It is hard to imagine a magazine more appropriate to the decade than Vanity Fair. Its pages were filled with pertinent references to the customs of the time, parodies of its pretensions, serious discussion of its intellectual interests (or the lack of them), and, in the advertisements, appeals to the wealthy and the snobbish. Its Hall of Fame celebrated the men and women who, in whatever field, were making life less dull and more enchanting: truculent phrasemakers like H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan; prophets like D. H. Lawrence (“Because in his novels he has had new and stimulating things to say about the struggle between the sexes”); critics like Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, Clive Bell, and Alexander Woollcott; novelists like Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Virginia Woolf; and humorists and cartoonists like Robert Benchley, Donald Ogden Stewart, George Herriman (creator of Krazy Kat), and John Held, Jr. (“Because as a caricaturist he invented the modern flapper”).
Huxley appeared in almost every issue (beginning in January 1921), dissecting and vivisecting morals, religion, and the elementary schools. D. H. Lawrence contributed frequently, from February 1924. Sherwood Anderson wrote on everything from the need for immaturity in a writer's style to the value of the small town for the American conscience. Kenneth Burke wrote on Freud and literature, Tristan Tzara on Dada, Dorothy Richardson and Ezra Pound on Paris and London, Willa Cather on Nexo. The great wrote about each other: Gertrude Stein on Picasso and Jo Davidson; Edmund Wilson on T. S. Eliot; T. S. Eliot on Joyce and Lawrence. The book reviews were written for a time by Edmund Wilson, then by John Peale Bishop; Dorothy Parker and Heywood Broun took care of the drama; Walter Lippmann explained politics and pondered over the lack of interest in them. Robert Benchley discussed a reissue of Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1919, and in 1920 offered “Einstein's Theory for the Lay—Mind in Simple Terms.”
The subscribers were introduced to the latest in the arts: there were discussions of futurism, of modern music (Dorothy Richardson on George Antheil), of vers libre, of the symbolists, of Joyce's new “Work in Progress,” of Apollinaire, of The Waste Land. The “lively arts” were more than adequately covered: several pertinent studies of American jazz were offered, by Edmund Wilson, Gilbert Seldes, John Peale Bishop, Carl Van Vechten, Virgil Thomson; E. E. Cummings wrote about the circus, the burlesque, the musical revue; Seldes and Patrick Kearney discussed the importance of the comic strip; Jim Tully interviewed Mack Sennett, Rudolph Valentino, Elinor Glyn, and Clara Bow; and Walter Winchell admired the girls in Broadway chorus lines.
Among the issues most frequently debated in Vanity Fair was the overwhelming stupidity of Prohibition (by 1928 this was a matter of political as well as of moral concern). Other topics were the American fondness for crazes and easy cures (Coueism, mahjong, the crossword puzzle, the marathon dance, psychoanalysis); censorship and evangelism (the “blue—nose” crusades were invariably condemned); the “mail—order colleges”; and occasionally the vulgarity of American “spenders,” both in New York and abroad (“The chief objection [to wealth] lies in the idiocy with which it is being spent”).
Perhaps its most successful offerings were the parodies, the cartoons, the sophisticated treatment of customs and pretensions. The generally light tone of its discussion was at least less pompous than more serious and more “distinguished” studies. John Peale Bishop thought parody an effective kind of criticism (June 1922); and the examples offered usually bore him out. Donald Ogden Stewart rewrote “Bedtime Stories for Grown—Ups” (April 1921) in the styles of Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell, and Theodore Dreiser; Samuel Hoffenstein contributed “Love in Lettuce, Ohio: A Drama Recounted in the Manner of the Realistic Middle—Western Novelist” (September 1924); E. E. Cummings wrote on what would happen “When Calvin Coolidge Laughed” (April 1925):
On Wall Street… Coca—Cola tobogganed in eight minutes, from nine hundred decimal point three to decimal point six zeros seven four five, wiping out at one fell swoop the solidly founded fortunes of no less than two thousand two hundred and two pillars of society.
In another issue (March 1927) Cummings added to the magazine's growing list of parodies of psychoanalysis and itspractitioners; Nancy Boyd (Edna St. Vincent Millay) suggested some new turns in conversation (March 1922): “‘You have heard, perhaps,… Mr. S. Freud, author of the popular ballad entitled, “Tell Me What You Dream and I Will Tell You What You Want?’” Edgar Dalrymple Perkins offered, in the manner of Lowell Schmaltz, a defense of American culture: “Well, a noted savant has already pointed out that the good old U.S.A. is way ahead in the three great A's, Architecture, Advertising, and Athletics, as well as in another department that gets two initials all to itself, Musical Revues.” Another sketch (June 1925), by “Myrtle Mapelet,” discussing the work of Oswald Brockle, “America's Latest Greatest Artist,” described a “great dada composition”:
… 14" x 7¾", Beaver Board, painted pink, to which is appliqued 3 sprays of pussy willow, a razor blade, a snapshot of Gilda Gray taken in 1918, page 3 of the Congressional Record, and a teaspoonful of Worcestershire sauce.
John Riddell parodied fashions in the American short story, as these were displayed in E. J. O'Brien's annual anthologies (April 1929). Among his parodies was the “gloomy Midwestern story,” which concluded, “She broke her arm at the elbow, just to hear it snap.”
The magazine skillfully combined a spirit of mockery with a proper attention to its publisher's worries about what “that old lady in Dubuque might think.” It was sophisticated and Philistine, and its advertisements appealed to both tastes.
No aspect of the decade was more thoroughly burlesqued or more seriously considered than the behavior and affectations of the younger generation. They lived all over Manhattan, at both ends of Fifth Avenue, and disported themselves in a manner that amused Vanity Fair's humorists, impressed its book reviewers, and provoked replies and analyses from its sophisticated journalists. Hoffenstein, parodying the “advanced” thought of the Village in “You Know Me, Neurosis” (January 1925), gave some examples:
IRMA: Ah, pure thought in music! Wonderful! Do you think we shall ever have it in sex—the pure idea without the emotion?
BUBESCO: Why not? The child of the future will be the sum of two concepts.
[An almost nude nude woman enters]
IPSHINSKI: Have you a lover?
WOMAN: No, he is an intellectual. He has talked me out of everything.
Dr. I. L. Nascher, writing on “Esthesiomania” (April 1919), described it as “a form of insanity marked by deranged moral feeling and by purposeless eccentricities,” but was most concerned to condemn the fake bohemians, the faddists of the avant garde, who
imitate and exaggerate the eccentricities of well—known characters to attract attention to themselves…. They are readily swayed by argument or threat, are not inherently vicious or immoral, but like the highgrade moron, they lack a sense of responsibility and obligation to society. They are studiously negligent in their appearance; talk volubly on art, music, and literature … their whole life is a sham.
The age of the “new generation” ranged from twelve to thirty; it was best that the flapper be from seventeen to twenty—one (one of Fitzgerald's notes described the ideal flapper as “lovely and expensive and about nineteen”); the young man should be in his twenties. He might be a bit younger, even an undergraduate in an Ivy League college (few if any of the flappers' escorts attended anything less); at worst, he should remember his college experience as something quite recently past. Older people “joined the dance” but were a bit ludicrous in their performances.
The most precocious member of the younger generation, young even for its youth, was Elizabeth Benson, who at twelve and thirteen is alleged to have written three essays for Vanity Fair (November 1926, April and September 1927). The first was “A Child's Impressions of Lewis, Mencken, Cabell, Arlen, and Other Literary Figures.” In the second, she offered “The Truth about the Younger Generation” and her defense of it:
When boys and girls of the adolescent and post—adolescent age are granted an audience with their elders, they deliberately manufacture evidence of their wildness merely to hold the attention of their elders.
“We can scarcely be blamed,” she said in the third essay, if we profit from the examples set by our elders:
We studied Freud, argued Jung, checked our dreams by Havelock Ellis, and toyed lightly with Adler. And all these authorities warned us of the danger in repressing our normal instincts and desires…. Nature, and war, and prohibition, and feminism, and psychoanalysis and new fashions in dress; a tottering religion, imitation of our elders, automobiles, radios and free money, the industrial era and a new physical education—these forces have had their hand in baking the pie out of which, like the four and twenty blackbirds, has sprung the younger generation of today.
