Those who were lucky enough to be born a little before the end of the last century, in any of the years from 1895 to 1900, went through much of their lives with a feeling that the new century was about to be placed in their charge; it was like a business in financial straits that could be rescued by a timely change in management. As Americans and optimists, they believed that the business was fundamentally sound. They identified themselves with the century; its teens were their teens, troubled but confident; its World War, not yet known as the First, was theirs to fight on the winning side; its reckless twenties were their twenties. As they launched into their careers, they looked about for spokesmen, and the first one they foundthough soon they would have doubts about himwas F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Among his qualifications for the role was the sort of background that his generation regarded as typical. Scott was a Midwestern boy, born in St. Paul on September 24, 1896, to a family of Irish descent that had some social standing and a very small fortune inherited by the mother. The fortune kept diminishing year by year, and the Fitzgeralds, like all families in their situation, had to think a lot about money. When the only son was eleven they were living in Buffalo, where the father was working for Procter and Gamble. One afternoon, Fitzgerald told a reporter thirty years later, the phone rang and my mother answered it. I didnt understand what she said, but I felt that disaster had come to us. My mother, a little while before, had given me a quarter to go swimming. I gave the money back to her. I knew something terrible had happened and I thought she couldnt spare the money now. Dear God, I prayed, please dont let us go to the poorhouse.
A little later my father came home. I had been right. He had lost his job. More than that, as Fitzgerald said, He had lost his essential drive, his immaculateness of purpose. The family moved back to St. Paul, where the father worked as a wholesale grocery salesman, earning hardly enough to pay for his desk space. It was help from a pious aunt that enabled Scott to fulfill his early ambition of going to an Eastern preparatory school, then going to Princeton.
In 1917 practically the whole student body went off to war. Fitzgerald went off in style, having received a provisional commission as second lieutenant in the regular army. Before leaving Princeton in November, he ordered his uniform at Brooks Brothers and gave the manuscript of a first novel to his faculty mentor, Christian Gauss, not yet dean of the college, but a most persuasive teacher of European literature. Gauss, honest as always, told him that it wasnt good enough to publish. Not at all discouraged, Fitzgerald reworked it completely, writing twelve hours a day during his weekends at training camp and his first furlough. When the second draft was finished, he sent it to Shane Leslie, the Irish man of letters, who had shown some interest in his work. Leslie spent ten days correcting and punctuating the script, then sent it to Scribners, his own publishers. Really if Scribner takes it, Fitzgerald said in a letter to Edmund Wilson, I know Ill wake some morning and find that the debutantes have made me famous overnight. I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation.
Scribners sent back the novel, rightly called The Romantic Egotist, while expressing some regret, and Maxwell Perkins, who was still too young to be the senior editor, suggested revisions that might make it acceptable. Fitzgerald tried to follow the suggestions and resubmitted the manuscript that summer. In August it was definitely rejected, and Fitzgerald then asked Perkins as a favor to submit it to two other publishers, one radical and one conservative. His letter was dated from Camp Sheridan, in Alabama, where he was soon to be named aide-de-camp to Major General J. A. Ryan. It was at a dance in Montgomery that he fell in love with a judges daughter, Zelda Sayre, whom he described to his friends as the most beautiful girl in Alabama and Georgia; one state wasnt big enough to encompass his admiration. I didnt have the two top things: great animal magnetism or money, he wrote years afterward in his notebook. I had the two second things, though: good looks and intelligence. So I always got the top girl.
He was engaged to the judges daughter, but they couldnt marry until he was able to support her. After being discharged from the armywithout getting overseas, as I notedhe went to New York and looked for a job. Neither the radical nor the conservative publisher had shown interest in his novel. All his stories were coming back from the magazines, and at one time he had 122 rejection slips pinned in a frieze around his cheap bedroom on Morningside Heights. The job he found was with an advertising agency and his pay started at $90 a month, with not much chance of rapid advancement; the only praise he received was for a slogan written for a steam laundry in Muscatine, Iowa: We keep you clean in Muscatine. He was trying to save money, but the girl in Alabama saw that the effort was hopeless and broke off the engagement on the score of common sense. Fitzgerald borrowed from his classmates, stayed drunk for three weeks, and then went home to St. Paul to write the novel once again, this time with another ending and a new title, This Side of Paradise. Scribners accepted it on that third submission. The book was so different from other novels of the time, Max Perkins wrote him. that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell, but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor.
This Side of Paradise, published at the end of March 1920. is a very young mans novel and memory book. The author put into it samples of everything he had written until that timeshort stories, essays, poems, prose poems, sketches. and dialoguesand he also put himself into it, after taking a promotion in social rank. The hero, Amory Blaine, instead of being a poor relative has been reared as the heir of millions, but he looks and talks like Fitzgerald, besides reading the same books (listed in one passage after another) and falling in love with the same girls. The story told in the novel, with many digressions, is how Amory struggles for self-knowledge and for less provincial standards than those of the Princeton eating clubs. I know myself, he says at the end, but that is all. Fitzgerald passed a final judgment on the novel in 1938, when he said in a letter to Max Perkins, I think it is now one of the funniest books since Dorian Gray in its utter spuriousnessand then, here and there, I find a page that is very real and living.
Some of the living pages are the ones that recount the eating-club elections, the quarrel between Amory and his first flame, IsabelleFitzgerald would always be good on quarrelsthe courting of Rosalind Connage, and Amorys three-weeks drunk when Rosalind throws him over. Besides having a spurious and imitative side, the novel proved that Fitzgerald bad started with gifts of his own, which included an easy narrative style rich with images, a sense of comedy, and a natural ear for dialogue. Its memorable feature, however, was that it announced a change in standards. Here was a new generation, Fitzgerald or his hero, it isnt clear which, says in the last chapter, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken. With energy, candor, and a sort of innocence, Fitzgerald (or the hero) was speaking for his contemporaries. They recognized the voice as their own, and his elders listened.
