The flowering dogwood is blooming. Spring is taking time showing the rest of her sweet face but the dogwood branches are in blossom and their branches look like suspended wedding lace at twilight. This condition will last about a week until the apple-green leaves take their place and the petals will drift to the gutters. The temp is still nowhere near 80 but it’s warm enough in the sun. It’s time to read Fitzgerald again.
If a writer can be tied to the weather, F. Scott Fitzgerald is Summer and Spring. There’s an exuberance and energy in his early stories match the hope and joy of Spring and the redolence of summer is the setting for Gatsby. Clothes are loose in Fitzgerald stories, smiles are warmer and many characters are on holiday. Even sad stories, like Babylon Revisited contain memories of warm weather but since we’re talking about a Southern Spring, the the Fitzgerald du jour is “The Ice-Palace.”
Fitzgerald first saw the South in 1918, while he was serving in the Army. First Kentucky, then Georgia and finally Alabama in summer where he met his wife, Zelda Sayre. By the time Ice Palace is published, Scott Fitzgerald has noted a lot about this place and how different it is from the North. Here, the sunlight drips “like gold paint” and the girls are brought up on memories instead of money. People move more slowly and so does time so it’s almost possible to die from laziness. Still, you couldn’t describe this as a “laid-back” place because that suggests a choice can be made to relax. Southerners before the days of central air lived life by the temperature gauge and that meant a slower pace that many of them never changed.
Still, there always have been a subset of Southerners interested in a different life. These are often ex-patriots who either run from the restrictions they enounter here or they’re attracted to a different perspective and Sally Carroll Happer seems to be one of those. Much as she loves the South, she has too much energy to relax there permanently. Instead, she takes to Harry Bellamy, a Northerner with ambition, and energy in his corner, and decides she’ll make the obligatory visit to her fiance’s parents in land of ice and snow.
The conflict of the story is culture clash between the “poor but genteel” environment Sally comes from and the industrious, nouveau-riche world that claims Harry. Each culture remarks on the good and bad they see in each other (mainly bad) but Sally marks the difference by categorizing most Northerners as “canine” (open and engaging) while recognizing her childhood friends as “feline” (languid, subtle). Perhaps this difference disturbs her or the North-South antagonism that grows but in the end it comes down to the cold. Harry’s culture celebrates the winter with palaces of ice and sports in an environment that would kill an unprotected human. Sally finds the frozen heart at the center of Harry’s world and decides if she can survive in the North.
In the end, there’s no superior choice to be made, in this story or in life. A lot of the South’s history is written in blood and on some days, I don’t think much of the North. And Fitzgerald, for all of his talent and youth, created great pain in his life. At his best, what he was able to do was capture a mood or a moment that others recognize when they read his stories. This is the magic of “The Ice Palace” for me. It invokes the essence of a Southern Spring.