Think of the lost ecstasy of the Elizabethans. “Oh my America, my new found land,” think of what it meant to them and of what it means to us.
(T. E. Hulme, Speculations)
The source of Fitzgerald’s excellence is an uncanny ability to juxtapose the sensibilities implied by the phrase “romantic wonder” with the most conspicuous, as well as the most deeply significant, phenomena of American civilization, and to derive from that juxtaposition a moral critique of human nature. None of our major writers is more romantically empathic than this avatar of Keats in the era of Harding; none draws a steadier bead on the characteristic shortcomings, not to say disasters, of the most grandiose social experiment of modern times. Thence the implacable moralist with stars (Martinis) in his eyes: worshipper, analyst, judge, and poet. But it is not very illuminating to say that Fitzgerald wrote the story of his own representative life, unless we are prepared to read his confessions—and then his evaluation of those confessions— as American history; and unless we reciprocally learn to read American history as the tale of the romantic imagination in the United States.
Roughly speaking, Fitzgerald’s basic plot is the history of the New World (ironic double entendre here and throughout); more precisely, of the human imagination in the New World. It shows itself in two predominant patterns, quest and seduction. The quest is the search for romantic wonder (a kind of febrile secular beatitude), in the terms pro-Posed by contemporary America; the seduction represents capitulation to these terms. Obversely, the quest is a flight: from reality, from normality, from time, fate, death, and the conception of limit. In the social realm, the pattern of desire may be suggested by such phrases as “the American dream” and “the pursuit of happiness.” Fitzgerald begins by exposing the corruption of that dream in industrial America; he ends by discovering that the pursuit is universally seductive and perpetually damned. Driven by inner forces that compel him towards the personal realization of romantic wonder, the Fitzgerald hero is destroyed by the materials which the American experience offers as objects and criteria of passion; or, at best, he is purged of these unholy fires, chastened, and reduced.
In general, this quest has two symptomatic goals. There is, for one the search for eternal youth and beauty, what might be called the historic myth of Ponce de Leon. (“Historic” because the man was really looking for a fountain; “myth” because no such fountain ever existed).[It is a curious but far from meaningless coincidence that Frederick Jackson Turner used the image of “a magic fountain of youth” to evoke the creative and restorative powers of the unexhausted Western frontier. I am inclined to think Fitzgerald knew what he was about when he called The Great Gatsby “a story of the West.” Traditionally in American writing “the West” means both the Western part of the United States and the New World, and especially the first as synecdoche of the other.] The essence of romantic wonder appears to reside in the illusion of perennial youth and grace and happiness surrounding the leisure class of which Fitzgerald customarily wrote; thus the man of imagination in America, searching for the source of satisfaction of his deepest aesthetic needs, is seduced by the delusion that these qualities are actually to be found in people who, in sober fact, are vacuous and irresponsible. But further, this kind of romantic quest, which implies both escape and destruction, is equated on the level of national ideology with a transcendental and Utopian contempt for time and history, and on the religious level, which Fitzgerald (whose Catholic apostasy was about half genuine and half imagined) persistently but hesitantly approaches, with a blasphemous rejection of the very conditions of human existence.
The second goal is, simply enough, money. The search for wealth is the familiar Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideal of personal material success, most succinctly embodied for our culture in the saga of young Benjamin Franklin. It is the romantic assumption of this aspect of the “American dream” that all the magic of the world can be had for money. Both from a moral, and from a highly personal and idiosyncratic Marxist standpoint, Fitzgerald examines and condemns the plutocratic ambitions of American life and the ruinous price exacted by their lure. But the two dreams are, of course, so intimately related as to be for all practical purposes one the appearance of eternal youth and beauty centers in a particular social class whose glamor is made possible by social inequality and inequity. Beauty, the presumed object of aesthetic contemplation, is commercialized, love is bought and sold. Money is the means to the violent recovery or specious arrest of an enchanting youth.
