Janet Lewis
“The Cruise Of The Rolling Junk”—The fictionalized joys of motoring


After Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald returned from a motor trip from Connecticut to Alabama in the summer of 1920, she wrote to their friend Ludlow Fowler, “The joys of motoring are more or less fictional, and, too, we had to leave the car in Alabama…” Scott Fitzgerald turned the experience of the “joys of motoring” into a “more or less fictional” account of the trip in a humorous three-part article, “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk,” written in 1922 and published in Motor magazine in the February, March, and April 1924 issues. For fifty years this serial article remained neglected; it was never reprinted and Fitzgerald’s critics and biographers mention it only in passing.

In a short 1974 article, Roderick S. Speer drew attention to the series as “a goldmine of Fitzgeraldiana, a piece of good-humored, mock-epic adventure.” He notes that in spite of the wit and romantic expectations in the story, there is “a constant sense of the disappointment always lurking at the fringes of idealism and enthusiasm.” Professor Speer suggests that we can see fermenting in this ostensibly lighthearted story the serious themes and the elegiac tone of The Great Gatsby, and he praises the travel story: “Nothing short of republication of the entire, lengthy series can do justice to it…” (p. 540). Fortunately, Bruccoli Clark has recently published “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” as a whole, reprinting the pages of the Motor episodes complete with the original photo illustrations and the advertisements in the adjoining columns. Matthew J. Bruccoli provides a short introduction. With the text and its illustrations now more readily available, more readers of Fitzgerald will be able to examine “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” and its theme of “endangered romanticism” described by Roderick Speer.

As both Speer and Bruccoli have noted, the series is based on an actual journey. My intention is to examine the ways in which Fitzgerald mingles the details of the adventure with the emotions of the couple as they travel back to Zelda’s home, revisiting places of their own earlier pleasures and yearnings, experiencing the impact of the battlefields of the Civil War and the atmosphere of the South, and, at the same time, to investigate how Fitzgerald has altered and embroidered the facts of his real journey to suit the purposes of his narrative. Zelda Fitzgerald’s longing for a breakfast of real peaches and real biscuits begins the story on a whimsical note, but as the travellers finally reach the outskirts of Montgomery, Zelda’s excitement is complicated by the mixed feelings of returning home: “Suddenly Zelda was crying, crying because things were the same and yet were not the same. It was for her faithlessness that she wept and for the faithlessness of time” (Part Three, p. 68). The lighthearted travel story has expanded to include a sensitive glimpse of a character’s feelings. Throughout the series, humorous episodes and underlying seriousness are delicately blended.

The series is also prophetic, not only of the fiction that Fitzgerald was to write, but of the direction the Fitzgeralds’ lives would take. The spontaneous actions, the inability to cope with practical matters, the eccentric behavior so amusing in the series and so much a part of the Fitzgeralds’ personal charm would lead to their future unhappiness. In his retrospective 1937 essay, “Early Success,” Fitzgerald described his concept of his artistic role at the beginning of his career:

America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it. The whole golden boom was in the air—its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America in prohibition. All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them—the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy’s peasants. In life these things hadn’t happened yet, but I was pretty sure living wasn’t the reckless, careless business these people thought—this generation just younger than me.

For my point of vantage was the dividing line between the two generations, and there I sat—somewhat self-consciously.

When Fitzgerald drove the Rolling Junk to Alabama, he was a wild-living, twenty-three-year-old bridegroom, newly rich with the success of his first novel and famous as the spokesman and embodiment of the new Jazz Age. Two years later, when he wrote about the trip, he was an established author, a father, a man more conscious of the cares caused by being carefree. He wrote “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” with at least part of the vantage point he mentions in “Early Success.” He combined fact and fancy in describing the actions and the participants; his characters, including himself, are caricatures as much as portraits. Even when he includes photographic illustrations, they are not authentic records of the trip. As Matthew J. Bruccoli points out, the photos were taken to illustrate the article, and the Rolling Junk, sold in Montgomery, has been replaced by another car in the pictures. Let us, then, examine “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” as fictionalized autobiography and see how Fitzgerald has altered or blurred facts to enhance his narrative.

