F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Future
by Weller Embler


In 1913 Randolph Bourne, a young literary radical at Columbia, published a book called Youth and Life. Ostensibly the purpose of the book was to give young people their rightful place in the sun, a place long shadowed by the Victorian apotheosis of unlyrical middle age; the effect of the book was to give courage and inspiration to the younger generation in its quarrel with aged Victorian values. But between the lines of rhetoric and reasoning was an intuition. Bourne sensed that youth would respond only to a social aim which should be full of their own lyric idealism, and he knew that their devotion would in turn give definition to their existence during an era of social change and lost values. Full of a rebellious energy, Bourne pitted himself against the old tyrannies and the old conventions of a philistine America, striving to make a new world which should enjoy not least among its blessings the secret of perpetual youth.

Then followed the war, and presently, when they were not much more than twenty years old themselves, a new younger generation, the next remove from Randolph Bourne, entered the 1920s. This was a perpetual youth but different indeed from what Bourne had looked forward to. They  were young,  they  wereardent, but something desperate had happened to their ideals. The new generation enjoyed the freedom which Bourne had prescribed, but it also enjoyed a bad case of postwar disillusion. The young were getting themselves good and drunk on Scotch or Canadian ale and subsequently good and maudlin over their world of muddled values. The something fine and noble which had recommended itself to earlier idealists had lost its charm and its validity for them; instead, their hope was to be beautiful, and to let the world be damned. Their heart’s desire was to spend their fortunes and to burn with a bright bitter flame on the altar of experience. To experiment with sensations, to feel deeply if not exquisitely, to live avidly, but mostly to be “lost”—this was all their pleasure.

The “lost generation” has already become history, and the recent publication in book form of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-up (together with other uncollected pieces, including letters and tributes) will refer the reader to this world-weary youth of the 1920s. No writer of this period pictured the lost generation more vividly or more lastingly than Fitzgerald, and it is a question whether Fitzgerald did not perhaps create the jazz age and the league of despairing youth. In any event, it is a commonplace of criticism that Fitzgerald knew his subject matter thoroughly and at first hand. He has had a large following among readers who appreciate good writing, much larger, I suspect, than he ever guessed; and anything from his pen is dear to them.

The writings collected together to form The Crack-up, taking its title rather unfortunately from the despondent essay which appeared first in Esquire in 1936, will be to admirers of Fitzgerald something more it is to be hoped than memorabilia of a bygone day. On the whole, however, the book is put together in such a way as to suggest that the good old days, the days of precious weariness, were after all and in their way lovely. The tone is set by Edmund Wilson in his poem dedicatory, and it prevails through the letters, sketches, and selected tributes, with the notable exception of the letter from Gertrude Stein and the appreciative essay (1925) by Paul Rosenfeld. Perhaps these are all the literary remains we are to have of Fitzgerald, and perhaps there is nomood other than the nostalgic and wistful in which they could very well have been edited. But it is unfair to Fitzgerald that he should be read always as the spokesman for the febrile gay and the merely sad.

Most of Fitzgerald’s undergraduate readers and not a few of his more adult readers (with the undergraduate frame of mind) have been charmed solely by his sophomoric varieties of melancholy. If Byron had been read only for his “Stanzas for Music”— “There’s not a joy”—we should never at this date have heard of him. It should be clear by now that the characters in Fitzgerald’s short stories are not so uncommon. His young people are given to adolescing after the manner of youth in any decade. The most unusual thing about them is that Fitzgerald should have devoted so much of his talent to describing them. Often his characters are sentimental and uninteresting; at worst they are simply callow; and the situations are, comparatively speaking, rather tame. I should not like to see Fitzgerald left to the hands of the sad young men, or he will perish with them. He himself was something more than a perennial sophomore. He was more than a writer symptomatic merely of a restless decade.

F. Scott Fitzgerald will endure as an artist and writer because he wrote beautifully and lyrically about a timeless subject— the self. His writings are documentary evidence of a stage in the agonizing demise in America of consistent selfhood; and in the modern age there is no riddle more all-consuming for the lyrical writer than the question, “Who am I?”

If a young writer has a traditional way of thinking about himself and the world in which he lives, it is not difficult for him to answer the question, “Who am I?” In fact, it does not occur to him to ask the question. His is obviously a central existence with many lines of reference radiating to him from a meaningful round of activities. But if the young writer does not enjoy a traditional way of thinking about himself and his world, or if that way of thinking has been examined and found wanting in essential integrity, then he is at least for the moment, lost, or, as a modern psychologist would say, maladjusted. The fact is that there isnothing for him to adjust himself to. The lines of reference are completely obliterated.

