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  • Making the Most of the Middle:Zelda Fitzgerald and Dawn Powell in College Humor

The brief period when Zelda Fitzgerald and Dawn Powell both published in the magazine College Humor offers a unique lens through which to view not only each author's larger body of work but also this critically neglected magazine. By placing the stories within a middlebrow context, this article charts the way these authors utilized such conventions to make pointed critiques of gender expectations as represented by the flapper. Such an approach also helps us understand the underappreciated role that middlebrow magazines played as a venue for female authors who sought to protest restrictive gender ideals in an era of unprecedented freedom.


Zelda Fitzgerald, Dawn Powell, College Humor, middlebrow, modernism

In the three-year period between January 1927 and January 1931, Dawn Powell and Zelda Fitzgerald each published short stories in a magazine called College Humor, though neither author was a coed. Both authors were using short fiction as a way to break into the publishing game and establish their authorial identities, and this periodical, which prided itself on providing a forum for up and coming authors, gave both a platform for doing so. To my knowledge, no direct comparison has yet been made between Zelda Fitzgerald and Dawn Powell, despite the many points of similarity to be [End Page 200] found in their lives and work. During the period when they were publishing in College Humor, both women sought to establish careers as professional authors, and their parallel efforts represent the plight of many women who chose hard-fought artistic paths during this period, despite the fact that each writer came at this line of work from a very different angle. Powell chose her vocation at a young age, and she moved by herself to New York City after graduating from college in Ohio to follow her dreams of becoming a successful novelist. Powell's planning and persistent determination led to a consistent and sustained career during which she published more than 160 stories in a variety of periodicals—from the pulp magazines like Snappy Stories to the higher-end "smart" magazines Esquire, Hearst, and The New Yorker—in addition to countless book reviews and fifteen novels. In contrast, though Fitzgerald did experiment with writing before she met her future husband, she did not make a concerted effort to develop her craft until a few years into their marriage, and she alternated between her passions for writing, dance, and painting for the rest of her life. Her literary production was thus rather limited: only ten stories published, both under own name and with her husband's name attached, though an unknown number were not published and the manuscripts were lost; one play written and produced; and two novels, one published and one unfinished.

Yet the similarities between these two writers, especially during their College Humor period, prove more significant than such disparities. Both sought magazine publication as a means of financial self-support within marriage. And, in addition to overlapping social circles, both writers shared the Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins for a period of time in the late 1930s and early 1940s.1 Though Powell did not have the identity of "wife of" with which to contend like Fitzgerald—Powell's husband, Joseph Gousha, was also an aspiring writer when he met his wife, but he recognized that her talent was superior to his and gave up his own aspirations for a career in advertising—but she did similarly struggle with feelings of self-doubt as she tried to find an appreciative audience for her equally idiosyncratic, ever-evolving work.

Even more important than the abundance of biographical and professional connections between these two women is the correspondence to be found in their writing. By focusing on their comingling publications in College Humor in the late 1920s and early 1930s, we can see that Fitzgerald's and Powell's short fiction connects them to a progressive agenda of women writers in the 1920s, one which used middlebrow forums to critique both [End Page 201] old and new models of womanhood. Furthermore, by underscoring how both authors utilized middlebrow conventions—including those specific to this magazine—for such a purpose, we can also understand the under-appreciated role that middlebrow magazines played as a venue for female authors who sought to make subversive protests against restrictive gender ideals in an era that was said to offer them unprecedented freedom.

reclaiming the modernist middlebrow

Over the past twenty years, an increasingly ample body of literary criticism has reclaimed the long-denigrated realm of the "middlebrow" to advocate for a more varied model of twentieth-century publishing, one which transcends the once entrenched belief in a high-versus-low binary configuration. Joan Shelley Rubin's seminal 1992 study The Making of Middlebrow Culture showed critics the folly of treating the "brows" as discrete entities. In her text, Rubin warns that our tendency to view avant-garde and high culture as the yardstick by which to judge all art produced during the early twentieth century willfully overlooks the interplay between the conventions of each category and thus neglects a significant body of valuable writing.2 Regarding publishing as a continuum rather than a schism emphasizes the common means, methods, and expectations from both ends that overlap within the middlebrow, thus making the middle an attractive and fruitful space for both authors and critics.

Furthermore, the era of what Nina Miller calls "popular modernism" ran parallel to a time when women emerged full-throated into public life to push against the restrictive boundaries that once defined previous generations of women. As Miller describes:

Though the original discourse of the New Woman faded with the generation of women's settlement houses, the notion of "new" or unconventional women as an emblematic threat to the social order persisted. Highly visible social phenomena served to maintain the 'newness' of women as a magnetic area in and around which cultural anxieties gathered and were played out. At its broadest level, the social-symbolic order of 'separate spheres' was giving way to newly heterosocial and urban self-understanding—a world in which modern women were encroaching on the formerly all-male turf of college, office, and street.3 [End Page 202]