Shortly after their marriage in 1920, the Fitzgeralds bought a used Marmon. In the stories, the vehicle, an aging Expenso “born during the spring of 1918” (Part One, p. 24), assumes the proportions of a character. The local garageman is its consulting physician. Its tires are individually named to represent their physical state. One of them, “Daisy Ashford,” seems to connote youthful promise. The human Daisy Ashford wrote a novel, The Young Visiters, at the age of nine and the book, unintentionally very funny, was quite a “fad” in 1919 and 1920. Other tires are named in hope of physical endurance ("Sampson” and “Hercules”), another is christened “Santa Claus” for unknown reasons, and the chronically ailing spare tire is, appropriately, “Lazarus.” Like the car as a whole, its individual parts become characters in the articles. The battery resurrects itself if it is shaken. When the battery falls out several miles short of the destination, the car gallantly continues in spite of the loss.

Another “character” populating “The Rolling Junk” is the touring map book Dr. Jones’s Guide Book for Autoists. The Fitzgeralds begin their journey armed only with “a four-inch map of the United States torn from the circular of the ’More Power Grain and Seed Co.’ “ (Part One, p. 25). The catalogue scrap is soon discarded, but its replacement, Dr. Jones’s, is even more unreliable, full of incomprehensible or meretricious prose. Exasperated with Dr. Jones’s misleading statements about road conditions, Fitzgerald rages at his fellow-author:

Dr. Jones’s Guide Book had now resorted to sheer fiction—and cheap, trashy, sentimental fiction at that. While I favor discreetly draping many of the facts of life, I call it a pernicious optimism that tries to pass off the rocky bed of a dried-out stream as a “boulevard.” And the map was ornamented with towns, pops, corner stores and good roads that could have existed only in Dr. Jones’s rosy imagination. (Part Two, p. 74)

In short, like any other sentimental and betrayed car owners, the Fitzgeralds realize that their auto and its appendages are individuals, eccentric personalities, members of the group who must be pampered, healed, reassured, and nagged. If the car fails them by demanding repairs when funds and patience are running low, it also cleverly frightens off a thief who tries to steal the suitcases, by blowing a tire in imitation of the sound of a police gunshot.

More prosaically, Leon Ruth, a friend from Montgomery living in New York, recalls accompanying the Fitzgeralds on the car purchasing expedition:

Neither of them could drive much. Scott used to borrow my car in Montgomery when he was courting Zelda, so I knew fairly well the limits of his ability. As I remember it we went down to the Battery and it was a choice between a new sedan and a second-hand Marmon sports coupe. Of course, they couldn’t resist the Marmon. Well, we bought it and I drove them up to 125th Street. I showed Scott how to shift on the way and both of them knew something about steering. Then they put me out and struck off.

The Fitzgeralds bought the car in May 1920, a month after their marriage. They had been living in New York hotels and wanted to travel a bit and look for a suitable house in the vicinity of New York. “A man sold us a broken Marmon,” they recall, and, as Arthur Mizener remarks, “the phrase is eloquent of what happened.” At first, the Rolling Junk seemed a classy choice: “We have purchased an ancient Marmon—not very ancient, 1917,…” Fitzgerald wrote to a friend. Later in May, they rented a house in Westport, Connecticut, the “launching site” for the Rolling Junk trip.

The car’s idiosyncrasies could be blamed for some of the Fitzgeralds’ motoring problems. In the article, Fitzgerald assumes the role of the Motorist-Sucker who has been cheated into buying a lemon he can’t repair:

About once every five years some of the manufacturers put out a Rolling Junk, and their salesmen come immediately to us because they know that we are the sort of people to whom Rolling Junks should be sold. (Part One, pp. 24-25)

Fitzgerald’s pose is obviously more colorful than Ruth’s account of the purchase. The Rolling Junk’s lack of cooperation is coupled with the Fitzgeralds’ lack of driving skill and ignorance of car maintenance and mechanics. Mizener points out, “Zelda did not improve the car when she ’drove it over a fire-plug and completely de-intestined it.’As Bruccoli has noted, Fitzgerald has Gloria do the same thing in The Beautiful and Damned, the novel he was writing when he returned from the Rolling Junk expedition in August 1920. Like Daisy and Jordan in The Great Gatsby, Gloria is a dangerous driver. Fitzgerald’s own carelessness with cars has been described, nastily, by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. In “The Rolling Junk” series, Fitzgerald admits his ignorance, is rarely able to perform his own repairs and has to rely on the mercies of garagemen and bystanders.

In spite of lively parties in New York and Westport, Zelda Fitzgerald was bored and restless by mid-July. She had received a telegram from her friends in Montgomery telling her the town was dull without her and urging her to come back for a visit. Fitzgerald begins “The Rolling Junk” series cheerfully with Zelda singing a song about a Southern breakfast and complaining that it is impossible to get peaches and biscuits in Connecticut. He continues:

Then a wild idea came to me and paraded its glittering self around.

