“Sophisticated—God, I'm sophisticated.”—Daisy Buchanan
Fitzgerald's dream of success had suffered a serious setback in the spring of 1919. We have already seen how many difficulties beset the young Midwesterner who, after his discharge from the Army, had earnestly aspired to become a cosmopolitan man of letters; and we have seen the failure of that ambitious undertaking. Toward the end of his stay in the city, Zelda Sayre had made known her decision to let Fitzgerald go his own way—which was, after a few weeks of hesitation, back to St. Paul, where he retired to ruminate on “debts, despair, and a broken engagement…”
But apparently Fitzgerald's frustrations served only to increase his determination. He worked harder than ever at revising his novel; by September it was finished and on its way to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's. The immediate sequel is well known. With acceptance, Fitzgerald's world changed; the youthful author who a few months earlier hadtasted the sobering drafts of defeat now found himself intoxicated on the wine of his achievement.
If it is true that “too early success spoiled him,” as one of Fitzgerald's friends remarked later—made him unfit to cope with the reverses of maturer years—the emotions of his moment of fulfillment, in any case, obliterated all the anguish of previous disappointments. For Fitzgerald, the acceptance of This Side of Paradise meant new assurance and self-regard; it meant Zelda Sayre; it meant a return, several months later, to New York City. By that time the transition from amateur to professional had been accomplished. Before This Side of Paradise appeared, Fitzgerald had sold fifteen stories to a number of popular magazines; he had begun a new novel; and he had “discovered” H. L. Mencken, who was to leave a strong impression on the fiction Fitzgerald produced during the next two years.
In an interview with Thomas Boyd in the summer of 1921, Fitzgerald revealed that “it was not until after I got the proofs of my book back from the publishers that I learned of Mencken. I happened across The Smart Set one day and I thought 'Here's a man whose name I ought to know. I guess I'll stick it in the proof sheets.' “[The passage Fitzgerald inserted in This Side of Paradise: “[Amory Blaine] read enormously. He was puzzled and depressed by 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'; intensely interested by 'Joan and Peter' and 'The Undying Fire,' and rather surprised by his discovery through a critic named Mencken of several excellent novels: “Vandover and the Brute,' 'The Damnation of Theron Ware,' and 'Tennie Gerhardt.'”]
The periodical Fitzgerald refers to, a copy of which he “happened across” in the late fall of 1919, had by that time become one of the most influential and widely read avant-garde publications of the period. H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan had become coeditors of the magazine in 1914; thereafter The Smart Set (which had previously been dedicated to romantic and near-pornographic fiction) became a source of amusing and sophisticated commentary for thousands of American readers during the decade it was in operation under its two famous editors.
Part of its appeal, of course, was the fresh irreverence that filled its pages, the knowledgeable reviews of current books and plays, Mencken's unorthodoxy and Nathan's worldliness, the implicit understanding that The Smart Set was for “civilized” readers. But aside from its urbanity, the magazine also provided a wealth of vivid material by new and unknown writers. Manuscripts that had been rejected by other Eastern periodicals were assured careful consideration at The Smart Set offices, and the hospitality of its editors gave a great many discouraged young writers their first bit of deserved recognition. Some of these unknowns later achieved wider renown, so that a list of early contributors to The Smart Set reads like a roster of twentieth-century literary luminaries. James Branch Cabell published a sketch in the magazine which he called “Some Ladies and Jurgen”; the sketch was later developed into the famous novel. James Joyce appeared in The Smart Set with stories of Dublin life, at a time when he was virtually unknown to American readers. Eugene O'Neill, one of Nathan's discoveries, was brought out in The Smart Set. Somerset Maugham's “Miss Thompson,” later dramatized as Rain, was published in The Smart Set after it had been rejected by a dozen New York editors. Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and D. H. Lawrence were among the contributors of new and original fiction. James Huneker, Waldo Frank, and Thomas Beer published critical commentary in its pages. Fitzgerald himself, as already noted, made his first professional appearance in this lively and important journal. [See William Manchester, Disturber of the Peace (New York, 1951), pp. 78-80.]
Fitzgerald had met Mencken in the summer of 1920; he had read The Smart Set; he was profoundly impressed. In a review of Mencken's Prejudices: Second Series, Fitzgerald claimed that Mencken had done “more for the national letters than any man alive.” And in a speech delivered to the Women's City Club in St. Paul in 1921, Fitzgerald hailed Mencken as “a man who has, I believe, done more for contemporary American literature than any other man alive.”
Fitzgerald's admiration for Mencken might be defended on objective grounds; notwithstanding the tone of youthful extravagance, a great deal of evidence supports the younger man's nomination of Mencken to a position of supreme importance. Before Mencken's advent upon the American literary scene, before bis championship of Dreiser and Cabell and his impatience with the spurious and timid fictionists who dominated the popular market during the early decades of the century, there had been no voice clear or strong enough to stir native intellectuals to articulate protest, or to define the specific cultural deficiencies of the time. Mencken's resistance to censorship, too, and his readiness to encourage the unorthodox and the original played a significant part in the growing vitality and forthright realism that was to characterize the fiction of the nineteen-twenties. If it is true that Mencken was not always reliable as an arbiter of literary taste, if he cherished his sometimes outrageous opinions to the point of dogmatism and suffered from notorious critical blind spots, it is equally true that he inspired into fulfillment a great deal of the vigor that was latent in our literature. Even Alfred Kazin, whose portrait of Mencken in On Native Grounds is dominantly unsympathetic, concedes that Mencken rallied all the new young writers together and gave to his era the gift of high humor. If Mencken had never lived,” writes Kazin, “it would have taken a whole army of assorted philosophers, monologists,editors, and patrons of the new writing to make up for him.” We might question Fitzgerald's authority for issuing ex cathedra pronouncements on Mencken's place in “the national letters,” but there is no doubt a great deal of truth in his appraisal of the man who exerted such a powerful influence on an entire literary generation.