In an era rocked by rapid shifts in the roles and identity of women, the middlebrow thus became a fitting platform for the examination of these changes and their effects. The hybridity of the middlebrow offered a flexible and inspirational space for those women who were struggling to navigate conflicting models of womanhood while also feeling similarly confined by the expectations of the publishing industry, whether the masculine imperatives of modernism or the hard-boiled conventions associated with a certain kind of lowbrow or pulp publication. In middlebrow, slick, and smart magazines from Vanity Fair and The New Yorker to Munsey's and College Humor, female writers were given the chance to hone their craft while challenging the standard representations of women in all forms of literature.

college humor: a magazine "of youth by youth"

Despite the increased critical interest in "popular modernism" and mass-market periodicals, surprisingly little scholarly attention has been paid to the middlebrow magazine College Humor. This neglect is particularly hard to understand when we consider that its list of contributors from its launch in 1921 until 1934, when it was taken over by pulp publisher Dell, includes prominent names such as Stephen Vincent Benet, Carl Sandburg, Rube Goldberg, E. B. White, Sarah Haardt, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention Hollywood luminaries from the period such as Groucho Marx, Gary Cooper, and Donald Ogden Stewart. A lack of access to copies of the magazine in library archives may be partly to blame for the magazine's relative critical obscurity, but it is even more likely that its collegiate theme has promoted a wholesale dismissal of the enterprise as minor league or niche. Yet as a product of an era in which youth culture was seen as both a major disruptor and a primary catalyst of modernity, a magazine that saw itself as "of youth by youth" should be considered a crucial source of information for how those young people regarded their own role in this sea change.4 Indeed, modernity filtered through the youth gaze was College Humor's audience, ethos, and style. In his memoir, the magazine's founder and long-time editor H. N. Swanson describes the publication's youth-focused mission as "an experiment that worked." Such a venture was a risk, he explains, because "young people's tastes were changing so fast that in our business, we had to try to anticipate them. We were running as fast as we could." The magazine's success at keeping up with its audience was likely a result of its multifaceted middlebrow approach. At a time, as Swanson remembers, when [End Page 203] "everyone felt that the only way to start out in life was to go to college," his magazine presented higher education both as a time for carefree fun but also as a period of social and moral edification.5 As its title suggests, the magazine sought to entertain its readers, but it was also keenly focused on instructing them about how to navigate the brave new world into which they would matriculate once their college days were over.

Swanson, a self-proclaimed "tub thumper" and "enthusiast," was the magazine's visionary leader from 1921 until he left for a career in Hollywood eight years later.6 As a student at Grinnell College, he got into the magazine game out of financial necessity, and a byproduct of his need to make ends meet was that he became acquainted with the stylistic conventions of a range of publications. In his memoir, he recounts, "I churned out impossibly true stories for True Confessions, sold epigrams to The Smart Set, and even broke into the 'how to' field by inventing a new way to hang pictures," though the "fattest checks" and an understanding of the desires of a female readership came from his "steamy love stories" placed in the romance pulps.7 Swanson credits the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise as a major turning point in his literary aspirations, and the influence of his idol's themes and aesthetics would soon dominate Swanson's editorial preferences as well.

Swanson soon dropped out of college and took a dummy of a magazine he planned to call College Widow to Chicago, where an uncle loaned him the use of a house and put him in touch with a potential financier, John Lansinger, who invested the necessary money but insisted on changing the name of the new magazine to College Humor. At only 23 years old, as Swanson later bragged, he prided himself on being the youngest magazine editor in the country.8 Priced at 35 cents per issue—ten cents more expensive than its nominal competitor College Life, twenty cents more than The New Yorker, and on par with Swanson's beloved The Smart Set—the magazine cultivated a middle-class, aspirational audience. Each monthly issue signified its editor's desire to disrupt stodgy cultural norms by featuring on its cover the portrait of a beautiful, flapperesque young woman. Her bold gaze reached out to engage the reader directly, and we can easily imagine both sexes responding to such an image. Male readers might fantasize about being the type of man who could pursue a romance with this dream girl, while female readers could aspire to her modern style, her beauty, and her desirability. [End Page 204]

The general concept of youth is, of course, a somewhat diffuse ethos by which to guide a publication, and thus another feasible source of College Humor's critical neglect is the fact the magazine's content spans a wide generic range, even by middlebrow standards. Swanson stated he created the magazine "to be a bright, sophisticated, and youthful production, with short stories illustrated by name artists, loaded with cartoons, and carrying the best from the current college-humor magazines."9 This statement of purpose evinces the precarious balance between amusement and refinement that Swanson cultivated in each issue, a careful blend of the elements that Catherine Majerus describes as distinguishing the tone of middlebrow publications from this period more generally: "irony and intimacy, wit and sentiment, private love and public space, sophisticated artifice and political critique."10 While College Humor tended to stay away from politics (the voting age was a practically ancient 21 years old, after all), its issues evince a clear engagement with the full scope of modernity that balances the lighter, more humorous content therein. Part jokes about higher education, part literary journal, and part instruction manual for the social ladder climber, the magazine sought to entertain and inform its young readership, and one side of its mission inevitably bled into the other. In a 1929 Writer's Digest article offering advice to young writers, Thomas H. Uzzell recommends College Humor as a fitting venue for publication and describes with admiration the delicate balance that the magazine successfully maintained: "The stories are always modern, and while the predominant note is romantic, the sentimental chord is never struck. The writing is always good. Frequently it is clever, but the cleverness is suave, and wisecracking is confined to the joke sections."11