Suddenly the magazines were eager to print Fitzgeralds stories and willing to pay high prices for them. The result shows in his big ledger: in 1919 he earned $879 by his writing; in 1920 he earned $18,850and managed to end the year in debt [Those sums of money should be multiplied by three to give a notion of their equivalents half a century later. Income taxes were low in the 1920s. By the end of the decade Fitzgerald would be spending as muchbut not for the same thingsas the presidents of small corporations. [M.C., 1973]]. Early success and princely spending had been added to everything else that made him stand out as a representative of his generation; and Fitzgerald was beginning to believe in his representative quality. He was learning that when he wrote truly about his dreams and misadventures and discoveries, other people recognized themselves in the picture.
The point has to be made that Fitzgerald wasnt typical of his own period or any other. He lived harder than most people have ever lived and acted out his dreams with an extraordinary intensity of emotion. The dreams themselves were not at all unusual: in the beginning they were dreams of becoming a football star and a big man in college, of being a hero on the battlefield, of winning through to financial success, and of getting the top girl. They were the commonplace visions shared by almost all the young men of his age and background, especially by those who were forging ahead in the business world; in many ways Fitzgerald was closer to them than he was to the other serious writers of his generation. It was the emotion he put into his dreams, and the honesty with which he expressed the emotion, that made them seem distinguished. By feeling intensely he made his readers believe in the unique value of the world in which they lived. He was to say later, writing in the third person, that he continued to feel grateful to the Jazz Age because It bore him up, flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did.
At the beginning of April 1920, Zelda came to New York and they were married in the rectory of St. Patricks Cathedralalthough Zeldas family was Episcopalian and Scott had ceased to be a good Catholic. They set up housekeeping at the Biltmore. To their bewilderment they found themselves adopted not as a Midwesterner and a Southerner respectively, not even as detached observers, butScott afterward wroteas the arch type of what New York wanted. A new age was beginning, and Scott and Zelda were venturing into it innocently, hand in hand. Zelda said, It was always tea-time or late at night. Scott said, We felt like children in a great bright unexplored barn!
Scott also said, America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it. There is still plenty to tell about it, in the light of a new age that continues to be curious about the 1920s and usually misjudges them. The gaudiest spree in history was also a moral revolt, and beneath the revolt were social transformations. The 1920s were the age when puritanism was under attack, with the Protestant churches losing their dominant position. They were the age when the country ceased to be English and Scottish and when the children of later immigrations moved forward to take their places in the national life. Theodore Dreiser, whom Fitzgerald regarded as the greatest living American writer, was South German Catholic by descent. H. L. Mencken, the most influential critic, was North German Protestant, and Fitzgerald did not forget for a moment that one side of his own family was straight potato-famine Irish. Most of his heroes have Irish names and all except Gatsby are city-bred, thus reflecting another social change. The 1920s were the age when American culture became urban instead of rural and when New York set the social and intellectual standards of the country, while its own standards were being set by transplanted Southerners and Midwesterners like Zelda and Scott.
More essentially the 1920s were the age when a production ethicof saving and self-denial in order to accumulate capital for new enterprisesgave way to a consumption ethic that was needed to provide markets for the new commodities that streamed from the production lines. Instead of being exhorted to save money, more and more of it, people were being exhorted in a thousand ways to buy, enjoy, use once and throw away, in order to buy a later and more expensive model. They followed the instructions, with the result that more goods were produced and consumed or wasted and money was easier to earn or borrow than ever in the past. Foresight went out of fashion. The Jazz Age, Fitzgerald was to say, now raced along under its own power, served by great filling stations full of money. . . . Even when you were broke you didnt worry about money, because it was in such profusion around you.
Young men and women in the 1920s had a sense of reckless confidence not only about money but about life in general. It was part of their background: they had grown up in the years when middle-class Americans read Herbert Spencer and believed in the doctrine of automatic social evolution. The early twentieth century seemed to confirm the doctrine. Things were getting better each year: more grain was reaped, more iron was smelted, more rails were laid, more profits earned, more records broken, as new cities were founded and all cities grew, as the country grew, as the world apparently grew in wealth and wisdom toward the goal of universal peace-and those magical results were obtained, so it seemed, by each mans seeking his private interest. After 1914 the notion of automatic progress lost most of its support in events, out retained its place in the public mind. Young men and women of Fitzgeralds time, no matter how rebellious and cynical they thought of themselves as being, still clung to their childhood notion that the world would improve without their help; that was one of the reasons why most of them felt excused from seeking the common good. Plunging into their personal adventures, they took risks that didnt impress them as being risks because, in their hearts, they believed in the happy ending.
They were truly rebellious, however, and were determined to make an absolute break with the standards of the prewar generation. The distinction between highbrow and lowbrow (or liberal and conservative) was not yet sharp enough to divide American society; the gulf was between the young and the old. The younger set paid few visits to their parents homes and some of them hardly exchanged a social word with men or women over forty. The elders were straitlaced or stuffy, and besides they had made a mess of the world; they were discredited in younger eyes not only by the war and what followed itespecially Prohibitionbut also, after 1923, by the scandals that clustered round Teapot Dome and the little green house on K Street, in Washington, where members of President Hardings Cabinet, and sometimes the President himself, played their cozy games of poker with the oil barons. So let the discredited elders keep to themselves; the youngsters would then have a free field in which to test their standards of the good life.
