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“Poor Butterfly”: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Popular Music

  • Ruth Prigozy

The seventy-one song titles (see chart below) and innumerable lyrics that sprinkle his works indicate the extent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's reliance upon popular music as a source of his art. Contemporaneous descriptions of him as “laureate of the Jazz Age” need not be considered derisive; Fitzgerald was thoroughly in touch with his culture, was aware of the meaning of his sources, and was a keen analyst of the effects of popular culture on American lives. Cecilia Brady, in The Last Tycoon, admits “some of my more romantic ideas actually stemmed from pictures—42nd Street, for example, had a great influence on me. It's more than possible that some of the pictures which Stahr himself conceived had shaped me into what I was.” Fitzgerald was shaped by movies, by musical comedies, and not least by popular music. Other writers of our century were influenced in the same way, but it was Fitzgerald who acknowledged his debt to popular culture, who used it with meticulous care, and who evaluated seriously its impact, for better or worse, on the American scene.

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1. The Last Tycoon (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1941), p. 18. Hereafter, page numbers will be given in the body of the paper.

2. “Shadow Laurels,” in The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Kuehl, John (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1965).

3. See also, “A Freeze-Out” (1931) where Stravinsky's “Fire Bird” and Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” are pointedly contrasted with silly popular tunes. Fitzgerald's other references to classical music are also associated with serious or mature feelings. They occur in Tender Is the Night (pp. 179–80), where the second movement of Prokofieff's “Love of Three Oranges” is background music adumbrating the “sombre majesty” of the beginning of Dick Diver's dream; and Debussy's “Le Plus que Lent” in “Babylon Revisited” (1931). In “What A Handsome Pair!” classical music evokes the heroine's feelings on the day her brother had died.

4. “A Woman with a Past” (1930).

5. “Discard,” in the Fitzgerald collection, Manuscript Division, Firestone Library, Princeton Univ. The story, also called “Director's Special,” was written in the mid-thirties for the Saturday Evening Post, which declined to publish it.

6. In the revised version, Fitzgerald also omitted entirely a second reference to the songs, possibly because it seemed redundant.

7. Tender Is the Night (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1934), pp. 133–34. Hereafter, page numbers will be given in the body of the paper.

8. In his “Notebooks” in The Crack-Up (New York: New Directions, 1945), p. 241, Fitzgerald included a list of popular songs, most of them dating from the twenties or the years just preceding the decade.

9. Both this story and “The Debutante” are apprentice works.

10. This passage was interpolated into This Side of Paradise (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1920), pp. 6970. Hereafter, page numbers will be given in the body of the paper.

11. “The Jelly Bean” (1920).

12. See “Indecision” (1931), “Flight and Pursuit” (1932), “The Rubber Check” (1932), “New Types” (1934), Tender Is the Night (1934), pp. 156–79.

13. The Great Catsby (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1925), p. 151. Hereafter, page numbers will be given in the body of the paper.

14. The Beautiful and Damned (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1922), p. 144. Hereafter, page numbers will be given in the body of the paper.

15. The Crack-Up, p. 75.

16. The Crack-Up, p. 30.

17. Other examples of Fitzgerald's use of popular songs to comment on character and action occur in “The Freshest Boy” (1928), “The Bridal Party” (1930), “The Ordeal” (1915), The Last Tycoon, p. 69, “Too Cute for Words” (1936), “The Offshore Pirate” (1920), “No Flowers” (1934), and This Side of Paradise, p. 82.

18. These do not include “What a Handsome Pair!” where the heroine rejects a suitor because, “You're interested in your music, and I can't even play Chopsticks.”

19. I cannot locate any of these song lyrics or a song, “To Let.” Perhaps Fitzgerald made them up.

20. Sklar, Robert, in F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoön (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), asserts that in this story, “Fitzgerald demonstrated his evocative romantic prose style, unimpaired, for the first time since Tender Is the Night,” p. 307.

21. Mooney, Hughson F., “Songs, Singers and Society, 1890–1954,” American Quarterly, 6 (1954), 221–32.

22. Other writers, like Dreiser in An American Tragedy (who uses the record, “Brown Eyes” and “The Love Boat” when Clyde Griffiths goes home with two girls he meets at church), Farrell, in Studs Lonigan (who uses “Just a Gigolo” as a refrain in Book III to suggest the despair of the era and of Studs), and John Updike, in Rabbit, Run (as Rabbit listens to the sentimental songs of the fifties on his automobile radio on his flight from Pennsylvania), use the technique similarly, but not nearly as masterfully as Fitzgerald.

23. Wilder, Alec, in American Popular Song (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), remarks on Astraire's influence on many song writers, particularly on Irving Berlin: “… every song written for Fred Astaire seems to bear his mark. Every writer, in my opinion, was vitalized by Astaire and wrote in a manner they had never quite written in before: he brought out in them something a little bit better than their best—a little more subtlety, flair, sophistication, wit, and style, qualities he himself possesses in generous measure. And Cheek to Cheek is a case in point” (p. 109).

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