At this late date it may seem superfluous to say anything more about Fitzgerald: the roses have been strewn, the critics have been collected by Alfred Kazin, and the pro’s and con’s laid end to end. Yet I feel that another word must be said, for the revival of interest in Fitzgerald is a cultural phenomenon worth our curiosity. One point may be made immediately: we have stopped talking as if Fitzgerald’s importance consisted in being a charming echo of the Jazz Age. We are beginning to see that his evocation of that age carries with it ominous tones of impending disaster. Fitzgerald could hardly complain now as he did to Edmund Wilson that not one of the reviewers of Gatsby “had the slightest idea what the book was about.”
In 1925 it was perhaps difficult to take seriously a writer who portrayed the beautiful and the rich as essentially damned and who implied that the American Dream was, after all, little more than a thinly veiled nightmare, in the 1950s we are less likely 10 misunderstand his intentions. Increasingly, modern critics are recognizing that The Great Gatsby is a searching critique of American society. In fact, some of our pundits are elevating Fitzgerald into the first order of American writers almost entirely on the strength of his gloomy cadences. Those who take Fitzgerald closest to their bosoms seem to be the ones who are always lecturing us on the necessity of having a tragic sense of life. But is the tendency of Fitzgerald’s art essentially tragic, or is it merely pessimistic?
As we reread Gatsby today, we are struck by the sharpness with which he seized upon the archetypal theme of the twenties and thirties, and by the fact that he pronounced a sentence of doom over a social order that imagined itself in full flower. For indeed, the atmosphere, the characterizations, and the final violence of Gatsby all resound with the chords of moral horror and disillusion. It is, as Lionel Trilling has hinted, a prose version of Eliot’s “Waste Land,” a poem Fitzgerald knew almost by heart. The prevailing tone is brooding, haunted, elegiac.
Central to the novel’s total effect, as in Eliot’s poem, are symbols and images of waste, desolation, and futility. From the outset, the landscape is charged with symbolic overtones. Chapter II begins with a description, Eliot-like in tone and implication, Conrad-like in cadence:
About halfway between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is the valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes crow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men who move dimly and are already crumbling through the powdery air…
This is the Valley of Dry Bones, the Waste Land, the dusty replica of modern society, where ash-gray men are crumbling, like Eliot’s hollow men. The camera focuses next on the monstrous image of an oculist’s billboard—the blue and gigantic eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which “look out of no face,” but from “a pair of enormous yellow spectacles,” and “dimmed a little by many paintless days over sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” This grotesque image, reappearing throughout the story, eventually becomes a symbol of what God has become in the modern world, an all-seeing deity—indifferent, faceless, blank. Reading these pages instantly reminds one of Eliot’s lines:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats
And the dead tree gives no shelter…
Fitzgerald augments this sense of hopelessness by descriptions of New York in the dense summer heat. Occasionally he gives us pathetic images of sterility reminiscent of Eliot’s “Preludes” or of the “Unreal City” passages in “The Waste Land.” Seeing these images, Nick Carraway, the narrator, soon loses his fondness for New York:
At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.
More effective, perhaps because less self-consciously underlined, are such scenes as the party in Myrtle Wilson’s apartment, an image of an action symbolizing hollow lives and empty relationships. In this sordid orgy, the sham camaraderie of whiskey only emphasizes the absence of any really human or humane contacts. In fact, everything that takes place in the city gives the lie to Jordan Baker’s easy assertion that “there’s something sensuous about [New York]—overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands.”
Moreover, a moment’s glance at Fitzgerald’s characters reminds us that in his vision of society we have only a choice of mindless evils or pathetic follies. Tom Buchanan, the wealthy ex-athlete from Yale, is a liar, a hypocrite, and a bully. The splendor of his surroundings is equaled only by his stupidity and “hard malice.” Today we would call him the perfect example of the upper-class Fascist, who, obsessed with fear that the black races may overthrow “Nordic Supremacy.” sees himself “on the last barrier of civilization.” His fear, however, sharpens his cunning, and his position in society gives him the opportunity to use it. Not only does he lie to Myrtle Wilson, but with ruthless contempt, he exploits her husband, George, as an instrument of revenge on Gatsby. Morally speaking, he is Gatsby’s murderer.