Those standards were elementary and close to being savage. Rejecting almost everything else, the spokesmen for the new generation celebrated the value of simple experiences such as love, foreign travel, good food, and drunkenness. Immortal drunkenness! Thomas Wolfe was to exclaim in a novel, [For the complete invocation to drunkenness, see Of Time and the River, pp. 281-82. The novel is in the third person, but here, in celebrating what he regarded as a generational experience, Wolfe shifts to the first person plural. [M.C., 1973]], interrupting the adventures of his hero. What tribute can we ever pay, what song can we ever sing, what swelling praise can ever be sufficient to express the joy, the gratefulness and love which we, who have known youth and hunger in America, have owed to alcohol? You came to us with music, poetry, and wild joy when we were twenty, when we reeled home at night through the old moon-whitened streets of Boston and heard our friend, our comrade and our dead companion, shout through the silence of the moonwhite square: You are a poet and the world is yours. Others besides Wolfe heard the voice repeating You are a poet! and they hastened to enjoy their birthday-present world by loving, traveling, eating, drinking, dancing all night, and writing truthfully about their mornings after. They all recognized the value of being truthful, even if it hurt their families or their friends and most of all if it hurt themselves; almost any action seemed excusable and even admirable in those days if one simply told the truth about it, without boasting, without shame.
They liked to say yes to every proposal that suggested excitement. Will you take a new job, throw up the job, go to Paris and starve, travel round the world in a freighter? Will you get married, leave your husband, spend a weekend for two in Biarritz? Will you ride through Manhattan on the roof of a taxi and then go bathing in the Plaza fountain? W Y B M A D I I T Y? read a sign on the mirror behind the bar of a popular speakeasy, the Dizzy Club. Late at night you asked the bartender what it meant, and he answered, Will You Buy Me A Drink If I Tell You? The answer was yes, always yes, and the fictional heroine of the 1920s was Serena Blandish, the girl who couldnt say no. Or the heroine was Joyces Molly Bloom as she dreamed about the days when she was being courted: and I thought as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
The masculine ideal of the 1920s was what Fitzgerald called the old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch, a sort of combination of J. P. Morgan, Topham Beauclerk and St. Francis of Assisi. The entire man would be one who did everything, good and bad, who realized all the potentialities of his nature and thereby acquired wisdom. The entire man, in the 1920s, was one who followed the Rule of the Thelemites as revealed by Rabelais: Fais ce que vouldras, Do what you will! But that rule implied a second imperative like an echo: Will!To be admired by the 1920s young men had to will all sorts of actions and had to possess enough energy and boldness to carry out even momentary wishes. They lived in the moment with what they liked to call an utter disregard of consequences. In spirit they all made pilgrimages to the abbey of the Thelemites, where they consulted the Oracle of the Divine Bottle and received for answer the one word Trine. They obeyed the oracle and drank, in those days of the Volstead Act when drinking was a rite of comradeship and an act of rebellion. As Fitzgerald said at the time, they drank cocktails before meals like Americans, wines and brandies like Frenchmen, beer like Germans, whiskey-and-soda like the English . . . this preposterous melange that was like a gigantic cocktail in a nightmare.
But the 1920s were not so much a drinking as a dancing agethe Jazz Age, in the phrase that Fitzgerald made his own. In those days one heard jazz everywherefrom orchestras in ballrooms, from wind-up phonographs in the parlor, from loudspeakers blaring in variety stores, lunch wagons, even machine shopsand jazz wasnt regarded as something to listen to and be cool about, without even tapping ones feet; jazz was music with a purpose, Gebrauchsmusik; it was music to which you danced:
I met her in Chicago and she was married.
Dance all day,
leave your man, Sweet Mamma, and come away;
manicured smiles and kisses, to dance all day, all day.
How it was sad.
Please, Mr. Orchestra, play us another tune.
My daddy went and left me and left the cupboard bare.
Who will pay the butcher bill now Daddy isnt there?
Shuffle your feet.
Found another daddy and he taught me not to care,
and how to care.
Found another daddy that Ill follow anywhere.
Shuffle your feet, dance,
dance among the tables, dance across the floor,
slip your arm around me, well go dancing out the door,
Sweet Mamma, anywhere, through any door.
Wherever the banjos play is Tennessee.
Jazz carried with it a constant message of change, excitement, violent escape, with an undertone of sadness, but with a promise of enjoyment somewhere around the corner of next week, perhaps at midnight in a distant country. The young men heard the message and followed it anywhere, through any door, even the one that led into what was then, for Americans, the new world of difficult art. They danced too much, they drank too much, but they also worked, with something of the same desperation; they worked to rise, to earn social rank, to sell, to advertise, to organize, to invent gadgets, and to create enduring works of literature. In ten years, before losing their first vitality, they gave a new tempo to American life.
Fitzgerald not only represented the age but came to suspect that he had helped to create it, by setting forth a pattern of conduct that would be followed by persons a little younger than himself. That it was a dangerous pattern was something he recognized almost from the beginning. If I had anything to do with creating the manners of the contemporary American girl I certainly made a botch of the job, he said in a 1925 letter. In a notebook he observed that one of his relatives was still a flapper in the 1930s. There is no doubt, he added, that she originally patterned herself upon certain immature and unfortunate writings of mine, so that I have a special fondness for ___ as for one who has lost an arm or a leg in ones service. When he was living at La Paix, a brown wooden late-Victorian lodge on a thirty-acre estate near Baltimore, a drunken young man teetered up to his door and said, I had to see you. I feel I owe you more than I can say. I feel that you formed my life. It was not the young manlater a widely read novelist and an alcoholicbut Fitzgerald himself who became the principal victim of his capacity for creating fictional types in life. Sometimes, he told another visitor to La Paix, late at night, I dont know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.
That was in the spring of 1933, a few weeks after the banks had closed all over the country. It seemed then that the whole generation of the 1920s had been defeated by life, and yet, in their own defeat, Scott and Zelda were still its representative figures.
Fitzgerald never lost a quality that very few writers are able to acquire: a sense of living in history. Manners and morals were changing all through his life and he set himself the task of recording the changes. These were revealed to him, not by statistics or news reports, but in terms of living characters and the characters were revealed by gestures, each appropriate to a certain year. He wrote: One day in 1926 wemeaning the members of his generationlooked down and found we had flabby arms and a fat pot and we couldnt say boop-boop-a-doop to a Sicilian. By 1927 a widespread neurosis began to be evident, faintly signaled, like a nervous beating of the feet, by the popularity of cross-word puzzles By this timealso in 1927contemporaries of mine had begun to disappear into the dark maw of violence By 1928 Paris had grown suffocating. With each new shipment of Americans spewed up by the boom the quality fell off, until towards the end there was something sinister about the crazy boatloads.
