The literary community or artistic “cluster” is a commonplace of history. But the feeling persists that the literary community of the nineteen-twenties was unique, that it was distinguished from earlier fellowships by its closeness and by the intensity of its activity. “They had more experiences in common than any other generation in American history,” Malcolm Cowley accurately observes. Exile’s Return, which is based on Cowley’s own experience, traces some of the typical patterns of the time: childhood in a small town in the Midwest; a university education interrupted by the compelling patriotic impulse of 1917; service with the Armed Forces in Europe; return, restlessness, expatriation—and above all the fascination with literature, the joint projects and manifestoes, the plethora of avant-garde magazines, thecommon dedication among men who shared a profound interest in their craft.
On the other hand, the writers of the twenties formed no school or specific movement; they had no “program,” nor did they limit themselves to doctrinaire principles. The American authors of the postwar decade, in fact, consisted of a number of small separate groups and a great many unaffiliated individuals—all of whom participated freely in public feuds and differences of opinion…
Cliquishness and uniformity, undeviating mutual praise and agreement were held in low esteem by the more serious artists of the time, some of whom opposed such things on principle. Perhaps the best perspective on writers of the time reveals a community of literary spirits who were argumentative, self-defensive, and mutually critical, but who nonetheless shared similar ideals and underlying convictions.
This basic unity of attitude found its way into many essay collections and symposiums. By far the most famous of these, Civilization in the United States (New York, 1922), suggests the close harmony of opinion among intellectuals and artists on the subject of American culture. Harold Stearns (who also crops up in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises) edited the collection and contributed a grim essay on “The Intellectual Life.” Conrad Aiken lamented the plight of the American poet. J.E. Spingarn decried the fear of personality and intellect in the universities. H.L. Mencken, in a brief survey of American politics, blasted away at the ignorance and dishonesty of our officeholders. Lewis Mum-ford depicted the horrors of modern industrialization in our cities. Ring Lardner called attention to the “asininity” of American sports spectators. Van Wyck Brooks commented unhappily on “The Literary Life”: “The chronic state of our literature,” he observed, “is that of a youthful promise which is never redeemed.” In his Preface, Stearns summed up one of the basic attitudes which pervaded the entire collection: “the most moving and pathetic fact in the social life of America today is emotional and aesthetic starvation…” Stearns also declared that the volume attempted an “uncompromising analysis” of numerous aspects of American life; only religion had been omitted from the general indictment. “It has been next to impossible to get any one to write on the subject,” Stearns confessed. Five years later Sinclair Lewis published Elmer Gantry, thereby contributing a powerful supplement to Stearns’s symposium and correcting its most notable deficiency…
There is no “key” to an understanding of the literature of the nineteen-twenties. Anyone attempting to reduce it to a single essential “formula” courts the error of oversimplification. Yet there are large areas in the works of Fitzgerald and his contemporaries that reveal a fundamental agreement of interest and approach. These writers seem particularly in accord in their selection of themes and their attitudes toward literary technique…
The writers of the period were united, moreover, in their approach to their sources of literary material: they stressed the importance of the immediate personal experience as a basis for art. Invention, of course, was still important; but the rendering of the actual, the concrete, the observed phenomena of life was given new emphasis. “It was, in fact, an age of indirect or direct ’transcription,’” writes Carlos Baker, “when the perfectly sound aesthetic theory was that the author must invent out of his own experience or run the risk of making hollow men out of his characters.” The consistency with which the writers of the twenties and early thirties adopted this theory gives the literature they produced its intense documentary flavor and accounts for its many romans a clef. The serious authors of the time felt that they had first to see for themselves before starting to work; they spared no effort to achieve a verisimilitude based on experienced, rather than imagined, reality… Scott Fitzgerald and his contemporaries reversed the doctrine of Shakespeare’s Theseus and started, rather than ended, with “a local habitation and a name.”