Fitzgerald's enthusiasm was also prompted by temperament, by the instinct which guided him to the company of writers whose influence might prove valuable. The young Fitzgerald was susceptible to new forces, both professional and personal, which promised development and increased maturity. H. L. Mencken, along with George Jean Nathan, represented both of these—and something more. To the newly arrived author from the Midwest, still unaccustomed to the wider world of the New York literati, the editors of The Smart Set must have seemed the ultimate in sophistication, a quality which the young novelist began assiduously to cultivate.
Mencken's reaction to Fitzgerald was encouraging. The former had been favorably impressed by This Side of Paradise; and the stories Fitzgerald submitted to The Smart Set were promptly accepted. Eight of Fitzgerald's stories appeared in the magazine in 1921 and 1922; among them were “May Day” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”— certainly among the very best of Fitzgerald's fiction during this period. No doubt Fitzgerald was flattered by this reception, coming as it did from the most famous editor of the era. At the same time Fitzgerald's attitude reflects his profound respect for Mencken's critical judgment: “I'd rather have you like a book of mine,” he wrote Mencken, “than anyone else in America.”
Yet Fitzgerald was never to achieve with Mencken the close friendship he enjoyed with Edmund Wilson or, for a time, with Ring Lardner. Mencken was a confirmed haterof New York; he spent only a small part of his time in the city, attending chiefly to his own editorial affairs. After his business was concluded he returned to Baltimore. Thus, although the older man visited Fitzgerald at the latter's home in Great Neck (1923-1924), and although the two writers carried on an extensive correspondence, their meetings were infrequent. Furthermore, Mencken's attitude toward friendship was completely unsentimental: “A prudent man,” he once wrote, “remembering that life is short, gives an hour or two, now and then, to a critical examination of his friendships. He weighs them, edits them, tests the metal of them. A few he retains, perhaps with radical changes in their terms. But the majority he expunges from his minutes and tries to forget, as he tries to forget the cold and clammy loves of year before last.” As we shall see presently, Mencken was sometimes governed by such “prudence” in his relations with Scott Fitzgerald.
It is clear, however, that Mencken considered Fitzgerald one of the most promising and brilliant members of the younger generation of writers just coming into power at the beginning of the decade. But this opinion (which he documented in a review of The Great Gatsby in 1925) was not without critical reservations. In Fitzgerald's first two novels, Mencken remarked, the writing was “slipshod—at times almost illiterate.” Fitzgerald could treat character and situation with great skill, but he had no great talent with words. The Great Gatsby, however, was a different matter: 'There are pages so artfully contrived that one can no more imagine improvising them than one can imagine improvising a fugue. They are full of little delicacies, charming turns of phrase, penetrating second thoughts.” Nevertheless, Mencken insisted, somewhat perversely, This Side of Paradise was vastly superior. He thought Gatsby “no more than a glorified anecdote.” The character and the plot of thenovel, Mencken said, were obviously unimportant; Gatsby was not to be put on the same shelf with This Side of Paradise.
Several months later Fitzgerald published an essay, “How to Waste Material: A Note on my Generation,” parts of which indicate a subtle modification of his earlier enthusiasm for Mencken. Most of the writers who had shown such promise in the early twenties, Fitzgerald wrote in his essay, had sadly disappointed all expectations of their producing a golden age; and to a limited extent this was the fault of H. L. Mencken.
What Mencken felt the absence of, what he wanted, and justly, back in 1920, got away from him, got twisted in his hand. Not because the “literary revolution” went beyond him but because his idea had always been ethical rather than aesthetic. In the history of culture no pure aesthetic idea has ever served as an offensive weapon. Mencken's invective, sharp as Swift's, made its point by the use of the most forceful prose style now written in English. Immediately, instead of committing himself to an infinite series of pronouncements upon the American novel, he should have modulated his tone to the more urbane, more critical one of his early essay on Dreiser.
But perhaps it was already too late. Already he had begotten a family of hammer and tongs men—insensitive, suspicious of glamour, preoccupied exclusively with the external, the contemptible, the “national” and the drab, whose style was a debasement of his least effective manner and who, like glib children, played continually with his themes in his maternal shadow.
Elsewhere in the essay Fitzgerald invokes the old refrain of the early twenties: “Mencken has done more for American letters than any man alive.” Yet now, four or five years later, what Mencken has done has not been entirely beneficial. Fitzgerald's objections are rather fuzzily presented: on the one hand, Mencken's critical interests were ethical rather than aesthetic; on the other, Mencken's imitators have been too numerous and uninspired. But the reasons for Fitzgerald's dissatisfaction are perhaps clarified if we assume some element of personal resentment against Mencken's criticism of Gatsby. Soon after he had read Mencken's review, Fitzgerald wrote Edmund Wilson: “Without making any invidious comparisons between Class A and Class C, if my novel is an anecdote so is The Brothers Karamazoff. From one angle the latter could be reduced into a detective story.” [But to Mencken Fitzgerald wrote respectfully that his review was “just and illuminating,' and that he, Fitzgerald, was deeply grateful for Mencken's continued interest and enthusiasm.] Fitzgerald might well have been annoyed at the fact that Mencken, while approving the style of The Great Gatsby (that is, its “aesthetic” excellence), did not think the novel important as a criticism of American life (that is, its “ethical” value). I have spoken earlier of Mencken's occasional “blind spots,” of which his review of Gatsby might serve as an example. Fitzgerald's novel is as cogent a comment on American life as was made during the decade.
Whatever the causes for the decline of Fitzgerald's admiration for Mencken, it is certain that their personal relations suffered moments of severe strain. Mencken's cold-blooded attitude toward some of his friends could take the form of brutal tactlessness, as one painful anecdote, recounted by Charles Angoff in his book on Mencken, illustrates. Sometime in the late twenties Mencken and Angoff paid Fitzgerald a visit in his New York hotel suite.