Tom’s wife, Daisy, suggests the callous ennui of the beautiful society matron. She is ready to play with Gatsby, partially out of nostalgia for their youthful romance, partially to spite the philandering Tom, but more, one feels, as a relief from boredom. “What do people plan?” she asks, and the sentence is symbolic of her emptiness; she is like Eliot’s lady in “The Waste Land” who cries out, “What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?” Ironically enough, it is Gatsby who finally isolates the quality of her voice. “Her voice is full of money,” he suddenly remarks; she is the “king’s daughter … the golden girl.” The suspenseful play of irony around the ambiguous connotations of “golden” finally resolves when we discover that the golden girl is really made of bronze. If she does not love Tom, she shares his callous selfishness. With him she conspires to sacrifice Jay Gatsby to her own safety, and is in a real sense an accomplice in the final crime.
The victims—Myrtle and George Wilson, and Jay Gatsby—are not so much vicious as pathetic. Members of the lower middle class, the Wilsons are led to ruin by following ill-conceived dreams of escaping from their dreary lives into the world of glamour. Myrtle, who in her energy resembles Gatsby, seeks escape in an affair with Tom Buchanan. To be “ladylike” she buys a dog; in tawdry finery she queens it over the guests in “her” apartment; but when she tries to assert herself, Tom breaks her nose. Myrtle’s last desperate effort to escape ends in violent death, thus mercifully sparing her the knowledge that she was merely Tom’s plaything.
Her husband, George, is even more pathetic. He is a sick man, too weak to summon up the energy to provide his life either with significance or with the means of escape. Only in the hysteria incited by the betrayal of his home and the death of his wife does he achieve a moment of intense experience, and what is born in hysteria dies in futile violence. Like many in his position, George is conscious of hostility and frustration, but unaware of the forces pressing on him. Under these circumstances his rebellion proves to be misdirected and self-destructive. Deluded by his obeisance to the rich. George seeks help from Tom Buchanan, his betrayer both in love and in revenge. It is an all too familiar pattern: the rich and powerful maintaining their status by directing middle-class frustrations into fratricidal struggles against scapegoats.
Most poignant, however, is the figure of Jay Gatsby. Coming from the Middle West, where the Horatio Alger traditions of self-reliance and enterprise still had some vitality, he is a Clyde Griffiths with energy and know-how. Though he has more control over his destiny than Dreiser’s hapless young man, Jay, like Clyde, is destroyed by uncritically following his fantasies. Gatsby has dreamed of riches as a means of achieving the gulden vision of love and life with his old sweetheart. Daisy. To make this dream come true, he has built a fortune on fraud and violence. He is. as Charles Weir reminds us. the perverted version of the self-made man, Horatio Alger turned bootlegger and mobster, but whose dream of success and the golden girl, Fitzgerald tries to assure us, is still unsullied. In the eyes of Carraway, Jay’s “sensitivity to the promises of life,” and his capacity for hope and innocent wonder make him a moral angel compared to the Buchanans, the respectable corrupters of the American Dream.
The intensity of Gatsby’s dream has, in fact, made him childishly naive. He is blithely confident that he can regain Daisy and their youthful ecstasy merely by displaying to her his ability for conspicuous waste. To Carraway’s warning that “You can’t repeat the past,” he answers, “Why of course you can.” So real has his sentimental vision of Daisy become that he refuses to believe that she has ever cared for Tom, and when in the Plaza suite Tom exposes him for what he is, Jay is unable to detect the revulsion on Daisy’s face. The illusion persists. After the accident which kills Myrtle, he chivalrously plans to shoulder the blame for Daisy’s careless driving. After taking her home, he stands outside her window deluded in the belief that she needs protection from Tom, totally unaware that she is busily planning with Tom ways and means for escaping the consequences. Gatsby, a man capable of organizing a bootlegger’s ring, is here as helpless as a child. Like George Wilson who kills him, Gatsby dies ignorant of the forces that preyed upon him and of the essentially infantile quality of his dreams. His death is pathetic rather than tragic; he is a victim, not a hero.
