The Basil and Josephine Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Scribner’s, New York, 1973
The name F. Scott Fitzgerald is no stranger to this space as the master writer of one of the great American novels of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby. And as one of the key players (many of them spending time in self-imposed European exile) in American literature in the so-called Jazz Age in the aftermath of World War I. For this writer he formed, along with Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and a little, Dorothy Parker and Gertrude Stein the foundation for modern American writing. But that recognition was a later development, far later, because I knew of Fitzgerald’s work long before I had read any of his (or the others, for that matter) better known works. I knew the Basil and Josephine stories well before that.
As a kid in the 1950s the library that I spent many an hour in was divided, as they are in most libraries even today, into children’s and adult’s sections. At that time there was something of a Chinese Wall between the two sections in the form of a stern old librarian who made sure that kids, sneaky kids like me didn’t go into that forbidden adult section until the proper time (after sixth grade as I recall). The Basil and Josephine stories were, fortunately, in the kid’s section (although I have seen them in adult sections of libraries as well). And while the literary merits of the stories are adult worthy of mention for the clarity of Fitzgerald’s language, the thoughtful plots (mainly, although a couple are kind of similar reflecting the mass magazine adult audience they were addressed to), and the evocative style (of that “age of innocence” just before World War I after which the world changed dramatically. No more innocent when you dream notions, not after the mustard gas and the trench warfare) for me on that long ago first reading what intrigued me was the idea of how the other half-the rich (well less than half, much less as it turns out) lived.
This was fascinating for a poor boy, a poor "projects" boy like me, who was clueless about half the stuff Basil got to do (riding trains, going to boarding school, checking out colleges, playing some football, and seriously, very seriously checking out the girls at exotic-sounding dances, definitely not our 1950s school sock hops). And I was clueless, almost totally clueless, about what haughty, serenely beautiful, guy-crazy Josephine was up to. So this little set of short stories was something like my introduction to class, the upper class, in literature.
Of course when I talk about the 1950s in the old projects, especially the later part when I used to hang around with one Billie, William James Bradley, self-proclaimed king of the be-bop night at our old elementary school (well, not exactly self-proclaimed, I helped the legend along a little) I have to give Billie's take on the matter. His first reaction was why I was reading this stuff, this stuff that was not required school reading stuff anyway. Then when I kept going on and on about the stories, and trying to get him to read them, he exploded one day and shouted out “how is reading those stories going to get you or me out of these damn projects?”
Good point now that I think about it but I would not let it go at that. I started in on a little tidbit about how one of the stories was rejected by the magazine publishers because they thought the subject of ten or eleven year olds being into “petting parties” was crazy. That got Billie attention as he wailed about how those guys obviously had never been to the projects where everyone learned (or half-learned) about sex sometimes even earlier than that, innocent as it might have been. He said he might actually read the stuff now that he saw that rich kids, anyway, were up against the same stuff we were. He never did. But the themes of teen alienation, teen angst, teen vanity, teen love are all there. And while the rich are different from you and I, and life, including young life, plays out differently for them those themes seem embedded in youth culture ever since teenage because a separate social category. Read on.