The magazine's diverse interests reflect a larger sense of purpose, one which Faye Hammill describes as distinctive of the "smart" end of the middlebrow magazines spectrum. These works would "sell themselves through an appeal to the desire for social and verbal privilege" by "overtly [addressing] an audience which is already sophisticated, yet covertly [providing] lessons in sophistication."12 College Humor kept its young readers up to date with the social currency they did not know they were in need of: informing them about not only the most important college football matches but also the most buzzworthy plays, films, and books, all with an added touch of prurient gossip about the lives of the actors, actresses, and authors. The magazine's instructional quality was both overt and subliminal; each issue [End Page 205] featured earnest personal essays that read almost like advice columns, such as "How to Tell Love from Passion" by E. B. White, as well as recurring features on the latest fashion called "What the College Man is Wearing" and "Styles for Sorority Row."13 Advertisements spanned a similar gamut, but most connected in some way to self-improvement. The products advertised included luxuries and necessities that would appeal to both genders (athlete's-foot remedies, tennis shoes, and teeth whitener), as well as services for the upwardly mobile (promos for flight lessons and art school). A similar balance is struck in the numerous hotel ads; many bragged about their reputation as "the world's greatest" while at the same luring readers by promising "no tipping" policies, presumably an attractive feature to those for whom travel was an extravagance.

Swanson always intended for College Humor to rank among the nation's most respected publications in terms of literary quality, but at the beginning of its run in 1921 the magazine consisted mostly of reprints from collegiate newspapers and literary magazines.14 Even as its purpose evolved, it continued to share certain elements with the more ambitious of the national humor publications from the same time period, such as Judge and Life.15 Each issue included a section for the best jokes submitted by college students across the country, as well as satirical essays on such topics as "The Art of Drinking," "Golf or Geometry?" and "Is College Spirit the Bunk?"16 Yet Swanson always pointed not to humor magazines but instead to the more high-end literary journal The Smart Set as a source of inspiration.17 Indeed, just as Teen Vogue now acts as a kind of stepping stone or preparatory course for its older sister publication, College Humor seemed to aspire to serve as a kind of junior New Yorker or a coed Vanity Fair.

Once he got the magazine up and running, Swanson soon began soliciting original work from a variety of amateur and professional writers, including the kind of serious-minded fiction that would not have been out of place in any of its middlebrow peers. Though based in Chicago out of financial necessity, Swanson viewed New York City as the country's cultural center, and he went there to recruit big name authors to give his magazine the caché he desired. From the beginning, Swanson had a long list of writers whose work he was determined to solicit. His first trip east included meetings with famed Algonquin Round Table member Robert Benchley, who pitched an article on the fly that he bought without hesitation. Swanson also visited the offices of The Smart Set to receive the blessing and encouragement of two more of his idols, co-editors George Jean Nathan and [End Page 206] H. L Mencken. At the top of his editor's list was his idol F. Scott Fitzgerald, who he imagined as a kind of patron saint for the magazine's youth focus.18

In addition to recruiting the kind of authors whose names could help sell copies of the magazine and elevate its standing within the publishing industry, Swanson prided himself on scouting new writers and paying them well.19 In one of his 1925 "Last Word" columns, an editorial that comprised the final page of every issue, Swanson crows, "Look at the new people in this issue, will you?" He declares that if he were to adopt a motto, it would be, "Let me buy an author's first fifteen stories, and some other editor can buy the last eighty-five."20 Similarly, a notice in the January 1930 issue boldly proclaims, "There is no magazine more anxious to print the work of young and unknown writers than College Humor." The ad touts the magazine's frequent success at making "brilliant discoveries" that are "acclaimed by the literary world."21 Alongside the aforementioned pin-up style portrait, each cover of the magazine proudly promoted the names of new authors next to those of the more established writers whose work appeared therein.22 Though the quality of these pieces rarely matched the best of the "slicks" like The Smart Set or The New Yorker during the same time period, Swanson nevertheless sought to cultivate an aura of literary exclusivity and sophistication. He once bragged, "We often turn down things that are beautifully done, just because they don't fit in with the magazine; and we break our quota of hearts by turning down things written particularly for this magazine because they are not written with enough distinction."23 Ultimately, Swanson maintained a clear vision of both the tone and style of his magazine—a middlebrow amalgamation of the best of modern publishing that was presented to the magazine's young readership as the epitome of modern life itself.

