As the money flowed rapidly in and even more rapidly out, the life of the Fitzgeralds appears chiefly in the mixed truth and legends of splashings in the Plaza fountain, of riding down Fifth Avenue on the top of a taxi, of a second-hand Marmon driving into or out of New York headed for a party. An intoxicated life in both the literal and figurative sense, it was indulged in as if Fitzgerald were trying to sustain the ecstatic feeling that came with his first success. But despite the parties and sometimes even as they were going on, the professional writer worked.
The immediate question after This Side of Paradise was what to do next. In a letter written immediately after its acceptance, Fitzgerald proposed “a very ambitious novel… which will probably take a year” tentatively called The Demon Lover. The novel was not written, though the title appears in The Beautiful and Damned as the novel that brought Richard Caramel sudden fame. In October, he wrote to the editor of Scribner's Magazine, to whom he had just sold two stories, proposing a novelette out of his old journals to be called “The Diary of a Literary Failure.” This, too, failed to materialize, and by the end of 1919 he was writing of a “frightful literary slump”—“a pumped-dry period,” he called it later. He entertained the thought of doing a movie before another novel. In January, 1920, when he went to New Orleans, he had in mind stillanother novel to be called “Darling Heart.” A part of that novel, Arthur Mizener speculates, may have been the affair between Anthony Patch and Dorothy Raycroft in The Beautiful and Damned. Not until late summer of 1920 did Fitzgerald have clearly in mind the novel, The Flight of the Rocket, which concerned the life of Anthony Patch who is wrecked “on the shoals of dissipation” between twenty-five and thirty-one. For the most part, his energies of this year were devoted to the short story, filling the demand created by having a half-dozen Jazz Age stories published in rapid succession during the first six months of 1920.
The self-portrait he wrote for the Post (September 18, 1920) is inaccurate in details but honest in the essential truth to the young writer, somewhat bewildered by success, but not too bewildered to take advantage of it. The sketch, in keeping with the personal touch demanded by the “Who's Who” series, is breezy, brash, yet appealing. Fitzgerald's early writing is magnified, his academic difficulties at the time of leaving Princeton forgotten, his failing grades reduced to mathematics and hygiene, and the writing of This Side of Paradise compressed into the consecutive weekends of three months. “Now,” the sketch closes, “I spend my time wondering how it all happened.”
The life of the Fitzgeralds between the appearance of This Side of Paradise in the spring of 1920 and The Beautiful and Damned, two years later, was almost as self-destructive as that of Anthony Patch and Gloria in the novel. It was reckless and careless, taxed by drinking and parties, redeemed by repeated attempts to find solid footing. As early as December, 1920, Fitzgerald found himself badly in debt; though he had earned $18,000 in the past year, he owed $1,600 and had little to show for his spending. Though he could make a good joke (and immediate cash) of it in “How to Live on $36,000 a Year,” debts harassed him, drove him to work, aggravated the feeling of conflict between Zelda's (and his) immediate desires and his dream of being a great writer. Almost always, at least until the mid-1930's, money would arrive in time. There are many stories showing Fitzgerald's attitude toward money—leaving the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1919 with twenty- and fifty-dollar bills sticking from his vest and coat pockets, for example—and there is much evidence in his “Ledger,” his letters, and his stories that the getting and spending of money was a serious matter, but one kept less so by a deliberate effort to treat it lightly.
The move to Westport, Connecticut, in May, 1920, was the first of many moves in search of an orderly life. For a time, life in the suburbs made the disappearance of money seem more mysterious but no less rapid. Nor did it cut down on the parties; it only stretched them out to and from New York and the house in Westport. Despite the life, Fitzgerald produced The Beautiful and Damned during 1920 and 1921, in time for it to begin serialization in the Metropolitan Magazine (September, 1921). In the period between the publication of This Side of Paradise and the book publication of The Beautiful and Damned (March 3, 1922), he wrote “May Day,” a 23,000-word story and one ofhis best; “The Jelly-Bean,” another excellent story; “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”; “O Russet Witch!”; and “The Lees of Happiness”—all ambitious, long stories varying in their success. It was no wonder that he compared a later period of meager production with this one: “If I'd written The Beautiful and Damned at the rate of 1000 words a day it would have taken me four years.”