“I have an idea for a novel going through my head,” Fitzgerald told Mencken. “Have a lot of it written up. It's about a woman who wants to destroy a man because sheloves him too much and is afraid she'll lose him, but not to another woman—but because she'll stop loving him so much. Well, she decides to destroy him by marrying him. She marries him, and gets to love him even more than she did before. Then she gets jealous of him, because of his achievements in some line that she thinks she's also good in. Then, I guess, she commits suicide—first she does it step by step, the way all people, all women commit suicide, by drinking, by sleeping around, by being impolite to friends, and that way. I haven't got the rest of it clear in my head, but that's the heart of it. What do you think, Henry?”
“Well, it's your wife, Zelda, all over again,” Mencken said.
Fitzgerald sat down, swallowed some of his drink, and then got up and paced back and forth. Without looking at Mencken, he said: “That's the dumbest piece of literary criticism I have ever heard or read.”
Mencken said nothing. Fitzgerald continued: “You know, Henry, sometimes I think you're no literary critic at all. I don't know what the hell you are, but you're no critic, that's sure. I spill my insides to you and you answer with .,. Zelda. You don't know what a writer goes through, what he fumbles for, you don't know the grace he searches for. And, goddamn it, you have no compassion. Of all the times to mention Zelda to me! Of all the goddamn times to mention her!” He sank into his chair and burst into tears.
Mencken stood up, muttered, “I'll be seeing you,” and he and I walked out.
“Scott will never amount to a hoot in hell till he gets rid of his wife,” Mencken said as we returned to the office. [H. L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory (New York, 1956), pp. 98-99.]
The incident fits the mood of the late twenties, the period, as Fitzgerald wrote later, of “wide-spread neurosis” which heralded the personal and national catastrophes to come. Mencken and Fitzgerald saw little of each other during these years.
In the early thirties, after Fitzgerald had taken up residence at Rodgers Forge, just outside Baltimore, the two men resumed for a while the congenial evenings they had enjoyed in the early days of their friendship. But this phase of the relationship was short-lived. Fitzgerald was drinking heavily, and Zelda was suffering from an increased tendency toward psychosis; she was, in fact, dividing her time between uneasy visits at home under Fitzgerald's supervision, and long confinements in a mental institution. The strain and tension in the Fitzgerald home were strongly evident. Mencken, meanwhile, had been married in 1930 to Sara Haardt, a literary lady from Montgomery, Alabama—the same town where Zelda Sayre had spent her younger years as a well-known belle. It was natural that Sara Mencken should take an interest in the Fitzgeralds, and that she should pay them repeated visits: Sara had known Zelda when they were both residents of Montgomery. But Mencken, who had a strong distaste for the kind of disorder that now threatened to engulf Fitzgerald and his wife, soon told Sara to discontinue all social calls at the house in Rodgers Forge.
At this time Fitzgerald, unaware of Mencken's attitude, was preparing The Great Gatsby for publication in The Modern Library series. In his introduction he harked back to the theme of Mencken's contribution to American literature; the tone of his comments—marked by nostalgic sentiment and admiration—was no doubt quickened by the two writers' recent renewal of friendly relations:
I think the writers of my time were spoiled [Fitzgerald wrote], living in generous days when there was plenty of space on the page for endless ratiocination about fiction—a space largely created by Mencken because of his disgust for what passed as criticism before he arrived and made his public. They were encouraged by his bravery and histremendous and profound love of letters. … I don't think many men of my age can regard him without reverence… . To any new effort by a new man he brought an attitude; he made many mistakes … but he came equipped; he never had to go back for his tools.
And now that he has abandoned American fiction to its own devices, there is no one to take his place. [The writers of the early twenties were accorded] an appreciation of the world of imagination in which they had been trying, with greater or lesser success, to live—the world that Mencken made stable in the days when he was watching over us.
This was Fitzgerald's final tribute to H. L. Mencken. By the time it was written, both writers had undergone a decline in popularity; the era in which they had reigned, each in his own way, was dead. Yet during those early years Fitzgerald had emerged from provincial America to become one of our most mature and sophisticated craftsmen—which is to say that his second novel, written while he was under Mencken's influence, was a step forward in his development toward the controlled excellence of later works. But it is to The Beautiful and Damned that we must now turn if we wish to understand this important stage in Fitzgerald's development.
Fitzgerald's novel The Beautiful and Damned and his play The Vegetable were both produced during the early nineteen-twenties, the period when his association with H. L. Mencken was at its height. A comparison of these works with the essays Mencken published around the same time suggests quite clearly the extent of Fitzgerald's debt to the famous polemicist of the postwar decade. In the first place, Fitzgerald's treatment of character in The Beautiful and Damned owes much to Mencken's comments in “TheNational Letters,” a long essay published in the volume Prejudices: Second Series—abook, it will be remembered, which Fitzgerald reviewed early in 1921. Mencken claims in his essay that American literature exhibits “not a man of delicate organization in revolt against the inexplicable tragedy of existence, but a man of low sensibilities and elemental desires yielding himself gladly to his environment, and so achieving what, under a third-rate civilization, passes for success.” Civilized readers, Mencken goes on to say, find it impossible to take an interest in these inferior (i.e., typically American) works of the bourgeois imagination. On the contrary, sophisticated men want to read about the conflict between the individual and “the harsh, meaningless fiats of destiny, the unintelligible mandates and vagaries of God.” The true fictional hero is not one who yields and wins, but one who resists and fails. “Character in decay,” Mencken concludes with somewhat arbitrary logic, “is thus the theme of the great bulk of superior fiction.” These dicta, as James E. Miller has observed in his study of Fitzgerald's works, are sharply reflected in the hero and heroine in The Beautiful and Damned.[Miller, The Fictional Technique of Scott Fitzgerald (The Hague, 1957), pp. 39-41.]