He tried to find the visible act that revealed the moral quality inherent in a certain moment of time. He was haunted by time, as if he wrote in a room full of clocks and calendars. He made lists by the hundred, including lists of the popular songs, the football players, the top debutantes (with the types of beauty they cultivated), the hobbies, and the slang expressions of a given year; he felt that all those names and phrases belonged to the year and helped to reveal its momentary color. After all, he said in an otherwise undistinguished magazine story, any given moment has its value; it can be questioned in the light of after-events, but the moment remains. The young prince in velvet gathered in lovely domesticity around the queen amid the hush of rich draperies may presently grow up to be Pedro the Cruel or Charles the Mad. but the moment of beauty was there.
Fitzgerald lived in his great moments, and lived in them again when he reproduced their drama, but he also stood apart from them and coldly reckoned their causes and consequences. That is his doubleness or irony, and it is one of his distinguishing marks as a writer. He took part in the ritual orgies of his time, but he kept a secretly detached position, regarding himself as a pauper living among millionaires, a Celt among Sassenachs, and a sullen peasant among the nobility; he said that his point of vantage was the dividing line between two generations, prewar and postwar. Always he cultivated a double vision. In his novels and stories he was trying to intensify the glitter of life in the Princeton eating clubs, on the north shore of Long Island, in Hollywood, and on the Riviera; he surrounded his characters with a mist of admiration, and at the same time he kept driving the mist away. He liked to know where the milk is watered and the sugar sanded, the rhinestone passed for the diamond and the stucco for stone. It was as if all his fiction described a big dance to which he had taken, as he once wrote, the prettiest girl:
There was an orchestraBingo-Bango
Playing for us to dance the tango
And the people all clapped as we arose
For her sweet face and my new clothes?
and as if he stood at the same time outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the music. But it was not a dance he was watching so much as it was a drama of conflicting manners and aspirations in which he was both the audience and the leading actor. As audience he kept a cold eye on the actors performance. He wrote of himself when he was twenty, I knew that at bottom I lacked the essentials. At the last crisis, I knew that I had no real courage, perseverance or self-respect. Sixteen years later he was just as critical, and he said to a visitor at La Paix. Ive got a very limited talent. Im a workman of letters, a professional. I know when to write and when to stop writing. It was the maximum of critical detachment, but it was combined with the maximum of immersion in the drama. He said in his notebook, and without the least exaggeration, Taking things hard, from Ginevra to Joe Mankiewicz, mentioning the names of his first unhappy love and of the Hollywood producer who, so he thought, had ruined one of his best scripts: Thats the stamp that goes into my books so that people read it blind like Braille.
The drama he watched and in which he overplayed a leading Part was a moral drama leading to rewards and punishments. Sometimes I wish I had gone along with that gang, he said in a letter that discussed musical comedies and mentioned Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart; but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart and want to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them. The morality he wanted to preach was a simple one, in the midst of the prevailing confusion. Its four cardinal virtues were Industry. Discipline, Responsibility (in the sense of meeting ones social and financial obligations), and Maturity (in the sense of learning to expect little from life while continuing to make ones best efforts). Thus, his stories had a way of becoming fables. For virtues they displayed or failed to display, the characters were rewarded or punished in the end.
The handle by which he took hold of the characters was their dreams. These, as I said, might be commonplace or even cheap, but usually Fitzgerald managed to surround them with an atmosphere of the mysterious and illimitable or of the pitifully doomed. His great scenes were, so to speak, played to music: sometimes the music from a distant ballroom, sometimes that of a phonograph braying out a German tango, sometimes the wind in the leaves, sometimes the stark music of the heart. When there was no music, at least there were pounding rhythms: The citys quick metropolitan rhythm of love and birth and death that supplied dreams to the unimaginative; The rhythm of the week-end, with its birth, its planned gaieties and its announced end; New Yorks flashing, dynamic good looks, its tall mans quick-step. Fitzgeralds dream of his mature years, after he had outgrown the notion of becoming a big man in college, was also set to music, perhaps to the Unfinished Symphony; it was the dream of becoming a great writer, specifically a great novelist who would do for American society in his time what Turgenev, for example, had done for the old regime in Russia.
It was not his dream to be a poet, yet that was how he started and in some ways he remained a poet primarily. He noted, The talent that matures early is usually of the poetic type, which mine was in large part. His favorite author was Keats, not Turgenev or Flaubert. I suppose Ive read it a hundred times, he said of the Ode on a Grecian Urn. About the tenth time I began to know what it was about, and caught the chime in it and the exquisite inner mechanics. Likewise with the Nightingale, which I can never read without tears in my eyes; likewise The Pot of Basil, with its great stanzas about the two brothers. . . . Knowing these things very young and granted an ear, one could scarcely ever afterwards be unable to distinguish between gold and dross in what one read. When his daughter was learning to be a writer he advised her to read Keats and Browning and try her hand at a sonnet. He added, The only thing that will help you is poetry, which is the most concentrated form of style.
Fitzgerald himself was a poet who never learned some of the elementary rules for writing prose. His grammar was shaky and his spelling definitely bad: for example, he wrote ect. more often than etc. and misspelled the name of his friend Monsignor Fay on the dedication page of This Side of Paradise. In his letters he always misspelled the given names of his first and last loves. He was not a student, for all the books he read; not a theoretician and perhaps one should flatly say, not a thinker. He counted on his friends to do much of his thinking for him; at Princeton it was John Peale Bishop who, he said, made me see, in the course of a couple of months, the difference between poetry and non-poetry. Twenty years later, at the time of his crack-up, he re-examined his scale of values and found thinking incredibly difficult; he compared it to the moving about of great secret trunks. He was then forced to the conclusion That I had done very little thinking, save within the problems of my craft. For twenty years a certain man had been my intellectual conscience. That man was Edmund Wilson. Another contemporary had been an artistic conscience to me. I had not imitated his infectious style, because my own style, such as it is, was formed before he published anything, but there was an awful pull towards him when I was on the spot.