Floyd Dell, more than three times her age but not out of sympathy with the generation, spoke of the “moon—calf,” or “The Imaginative Young Man” (February 1921):
He never quite conforms to the current conventions of male attire…. For his contemptuous difference in appearance is only the outward sign of his contemptuous difference in thought and belief and ambition to all the rest of the world…. [Moon—calves] despise democracy. Besides, they don't want the world made safe. They want it made dangerous. They have a poor opinion of the world, and the faster it goes to the devil, the better they are pleased.
Older citizens of Vanity Fair, casting a not unkind eye upon the behavior of the youngsters, generally forgave them for having been born into a decade and a world to which the oldsters had only too eagerly conformed. “Society seems to be going through a process of reconstruction,” said Richard Le Gallienne (January 1924), “and the process, as it has always been, is disquieting. But the modern woman and man alike may eventually come out of it, none the worse for having kicked over the traces and jazzed around the Maypole with unbecoming and ostentatious levity.”
Occasionally there were peevish complaints about the waste of talent and youth. “The Smart—Aleck,” said Walter PrichardEaton (June 1927), ignores “the entire contribution of the church to Western civilization, the foundation of America, or the religious stability of the Puritans, the whole psychological mystery of Man, who has always demanded some sort of religious outlet.” (The Smart—Aleck who inspired this peevish retort was Sinclair Lewis, who, while not a member of the younger generation, encouraged many to leave Main Street for New York.) “Only ignorant passions and recriminations,” wrote Eaton, could come from Lewis's attack upon institutions because “he doesn't really know the thing he is attacking, doesn't understand it, hasn't the necessary sympathy and seriousness to criticize it effectively.”
Both the attacks on and defenses of the very young were superficial in the extreme. Their adventures were often good copy, especially when experienced by one of their more articulate and talented spokesmen. Fitzgerald had, of course, the most glittering reputation of them all; in 1920, when This Side of Paradise was published, he was twenty—three. The book “makes us feel very old,” said Heywood Broun in the New York Herald Tribune. It had actually been written a few years earlier, then revised and refurbished; and some of its pages (especially the poems) dated from Fitzgerald's Princeton years. He described an early version of it (called “The Romantic Egotist”) in a letter to Edmund Wilson (January 10, 1918):
It rather damns much of Princeton but its [sic]nothing to what it thinks of men and human nature in general. I can most nearly describe it by calling it a prose, modernistic Childe Harolde and really if Scribner takes it I know I'll wake some morning and find the debutantes have made me famous over night. I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation.
The true portrait of the debutantes and their escorts that came from his pen made him famous overnight; and in the novels and short stories that followed, every conceivable issue, trait, dilemma of the very young was explored. He always wrote about himself or about his friends, and his vision of the young showed them in a hundred poses, from ludicrous to pathetic. As his work progressed it became more mature, sharper, freer of the slickness that had first made him popular; until, when The Great Gatsby appeared (1925), critics were caught in the act of regretting the very deficiencies that had all but disappeared. Paul Rosenfeld's penetrating criticism of Fitzgerald was printed in February 1925, two months before Gatsby arrived on the scene; what Rosenfeld said was true for the most part of Fitzgerald's work prior to Gatsby:
What one does affirm, however, and affirm with passion, is that the author of This Side of Paradise and of the jazzy stories does not sustainedly perceive his girls and men for what they are, and tends to invest them with precisely the glamour with which they in pathetic assurance rather childishly invest themselves.
John Peale Bishop, Fitzgerald's “artistic conscience,” wrote (Vanity Fair, October 1921):
He has an amazing grasp of the superficialities of the men and women about him, but he has not yet a profound understanding of their motives, either intellectual or passionate. Even with his famous flapper, he has as yet failed to show that hard intelligence, that intricate emotional equipment upon which her charm depends, so that Gloria [of The Beautiful and Damned]… remains a little inexplicable, a pretty, vulgar shadow of her prototype.
These were the very qualities of Fitzgerald's work that endeared him to his readers. The women, from Isabelle Borge (This Side of Paradise) to Daisy Fay (The Great Gatsby) and Nicole Warren (Tender Is the Night), improved in portraiture, but Rosalind Connage (This Side of Paradise) —the first of Fitzgerald's attempts to write off the nightmare of his near—failure to marry the girl—appealed to his public, and Gloria Gilbert (The Beautiful and Damned) did too, perhaps because she was superficially (though accurately) drawn. He had only a few things to say, or to repeat, about each of his young women, but they were almost always the things they wanted to hear. They were lovely; they were expensive; they were nineteen.
This is not to say that Fitzgerald monopolized the province of the very young and its interests. There were many variantsof the young man and the young woman in the literature of the decade. Some were self—consciously serious or even morbid; in revolt against Davenport or Omaha, they went to Chicago, and there they eventually rebelled against the rawness of that city and moved on to New York, where they found some refuge from civilization in the United States. Others were cynical and overbearing, dreading and despising the middle class with a hatred strong enough to destroy it. Still others were sophisticated and bored in the manner of a latter—day Huysmans or Wilde. In every case the young man or woman was fresh and naive; freed of the preconceptions of their elders, he or she experimented, whether in utmost seriousness or extravagant frivolity, with new modes of action and attitude.
The novels may well have had for their subtitle “The Young Cynic as Hero.” The characters became cynics very early in their lives, long before they had had time to get over being naive. They read many books, all but a few of them too difficult for them to understand but not beyond their talent for quoting and using. They were, in short, not infrequently ridiculous and a bit pathetic.
The hero of Ben Hecht's novels is a disgusted young man; everywhere he sees people and institutions designed to trap him, to cut him down to their size. He is a “philosopher,” fond of commenting upon the dreary stupidity of his inferiors and of quoting the “best authorities” he has read. He likes only himself and is afraid only that the people who come near him will prevent his self—realization. Everything that happens in a society is a barrier to the completion of that self—realization. He takes pride in his talent for shocking people. He is a writer, an artist of sorts, and is therefore entitled to a life different from that of the ordinary man.
Having decided upon his unique and precious identity as a soul set apart, the young man acts and talks out his role. It is mostly talk, epigrams fashioned from his rejection of the customs of his inferiors. Since he believes in nothing, these epigrams come easily; he has only to pervert ordinary truth. He has an enemy who both symbolizes and literally believes in everything the cynical hero despises.
The cheap Nietzschean polarity of Erik Dorn (1921) is a typical device for dramatizing the young hero's situation. Erik is actually thirty at the novel's beginning, but his ageonly makes him more “tired” than the younger Dell or Fitzgerald hero. George Hazlitt is the enemy. In him are to be found, in their extreme forms, all the conventional virtues; and he literally hates anyone who does not practice them. Virtue hardens into convention; convention is the basis for legal action and social order. To Hazlitt, the unvirtuous are disorderly:
Disorder he thought not only illegal, but debasing… His intelligence, clinging like some militant parasite to the stability of life, resented all agitations, material or spiritual, all violators who violated the equilibrium to which he was fastened.
This upstanding knight of conventional virtue, of order, and of unquestioning faith pursues the hero, until, in Germany after the war, Hazlitt and Dorn fight it out. Hazlitt, in uniform, defends the virtue of his woman against Dorn, a vile seducer. Hazlitt is killed, Dorn exonerated.
But it is characteristic of the Hecht protagonist that he takes no joy from his escape from death. Believing in nothing, he corrupts those who are attracted to him. The women who sleep with him are offended by his quick accesses of boredom; his cynicism has made him emotionally impotent. Invariably the hero suffers isolation because he cannot tolerate close contact.
The cynic comes full circle. He returns to the city he has left, and he is left alone in it. In the end the spectacle he has so often rejected and scorned is all he has left. The meek will inherit the earth; all social organizations are planned to protect the weak against the strong:
The race must protect its weak, so it invents laws to curb the instincts and power of its strong. And we obey the laws—a matter of adjusting ourselves ludicrously to our weaknesses and endowing these adjustments with high names.