Comprehensive, verifiable circulation numbers for College Humor are difficult to come by, but Swanson apparently believed his "experiment" to be a rousing success. In his memoir, he describes his tenure as editor as a kind of rags-to-riches American success story: "Started on a shoestring, College Humor quickly elbowed similar magazines aside and became a cult. In the eight years that I was the editorial director, we had the largest national newsstand circulation of any thirty-five cent magazine."24 Indeed, one report supports Swanson's boast: it is possible that by the end of the 1920s, the magazine could guarantee writers exposure to an audience of 800,000 readers, a readership more than twenty times that of Swanson's revered The Smart Set, ten times that of Vanity Fair, and eight times The [End Page 207] New Yorker's.25 Such success made Swanson defiant about criticisms that the magazine's niche focus might not be for everyone. In one editorial, he quipped, "Does this mean that we are putting out a class magazine: namely, one for a very definite age and class? Yes, it most certainly does. All the rest of you bennies read it at your own risk."26

Though it is unclear how Dawn Powell came to publish five stories in College Humor, Zelda Fitzgerald's path to placing all but one of her "girl stories" in the magazine is well documented. Swanson's aforementioned devotion to This Side of Paradise led him in January 1925 to make an offer to serialize The Great Gatsby in his magazine after it had been rejected elsewhere as too outré for female readers. (The fact that College Humor felt no such compunctions about taking on this complex novel indicates a seriousness of purpose for which it is rarely given credit.) Though Fitzgerald passed on their offer because he feared "most people who saw it advertised [there] would be sure that Gatsby was a great halfback and that would kill it in book form," he saw the potential of this venue for his wife's budding literary output, likely because her ironic, wry, and preternaturally jaded worldview fit its modern tone so well.27 Her first pieces for the magazine were clever essays that traded on her reputation as a famous wife, but once Zelda began delving into short fiction, Scott knew that College Humor could also be a useful outlet for her while she developed her chops.28

One key detail that is often ignored in the story of how Zelda came to publish in College Humor is the nature of Swanson's involvement. Scott reported to his agent Harold Ober that Swanson specifically requested "story articles" and that the editor suggested certain techniques that should be used in each piece: for example, to give each "girl" a name and then describe her "by instances in her life, things that she did, rather than things that were said about her."29 The details of Swanson's request reveal to us that he did not seek, for example, the more traditional type of stories that Scott was himself selling to magazines like Saturday Evening Post during this period; thus, criticism that uses these College Humor pieces to "prove" that Zelda Fitzgerald did not have the capacity to produce that type of work is entirely unfair.30 Furthermore, the fact that the girl stories were commissioned for a specific publication—not written first and then shopped around to various editors—means that both Fitzgeralds likely had an awareness of the genre of story that was expected. Thus, it is important to look at the girl stories within the context of College Humor and middlebrow publishing in the 1920s to understand their methods and to judge how [End Page 208] they both succeed and fail.31 Conversely, by comparing Fitzgerald's pieces to those written by Powell, an author who published widely across the spectrum of the literary marketplace and had a similarly modern sensibility, we can better appreciate the way women writers used the conventions of middlebrow fiction to push social boundaries and critique gender expectations.

the beautiful, the damned, and the oblivious: middlebrow flapper fiction

Between 1927 and 1931, Fitzgerald and Powell each published five stories in College Humor.32 During this period of its history, the magazine's bread and butter was the flapper; images of this icon featured prominently on the cover and in advertisements, and flapper characters dominated the magazine's fiction. Given Swanson's enthusiasm for Scott Fitzgerald, one gets the sense from perusing the issues published during his tenure that the editor would have been happy to fill his pages with duplicates of "The Jelly-Bean" or "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." In the majority of these stories, a young, vibrant female is the star of the show. Whether narrated from her perspective or that of a potential love interest, these flapper stories follow a similar plot: the most beautiful girl in the room/college/town is admired by all who know her, yet her life is not as perfect as it seems, usually because external forces conspire to thwart her efforts to achieve the thing she wants. The narrator drops either subtle or overt hints that her beauty is a burden, whether because it makes her vain, shallow, and insufferable or because it leads people to project their fantasies onto her without considering the soul within the beautiful vessel. Class often plays a role as well. (Few characters from the lower class appear in these stories except in secondary roles, another indicator of the magazine's aspirational bent.) If the young woman is rich, her wealth is a gilded cage, and privilege either limits her understanding of the "real" world or inhibits her ability to follow her true desires. If she is middle class, she is woefully self-conscious of her financial deficits, yet she tries her best to keep up with the upper-class girls because she believes that those at the top of the social ladder have the perfect life she craves. In both scenarios, female desire is depicted as potentially dangerous, not just to the woman herself but to society as a whole. By the end of such stories, depending on the author's worldview, the young woman will either achieve her dreams through patience and virtue or else she will learn a hard lesson about the limits of what beauty and social status can achieve. [End Page 209] Like many middlebrow writers of this period, Fitzgerald and Powell wrote fiction that fulfilled readers' expectations for this kind of tale, but they also adapted such conventions to critique the world of privilege in which their stories are set. As Catherine Keyser describes, even though the popular magazines of the period traded in gender stereotypes, they were also equally capable of dismantling them through parody. In doing so, Keyser explains, "women writers for these magazines could emulate and emphasize these generic and gendered conventions to unsettle the seeming naturalness of the norms with which they played."33