In muted contrast, Fitzgerald repeatedly affirms his faith in an older, simpler America, generally identified as pre-Civil War; the emotion is that of pastoral, the social connotations agrarian and democratic. In such areas he continues to find fragments of basic human value, social, moral, and religious. But these affirmations are for the most part subordinate and indirect; Fitzgerald’s attention was chiefly directed upon the merchandise of romantic wonder proffered by his own time and place. Like the narrator in Gatsby, he was always “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Through a delicate and exact imagery, he was able to extend this attitude of simultaneous enchantment and repulsion over the whole of the American civilization he knew. His keenest perception, and the one that told most heavily for his fiction, was the universal quality of the patterns he was tracing, his greatest discovery that there was nothing new about the Lost Generation except its particular toys. The quest for romantic wonder and the inevitable failure were only the latest in a long series.
Fitzgerald approached this major theme slowly and more by intuition than design. Or perhaps he had to live it, and then understand it, before he could write it. In a hazy form it is present in such early stories as “The Offshore Pirate” and “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong.” It is allegorized in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” and fumbled in The Beautiful and Damned.
“May Day,” significantly motivated by his first sharp awareness of class cleavages in American society, together with important cleavages of period in American history, is for the reader tracing Fitzgerald’s gradual realization of this major theme the most rewarding production of his early career. Its formal construction on social principles (“Mr. In” and “Mr. Out”) is obvious enough; what usually goes unnoticed is the way Fitzgerald’s symbolic method extends his critique from the manners of drunken undergraduates to the pervasive malaise of an entire civilization. The hubris with which these characters fade from the story in a parody of the Ascension dramatically and comically pinpoints the materialistic hedonism, along with its traditional counterpart, a vulgar idealism, which Fitzgerald is already identifying as his culture’s fatal flaw:
Then they were in an elevator bound skyward.
“What floor, please?” said the elevator man.
“Any floor,” said Mr. In.
“Top floor,” said Mr. Out.
“This is the top floor,” said the elevator man.
“Have another floor put on,” said Mr. Out.
“Higher,” said Mr. In.
“Heaven,” said Mr. Out.
Set against the story’s controlling symbol, the universal significance of this passage frames its particular historical implications. The scene is an all-night restaurant, and the preliminary description emphasizes social and economic inequality, the brutalizations of poverty, the sick insouciance of unmerited riches. As a Yale junior is ejected for throwing hash at the waiters, “the great plate-glass front had turned to a deep creamy blue … Dawn had come up in Columbus Circle, magical, breathless dawn, silhouetting the great statue of the immortal Christopher [Christ-bearer], and mingling in a curious and uncanny manner with the fading yellow electric light inside.” The final significance of this symbol can only be established after considering the conclusion of The Great Gatsby (and perhaps not even then; what, for example, about that oceanic “blue,” or the failing efficacy of man-made illumination against the light of day, prior in time to the light it supersedes?). But the general intention is clear enough: Fitzgerald is measuring the behavior and attitudes of the Lost Generation with a symbol of romantic wonder extensive enough to comprehend all American experience, as far back as 1492. The contrast involves the ironic rejection of all that this present generation believes in, the immaturity and triviality of its lust for pleasure. But then, by a further turn of irony, the voyage of Columbus and his discovery of the Western Hemisphere is also the actual event forming the first link in the chain leading to the butt-end of contemporary folly. There is the further implication that some sort of conscious search is at the heart of American experience, but had never before taken so childish a form. What Fitzgerald is almost certainly trying to say with this image is: we are the end of Columbus’ dream, and this is our brave new world.