Thus, the novel ends, as it began, in pessimism, a pessimism induced by Fitzgerald’s recognition of the forces that “preyed on Gatsby” and “the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dream.” Carraway leaves New York haunted by meaningless violence and futile lies: nothing and no one in America gives him hope. He speaks of the “bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old,” while the East haunts him “like a night scene from El Greco.” In the foreground he sees an Eliot-like image, symbolic of futility:
Four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her arm, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.
From this vision of useless damnation, his thought moves into an elegy for the lost wonder of America and the defeated wonder of Gatsby, the latter felt as a sorry fragment of the former music; he has died like Sweeney among the nightingales of the Sacred Heart. Carraway’s nostalgia for “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes,” and which “had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams,” is unrelieved by hope for the future. Gatsby ends with a bang, and Carraway with a whimper; in that mournful conclusion, deep in lacrimae rerum, there are no fragments to shore against the ruins.
The parallel to Eliot suggests another—that of Conrad. In fact, as the dependence of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” on “The Heart of Darkness” makes obvious, the influence is interrelated. Like Conrad, Fitzgerald was fascinated by the man with the romantic dream who is nonetheless a moral failure. Gatsby is in some ways akin to Lord Jim and to Kurtz. On the surface he is like the “excessively romantic” Jim; “there was,” Fitzgerald tells us, “something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensibility to the promises of life … a gift for hope, a romantic readiness…” But the parallel with Kurtz is closer. Gatsby, like Kurtz. blends a romantic vision with bloody and violent means, but unlike Kurtz, never comprehends himself or understands his own contradictions. Yet the most significant analogy lies in the cognate positions of Carraway and Marlow; they both face the same kind of choice. Just as Marlow identifies himself with Kurtz rather than with the mindless viciousness of the manager’s crowd, so Carraway prefers Gatsby, the bootlegger with a dream, to the hard malice of the Buchanans. (“They’re a rotten crowd.” he tells Gatsby. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”) The pessimism of both writers, implicit in the choice-beiween-evils theme, is accentuated by the fact that both, like Eliot, set the choice against a quasi-nostalgic vision of a past in which the romantic dream was presumably unsullied by foul dust. The fact that both see modern corruption in contrast to a lost rather than to an emergent ideal tends to make their art. like Eliot’s, essentially elegiac. Conrad and Fitzgerald hold in common a hatred of unprincipled malice and dishonorable conduct; in neither is there any glimpse of new roads to honor. Writing before the first World War, Conrad was able to assume the posture of stoicism, a fact which saves his nostalgia from mawkish-ness or enervation: Fitzgerald, in 1925, is not entirely free of either. His final image is of passive capitulation: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Here then is Fitzgerald’s waste land, the “spoiled priest’s” brooding lament over the destruction of the American dream, a lament without a benediction and without even a hint of any means by which the waste land may be watered. In this sense, his portrait of modern American society was even more pessimistic than Eliot’s, for at this stage and in this novel he seems to have been unable to adopt any attitude that might provide a means either for redeeming the time or enduring it. For him all gods were fallen so that Eliot’s reactionary and ritualist solution was unacceptable. Like many of his generation, he was alienated “from the prevailing order”; like his own Amory Blaine, he even talked vaguely of socialism, but as he tells us in “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” the alienation was “cynical rather than revolutionary.” He could not believe in any crusade. Cut off, as Henry Dan Piper suggests, from “the imaginative resources of the liberal tradition, especially those of American literature,” and isolated from the contemporary radical and liberal movements (themselves weak) which might have provided a taproot to hope, it is little wonder that Fitzgerald was incapable of being either a revolutionary, or a consolatory, or a tragic artist.