One primary object of query in both authors' stories is the era's (and this periodical's) tendency to fetishize the infinite freedom of youth. In College Humor, as in many middlebrow publications from this period, both the advertising and the writing attempt to titillate audiences through "the commodification of taste and sophistication" from youth culture.34 Lengthy descriptions of flapper attire, a careful attention to the latest slang, and an almost prurient description of risqué behaviors such as casual sexuality and drinking all draw a reader into a seemingly sparkling world of wit and pleasure, one which, it is implied, they too can attain if they read the right books, wear the right clothes, and speak the right language. Though Powell and Fitzgerald employ similar signifiers in their fiction, they do so to depict desire as both a gift and a curse, especially for women. Their young women are never "just" flappers; they are mirrors reflecting larger cultural ideals, and they tend to suffer under the weight of such great expectations. Whereas the typical middlebrow story usually confirms and reifies a culture's values, Powell and Fitzgerald shift readers' attention to the limits of these fairy tale ideals, especially for women. In these stories, male characters in their late teens and early twenties spend their time plotting their bright futures, but their female counterparts flounder listlessly and without direction, alternately searching and waiting for the event that will, they hope, allow their lives to begin. These young women struggle to define their own needs in the face of familial and societal expectations. Even the most shallow among them seek a sense of self that will give them something solid and substantial to cling to underneath the layers of silk, jewelry, and make-up. Though they may carefully follow the "rules" set by mass culture—including publications like College Humor—they never quite achieve the desired results.

Fitzgerald's prose style is impressionistic and tends toward the kind of language use more typical of her more avant-garde modernist or even [End Page 210] surrealist peers while Powell's style is closer to realism, but both writers make use of a tone typical of the "smart" end of the middlebrow magazine spectrum during this period, a style that Keyser defines as marked by the use of "wit and irony as distancing tools that could place the conventionality of gender in question rather than naming it as the solution to cultural anxiety."35 Like many of their female middlebrow peers, Powell and Fitzgerald utilize irony as a tool for integrating criticism of gender ideology into seemingly light-hearted, pithy stories; an amused or amusing tone softens the blow of even the most strident deconstructions of difficult subjects. The authors also employ a more general dramatic irony by juxtaposing appearance—how the admired female characters' lives look to outsiders—with reality—their experience of that life from within. In this way, both authors critique not only general social imperatives but also the magazine trade, which peddled glossy, superficial images of the rich and famous to readers conditioned to yearn for that world.

dawn powell's ironic fairy tales

As is in middlebrow publishing more generally, issues of College Humor are filled with fairy tale-inspired love stories that include twists of impossible coincidence, clear demarcations between good and bad characters, and inevitable happy (or happy-ish) endings. In the average romance plot, characters of the opposite sex tend to circle around one another for four or five pages, struggling against superficial obstacles only to give in to the inevitability of their romance by the final paragraph. In contrast, both Fitzgerald and Powell offer strident warnings against the idealization of romance that middlebrow magazines like College Humor typically peddle. Powell is especially forceful about men's tendency to project their dreams onto female love interests. Her young protagonists think they know how the world works and have laid plans to secure the future they want, and a specific romantic partner often epitomizes their goals. Powell's male characters in particular tend to learn a hard (though not permanently damaging) lesson from their erroneous assumptions about women or, more specifically, about the female object of their desire.

Powell tends to be more straightforward than Fitzgerald in her criticisms of the wealthy as false agents of these unattainable ideals, and she often saves her most scathing critique for the upper-class debutant flappers who flourished in periodicals during this period. In her stories, young women [End Page 211] from old money tend to act as dangerous foils to earnest protagonists of both sexes who sit further down the social ladder. When these good-hearted (if oblivious) folks fall under the flapper-debs' siren spell, only chaos and personal ruin seem to follow. Such is the case in Powell's first College Humor story, "A Good Little Egg," which was published in January 1927. In this particular piece, the unsuspecting victim is Robert Major, a 24-year-old newspaperman who (as with many of Powell's protagonists) has moved to New York from the Midwest for a bigger life. More specifically, he hopes to mingle with the rich and famous, which his job conveniently allows him to do. During one such assignment, he meets Constance Hamilton, a prominent debutante from one of the wealthiest families in New York. She fulfills all of his starry-eyed expectations and, to his great shock and delight, takes a romantic interest in this lowly working man. Having found his "American princess," Major begins to live the kind of seemingly fated fairy-tale story he never thought accessible to a man of his class.36

The misadventure that follows might have been avoided if Major had listened to Constance's warnings. He brushes off her claim that she is simply "Debutante Model 1925," no different than the next privileged, selfcentered socialite. Of course, she projects her own ideas onto him as well. He is her "good little egg," a welcome change from the rotation of wealthy eligible bachelors with whom she typically interacts.37 Despite this promising start, their fairy tale inevitably collapses because neither lover sees the other clearly. As Major spirals deeper and deeper in debt in order to keep up with his new crowd, he begins to resent Constance's willful obliviousness about the hoops through which she is making him jump. The more he resents her, the more he is attracted to his boarding house neighbor, a fellow reporter named Bunny Davis who, with her chipped teacups and ink-stained fingers, understands him in a way that Constance never will. After Bunny saves him from financial ruin at the end of the story, she echoes Constance's words by calling him a "good little egg," but Bunny's use of this pat phrase is not a projection of some idea onto him but rather a true compliment meant to distinguish him from the bad eggs found within high society.38 Because neither idealizes the other, they are able to make a more honest connection, one that, Powell implies, may very well turn romantic in the future.

