Friday, May 3, 2013

Bernice Bobs Her Hair

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

Cover art by American illustrator W. E. Hill (1887–1962) for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flappers and Philosophers (1920), depicting a scene from “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”
In 1915 nineteen-year-old Scott Fitzgerald sent a ten-page letter to his fourteen-year-old sister Annabel, offering advice on how to become popular in society. Its opening lines are mercilessly blunt: “You are as you know, not a good conversationalist and you might very naturally ask, ‘What do boys like to talk about?’ Boys like to talk about themselves—much more than girls. . . .” He then goes on to suggest possible opening lines (“How about giving me that sporty necktie when you’re through with it”) as well as topics to avoid (“Don’t talk about your school”). Other sections of the letters discuss poise and dress: “A good smile and one that could be assumed at will, is an absolute necesity [sic]. You smile on one side which is absolutely wrong.” He counsels, “Learn to be worldly. Remember in all society nine girls out of ten marry for money and nine men out of ten are fools.” Finally, as if ten pages of unsolicited recommendations weren’t enough, he threatens to send more: “I’ll discuss dancing in a latter [sic] letter.”

A few years later, Fitzgerald scribbled on the top corner of the letter’s first page, “Basis of Bernice.” The reference is to “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a 10,000-word story he drafted in 1919 that contains, in altered form, some of the very material he included in his letter to his sister. Fitzgerald sent the story to various magazines, including Women’s Home Companion, and it was met with rejection notes. In response, he cut nearly a third of the manuscript and completely rewrote the ending, making it “snappier”; it was accepted the following year by The Saturday Evening Post—the fourth of his stories to appear in the magazine and the first to earn him a mention on the cover. He included it in his first story collection, Flappers and Philosophers (published that same year, 1920), and the book’s dustjacket illustration is of a pivotal scene from the story.

When Fitzgerald sent a copy of the book to editor and critic H. L. Mencken (one of his literary idols), he added an inscription that divided the contents into “Worth Reading,” “Amusing,” and “Trash,” and he included “Bernice” in the last category. One suspects, however, that he might have been anticipating Mencken’s supercilious reaction to each of the selections. In any case, it is almost certain Fitzgerald later thought highly of the story. In 1935 he wrote to the British publisher Chatto & Windus and proposed a collection of his twenty-one best stories, including “Bernice” as one of only four selections from Flappers and Philosophers. The preeminent Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli offered this assessment: “It occupies an important position in the Fitzgerald canon as a witty early treatment of a characteristic subject that he would later examine more seriously: the competition for social success and the determination with which his characters—especially the young women—engage in it.”

Notes: On page 361 is a reference to the works of Annie Fellows Johnston, a widely read author of children’s fiction during the early decades of the 1900s. The quote by Oscar Wilde paraphrased on page 370 is from A Woman of No Importance.

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After dark on Saturday night one could stand on the first tee of the golf-course and see the country-club windows as a yellow expanse over a very black and wavy ocean. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Jyothi said...

A great story of vengeance! The intolerable patronising attitude, pretensious nature as a do-gooder of Marjorie is exposed beautifully. The reader cannot but help sympathise with Bernice who is outwitted and who in turn,outwits Marjorie.

What is there to say about the craftmanship of Scot Fitgerald? It is masterly and the author's sarcasm about the craftiness, shallowness of human beings ' on the hunt for mates' can be felt between the lines.

Anonymous said...

A pleasure to read.

Doc Jeff said...

I don't think that Fitzgerald ever quite believed how incredibly gifted he was. He was/is one of the greats, one of the 4 or 5 American authors who really matter. He gave us so many gifts, This story is just one of the many writings that can be read and read again. Thank you LoA and FSF.

Wayne Myers said...

I think it's interesting that the title can be seen as having a double meaning. Bernice bobs her hair, but she bobs Marjorie's hair, too. "Her" can mean both Bernice and Marjorie.

Nathan Shank said...

Dustjacket link doesn't go through.

The Library of America said...

Thanks for alerting us to the bad link. U of South Carolina seems to have removed the image from their website at some point in the last eight years. Fortunately, somebody has uploaded the same image to Wikipedia, so we switched out the link.

Kate Maccabee said...

I love this story as a shining example of how terrible youth can be. The brutal snatch of Bernice's innocence that was never even present except within her own mind. She is just as manipulative as Marjorie to begin with. Goodness I will stop with that before I write a whole literary analysis in this comment section

Jonathan fries said...

I love how Bernice gets revenge on her cousin Marjorie, she takes Warren for granted. When her cousin gets attention-getting decides to take her down. Marjorie is cold towards her cousin showing no emotion when she tells her she wants to leave. She pushed Bernice out the door.
Bernice is a but of a fake not only crying for attention but also playing men along. She has adapted all her cousin's mannerisms. The bobbed hair is sort of a tease, a conversation starter for Bernice. What I don't understand is she gives her the advice before she gets jealous. Marjorie is trying to help her out and doesn't get jealous until after all the boys start cutting in on her cousin. Why would she tell her to Bob her hair at the beginning when she wants to help. Confusing.
Again I love the ending and she throws her ponytail at Warren's door because she realized he is superficial too and is no longer interested in her when she has the funny hairstyle.i love how smart Bernice is.