As it was, the novel was finished in less than a year, in time for the Fitzgeralds to take a trip abroad in May, 1921. The departure of Anthony Patch for Europe at the close of the book is a kind of exaggerated portrait of Fitzgerald himself sinking into a deck chair exhausted from the steady drain of success. The trip was short and apparently not very satisfactory. Neither France nor England nor Italy impressed them, and they were back in the United States before three months had elapsed. Of most literary interest during this trip were Fitzgerald's meeting with Galsworthy and his attempt to see Anatole France. He paid Galsworthy the extravagant compliment of placing him with Joseph Conrad and Anatole France as the three living writers he most admired.
Upon their return to Montgomery, Alabama, in late July, 1921, they wavered between settling there or in St. Paul. Returning to New York was apparently out of the question for the time. “We played safe and went home to St. Paul,” Fitzgerald wrote later. “It seemed inappropriate to bring a baby into all that glamor and loneliness. But in a year we were back and we began doing the same things over again and not liking them so much.” During the fourteen months they lived in St. Paul, Frances Scott Fitzgerald was born (October 26, 1921); The Beautiful and Damned was published in book form in March (they spent most of the month in New York); and the third collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age, appeared September 10, 1922. In October, they moved back to New York, this time to the rented house in Great Neck, Long Island, which was to provide, in a general way, the setting for The Great Gatsby.
Looking back on these years, the “greatest, gaudiest spree in history,” Fitzgerald wrote in 1937: “All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them—the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountainsof my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy's peasants.” If he had been able to get that feeling convincingly into The Beautiful and Damned, it would be a better novel than it is. But the touch of disaster Fitzgerald was able to convey in it in 1922 seems more literary than real; when it touches reality, it proves to be more pathetic than tragic. His feeling for disaster is akin to that of a Mrs. Smith in his notebooks; she “had been born on the edge of an imaginary precipice and had lived there ever since, looking over the precipice every half hour in horror, and yet unable to get herself away.”
In a technical way, The Beautiful and Damned is a better novel than This Side of Paradise. The book is orderly, the material divided into three books and nine chapters. Fitzgerald sticks to prose narrative and dialogue for the most part, and he maintains a consistent tone and point of view. The story is moderately interesting, and intermixed with the story of Anthony's decline is a serious attempt to explore the character of a man spoiled by the presence or promise of wealth. In addition, the novel shows perceptive concern for the divided nature of the attraction between a man and woman. The book's main weakness—and it is a devastating one—is that the central characters Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert only feebly enlist the reader's interest or sympathy.
Anthony Patch is a first version of Anson Hunter, the rich boy in the story of that name whom Fitzgerald was to create much more successfully four years later. Anthony has always had enough money to put down any pressing necessity to work, but apparently not enough to keep him from feeling some need for a vocation. His marriage to Gloria forces him to live beyond his means or to conform to a middle-class standard and way of living. The promise of a multi-million dollar inheritance when Adam Patch, his grandfather, dies is a device borrowed from the Victorian novel; but Fitzgerald makes of it a kind of lure somehow associated with the ideal beauty which draws Anthony to Gloria. The plot, at any rate, comes close to turning into Victorian melodrama with an ironic and moralistic ending. When Adam Patch happens upon a characteristically drunken party at the Patch's little gray home in Marietta, he cuts Anthony out of his will. After Adam's death, Anthony contests the will. At the end of the novel, he wins the appeal only to have his mind snap at the moment the favorable decision is announced.
The book ends with Anthony being brought on board The Berengaria in a wheel chair; he is still trying to justify his actions which had caused the rival claimant to Adam Patch's fortune to shoot himself. “'I showed them,' he was saying, 'It was a hard fight, but I didn't give up and I came through!'”
Though there is more imagination and less reliance upon biography than in This Side of Paradise, the novel draws heavily upon the Fitzgeralds' experiences, particularly in the middle and final sections of the book. As a result, the central narrative is often interrupted, as it was in This Side of Paradise, by stories the author felt were too good to leave out. The story of the house guest and the Japanese butler is one; it derived from George Jean Nathan's whimsy that the Fitzgerald's Japanese house-boy was a German spy and from a series of variations he worked on that theme. Most of these interpolations are like this one: they not only add little to the novel but create the suspicion that such incidents are included merely to pad the book and to lengthen the distance between Anthony's wan beginning and woeful end.
