Linda Wagner-Martin’s top 10 jazz age books

Linda Wagner-Martin is the author of biographies of Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein. Her latest book, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald: An American Woman’s Story is the ‘cultural biography’ of one of the most famous figures of the jazz age, the wife of F Scott Fitzgerald and an author in her own right.

1. The Beautiful and Damned by F Scott Fitzgerald (1922)

The work that helped to create the term ‘jazz age’, Fitzgerald’s second novel charts the life of characters Anthony and Gloria Patch (whose similarities to himself and his wife Zelda are remarkable), creating an admonitory ending to the narrative begun in his first book, This Side of Paradise (1920).

2. The Green Hat by Michael Arlen (1924)

Born in Bulgaria and reared in England, Arlen set the stage for the ‘new woman’ characters of Daisy Buchanan and Brett Ashley (in The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises).

3. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Set in the wealthy culture of New York, complete with gangster-driven finances, prohibition, jazz and sexual triangles, this novel showed the futility of monetary success which is not backed up by moral conviction. Ironically, the title character remains one of the most admired of American literature’s romantic men.

4. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

Following a group of vacationing American and British characters to the Pamplona festival, complete with its ritualised bullfights, Hemingway’s first novel captures the mood of the hard-drinking and hard-loving jazz age.

5. Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (1932)

A woman’s story of life during the jazz age, revealing just how exotic the expatriate years in Paris and Italy were. The second half of the book, which describes life as a would-be ballerina, is the best treatment of the agony, and the satisfaction, of art.

6. Sanctuary by William Faulkner (1932)

Set among the illegal liquor producers of prohibition, Sanctuary focuses on the sexual mores of the 1920s in college circles of the south. Unlike Fitzgerald’s Princeton-based novels and stories, Faulkner’s Mississippi youth represented the harsh realism of a grotesque underclass. The novel also provides the best early treatment of Stockholm Syndrome (the lead woman character is a rape survivor).

7. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)

A spoof of the memoir genre, this book – although written by Stein – narrates the lesbian couple’s life through the voice of Alice Toklas and is an account of their Paris years, largely in the 1920s, among the expatriate artists of the world. It is this book, rather than her fiction, that made Stein known to her fellow Americans; excerpts from it appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, and she and Toklas then undertook a nine-month tour of the US.

8. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964)

Published posthumously, this part autobiographical, part fictional account of the author’s Paris years sheds much light on the temperament of the jazz age characters. Rightly famous for its biting portraits of Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, among others, the book is one of the more famous memoirs of the 20th century.

9. Ernest Hemingway: The Paris Years by Michael Reynolds (1989)

The second volume of Reynolds’s five-book biography is the standard work, with full attention to expatriate issues.

10. Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and Her Family by Linda Wagner-Martin (1995)

The most recent biography of Stein (and Toklas) in the context of the art-collecting older brothers, Leo and Michael.


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