In "Gentleman Bewitched," published in March 1930, Powell presents a similar moral, but with more attention to the female's perspective within such dynamics. In this story, also set in New York, the main character Jerry is a kind of Pygmalion figure searching for the perfect mate. He finds his [End Page 212] muse in Lila, a homesick shop girl who pines for her family back in the Midwest. Lila is clearly not cut out to be a city girl, but Jerry reframes her suffering as picturesque and romantic in order to imagine himself as her savior. To Jerry, she is like a trapped fairy-tale princess or "a lady in an eighteenth century walled garden, sad, wistful, haunting."39 Lila clings to her suitor as the single bright spot in her new life, a desperate attachment that Jerry, of course, mistakes for true affection.

Their fragile dynamic collapses when Jerry travels to visit Lila after she moves back home to Illinois. He is shocked to find that Lila is no longer his beautifully suffering demoiselle; rather, relieved to be reunited with her fun-obsessed, boisterous family, she has been restored to her old happy self. Jerry decides, as most fairy-tale princes do, that he must butt in where he is not needed to save his love from her "vulgarly happy" middle-class surroundings.40 In Powell's version of this tale, though, Lila is given a voice and is capable of defending herself. She repeatedly and adamantly resists his attempts to see her as someone she is not, and, once she is comfortable at home, she finally calls him on his behavior: "You wanted to take me away and change me into somebody else because you don't like the real me at all. … You just like the woman you made up yourself." Poor Jerry could not have anticipated that his princess does not actually need saving, so the idea that she perceives her greatest threat to be the very prince meant to protect her is unfathomable to him. Even when Jerry realizes the folly of his plan and instead tries to fit himself into her world, the story implies it is his "romantic doom" to always to wonder whether he fits into her story.41 Thus, Powell transforms a simplistic, pleasurable romantic plot into a revisionist fairy tale critiquing the false promises made by the conventions of middlebrow publishing; the ironic "happily ever after" at the end of these variations leaves the reader uncertain as to whether the transformation that is the root of such tales is really possible.42

zelda fitzgerald and the search for female satisfaction

Not all of the female characters in the average College Humor story spend their time pursuing the perfect love story. Women from both the middle and upper classes also have jobs, either out of financial necessity or a need for the same kind of professional fulfillment that both Fitzgerald and Powell sought from their writing. Indeed, within the romance plot of "Gentleman [End Page 213] Bewitched," Powell critiques the assumption that work does not matter to women. Lila tears herself from her beloved family and moves east to take a job in a shop, but her boss only wants her "to be part of the picture," another product among the store's aspirational scenery. (The fact that her boss is female implies that women were just as likely to enforce and perpetuate systemic gender norms as the opposite sex.) When Lila insists on making herself useful by getting down on her knees to scrub the place clean, her boss is appalled because she "can't bear to see beauty put to any use."43

Similarly, the central theme that links Fitzgerald's College Humor "girl stories" is a quest for personal fulfillment through both love and work. Much of Fitzgerald's fiction features professional female performers, not only because of her own interest in dance but also because this device provides a useful means by which to examine women's careers as well as the gender work that all women perform under the cultural male gaze. Best described as sexually ambivalent, Fitzgerald's performers are learning how to wield the power of being a cultural sex object while trying to avoid the penalties that their performance of open, empowered female sexuality both on and off the stage would incur. "The Original Follies Girl," published in July 1929, is an especially useful representative of the complicated maneuvering required to achieve this feat. Fitzgerald's narrator remarks of the protagonist, "The thing that made you notice Gay was the manner she had, as though she was masquerading as herself."44 Gay is a successful professional dancer, but her true work seems to be a kind of burlesque of the self, an exhibition of idealized femininity that she cannot drop even once she steps off the stage. In this way, the dancer has become the dance. She is wealthy, beautiful, desired, and successful—all of the goals that female characters aim for in your typical College Humor story—but she is also deeply, existentially bored. The ironically named Gay has played by the rules; she lives in the right kind of apartment, she likes the right kind of solemn, intellectual men, and she treats her dancing career with an appropriate amount of seriousness. Yet the weightlessness of her life seems to have seeped into her pores; the narrator describes her as "airy, as if she had a long time ago dismissed herself as something decorative and amusing, and not to be confused with the vital elements of American life."45 Gay cannot bring herself to accept that her performance, whether on or off the stage, is the same as a real life. She tries looking to her pre-stage youth for some core identity she can hold on to, but she has already sacrificed her connection to that self in order to attain these markers of professional success. [End Page 214]

Gay's only solution to her vague existential crisis is to throw herself more steadfastly into her work, but the demands of maintaining this façade both on and off the stage eventually deplete her. The narrator tells us that it was Gay's fate to "[wear] herself out with the struggle between her desire for physical perfection and her desire to use it."46 She finds she cannot satisfy both others' needs and her own with one dance. Yet her confused performance yields very real consequences, and it is not a surprise, then, that her story ends with death during childbirth. A human surface cannot commit to something so real, and her final attempt to create both figuratively and literally a new life comes too late. Gay's occupation requires her to be the perfect female, and thus she is a stand-in for all women who become lost by making femininity their sole vocation. In the conclusion of this melancholy story, Fitzgerald, like Powell, emphasizes the way both genders have become dependent on an ideology that is revealed to be unnatural—and even fatal—to women only when one fails to keep it up.