Though in 1933 he was to read Marx and later to declare himself “essentially a Marxian,” and in 1940 even to advise his daughter to read Marx’s chapter on “The Working Day,” the overall evidence from his life and art indicates that what he shared with Marxism and liberalism was the awareness of social disease, not their prescriptions for its cure. In this sense he reminds us of Henry Adams, who watched with fear and horror the destruction of the old America by the robber barons, and who tried in vain to make himself a socialist. Both ended, like so many disaffected but essentially uncommitted liberals, in skepticism, in elegy, and in a feeling of tired emptiness.
A careful reading of Fitzgerald’s later novels will not substantially change these conclusions. A development of a kind takes place, of course, but within the framework I have defined above, not as a break from it. Tender Is the Night, while its portrait of society’s disintegration is more explicitly Marxist, is even more pessimistic than Gatsby. Dick Diver is repeatedly described as a victim of a private dream of money which makes his integrity vulnerable to the appeal of great wealth:
Watching his father’s struggles in poor parishes had wedded a desire for money to an essentially unacquisitive nature. It was not a healthy necessity for security—he had never felt more sure of himself, more thoroughly his own man, than at the time of his marriage to Nicole. Yet he had been swallowed up like a gigolo, and somehow permitted his arsenal to be locked up in the Warren safety-deposit vaults.
Though this conies after the announcement of Abe North’s violent death, we have been prepared for it by a description of Nicole, which might be called a capsule version of “Das Kapital”:
Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run in Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California; chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories: men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouth-wash out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations and dreamers were muscled out of patent rights in new tractors—these were some of the people who pave a tithe to Nicole. and as the whole system swayed and thundered onward it lent a feverish bloom to such processes of hers as wholesale buying, like the flush of a fireman’s face holding his post before a spreading blaze. She illustrated very simple principles, containing in herself her own doom…
Though the kinship with Marx is obvious, one suspects that the cadence of the lines beginning “For her sake” and the structure of the whole passage owe a good deal to stanzas xiv-xv of Keats’s “Isabella,” of which Fitzgerald was so fond, and which Bernard Shaw asserted contained the essence of the “immense indictment of the profiteers and exploiters with which Marx had shaken capitalistic civilization to its foundations.” Of course, neither Keats nor Fitzgerald shook any foundations. Fitzgerald, unlike Keats, even admires the grace with which Nicole illustrates the “feverish bloom” of decay. Nevertheless, the passage prepares the reader for the perception that Dr. Diver, the disintegrating paragon of grace, will give more than “a tithe to Nicole,” and will become one with the girls canning tomatoes and the half-breed Indians on coffee plantations. He permits himself to be squeezed dry, and returns to America, ultimately to fade away into the obscurities of Hornell, New York. Here, too, as in Gatsby, our final image is of defeat.
The pessimism of this conclusion becomes all the more striking when we recall that Fitzgerald in his early plans for the novel went so far as to contemplate giving Dick Diver a son, who was to be sent to the Soviet Union. The son was to be a symbol of hope balancing the deterioration of the father. Fitzgerald rejected the scheme, and wisely too, for it is hard not to believe that however he handled the planned episode, it would have been a failure artistically. It would have been basically false, a hollow gesture, since it would not have represented any genuine feeling on Fitzgerald’s part. The point is not that he was unable to believe in the Soviet Union as a symbol of hope, but rather that he could not find any images of hope or vitality either at home, or abroad, or within himself. The kind of belief in humanity that Steinbeck evoked dramatically in The Grapes of Wrath five years later was beyond Fitzgerald’s sensibility and experience.
