Friday, September 19, 2014

The Ice Palace

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

In the summer of 1918 U.S. Army Second Lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald was assigned to Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, Alabama. While there he met and fell in love with eighteen-year-old Zelda Sayre. They soon became informally engaged, and in late October he was sent to Long Island to await orders to be shipped off to Europe. When the war ended on November 11, he returned to Montgomery to be discharged. Reunited for several weeks, the couple at one point took a memorable stroll through Oakwood Cemetery. In a love letter sent to him the following spring, Sayre described a subsequent visit to the burial ground:
I’ve spent today in the grave-yard. . . . Why should graves make people feel in vain? I’ve heard that so much, and [Thomas Gray, author of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard] is so convincing, but somehow I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived – All the broken columnes [sic] and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances – and in a hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue – of course, they are neither – I hope my grave has an air of many, many years ago about it – Isn’t it funny how, out of a row of Confederate soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves – when they’re exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss? Old death is so beautiful – so very beautiful – We will die together – I know . . .
Yet by June 1919 Sayre broke off the engagement, concerned that Fitzgerald’s career as a writer would not be enough to support them. The disappointment spurred him to return to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, where he finished his first novel and more than a dozen stories, including “The Ice Palace.”

The story opens in September and follows its heroine from Georgia to a wintry Minnesota—although the Northern location is never named. The Northern swell, the Southern belle, the stroll in the cemetery, the casual betrothal—all these autobiographical elements are brought together in the story. The colossal palace that gives the story its title is modeled on actual large-scale buildings constructed of ice for the St. Paul Winter Carnival. The first festival took place in 1886; the event occurred irregularly in subsequent years—Fitzgerald would have attended in 1916 or 1917—and in recent decades it has been held annually. (Spectacular photographs of the ice palace from the 1887 festival can be seen here.)

Soon after “The Ice Palace” appeared, Fitzgerald wrote an brief essay for
The Editor, a national magazine for “literary workers,” and explained how he came to write the story. The idea “grew out of a conversation with a girl out in St. Paul, Minnesota, my home.” The two talked about winters in Minnesota (“their bleakness and dreariness and seemingly infinite length”) and about life in Sweden.
“I wonder,” I said casually, “if the Swedes aren’t melancholy on account of the cold—if this climate doesn’t make people rather hard and chill—” and then I stopped, for I had scented a story. . . .
Fitzgerald then explains how the stroll through the cemetery with his fiancée worked its way into the story:
. . . I was in Montgomery, Alabama, and while out walking with a girl I wandered into a graveyard. She told me I could never understand how she felt about the Confederate graves, and I told her I understood so well that I could put it on paper. Next day on my way back to St. Paul it came to me that it was all one story—the contrast between Alabama and Minnesota.
In 1919 Fitzgerald earned a total of $879 from his writing; the following year his income skyrocketed to $17,055—the equivalent of half a million dollars today. His sudden wealth and fame convinced Zelda Sayre that they could live off a writer’s salary after all, and they were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on April 3, 1920—the week after This Side of Paradise was published.

Notes: The lyrics on page 292 are from a variation of a late-nineteenth-century sailing song known by several titles, including “Ten Thousand Miles Away” and “Blow the Winds Heigh-Ho.” Dangerous Dan McGrew (page 296) is a character in the narrative poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (1907) by Robert W. Service, which was set in a Canadian saloon during the Yukon Gold Rush.
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