The writer of the nineteen twenties who most obviously feels the intensity of modern American experience in all its specified and evolving detail is Scott Fitzgerald. The result is that to many of his critics he has seemed little more than a chronicler, a man whose immersion in the social life and commerce of his times, in the prevailing ambitions, the shifting lifestyles, the fun and the frenzies, the amusements and tunes, the fashionable displays and the current mores, the unwinding detail of history, gave him no real distance with which to stand back and shape or criticize. It is true that Fitzgerald was, more than most novelists, a novelist of immersion; it was the heart of his literary tactic. It was a tactic paid for at high cost; it involved a competition for public fame and attention which ran through his personal as well as his public life and cut deep into his marriage and his psyche. Indeed in his essay ’The Crack-Up’ Fitzgerald draws a very precise analogy between the historical sequence of America through the nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties and his own psychological career: the early euphoria of the decade turning toward a sense of trauma and disturbance and then to Slump is an exact match for the psychic process that takes Fitzgerald through his own early joyous success to his crack-up, his alcoholism and his wife’s schizophrenia. The identification could be so precise because Fitzgerald lived it as such; he bound himself tightly to the glossy and wealthy cosmopolitan life which was a species of the decade’s experimentalism, and much of his style, in life and in writing, he took from that link. This has often been identified as his weakness; and we can see why it might be thought so. With This Side of Paradise Fitzgerald had set himself the task of catching the mood of youth, in a book that while energetic can hardly be thought of as good; its success encouraged him to take on the stance of style-setter for the times, to identify tightly with its emergent moods and fashions; and that identification satisfied many of his crudest ambitions and his obsession with wealth. He caught himself up in the American cosmopolite class at a time when it dominated, by its money and its high consciousness of contemporary fashion, the pace of modern style, substituting for the more rooted social culture of the wealthy in the past a life of flamboyant display, a kind of dream-behaviour. There was obviously something of the parvenu in his involvement, and it was often expressed in the simplest form in his writings, converted into a popular, easy and money-making kind of fiction. It is often supposed that what he acquired, by painful experience and effort, was the power to stand back and criticize; and it is that which explains the quality of his serious fiction. The truth is, I think, that Fitzgerald’s creative gift is better understood from a slightly different emphasis; it was not his separation from the frenzied life of the times, but his discovery of the psychic forces which compel it, that made his best work what it is.
Fitzgerald said that his stories all had a ’touch of disaster’ in them—a sense of the high emotional cost of human involvement in the times, a sense of the general spirit of psychic overextension involved in the commitment to youth and glamour, wealth and amusement. Fitzgerald’s main characters are deeply immersed in their times, like Dick Diver [in Tender Is the Night], who feels compelled to risk his sanity and ordinariness by plunging into the melee of advanced social experience, as if the claims of consciousness and the responsibilities of the human condition demand this. The beliefthat the writer must know his times and serve in the places where the times are acted out most fully is a familiar literary conviction; it was one Fitzgerald shared with Ernest Hemingway. But where for Hemingway the urgent need becomes that of a line of control, a making of style of self and style in writing into protective instruments, Fitzgerald practised the opposite tactic. His style is a mode of involvement, a thrust into the society and psychology of the times. His narrator in The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, stills the voice of judgment; and by virtue of so doing he explores the complexities of a hero, Gatsby, who at all levels seems morally unsatisfactory. Gatsby is a former bootlegger; he is a parvenu; he is at the service of a vulgar and meretricious beauty. Carraway’s peculiar tolerance—partly a condition of his own involvement in a fantastic life in which he, too, is something of a parvenu—is the instrument for a very oblique assessment, which Fitzgerald establishes by an underlayering of subdued symbolism which emerges naturally from the surreal environment of the story, the surreal environment of modern dream-life. The Great Gatsby is a novel of the modern city, and it throws up its startling detail in instants and images—in the shifting fashions in clothes and music, the decor of hotel rooms, the movements of traffic, the ashheaps and hearses, that catch Carraway’s eye in his mobile way through the varied and populous society of the novel. Through Carraway, too, Fitzgerald establishes a very oblique sense of causality, so that Gatsby, who might well be thought of as the derivative of this world, is gradually distinguished from it and set against it, so that finally he becomes a victim of its contingency. The theme of the novel is the suffusion of the material by the ideal, so that raw stuff becomes enchanted object; and this is not only the basis of Gatsby’s peculiar power and quality, but the basis of the writing itself, which manages to invest Gatsby’s actions, his parties, his clothes, with this distinctive glow. Fitzgerald’s effects are, as I say, surreal, the making bright of evanescent things so that they have the quality of dream; but of course at the end of the novel the dream is withdrawn, and another surreality, the nightmare of the unmitigated mass of material objects, it replaces:
I have an idea that Gatsby didn’t himself believe that it [the phone call from Daisy] would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living so longwith a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like the ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.