The one tradition in America to which F. Scott Fitzgerald and many of his contemporaries were inclined both by ancestry and by temperament was puritan individualism, and puritan individualism had been examined and found wanting. In addition, Fitzgerald and his contemporaries existing, as they were, between two worlds, were incapable of creating a new concept of individualism; the result was that Fitzgerald’s search for his real “self” came eventually to be a moral inner compulsion to symbolic self-destruction.

For the most part William James with his pragmatic emphasis on will followed closely in the tradition of protestant individualism; but curiously enough, he may be said to have contributed as much as any other philosopher to the structural breakdown of single selfhood. In his Psychology he devotes Chapter XII to a study of the self. At the outset he distinguishes between “the self as known, or the me, the ’empirical ego’ as it is sometimes called,” and “the self as knower, or the I, the ’pure ego’ of certain authors.” (Of “certain authors,” forsooth!) He then goes on to discriminate between several selves: the material me, the social me, and the spiritual me. Moreover, there exists, he says, a rivalry and a conflict of the different me’s; in fact the me’s have set themselves in a “hierarchical scale, with the bodily me at the bottom, the spiritual me at the top, and the extra-corporeal material selves and various social selves between.”  Nor is that sufficient distinction. James continues, saying, “In each kind of Me, material, social, and spiritual, men distinguish between the immediate and actual, and the remote and potential.”

Although William James was quite willing to admit the Soul into psychology, and especially on the basis of the “sense” of personal identity, observing a “sameness of the self as known” and a “sameness in the self as knower,” nevertheless it is with the “states of consciousness,” he insists, that psychology is primarily concerned. “Metaphysics or theology may prove the Soul to exist; but for psychology the hypothesis of such a substantial principleof unity is superfluous.” This is an accommodating disclaimer for one bred to an analysis of a quite different kind.

It is the “stream of consciousness” that takes precedence in the scientific observation of the mind; and the single self, with its “sense” of personal identity, is left to work out such a poor destiny as it can afford under the aegis of metaphysics and theology.

But many a modern writer has not been satisfied to let the “fundamental” self pass quietly into the history of protestant theology. The desire to possess and be aware of an inner self is deep in the blood stream; and many twentieth-century writers have devoted their careers to searching feverishly for their lost identity, going to and fro about the earth shining their lanterns darkly in the face of how many strange and grotesque creatures.

This search has been characterized by a curious psychological phenomenon. In order to find the “real” self, all the pseudo selves have had, as it were, to be destroyed one after another. In the ruthless elimination the “real” self becomes of necessity the last self. But at the end of the day, to speak figuratively, when one has found the last self and sits quietly for a while with it— much as Josiah Royce did with the Absolute—it seems to vanish like a dream, and in the morning is discovered to have shattered again into the many. Thus continues the process of elimination endlessly.

If, however, that last self, the real self could be captured in its utter solitude, it would be the perfect unity which the puritan individualist is ever mysteriously propelled to discover, and there would be little left for it but the grave. In its utter self-sufficiency and singleness it could not abide except as a god. And the writer who toils to search each chamber of his being for the everlasting “self” that resides somewhere within finds at the last that only an indescribable loneliness is left to him.

Among American writers one thinks of Conrad Aiken and his masquerade of characters. There is Festus who, at the near-end of his long journey into the world-which-is-himself, finds that he is his own god. But it is Festus, too, who, after the long journey is over, discovers that all there is to life is to journey again and again, to try to solve a riddle which has no answer. And there isSenlin, as Houston Peterson has observed, who “goes in eternal pursuit trying to capture the secret of self. He has found only that he is ’a city,’ ’a door,’ that his is a complicated personality… He becomes the symbol of incertitudes. He is everything but himself.” Conrad Aiken’s world of shadowy selves is the discovery of the individualist who finds that he is not an identity but a mingling of many visions in a danse macabre.

The early poems of Archibald MacLeish are a persevering exploration of the many mansions of the soul, but in the Hamlet of A. MacLeish, for instance, he does not find that each grows more stately, as another poet once averred, but rather that each lights up separately like the homes in a village at dusk, some of them showing weak and yellow in decayed and rickety structures.