It is the task of the young cynic as hero persistently to ridicule his enemy. There is much of this kind of rhetoric in Hecht's novels. None of it equals so much as a line from Prufrock, but it is an index of the pain of self—adjustment. Take, for example, the struggle of Kent Savaron, hero of Humpty Dumpty (1924); his only enemy is the stupidityof others, whose “life—denying codes” protect them. If he cannot destroy them, he can at least try to prevent them from destroying him. Meanwhile the enemy provides him with an amusing spectacle: pretense of virtue, affectation of culture, rituals of love, marriage, christenings, funerals. It is dramatically fitting that Savaron, hating all this, should risk defilement by it. He falls in love with the daughter of one of the most pompous of conventional men. He must, to save himself, get her away from her family, force her to renounce them in his presence, “their ideas, their attitudes, their little half—decayed souls, their smugness.” This she does, and Savaron makes off with her in triumph. But in her great love for him she begins to work against his deep hatred; she is convinced that “His invective was a hangover, an adolescent characterization which her love would eventually dispel.” Gradually, insidiously, her family returns; worse, she herself is secretly trying to make him “normal”:
She dreamed of the day when his violent points of view would vanish and when his contempt for the things she inwardly accepted as the necessary standards and furniture of life would also go.
The “Rotarian ritual” of a baby shower proves the culminating indignity. After it, he is determined to leave the woman who has tried to reform him, to “make him a stranger to his thoughts.” Early one morning, after having walked the snow—covered streets all night, he kills himself.
The young cynic in Hecht's novels must always come to the shocking realization that he is in danger of becoming normal. This is the only wisdom he acquires. His heroics are otherwise entirely negative; his enemy is invariably a caricature of normality and convention, ugly and ludicrous, after the manner of George Grosz's postwar drawings of Berliners. The hero himself has nothing really significant to offer; he distrusts affection, resents love, is wary of flattery, denies everything. At the same time he possesses nothing really except his “cleverness,” a knowledge of men and women borrowed from a shelf of books that only in the 1920s could be found together. His energy is utilized to reject, to destroy, the only social forms he knows. He attacks them from a position that is a weird mixture of Nietzsche, Wilde, Freud, and Huysmans. When he loves—as occasionally he does —his thoughts become “poetic” (“Your breasts are whitebirds dreaming under the stars. Your body is like the Queens of China parading through the moon”). In the end he is pathetically amoral, stupidly “witty,” aggressively bitter, and a poseur of the worst kind. As one of his acquaintances puts it:
“This Dorn, what is he? His writing is amusing, sometimes violent, but always empty. He doesn't like life much, eh? … He hates us all—reds and whites, radicals and bourgeoisie. Yet he can write in a big way. But he isn't a big man. He has no faith.”
There were probably more Erik Dorns than Amory Blaines or Felix Fays among the younger generation. Men of little talent but of an all—consuming hatred, they fought both their enemies and themselves and provided those who read about them with the thrill of vicarious cynicism. Like Kent Savaron, readers were ensnared by rituals of conformity blessed by the church and protected by law. They submitted with some show of resignation to the social forms or shrewdly found ways of circumventing them for their pleasure; they did not commit suicide, but they were grateful to Savaron for having done so, in the role of their scapegoat.
They had come to Greenwich Village, both of them, less than a year ago; he from Ohio and she from Oregon…. They had heard—as who has not?—of the Village, and had come here, looking for the realization of some vague idea of adventure, of beauty, of joy, of freedom.
Floyd Dell's Midwestern heroes and heroines go to the great cities to find refuge from small—town, middle—class absurdities; it is a pattern of pilgrimage common enough in the 1920s. The efforts to achieve self—definition result in several kinds of journey: the physical one of departure (many dramatic scenes take place at railroad stations in these novels); the intellectual process of “reading one's way out” (Nietzsche, Pater, Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, perhaps even Baudelaire and Rimbaud, in translation); the “passionate pilgrimage,” by means of which the young man and woman find the right answer after several experiments in properly unconventional experience. Whatever the way, there is always the one persistent desire, to defy the older generation and condemn its institutions. Since for Dell these are more obviously and painfully unholy in the smaller towns, the heroism of his characters begins at the railroad station: this is the act of physical renunciation, for which an agent provides a one—way ticket to Chicago. The progress is almost invariably eastward, to New York or Paris if possible, to Chicago at least.
Felix Fay of The Moon—Calf (1920) is a bookish young man; his first discovery is that the books do not match the real people in his real town; this is a “rude shock.” Then he encounters bigotry and intolerance, which he associates with religion; they seem invariably to accompany the practice of religion. As he enters adolescence (for Dell's heroes always the most exhilarating and important stage of life), he begins his active campaign against his elders. He reads the lectures of Robert G. Ingersoll and becomes an atheist and a nonconformist.
In time Fay meets the heroine, his female counterpart; she is an anarchist first, a woman second. They read Leaves of Grass together; then he reads her his own poetry. Not much later they begin discussing the Girl Question; she resists his attempts to make her a “modern woman.” He is, of course, writing a novel; not surprisingly, it is to be the story of “a revolutionary young hero [who] was dealing masterfully with circumstances in general, and with a young woman of the bourgeoisie in particular, in just the way that Felix was finding it impossible to do in real life.”
Completion of this first stage of the young man's education is presented in the image of the railway station:
He saw again in his mind's eye, as he tramped the road, a picture of the map on the wall of the railway station— the map with a picture of iron roads from all over the Middle West centering in a dark blotch in the corner…. “Chicago,” he said to himself.
To Chicago he goes (in The Briary—Bush, 1921), and here he is forced once again to revise his views on love, marriage, and the conventional life. He will try a “free” marriage; he will give up being a village Ingersoll, but this marriage must be different. He settles with his new—found companion in a twelve—dollar—a—month apartment in Chicago's version of Greenwich Village. But the arrangement does not work; the revolt ends in unhappiness; they are not the brave, brightspirits they had hoped to be but are instead possessive male and unhappy female. Eventually everything is straightened out; Felix and his woman are finally joined in the conventional bonds. They will “build their house.”
Timidity dominates the young hero as Dell sees him; his distrust of his elders is part of his fear of himself; he takes up advanced ideas because he is afraid of conventional ones. He must live in a Bohemia and talk with the other rebellious young in his effort to overcome his fears. Some of Dell's characters go beyond this stage. In Janet March (1923), for example, the heroine, heavy with child, goes to New York and registers at the Brevoort (no more affecting picture of rebellious youth than that). Here, at the entrance to Greenwich Village, Janet finds people “who care,” who are neither dogmatic oldsters nor foolish youngsters: “there must be some middle ground where the natural human instincts held sway.” For Dell, the revolt of the young generation was senseless if it led merely to a rejection of the past, with nothing to replace it. Janet and her friends will “not be like that.” They will be intelligent in their interests, not hidebound; but they will also be “very much interested in life.” The conventions of the very young are honored. Felix Fay and Janet March come to a conventional life in a roundabout way, the phase of rebellion being indispensable to the conclusion. They must despise their elders before they submit to the social forms.
In most of Dell's novels the young exhaust themselves in talk; their flirtation with the new and their revolt against the old are managed largely on the level of words and fancies. There are, of course, crises, when they courageously leave the place they have rejected so often in their talk. Whatever they may do, in whatever place, the result is a sentimental and romantic adjustment to the society which they began by despising. The Dell story is a mild interlude in the tale of the very young. The cynicism of his characters is quite superficial, and soon wiped out by their eagerness to capture a conventional happiness. They share with the people of other novels only their distrust of the forms, and that only briefly.
The young of Carl Van Vechten's novels are old before their time, have run through experiences and made adjustments with remarkable speed. “We're here because we're here, and we should be extremely silly not to make the worst of it.” The father of one young man runs an advertisement:
Wanted: a young man of good character but no moral sense. Must know three languages and possess a sense of humor. Autodidact preferred, one whose experience has led him to whatever books he has read. It is absolutely essential that he should have been the central figure in some public scandal.
One of Van Vechten's representative figures (the author smiling at himself) is Gareth Johns, the novelist of Firecrackers (1925). He is frankly engaged in writing novels about the futility of life:
“It doesn't seem to occur to the crowd that it is possible for an author to believe that life is largely without excuse, that if there is a God he conducts the show aimlessly, if not, indeed, maliciously, that men and women run around automatically seeking escapes from their troubles and outlets for their lusts.”