Fitzgerald was only partially justified in resenting the fact that Anthony and Gloria on the jacket illustration looked so much like himself and Zelda. If the specifications—height, color of hair, facial structure—fit Fitzgerald more than the Anthony Patch described in the novel, it may be because Anthony seems to be more Fitzgerald than the self-consciously created fictional person he was supposed to be in the novel. Particularly is this true of Anthony after his marriage, and the shifting of Fitzgerald's experiences as a best-selling young novelist to Dick Caramel in the novel does not disguise the fact. Autobiographical material is extensive in The Beautiful and Damned; one of the faults of the book is Fitzgerald's inability to keep Anthony Patch and Gloria at a distance after the first third of the book.
For the readers of the time, the Fitzgeralds' lives were rather constantly before them. In 1922 to 1924, subscribers to the American Magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, Vanity Fair, Motor, McCall's, the Post, and Woman's Home Companion could read about the Fitzgeralds in articles ranging from “The Most Disgraceful Thing I Ever Did,” to “Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own.” In a magazine like the Ladies' Home Journal, which still featured fully illustrated articles about William Cullen Bryant by William Lyon Phelps, Fitzgerald's views were presented withsome caution: “Mr. Fitzgerald is one of the most brilliant writers of the modernist school; and his article 'Imagination—and a Few Mothers' is published solely as a representation of the modernist viewpoint.” The article was harmless enough, as were the others in the popular magazines, though Fitzgerald's manner was deliberately iconoclastic in most of the pieces he wrote. The domination of children by their parents or by women in the culture was a favorite subject. The ladies of the Lucy Stone League, he reported in one of his articles, were greatly shocked when he told them “most American boys learned to lie at some lady teacher's knee.” In all of these articles, the Fitzgeralds appeared in various poses. When he published his first story in Hearst's International in May, 1923, the magazine featured a full-page portrait with accompanying text, “Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald started the flapper movement in this country. So says her husband, the best-loved author of the younger generation.”
These articles, stories in the newspapers, and at least the middle section of The Beautiful and Damned strengthened the stereotype of “flappers and philosophers” already created in Fitzgerald's earlier stories. Gloria, in marriage and out, has the outward characteristics that went with the flapper: a disdain for convention; a long list of admirers; a facile wit; a hard, brilliant, unwomanly beauty. Similarly, The Beautiful and Damned has a strong overdose of philosophy, from the brief and usually unsatisfactory attempts by Anthony to understand himself to the unbearable early-morning disquisition by Maury Noble. That Fitzgerald took these passages seriously is evidenced by a letter to Edmund Wilson, who had pointed out that in the “midnight symposium” none of the characters had anything to say. The revised material that Fitzgerald wrote to meet Wilson's objection is pretty much Maury Noble's speech as it now stands in the book. The early 1920's was, among other things, a talkative age.
Much more than This Side of Paradise and even more than his serious short stories that didn't come off, The Beautiful and Damned is a failure. “The story of Gloria and Anthony,” Arthur Mizener concluded, “is full of precisely observed life, and Fitzgerald makes us feel the grief they suffer; but he is able to provide neither an adequate cause for their suffering nor adequate grounds in their characters for the importance he gives it.” The tragic vision is there, occasionally peering deep and conveying both the image and the feeling; but the gazeis fitful, too often distracted, and never quite certain how to regard the main characters it should focus upon.
Fitzgerald expected much of the novel, but the conditions under which it was written, the hurried feeling in it and in everything else he was writing at the time, the strain of recording experiences almost as they happened, may have forewarned him of its weaknesses. A letter to John Peale Bishop in the spring of the book's publication includes a long list of specific questions: Are the characters convincing? Is the style too ornate? Does the emotion come through? How about the humor—and the ideas? Is it boring or interesting? Is it imitative and of whom?
Part of this anxiety toward the novel reflects Fitzgerald's self-consciousness as an author, a self-consciousness heightened by his having deliberately created a serious novel in a very short time out of experiences which had had little time to work within him. By the time of the publication of the novel, Fitzgerald had been sufficiently advertised as a writer to make him even more self-conscious than he naturally was. This Side of Paradise had been reviewed with the kind of enthusiasm which often greets the first novel of promise; the second was likely to be looked to for confirmation of that favorable judgment. In January, 1922, Fitzgerald wrote to Edmund Wilson about a forthcoming sketch of him that Wilson was writing for The Bookman: “My curiosity is at fever heat—for God's sake send me a copy immediately.”