With The Great Gatsby (1925), Fitzgerald first brought his vision to full and mature realization. Gatsby is essentially the man of imagination in America, given specificity and solidity and precision by the materials American society offers him. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” It is Gatsby’s capacity for romantic wonder that Fitzgerald is insisting upon in this preliminary exposition, a capacity he goes on to define as “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness” (the first phrase suggesting the central theological virtue, the second implying its parodic counterpart). With the simile of the seismograph, a splendid image of the human sensibility in a mechanized age, Fitzgerald has in effect already introduced the vast back-drop of American civilization against which Gatsby’s gestures are to be interpreted. The image is as integral as intricate; for if Gatsby is to be taken as the product and manifestation of the seductive and corrupting motivations involved in “the American dream,” he is also the instrument by means of which Fitzgerald will register the tremors that point to its self-contained possibilities of destruction, its fault (flaw), in the geological sense. “What preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams” is the stuff of the novel, the social content of Fitzgerald’s fictional world. But it is equally essential to realize that Gatsby, too, has been derailed by values and attitudes held in common with the society that destroys him. How else, indeed, might he be destroyed? Certainly, in such a world, the novel assures us, a dream like Gatsby’s cannot possibly remain pristine, given the materials wlth which the original impulse toward wonder must invest itself. In short, Gatsby is somewhat more than pathetic, a sad figure preyed upon by the American leisure class. The novel is neither melodramatic nor bathetic, but critical. The unreal values of the world of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, to a very considerable degree, are Gatsby’s values too, inherent in his dream. Gatsby from the beginning lives in an imaginary world, where “a universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain”; negatively, this quality manifests itself in a dangerous, and frequently vulgar, tendency toward sentimental idealizations: his reveries “were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” (A variety of religious overtones emanates from the word “rock.”) Gatsby’s capacity for wonder is obviously corrupted by the meager and vicious nature of American culture. Potentially, he constitutes a tentative and limited indictment of that culture; actually, he is that culture’s thoroughly appropriate scapegoat and victim. “He was a son of God … and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” God the Father, or the Founding Fathers? In such ambiguity lurk the novel’s deepest ironies.
Daisy finally becomes for Gatsby the iconic manifestation of this dubious vision of beauty. Little enough might have been possible for Gatsby at best, but once he “wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” (Parody of the Incarnation.) Steadily and surreptitiously, Fitzgerald continues to suggest the idea of blasphemy in connection with Gatsby’s Titanic imaginative lusts. But of course the focus of the novel must be sexual antisocial, for the implication of the religious implication is that Gatsby (that is to say American culture) provides mainly secular objects for the religious imagination to feed on, as it also provides tawdry images for the aesthetic imagination. After concentrating Gatsby’s wonder on Daisy, Fitzgerald proceeds to an explicit statement of her thematic significance. Gatsby was “overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (my italics). Her voice is mysteriously enchanting, the typifying feature of her role as la belle dame sans merci, and throughout the action serves to suggest her loveliness and desirability. But only Gatsby, in a rare moment of insight, is able to identify the causes of its subtle and elusive magic, upon which Nick Carraway meditates: “It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it … High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl …”
Possession of an image like Daisy is all that Gatsby can finally conceive as “success”; and Gatsby is meant to be a very representative American in the intensity of his yearning for success, as well as in the symbols which he equates with it. Gatsby is a contemporary variation on an old American pattern, the rags-to-riches story exalted by American legend as early as Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (most mawkishly in the “History of Andrew, the Hebridian,” significantly appended to the famous Letter III, “What is an American”), and primarily fixed in the popular mind by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin’s youthful resolutions are parodied in those that the adolescent Gatsby writes on the back flyleaf of his copy of Hopalong Cassidy, a conjunction of documents as eloquently expressive of American continuities as of the progress of civilization in the new world.
The connection between Gatsby’s individual tragedy and the tragedy of American civilization is also made, and again through symbol, with respect to historical attitudes. Gatsby’s philosophy of history is summed up in his devotion to the green light burning on Daisy’s dock. Nick first sees Gatsby in an attitude of supplication, a gesture that pathetically travesties the traditional gestures of worship. He finally discerns that the object of that trembling piety is precisely this green light which, until his disillusion, remains one of Gatsby’s “enchanted objects.” But only in the novel’s concluding passage, toward which all action and symbol relentlessly tend, is the reader given the full implications of the green light as the historically-corrupted religious symbol (“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future”). With no historical sense whatever, yet trapped in the detritus of American history, Gatsby is the superbly effective fictional counterpart of that native philistine maxim that “history is bunk.” For those interested in such comparisons, he may also recall the more crowing moods of Emerson and Thoreau and the alleged “timelessness”of their idealistic visions and exhortations, now, alas, like Daisy who gleamed like silver, somewhat tarnished. For Fitzgerald, this contemptuous repudiation of tradition, historical necessity, and moral accountability, was deluded and hubristic. When he finally came to see —as he clearly did in Gatsby—that in this irresponsibility lay the real meaning behind the obsessive youth-worship of popular culture in his own day, he was able to identify Gatsby as at once the man of his age I and the man of the ages, a miserable twentieth-century Ponce de Leon. His fictional world was no longer simply the Jazz Age, the Lost Generation, but the whole of American civilization as it culminated in his own time.
