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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 880-882
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Simone Weil Davis. Living Up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. xi + 248 pp.
Interdisciplinary studies tracing the impact of popular culture on serious fiction can reveal much about American literature. However, when the thinking and research seem unclear, the results can be as unsatisfying as a fifteen-second commercial. A case in point is Living Up to the Ads.
The first problem is that Davis never clarifies what she means by the term "ads." The reader eventually infers that Davis's primary interest is print ads aimed at women who buy items intended for self-adornment (for example, perfume, cosmetics, shoes). So where [End Page 880] does this leave other ads of the 1920s, such as those painted on the sides of barns or broadcast on the radio? And how about those aimed at women who are not focused on self-adornment, such as mothers who purchase laundry detergent or condensed milk? It doesn't help that often Davis seems to step away from ads geared to women's self-adornment to consider America's consumer mentality in the 1920s. A case in point is her discussion of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt—an unoriginal choice, and a book already so thoroughly analyzed by literary scholars that Davis offers nothing new.
Davis's commentary on Bruce Barton's once-popular novel The Man Nobody Knows points to another problem underlying this study. Designed to recast Christ as a virile man of action instead of a meek caretaker of lambs and toddlers, Barton's novel reflects less the print ads of a particular decade than the American cultural preference for individualized thought and action, a preference that has been embedded in the national imagination since Puritan times. Though Davis acknowledges those Puritans (just as she occasionally acknowledges that other purveyor of women's ideas of beauty, the motion picture), her focus on print ads is such that her study seems skewed. More to the point, her discussion of The Man Nobody Knows sheds light only on Bruce Barton. As Davis points out, he was a professional adman. This helps explain his quirky, forgotten book, but how about writers active in the 1920s who were not in the advertising field, including Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Wharton, Dreiser, Wolfe, or Wharton? Davis does not discuss them.
Another problem with this study is the time frame. Why the 1920s? There are some mild attempts to explain the choice in terms of consumerism, but America's commodity culture did not suddenly materialize in 1920, and in fact a number of texts published well before then (for example, The Rise of Silas Lapham, Daisy Miller, and"A Pair of Silk Stockings") deal with our commodity culture and/or women's interest in self-adornment. Significantly, Davis often drifts away from the 1920s. For example, much of what she has to say about Zelda Fitzgerald focuses on her 1932 novel, Save Me the Waltz, while most of Davis's insights into Waltz come from her comparing it to Leonora Carrington's story "The Debutante," written in 1937-38. Davis also breaks the time frame by going (albeit apparently unwittingly) to the past. After quoting a famous passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1934 novel Tender Is the Night—the one beginning, "Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent"—Davis makes a passing reference to "Frank Norris's octopus" but does not mention that Fitzgerald clearly based the passage on one from Norris's novel about a consumer-minded wife—The Pit, published in 1903. [End Page 881]
Davis's not mentioning The Pit points to a final problem with this study: she seems far more interested in the advertising industry, and in particular the J. Walter Thompson Agency, than she is in American fiction. The strongest chapter in Living Up to the Ads is devoted entirely to a discussion...