- Living Up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s.
Simone Weil Davis’s thoroughly researched new book, Living Up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s, discusses multiple literary and advertising texts (breaching the highbrow/lowbrow divide) to explore the unstable relationship between selfhood and the subjectivities commodity culture offered the era’s [End Page 213] women. Davis’s overarching topic—how advertising’s gendered “subject positions” collided with choices for personal “identity” during the 1920s—is revisited in nuanced iterations in each chapter. Chapter Two traces the emergence of the masculinized “adman” as a cultural subject, linking him to the decade’s enthusiasm for “pep” and profit. In this chapter, Davis pairs adman Bruce Barton’s novel The Man Nobody Knows (a portrait of a peppy and virile Christ) with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt to uncover the decade’s validation of a manly business sphere and its discontents. Chapter Three explores the real-life “adwomen” of the 1920s and their uneasy and often contradictory relationship to the female consumer they helped to construct. Here Davis reads archival records from the J. Walter Thompson Company and personal memoirs to document the masquerades and gender adaptations lived by copywriters Christine Frederick, Dorothy Dignam, Helen Woodward, and Ruth Waldo. Chapter Four borrows I. A. Richards’s poetic term “vehicle” to identify the metaphoric usefulness of the female body in 1920s advertising, when Davis says “back-and-forth” meaning established a world of “eroticized things and commodified women” (106). She even suggests that when a woman performed the “flapper,” she served as a vehicle for modernity itself. To illustrate the disjunctures of this “representational labor,” Davis explicates three well-chosen literary works: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Jacob’s Ladder”; “Our Own Movie Queen,” a collaboration between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; and Nella Larsen’s racially charged novel Quicksand. Davis skillfully demonstrates how each of these narratives critiques “the consumer culture approach to identity construction” (124). Davis’s final chapter investigates with great care Zelda Fitzgerald’s underexamined novel Save Me the Waltz, finding in the trials of its main character Alabama (Zelda’s alter ego) an illustrative struggle to escape commodity culture’s performative demands.
Davis’s essays are arranged like a well-wrought “string of pearls,” each chapter a complex study of literary, cultural, and advertising signifiers—and their interplay. Writing with erudition and imagination, Davis pens memorable tropes, like her musical metaphor for advertising’s duality of purpose. (She says the “feminine” provides the “treble line” for “uplift,” while “the hypermasculinized ‘bottom line’ sounds the bass” .) Davis’ primary research into understudied advertising archives enriches her book significantly and fosters innovative literary readings. Her close textual analysis of Save Me the Waltz, for example, discovers Alabama to be like a figure in a perfume ad at the story’s start, a woman of “pure fiction,” forever performing modern womanhood within patriarchy. While Davis sets out to illuminate the relationship between “gendered subjectivity and lived experience” (13), her concentration on invented characters succeeds more in disclosing the unnerving array of subject positions extended to women in the 1920s, as femininity’s signifiers were incessantly recirculated and reworked in advertising and literature.