In the final symbol of the novel, Fitzgerald pushes the personal equation to national, even universal scope, in a way that recalls the method of “May Day.” Fitzgerald is commenting on Gatsby’s state of disillusion immediately before his death:
He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about …
Such was the romantic perception of wonder, when finally stripped of its pleasing and falsifying illusions. Such was Fitzgerald’s maturest vision of the United States of America, perhaps the most magnificent statement in all our literature of the cruel modernity of the “new world,” its coldness, unreality, and absurdity nourished (if one may use so inappropriate a word) by that great mass neurosis known as “the American Dream.” So Fitzgerald, the quintessential outsider-insider, moves to his final critique:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
The most obvious point to be made about this passage is its insistence that Gatsby’s insatiable capacity for wonder could have, in the modern world, no proper objective. The emotion lingered on, generations of Americans had translated it into one or another set of inadequate terms, but Gatsby, like all his ancestors, though increasingly, was doomed by demanding the impossible. There is also the ironic contrast between the Wonder of the New World (to its Old World discoverers) and what Americans (who all came from the Old World in the first place) have made of it; the same point Fitzgerald made in similar fashion with the Columbus image in “May Day.” Finally, there is a more universal, an extra-historical meaning implicit in the language of this passage—the hope that the new world could possibly satisfy man’s inordinate, secular lusts (displace3 religious emotions from the very outset) was “the last and greatest of all human dreams,” seductive and unreal. The most impressive associations cluster around the word “pander,” which implies the illicit commercial traffic among love, youth, and beauty, arid which thus effectually subsumes most of the central meanings of the novel. In a later essay, Fitzgerald repeated with variations the “panders in whispers” phrase: New York City “no longer whispers of fantastic success and eternal youth,” a fine instance of how the myths of Benjamin Franklin and Ponce de Leon came to be blended in his mind. The two parallel themes do, of course, meet in The Great Gatsby; indeed, they are tangled at the heart of the plot, for the most outrageous irony in Gatsby’s tragedy is his belief that he can buy his dream, which is, precisely, to recapture the past. Unfortunately for this all too representative American, his dream “was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” It hardly needs saying that Fitzgerald chooses his language carefully, and that every word is loaded.
Tender Is the Night (1934) restates the essential theme and complicates it. If this novel seems somehow less successful than Gatsby, that is perhaps because the greater proliferation of thematic statement is not matched by a corresponding gain in clarity and control. But beneath the additional richness, and apparent confusion, the same general story can be made out. Dick Diver is like Gatsby the American as man of imagination. His chief difference from Gatsby is that he dispenses romantic wonder to others, in addition to living by and for it himself. Gatsby tries to purvey dreams, but doesn’t know how. But to Rosemary Hoyt (of whom, more later) Dick’s “voice promised that he would … open up whole new worlds for her, unroll an endless succession of magnificent possibilities” (my italics). Diver is the man with the innate capacity for romantic wonder, temporarily a member of the American leisure class of the ’twenties, an “organizer of private gaiety, curator of richly in-crusted happiness.” His intellectual and imaginative energies have been diverted from normal creative and functional channels and expended on the effort to prevent, for a handful of the very rich, the American dream from revealing its nightmarish realities.
Although Dick is given a more specific background than Gatsby, he is equally a product of his civilization and shares its characteristic deficiencies: “the illusions of eternal strength and health, and of the essential goodness of people; illusions of a nation, the lies of generations of frontier mothers who had to croon falsely that there were no wolves outside the cabin door.” (The lies also of generations of American politicians, historians, publicists, fireside poets, and similar confidence-men, who had no such easy excuse.) This inherent romantic has been further weakened, though not quite destroyed, by the particular forms of sentimentality of his own generation: “he must press toward the Isles of Greece, the cloudy waters of unfamiliar ports, the lost girl on shore, the moon of popular songs. A part of Dick’s mind was made up of the tawdry souvenirs of his boyhood. Yet in that somewhat littered Five-and-Ten, he had managed to keep alive the low painful fire of intelligence.”