It is this fact that makes Fitzgerald open to the commonly-made charge that his heroes have insufficient stature. In 1934 , William Troy complained that it was inaccurate to call Tender Is the Night a study in degeneration, “for such degeneration presupposes an anterior dignity or perfection of character.” My own approach to this issue is from a different angle. I am less insistent than Troy that we see the tragic hero at a high point of “anterior dignity” from which he is cast down: we do not need paragons to have tragic heroes. What we do need is a man who. though no paragon, nevertheless conducts a struggle against the force“, both external and internal, which are destroying him. And this is the difficulty we meet in trying to extend our sympathies to Dick Diver. He goes down to defeat without struggling against his inner weakness or against the forces that have capitalized on it. Although Dick Diver recognizes what has happened to him, as Gatsby does not, his surrender makes him no less a victim. L’homme epuise may well be one we can pity, or one through which we can see predatory forces at work, but his unwillingness to resist them, whatever his anterior dignity, robs him of heroic stature. Charles Weir writes that Fitzgerald’s main theme is “the futility of effort and the necessity of struggle” and goes on to point out that Fitzgerald was never able to make this theme a noble one because he could not deal with the problem in his own life. We may well agree. We must add the essential point, however, by arguing from the novels as well as from biography, that Fitzgerald’s failure to give his theme nobility lies in his inability to image forth the necessity of struggle.
Between Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald underwent the breakdown he records in The Crack-up. Here the waste land of the outer world was mirrored in the individual soul. Both the wastefulness of his own life and of his era led him to the generalization that “all life is a process of breaking down.” He realized that he had done very little thinking; and we may note that for all his ideal of the Goethe-Byron-Shaw “entire man,” he had permitted his friends to take care of his ideas of the good life, his artistic conscience, and his personal relations. Even his political conscience, he admits, “had scarcely existed for ten years save as an element of irony.” He also saw that he had become too much identified with “the objects of [his] horror or compassion,” an identification which, he rightly says, “spells the death of accomplishment.” He felt the need of making “a clean break”—not an escape, which he calls “an excursion into a trap,” but “something you cannot come back from,” a decision to “slay the empty shell who had been posturing at it for years.”
But of what did Fitzgerald’s complete break consist? As he tells us, he decided to be a writer only, to give up the ideal of the entire man, to cease to be a person, to cease “to be kind, just or generous.” “There was to be no more giving of myself.” He will let the “good people function as such.” but for himself he will hang the sign Cave Canem over his door, though he realizes he will have to pay a price for this attitude. “How well.” Weir asks, “did such bitterness serve him?” It is a good question and leads to others. To what extent did Fitzgerald really believe this decision constituted a clean break? To what degree does the decision to be “a writer only” detach one from the habit of “identification with the objects of one’s horror or compassion”? To what extent does a “laughing stoicism” provide a basis for the ability to realize in literary terms “the necessity for struggle”? My answer would be that in Fitzgerald’s case, his decision provided a basis only for enduring the time, but not for redeeming it; it gave him, perhaps, a cooler perspective on the social process which was his subject, but only partially, I believe, “that unshakable moral attitude towards the world we live in” that Dos Passos gives him credit for. He had begun with Marx and ended with Spengler. A clean break, a decision not to go home again, it seems to me, would have implied committing himself to struggle, and I see very little evidence of this either in The Crack-up or in The Last Tycoon.
Since The Last Tycoon is a fragment, generalizations must be tentative. However, from what remains we get a rather clear indication that Fitzgerald simultaneously returned to the objectivity he had displayed in Gatsby and advanced to a wider and more detailed presentation of his vision of the modern world. Significantly, he carried his theme over from the milieu of smart-set rentiers into the world of industrial production. Whereas in Gatsby we are only dimly aware of Gatsby the organizer and man of action, in The Last Tycoon, we are made immediately aware of Monroe Stahr as a commanding personality at work at his job in the movie industry and in contact with its organized producers, its financial capital in New York, and its employees. For the first time in any of his major works Fitzgerald makes us directly conscious of a class struggle, not as in Tender Is the Night, where the workers are passive suppliers of leisure-class luxury, but in active terms with the employees as an organized force.