It is of the utmost importance, however, to be amusing about it; the worst sin is to be serious, which is the equivalent of being stupid. Naturally enough, the most amusing incidents occur at the parties and the salons. To these Van Vechten devotes much attention; and his favorite heroine, Campaspe, suggests the best formula for avoiding the tedium and bad taste of being serious.
The tragedies of life, she reflected, were either ridiculous or sordid. The only way to get the sense of this absurd, contradictory, and perverse existence into a book was to withdraw entirely from reality…. On n'apprend qu'en s'amusant, according to Sylvestre Bonnard.
If you would stay alive and continue living graciously, avoid Theodore Dreiser like the plague. If you cannot be witty yourself, at least appreciate the wit of others. The worst enemies of society are those who try to reform it or who too soberly and pessimistically make literature out of its obvious but amusing inequities.
Van Vechten had an especial fondness for Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who figured importantly in Parties (1930) as David and Rilda Westlake. “They cling to each other like barnacles cling to rocks,” says one of their friends. “But theywant to hurt each other all the time to test their feeling.” The public performances of these two were retold in the fiction of the time; the hero and heroine of both fiction and fact were held up to the public gaze as exemplary and superbly appropriate.
Fitzgerald's public self warred constantly with his writer's conscience. In his public life he accumulated debts that could be paid off only by the kind of stories his public expected of him. At one time, after a series of Long Island weekends, he owed five thousand dollars; that winter he wrote eleven stories and sold them for seventeen thousand. “I really worked hard as hell last winter,” he wrote Edmund Wilson, “but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart as well as my iron constitution.” It was nearly all trash; and the wonder is that he managed so often to penetrate beneath the superficial gaiety of the decade's brightest youths, to speak so well of their genuine distress.
He was not alone, except in the superiority of his talent. The problems of his youth were, with many variations, those of many other writers. Most heroes were drawn, with some directness, from life. Only Fitzgerald's life seemed to provide him with the variety and—as the decade drew to a close —the complexity of experience necessary to make something moderately good out of it. The strains and pressures of that life yielded more and more to the understanding and the integrity of the artist who sincerely wanted to find its meaning. Fitzgerald is representative of the decade, but not, certainly, in having clowned for its amusement. He was able, when he felt comparatively free, to see his experience as both symbolic and symptomatic. The young men and the flappers in his stories grew perceptibly older, hardened, and eventually became representative images of a class. Most important, perhaps, he wrote gracefully of them; they were not tedious egotists like Erik Dorn or self—conscious naifs like Felix Fay. Fitzgerald was a successful novelist during the twenties because, as he said, he told “people that he felt as they did.” In the thirties he continued to tell them, but they no longer felt that way and were not pleased to be told that they ever had.
So many reflections upon the “meaning of Fitzgerald” are full of the scorn that an old grad has for the man who (like Tom Buchanan) cannot admit that he has been graduated.They neglect to consider the fact that the 1920s were a brilliant opportunity for evaluating undergraduate experience. In its freedom from any too systematic or imperious moral scruple and in view of a most remarkable succession of national absurdities, the decade offered Fitzgerald one of the greatest literary chances a good writer has ever had. In his best work he judged and defined with the utmost clarity the decade's worst errors of taste as well as its most sincere moral gestures.
As an undergraduate at Princeton in 1916, Fitzgerald became interested in modern literature. He read “voraciously in Tarkington, Shaw, Wells, Butler, and, above all, Compton Mackenzie,” says Arthur Mizener in The Far Side of Paradise. “He was enchanted by Youth's Encounter and Sinister Street and began a period of seeing himself as Michael Fane and all his friends as appropriate subsidiary figures. Wilson and his other New York friends fitted in admirably, as did Father Fay, who took him to dine in suave splendor at the Lafayette, and got confused in Fitzgerald's exuberant imagination with Mr. Viner.”
Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop, college friends of Fitzgerald, both pointed out the similarities of This Side of Paradise to Sinister Street. “We have read your delicate burlesque of Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street and feel that you have a gift in this direction,” Bishop wrote (March 23, 1920); Wilson, writing (November 21, 1919) before its publication, said that Fitzgerald's novel “ought to be a classic in a class with The Young Visiters [by Daisy Ashford]. … Your hero is an unreal imitation of Michael Fane who was himself unreal…. As an intellectual Amory is a fake of the first water and I read his views on art, politics, religion, and society with more riotous mirth than I should care to have you know…. Cultivate a universal irony and do read something other than contemporary British novelists.” Though the criticisms of This Side of Paradise were entirely warranted, the novel achieved great popularity; like Sinister Street and Stephen Vincent Benet's The Beginning of Wisdom, it took the undergraduate scene seriously, or at least gave a detailed description of campus life.
There are obvious parallels with Mackenzie's novel: Michael Fane's youth, his experiences at Oxford, his growing dissatisfaction with his elders and with those of his own generation who still believed in them, his romantic flirtations, his experiences with “evil,” and his own descent into the “dark night of the soul.”  Unlike Amory Blaine, Michael has little trouble adjusting to the preparatory school to which he goes, but otherwise there are many similar details: Michael dances fourteen times in one evening with his “first love, Muriel,” and he is enchanted by her “porcelain—blue eyes and the full bow of her lips and the slimness and girlishness of her”; the Anglican Father Viner consults with Michael over religion and the need for faith, with apparently as much and as little success as Monsignor Darcy has with Amory: Michael Fane “could acquire nothing more positive than a gentle skepticism of the value of every other form of thought.”
In the undergraduate life at Oxford the parallel is most clear; Oxford and Princeton are scarcely alike, though the undergraduates have similar views of the extracurricular life and of classroom examinations. There are many pauses in each novel for contemplation and debate upon the intellectual and spiritual life, though Michael's friends seem to have a clearer notion than Amory's of what they are talking about.
In the final section of Sinister Street the parallels seem slight and remote, though Fitzgerald must have had them well in mind when he described Amory's vision of the devil in the harlot's room in New York. There are similarities in the early disillusion that comes to both young men; and in each case the college experience serves frequently as a point of reference. They share a fascination with the Satyricon of Petronius. One of Michael's friends asks him if he knows the book, then speaks glowingly of it.
“It's the only book in which anyone in my position with my brains could behold myself. Oh, it is such a nightmare. And life is a nightmare too. After all, what is life for me? Strange dross in strange houses. Strange men and strange intimacies. Scenes incredibly grotesque and incredibly beastly. The secret vileness of human nature flung at me. Man revealing himself through individual after individual as utterly contemptible.”
In the end Michael is far more mature, far less muddled, than is Amory. He has had a series of experiences with the “lower depths” quite different from Amory's descent to poverty; but both young men have needed a definition of human life more closely associated with human experience than any they may have found when they were undergraduates. In each case the charm of the campus is great, as is the beauty of college associations and friends. The novels attracted their public because their authors described undergraduate life with loving care and tried to define experience and to give it meaning in terms of the very young. In their books the undergraduate becomes a young man of some interest, whose behavior merits a degree of attention.
This Side of Paradise is more striking than other novels of its kind because of its literal attention to the particulars of its youth. Stephen Vincent Benet's novel, The Beginning of Wisdom (1921), in its earlier chapters, seems almost an imitation. Philip Sellaby's experiences at Yale are not unlike Amory Blaine's at Princeton. He enjoys undergraduate friendships, is involved in campus politics, admires a few teachers, reads in the library stacks, and has his loves:
The Stillman girl is as different as country strawberries are from soda—fountain strawberry syrup…. She cannot be more than seventeen, she has all the pride and witchcraft of first youth still upon her—youth ever flamboyantly wasteful in its giving when it has so inexhaustively much still to spend.
The love—making leads to an undergraduate marriage, and Sellaby ages quickly. The young bride dies suddenly before he has finished his undergraduate work, and the novel abruptly leaves Yale, to take its hero far away from the Ivy League, to Arizona and the Pacific Coast. His experiences there include a strike, film—making in Hollywood, an army training camp (like a “rigid outdoor boarding—school with reformatory manners”), and end with his job on a truck—garden ranch. He has learned “to see all things without shame or fear in the mind or sentimentality. To test by irony as one tests with burning acid for counterfeit coin.” The Beginning of Wisdom gives only a half—memory of Yale; Benet is not at his best in these early chapters, and there is a division of purpose in the novel that makes it much less successful than This Side of Paradise as a record of undergraduate life.