Whereas Powell, like many College Humor writers, musters only a minimal amount of sympathy for the way wealthy flappers like Constance from "A Good Little Egg" might suffer from their privilege, Fitzgerald is more likely to offer a compassionate look behind the moneyed curtain. Even those of Fitzgerald's female protagonists who have no need for employment are trying to graft a sense of vocation onto their shallow, pointless lives. A character such as Helena from "The Girl the Prince Liked," published in February 1930, may initially seem to fit the stereotype of the bored society girl who shows up as a villain in so many College Humor stories, but Fitzgerald flips the narrative focus and seeks to tell her side of the story. Helena has inherited her father's fortune but also "the driving, relentless ambition that led him to accumulate his money so relentlessly."47 So what does a young woman who is expected to be nothing more than a beautiful object do without a clear outlet for such ambition? She approaches her own life "like a beautiful general."48 Unconcerned with menial duties like throwing the perfect dinner party, she instead concentrates on exercising her power over her unwitting friends, just to confirm for herself that she can. She regards those in her social circle as potential conquests, objects to acquire and control; thus, she tends to "annex" people rather than befriending them.49 Likewise, though Helena has everything she could ever want, she prefers to use "other people's things … for the sense of power it gave to her to have somebody doing things for her."50 Yet because her self-devised profession is a sham, her sense of vocational gratification is limited. [End Page 215] She takes a step closer to real power by having an affair with a European prince, but even this fairy-tale romance does not provide the transformation she seeks. Trapped in a cycle of meaningless power plays and brooding discontent, she cannot help but reduce even her great fairy-tale romance with the prince to its monetary value, and she sends his last gift, a bracelet which she claims to keep "as proof that romance has not passed out of the world," to a jeweler's for appraisal.51 Though she is a modern woman with ambition, limitless talents, and abounding self-awareness, without a true sense of purpose Helena simply cannot achieve the kind of selfactualization she craves, nor can she find satisfaction without it, making both her multiple layers of privilege as well as her strenuous effort seem relatively worthless. Thus Fitzgerald, like Powell, shows the hollow center of the gilded life that so many College Humor readers have been taught to believe they want. Fitzgerald wants her readers to witness, understand, and empathize with each of her modern "girls." She skillfully depicts their vacillations as a side effect of trying to fulfill all of society's contradictory expectations while still attempting to maintain some integrity of self.

To conclude, if we treat modernist middlebrow publishing, as Catherine Keyser suggests, as a "space of hybrid forms" which "allowed writers latitude in self-presentation, literary experimentation and cultural critique,"52 we can appreciate the way the popular magazines were actually fitting venues for Dawn Powell's and Zelda's Fitzgerald's deeply philosophical fictional commentaries on gender and self. Though Fitzgerald published only a fraction of the work that Powell produced, this brief period of convergence between the two authors in College Humor offers a unique lens through which to view not only each author's larger body of work but also the critically neglected magazine in which they—and many other prominent writers—published. By placing these stories within the middlebrow context that College Humor represents, we can chart the way they utilized the conventions of such fiction to make pointed critiques of the gender expectations of the same flapper figure that graced every issue's cover. More specifically, through ironic adaptations of fairy-tale romance conventions and by aligning women's careers with the more abstract work of gender performance, Powell and Fitzgerald questioned whether the youthful modernity presented within College Humor's pages was really a path to freedom for young women, and they demonstrated that the ideals promoted elsewhere within the magazine should not be the sum total of those same readers' lives. [End Page 216]

Ashley Lawson

ashley lawson is an associate professor of English and the director of the Honors Program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her work centers on modern American literature and women writers of the twentieth century, a focus she developed while obtaining her PhD from the University of Nebraska Lincoln. She specializes in women writers who are part of creative partnerships, and has published essays on Zelda Fitzgerald, Sarah Haardt Mencken, Estelle Faulkner, and Shirley Jackson.


. My thanks to Carol Smith at Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library for her assistance in procuring copies of College Humor; to David M. Earle for his invaluable advice and his indispensable knowledge about Dawn Powell's periodical fiction; and to the members of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society for their comments on this paper when it was given as a panel presentation in its original form.

1. Most importantly, they each shared Gerald and Sara Murphy and Edmund Wilson as close friends, and they both had complicated personal relationships with Ernest Hemingway, though Powell's view of both the man and his legend softened over time.