More specific points of influence, in addition to general conception of character, are to be found throughout Fitzgerald's novel. We might compare, for example, Fitzgerald's comments on America's entry into World War I, as they appear in The Beautiful and Damned, with equivalent passages in This Side of Paradise. Amory Blaine's reaction, in the earlier novel, reflects the popular American sentiment toward involvement in the European crisis: “He knew he was going to have a bad week. Not that he doubted the war—Germany stood for everything repugnant to him; for materialism and the direction of tremendous licentiousforce.” The Beautiful and Damned sounds a somewhat different note:
In April war was declared with Germany. Wilson and his cabinet—a cabinet that in its lack of distinction was strangely reminiscent of the twelve apostles—let loose the carefully starved dogs of war, and the press began to whoop hysterically against the sinister morals, sinister philosophy, and sinister music produced by the Teutonic temperament. Those who fancied themselves particularly broad-minded made the exquisite distinction that it was only the German Government which aroused them to hysteria; the rest were worked up to a condition of retching indecency. Any song which contained the word “mother” and the word “kaiser” was assured of tremendous success. At last everyone had something to talk about—and almost everyone fully enjoyed it, as though they had been cast for parts in a sombre and romantic play.
Surely the difference here is the product of Fitzgerald's exposure to H. L. Mencken. Amory Blaine may safely entertain hostility against the Germans; but Anthony Patch (the hero of The Beautiful and Damned) dare not evoke such sentiments for fear of including himself among the super-patriots against whom Mencken fulminated. Anti-anti-German sentiment was, in fact, one of the latter's favorite themes during the early twenties; and one of its fiercest expressions is found in the essay “Star Spangled Men,” in which Mencken excoriates editorial writers of Eastern newspapers who stressed anti-German propaganda in their columns, agitators who denounced all German music, and other elements of the American public who contributed to the general hysteria. “Star Spangled Men” appeared in The New Republic for September, 1920—an issue Fitzgerald almost certainly read while he was writing The Beautiful and Damned.
Another instance of Mencken's influence on The Beautiful and Damned is reflected in Fitzgerald's treatment of democratic government. Fitzgerald had touched upon this theme earlier, in This Side of Paradise, when Amory Blaine speculates on the possibility of educating the common man, purging him of “platitudes and prejudices and sentimental-isms.” If such education cannot be accomplished, muses Fitzgerald's hero, then it doesn't matter what happens “to man or his systems.” Such political theorizing, obviously, has little force or direction.
But similar commentary in The Beautiful and Damned is much more pointed; Fitzgerald sounds the tone of condescension so reminiscent of Mencken, the scorn and the ire—half amused, half indignant, as when Anthony Patch indulges in a peculiar daydream:
He tried to imagine himself in Congress rooting around in that incredible pigsty with the narrow and porcine brows he saw pictured sometimes in the rotogravure sections of the Sunday newspapers, those glorified proletarians babbling blandly to the nation the ideas of high-school seniors. Little men with copy-book ambitions who by mediocrity had thought to emerge from mediocrity into the lustreless and unromantic heaven of a government by the people—and the best, the dozen shrewd men at the top, egotistic and cynical, were content to lead this choir of white ties and wire collar-buttons in a discordant and amazing hymn, compounded of a vague confusion between wealth as a reward for virtue and wealth as a proof of vice, and continued cheers for God, the Constitution, and the Rocky Mountains!
And one of Mencken's favorite devices—the outrageous afterthought—appears in Maury Noble's comment: “I'm all for criminals—give color to life. Trouble is if you started to punish ignorance you'd have to begin in the first families,then you could take up the moving picture people, and finally Congress and the clergy.”
These passages, which so clearly reflect Fitzgerald's borrowed attitudes, anticipate the theme and tone of The Vegetable, the political farce-comedy Fitzgerald wrote immediately after The Beautiful and Damned. We might interrupt our discussion of the novel at this point and, since most of the content of Fitzgerald's play was inspired by Mencken's comments on democratic government, submit The Vegetable to a brief examination. First, it is not unlikely that Fitzgerald got the title itself from his reading in H. L. Mencken. In his essay “On Being an American,” first published around the time Fitzgerald was writing his play, Mencken writes: “Here is a country in which all political thought and activity are concentrated upon the scramble for jobs—in which the normal politician, whether he be President or a village road supervisor, is willing to renounce any principle, however precious to him, and to adopt any lunacy, however offensive to him, in order to keep his place at the trough… . here is a country in which it is an axiom that a businessman shall be a member of the Chamber of Commerce, an admirer of Charles M. Schwab, a reader of the Saturday Evening Post, a golfer—in brief, a vegetable.” It might not be coincidental, too, that Fitzgerald's hero in the play makes his entrance yelling for his copy of the Saturday Evening Post.
The Vegetable is the story of Jerry Frost, a fifty-dollar-a-week clerk in a railroad office, who confesses to a visiting efficiency expert that he has lost all ambition, but that in his youth he wanted to be a postman. Later on in the first act, Jerry admits to his nagging wife that he has at times cherished a dream of becoming President. When she laughs at this, Jerry accuses her of having killed his ambition.
The central episode in the play occurs in Act II, which dramatizes Jerry's dream fantasy. He has been elected President and is surrounded by friends and relatives who have been introduced in Act I. “Dada,” Jerry's blind, deaf, and senile father, has become Secretary of the Treasury. Joseph Fish, who is the fiance of Jerry's sister-in-law, emerges in the fantasy as the Senator from Idaho (in the first act Fish has confided to Jerry his ambition to be a Senator: “That's where you get the real graft”). And Mr. Snooks, Jerry's bootlegger, is transformed into the Ambassador from Irish-Poland.