Dos Passos' novel of Harvard, Streets of Night (1923), is even less like Fitzgerald's; the people in it are not undergraduates, and they are used primarily to discredit campus life. Fanshawe Macdougan, an instructor in history of art, is a caricature of the campus aesthete, who finds that culture was, after all, more charming in Renaissance Italy than it is now, though even now it is helping us to “live less ugly, money—grabbing lives.” The tragic suicide of Macdougan's friend is in its way a commentary on the failure of such a view of culture, a final rejection of the vita contemplativa, which the friend has so melodramatically despised. College life was never presented less attractively, nor its people with less respect, than in this parody of the Harvard aesthetes.
In the novels of the 1920s the campus was often the setting (in Percy Marks's The Plastic Age, for instance) for the antics and superficial debates on the morality of the college set. These were somewhat less than subtle imitations of This Side of Paradise, written, perhaps, in the hope that the financial success of Fitzgerald's novel might be repeated if only its subject were.
Fitzgerald organized This Side of Paradise in two books, in order to show his hero growing from “egotist” to “personage.” Amory's good friend and counselor, Monsignor Darcy (“a pagan Swinburnian young man” who had joined the Catholic Church when Amory's mother refused him), describes for him the necessary distinction between the personality and the personage:
A personality is what you thought you were…. Personality is a physical matter almost entirely; it lowers the people it acts on—I've seen it vanish in a long sickness…. Now a personage, on the other hand, gathers. He is never thought of apart from what he's done. He's a bar on which a thousand things have been hung—glittering things sometimes, as ours are; but he uses those things with a cold mentality back of them.
At one point in Amory's Princeton life he “loses his personality,” loses his desire to be a personality, but it is not until the very end of the novel that he becomes a personage. Meanwhile he has to live through many years of wanting desperately to gain one or another kind of juvenile distinction. His favorite dreams (at age thirteen) are “the one about becoming a great halfback, or the one about the Japanese invasion, when he was rewarded by being made the youngest general in the world.” After his first view of a musical comedy, he wants to become “an habitue of roof—gardens, to meet a girl. .. whose hair would be drenched with golden moonlight, while at his elbow sparkling wine was poured by an unintelligible waiter.” In his prep—school days at St. Regis, he realizes one of his dreams: as quarterback in the game with Groton, “falling behind the Groton goal with two men on his legs, in the only touchdown of the game.” He is a personality, a Big Man, before he leaves St. Regis for Princeton, a university he chooses because of “its atmosphere of bright colors and its alluring reputation as the pleasantest country club in America.”
From the first, Amory falls in love with Princeton for its “lazy beauty,” its sense of easy and handsome prosperity— most of all, for the struggle for social prominence. Since he has failed to make the freshman football team, he “takes up” literature as a second—best way toward fame. His literary interests are almost invariably those of his classmates who edit and write for the Nassau Lit. He is very impressionable; for a while he and Tom D'Invilliers read Swinburne and Oscar Wilde, and “the world became pale and interesting, and he tried hard to look at Princeton through [their] satiated eyes.” The beginning of World War I fails to arousehim, “beyond a sporting interest in the German dash for Paris.” But the death of two of his classmates in an auto accident does stir him—“so useless, futile … the way animals die.” After this incident Amory loses interest in undergraduate excitements, takes to reading a wide and odd assortment of books. In New York he sees the devil in a hallucinatory scene, the first realization of the evil that he has half—suspected underlies the calm surface of his life. He turns to “quest books,” like Sinister Street and H. G. Wells's The Research Magnificent, novels that describe an autobiographical search for personal meaning; he respects the radicalism of a classmate, Burne Holiday, and especially admires him because “he doesn't believe that public swimming pools and a kind word in time will right the wrongs of the world.”
The education of the personage goes far beyond graduation, involves a much more complex life than the campus usually provides. True maturity of the hero comes only after he has attended carefully to the facts of love and money. Of these two, and of their corrupting relationship, Fitzgerald has had more to say than any other American novelist. In This Side of Paradise he was as close to his own experience as he was ever to get. He had not quite succeeded in getting Zelda Sayre's consent to their marriage because he was too poor; the rewriting of This Side of Paradise and Scribner's acceptance of it saved him from Amory's fate. The portrayal of Amory's one great love, for Rosalind Connage, is charged with the horror of a fate the author had barely escaped. Rosalind is “very youthful, thank God—and rather beautiful, thank God—and happy, thank God,” and her love for Amory has changed everything for them, in those “intangibly fleeting, unrememberable hours” before the collapse of their plans. She must marry a wealthy man:
“I can't be shut away from the trees and flowers, cooped up in a little flat waiting for you. You'd hate me in a narrow atmosphere. I'd make you hate me.”
The great love ends “at exactly twenty minutes after eight on Thursday, June 10, 1919,” as Amory meticulously observes in his rounds of the bars. Gradually, after many attempts to forget that “first flush of pain,” Amory gives an interpretation of his experience, projects it away from himself and into the world of his own generation: the war, for example “certainly ruined the old backgrounds, sort of killed individualism out of our generation.”
The final pages of This Side of Paradise show Fitzgerald trying to be profound, to offer a “large” meaning in Amory's experience. The excesses of grief for the loss of Rosalind have been alleviated. Amory's change from egotist to personage is now complete. His experience is used as a lesson that his generation may examine. The major reflections of the book's conclusion occur while Amory is on his way back to Princeton. It was at Princeton, after all, that the education of a personage had begun.
The popularity of This Side of Paradise is a fascinating and puzzling fact. Much of its appeal was due to the love scenes (which made a glamorous thing of a kiss and developed an elaborate code concerning it) and to its representation of undergraduate life. But perhaps the formula of disenchantment, which Amory Blaine makes out of his experiences in the concluding pages, was most responsible for the book's success; there was something very touching about the sad young man, who said so many things that were so conveniently true.
Amory had “grown up to a thousand books, a thousand lies; he had listened eagerly to people who pretended to know, who knew nothing.” In the novel's conclusion, for the first time, he genuinely distrusts generalizations, epigrams, as too easy, too dangerous for the public mind. He becomes interested in “people,” in “others”; as he rides to Princeton with two businessmen who have picked him up, he announces himself a socialist. Wealthy men, he says, are “the keepers of the world's intellectual conscience.” He suggests government control of all industry, argues that there are other incentives for men than money. But he admits that he isarguing socialism because “I'm sick of a system where the richest man gets the most beautiful girl if he wants her.”
This is a personalized social conscience, and it is followed —when he is left alone, near Princeton—by an appeal to fearless self—dependence of a sort quite likely to give the young a fine glowing sense of their own rebellion. This new generation were a chosen people, “the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half—forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets.”
Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.
He himself is “safe now, free from all hysteria,” and though he cannot say why he wants to go on, he is secure in his own mind:
He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky, “I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.”
Fitzgerald himself was a long way from knowing what all this meant. The “intellectual” matter of the reformed “personage” was not far short of ridiculous. Though full of cliches and scraps of attitudes picked up from an assortment of second—rate books, the novel saved itself again and again by its ingratiating accuracy of detail. As Bishop and Rosenfeld pointed out, Fitzgerald scrupulously spoke for the experiences of the very young, gave them importance—at the very least provided an excuse for their worst errors in taste, at best credited to their protest a value beyond its actual merit.
In every subsequent book Fitzgerald was to revalue what he had said here, to tighten his saying of it and to penetrate beneath the surface of life here presented, to clear the modern scene of trash that cluttered the formulations of attitude in This Side of Paradise. To use a conspicuous example, hewas blessed over and over again by her grateful contemporaries for having given them the decade's young girl, the bright and beautiful flapper with a sure sense of what to do with and for her men. In her very youth he found charm, glamour. Other novelists of the decade had not nearly so much respect for her: Faulkner, for example, in Soldiers' Pay (1926), portrayed her kind (in Cecily Saunders) in a number of poses ludicrous and pathetic. Faulkner despised the flapper, and thought of her as one of the extreme examples of “feckless modernity.”
