Note: This is the first of a series of posts that will appear from time to time dealing with personal libraries, whether real or fictional.
In his short story, “The Jelly Bean,” which appears in the collection, Tales of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes Jim Powell’s bedroom above Tilly’s garage, where he works part-time, in a fictional Georgia city of 40,000 people.
“It was a cheerless square of a room, punctuated with a bed and a battered table on which lay half a dozen books—Joe Miller’s Slow Train Thru Arkansas, Lucille, in an old edition very much annotated in an old fashioned hand; The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright, and an ancient prayer book of the Church of England with the name Alice Powell and the date 1831 written on the fly-leaf.”
Powell’s nickname is Jelly Bean, which Fitzgerald defines as “the name throughout the undissolved Confederacy for one who spends his life conjugating the verb to idle in the first person singular — I am idling, I have idled, I will idle.” Powell’s family once had means and a large house with four pillars and acreage that over time was sold off for building lots because the family needed money. Eventually, Jelly Bean’s fortunes fell so low, he had to sell the house and move into the room above Tilly’s garage.
Jelly Bean’s library seems to play no role in the story. Many editors would be tempted to excise the sentences describing it. The description of the library, however, reinforces in a colorful way, the fall of the Powell family. Jelly Bean’s library only contains one literary book, the ancient Church of England (aka Anglican or Episcopal) prayer book.
“Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders.”
It is also the one book that links him to his family’s former status. In the past, a person’s place in American society was revealed by the Protestant denomination he belonged to. In general, the most wealthy, influential American families belonged to the Episcopalian Church. Like a geologist examining a sedimentary rock formation, the religious scholar could cut open America’s religious milieu and see its social and religious stratification, which was often espoused in the following humorous statements.
A Methodist is a Baptist who can read, or a Methodist is a Baptist who wears shoes.
A Presbyterian is a Methodist with money, or a Presbyterian is a Baptist who likes to drink but doesn’t have enough money to be an Episcopalian.
An Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose stocks paid off, or a Catholic who flunked Latin.
Of the other five books on the table, Fitzgerald doesn’t bother to tell us the titles of two. The other three were bestsellers. On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw was written by Thomas Jackson not Joe Miller. It was a book of jokes that could have reflected much of rural America, not just Arkansas. In fact, by the end of the book, the jokes take place in the Pacific Northwest. It was published in 1903 and began, “You are not the only pebble on the beach for there is a little rock in Arkansaw,” and goes along in the same vein for 96 pages. Many of the jokes could not be told publicly today. Christopher Morley, author of the Haunted Bookshop, writing in Volume 49 of The Bookman described it as “that grievous classic of the railway bookstalls.” Jackson followed it up with I’m From Texas, You can’t Steer Me, which Morley characterized as “another of Mr. Jackson’s onslaughts on the human intelligence.”
Lucille, undoubtedly refers to Lucile, a novel in verse, written by Robert Bulwer-Lytton under the pen name Owen Meredith. Published in 1860, it was his most popular work. From 1860-1938, nearly 100 American publishers brought out at least 2000 editions and issues. Some critics say that while Lucile does not fit into the category of high literature, it also does not quite fit into the category of popular literature or literature meant simply for entertainment. A sample from Canto 1 reads:
Why, when quietly munching your dry toast and butter,
Your nerves should be suddenly thrown in a flutter
At the sight of a neat little letter, address’d
In a woman’s handwriting, containing, half guess’d,
An odor of violets faint as the Spring,
And coquettishly seal’d with a small signet-ring.
Fitzgerald makes no changes to the title or author of The Eyes of the World, published in 1914. Harold Bell Wright (1872-1944) was born in Rome, New York and though mostly forgotten now he was one of the most popular and highly paid authors of his day. The novel takes place in Southern California. It moralizes about artists prostitute who themselves when they paint, write and create for money, something Scott was guilty of at times and something he acknowledged. The novel begins:
It was winter–cold and snow and ice and naked trees and leaden clouds and
The house was an ancient mansion on an old street in that city of culture
which has given to the history of our nation–to education, to religion,
to the sciences, and to the arts–so many illustrious names.
In the changing years, before the beginning of my story, the woman’s
immediate friends and associates had moved from the neighborhood to the
newer and more fashionable districts of a younger generation. In that city
of her father’s there were few of her old companions left. There were
fewer who remembered. The distinguished leaders in the world of art and
letters, whose voices had been so often heard within the walls of her
home, had, one by one, passed on; leaving their works and their names to
their children. The children, in the greedy rush of these younger times,
had too readily forgotten the woman who, to the culture and genius of a
passing day, had been hostess and friend.
The apartment was pitifully bare and empty. Ruthlessly it had been
stripped of its treasures of art and its proud luxuries. But, even in its
naked necessities the room managed, still, to evidence the rare
intelligence and the exquisite refinement of its dying tenant.
The four books Fitzgerald names reveal the stratification in the literary world, much like different denominations do in the religious world. If we categorize the four books from high to low, they would look something like this.
Book of Prayer. Literary classic.
Lucile. Mixture of literature and popular fiction.
The Eyes of the World. Popular Fiction.
On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw. Bathroom reading.
The reader is left to assume that Jelly Bean’s library is the remnant of a much larger library the family once had when they were wealthy and lived in the big mansion, and that it had been disposed of, possibly when the family needed money or when they were forced to turn the mansion into a boarding house. Jelly Bean’s conversation with Nancy Lamar who had “read a lot of English novels,” reveals his ignorance of literature. When she begins talking about Lady Diana Manners and the novels she inspired, Fitzgerald writes, “Jim nodded politely. He was out of his depths.”
The paucity of Jelly Bean’s library, both in quantity and quality, serves to reinforce the Powell’s family’s slide from the upper class to the lower class. It is the only thing from the family’s past that he owns. It is not the library of a reader. It is the library of a man who probably knows how to read but doesn’t and who also remembers dimly that books have value. Like so many people who don’t read, he has a great respect for books, a respect that borders on idolatry, a respect that cannot discriminate between a good book and a bad book, or between a good book and a better one, a respect that will not allow him to discard books away even if he doesn’t read them.