Memorials and Monuments: Historical Method and the (Re)construction of Memory in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Ice Palace"

Article excerpt

   All schemes of morality are nothing more than efforts to put into permanent
   codes the expedients found useful by some given race.

   --H. L. Mencken, The Philosophy of Nietzsche (ix)

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Poor Fitzgerald--forever ensconced in the halls of academe as a writer's version of Oz's Scarecrow: "If he only had a brain." This critical estimate, established by Edmund Wilson in 1922 (27-35), persists today (Meyers 51-54), despite Fitzgerald's accomplishments. More to my point, Fitzgerald named Mencken's The Philosophy of Nietzsche, which links cultural codes with the ambitions of "some given race," as the second most influential book he had ever read (Bruccoli, Authorship 86). (1) I examine "The Ice Palace" to re-position the early Fitzgerald as a thoughtful and incisive social critic. I suggest that by 1919-20 Fitzgerald had already formulated a complex philosophy of culture, one that led him to intervene in the ongoing debate in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post over eugenics. (2) Moreover, Fitzgerald's understanding of culture demonstrates he had assimilated the radical tenets of modernism and anticipated the postmodern emphasis on identity and public memory as social constructions. Fitzgerald wrote "The Ice Palace" just days after receiving Wilson's letter chastising the intellectual pretensions of This Side of Paradise. As such, "The Ice Palace" represents Fitzgerald's reply, a determined and intentional intellectual effort.

In "The Ice Palace" Fitzgerald represents cultural memory as constructed through memorials and monuments: the South's cemetery and the North's ice palace, respectively; this process shapes the identity of Sally Carrol and Harry Bellamy. (3) More trenchantly, Fitzgerald's text examines how cultures combine interpretations of grand-scale historical events, such as the Civil and Great Wars, with collateral, material icons--such as public memorials and monuments--in order to idealize and sanitize the culture's representation to itself and to others.

Thus, I read "The Ice Palace" as Fitzgerald's first sustained inquiry into the construction and politics of memory. Fitzgerald situates his every-woman--Sally Carrol Happer--within the chronological and geographic double plot of post-Civil War South and post-World War I North to demonstrate that (1) local manifestations of cultural memory are merely iterations of universalist hegemonic efforts, (2) antecedent and present cultural forces so saturate individual efforts to establish "identity" that such quests are themselves fictitious gestures, and (3) "history" is subject to reformulations that sanitize the given culture's involvement in the inevitable violences of historical process. In addition, Fitzgerald foregrounds his distrust in the contemporary, conventional myth of geographic relocation as economically (re)invigorating and spiritually (re)deeming by employing a da capo frame narrative to effect closure. Sally Carrol's return to the South does not reaffirm a coddling nostalgia; rather, it emphasizes Fitzgerald's understanding of post-dialectic conceptualizations of history and a clear rejection of American empiricism. "The Ice Palace" is Fitzgerald's articulation of a question posed later by Werner Sollors: "Is it possible to take the postmodern assault seriously and yet adhere to some notion of history and of individual and collective life in the modern world?" (xi). The correlation is not as anachronistic as it seems: Sollors speculates that the term "postmodern" first appeared in 1916 (xiii).

Previous investigations into "The Ice Palace" assume that Fitzgerald represents the cultural identities of the North and the South as signifying stable generalities--a "geographical antithesis" (Kuehl 35) presenting a contrastive "code of values and mode of perception" (Roulston and Roulston 58) by which Fitzgerald examines "the cultural as well as social differences between the North and the South" (Bruccoli, Stories 48). …