For Fitzgerald, the flapper was a genuine center of young life; she helped him to pose a major question and served as its evidence and text. Early illustrations of juvenile charm were Amory's loves—Isabelle Borge, for example:
Her education, or, rather, her sophistication, had been absorbed from the boys who had dangled on her favor; her tact was instinctive, and her capacity for love—affairs was limited only by the number of the susceptible within telephone distance. Flirt smiled through her intense physical magnetism.
With her, Amory felt that “everything was hallowed by the haze of his own youth…. Silently he admired himself. How conveniently well he looked, and how well a dinner coat became him.” The kiss was “the high point of vanity, the crest of his young egotism.”
The tragedy of youth was age, as Michael Fane had come to realize; and in Fitzgerald's stories of the young girl there is always a sense of foreboding; almost any day one might find oneself twenty—four instead of twenty—three. The passing of time is itself an ominous event, to be feared for what it might bring of furrows, wrinkles, a slower step, and other jarring intrusions upon the sophomore spring. In “Winter Dreams” (1922) the fabulously beautiful Judy Jones (“a continual impression of flux, of intense life, of passionate vitality”) does in time become middle—aged and ordinary, and Dexter Green is crushed by the thought of this immitigable calamity:
For the first time in years the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and hecould never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time.
For Fitzgerald's young the moment of beauty and serene self—confidence was short indeed. In his world of debutantes and young college men time was always reduced to a pinpoint present, and the task of maturing was a hard one, involving the need to give up that present. The opportunity for the moment of “high vanity” might easily be lost—if one were poor, or if the war intervened, or if the lovely one proved to have impossibly expensive tastes. His heroes were constantly threatened with the danger not only of losing their youth but also of never realizing it. For Fitzgerald, there was always a touch of disaster, or of the fear of it, in his bright young women with their pretty faces.
From Rosalind Connage to Nicole Warren, the lives of Fitzgerald's heroines were associated with the facts of money, with having it or needing it. They were often quite fabulously wealthy themselves (“The Martin—Jones fortune of seventy—five millions had been inherited by a very little girl on her tenth birthday”), and therefore bought what they needed—as much love as they could want, or a psychiatrist for a husband; or they waited, like Gloria Gilbert of The Beautiful and Damned (1922), for wealth to release them from the tedium of poverty; or they married the wrong man or failed to marry the right one because he was too poor and poverty was too ugly to bear.
The problem of wealth was a major concern of Fitzgerald's work for other reasons as well. He hated the poor for their helplessness, and for the extraordinary inferiority of their bargaining position. Nevertheless he could not see that the wealthy quite deserved their privileges. Wealth seemed to him not infrequently associated with a lack of taste, a coarseness and raw ostentation, a sense of advantage existing beyond the reach of moral responsibility. In the beginning Fitzgerald resented wealth because it could “buy the girl,” and some of his early work is haunted by his sense of that monstrous inequity. He came to see that the position of the wealthy created another kind of morality, a totally different kind of person, whose social mobility and freedom from “fixed” convention put him beyond any ordinary moral calculation:
[The Rich] possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you are born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.
The tragedy of the 1920s—or one of them—for Fitzgerald was the need of money in order to keep the moment of beauty and illusion alive, to keep it for oneself. Nowhere in his work does one find a rich man worthy of his inheritance —with an inheritance, in fact, of anything but money; there is no Adam Verver, no Paul Marvell, no Tom Corey—no one who, whatever his financial status, inherited taste, a sense of decorum, a real knowledge of the human decencies. Instead the wealthy are aging exhibitionists (old Adam Patch, Dan Cody) or “rich boys.” James Russell Lowell had in 1884 defended a leisure class as a means of preserving taste and culture in a democracy. Fitzgerald's Tom Buchanan wanders about “wherever people are rich together,” and wherever he goes is restlessly unhappy and hopelessly vulgar.
One of Fitzgerald's most acute and penetrating observations was that of the rich boy with his monopoly of privilege. He did not like the wealthy, though he refused to relinquish what small share of their mobility his writing success could give him. He liked to think he could use their wealth to much greater advantage than they had the sense to do. As he resented their privileges (with the “smouldering hatred of a peasant”), so he saw the decline of national morality that in the 1920s made quick accumulations of wealth possible. The fabulous successes of the days of James J. Hill—and of Cody—were in the twenties duplicated almost overnight. This fact, one of the incredible truths of the decade, became a convincing symbol in Fitzgerald's work.
Arriving in New York from Louisville, with no money in his pocket, Gatsby was able in three years to buy an estate at West Egg, equip it and service it, and keep it bright and noisy far into the morning. Gatsby's house is, after all, the house of James J. Hill transplanted to the Long Island of the Prohibition decade. Not less incredible are Gatsby's motives for behaving in this way. Money will buy back the girl, since money had taken her away from him; with money Gatsby slowly maneuvers his way back into Daisy Buchanan'sworld and succeeds, for a few months at least, in recapturing the past “moment” of beauty that Amory Blaine had lost forever.
The judgment implicit in this was incomplete, undecided. Fitzgerald did not often reach final meanings in his considerations of money and its human influences. Most often he portrayed wealth in terms of fantasy or ridicule: a ten—year—old girl inherits seventy—five millions; a diamond mountain is destroyed by its owner; a young heir collapses during a lawsuit that recovers his inheritance; a sick heiress buys her way to health by marriage to a psychiatrist. Throughout the 1920s there was in Fitzgerald's work a feeling that money after all does not buy anything but tragedy and remorse: “In life these things hadn't happened yet, but I was pretty sure living wasn't the reckless, careless business these people thought—this generation just younger than me.” Nevertheless he was only mildly concerned over the immorality of Gatsby's means; the stupidity and amorality of the “robber baron” scarcely touched him (though in 'The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” he definitively blasted him), and the bootlegger and gambler of the Prohibition era were seen in only a few brilliant, isolated images for what they were. Perhaps that was as much as he could do for them, or as much as he cared to do. He was not a moralist, and he did not care to go into the economics of American exploitation. Marx was not his redeemer. But within his intellectual means Fitzgerald gave us a thorough and highly moral view of the decade, seen from the vantage point of the St. Paul boy and what he himself called the “spoiled priest.”
His point of view can be given in summary. Its origins are actually the insights of Amory Blaine at Princeton, however crudely they may have been presented there. Fitzgerald begins by trying to define an undergraduate's notion of what is beautiful, together with his experience of evil. In its second phase his view requires a description of the beautiful as an experience most fully appreciated by privileged youth. Youth can be sustained, if indeed it is captured at all, when there is money to secure its privilege; the Fitzgerald woman prefers to worry about the tan on her legs rather than to fret over calluses on her hands. Fitzgerald's judgment of the decadefinally has to do with this question of wealth and taste; this was a generation, as he put it in 1931, that “eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than through lack of taste.”
In just what ways had the most highly prized experiences —as well as even ordinary privileges and amenities—become associated with the possession of wealth or the need of it? In what ways did the spending of that money prove vulgar, irresponsible, immoral? Was there, perhaps, a fundamental lack of substance, of depth, in the American experience and in its historical background? For Dick Diver fails, as does Gatsby, and this sense of disaster haunts most of Fitzgerald's stories. His final judgment, had he made it, would have been that the failure resulted from a fundamental lack of a clear moral sense, a lack really of cultural tact, which had caused men in the very beginning to have the wrong dreams, and which gave them no proper way of judging them.
Mr. Fitzgerald [to Van Wyck Brooks]: Well, don't you think, though, that the American millionaires must have had a certain amount of fun out of their money? Can't you imagine a man like Harriman or Hill feeling a certain creative ecstasy as he piled up that power? Think of being able to buy anything you wanted … think of being able to give a stupendous house party that would go on for days and days, with everything that anybody could want to drink and a medical staff in attendance and the biggest jazz orchestras in the city alternating night and day! I must confess that I get a big kick out of all the glittering expensive things.
