Over the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring the holidays as a theme in Fitzgerald’s writing. In particular, I decided to see what he wrote about New Year’s Eve – after all, I thought, the great chronicler of the Jazz Age must have attended, and included in his fiction, any number of New Year’s bashes.
Although they don’t have much of a place in the novels, the parties of Christmas and New Year’s set the stage for a number of Fitzgerald’s short stories. This makes sense – Fitzgerald wrote stories for the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and other outlets as a way to generate much-needed income, and holiday stories are marketable. Fitzgerald’s holiday stories vary in quality: some contain a few distinctive moments in an otherwise undistinguished story; others distill the themes and issues of his novels in a powerful and often poignant way.
A Fitzgerald holiday takes place among the young and, only secondarily, their elders. For his characters, especially the striving young men, the holiday season is marked by glamorous parties, of course, but also by a yearning for love and connection, by the search for a secure place in the world and, often, by disappointment, unhappiness, and alternating moments of intense social and emotional engagement and isolation.
A sense of that happy destiny just beyond reach is captured in the story “A Freeze-Out,” published in the Saturday Evening Post on December 19, 1931. The protagonist, Forrest Winslow, is “handsome, popular and rather spoiled in a conservative way,” and, after going East to school and then college, he finds working for his father’s firm in a large Minnesota a let-down. Forrest fantasizes about the emotional excitement to be found in the holiday season: “…at the Christmas dances among the Christmas girls he might find the ecstasy and misery, the infatuation that he wanted. By autumn he felt that his predestined girl was already packing her trunk in some Eastern or Southern city.”
Forrest’s critical moment actually comes at a ball on January 3rd, hosted by the Rikker family, which is trying to reestablish its respectability after a financial scandal. He attends, in spite of his parents’ disapproval, and ends up falling for the lovely and cultured Alida Rikker. Resisting his parents’ stuffy and somewhat disingenuous attitude, Forrest is inspired by his great-grandmother’s selfish desire to become a great-great-grandmother even if it means he marries “the daughter of Al Capone” – in other words, he decides to live by his own principles and, unlike many Fitzgerald heroes, finds his happy ending.
In fact, browsing Fitzgerald’s short stories for New Year’s themes, I noticed the prevalence of the phrase “after New Year’s.” A number of times, Fitzgerald writes not about New Year’s itself, but about the days before or after. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s understood that we all know what happens on New Year’s in Fitzgerald’s world – is the holiday itself such a blow-out that nothing truly worth writing about happens? Or maybe it’s Fitzgerald finding meaning and interest in the margins of things and in the smaller moments and gestures. West Egg rather than East Egg.