Fitzgerald introduces several complications in Act II: “Dada,” it is revealed, has “emptied” the Treasury—he can't recall whether he buried the money or dumped it in the ocean; Jerry buys the Buzzard Islands from Ambassador Snooks; General Pushing invents reasons to declare war on Irish-Poland; and Jerry is impeached while a jazz band plays Suwanee River. Just before the hero is sentenced by Judge Fossile, Jerry declares that he doesn't want to be President after all. “Just try electing me again,” he threatens. “We won't,” answers the General. “As a President you'd make a good postman.” At this point, presumably, Jerry awakens from his dream, and the curtain descends on Act II.
Act III discovers a new and different Jerry Frost—a happy husband who has recaptured the admiration of his wife and a man who has found his metier as a benevolent and highly efficient postman. Thus ends The Vegetable, Fitzgerald's one endeavor at full-length drama and his most notable artistic misfortune.
The dramatic complications at the center of the play-scattered arbitrarily and almost haphazardly through Act II —demonstrate Fitzgerald's interest in a number of topicalthemes celebrated by Mencken. There is once again the satire on anti-German sentiment already noted in The Beautiful and Damned. General Pushing, after announcing the news that the United States has declared war on Irish-Poland, informs President Jerry that the Army is planning to capture the Buzzard Islands:
We've ordered all stuffed Buzzards to be removed from the natural history museums. (Cheers.) And domestic Buzzards are now fair game, both in and out of season. (More cheers.) Buzzard domination would be unthinkable.
And there is the newsboy who delivers Jerry's newspaper, and pointing to a dinner jacket Jerry is wearing, proudly announces: “I almost had a dress suit myself once. I hadda get one so I could take a high degree in the Ku Klux Klan.” Mencken's references to the Ku Klux Klan (all contemptuous) are frequent during this period; two specific instances occur in the essays “Star Spangled Men” and “On Being an American.”
Aside from these minor episodes it seems clear that Fitzgerald's principal themes in the play were inspired by Mencken: The Vegetable comments generally and implicitly on government by corruption, government by stupidity, and government by absurdity. “I hold that this elevation of politics to the place of undiluted comedy is peculiarly American,” wrote Mencken in an essay published the same year The Vegetable was staged—“that nowhere else on this disreputable ball has the art of the sham-battle been developed to such fineness… . Here politics is purged of all menace, all sinister quality, all genuine significance, and stuffed with such gorgeous humors, such inordinate farce that one comes to the end of a campaign with one's ribs loose… .” Small wonder that a reviewer of The Vegetable (John F. Carter in the New York Post) commented: “Thespirit of the play is an obvious act of deference to Mencken's virulent contempt for the American people.” [Quoted by Arthur Mizener in The Far Side of Paradise (Cambridge, 1957 p. 156).]
Yet there is no virulence in Fitzgerald's drama, and precious little contempt—at least of the kind that makes Mencken's commentary pungent reading today. What is obviously lacking in The Vegetable is the development of any one of the several themes—or the sense of understanding that animates the comic episodes in some of Fitzgerald's better works. Compare The Vegetable with the comic fantasy “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” where the novelist's irony is firmly grounded in familiar and cogent personal experience, and Fitzgerald's relative ignorance in the play is clearly demonstrated. In writing The Vegetable Fitzgerald was following a false lead: the materials and tone of the play were not his own.
Still, the influence of Mencken here is not altogether without value and significance in the young novelist's development. Fitzgerald's treatment of the themes of ambition, the American dream, and political chicanery is superficial; but his awareness of these themes as material for fiction represents a step forward in his growing sophistication and his understanding of national experience. Other themes and subjects exploited by Mencken, which are related to those I have noted in The Vegetable, appear in The Beautiful and Damned—in which Fitzgerald presented his material in greater depth, though by no means with perfect artistic detachment.
Mencken's influence on Fitzgerald's second novel is most evident in the character of the hero, Anthony Patch, and in the passages devoted to speculation on America's social structure. There are other important themes, of course-more personal ones, which it will be advisable to considerfirst before moving on to the Menckenian episodes. Into The Beautiful and Damned Fitzgerald projected his most poignant feelings of delight and disappointment as a husband in the early years of his marriage to Zelda Sayre; he dramatized his fear of becoming a second-rate literary hack; and he delineated what Paul Rosenfeld called “the external clatter, movement and boldness of privileged post-adolescent America.”
The first of these motifs appears in Anthony's growing understanding of his relationship with his wife Gloria—a relationship that undergoes emotional developments ranging from sentimental sweetness to violent conflict, and finally to resignation and indifference.
The second motif—perhaps the most personal that appears in the novel—is evident in Fitzgerald's depiction of Richard Caramel, the author who produces a sensational best-seller called “The Demon Lover” (the title of one of Fitzgerald's own projected, but never completed, novels). Midway through The Beautiful and Damned Caramel confesses to Anthony Patch: “I'm certainly writing faster and I don't seem to be thinking as much as I used to. Perhaps it's because I don't get any conversation, now that you're married and Maury's gone to Philadelphia. Haven't the old urge and ambition. Early success and all that.” Near the end of the novel we discover that Caramel has indeed succumbed to his own success, that it has blinded his faculty for self-criticism and spoiled him with its easy rewards: Caramel has become a byword among the critics for commercialism and trashiness. Fitzgerald's apprehension over the possible decay of his own talent is reflected in his portrayal of Richard Caramel.
The third motif consists of the actions and manners of the young protagonists and their comrades—the detailed surface representation of the parties they attend, the turnsof their conversation, the expressive gestures of their clothes and cars and apartments and homes, their cozy winter afternoons at the Plaza, the key and pitch and tempo of their conduct—all of which are rendered, as in the passage below, in Fitzgerald's characteristic early manner:
As they entered, the orchestra were sounding the preliminary whimpers of a maxixe, a tune full of castanets and facile faintly languorous violin harmonies, appropriate to the crowded winter grill teeming with an excited college crowd, high-spirited at the approach of the holidays. Carefully, Gloria considered several locations, and rather to Anthony's annoyance paraded him circuitously to a table for two at the far side of the room. Reaching it she again considered. Would she sit on the right or the left? Her beautiful eyes and lips were very grave as she made her choice, and Anthony thought again how naive was her every gesture; she took all the things of life for hers to choose and apportion, as though she were continually picking out presents for herself from an inexhaustible counter.