This is Edmund Wilson's version (in Discordant Encounters, 1926) of Fitzgerald's view of the wealthy. It is drawn partly from what Fitzgerald himself said in The Beautiful and Damned (1922), in his short stories, and in The Great Gatsby (1925). Jay Gatsby was a special type of rich man, a product of the opportunity for quick wealth offered by Prohibition. The chance of having anything you wanted, as Wilson put it, both fascinated and appalled Fitzgerald.
In spite of Gatsby's physical appearance (he is always on the verge of being just a little absurd), he is an attractive person. He has an indefinable grace and charm, a remarkable simplicity of attitude, but also an obvious vulgarity and cheapness, which have come from achieving too early the success he finds indispensable to his purpose. Fitzgerald's crucial strategy in this novel is to put the two men, Nick Carraway and Gatsby, in relation to each other and in the course of the narrative to “prove” Gatsby to Carraway.
The narrator, Nick Carraway, had first to get used to Gatsby's fabulous estate and to what went on there nightly:
It was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden.
At this mansion, “every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves.” There were other evidences of preparations for an elaborate party: the buffet tables, on which “spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” In the main hall a huge bar was stocked with all the liquors the law had forbidden. At seven in the evening the orchestra for the affair made its appearance, “a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums.”
Gradually the guests came to the party; and cars were “parked five deep in the drive.” One day Carraway jotted down “on the empty spaces of a timetable” the names of some of the guests: “the Chester Beckers and the Leeches and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet”; besides these, the Hornbeams and the WillieVoltaires, Clarence Endive (who “came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden”), the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells, S. B. Whitebait (“who was well over sixty”), the Hammerheads, Gulick the state senator, Newton Orchid (“who controlled Films Par Excellence”), G. Earl Muldoon (“brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife”), S. W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns (later divorced), and Henry L. Palmetto (who later “killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square”). All these, and many others, came to Gatsby's parties in the summer of 1922; they were not invited, “they just went there,” and afterward “conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park.”
Why the parties at all—and who is the man who gives them? Carraway goes one night to find out what he can. The guests know nothing about Gatsby but speculate that he's killed a man or been a German spy. After Nick has finally met Gatsby, he is even more mystified, by his gentleness, his “understanding” smile:
It faced—or seemed to face—the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor… . Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.
Much of the novel is taken up by Nick's attempts to clear up the mystery of Jay Gatsby, who gives these extravagant and vulgar and apparently pointless affairs but is not really a part of them and—so far as Nick can see—has no pleasure in them or in his guests. Gatsby tells a version of his story while he and Nick drive to Manhattan in the cream—colored Rolls—Royce: he is the son of “some wealthy people in the Middle West”; he was educated at Oxford (“It is a family tradition”); after that he traveled in Europe, collecting jewels, hunting big game, “and trying to forget something very sad that happened to me long ago.” In the war he had been decorated by “every Allied government.. . even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!” To Nick's astonishment Gatsby produces the medal from Montenegro: “then it was all true,” Nick says to himself, and he thinksof the weird story as plausible in the way of romances in the slick magazines.
The real Gatsby story, scarcely less incredible, is at the core of the novel's meaning. Fitzgerald narrates Gatsby's past in isolated fragments, interrupted always by a return to the present of West Egg and East Egg. Its beginnings concern a James Gatz who, at the age of seventeen, rowed out to Dan Cody's yacht in Lake Superior to warn its owner that “a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.” He had spent two weeks in a small Lutheran College in southern Minnesota; “dismayed at its ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny,” he had left and drifted back to Lake Superior, waiting for the “day that Dan Cody's yacht dropped anchor in the shallows alongshore.” Cody became Gatsby's symbol of greatness. Like the Harriman and Hill of Wilson's dialogue, Cody could buy anything he wanted, and he appointed James Gatz to accompany him “in a vague personal capacity,” largely to protect him from fortune—hunting women. From Cody, Gatsby learned much: to leave liquor alone, for example, and to smile ingratiatingly when you want a man to like you; perhaps most important of all, that the “main chance” could be had if you were persistent in looking for it. This education was put to practical use only after the war, when Gatsby needed to make a great amount of money in a very short time.
The next part of the Gatsby story is told by Jordan Baker; it concerns her friend Daisy Fay, who is the most important of Fitzgerald's women and whose characterization is the most instructive of his discourses on wealth and beauty. In Louisville, in 1917, Gatsby met Daisy Fay, the first “nice” girl he had ever known. From the beginning he knew that his chance was “a colossal accident.” They were several classes and several millions apart, and he took her by deceiving her about his status in life. After that “she vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby— nothing.” When he went abroad she married Tom Buchananof Chicago, who “came down with a hundred people in four private cars, and hired a whole floor of the Muhlbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
Gatsby correctly guessed that it was not Tom but the money that had finally convinced her. To win her back, he would have to “buy her,” to exceed in ostentation and power the wealth of Buchanan's inheritance. Of her love for him Gatsby had no doubt, and he refused to believe that it had been a moment in the past that could not be repeated. When he returned from France, Daisy and Tom were still on their wedding trip, and Gatsby “made a miserable but irresistible journey to Louisville on the last of his army pay.” But it was “no good”; he had lost his experience in the past, and the only means of recovering it was to build his fortune as quickly as possible.
The manner of narration does not permit much discussion of the means by which Gatsby finally arrived at West Egg, but in the few glimpses of Gatsby's “business” we have a remarkable view of the underworld of the 1920s. On his first trip to Manhattan with Gatsby, Nick is introduced to Wolfsheim, Gatsby's boss, the man “who fixed the World's Series back in 1919”; quite a character around New York— “a denizen of Broadway.” From Wolfsheim himself, Carraway learns of the association after Gatsby's death:
“Did you start him in business?” I inquired.
”Start him. I made him. … I raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter. I saw right away he was a fine—appearing, gentlemanly young man, and when he told me he was an Oggsford man I knew I could use him good.”
Wolfsheim is Cody's successor, and the difference between the two masters suggests clearly the story of several decades of exploitation and money—gathering in the American world. Woifsheim, friend of gamblers and crooks, was able to help Gatsby to the fortune he needed in such a hurry. You can repeat the past, says Gatsby indignantly to Carraway at one time; but in order to do so you must make up the difference between the penniless soldier in Louisville and the master ofthe West Egg estate. Tenaciously, quietly, Gatsby maneuvers his affairs to the day when, with Carraway as host, Daisy is finally returned to him. Having recaptured her, he shows her his magnificent estate and all his possessions:
He hadn't once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well—loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real. Once he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs.
This is the “real” Gatsby, as fabulous a person as the fake one he first described to Carraway. Underlying all the incredible accounts of West Egg and of the parties there, Carraway sees the inflexible purpose of Gatsby's conduct: he is coarse, vulgar, ostentatious; he is associated with the principal leaders of New York's underworld; he has made his fortune in several illegal manipulations. But Carraway eventually forgets or condones, as he becomes convinced that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together”:
I've always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.
In these remarks Carraway redresses the balance of his relationship to Gatsby. His disapproval of him, important in itself, has been based upon what he had been taught was a “proper” manner, the decorum of his Midwestern background. Gatsby has violated that manner from beginning to end; yet, to the young man from the Midwest, the coarseness and vulgarity of the man finally have come to be a matter of secondary importance. In the last pages of the novel Carraway becomes the guardian of Gatsby's illusion, is committed to it and to a defense of it against the “whole rotten,” indifferent, selfish world that came to Gatsby's parties but ignored him in his agony and his death.
Against the obvious venality of Gatsby's world—the corruption of it, the collapse of all discernible limits and restraints—Fitzgerald opposes one unalterable fact. Gatsby, after all, held to his illusion to the end; his behavior was consistent from the start; he was an interested person, involved with and responsible to others. His dedication to his purpose and his integrity finally won Carraway to him, and at the end Carraway set aside the corruption deliberately and wishfully:
On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone.
This act symbolizes the degree of Carraway's conversion: the huge incoherent failure of a house is after all symbolic of the external structure of Gatsby's life, which must collapse when Gatsby dies. The obsenity is in itself an act of indifference, symbolic of the obscene indifference shown by the scores of people who had feasted at Gatsby's board, drunk his champagne, and disappeared when the news of his death spread. Their world is revealed in a number of other brilliant images: the old timetable on whose margins Carraway wrote down their names; the pompous front lawn and front porch of Tom Buchanan's East Egg mansion; Tom's apartment on 158th Street, where he keeps his mistress.