“I will dress,” I said in a hushed voice, “and we will go downstairs and get in our car, which I note was left in the yard last night as it happened to be your turn to put it away and you were too busy. Seating ourselves in the front seat we will drive from here to Montgomery, Alabama, where we will eat biscuits and peaches. (Part One, p. 24)

Fitzgerald goes on to conjure:

an ethereal picture—of how we would roll southward along the glittering boulevards of many cities, then, by way of quiet lanes and fragrant hollows whose honeysuckle branches would ruffle our hair with white sweet fingers, into red and dusty-colored country towns, where quaint fresh flappers in wide straw lids would watch our triumphant passage with wondering eyes… (Part One, p. 24)

A little jaunt of 1200 miles can get them to the home of Zelda’s surprised and delighted parents.

Fitzgerald’s “ethereal picture” is immediately punctured. “’Yes,’ she objected sorrowfully, ’if it wasn’t for the car.’ “ At once the “blocking agent,” the third major “character,” the enemy-ally Rolling Junk enters the plot. The car, Fitzgerald explains, is careless; it loses parts and tools. The car, not the motorist, is blamed for its troubles. Within the opening paragraphs, Fitzgerald has created the mixture of romantic wishful thinking, absurdity, domestic grumbling, and doom that will be sustained through the whole serial.

Within half an hour, the travellers are on their way. The journey takes eight days and involves not only the action (or halts) of the trip but the emotions of the travellers, a mixture of memories, expectations and disillusionment. The first night is spent at Princeton and Fitzgerald becomes an Old Boy, seeing again the “gray castles,” “the granite islands in the great lakes of grass” of the campus. As they continue their drive, they cross into Maryland and again Fitzgerald finds himself in his past, in his family’s history and America’s:

Here my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather was born—and my father too on a farm near Rockville called Glenmary. And he sat on the front fence all one morning, when he was a little boy, watching the butternut battalions of Early stream by on their surprise attempt at Washington, the last great threat of the Confederacy. (Part One, pp. 62, 64)

The woods through which Fitzgerald drives contrast with the memory of the Minnesota woods of his boyhood. The journey is becoming more than a trip home in the anticipated sense.

The second night the travellers reach Washington. Most of the third day is spent waiting for the car to be repaired. They get as far as Richmond that night but the next day is again wasted as the Rolling Junk demands more repairs. By this time the hostility or indifference of people they encounter and the apparent artificiality of the longed-for Southern atmosphere begin to undermine the Fitzgeralds’ optimism. On close observation, Southern nostalgia appears “contrived” to them. The Confederate museum in Richmond seems dominated by the lists of names of living ladies who have donated the exhibits. Virginia, at first, seems full of gracious living, pleasant ghosts and memories of old mansions. But, Fitzgerald writes:

at the moment when we became aware of Virginia’s picturesqueness we became aware also of its selfconscious insistence on this picturesqueness. It seemed to cherish its anachronisms and survivals, its legend of heroism in defeat and of impotence before the vulgarities of industrialism, with too shrill an emphasis. For all its gorgeous history there was something tinny and blatant in its soul. (Part Two, p. 43)

The garageman in Fredericksburg whose father fought in the battle there is mistaken in his account of the conflict. The Fitzgeralds perceive that one cannot, in fact, repeat the past.

On the evening of the fourth day, they arrive in Clarksville. The next day is Sunday. Fitzgerald describes with wry humor the difference between Sunday in Virginia, a day of rest with no one selling gasoline, and the happy contrast of North Carolina’s Sunday, not a day of rest, with food available for the hungry Rolling Junk. In Clarksville and in North Carolina, Zelda shocks the natives by wearing a knickerbocker suit to match her husband’s. The stares and remarks seem funny at first but Fitzgerald’s reaction to one man’s unpleasant sneer is so vehement that he has obviously been flabbergasted and deeply offended by the philistinism:

he got in his horrible, insidious touch—something so subtle that it could have sprung only from a lack of subtlety, something so utterly devastating mat when Zelda told me of it later, half an hour later—my brain reeled and the world became black as death.