Such is the man, potentially noble like Gatsby, but with the fatal flaw of imagination common to and conditioned by the superficial symbols and motivations of his culture, who is brought against the conditions of temptation represented by Nicole. She is the granddaughter of a “self-made American capitalist” and of a German Count, and her family is placed in perspective by Fitzgerald’s frequent analogies with feudal aristocracy. “Her father would have it on almost any clergyman,” such as Dick’s father; “they were an American ducal family without a title—the very name … caused a psychological metamorphosis in people.” Yet behind this facade of glamor and power lies unnatural lust and perversion. Nicole’s father, this “fine American type,” has committed incest with his daughter—the very incarnation of the American vision of youth, beauty, and wealth—and made of her a psychotic for young Dr. Diver to cure. As Nicole says, “’I’m a crook by heritage.’”
Through Nicole Fitzgerald conveys, as he had with Daisy, all that is sexually and socially desirable in youth and beauty: “there were all the potentialities for romantic love in that lovely body and in the delicate mouth… Nicole had been a beauty as a young girl and she would be a beauty later.” Apparently she is eternally youthful, and only at the end of the novel is it discernible that she has aged. Her face, which corresponds in sensuous utility to Daisy’s voice, is lovely and hard, “her eyes brave and watchful, looking straight ahead toward nothing.” She is an empty child, representative of her social class, of the manners and morals of the ’twenties, and of the world of values for which America, like Diver, was once more selling its soul. But it is chiefly Nicole’s semblance of perpetual youth that allows Fitzgerald to exploit her as a central element in the narrative correlative he is constructing for his vision of American life. Occasionally he handles her in a way that goes beyond social criticism, entering, if obliquely and implicitly, the realm of religious apprehension:
The only physical disparity between Nicole at present and the Nicole of five years before was simply that she was no longer a young girl. But she was enough ridden by the current youth worship, the moving pictures with their myriad faces of girl-children, blandly represented as carrying on the work and wisdom of the world, to feel a jealousy of youth.
She put on the first ankle-length day dress that she had owned for many years, and crossed herself reverently with Chanel Sixteen.
(So Diver, at the end of the novel, but with full consciousness of the blasphemy, “blesses” the Riviera beach “with a papal cross,” immediately before returning to the obscurity of small-town America. The malediction may by a later generation of readers be taken as Fitzgerald’s also, whose equally obscure end was ironically to come in the most notorious of American small towns, Hollywood.) But while Fitzgerald could upon occasion thus extend the significance of his narrative, he never neglected to keep it firmly grounded in a specific social and economic world, and it is in this realm that most of his correspondences are established:
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 hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations and dreamers were muscled out of patent rights in new tractors—these were some of the people who 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, like the flush of a fireman’s face holding his post before a spreading blaze. She illustrated very simple principles, containing in herself her own doom, but illustrated them so accurately that there was grace in the procedure.[Cf. Gatsby as seismograph. Probably it is dangerous to take too literally Fitzgerald’s remark that he was “essentially Marxian”; it seems to me equally dangerous to ignore it altogether.]
Yet even here religious nuance continues (“Christmas Eve,” “tithe”); the simple principles Nicole illustrates are not only Marxian but also Christian. Still, if her principles are simple, their illustration is epic in scope and intention. The social ramifications of Fitzgerald’s great novels are broad indeed; at their base are criminal injustice and inhuman waste, on a world-wide scale, and at their apex the American girl, the king’s daughter, beautiful, forever young, and insane.
In the central scenes of temptation (Book II, chapter V, in the original form), Fitzgerald quite deliberately allows Nicole to assume her full symbolic significance, thereby revealing unmistakably that the central action of Tender Is the Night must be read against the broadest background of American life. Throughout this chapter runs the leitmotif of the author’s generalizing commentary, beginning with the passage: “the impression of her youth and beauty grew on Dick until it welled up in-side him in a compact paroxysm of emotion. She smiled, a moving childish smile that was like all the lost youth in the world.” This mood of pathetic nostalgia is quickly objectified in the talk of Dick and Nicole about American popular songs; soon Dick feels that “there was that excitement about her that seemed to reflect all the excitement of the world.” So ends the first of the two scenes that comprise this chapter. The second meeting opens on a similar key: “Dick wished she had no background, that she was just a girl lost with no address save the night from which they had come.” This time they play the songs they had mentioned the week before: “they were in America now.” And Fitzgerald drives the point home in his last sentence: “Now there was this scarcely saved waif of disaster bringing him the essence of a continent …” [Mr. Fussell means the last sentence of Chapter V of Book II. [A.M.]]