Their obscenity, which Carraway erases from the steps, consists primarily of their indifference, their abysmal failure to acknowledge either affection or illusion. Their moral defection is pathetic as well, because it involves a basic failure of moral “caution” and an inability “to care.” Set alongside it, Gatsby's clumsy but deep affection for one person (and his talent for ingratiating others) is a profound virtue, in whose interest the entire dream “of the republic” deserves to be consulted.
No person suffers more severely from Carraway's rasping indignation than Daisy Buchanan, who expects as her right both affection and luxury. Gatsby's insight into her nature is nowhere better seen than when, in the Buchanan house, he talks briefly to Carraway about her:
“She's got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It's full of—” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I'd never understood it before.
Fitzgerald always understood it; for Daisy Buchanan is Rosalind Connage once more, or any other of his heroines whose love of “beauty” and of large, ample, luxurious settings and excitements had in it a premonition of disaster and ruin. At the end of the novel Daisy has not proved “worth it” except as the concrete image of Gatsby's illusion.
The tragedy of Gatsby's career is not his death, which is after all the result of an accident brought about by Tom Buchanan's belligerent carelessness. It lies fundamentally in an error Gatsby makes at the very beginning, when his name is still James Gatz. He is not wholly responsible for making the error; he could not really help making it. He simply dedicates his life to what Carraway terms “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” This is the cheapened “Platonic conception of himself,” and in the years following it is associated with the particular beauty and loveliness of Daisy Fay in Louisville. What follows is a colossal waste of talent, affection, desire, and intelligence.
This is of the utmost importance in the matter of seeing Fitzgerald's work for what it is. He had a number of times portrayed his heroines in settings and in situations that attracted his readers and gave him quick financial returns; but he was often depressed, and not infrequently outraged, by his knowledge that his heroines were dishonest with themselves and with others, or “careless,” as Carraway finally called the Buchanans. His judgment of Daisy was severe; as the final, particular embodiment of Gatsby's purpose, she was unequal to the task, first of understanding his love, then of realizing the effort he had made to recover the one moment in the past that seemed worth while to him.
From being the younger generation's most brilliant and charming spokesman, Fitzgerald in a few short years became its most perceptive and incisive judge. In order to assume that role, he had (or thought he had) in The Great Gatsby to measure the younger generation against the only person who merited his respect. Gatsby scarcely deserved the position Fitzgerald gave him, and he deserved not at all the romantic adulation Carraway offered his memory in the last paragraphs of the novel. Fitzgerald's effort to point to the “disaster” implicit in the behavior of the very young led him to an excess of admiration for Gatsby in untenable and in almost intolerable terms. For all its grace of style and tightness of structure, The Great Gatsby was a sentimental novel, with several fatal lapses of taste and judgment.
Fitzgerald was not quite equal to the task he set for himself. Throughout his career he sought the adequately “correct” modern hero—a man of bright promise, trying to realize himself and defeated inevitably by the indifference, the selfishness, the corruptibility of those about him, as well as by a fatal weakness within himself. But his fiction almost never escaped a sudden shift in his attitude toward his characters. His criticism, even in the best of his work, was blunted or turned aside or maneuvered into unlikely compromises with his subject.
Partly because of this his work is a revealing story of the very young in the decade. He is, in his life and in his tastes, an inseparable part of that story, a victim of the decade's own standards of judging people. He never quite makes the proper intellectual use of the disaster implicit in the behavior of the very young. Gatsby, his most remarkable creation, is judged only in terms of himself; and Gatsby's indiscretions, which are enormous, are first forgiven, then sanctified and romanticized. “One wonders whether a certain coyness toward the things of the mind is not one reason for the lack of development in most American writers,” said William Troy, speaking of Fitzgerald's failure, “Art is not intellect alone; but without intellect art is not likely to emerge beyond the plane of perpetual immaturity.” This is perhaps too severe a judgment, but it does point up what are crucial failures of control in Fitzgerald's art. The details are presented with brilliantly accurate insight, greater than any other found in modern American fiction, but there are places where the control fails, and as in the case of Gatsby, the opportunity to judge becomes an occasion for attachment and sentimental defense. [For a complete view of this many—sided novel, see my book, The Great Gatsby: A Study (New York, 1962).]
This was publisher Crowninshield's phrase, which The New Yorker later amended to “Not for the lady from Dubuque.”
See “Descriptions of Girls,” in Fitzgerald's Note—Books, The Crack—Up, edited by Edmund Wilson (1945).
See Dell's Intellectual Vagabondage (1926), especially Part Two.
Cf. “Babylon Revisited” (written in 1931): Marion Peters' feeling about Charlie Wales, a reformed sinner of the 1920s.
In England, the two volumes of Compton Mackenzie's novel were published under the title Sinister Street.
When Katherine Faraday, of Frances Newman's The Hard—Boiled Virgin (1926), visited Oxford, “she was distressed because the porter of Magdalen College was unable to point out the room in which Compton Mackenzie had eaten the bread and cheese of his first lunch as a member of the college.”
Amory Blaine includes Petronius among the “misty side streets of literature” he has explored, though it is doubtful that Fitzgerald read the Satyricon when he was at Princeton, at least not at the time he was writing This Side of Paradise. The reference to the Satyricon in Sinister Street may have been his first acquaintance with Petronius. The pathos of the heroine's use of the book, especially as it accords with Michael's own reflections on “the moral economy of the world,” must have fascinated Fitzgerald. He probably read the Satyricon when it appeared in translation in a Modern Library edition. He was certainly interested in it when he came to the writing of The Great Gatsby. (See Paul L. MacKendrick, “The Great Gatsby and Trimalchio,” Classical Journal, April 1950.)
See page 357: “We're a portent and an astonishment and a horror to all the rocking—chair people who shivered over This Side of Paradise.”
Cf. “The Bridal Party” (in Taps at Reveille, 1935): Michael had “lost her, slowly, tragically, uselessly, because he had no money and could make no money; because, loving him still, Caroline had lost faith and begun to see him as something pathetic, futile and shabby, outside the great, shining stream of life toward which she was inevitably drawn.”
It had scarcely any effect on Amory himself, though he had served in it.
Before that conclusion, however, Amory has to lose the last hope of regaining Rosalind and is informed of the death of Monsignor Darcy. He is left with nothing but “himself as personage.”
It was this generation, “just younger than me,” that Fitzgerald described in most of the fiction following This Side of Paradise—not quite his own class at Princeton, but, perhaps, the class of 1922 or 1923.
“I have the feeling,” Fitzgerald said in 1936, “that someone, I'm not sure who, is sound asleep—someone who could have helped me to keep my shop open. It wasn't Lenin, and it wasn't God.”
In “Winter Dreams” (1922) Fitzgerald had experimented with the notion that success conferred such an inclusive privilege, and he had concluded that money bought only a limited number of things. That story, which Fitzgerald called an early attempt to work with the ideas of The Great Gatsby, has a few things in common with the novel: in each, the hero is slighted by a pretty girl and is determined to recapture her; both heroes know that, to do so, one must have money and must display the marks of obvious success; both are defeated in the end, the one because he fails to understand the rather simple facts of physical decay, the other because he refuses to acknowledge moral corruption and decay.
Fitzgerald had thought of including the story “Absolution” as a picture of Gatsby's early life, but “cut it because I preferred to preserve the sense of mystery.” (Letter to John Jamie—son, April 15, 1934.)
“… a gray, florid man with a hard, empty face—the pioneer debauchee, who during one phase of American life brought back to the Eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.”
Based apparently on Arnold Rothstein, of whom Fitzgerald knew only gossip and rumor. See Leo Katcher, The Big Bankroll (New York, 1959).
Carraway's judgment of Jordan Baker is not without its importance: “She was incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.”
In Forms of Modern Fiction, edited by W. V. O'Connor (University of Minnesota Press, 1948).
Published as Chapter III in The Twenties: American writing in the Postwar Decade by Frederick J. Hoffman (1962).