They drew their themes, in the same spirit, from the life around them. The writers of the twenties and early thirties were realists in this respect, too: each recorded with remarkable fidelity the issues and events—as well as the developing, ever-changing attitudes—of his time and place. There are, however, no simple patterns of agreement here. Fitzgerald, Lardner, and John Dos Passos, for example, all contributed treatments of the Younger Generation: but each one differs in its perspective. Fitzgerald was the chief historian of the emergent debutantes and playboys, and much of his early fiction is devoted to a romantic portrayal of their adventures. Lardner made the same group targets of his satire.Dos Passos drew a picture of the flapper and her escort that emphasizes still another aspect of the subject: the girl is mildly insane and the boy is ignorant and self-interested. The reader discovers variety rather than uniformity in these treatments of a prominent theme of the twenties. Still, there is agreement in this instance—and in many others—in the writers’ selection of subjects and materials to be treated in fiction.
Furthermore, many authors not only elected the same subjects, but shared similar attitudes toward them. They were particularly unified in their outspoken, sometimes vehement reaction against the popular aspirations and values of the American majority. “Never in history,” remarked one of the most famous critics of the period, “did a literary generation so revile its country.” Perhaps “revile” is too strong a word; but it is certain that many novelists and short-story writers turned out cynical interpretations of our habits and attitudes. We might consider, for example, fictional treatments of village life in the United States. President Harding had expressed an opinion on the subject that may be taken as representative of the popular sentiment: “What is the greatest thing in life, my countrymen? Happiness. And there is more happiness in the American village than in any other place on earth.” Sherwood Anderson did not agree, as is demonstrated by Winesburg, Ohio (1919); neither did Sinclair Lewis in Main Street (1920), Ring Lardner in “Haircut” (1925), Herbert Asbury in “Hatrack” (1925), or the Lynds [Robert S. and Helen Merrill Lynd] in their documentary study, Middletown (1929).
A number of authors also turned their attention to the automobile, a commodity that had begun to assume significant proportions in the life of the average American citizen. Sinclair Lewis showed Babbitt’s childish dependence on his motorcar for social status and self-esteem. William Faulkner, in Sartoris, made the automobile a symbol of the returned veteran’s reckless and futile quest for speed and excitement; indeed, for the hero of this Faulkner novel the motorcar is a means of escape from life in a peace-torn world. Other writers extended Faulkner’s implication: in Lardner’s “There Are Smiles,” in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and in Dos Passos’ The Big Money, the automobile is an instrument of death. Such treatments reflect not only the tremendous increase in production and purchase of automobiles duringthe twenties, but also the tendency toward machine worship in the public imagination of the time.
In other areas Fitzgerald, Mencken, and Theodore Dreiser protested Puritanism and “Comstockery” [vigorous censorship; prudery]. These same writers, along with Dos Passos and Hemingway, rejected the high-sounding slogans of World War I propaganda. On occasion writers even adopted the same imagery: Faulkner (in Soldier’s Pay), Fitzgerald (in The Great Gatsby), and Hemingway (in The Sun Also Rises) all owed a profound debt to the sterile landscape of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, one of the most influential depictions of twentieth-century society. These examples, which could easily be multiplied, illustrate the close communion of attitude shared by many of the major writers of the time; but they also suggest, as does the consistent emphasis upon experimental technique, the rebellious tendency of their fiction.
Rebellious they were, certainly, and critical of native mores, of which they were perceptive students. Many aspects of the “rebellion” have been recorded; yet the term is misleading if it creates an image of a spontaneous indictment of American institutions and customs. Taken as a whole, this body of fiction is emphatic in its iconoclasm and its vigorous assault on our weaknesses and illusions. But thesame strain is evident in the works of earlier writers. In all periods of its relatively short history, in fact, American literature exhibits a rich vein of social satire and social criticism. Especially prominent since the Civil War, the theme of social criticism may be traced from the beginnings of our tradition to the present, from Hugh Brackenridge to Jack Kerouac. The fiction of the twenties differs, of course, in historical particulars; but it is still very much a traditional body of work in its preoccupations and its philosophy: it is part of the continuity of American letters rather than an isolated episode in its development.
