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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