My Back Pages: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “May Day”

In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story titled “May Day” in the literary magazine Smart Set. He had only recently become a sensation for his first novel This Side of Paradise, and he hadn’t even written The Great Gatsby yet, but he was already recognized as one of the voices of the inter-war “Jazz Age” generation.

“May Day” contains two interweaving narratives, one of which focuses on a party of young Yale alumni and recent débutantes. This stylish crowd circulates around midtown Manhattan, from landmark to now-vanished landmark: Delmonico’s! the Biltmore! Child’s! At the same time, there are some things that never change: Fitzgerald captures one female character’s anticipation of an evening out with his usual observant (and poetic) eye, paying close attention to the atmospheric importance of feminine fashion and fragrance.

So she came out of the dressing-room at Delmonico’s and stood for a second in the doorway looking over the shoulders of a black dress in front of her at the groups of Yale men who flitted like dignified black moths around the head of the stairs. From the room she had left drifted out the heavy fragrance left by the passage to and fro of many scented young beauties—rich perfumes and the fragile memory-laden dust of fragrant powders. This odor drifting out acquired the tang of cigarette smoke in the hall, and then settled sensuously down the stairs and permeated the ballroom where the Gamma Psi dance was to be held. It was an odor she knew well, exciting, stimulating, restlessly sweet—the odor of a fashionable dance. . . .

“I smell sweet,” she said to herself simply, and then came another thought –“I’m made for love.”

You can read the full text of “May Day” at the University of South Carolina’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary Page.

Image: cover of Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), with illustration by John Held, via Wikipedia.

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