We might accurately call their fundamental theme Democracy in America, after Alexis de Tocqueville’s keen and detached study of our society. The subject is dramatic and multifarious, and it was given particular relevance in the nineteen-twenties by the social and economic forces operating during the postwar era. At no other time in our history have the potential misfortunes of equalitarianism seemed so conspicuous and so close to realization. Brackenridge had observed some of these unwholesome tendencies during the first twenty years of the republic. In his conclusion to Modern Chivalry he states that the great moral of his book is “the evil of men seeking office for which they are not qualified.” This assertion has familiar echoes to readers of H.L. Mencken, whose era provided abundant material for a similar “great moral” (“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here,” confessed Warren Gamaliel Harding). Nineteenth-century writers as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry James had focused disillusioned eyes on the subject of the American “aristocracy”; the same theme occupies a prominent position in the works of Lardner, Mencken, Lewis, and Scott Fitzgerald.
In the eighteen-thirties [in Democracy in America] Alexis de Tocqueville had mapped the contours of our culture that would engage native writers almost a century later. Tocqueville saw clearly the rationale of self-interest that dominated American business and the fluidity of movement that characterized our social structure:
It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it… A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certainnever to die: and he is so hasty in grasping at all within reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them… If in addition to the taste for physical well-being a social condition be added in which neither laws nor customs retain any person in his place, there is a great additional stimulant to this restlessness of temper. Men change their track for fear of missing the shortest cut to happiness.
Tocqueville’s comments on national pursuits and motives might easily be applied to the post-World War I period. The spirit of our commercial enterprise during those years of unprecedented prosperity was based in large measure upon the practice and principle of “grasping at all within reach” and a “clinging to this world’s goods.” The social aspirations of the aggressive middle class (in Tocqueville’s telling phrase “the many men restless in the midst of abundance”) were recorded time after time by the writers of the nineteen-twenties. These tendencies of democracy in America claimed the attention of Fitzgerald and his contemporaries, as they had attracted the notice of the astute European visitor to our shores almost a century earlier.
The writers of the twenties saw numerous possibilities for variation in these dominant motifs: they contained tragic implications, as in Dreiser’s American Tragedy; they provided material for comedy, invective, and satire—as in Lardner, Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis; they inspired the powerful sagas of social displacement by William Faulkner; they gave authority and universality to the fictional autobiographies of Thomas Wolfe; and they were the backdrop for the melancholy romances of Scott Fitzgerald.
Whence the emphasis in the novels and stories of the nineteen-twenties upon the social milieu, the pronounced interest in the aspirations of the different classes, in their motives and values? The fiction of the time only directs our attention back to the time itself; and both yield fruitfully to analysis when we understand the process, well known to cultural historians, whereby a literature reflects an age and simultaneously helps to shape it. If we add, further, the forces that work upon the writer’s imagination to shape his art, our comprehension of the cycle approaches a state of fullness, however imperfect or incomplete in an absolute sense. In the twenties, few authors worked in isolation. Themajority were “involved” in two ways: with the issues and the events of the life around them, and with the ideas and attitudes of other contemporary writers. But a specific example at this point will help to clarify the process by which one fictionist of the era derived from his reading the materials of his art, and how those materials crystallize brilliantly an episode in actual national experience. An example appropriate to the purpose is the image of T.J. Eckleburg in Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.
Eckleburg is introduced early in the novel, in the section describing the “valley of ashes” that serves as a Waste Land backdrop for some of the book’s crucial action. This bleak area, actually a dumping ground just outside Manhattan, is dominated by a large billboard showing two enormous eyes wearing spectacles and captioned “Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.” Presumably this is an optometrist’s advertisement placed among the ash heaps to attract the notice of passing commuters. But Fitzgerald suggests that Eckleburg’s brooding presence has a larger significance, that the gigantic eyes symbolize some implacable modern deity. Across the road from the desolate valley of ashes lives George Wilson, the spiritless garage owner whose wife, Myrtle, is having an adulterous affair with Tom Buchanan, the unscrupulous and well-to-do representative of Fitzgerald’s American “aristocracy” in The Great Gatsby. Later, after Myrtle Wilson’s death (which occurs in the neighborhood of the dumping ground), George Wilson entertains a curious delusion:
Wilson’s glazed eyes turned out to the ashheaps, where small gray clouds took on fantastic shapes and scurried here and there in the faint dawn wind.
“I spoke to her,” he muttered after a long silence. “I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window”—with an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it—“and I said ’God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!’”
Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which has just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.
“God sees everything,” repeated Wilson. “That’s an advertisement,” Michaelis assured him.
Eckleburg has symbolic reflections elsewhere in the novel; one of Gatsby’s party guests reminds us of the optometrist’s advertisement “A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles…” When we meet this character, who is later referred to as “Owl-Eyes,” he is seated in the library musing over Gatsby’s books. The amazing thing, Owl-Eyes tells some of the other guests, is that the books are real—“they have pages and everything.” Considering the context of Gatsby’s world and his papier-mache palace with its tinsel trappings, Owl-Eyes’ surprised discovery is not without relevance. Fitzgerald has extended the implication of Eckleburg’s divinity and applied it to Owl-Eyes, one of the few characters in the novel who can distinguish between the apparent and the real.
It should be noted, not incidentally, that Owl-Eyes is the only attendant, aside from Gatsby’s father and Nick Carraway, at Gatsby’s funeral. And it is he who utters a Jazz Age benediction of sympathy over Gatsby’s grave:
He took off his glasses and wiped them again, outside and in.
“The poor son-of-a-bitch,” he said.
The image of T.J. Eckleburg—as well as his counterpart, Owl-Eyes—has an important function in the overall rationale of Fitzgerald’s novel, and is properly seen as one of its central symbols. The optometrist’s advertisement suggests the degenerate state of religious belief in the modern society Fitzgerald is depicting. The image—“God is a billboard”—is appropriate to the morality of self-interest that animates most of the major characters in the novel. Eckleburg broods, not only over the valley of ashes with its quasi-human figures and fantastic shapes, but also over the actions of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, and George and Myrtle Wilson—each of whom, in his own way, demonstrates an indifference to ethical standards of conduct. In these respects, Eckleburg is pervasive, integral and significant—an organic part of the intricate metaphorical texture of The Great Gatsby.
But the eyes of Doctor Eckleburg constitute more than an effective poetic image; they are also a strikingly accurate distillation of history. In the symbolic representation of God as an advertisement, Fitzgerald documented the peculiarly American, peculiarly modern association of business and religion…
Fitzgerald was not the only writer of the period to comment critically on the business-of-religion phenomenon; Chapter XVII of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt describes George Babbitt’s campaign to “revitalize” the Sunday school of hisparish church—according to the best sales methods and modern public-relations procedure. The same theme is touched upon earlier in the novel by the appearance of Mike Munday, the Prophet with a Punch, “the world’s greatest salesman of salvation.” In a later novel, Elmer Gantry, Lewis has the Reverend Gantry cultivate the good will of Zenith newspapermen, who later provide free advertising for his program of salvation. Walter Lippmann, in A Preface to Morals, observed sadly that “the modern emancipated man” no longer believes the words of the Gospel: instead, he “believes the best advertised notion.” In illustration, Lippmann cited the case of a New York church that sold investment bonds with an interest rate of five percent; this was to be “an investment in your fellow-man’s Salvation,” and the church proclaimed itself a combination of “Religion and Revenue.”
The business-of-religion was paralleled by the development of the religion of business, which became a powerful factor in everyday commercial transactions during Coolidge’s administration. “The man who builds a factory,” Coolidge himself contended, “builds a temple… The man who works there worships there.”…
All these comments have some relationship to Fitzgerald’s rendering of the religion-business theme in the Eckleburg symbol of The Great Gatsby. But there is a more specific connection between that image and the essay on advertising by J. Thorne Smith in Civilization in the United States. Smith protested against the pervasiveness of this new national industry and the “false and unhealthy” appeal it was exercising on the American public. “Do I understand you to say,” asked Smith, “that you do not believe in advertising? Indeed! Soon you will be telling me that you do not believe in God!” To many observers of the mores of the Harding-Coolidge era, this was no irrelevant or merely playful association of ideas. Smith’s question, rather, suggested the larger religious and economic patterns of the period. The informed reader will recognize in Fitzgerald’s synecdoche a compelling poetic reference to those patterns and their relevance to our behavior.
Excerpted from William Goldhurst, F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Contemporaries (Cleveland: World, 1963).