What we can see of The Last Tycoon is thus a realistic portrait of Hollywood and a cauterizing study of the deterioration of what Arthur Mizener calls the brilliant individual “who controlled everything with understanding and intelligence.” Stahr is a Dick Diver in a position of power, a synthesis of Gatsby and Diver. It is, of course, the story of Stahr’s defeat. Fitzgerald asserted that “it is not the story of deterioration—it is not depressing and not morbid in spite of the tragic ending.”
Again, however, we must wonder if it was as tragic as he had hoped. From the beginning we see Stahr in a state of decay. We learn early that his heart is weak, his psyche split, and, as Fitzgerald portrays them, Stahr’s directing and organizing activities are compulsive rather than controlled and purposeful. Equally compulsive is his love affair with Kathleen, an attempt like Gatsby’s to recapture a past fragrance. He is eventually destroyed by inner contradictions exacerbated by the conflicts both within the industry and between the producers and the organized employees. As in his other novels Fitzgerald is recording and examining the death of a set of values, in short, of traditional individualism defeated in part by its own contradictions and in part by a plutocracy which has lost or never known the humanistic values once associated with individualism. This seems so obvious that it is puzzling to find one British critic writing that “at moments Stahr seems about to turn into that hero of our lime, the man who is very rich and very ’Left’”; or to read William Troy’s remark about Stahr’s “last febrile gesture … his championship of the Hollywood underdog in a struggle with the racketeers and big producers.”
It is important to establish the incorrectness of these readings of the novel, for otherwise we get the impression that at the end Fitzgerald made a leap to the left and created Stahr as some sort of “fellow traveler.” This is pure nonsense. More illuminating is Mizener’s statement that “Stahr was to be defeated primarily by the fact that in the modern kind of capitalist enterprise … there was no function for the brilliant individual who controlled everything by intelligence and understanding. … Yet, though Fitzgerald clearly felt this kind of man was doomed, and even rightly doomed, he admired his gifts…” Moreover, for all Stahr’s paternalistic interest in his employees, he is “driven by the logic of the situation,” as Edmund Wilson puts it, “to fall in with” Brady’s “idea of setting up a company union.” This Stahr does after a vain effort to ease the 50 per cent wage cut ordered by Brady. In other words, when the lines were drawn, Stahr’s hostility to unions pushes him into Brady’s camp. This is hardly the portrait of a man who has gone “left”: Stahr is not the champion of the underdog, but of his own tattered ego and the remnants of his own integrity. Yet the loyalties that lead him to join forces with Brady more than threaten to destroy even what ego and integrity he may have left. As far as we can judge. Stahr was to have been shown eventually losing his position in the studio and getting himself embroiled in the struggle for power within the industry. This in turn was to lead him to adopt methods of blackmail and gangsterism and finally to plan the murder of Brady. Unlike Dick Diver, Stahr fights, but not for any positive value. Too late, he was to decide to call off the murder, but crash to death in a plane before carrying out the decision. This is the pattern of action which Fitzgerald’s outline clearly lays down.
It is difficult to say whether The Last Tycoon would have become a tragedy. The ingredients are there: the man with large views, something of an artist, destroyed by an unilluminated individualism which lands him. despite his hatred of them, in the hands of his enemies. What remains in doubt is the way in which Fitzgerald would have handled Stahr’s “recognition scene,” when he decides to call off the murder of Brady. If his “recognition” was only to be the awareness that the decision to commit murder degraded him to the level of Brady, then he would have been only a slightly more self-conscious Gatsby, dying without real self-knowledge. If, on the other hand, he was to have realized that his basic flaw was his willingness to play into the hands of the men who are corrupting the whole film industry, then Stahr might well have emerged as a truly tragic hero. Had Fitzgerald succeeded in treating Stahr in this way, then one could accept Stephen Vincent Benet’s assertion that Stahr “goes down whole”; as it is, we cannot tell, and therefore the statement is permanently premature.
