life (Palgrave Macmillan 2004) 11)
The father whom Zelda was trying to impress was Anthony Dickinson Sayre, a well-educated man who had taken honours in both Greek and mathematics at Roanoke College in Salem and was Valedictorian of the Class of 1878.
Most of us will share the reaction of Eleanor Lanahan, Zelda Fitzgerald’s granddaughter, to the news of the short story’s rediscovery:
“Who knew Zelda wrote stories before Scott [Fitzgerald] entered her life? Who knew she’d give a working girl the happiest of destinies? This is a charming morality tale of sorts. Ironically, Cornelia’s ending up with a rich husband is her ultimate success. This is truly a fascinating story—about Zelda, the South, and women’s expectations in 1917 or so.”
Who knew, we may add, that Sappho’s poetry would reverberate, so many centuries later, in a short story written by a young woman from Montgomery, Alabama?