Underlying these motifs in The Beautiful and Damned is an interest in American class structure—a substratum of meaning that takes the form of an inconclusive quest for some clarification of our notions about wealth, aristocracy, and social aspiration. Some of Fitzgerald's early stories, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” for example, and “The Offshore Pirate,” show that the novelist had been attracted to these themes for some time. But it is Mencken who gave Fitzgerald's thoughts on these subjects some definite shape and direction.
The Beautiful and Damned is essentially a fable of the parvenu in reverse. The novel concentrates on one figure Anthony Patch, and traces his decline from the leisure class through various strata of the middle class until he arrives, near the conclusion, at a condition of financial and socialbankruptcy. At the first extreme we encounter Anthony Patch the young man about town with an inherited income and a steady faith in his own uselessness, which he assumes is part of the privilege of his position: “I do nothing,” Anthony admits casually. “I do nothing, for there's nothing I can do that's worth doing.” Aimlessly, the hero lays plans to write a history of the Middle Ages—a project which he dreams about from time to time, but which he never begins. Thus portrayed, Anthony Patch qualifies in a number of ways as a member of Mencken's intelligentsia, a class Mencken defined in his essay “The National Letters.” The American intelligentsia, Mencken wrote, displays “all the marks of a caste of learned and sagacious men—a great book knowledge … not a few gestures that suggest the aristocrat. But under the surface one quickly discovers that the whole thing is little more than play-acting, and not always very skillful.” In the same essay Mencken speaks of the distinctive qualities of American thought as follows: “American thinking, when it concerns itself with beautiful letters as when it concerns itself with religious dogma or political theory, is extraordinarily timid and superficial … the outward virtues it undoubtedly shows are always the virtues, not of profundity, not of courage, not of originality, but merely those of an emasculated and often very trashy dilettantism.” Fitzgerald's hero is a more complicated character than Mencken's exaggerated American “thinker”; yet Anthony's attempts at intellectual attainment follow the pattern Mencken traces in “The National Letters.”
In the background of The Beautiful and Damned Fitzgerald has placed the dim figure of Adam Patch, Anthony's grandfather. Adam is the force that controls Anthony's destiny, the promise of thirty million dollars which would justify the younger man's elegant hollowness and support his determination to do nothing. Grandfather Patch livesan isolated existence in Tarrytown, to which he has retired in middle age after having amassed a fortune in Wall Street. From his country estate Adam devotes his thoughts and energies to “the moral regeneration of the world”:
He became a reformer among reformers. Emulating the magnificent efforts of Anthony Comstock, after whom his grandson was named, he levelled a varied assortment of uppercuts and body-blows at liquor, literature, vice, art, patent medicines, and Sunday theatres. His mind, under the influence of that insidious mildew which eventually forms on all but the few, gave itself up furiously to every indignation of the age. From an armchair in the office of his Tarrytown estate he directed against the enormous hypothetical enemy, unrighteousness, a campaign which went on through fifteen years, during which he displayed himself a rabid monomaniac, an unqualified nuisance and an intolerable bore.
Perhaps, as James E. Miller suggests, Adam Patch is Fitzgerald's personification of a dying Victorianism. Yet he is something else as well. Mencken devotes considerable space in “The National Letters” to a cynical examination of the class represented by Anthony's grandfather:
I need not set out at any length, I hope, the intellectual deficiencies of the plutocracy—its utter failure to show anything even remotely resembling the making of an aristocracy. It is badly educated, it is stupid, it is full of low-caste superstitions and indignations, it is without decent traditions or informing vision; above all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the most elemental independence and courage. Out of this class come the grotesque fashionable society of our big towns, already described. Imagine a horde of peasants incredibly enriched and with almost infinite power thrust into their hands, and you will have a fair picture of its habitualstate of mind. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority-moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear… . Obviously there is no aristocracy here. One finds only one of the necessary elements, and that only in the plutocracy, to wit, a truculent egoism.
In addition, Fitzgerald's familiar references to Anthony Comstock are in all probability derived from Mencken, who sprinkled his pages liberally with allusions to “the Emperor of Wowsers.”
Whether or not Fitzgerald accepted Mencken's ideas on the American plutocracy is hard to say; but it seems certain that in the character of Adam Patch the novelist meant to portray the Menckenian plutocracy created by equalitarian government. Anthony Patch, too, corresponds in several important respects to characters who appear in Mencken's tableau of democracy. Anthony is in revolt against his grandfather: “He's a pious ass—” says Anthony, “a chickenbrain.” Thus he seems to fit into the pattern of a typical Fitzgerald theme—the Revolt of Youth. But if ever there were a bloodless revolution it is Anthony's. His protest against the older generation is so lacking in vigor, his claims to independence so feeble, that he seems markedly unlike Fitzgerald's other heroes. The reason may be found in Fitzgerald's efforts to make Anthony conform to Mencken's definition of the American intelligentsia, as already noted; a class typified, in Mencken's words, by “a highly self-conscious and insipid correctness, a bloodless respectability.” Whatever the defects of Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine displayed an independence of spirit and a healthy defiance of worn-out values that understandably captured the imagination of his readers. Anthony Patch has no such strength and no such appeal to the imagination. Anthony's hopes for accomplishing anything at all, in fact, depend entirely upon his inheriting Adam Patch's fortune.