The essay, as honest as Edmund Wilson always was about Fitzgerald's work, gave Fitzgerald the most perceptive and sharp criticism he had yet received. Wilson wrote:
He has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given a desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without many ideas to express.
In college, he had supposed the thing to do was to write biographical novels with a burst of ideas toward the close; since his advent into the literary world, he has discovered that there is another genre in favor: the kind which makes much of the tragedy and “the meaninglessness of life.”
Wilson's criticism was gentle in comparison with Burton Rascoe's in the same issue. He called the novel “blubberingly sentimental,” and charged Fitzgerald with being “not only a novelist, but at the same time, an amateur philosopher, sociologist, and theologian… No one of late years has had more promising narrative talent and no one ever collapsed so easily into the banal and commonplace.”
Harsh as it is, Rascoe's criticism is exactly to the point. Fitzgerald was not prepared to write serious fiction, he had no real idea of how to go about it, and he invariably disclosed bis weaknesses when he became serious. Of all his short fiction to this time, “May Day” is the only story that manages to be both serious and convincing; and it is so chiefly because Fitzgerald kept the narrative and the characters steadily and persuasively before the reader. A story like “The Jelly-Bean” succeeds in conveying a seriousness beneath the lightness of the surface precisely because adopting the light manner kept Fitzgerald from losing the strength of character and action in a forced attempt to be “serious.” If we contrast either story with “The Lees of Happiness,” written at the same time, we see what the desire to write the “serious” story could do to Fitzgerald's natural gifts.
Tales of the Jazz Age is a more varied collection of short stories than Flappers and Philosophers; it is also a more interesting one because of its bearing upon Fitzgerald's development as a writer; but, perhaps because he needed stories to pad out the volume, it is a very uneven collection. “May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” and “The Jelly-Bean” belong among his best stories. “Tarquin of Cheapside,” “Mr. Icky,” and “Jemina” are undergraduate sketches, and “The Lees of Happiness” is weak in its pretensions to seriousness.
In the original edition, the table of contents of Tales of the Jazz Age included Fitzgerald's offhand comments about each of the stories. “The Camel's Back,” according to his note, was the story he liked least, though it was the easiest to write and gave him the most amusement. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” was the favorite story of a well-known critic, but Fitzgerald claimed to prefer “The Off-Shore Pirate.” (In a letter written six months earlier he put this story among his cheap stories.) “O Russet Witch!” was written just after completing the first draft of The Beautiful and Damned when he was “somewhat carried away by the feeling that there was no ordered scheme to which he must conform.” “The Lees of Happiness,” he said, “will beaccused perhaps of being a mere piece of sentimentality.” The three short pieces were dismissed as ephemera. Except for the expressed liking for “The Off-Shore Pirate,” his comments seem to be both candid and discerning.
“My Last Flappers” is the title given to the first four stories in the book: “The Jelly-Bean,” “The Camel's Back,” “Porcelain and Pink,” and “May Day.” “The Jelly-Bean” is an excellent story, a kind of Southern version of “Winter Dreams,” cut off at the point where the provincial poor boy has met the ineffable rich girl and before he goes on to success. The boy is “the Jelly-Bean,” Jim Powell; the girl is Nancy Lamar, who “had a mouth like a remembered kiss.” Jim is a precisely sketched member of the lower middle class, an unambitious mechanic living over a garage when the story begins. Characteristically, however, his family was a good Southern one in days past, and at the end, he is planning to buy up a piece of land with the small inheritance he has received. Fitzgerald need not have provided his central character with such an ancestry, for the story concentrates on the feelings of an attractive, intelligent boy, in a tolerant small town, who discovers what being on the wrong side of the tracks means.
The story is in Fitzgerald's best casual manner. By this time, his stories frequently begin with a kind of address to the reader—a display piece whereby the author catches the reader's attention by revealing his personality in relation to some aspect of the story. The device could have been borrowed from a number of contemporary writers: Ring Lardner was using it more deftly than anyone else in the popular magazines of the time. In this story, the display piece is about the term “jellybean,” “the name throughout the undissolved Confederacy for one who spends his life conjugating the verb to idle in the first person singular—I am idling, I have idled, I will idle.”