Fitzgerald was making the confession in order to keep straight with himself, not to forestall any revelation that might have been made by his critics. The critics would have said that there was little of Wilsons influence perceptible in his work and still less of Hemingways, although he once wrote a story about two dogs, Shaggys Morning, that is a delicate and deliberate pastiche of the Hemingway manner. By listening hard one can overhear a few, a very few suggestions of Hemingway in the dialogue of other stories, especially the later ones, but Fitzgerald was faithful to his own vision of the world and his way of expressing it. His debt to Wilson and Hemingway is real, but hard to define. In essence they were two older-brother figures (though Hemingway was younger than Fitzgerald); two different models of literary conduct. Though his style of life bore no resemblance to either of theirs he used them to test and define his moral attitude toward the problems of his craft.
There was one respect in which Fitzgerald, much as he regarded himself as a representative figure of the age, was completely different from most of its serious writers. In that respect he was, as I said, much closer to the men of his college year who were trying to get ahead in the business world; like them he was fascinated by the process of earning and spending money. The young businessmen of his time, much more than those of a later generation, had been taught to measure success, failure, and even virtue in pecuniary terms. They had learned in school and Sunday school that virtue was rewarded with money and vice punished by the loss of money; apparently their one aim should be to earn lots of it fast. Yet money was only a convenient and inadequate symbol for what they dreamed of earning. The best of them were like Jay Gatsby in having some heightened sensitivity to the promise of life; or they were like another Fitzgerald hero, Dexter Green of Winter Dreams, who wanted not association with glittering things and glittering peoplehe wanted the glittering things themselves. Their real dream was that of achieving a new status and a new essence, of rising to a loftier place in the mysterious hierarchy of human worth.
The serious writers also dreamed of rising to a loftier status, butexcept for Fitzgeraldthey felt that moneymaking was the wrong way to rise. They liked money if it reached them in the form of gifts or legacies or publishers advances; they would have liked it in the form of prizes or fellowships, though there were few of these to be had in the 1920s; but they were afraid of high earned incomes because of what the incomes stood for: obligations, respectability, time lost from their essential work, expensive habits that would drive them to seek still higher incomesin short, a series of involvements in the commercial culture that was hostile to art. If you want to ruin a writer, I used to hear some of them saying, just give him a big magazine contract or a job at ten thousand a year. Many of them tried to preserve their independence by earning only enough to keep them alive while writing; a few regarded themselves as heroes of poverty and failure. Now I can write, Faulkner said when his third novel was turned down and he thought he would never be published again.
A disdainful attitude toward money went into the texture of Faulkners work, as into that of many others. The work was non-commercial in the sense of being written in various new styles that the public was slow to accept. It was an age of literary experiment when young writers were moving in all directions simultaneously. They were showing the same spirit of adventure and exploration in fiction that their contemporaries were showing in the business world. That spirit made them part of the age, but at the same time they were trying to stand apart from it, and some of them looked back longingly to other ages when, so they liked to think, artists had wealthy patrons and hence were able to live outside the economic system.
Fitzgerald immersed himself in the age and always remained close to the business world which they were trying to evade. That world was the background of his stories, and these performed a business function in themselves, by supplying the narrative that readers followed like a thread through the labyrinth of advertising in the slick-paper magazines. He did not divorce himself from readers by writing experimental prose or refusing to tell a story. His very real originality was a matter of mood and subject and image rather than of structure, and it was more evident in his novels than in his stories, good as the stories often were. Although he despised the trade of writing for magazinesor despised it with part of his mindhe worked at it honestly. It yielded him a large income that he couldnt have earned in any other fashion, and the income was necessary to his self-respect.
Fitzgerald kept an accurate record of his earningsin the big ledger in which he also kept a record of his deeds and misdeeds, as if to strike a bookkeepers balance between them-but he was vague about his expenditures and usually vague about his possessions, including his balance in the bank. Once he asked a cashier, How much money have I got? The cashier looked in a big book and answered without even scowling, None. Fitzgerald resolved to be more thrifty, knowing he would break the resolution. All big men have spent money freely, he explained in a letter to his mother. I hate avarice or even caution. He had little interest in the physical objects that money could buy. On the other hand, he had a great interest in earning money, lots of it fast, because that was a gold medal offered with the blue ribbon for competitive achievement. Once the money was earned, he and Zelda liked to spend lots of it fast, usually for impermanent things: not for real estate, fine motorcars, or furniture, but for traveling expenses, the rent of furnished houses, the wages of nurses and servants; for parties, party dresses, and feather fans of five colors. Zelda was as proudly careless about money as an eighteenth-century noblemans heir. Scott was more practical and had his penny-pinching moments, as if in memory of his childhood, but at other times he liked to spend without counting in order to enjoy a proud sense of potency.
In his attitude toward money he revealed the new spirit of an age when conspicuous accumulation was giving way to conspicuous earning and spending. It was an age when gold was melted down and became fluid, when wealth was no longer measured in possessionsland, houses, livestock, machinerybut rather in dollars per year, as a stream is measured by its flow; when for the first time the expenses of government were being met by income taxes more than by property and excise taxes; and when the new tax structure was making it somewhat more difficult to accumulate a stable and lasting fortune. Such fortunes still existed at the hardly accessible peak of the social system, which young men dreamed of reaching like Alpinists, but the romantic figures of the age were not capitalists properly speaking. They were salaried executives and advertising men, they were promoters, salesmen, stock gamblers, or racketeers, and they were millionaires in a new sensenot men each of whom owned a million dollars worth of property, but men who lived in rented apartments and had nothing but stock certificates and insurance policies (or nothing but credit and the right connections), while spending more than the income of the old millionaires.