Deprived of this great expectation halfway through the novel, and having dissipated his own resources in a series of reckless and expensive drinking bouts, Anthony Patch begins his social and spiritual deterioration. He tries his hand unsuccessfully at selling stock in the absurd “Heart Talks” enterprise, an episode that gives Fitzgerald an opportunity to construct as effective a satire on the “go-getter” as anything in Sinclair Lewis. By this time Anthony and his once-beautiful wife have become accustomed to a series of moves into progressively poorer neighborhoods, a dwindling number of old friends and acquaintances, and an increasing resignation to failure and despair. Anthony takes refuge in drink and in the comradeship of anonymous drifters in a neighborhood bar, and Fitzgerald makes good use of these gloomy circumstances to suggest the true extent of Anthony's social misfortunes. “He hated to be sober,” Fitzgerald tells us:
It made him conscious of the people around him, of that air of struggle, of greedy ambition, of hope more sordid than despair, of incessant passage up and down, which in every metropolis is most in evidence in the unstable middle class. Unable to live with the rich he thought that his next choice would have been to live with the very poor. Anything was better than this cup of perspiration and tears.
At the same time Fitzgerald has Anthony reflect on the subject of aristocracy in a conversation with one of Gloria's friends, Muriel Kane:
“You talk as if you and Gloria were in the middle classes,” [Muriel said].
“Why pretend we're not? I hate people who claim to be great aristocrats when they can't even keep up the appearances of it.”
“Do you think a person has to have money to be aristocratic?”
Muriel … the horrified democrat … !
“Why, of course. Aristocracy's only an admission that certain traits which we call fine—courage and honor and beauty and all that sort of thing—can best be developed in a favorable environment, where you don't have the warpings of ignorance and necessity.”
It is such commentary, sprinkled throughout The Beautiful and Damned, that gives the novel its acute social awareness. Not that the intention of the foregoing passage is easy to pin down; but if I read it correctly Fitzgerald here approaches the high point of his irony and perception in the novel. Anthony Patch at first fancies himself an aristocrat-intellectual, an assumption based upon his independent income and his connection with Adam Patch. But Fitzgerald's treatment of Anthony and his grandfather indicates that there is nothing of the true aristocrat about either one of them. Hence Anthony's conversation with Muriel Kane touches upon one of the central themes of the book—America's illusion that wealth alone can produce those “certain traits which we call fine—courage and honor and beauty and all that sort of thing.”
This is the very illusion that H. L. Mencken had been so conscientious in exposing. In an essay that appeared in 1919 (Prejudices: First Series) Mencken observed:
The thing to blame, of course, is our lack of an intellectual aristocracy—sound in its information, skeptical in its habit of mind, and, above all, secure in its position and authority. Every other civilized country has such an aristocracy. It is the natural corrective of enthusiasms from below. It is hospitable to ideas, but as adamant against crazes. It stands against the pollution of logic by emotion, the sophistication of evidence to the glory of God. But in America there is nothing of the sort. On the one hand there is the populace— perhaps more powerful here, more capable of putting itsidiotic ideas into execution, than anywhere else—and surely more eager to follow platitudinous messiahs. On the other hand there is the ruling plutocracy—ignorant, hostile to inquiry, tyrannical in the exercise of its power, suspicious of ideas of whatever sort. In the middle ground there is little save an indistinct herd of intellectual eunuchs, chiefly professors—often quite as stupid as the plutocracy and always in great fear of it. When it produces a stray rebel he goes over to the mob; there is no place for him within his own order.
These remarks contain the germ of Fitzgerald's novel: they not only define the tone of disenchantment, they also predict the general social scheme of The Beautiful and Damned. Old Adam Patch represents Mencken's “ruling plutocracy—ignorant, hostile to inquiry, etc.” Anthony figures as a type of Mencken's “intellectual eunuchs” in the middle ground—the stray rebel who eventually goes over to the mob. The “unstable middle class”—which Anthony fears and detests—is patterned after Mencken's “idiotic” populace. It is one of the imaginative features of The Beautiful and Damned that Fitzgerald's protagonist consecutively occupies all three positions defined in Mencken's candid portrayal of American society.
The emphasis of the story, however, is on the decline of the hero, whose deterioration is made more perspicuous by the ascent of Joseph Bloeckman, the Jewish motion-picture entrepreneur whose gradual attainment of wealth, position, and respectability provides a dissonant counterpoint to Anthony's increasing hopelessness. Anthony Patch's attitude toward Bloeckman consists of a deepening hostility and snobbish resentment of the “established order” to intrusion by the parvenu: the Jew, as we shall see in a later chapter, was to many writers of the nineteen-twenties the representative par excellence of the postwar assault on the upper socialclasses. “The war overthrew the old ruling caste of the land,” Mencken asserts in an essay written in 1919, “and gave over control of things to upstarts from the lowest classes—shady Jews, snuffling Methodists, prehensile commercial gents, disgusting demagogues, all sorts of self-seeking adventurers.” Anthony's dismayed observations, halfway through The Beautiful and Damned, reveal a close affinity with Mencken's diagnosis:
Down in a tall busy street he read a dozen Jewish names on a line of stores; in the door of each stood a dark little man watching the passers from intent eyes—eyes gleaming with suspicion, with pride, with clarity, with cupidity, with comprehension. New York—he could not dissociate it now from the slow, upward creep of this people—the little stores, growing, expanding, consolidating, moving, watched over with hawk's eyes and a bee's attention to detail—they slathered out on all sides. It was impressive—in perspective it was tremendous.
Gloria's voice broke in with strange appropriateness upon his thoughts.
“I wonder where Bloeckman's been this summer.”