At first Dick laughs off the notion that Nicole’s family has purchased him, but he gradually succumbs, “inundated by a trickling of goods and money.” Once again, Nicole is the typifying object of her class and society, especially in the terms she proposes for the destruction of her victim’s moral and intellectual integrity: “Naturally Nicole, wanting to own him, wanting him to stand still forever, encouraged any slackness on his part” (my italics). Although the pattern is more complex than in Gatsby, practically the same controlling lines of theme can be observed. The man of imagination, fed on the emotions of romantic wonder, is tempted and seduced and (in this case, nearly) destroyed by that American dream which customarily takes two forms: the escape from time and the materialistic pursuit of a purely hedonistic happiness. On the historical level, the critique is of the error of American romanticism in attempting to transcend and thus escape historical responsibility. On the economic level, the critique is of the fatal beauty of American capitalism, its destructive charm and recklessness. Thematically, the lines come together when Nicole attempts to own Dick and therefore to escape time—keeping him clear of it, too—as when Gatsby tries to buy back the past. On the religious level, if indeed there is one, the critique must be defined more cautiously: perhaps one can say that Fitzgerald intermittently insinuates the possibility that human kind are inveterately prone to befuddle themselves with the conspicuous similarities between the city of man and the city of God, paying scant attention to their more radical difference.
In Rosemary Hoyt, who brings from Hollywood to Europe the latest American version of the dream of youthful innocence, Fitzgerald has still another important center of consciousness. It is through her eyes, for instance, that Fitzgerald gives us his first elaborate glimpses of the Divers, and their hangers-on, at the Americanized Riviera. Because of Rosemary’s acute but undisciplined perceptions, Fitzgerald can insist perpetually on the ironic tensions between the richest texture of social appearance and the hidden reality of moral agony: her “naivete responded wholeheartedly to the expensive simplicity of the Divers, unaware of its complexity and its lack of innocence, unaware that it was all a selection of quality rather than quantity from the run of the world’s bazaar; and that the simplicity of behavior also, the nursery-like peace and good-will, the emphasis on the simpler virtues, was part of a desperate bargain with the gods and had been attained through struggles she could not have guessed at.” (“Nursery-like peace and good will” is a good example of how Fitzgerald’s subtly paradoxical prose style incessantly supplies the kind of religious-secular befuddlement alluded to above.)
Rosemary manifests the effects of Hollywood sentimentality and meretriciousness on the powers of American perception and imagination. The image-patterns that surround her movements are largely concerned with childhood; she is “as dewy with belief as a child from one of Mrs. Burnett’s vicious tracts.” Immature and egocentric, she provides one more symbol of the corruption of imagination in American civilization; both deluded and deluding, she is without resources for escape such as are available to Nick Carraway and, to a considerably lesser extent, Did Diver. It is Diver who sounds the last important note about hen “’Rosemary didn’t grow up.’” That she is intended as a representative figure Fitzgerald makes amply clear in his embittered account of her picture “Daddy’s Girl”: “There she was—so young and innocent—the product of her mother’s loving care … embodying all the immaturity of the race, cutting a new cardboard paper doll to pass before its empty harlot’s mind.”
Nicole and Rosemary are for this novel the objectified images of Fitzgerald’s “brave new world.” Only occasionally, and only in pathos, does Dick Diver escape the limits of this terrifying world. Once, the three of them are sitting in a restaurant, and Dick notices a group of “gold star mothers”: “in their happy faces, the dignity that surrounded and pervaded the party, he perceived all the maturity of an older America. For a while the sobered women who had come to mourn for their dead, for something they could not repair, made the room beautiful. Momentarily, he sat again on his father’s knee, riding with Moseby while the old loyalties and devotions fought on around him. Almost with an effort he turned back to his two women at the table and faced the whole new world in which he believed.” Only as this illusion fades, to the accompaniment of an almost unbearable “interior laughter,” does Dick Diver achieve a minimal and ambiguous salvation, a few shattered fragments of reality including the anonymity of professional and social failure.