There is Eugene O’Neill who has probed the many selves of his many-selved characters; and where at last do they find themselves? The Emperor Jones discards one after another the garments of civilization until he is once more a naked savage going down into the grave primeval. Yank leaves behind him one self after another until there is left only the beast in the cage—and the grave. Which is the real Lavinia? It is she who closes finally the tomb-like door of her tomb-like ancestral home and passes forever out of the sight of men.

But among modern writers F. Scott Fitzgerald best illustrates the agonized search for the true inner self. It was in his first book, This Side of Paradise, that Fitzgerald began to look for the “fundamental” Amory, and from then on through all his stories and novels the search continues. The essential conflict throughout all his books is that of a man divided against himself, and the tragedy lies in the theme of destruction which Fitzgerald used as the agent in his search for the real self. But the real self and all the other selves are doomed from the start, as though they had been Calvinistically determined.

At the end of This Side of Paradise Amory Blaine goes back to Princeton and finds that “All Gods are dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” Because universal standards, categories for measurement and belief were denied him, because there was no Mosaic Code to follow, but rather a confusion of values, destruction seemed to be the historical necessity of the moment, the only instrument with which to probe for the enduring and the real. Fitzgerald destroys his generation. He kills Gatsby, makes him dupe of a bizarre and evil world. Fitzgerald destroys himself, regularly, rhythmically, as it were a ritual, a lustral bath, almost, in hopes of being purified into a central self. He wants above all things to control his destiny, but he has faith only in the inevitability of collapse.

In Tender Is the Night schizophrenia is his theme, and he deals with it brilliantly. What compulsion, what flaw in the character of Dick Diver is it that drives him on inevitably toward spiritual collapse? It is his quest of individuality. Dick is all that is noble and fine; he is also a moral weakling. He is kind and cruel, loyal and contemptuous, insolent and melancholy, courageous and cowardly, forceful and weak, proud of himself, disgusted with himself, detached and yet drawn in. His was a longing for a unified selfhood, and everywhere was disunity—in his wife, his friends, his generation, his age. At the last he goes to pieces, is desolate and lonely and lost to the world.

In “The Rich Boy,” one of Fitzgerald’s best short stories, the main character, Hunter, is active, gracious, thoughtful, dependable; he is also depressed with ennui, boorish, irresponsible, and spiritually despondent—many persons weary with the search for the one. Where is the “fundamental” Amory? Fitzgerald exhausted himself and all his characters in the devastating inquiry.

And in The Last Tycoon the theme of destruction prevails. Cecilia says that Stahr is losing his battle with schizophrenia. Not a single character who does not go to pieces. Wylie White’s career had reached a dead end. Manny Schwartz shot a bullet into his head, and somebody played “Lost” on the juke box. Minna Davis is dead and quickly forgotten; Pete Zarvas has gone to pot and attempts suicide; Roderiguez is “through"; Marcus is slipping, and Brady has fallen. Kathleen has been educated to the end that she might read Spengler, and the grunion throw themselves away, “relentless and exalted and scornful” upon the beach. Cecilia ends in a sanitarium with consumption, and Stahr, deathly tired, “ruling with a radiance that is moribund” loses his power.In love with “Minna and death together,” he beats his wings “finally frantically” like the plane in which he rides, and then falls to his death. Fitzgerald has planned to end the novel with a funeral, and I think of that funeral which he did not live to write as the consummate symbol of decadent individualism today. All is evil, all must be destroyed before the self can reign again pure and alone. Where is the fundamental Amory? Fitzgerald could find him only in the wreckage of the grave.

Fitzgerald may have written a good deal about the sacred stages of whelphood, but his stature is not to be determined by his occasional doggerel. He was representative of lyric youth in any age looking for its place in the sun. For him the question “Who am I?” could not be answered. And to destroy is the oldest and easiest way of asserting one’s Self. If there is no traditional philosophy of individualism worth accepting, if there is no social aim to give definition to young lives, there will come, along with the breakdown of old values, a moral inner compulsion to self-destruction, so that the many may be shattered in the hope that the one will remain.

Walt Whitman expressed the fundamental issue of democracy when he began his Leaves of Grass with the lines that have since become famous and which are to some people still an expression of conceit:

One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

In the word En-Masse lies the answer to the riddle, and by that word Whitman meant universal compassion. Fitzgerald had generous sympathies for his generation, but his generation was powerless to learn the meaning of a comprehensive humanity. The “Twenties” will not repeat themselves ever. No age can be lived over again. But I think that the future may not be unlike the past if the concept of individualism is not made consistent with a universal compassion.


From Chimera (1945).

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