Most of Fitzgerald's stories are oblivious to the world of menial, dull, deadly work which runs beneath the world his golden girls occupy. And yet, like the image of green Princeton set down amidst festering swamps and industrial blight, Fitzgerald's light, gay, middle- and upper-class world is from time to time juxtaposed with the world of vice, poverty, and boredom. “The Jelly-Bean” is set against the background of both worlds. Though the dark South does not explicitly appear in the story, it hovers at the edge; it is to be found in a story of the South Fitzgerald published in the Metropolitan Magazine during the same period: “That's my picture of the South now, you know—a skinny, dark-haired young man with a gun on his hip and a stomach full of corn liquor or Dope Dola, leaning up against a drug store waiting for the next lynching.”
When Fitzgerald turned to the character of the Jelly-Bean again in a story entitled “Dice, Brass Knuckles and Guitar,” he made him a caricature in a contrived story whose few virtues reside in the fragments that Fitzgerald saved for inclusion in his notebooks:
“Yes mam, if necessary. Look here, you take a girl and she goes into some cafe where she's got no business to go. Well, then, her escort he gets a little too much to drink an' he goes to sleep an' then some fella comes up and says, 'Hello, sweet mamma,' or whatever one of those mashers says up here: What does she do? She can't scream, on account of no real lady will scream nowadays—no—she just reaches down in her pocket and slips her fingers into a pair of Powell's defensive brass-knuckles, debutante's size, executes what I call the Society Hook, and Wham! that big fella's on his way to the cellar.”
In the two early novels, the world of toil and want is shallowly used to give Amory Blaine and Anthony Patch the occasion for wrinkling their nostrils and backing away. In both, the hatred of poverty, the ugliness of it, and the utter impossibility of it for superior beings come through in an honest but somewhat unpleasant way. There is not enough understanding to provoke sympathy, nor enough sympathy to lead to much understanding.
Gordon Sterrett's situation in “May Day” is more intense than that of Jim Powell in “The Jelly-Bean,” but it is the same kind. Both, having been exposed to a world beyond their own, must try to come to terms with that vision. “May Day,” ending as it does in Gordon Sterrett's suicide, is the starkest of Fitzgerald's early stories. In its episodic character and its seriousness it evinces the faults of the two novels, but the skill Fitzgerald displays in marshaling large scenes, in keeping background and continuing action nicely balanced, and in tying the disparate elements of the story closely together is admirable. Though his characters from the lower depths—Carrol Key and Gus Rose —are as much from literature as from life, they are used effectively. For all the contrived relationship between Edith Bradin, the Fitzgerald girl, and her brother Henry, the young idealistwho works on a Socialist newspaper, the atmosphere of the May Day riots is powerfully created.
For a writer not used to depicting violence, the mob's attack on the New York Trumpet, Key's fall from the window, Cordon's suicide, are all done with restraint without losing impact. In the end, we might quarrel about the character of Gordon Sterrett, the young provincial artist with the vision of debutante beauty clouding his eyes and his mind. Readers of Fitzgerald's earlier fiction are likely to find him fitting a standard pattern, though his appearance in this story arouses more response than one might expect. His suicide comes as a shock; like Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler, the reader attuned to Fitzgerald's conventional characters is likely to say, “People don't do such things.”
What passes muster in “May Day” does not get by in “The Lees of Happiness.” Fitzgerald said the story came to him in an irresistible form, crying to be written. It is a short story, as Fitzgerald's stories go, and yet it covers some dozen years in the lives of four principal characters. As Fitzgerald seemed aware in the introductory note, the story is pure melodrama. A young writer, like Fitzgerald, marries a young girl, like Zelda Sayre. At the peak of his early success, he develops a brain tumor which dooms his wife, Roxanne, to caring for him during his vegetable existence for eleven years. Running parallel to these events is the unsuccessful marriage of a close friend, Harry, to a girl, Kitty, who, for all her physical charms, turns out to be dirty, lazy, and expensive. Kitty leaves Harry, and they are divorced shortly after the principal character suffers the brain tumor. After the writer's death, Harry and Roxanne both reflect upon the cruelties life has inflicted, but neither is willing to try to find happiness again with the other. Fitzgerald's usual perceptiveness is in this story mere sententiousness, found in passages like, “To these two, life had come quickly and gone, leaving not bitterness but pity, not disillusion, but only passion.” Where the story has any strength at all, it is in observations about the young writer's work: “here were passably amusing stories, a bit out of date now, but doubtless the sort that would then have whiled away a dreary half hour in a dental office”; in such incidental details as Kitty's uncleanliness and Roxanne's inept attempts to help her; and in such farcical touches as nailing the bride's biscuits in a frieze around the kitchen. But even these minor amusements do not save the story from being the kindthat deserves to remain in The Chicago Tribune, where it first appeared.
