The Salamander: Zelda Fitzgerald & The Invention of the Flapper

Today's featured book is our first edition of The Salamander by Owen Johnson, with the rare original dust jacket. This copy has now been sold, but if you're interested in finding another copy, or similar books, please contact us.

The tremendous roaring of the 1920s had long faded to a murmur when a woman, not yet old but no longer a luminous celebrity, looked back from a room in a mental hospital and wrote, “I believed I was a Salamander and it seems that I am nothing but an impediment”.

First edition of The Salamander by Owen Johnson, with the rare dust jacket.

The salamander: “A girl of the present day in revolt - adventurous, eager, and unafraid” who “comes roving from somewhere out of the immense reaches of the nation, revolting against the commonplace of an inherited narrowness”. It was 1914 and Owen Johnson, a popular author later described by Time Magazine as "The F. Scott Fitzgerald of his generation", had written the smash hit of the year. It was a novel about young women who were rejecting their traditional upbringings and flocking to big cities for adventure.

In a time of unprecedented change they sought the new - new careers in emerging offices and department stores; the thrill of speed in automobiles and airplanes; the glow of electric lights and cinema screens; skyscrapers' dizzying heights; and underground music like ragtime and jazz. These young women rejected the old ideal of domesticity and they drank, danced, and flirted shockingly. Instead of sitting demurely at home waiting for suitors to express interest, they moved assertively from man to man in search of the best catch. By the beginning of the 1920s they would be known as flappers, but Johnson called them “salamanders”. Like the salamander of ancient myth, which could withstand fire, they seemed unscathed by the social conflagration of which they were the center.

The Salamander was the first novel to feature a flapper as a protagonist. It followed the life of the captivating New Yorker Dore Baxter as she pursued and was pursued by a variety of men before finally choosing to marry. “Wildly popular, the book was purported to have reached over ten million readers, predominantly young women under twenty-five”. A Broadway version, starring Ruth Findlay, opened in October 1914 and was so successful that a movie was planned, with Findlay again in the lead role. “With 360 scenes, 14 big stars, and a production budget of over $100,000, the film opened in January of 1916 to rave reviews: The Evening Journal called it ‘the classic of the year,’ Review labeled it ‘A great success,’ and Billboard acclaimed it ‘The hit of the year’” (Taylor, Sometimes Madness is Wisdom, p. 5). Below, a photo of Ruth Findlay in 1915 from Munsey's Magazine.

Actress Ruth Findlay, star of The Salamander.

The year that The Salamander was released Zelda Sayre, soon to be Fitzgerald, was a high school junior in Montgomery, Alabama. Already fiery and ambitious, she devoured novels, loved the cinema, and was known for her numerous romantic conquests. Zelda immediately identified with the film’s protagonist, who declared in one scene that  “I am in the world to do something unusual, extraordinary. I’m not like every other little woman… I adore precipies! It’s such fun to go dashing along the edges, leaning up against the wind that tries to throw you over” (Taylor, p. 5). Below, a photo of Zelda Sayre at age seventeen.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald age 17.

"Like other women from her generation unwilling to settle for boring lives, Zelda identified with the salamander’s desire to experiment and experience everything". Her romantic intrigues "mirrored Dore’s identically. And she would later draw on those experiences for a series of short stories about twenties’ flappers". Once she and her husband became famous, they even frequented The Jungle Club, one of the speakeasies depicted in the novel. The Salamander "permanently affected her attitude toward life" and became "the key to understanding [her] personality and ultimate downfall" (Taylor, p. 5).

Despite their freewheeling lifestyle, one of the key goals for any salamander was marriage. “Although Zelda intellectually accepted being dependent on a man for security, on an emotional level she resented it” (Taylor, p. 8). Her ambition extended beyond dating and partying to intellectual pursuits, and as the twenties wore on she became increasingly desperate to have her own artistic career.  She wrote short stories and a novel, painted, and trained in ballet. But Scott routinely quashed her literary ambitions. He was enraged when she wrote a novel based on their lives, even though he was mining her personality, experiences, and even diaries for literary material, basing characters in The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, and Tender is the Night on his wife. It wasn’t the only problem in the Fitzgerald’s marriage, but the strain exacerbated Zelda’s mental illness and and contributed to her first breakdown in 1930.

Though Johnson’s book was a best-seller and predated Fitzgerald’s flappers by six years, he never received credit for the concept, and his books gradually fell out of the public consciousness. And while Zelda eventually saw herself as "an impediment", the opposite was true, as it was she who enabled her husband to write the defining literature of the Roaring Twenties. "In naming the 1920s the Jazz Age, and capturing its prevailing atmosphere of nervous stimulation in his writing, Fitzgerald was more alert than Johnson to the revolution taking place, and more precisely defined the era’s changing manners and morals. Fictionalizing Zelda as the prototypical salamander and flapper, Fitzgerald captured the decade’s youthful delirium full of “discovery and sensational exploits’” (Taylor, p 9). But Owen Johnson should be remembered as the author who understood and popularised, at its earliest stage, a profound shift in American culture, and who gave momentum to the dreams of a young woman from Alabama. 



Laura Massey
Laura Massey

Author

Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.



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