For purposes of corroboration, one can add a certain amount of documentation from Fitzgerald’s non-fictional writings, as collected in the posthumous volume The Crack-Up (1945). The point that most needs buttressing, probably, is that Fitzgerald saw in the quest for romantic wonder a recurrent pattern of American behavior. Such an attitude seems strongly implied by the works of fiction, but of course it is additionally reassuring to find Fitzgerald writing his daughter: “You speak of how good your generation is, but I think they share with every generation since the Civil War in America the sense of being somehow about to inherit the earth. You’ve heard me say before that I think the faces of most American women over thirty are relief maps of petulant and bewildered unhappiness” (p. 306). A brief sketch of a “typical product of our generation” in the Note-Books indicates further what qualities were involved in this “sense of being about to inherit the earth”: “her dominant idea and goal is freedom without responsibility, which is like gold without metal, spring without winter, youth without age, one of those maddening, coo-coo mirages of wild riches” (p. 166). That this personal attitude, translated into the broader terms of a whole culture, represented a negation of historical responsibility, is made sufficiently clear in another Note-Book passage: “Americans, he liked to say, should be born with fins, and perhaps they were—perhaps money was a form of fin. In England, property begot a strong place sense, but Americans, restless and with shallow roots, needed fins and wings. There was even a recurrent idea in America about an education that would leave out history and the past, that should be a sort of equipment for aerial adventure, weighed down by none of the stowaways of inheritance or tradition” (p. 109). Still another passage, this time from one of the “Crack-Up” essays, makes it equally clear that Fitzgerald habitually saw the universal applicability of all he was saying about the ruling passions of America: “This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness. I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are, ’a constant striving’ (as those people say who gain their bread by saying it) only adds to this unhappiness in the end—that end that comes to our youth and hope” (p. 84).
Fortunately, by some kind of unexplained miracle (perhaps nothing more mysterious than his deep-seated integrity as a writer), Fitzgerald did not have it in himself to be a cynic. For all the failure of futility he found in the American experience, his attitude was an attitude of acceptance, remarkably free of that sense of despair which Kierkegaard correctly prophesied as the typical sin of the moderns. There was always in him something of Jimmy Gatz’s “extraordinary gift of hope,” which enabled him to touch the subjects he touched without being consumed by them. (The tragedies of his personal life are another matter; I am speaking only of his heroism and integrity as an artist.) The exhaustion of the frontier and the rebound of the post-war expatriate movement marked for him the end of a long period in human history and it was really this entire period, the history of the post-Renaissance man in America, that he made the substance of his works. After exploring his materials to their limits Fitzgerald knew, at his greatest moments, that he had discovered a universal pattern of desire and belief and behavior, and that in it was compounded the imaginative history of modern, especially American, civilization. Thus (again from the Note-Books):
He felt then that if the pilgrimage eastward of the rare poisonous flower of his race was the end of the adventure which had started westward three hundred years ago, if the long serpent of the curiosity had turned too sharp upon itself, cramping its bowels, bursting its shining skin, at least there had been a journey; like to the satisfaction of a man coming to die— one of those human things that one can never understand unless one has made such a journey and heard the man give thanks with the husbanded breath. The frontiers were gone—there were no more barbarians. The short gallop of the last great race, the polyglot, the hated and the despised, the crass and scorned, had gone—at least it was not a meaningless extinction up an alley (p. 199).
There are dozens more such passages, in the non-fictional prose as in the fictional; naturally, for Fitzgerald’s subject, however broadly he came to understand it, was in the first instance his own journey. He was by nature almost incredibly sympathetic. He was also more knowledgeable —both morally and intellectually—than he is generally credited with being. To such an extent that his more enthusiastic readers are almost tempted to say: if the polyglot gallop is not a meaningless cancellation of itself, that is chiefly because Fitzgerald—and the few Americans who by virtue of their imaginative grasp of our history can rightly be called his peers—interposed a critical distance between his matter and his expression of it. There is perhaps more difference between an ordinary understanding of America and Fitzgerald’s than between the gaudy idealizations of the Elizabethans and the equally comfortable cynicism of twentieth-century London.
Edwin Fussell is a professor at the Claremont Graduate School and is at work on a book on the frontier in American literature.
Published in ELH, A Journal of English Literary History magazine XIX (December 1952).