The fantasies in Tales of the Jazz Age are skillfully done, and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is likely to remain as an outstanding story among modem stories of its kind. Of “O Russet Witch!,” on the other hand, we never know whether it intends to be a fantasy or a realistic story, to be serious or merely diverting. Its theme is the transience of youth and the passing of youthful desires. Its moral fits a collection of stories about the Jazz Age. The central character, now a grandfather, “had angered Providence by resisting too many temptations. There was nothing left but heaven, where he would meet only those who, like him, had wasted earth.” “Benjamin Button” plays upon the same idea; its plot was created from a remark of Mark Twain that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst at the end. To accommodate this idea, Fitzgerald has Benjamin Button born to his Baltimore parents at the age (Benjamin's age) of seventy. His life marches from there to infancy, and the story is not so remarkable in its telling as in the fact that Fitzgerald stuck to it all the way through. It was the kind of story which provoked a response Fitzgerald printed in the table of contents: “Sir—I have read the story 'Benjamin Button' in Collier's and I wish to say that as a short story writer you would make a good lunatic…”
“Tarquin of Cheapside” tells how Shakespeare wrote “The Rape of Lucrece.” The setting is sixteenth-century London, and the central character, a friend of Shakespeare, hides him from a brother bent on avenging his sister's defilement. Stated thus bluntly, the story may have justified Maxwell Perkins' wish to keep it out of the collection because he thought the story morally offensive. The handling of the situation, however, makes Perkins seem unduly prissy in that respect and unduly tolerant in respect to its literary offensiveness.
“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” has become one of Fitzgerald's most celebrated stories, partly because of its merit and partly because it is so useful for discussing Fitzgerald's attitude toward money and American materialism. Putting aside the second point for a moment, let us look at the story. The situation is brilliantly set forth. A sketchy background using a variety of obvious thematic names—the Ungers from Hades, St. Midas' school, Percy Washington—brings the story to the thesis statement, delivered by Percy, “That's nothing at all. My fatherhas a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.” There is, despite considerable Fitzgerald foolery, more serious satire in the story than in the other fantasies. The forbidding village of Fish with the twelve men who “sucked a lean milk from the almost literally bare rock,” is one vision of the barren materialistic world Fitzgerald saw beneath the very surface of the American Life that his stories most often described. The kingdom of Brad-dock Washington, with his rococo motion-picture chateau, his unmatchable wealth, and his slaves is the vision of Heaven that the undernourished American imagination most often envisions. The climax of the story is the attack upon Washington's kingdom and his attempt to bribe God—“God had his price, of course.” But God refuses the bribe; the dream ends with the young man, John Unger, escaping from the mountains with Kismine and Jasmine, Braddock Washington's two daughters. The wealth of John Unger's dreams has escaped him, and he ends with second-best—the sentimental romance of the beautiful and empty-headed girl, “with one dress and a penniless fiance.” At the end, we arrive very close to the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby. Gatsby had to be “about his Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” In the course of that novel, Fitzgerald explores thoroughly not only the cheapness and tawdriness of Gatsby's desires, but the essential greatness of Gatsby's vision, of any vision which proves superior to the objects it fastens upon.
In “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” Fitzgerald's perception is neither so broad nor so unified as it was to become in the novel. What the story does most successfully is to assert some fundamental beliefs that Fitzgerald had already hinted at in other stories: that poverty is dull, degrading, and terrifying, and irremediable by pious homilies about the blessed poor; that money is no more the root of all evil than is the absence of it; that evil has a way of pushing in on everyone, rich or poor; that the rich probably have a better chance of getting something from life before it gets them than the poor; and that youth is the most precious form of wealth and even that is somewhat non-negotiable without the fact of or the illusion of wealth and beauty. There is a good deal of brimstone to be found in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” despite the hero's final assertion: “Your father is dead. Why should he go to Hades? You have it confused with another place that was abolished long ago.”
