May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920
The magic trick:
Connecting his standard stories of self-absorbed youth with a broader context of world events
This is a remarkable story – one that entwines at least four different strands of plot. Many Fitzgerald stories seem to exist not in a vacuum, for they are very much of their time, but in a bubble. His characters often operate with tunnel vision, immune to the world outside their own selfish concerns of love and money. And there are several characters in “May Day” wearing such blinders. Fitzgerald smacks them in the face with the reality of a larger world outside their own, though, in this story with fascinating and tragic results.
Fitzgerald separates the story – or really, novella, if we’re being precise – into chapters, allowing him to jump between plots and points of view with minimal fuss. He embodies many different perspectives here – from his standard-issue rich Yale playboys, to the uneducated soldiers returning home from World War I, to pacifist protest leader. The characters’ plots collide and the collision offers lessons on a larger scale than just the personal. Yes, the fallout demonstrates the dangers of failing to think outside one’s own point of view with any measure of perspective. But the bigger-picture point from the story is simply to portray what a kaleidoscopic mess post-war America was, with people going 56 directions at once, authority turned upside-down by a generation of youth that had conquered the world and now needed something else to do with its newfound swagger. Essentially, “May Day” is a prequel to the Jazz Age, written by someone who was magically able to journalize the era with a poet’s gift for romance usually reserved for a historian with 20 years’ hindsight.
Fitzgerald was that rare artist who was of and ahead of his time at once. “May Day” demonstrates that feat ably. And that’s quite a trick on Fitzgerald’s part.
“Oh,” – She changed the subject. “You’re glad to see me, Henry?”
“You don’t seem to be.”
“I suppose you think I’m a – a waster. Sort of the World’s Worst Butterfly.”
“Not at all. Have a good time while you’re young. Why? Do I seem like the priggish and earnest youth?”
“No – “ She paused, “– but somehow I began thinking how absolutely different the party I’m on is from – from all your purposes. It seems sort of – of incongruous, doesn’t it? – me being at a party like that, and you over here working for a thing that’ll make that sort of party impossible ever any more, if your ideas work.”
“I don’t think of it that way. You’re young, and you’re acting just as you were brought up to act. Go ahead – have a good time?”