The change went deep into the texture of American society and deep into the feelings of Americans as individuals. Fitzgerald is its most faithful recorder, not only in the stories that earned him a place in the new high-income class, but also to his personal confessions. He liked to describe his vitality and his talent in pecuniary terms. When both of them temporarily disappeared, in his crack-up of the years 193536, he pictured the event as a sort of financial bankruptcy. He wrote (but without my italics), I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on, resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt. Again he wrote, When a new sky cut off the sun last spring, I didnt at first relate it to what had happened fifteen or twenty years ago. Only gradually did a certain family resemblance come throughan over-extension of the flank, a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon physical resources that I did not command, like a man overdrawing at his bank There were plenty of counterfeit coins around that I could pass off instead of thesethat is, in spite of the honest emotions he had lostand I knew where I could get them at a nickel on the dollar.
Where was the leak, Fitzgerald asked, through which, unknown to myself, my enthusiasm and my vitality had been steadily and prematurely trickling away? Vitality was something liquid and it was equated with money, which was also liquid. The attitude was different from that which prevailed before World War I, when people spoke of saving money as piling up the rocks, instead of filling the reservoir, and when the millionaire in the funny papers was Mr. Gotrocks. In Freuds great system, which is based on his observation of nineteenth-century types, money is something solid, gold or silver, and the bodily product it suggests is excrement. Thus, the pursuit of money for its own sake develops from anal eroticism, and Freud maintains that the miser is almost always a constipated man. I doubt whether recent analysts have observed how money is losing its old symbolic value and how, in the American subconscious, it tends to be identified with other bodily products such as urine (I just peed it away), blood, sperm, or milk.
Fitzgerald was more closely involved with contemporary values than most of the professional analysts. He uses the new imagery in much of his confessional writing, and it becomes especially clear in a free-verse poem, Our April Letter, which he wrote during his crack-up. Three lines of the Poem read:
I have asked a lot of my emotionsone hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of somethingnot blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.
Once the phial was fullhere is the bottle it came in.
Hold on, theres a drop left there No, it was just the way the light fell.
Note that the something more intimate than blood or tears or spermthough suggested by all of thesehad a monetary value and was being sold to the magazines at a price right up with what Kipling had been paid. Note also that in its absence Fitzgerald was no longer able to write salable stories, so that he came to identify emotional with financial bankruptcy. In that black year 1936 he was earning very little money and owed more than forty thousand dollars, but he kept a careful record of his debts and later paid off most of them, by living in a modest fashion even during the months when he was earning a big salary in Hollywood. He never became solvent, but his financial obligations were not so pressing at the end of his life, and he was doing some of his best work.
In writing about the romance of money, as he did in most of his earlier novels and stories, he was dealing not only with an intimate truth but also with what seemed to him the central truth of his American age. Americans, he liked to say, should be born with fins and perhaps they wereperhaps money was a form of fin.
One of his remarks about himself has often puzzled his critics. D. H. Lawrences great attempt to synthesize animal and emotionalthings he left out, Fitzgerald wrote in his notebook, then added the comment, Essential pre-Marxian. Just as I am essentially Marxian. He was never Marxian in any sense of the word that Marxians of whatever school would be willing to accept. It is true that he finally read well into Das Kapital and was impressed by the terrible chapter, as he called it, on The Working Day; but it left in him no trace of Marxs belief in the mission of the proletariat.
His picture of proletarian life was of something alien to his own background, mysterious and even criminal. It seems to have been symbolized in some of his storiesnotably in Winter Dreams and A Short Trip Homeby the riverfront strip in St. Paul that languished in the shadow of the big houses on Summit Avenue; he described the strip as a gridiron of mean streets where consumptive or pugilistic youths lounged in front of poolrooms, their skins turned livid by the neon lights. In The Great Gatsby he must have been thinking about the lower levels of American society when he described the valley of ashes between West Egg and New YorkA fantastic farm, he calls it, where ashes grow 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 men who move dimly and always crumbling through the powdery air. One of his early titles for the novel was Among Ash Heaps and Millionairesas if he were setting the two against each other while suggesting a vague affinity between them. Tom Buchanan, the brutalized millionaire, finds a mistress in the valley of ashes.
In Fitzgeralds stories there can be no real struggle between this dimly pictured ash-gray proletariat and the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, there can be a different struggle that the author must have regarded, for a time, as essentially Marxian. It is the struggle I have already suggested, between wealth as fluid income and wealth as an inherited and solid possessionor rather, since Fitzgerald is not an essayist but a storyteller, it is between a man and a woman as representatives of the new and the old moneyed classes.
We are not allowed to forget that they are representatives. The man comes from a family with little or no money, but he manages to attend an Eastern universitymost often Yale, to set a distance between the hero and the Princeton author. He then sets out to earn a fortune equal to that of his wealthy classmates. Usually what he earns is not a fortune but an impressively large income, after he has risen to the top of his chosen professionwhich may be engineering or architecture or advertising or the laundry business or bootlegging or real estate or even, in one story, frozen fish; the heroes are never novelists, although one of them is said to be a successful playwright. When the heroes are halfway to the top, they fall in love.
The womanor rather the girlin a Fitzgerald story is as alluring as the youngest princess in a fairy tale. In childrens books, he says when presenting one heroine, forests are sometimes made out of all-day suckers, boulders out of peppermints and rivers out of gently flowing, rippling molasses taffy. Such localities exist, and one day a girl, herself little more than a child, sat dejected in the middle of one. It was all hers, she owned it; she owned Candy Town. Another heroine was a stalk of ripe corn, but bound not as cereals are but as a rare first edition, with all the binders art. She was lovely and expensive and about nineteen. Of still another heroine Fitzgerald says when she first appears that Her childish beauty was wistful and sad about being so rich and sixteen. Later, when her father loses his money, the hero pays her a visit in London. All around her, Fitzgerald says, he could feel the vast Mortmain fortune melting down, seeping back into the matrix whence it had come. The hero thinks she might marry him, now that she has fallen almost to his financial level; but he finds that the Mortmain (or dead-hand) fortune, even though lost, is still a barrier between them. Note that the man is not attracted by the fortune in itself. He is not seeking money so much as position at the peak of the social hierarchy, and the girl becomes the symbol of that position, the incarnation of its mysterious power. That is Daisy Buchanans charm for the great Gatsby and the reason why he directs his whole life toward winning back her love.