The end of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” may seem to back away from the harsher implications of the story into a conventional boy and girl ending. But such a conclusion tends to gloss over the fact that, throughout the story, the romance and the satire are tightly interwoven, the one providing the surface which teases the imagination, the other suggesting the depths beneath. A recent critic has argued that the sentimentality of the romantic ending is played off against that of the dream images which precede it. The emotional extravagance of the dream is comparable to the emotional cheapness of the romance; “they are both equally the products of the same sensibility.”
Fitzgerald's fondness for satire which helped attract him to Samuel Butler, Shaw, and H. G. Wells shows itself in all his work. But the satirical spirit seemed to work fitfully and at varying degrees of intensity. He was never sufficiently committed to one scheme of things or another, never sufficiently bitter or sufficiently animated toward reform, to put his energies into sustained social satire. Satire was chiefly a device to be used to pick up interest when the narrative slowed down, or to show off a character's satirical wit, or to let the author's imagination roam free after laboring over a novel or a similarly sustained piece of work. In his short fiction and his novels, he was too much the observer of his inner and outer states and of the events through which he passed to become the satirist spurred by fierce, yet controlled, hates. He had to write from the particulars to the general, from the individual character to the type rather than from the general intention of satire to the particulars of character and incident to bring it out.
The Vegetable, or From President to Postman, Fitzgerald's next published work after Tales of the Jazz Age, suffers from being bom out of a satirical intent which the author is never able to dramatize effectively. The motivations behind the play—Fitzgerald's only mature attempt at drama—are many and help to account for its mixed character. Drama was, in a way, Fitzgerald's forte. Self-dramatization had become a habit with him, at least as early as his going to Newman. His juvenile writing invariably falls into dramatic form. And not until The Great Gatsby could he convince himself that a play imbedded in a novel was not necessarily diverting to the reader. He wrote dialogue superbly and many of bis characters seemed ready tostep on the stage. In 1962, a dramatization of This Side of Paradise was one of the most successful off-Broadway productions.
Like all fashionable New Yorkers, the Fitzgeralds attended the theater frequently; they knew theater people; and undoubtedly writing for the theater had more appeal to Fitzgerald than writing for the popular magazines. In addition, there was the alluring possibility that a hit play would make a great deal of money. When his interest in trying a play turned to the actual writing of one, the thought of making money was strongly in mind. He wrote to Perkins early in 1922 “of an awfully funny play that's going to make me rich forever.”
He was at work on a play as early as 1921; and, when The Beautiful and Damned was completed, he turned to it again and evidently brought it into shape by the spring of 1922. He was calling it Gabriel's Trombone during the summer. Though he continued to work on it, he was also thinking about a new novel and loafing more than he ever did when a real idea was upon him. The play, rejected in the fall of 1922, was rewritten again during the first months back in New York after their long stay in St. Paul. The late months of 1922 and most of 1923 were not among Fitzgerald's most productive times. The total published work in 1923 was The Vegetable, two poor stories, and two mediocre articles.
The Vegetable in its final published form is not the kind of work that seems likely to have drawn from Fitzgerald more than a fraction of his talent and energy. We surmise that, despite the rewriting that went into it, The Vegetable is but an extension of much of the talk that flowed through the parties of the winter and spring of 1922-23. The play was finally accepted in October, and Fitzgerald became engrossed in the details of production. Ernest Truex opened in the leading role, and Fitzgerald and his friends went to Atlantic City to see it try out. Fitzgerald called it a “total frost” and spent the second and third acts in a bar. The show never reached Broadway.
Fitzgerald's judgment that the play was hopeless has never been challenged by later readers. The reasons for its badness are worth considering. It is probably not so much a failure of intent—“Of Thee I Sing” made similar political satire highly effective—as of execution. Maxwell Perkins wrote Fitzgerald a close analysis of the similarities between “Of Thee I Sing” and “The Vegetable”; he concluded that the differences were so many and so obvious that there was little chance of supporting a claim of infringement. The plot, and it has none of importance, shows a $3000-a-year clerk named Jerry Frost becoming President overnight. After a brief period as President he reverts back to his former existence, this time as a postman, aposition which he had long desired and which brings him happiness. These events fit the three acts, Act One taking place in the living room of the Frosts' house, Act Two shifting to the White House, and Act Three returning to the Frosts' living room.