Fitzgerald is in fact the great historian of these two interlocking worlds, the world of modern history invested with meaning and the world of that history without it, the modern wasteland, the city of culture and the city of anarchy. The great fact of his work is that he was able, as a young man in his twenties in the twenties, to humanize and internalize his times, to follow out their running sequences, catching the right tunes for the year and the right fashions and tones of voice. As with Hemingway, though with a tighter social detail, he follows out the psychic history of the times, the history of the great gaudy spree, of a ’whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure’. This is a meaningful revolution for Fitzgerald, and he sees the pleasure in it as well as the pain in it. But the flaw is of course inherently there; the Beautiful are also the Damned. And, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald made not only emancipation but neurosis part of his personal history. The Great Gatsby is a completed, and is indeed a contained, work; the aesthetic controls are precise, and the way the hero is both valued and distanced involves a complex artistic strategy. But Fitzgerald’s great novel of the nineteen thirties, Tender Is the Night, a novel coming after his own crack-up (’There was not an “I” any more—not a basis on which I could organize my self-respect…’), is incomplete, fully enough written, but open to variants of organization; it is an incompleteness curiously apt to its theme, as in fact is the incompleteness of Hemingway’s shrillest and most anguished work, Islands in the Stream. The central figure, Dick Diver, is himself shocked out of completeness in the course of the book; choosing, as Fitzgerald chose, to dive into his time, he finds his purity of position, his impersonality, his sanity, compromised by the need to act on the front edges of modern society, and especially with regard to Nicole. His humanism becomes famished; a redemptive figure at the beginning of the book, he is unable by the end to perform the trick—once done withelegant ease—of lifting a man on his back while surfing; his pastoral concern for others becomes a breakup of self, and he fades away from significant history at the end of the book. Like Fitzgerald, he becomes an implicated man; the implication draws him into the heart of that disaster, that psychic overextension, which was to become increasingly Fitzgerald’s theme.
By the nineteen thirties, Fitzgerald had come to feel the risks of what he had done, and Tender Is the Night is an exploration of those risks; it also takes them again, using once more as its hidden theme the notion that this contemporary and accelerating history might be redeemed, might be made valid. The result is a novel of singular power and force— superior, I think, to that other great expatriate novel, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, by its comparatively deeper quality of immersion, its attentiveness to the sequence of historical fact, its closeness of registering. But its power lies also in the way in which Fitzgerald, within a method that puts the emphasis on this, traces back causes and reasons, so that, just as Diver’s psychic dislocation comes from his concern with the fragility of these front-line modern sensibilities, so in turn those sensibilities, and Nicole’s above all, are tracked backwards to their social, cultural and economic roots. The novel becomes an energetic metaphor for the nineteen twenties and their turn into the nineteen thirties; it catches the force of the passion for emancipation and new consciousness, the accelerating tempo, the cultural exploration through shifting sexual morality and sensation-hunting; it is a psychology of all its characters. But the psychology is within a history, and Fitzgerald explains that history. Its awareness is psychological, economic and social at once; man is, so to speak, propelled by history and society into expressive action, but the action itself can come to express the dislocation in society, the energy and the threat of the active modern consciousness. Against the economic history, which he came to recognize as being more or less Marxist, Fitzgerald sought always to establish the alternative—history made luminous by its participants, involvement given meaning and transcendence. Both histories are currents, processes; Fitzgerald would have liked to unite them, as they are united in the great American success stories where American social history serves the American dream. Fitzgerald represents the two currents at the end of The Great Gatsby; it is perhaps significant that the directions in which they are moving seem confused, as if Fitzgerald could not determine which is the genuinely progressive force. But what he gives us is a world that is both material and dross, a naturalistic world; and a world in which limited meanings can live—the result being neither realism nor autonomous symbolism but a distinctive surrealism. This kind of achievement, because it is not finally an achievement of form organizing matter, is the hardest for us to explore and to value, especially because Fitzgerald uncomfortably possessed the means—he could be a very bad as well as a very good writer—to make them impure. Yet in these two books, as incipiently in The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald shows the enormity of the effort. Indeed … his reconciliation of the formalism and the historical realism of the novel—those two countervailing attributes of the genre from its beginning—offers a great artistic achievement.
Published in The American Novel and the Nineteen Twenties eds. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer (1971). Text scanned from Readings on "The Great Gatsby", ed. by Katie DeKoster (San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998).