Shes got an indiscreet voice, Nick Carraway says of her. Its full of and he hesitates.
Her voice is full of money, Gatsby says.
And Nick, the narrator, thinks to himself, That was it. Id never understood before. It was full of moneythat was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the cymbals song of it. . . . High in a white palace the kings daughter, the golden girl.
In Fitzgeralds stories a love affair is like the secret negotiations between the diplomats of two countries which are not at peace and not quite at war. For a moment they forget their hostility, find it transformed into mutual inspection, attraction, even passion (though the passion is not physical); but the hostility will survive even in marriage, if marriage is to be their future. I called the lovers diplomats, ambassadors. and that is another way of saying that they are representatives. When they meet it as if they were leaning toward each other from separate high platformsthe man from a platform built up of his former poverty, his ambition, his competitive triumphs, his ability to earn and spend always more, more; the girl from another platform covered with cloth of gold and feather fans of many colors, but beneath them a sturdy pile of stock certificates testifying to the ownership of mines, forests, factories, villagesall of Candy Town.
She is ownership embodied, as can be seen in one of the best of Fitzgeralds early stories, Winter Dreams. A rising young man named Dexter Green takes home the daughter of a millionaire for whom he used to be a caddy. She is Judy Jones, a slender enamelled doll in cloth of gold: gold in a band at her head, gold in two slipper points at her dresss hem. The rising young man stops his coupe in front of the great white bulk of the Mortimer Jones house, somnolent, gorgeous, drenched with the splendor of the damp moonlight. Its solidity startled him. The strong walls, the steel of the girders, the breadth and beam and pomp of it were there only to bring out the contrast with the young beauty beside him. It was sturdy to accentuate her slightnessas if to show what a breeze could be generated by a butterflys wing. In legends butterflies are symbols of the soul. The inference is clear that, holding Judy in his arms, Dexter Green is embracing the spirit of a great fortune.
Nicole Warren, the heroine of Tender Is the Night, embodies the spirit of an even greater fortune. Fitzgerald says of her, in a familiar passage:
Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run at 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 mouthwash out of copper hogs-heads; 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 tractorsthese were some of the people who gave 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 [of luxuries], like the flush of a firemans face holding his post before a spreading blaze.
Sometimes Fitzgeralds heroines are candid, even brutal, about class relations. Lets start right, Judy Jones says to Dexter Green on the first evening they spend alone together Who are you?
Im nobody, Dexter tells her, without adding that he had been her fathers caddy. My career is largely a matter of futures.
Are you poor?
No, he says frankly, Im probably making more money than any man my age in the Northwest. I know thats an obnoxious remark, but you advised me to start right.
There was a pause, Fitzgerald adds. Then she smiled and the corners of her mouth drooped and an almost imperceptible sway brought her closer to him, looking up into his eyes. Money brings them together, but later they are separated by something undefineda mere whim of Judys, it would seem, though one comes to suspect that the whim was based on her feeling that she should marry a man of her own caste. Dexter, as he goes East to earn a still larger income, is filled with regret for the country of illusions, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished. It seems likely that Judy Jones, like Josephine Perry in a series of later stories, was a character suggested by a Chicago debutante with whom Fitzgerald was desperately in love during his first years at Princeton; afterward she made a more sensible marriage. As for the general attitude toward the rich that began to be expressed in Winter Dreams, it is perhaps connected with his experience in 1919, when he was not earning enough to support a wife and Zelda broke off their engagement. Later he said of the time:
During a long summer of despair I wrote a novel instead of letters, so it came out all right; but it came out all right for a different person. The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure classnot the conviction of a revolutionist but the smoldering hatred of a peasant.
His mixture of feelings toward the very rich, which included curiosity and admiration as well as distrust, is revealed in his treatment of a basic situation that reappears in many of his stories. Of course he presented other situations that were not directly concerned with the relation between social classes. He wrote about the problem of adjusting oneself to life, which he thought was especially difficult for self-indulgent American women. He wrote about the manners of flappers, slickers, and jelly beans. He wrote engagingly about his own boyhood. He wrote about the patching up of broken marriages, about the contrast between Northern and Southern life, about Americans going to pieces in Europe, about the self-tortures of gifted alcoholics, and in much of his later workas notably in The Last Tycoonhe was expressing admiration for inspired technicians, such as brain surgeons and movie directors. But a great number of his stories, especially the early ones, start with the basic situation I have mentioned: a rising young man of the middle classes in love with the daughter of a very rich family. (Sometimes the family is Southern, in which case it neednt be so rich, since a high social status could still exist in the South without great wealth.)
From that beginning the story may take any one of several turns. The hero may marry the girl, but only after she loses her fortune or (as in Presumption and The Sensible Thing) he gains an income greater than hers. He may lose the girl (as in Winter Dreams) and always remember her with longing for his early aspirations. In The Bridal Party he resigns himself to the loss after being forced to recognize the moral superiority of the rich man she has married. In More Than Just a House he learns that the girl is empty and selfish and ends by marrying her good sister; in The Rubber Check he marries Ellen Mortmains quiet cousin. There is, however, still another development out of the Fitzgerald situation that comes closer to revealing his ambiguous feelings toward the very rich. To state it simplytoo simplythe rising young man wins the rich girl and then is destroyed by her wealth or her relatives.