What the play chiefly lacks is body for the political satire. The characters were not intended to be more than vehicles for that satire; therefore they do not engage the audience's interest in character development or actions. Fitzgerald had expressed himself about American politics in The Beautiful and Damned almost as extensively as in The Vegetable: his opinion in the novel was that any nincompoop could be President; that politics was a grubby business; and that no intelligent man would go near it. The Vegetable, which says very little more, doesn't make its message either dramatic or interesting. The second-act fantasy with Jerry and his relatives in the White House is no better than the first act which sought its comic effects in bad puns and bad jokes (occasionally passed off as bad jokes) about popular taste and bootleggers.
It comes as something of a surprise to anyone who reads past the second act of The Vegetable to find that the play ends wistfully. For, paralleling the main satire is a good deal that reflects the Fitzgeralds' domestic life as surely as did The Beautiful and Damned. The two most prolonged jokes in the play are those about Jerry Frost and his bootlegger and Jerry Frost and the quarrel with his wife. The last act of the play is chiefly concerned with Jerry's disappearance after he leaves the White House. When Jerry returns as the postman, he is not recognized, and he engages his wife in a long conversation about her missing husband. In the course of her promises to be a better wife when he comes back, the postman gives her a letter from Jerry: “It just says he's well and comfortable. And that he's doing what he wants to do and what he's got to do. And he says that doing his work makes him happy.” Fitzgerald's feelings were stronger when he described to his daughter in 1938 the effects of his own marriage: “I was divided,” he wrote; “she wanted me to work for her and not enough for my dream.”
Regarded as an entity, The Vegetable suffers from the intrusion of Fitzgerald's immediate life in the same way that The Beautiful and Damned suffers. A good portion of the middle part of the novel (when it most loses its sense of direction) is a transcription of Fitzgerald's difficulty in doing his work amidst a continuing party and with a wife who wassomething of a rival. Anthony is as pathetic in trying to establish himself as a man who has work to do and who must be left alone to do it as Jerry Frost is wistful. The conflict is a commonplace one, but neither Fitzgerald nor Zelda were commonplace people. Much of the time, their marriage must have divided itself into his work and her life. The blame is not all hers, of course; their undisciplined life was a joint creation.
Nevertheless, by the time he had written two novels and a number of good stories, he had developed a deeper sense of vocation that that of the days when he was writing This Side of Paradise to win the girl and the jackpot. Ironically, four years later Zelda was the one to develop the overpowering sense of dedication and to marshal the will to pursue it. But her obsession with dancing was pathological, and it came at a time when Fitzgerald's ability to dedicate himself to writing was never more seriously in doubt. The picture, in Zelda's Save Me the Waltz (1932), of David Knight assuming the management of the family while Alabama pursues her dancing career is a kind of bitter caricature faintly anticipated in the troubles both of Jerry Frost and of Anthony Patch.
The anecdotes which illuminate the Fitzgeralds' lives on Long Island in 1923-24 are not much different from those of 1920-21, but they are less funny and more desperate. As Fitzgerald put it, “We began doing the same things over again and not liking them so much. … By this time we knew everybody… But we were no longer important.” The Fitzgeralds who seem to be so closely identified with New York City in the 1920's are really a couple without a permanent address. The events in their lives go by so fast that the observation of Mrs. Frances Fitzgerald Lanahan that her father's contemporaries must have lived forty-eight hours for every twenty-four hours of clock time seems almost precisely correct. When these events are used in Fitzgerald's fiction, the actual time is usually stretched out to make the scene plausible. The first gaudy sprees in New York after their marriage, which Fitzgerald stretches out to three months in writing about them, lasted a mere matter of weeks. Again, the period in the suburbs described in The Beautiful and Damned lasts two years (with winter in an apartment in New York). The Fitzgeralds actually stayed in Westport only one summer, moved into the city for the winter, and left for Europe the following May. Despite the identification of the Fitzgeralds with New York, their residence in St. Paul in 1921 and 1922 was foralmost as long a period as that spent in the New York suburbs in 1922 and 1923.
When the Anthony Patches leave for Europe, seven years have elapsed since their marriage. When the Fitzgeralds left the second time—May, 1924—only four years had gone by. But, though Fitzgerald must have been feeling almost as enervated as Anthony Patch, he was taking with him the hope of writing a novel far better than anything he had yet done.
Twayne’s United States Authors Series #36 (revised edition 1977, first edition 1963).