The man has said to Zelda: “It’s a pity that a nice girl like you should be let to wear those clothes.” Fitzgerald continues:

He was looking at her knickerbockers. It was fifty years of provincialism speaking; it was the negative morality of the poor white—and yet it filled me with helpless and inarticulate rage. (Part Two, p. 76)

Fitzgerald’s rage seems like overreaction, but repeatedly he and his wife were discovering that their eccentric behavior and even their normal human problems attracted only ridicule and rudeness: “the surrounding yokelry regarded us with cold, priggish superiority, as ’sports.’ We were in Carolina and we had not conducted ourselves sartorically as the Carolinians” (Part Two, p. 76). No doubt the Fitzgeralds offended people they met and did nothing to endear themselves. However, the series of rebuffs and mishaps darken the undertones of the stories, as Speer has pointed out, even though the comic spirit of the adventure usually dominates.

The sixth day is even more catastrophic. The Fitzgeralds are short of money and must travel 200 miles to reach Greenville, South Carolina, where they can pick up money they have had wired there. A policeman catches them for speeding and accepts five dollars, leaving them with a balance of $1.30. They get their car fixed by a samaritan who sees Zelda stranded but doesn’t notice Scott hiding behind a wall. They charge through a toll bridge because they don’t have a nickel left to pay the toll charge. Zelda remembers that it is her birthday; they have celebrated it, Fitzgerald summarizes, by being “guilty of speeding, bribery, toll-dodging and obtaining help under false pretenses” (Part Three, p. 66).

The last two days bring forth a host of memories, of old beaux, dances, and football games for Zelda, of army camp and the anxieties of courtship and rivals for Scott. They drive up to the Sayre home to find the house locked and Zelda’s parents en route to Westport to surprise them with a visit. The conclusion is delightfully rueful but not factual. The Sayres did visit the Fitzgeralds in the summer of 1920 but they arrived in mid-August, after the Fitzgeralds had returned from Alabama. Parental displeasure with the young couple’s life-style during the visit has been well documented in their biographies and also, fictionally, in The Beautiful and Damned and Save Me the Waltz.

In addition to doctoring his conclusion, Fitzgerald has also juggled dates, probably Zelda’s birthday on the road, to add to the sorrowful humor of “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.” In the article Zelda’s miserable birthday is the day after the unhappy Sunday when she wears her knickerbocker suit, but 24 July, Zelda’s birthday, fell on Saturday, not Monday, in 1920. In his Ledger, Fitzgerald records that they “Started south on [the] 15th” of July. If they left on the fifteenth and took eight days to get to Montgomery, they would have arrived on the twenty-second, in time for Zelda to celebrate her birthday with her family. Fitzgerald might have made an error in the Ledger date. Two letters to Harold Ober dated 17 July 1920 were both sent from Westport. The second of them indicates that the Fitzgeralds had no destination in mind:

Dear Mr. Ober:
Just to tell you I’m going away for the three weeks tour. Am not sure where but will be back here about August 1st…

The Fitzgeralds were still in Montgomery on the third of August as Fitzgerald wired Paul Reynolds from there on that date. Having sold the car, they returned to Connecticut by train. Letters from Fitzgerald to Shane Leslie and to Ober dated 6 August 1920 were sent from Westport. The quibbles of facts and dating don’t affect “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk,” of course, but they are further evidence that Fitzgerald was enhancing experience, not recording personal history factually.

Two years later when he began writing the articles, he was also thinking of a series describing his European travels. In a letter to Ober written in January 1922, he mentions a plan for

a series of twelve articles which will ostensibly be the record of a trip to Europe but will really be a mass of impressions and heavily laden with autobiography…

Now I can’t describe them exactly but they will be something utterly original—If you have read Hergeshiemer’s St. Christobal de Habana, Driesers’ A Traveller at Forty and Conrad’s A Personal Record you will see somewhat what I mean. In a way they will be an attempt to capitalize what attention I [by] have recieved by being young “ect.”…

I swear they will be, in book form, the biggest thing of their kind since “Innocense Abroad.

The European travel series never got written, but in a smaller way, “The Rolling Junk” is an account of Innocents abroad in America, “a mass of impressions … heavily laden with autobiography.”

In the same letter, Fitzgerald inquires about the possibility of a high price market for such material. In late April 1922, he wrote that he was halfway through “The Rolling Junk.” Originally he thought of it as a two-part serial but by the time he sent it to Ober in June 1922 it was “a 25,000 word touring serial, humorous throughout, for the Post. I think they could run it as a 3 part thing in which case it’d be nice to get $2500.00 for it. If they can use it at all it seems to me it should be worth two thousand at least…The Saturday Evening Post refused the series and Fitzgerald received only $300 from Motor magazine. Fitzgerald made cuts in the stories; he mentions, for example, cutting “the part about my father’s civil war adventures.As Bruccoli points out, no early forms of the series have survived and the cuts cannot be identified. Throughout the summer and early autumn of 1922, Fitzgerald fussed with “The Rolling Junk,” suggesting possible buyers to Ober and reducing the series to about 17,000 words.