It is the ballad of young Lochinvar come out of the West, out with a tragic endingas if fair Ellens kinsmen, armed and vengeful, had overtaken the pair or as if Ellen herself had betrayed the hero. Fitzgerald used it for the first time in a fantasy, The Diamond As Big As the Ritz, which he wrote in St. Paul during the winter of 192122. In the fashion of many fantasies, it reveals the authors cast of mind more clearly than his realistic stories. It deals with the adventures of a boy named John T. Unger (we might read Hunger), who was born in a town on the Mississippi called Hades, though it also might be called St. Paul. He is sent away to St. Midas, which is the most expensive and most exclusive boys preparatory school in the world, and there he meets Percy Washington, who invites him to spend the summer at his home in the West. On the train Percy confides to him that his father is the richest man alive and owns a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The description of the Washington mansion, in its hidden valley that wasnt even shown on maps of the U. S. Geodetic Survey, is fantasy mingled with burlesque, but then the familiar Fitzgerald note appears. John falls in love with Percys younger sister, Kismine. After an idyllic summer Kismine tells him accidentallyshe had meant to keep the secretthat he will very soon be murdered, like all the former guests of the Washingtons. It was done very nicely, she explains to him. They were drugged while they were asleepand their families were always told that they died of scarlet fever in Butte. I shall probably have visitors tooIll harden up to it. We cant let such an inevitable thing as death stand in the way of enjoying life while we have it. Think how lonesome it would be out here if we never had anyone. Why, father and mother have sacrificed some of their best friends just as we have.
In The Great Gatsby, Tom and Daisy Buchanan would also sacrifice some of their best friends. They were careless people. Tom and Daisythey smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. The Diamond As Big As the Ritz can have a happy ending for the two lovers because it is a fantasy; but the same plot reappears in The Great Gatsby, where for the first time it is surrounded by the real world of the 1920s and for the first time is carried through to what Fitzgerald regarded as its logical conclusion [The plot appears for the last time in Tender Is the Night. The novel should do this, Fitzgerald said in a memorandum to himself written early in 1932. after several false starts on the book and before setting to work on the published version. Show a man who is a natural idealist, a spoiled priest, giving in for various causes to the ideas of the haute bourgeoisiethat is, of the old moneyed classand in his rise to the top of the social world being his idealism his talent and turning to drink and dissipation. In the very simplest terms, Dick Diver marries Nicole Warren and is destroyed by her money. [M.C., 1973]].
There is a time in any true authors career when he suddenly becomes capable of doing his best work. He has found a fable that expresses his central truth and everything falls into place around it, so that his whole experience of life is available for use in his fiction. Something like that happened to Fitzgerald when he invented the story of Jimmy Gatz, otherwise known as Jay Gatsby, and it explains the richness and scope of what is in fact a short novel.
To put facts on record, The Great Gatsby is a book of about fifty thousand words, a comparatively small structure built of nine chapters like big blocks. The fifth chapterGatsbys meeting after many years with Daisy Buchananis the center of the narrative, as is proper; the seventh chapter is its climax. Each chapter consists of one or more dramatic scenes, sometimes with intervening passages of narration. The scenic method is one that Fitzgerald possibly learned from Edith Wharton, who had learned it from Henry James; at any rate, the book is technically in the Jamesian tradition (and Daisy Buchanan is named for Jamess Daisy Miller).
Part of the tradition is the device of having events observed by a central consciousness, often a character who stands somewhat apart from the action and whose vision frames it for the reader. In this instance the observer plays a special role. Although Nick Carraway does not save or ruin Gatsby, his personality in itself provides an essential comment on all the other characters. Nick stands for the older values that prevailed in the Midwest before the First World War. His family is not tremendously rich like the Buchanans, but it has a long-established and sufficient fortune, so that Nick is the only person in the book who has not been corrupted by seeking or spending money. He is so certain of his own values that he hesitates to criticize others, but when he does pass Judgmenton Gatsby, on Jordan Baker, on the Buchananshe speaks as for ages to come.
All the other characters belong to their own brief era of confused and dissolving standards, but they are affected by the era in different fashions. Each of them represents some particular variety of moral failure; Lionel Trilling says that they are treated as if they were ideographs, a true observation; but the treatment does not detract from their reality as persons. Tom Buchanan is wealth brutalized by selfishness and arrogance; he looks for a mistress in the valley of ashes and finds an ignorant woman. Myrtle Wilson, whose raw vitality is like his own. Daisy Buchanan is the butterfly soul of wealth and offers a continual promise that she had done gay exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour; but it is a false promise, since at heart she is as self-centered as Tom and even colder. Jordan Baker apparently lives by the old standards, but she uses them only as a subterfuge. Aware of her own cowardice and dishonesty, she feels safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible.
All these except Myrtle Wilson are East Egg people, that is, they are part of a community where wealth takes the form of solid possessions. Set against them are the West Egg people, whose wealth is fluid income that might cease to flow. The West Egg people, with Gatsby as their tragic hero, have worked furiously to rise in the world, but they will never reach East Egg for all the money they spend; at most they can sit at the waters edge and look across the bay at the green light that shines and promises at the end of the Buchanans dock. The symbolism of place plays a great part in Gatsby, as does that of motorcars. The characters are visibly represented by the cars they drive: Nick has a conservative old Dodge, the Buchanans, too rich for ostentation, have an easy-going blue coupe, and Gatsbys car is a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen sunsit is West Egg on wheels. When Daisy drives the monster through the valley of ashes, she runs down and kills Myrtle Wilson; then, by concealing her guilt, she causes the death of Gatsby.
The symbols are not synthetic or contrived, as are many of those in more recent novels; they are images that Fitzgerald instinctively found to represent his characters and their destiny. When he says, Daisy took her face in her hands as if feeling its lovely shape, he is watching her act the charade of her self-love. When he says, Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game, he suggests the one appealing side of Toms nature. The author is so familiar with the characters and their background, so absorbed in their fate, that the book has an admirable unity of texture; we can open it to any page and find another of the details that illuminate the story. We end by feeling that Gatsby has a double value: it the best picture we possess of the age in which it was written, and it also achieves a sort of moral permanence. Fitzgeralds story of the suitor betrayed by the princess and murdered in his innocence is a fable of the 1920s that has survived as a legend for other times.