5. Ibid., 46.

6. Swanson, "The Last Word," College Humor (July 1925), 130.

8. Ibid., 19–20.

9. Ibid, 19-20.

13. E. B. White, "How to Tell Love From Passion," College Humor (December 1929), 63, 121–22.

14. Daniel Wickberg has argued that the rise of the college humor magazine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century reflects a larger sociocultural shift in America. As a university education became more and more an essential signifier of middle-class life, colleges took over many of the socialization functions that were once the responsibility of family and community, and extracurricular offerings were greatly expanded. Thus, "the establishment of college humor magazines was part of the general reconstruction of the American university and its purpose, and came to be one of the distinctive features of undergraduate life." Daniel Wickberg, The Sense of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 129.

15. See George H. Douglas, The Smart Magazines: 50 Years of Literary Revelry and High Jinks at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Life, Esquire, and The Smart Set (Hamden, CT: 1992), 46–47. Douglas shows how both Judge and Life expanded their respective approaches to become more than "just" humor magazines. Like College Humor, they added reviews (book, theater, and film) and nonfiction pieces. He also shows a point of direct connection between the history of college humor publications and that of the smart magazines.

16. Gilbert Seldes. "The Art of Drinking." College Humor (May 1930), 50; Frank Condon, "Golf or Geometry?" College Humor (March 1930), 7; Rube Goldberg, "Is College Spirit the Bunk?" College Humor (December 1929), 9.

18. Ibid., 23–24.

19. Powell's biographer Tim Page has noted that College Humor's compensation for stories was "[extravagant] for the time." Powell earned $150 to $250 per story, as opposed to the $15-$35 she earned for placing her pieces in the pulps; The Diaries of Dawn Powell, ed. Tim Page (South Royalton, VT.: Steerforth Press, 1995), 6.

20. Swanson, "The Last Word," College Humor (July 1925), 130.

21. College Humor (January 1930), 122.

22. Though Powell's name never warranted such prominent placement, Zelda Fitzgerald's name appeared on the cover—alongside her husband's—on multiple occasions.

26. Swanson, "The Last Word," College Humor (July 1925), 130.

27. Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2nd ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 215. Swanson's description of Fitzgerald's rejection lets his idol off the hook: "Scribners talked him out of it, feeling that it might adversely affect the sale of the book." Swanson, Sprinkled with Ruby Dust, 32.

28. She published "Looking Back Eight Years" in June 1928 and "Who Can Fall in Love After Thirty?" in October 1928.

30. A representative example of this line of critique can be found in Matthew J. Bruccoli's introduction to Bits of Paradise, a 1973 collection of both Fitzgeralds' stories that served as the general public's first reintroduction to Zelda as a writer. Citing the "crucial distinction between the gifted amateur and the professional" that he claims distinguishes Scott's work from his wife's, the critic elaborates, "Zelda Fitzgerald's pieces are best described as sketches, for they do not have the usual short-story structure. Her treatment of plot is essayistic and impressionistic. She depends little on dialogue to advance action or create character, preferring to describe action and analyze character. They are mood pieces in which atmosphere and place are evoked in surprising—occasionally puzzling—language. The style is remarkable but undisciplined." Matthew J. Bruccoli, preface to Bits of Paradise: 21 Uncollected Stories by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, ed. Scottie Fitzgerald Smith and Matthew J. Bruccoli (London: Bodley Head, 1973), 11–12.

31. Two critics have written especially thoughtful analyses of this set of stories, though both root their approach in the biographical context of the Fitzgeralds' marriage. See W. R. Anderson, "Rivalry and Partnership: The Short Fiction of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald," Fitzgerald-Hemingway Annual (1977) and Alice Hall Petry, "Women's Work: The Case of Zelda Fitzgerald," LIT 1, no. 1–2 (December 1989), 69.

32. Powell published "A Good Little Egg" in January 1927, "Rhinestone Heels" in June 1927, "Blue Sky" in January 1928, "Regatta" in September 1929, and "Gentleman Bewitched" in March 1930. In addition to her essays "Looking Back Eight Years" from June 1928 and "Who Can Fall in Love After Thirty?" from October 1928, Fitzgerald published the stories "The Original Follies Girl" in July 1929, "Southern Girl" in October 1929, "The Girl The Prince Liked" in February 1930, "The Girl With Talent" in April 1930, and "Poor Working Girl" in January 1931. All of Fitzgerald's stories featured a dual by-line with her husband for publicity's sake, but Scott credited them to Zelda alone in his own records.

36. Dawn Powell, "A Good Little Egg," College Humor (July 1927), 110.

37. Ibid., 24.

38. Ibid., 111.

39. Dawn Powell, "Gentleman Bewitched," College Humor (March 1930), 48.

40. Ibid., 51.

41. Ibid., 119–120.

42. See Catherine Keyser for an analysis of similar critiques of the false ideals perpetuated by the magazine industry that can also be found in Powell's novels; Keyser, 110.

43. Powell, "Gentleman Bewitched," 119.

44. Zelda Fitzgerald, "The Original Follies Girl," College Humor (July 1929), 40.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid., 110.

47. Zelda Fitzgerald, "The Girl the Prince Liked" College Humor (February 1930), 46.

48. Ibid., 48.

49. Ibid., 122.

50. Ibid., 48.

51. Ibid., 122.


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———. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. 2nd ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
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