Yet there is no malice in Fitzgerald's portrait of Joseph Bloeckman, who is treated in the novel as a social phenomenon neither to be condemned nor admired, a faintly ironic comment on social possibilities in America. Bloeckman was born in Munich, came to the United States as a young man, started his career as a peanut vendor in a traveling circus, rose to the position of manager of a side show and later of a vaudeville house, then invested in motion pictures when that industry was still in its infancy, and through good luck and perseverance attained some success and importance as a film producer. When Anthony first meets him, Bloeckman is “underdone … boiled looking,” and Anthony responds to the man's social overtures with “a faint and ironic chill”. But later on Bloeckman reappears as a man of considerable substance, well dressed, obviously prospering, no longer eager to ingratiate himself: “The boiled look was gone, he seemed 'done' at last.” And: “Anthony no longer felt a correct superiority in his presence.” Toward the end of the novel, Mr. Bloeckman has become Mr. Black; he is now less a Jewish businessman than a seemingly established member of America's respectable upper middle class; and Anthony reflects, somewhat bitterly, that in Bloeckman-Black's manner “there was perceptibly more assurance that the fine things of the world were his by a natural and inalienable right.” A hard fact for Anthony Patch to accept, even though it represents a fundamental American assumption, it is made more difficult by Anthony's recognition at the time that he himself has sunk to the lowest ragged edges of society.
Bloeckman is a more solidly conceived fictional character than either Anthony or Gloria Patch, about whom the author appears to be confused throughout most of the novel. Fitzgerald seems unable to decide whether his hero and heroine are attractive and glamorous or pitiful and undeserving of our sympathy. The final episode of the novel, as James E. Miller has pointed out, is an instance of this confusion. Here Fitzgerald's treatment of Anthony's responsibility for his actions contradicts our understanding of the hero's weakness and self-indulgence throughout. In the final chapters of The Beautiful and Damned Anthony Patch has abandoned all his earlier attempts to maintain the appearance of an “aristocrat.” He has cut himself off from former friends; he has no income and cares little to improve his prospects; he has become an alcoholic and has even on one occasion been beaten and left to spend the night in the gutter. As a final excess, Fitzgerald has Anthony suffer a nervous breakdown and enter second childhood.
But in the midst of these melodramatic afflictions Anthonyis informed that the long litigation over his grandfather's will has been terminated. Anthony has won; he is now sole possessor of the Patch millions. The last scene shows Anthony congratulating himself on his good fortune and his endurance in the face of past difficulties (though what this “endurance” consists of Fitzgerald has failed to say). At this point in the novel it is uncertain where Fitzgerald's sympathies lie: is Anthony still misguided, full of illusions about himself, pathetic in his conception of his “victory”? Or is he truly the hero who has suffered and triumphed?
[Anthony] was concerned with a series of reminiscences, much as a general might look back upon a successful campaign and analyze his victories. He was thinking of the hardships, the insufferable tribulations he had gone through. They had tried to penalize him for the mistakes of his youth. He had been exposed to ruthless misery, his very craving for romance had been punished, his friends had deserted him—even Gloria had turned against him. He had been alone, alone—facing it all.
Only a few months before people had been urging him to give in, to submit to mediocrity, to go to work. But he had known that he was justified in his way of life—and he stuck it out staunchly…
Great tears stood in his eyes, and his voice was tremulous as he whispered to himself.
“I showed them,” he was saying. “It was a hard fight, but I didn't give up and I came through.”
Fitzgerald's problems in presenting Anthony and Gloria Patch were of course formidable. No doubt part of his intention was to portray them, and the society above and below them, as puppets in a Menckenian social drama. Thus, he could make use of material picked up (if not thoroughly digested) from H. L. Mencken by his commentary, through Anthony, on the American intelligentsia; through Adam Patch, on Comstockery and the American plutocracy; and through various characters and situations, on American social instability. But Fitzgerald also meant to emphasize Anthony and Gloria Patch's dedication to pleasure and to their own attractiveness as almost the only value they care to embrace. The result is that Fitzgerald makes more than a fair demand upon the reader's patience; one finds it difficult at best to become interested in the destiny of protagonists who, as Maxwell Geismar notes, have little or no character.
At the same time, Fitzgerald's sympathies, unlike Mencken's, are at least partially involved with the Patches' way of life, and his intention to depict the romance of idle dissipation interferes with his intention to be iconoclastic in the fashion of his mentor. Again and again in The Beautiful and Damned one senses Fitzgerald's confusion: Anthony Patch is supposed to represent a satirical thrust at an American type defined by Mencken; but Anthony is also the embodiment of Fitzgerald's yearning after sophistication. Thus, there is a division, as pronounced as that felt by Sinclair Lewis in his depiction of Babbitt, in Fitzgerald's attitude toward his protagonist. Apparently the materials and perspectives Fitzgerald derived from Mencken during this period were uncongenial to his own most deeply held convictions; or perhaps he had not yet achieved the maturity and experience necessary to transmute them satisfactorily into a work of fiction. In any case The Beautiful and Damned provides us with a picture of American society that lacks the clarity and vigor of Mencken's unequivocal assaults against the same fortress. Seen in this light the weaknesses and inconsistencies of The Beautiful and Damned emerge in high relief. Fitzgerald's impulse was obviously toward a fictional complexity and sophistication which he could not effectively render at this stage in his development.
But this is not to say that the novel is an artistic failure. Certainly The Beautiful and Damned is in many respects a solid achievement; like Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, which it resembles in many ways (and upon which Fitzgerald drew for his portrait of Joseph Bloeckman), it defines for us the painful experience of an individual at odds with the prevailing mores of his time and place; and more important, it exhibits those social mores in something approaching the fullness of life. Had H. L. Mencken played no part in the conception of Fitzgerald's second novel, it might have been more consistent, less confused in its presentation of character; but it would certainly not have been so ambitious or so broad in scope. Mencken deepened Fitzgerald's understanding of American society; and what Fitzgerald learned from his involvement with social criticism in The Beautiful and Damned would be artistically realized in the perfection of The Great Gatsby and the fullness and depth of Tender Is the Night.
Angoff, Charles. H. L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1956.
Goldberg, Isaac. The Man Mencken. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1925.
Hoffman, Frederick J. The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography. Princeton: Princeton University Press,1946.
Kemler, Edgar. The Irreverent Mr. Mencken. Boston, Mass.: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1950.
Manchester, William. Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951.
Miller, James E., Jr. The Fictional Technique of Scott Fitzgerald. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1957.