There are hints that at the conclusion of the novel the emphasis was to be less on Stahr’s self-realization, but more on the fact that with his death the movie industry is to be destroyed as a medium for artistry by the unscrupulous forces symbolized in the conscienceless company lawyer, Fleishacker. Stahr’s funeral, Edmund Wilson tells us, was to have been “an orgy of Hollywood servility and hypocrisy.” The negative emphasis of all this suggests that whereas Fitzgerald had achieved once more “the double vision” of Gatsby, he had still found no way out of his dilemma. The pattern of the novel reflects in art what he had set down as exposition in The Crack-up, where he imagines he is making a clean break from the state of mind that infected him. This view becomes the more credible when we notice that the images and symbols which he treats affirmatively and with affection are those that arouse a nostalgia for the past and indicate the distance of modern America from her past ideals. I am thinking particularly of the incident near the beginning where Cecilia, Willie White, and other movie professionals are held up by bad weather and try to find their way to Andrew Jackson’s “Hermitage.” As Edmund Wilson has suggested, the fact that they cannot get in is symbolic of the gap between the sordid present and a larger-visioned, more dignified democratic tradition. Though the elegiac note is suppressed, it is the only positive chord in the story as we have it.
It seems to me, then, that the burden of evidence suggests that The Last Tycoon would not have been the kind of tragedy in which the individuals die in full self-consciousness, so that the value they ultimately stand for, even though temporarily defeated, provides a meaning for their lives and for their deaths. Such a tragedy would have been a moving study of the impasse and defeat of a traditional individualism which finally grasps that its survival in a more meaningful form requires its reunion with a broader humanity, with Whitman’s en masse, as well as a more than verbal recognition of the necessity of struggle. But Stahr’s struggle takes place within the forces of decay, and his death was to be an accident.
If the logic of this study of Fitzgerald’s Waste Land has any validity, then we must conclude that his literary achievement falls short of tragedy. For those of us concerned with the fate and problems of “The Liberal Imagination.” a further conclusion suggests itself. In so far as insistence on the tragic sense of life urges us away from pollyanna optimism, the talk has been healthy. Too often, however, behind the call for a tragic sense of life lies, perhaps unconsciously, an identification of the tragic sense with the view that nothing can be done to alleviate modern man’s physical and spiritual suffering. Sometimes I have felt that these critics have unwittingly become allied with Eliot’s attack on liberalism and his defense of original (and therefore permanent) sin. All too frequently, the appeal to the tragic sense of life is made somehow to rationalize an apathy and a failure to try to discover, and act upon the discovery of, the forces in modern life which may well enable us to redeem the time as well as endure it, and of the springs of hope which can water the waste land and make the desert bloom. Whatever else tragedy may be, it is not apathy; it is not despair; it is not a form that induces the desire to capitulate to evil and suffering.
Alfred Kazin writes, “in a land of promise ’failure’ will always be a classic theme.” In this limited sense Fitzgerald’s novels come within the purview of what may be defined as classic. His plot lines run on declining curves: nowhere are there lines of ascendance. He seems unable to give his reader images of integrative action or character, or of people or tendencies working in a positive direction. His world is in full Spenglerian decline. For the liberal and radical, a rereading of Fitzgerald’s novels may well strengthen his conviction that contemporary society in its present stage is ruled by a complex of forces destructive of basic human values and subversive of man’s vision of the good life. A greater number, however, receiving the same impression, may only be confirmed in their querulous apathy and provided with a further justification for self-pity, and for a passive, though disgruntled, acceptance of things as they are.
Published in Virginia Quarterly Review magazine XXX (Autumn 1954), 556-572.