As Fitzgerald’s letters reveal, he had faith in the series. He was also eager to establish his reputation as a writer of comedy. At the time when he was working on “The Rolling Junk” he had just finished his satirical play, The Vegetable, which he considered “the best American comedy to date.&8221; In the play, Max Perkins believed, Fitzgerald wanted to convey the sense of a comic nightmare; this mood is often apparent in the misfortunes of the travel articles. During the summer of 1922, Fitzgerald was also providing blurbs for the contents of Tales of the Jazz Age, introductory remarks which stress the aspects of farce and satirical humor in the stories. In 1924, the year “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” appeared in print, Fitzgerald also published the humorous portraits of his life-style in the articles “How to Live on $36,000 a Year” and “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year.” In tone and spirit, they are kindred pieces with the travel adventure.

The motor trip memories join the nostalgic cluster of the 1934 article “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number—.” Among their reminiscences of 1920 are places and people encountered on their journey, the details slightly blurred by time:

Electric fans blew the smell of peaches and hot biscuit and the cindery aroma of travelling salesmen through the New Willard halls in Washington.

But the Richmond hotel had a marble stair and long unopened rooms and marble statues of the gods lost somewhere in its echoing cells.

At the O. Henry in Greensville they thought a man and his wife ought not to be dressed alike in white knickerbockers in nineteen-twenty and we thought the water in the tubs ought not to run red mud.

Next day the summer whine of phonographs billowed out the skirts of the southern girls in Athens. There were so many smells in the drug stores and so much organdy and so many people just going somewhere… We left at dawn.

If “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” does not reach the peak of Fitzgerald’s best work, it rarely falls short of being very good. writing. In spite of its three-part serialization, it holds together well in its plot, theme, and tone. Each of the episodes engages us. In each, there is a climax of interest, a surge to keep us waiting for the next installment. The first part climaxes with a halt and chase. One of the rear tires, Santa Claus, and its wheel fall off and escape ahead into Washington. The Rolling Junk collapses on the road. Fitzgerald pursues the culprits and he also captures the conversation of the static bystanders.

“Wheel come off?”

“Gee! Lookit that there carl”

“Yeah. Wheel came off.”

“What happened? Wheel come off?”

“Yeah?”

“Where’sa wheel?”

“It come off.”

“It went up the street. You should of watched it go.”

“I seen it go. You should of watched. Gee!” (Part One, p. 64)

The second episode has many thrills: Zelda accidentally stepping on the gas pedal instead of the brake when a masked man tries to rob them; Zelda “with great presence of mind” throwing disgusting egg sandwiches out the hotel window; and, above all, the knickerbocker episode. Other high points of comedy occur when the obnoxious Mechanical Expert who insults Zelda shreds Fitzgerald’s self-confidence, forcing our hero to attempt car repairs while the Yokel-Expert watches and questions every move he makes. A close second to this episode is the melodramatic discovery of a piece of cold tongue on the floor of their hotel room.

I heard Zelda’s voice speaking tensely, passionately, over the telephone—“Hello! This is room two-ninety-one! What do you mean by renting us a room with meat all over the floor…? Old dead meat!” (Part Two, p. 58)

A clerk and three assistants with large shovels arrive to improve the situation. The final section, after the host of problems on Zelda’s birthday, climaxes in the anticlimax of the Sayres’ absence, and Fitzgerald concludes the series with a farewell to the Rolling Junk, wherever it may be.

In addition to the adventures of the major characters, the stories are rich with memorable minor characters, some of them only fleeting impressions of faces and voices: the Westport garagemen who think Alabama is a place in Virginia or a hotel in New York; the Manhattan policemen with the faces of Parnell, De Valera, and Daniel O’Connell; Louie at the Nassau Inn at Princeton who doesn’t remember Fitzgerald; the garage owner in Washington who looks like the Czar of Russia. Fitzgerald’s attitude toward the Blacks who are not eager to fill his gas tank is unpleasant; on the other hand, the chief butts of his satire are the dull-witted white people he meets, and, above all, himself.

“The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” is an entertaining and rewarding part of Fitzgerald’s writing. It is not a piece that he churned out for quick money but a series that he worked on with care and real interest, a genuine attempt to bridge autobiography and storytelling.

York University


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