Of important American novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald was the last to grow up believing in the genteel romantic ideals that pervaded late nineteenth-century American culture. Santayana said of the brothers William and Henry James that one, the novelist, overcame the genteel tradition in the classic way, by understanding it, the other, the philosopher, overcame it in the romantic way, by continuing it into its opposite. Overcoming the genteel tradition was also, in Fitzgerald's case, the prerequisite for creating lasting art. The genteel tradition was a mode of order; by criticizing the genteel tradition, adapting it, and finally transforming its values, Fitzgerald more than any other American novelist of the present century attained in his fiction the power to create an alternative vision of order, an Apollonian vision of moral order and measured beauty.
In Virgil's Aeneid, Laocoön, a priest of Apollo, thrust his spear into the wooden horse to warn his Trojan countrymen against Greek treachery. The Trojans failed to heed him. Then two serpents at Athena's call came up from the sea and destroyed him with his sons. The English writer Malcolm Lowry, recognizing the Apollonian qualities of Fitzgerald's fiction, made the story of Laocoön into a metaphor for Fitzgerald's career. In his novella Through the Panama, playing on the title of Fitzgerald's unfinished final novel, he named Fitzgerald the Last Laocoön. “To my mind,” said Lowry's character, who had been reading The Crack-Up, “[Fitzgerald's] latter work represents essentially best qualities of chivalry and decency now too often lacking in the English themselves. This quality true essentially of soul of America. Can this be expressed without obsequiousness?”
When The Crack-Up appeared in 1945, five years after Fitzgerald's death, many others read it with a similar feeling. Fitzgerald's fiction, set free from the frustrations and weaknesses of his life, rose in critical and public regard to rank with the work of the greatest and most exemplary American writers; with Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James, whose fiction portrays, among whatever else, the bravest and strongest and most gracious values in the nation's life. But how can F. Scott Fitzgerald be so praised without obsequiousness? Few American writers have been as ruthlessly honest as he in documenting the record of his failures and ignominies. For a long time he was respected so little that few critics bothered to treat him with dignity; later, compensating for neglect, critics and biographers threw away critical standards in their efforts to be more than fair. Now his reputation is high, and almost all is known about his life and writing that can possibly be known. Yet his artistry has not been fully appreciated, the measure of his significance not yet taken.
The record of Fitzgerald's development seems to stand more open than most, for he used his own life as material for his fiction and wrote a number of revealing autobiographical essays as well. Nothing has encouraged distorted interpretations of Fitzgerald's life and art more than the temptation this full record affords to treat his art and life as if they could be interchanged. One capacity has still been withheld from Fitzgerald, the power, lacking which, no novelist's style and moral could ever find a lasting voice—the quality of critical and creative intelligence. In his effort to master the genteel tradition, Fitzgerald came to grips, both consciously and unconsciously, and in a sense more fully than any other novelist of his generation, with modern movements in Western culture and philosophy. Fitzgerald's novels cannot be taken, then, as if they comprised a multi-volume autobiography; and his autobiographical essays, properly understood in relation to his career, must be regarded not as source material but as further aspects of his artistry. To reconstruct the development of Fitzgerald's intelligence is the way to confront, most completely, the meaning and the achievement of his autonomous, created works of art.
As a youth Fitzgerald had already begun to think of himself as an artist. His first opportunity to display his talents came in theatricals. In St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was born in 1896, and where his parents settled permanently when he was eleven, he organized the ceremonies of his boyhood club. He excelled in playlets and debating at the St. Paul Academy, and developed into a versatile playwright, director, and actor for the Elizabethan Dramatic Club; in his teenage years he wrote and produced five plays for the club, the last after his freshman year at Princeton. “I imagined he would become an actor of the variety type,” his prep school English teacher later recalled. Thomas Mann's Tonio Kroger discovered in his youth that the creative temperament must be forever severed from the active temperaments of his peers. But Fitzgerald's dramatic imagination led him as a youth more fully than ever into active life. For in his own person he was acting out the role of the genteel tradition's romantic hero.
The romantic aspect of the genteel tradition in America was only one of its many facets, and was largely confined to its popular literature. In nearly all of its aspects the genteel tradition was a conservative force against change; and its spokesmen, knowing precisely what they wished to preserve, were usually more hortatory than descriptive. The ethical standards of genteel heroism are described by James Thompson Bixby in The Crisis in Morals, published in 1890; but for a rounded picture of the genteel hero one must turn to fiction.
Tom Sawyer is the archetype in literature for this hero, in all respects but one: he is too much a boy to portray a young lover. Americans today have so far abandoned the ideal he represented that readers can hardly be patient with Tom's antics in Huckleberry Finn. The romantic hero of the genteel tradition was a young man who knew his English classics well and would nobly sacrifice himself for womanhood or honor. The infinite possibilities of life were open, in theory, to his will; but if he sometimes opposed his will, in practice, to the dictates of social order, he never questioned their essential justness. More likely his will moved only in harness with his romantic imagination. The true foundation for his heroism lay in his ability to devise fanciful ways to reach the goals others drove toward more prosaically. He would be his own man; but only playfulness should prove it. Imagination could build a setting where one might exercise his independent will, give pleasure to other imaginations, and attract the admiration of the timid and the disapproval of the dull—yet never run the risk of stepping beyond social convention. When the clever games were over, the romantic hero won the girl, the money, and the social prestige, because his entertainment invariably led to the victory of true over false morality. This was his rite of passage to maturity. Thereafter his prestige and social position guaranteed him unobstructed use of his will, for his status both recognized and insured his sense of social responsibility. In later life imagination would serve to honor women with romantic dreams of love.
Readers who want to see the genteel hero as a mature man will find a classic portrait in Robert Acton of Henry James's The Europeans, which appeared only two years after Tom Sawyer. But James was a subtle critic of genteel ideals, and Acton is a rigid, weak, loveless, and slightly comic figure. It is difficult to see how an uncritical portrait of the genteel hero could be possible in a serious work of fiction; and that makes it even more important to recognize how deeply the heroes of Fitzgerald's mature novels—Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby, Dick Diver of Tender Is the Night, and Monroe Stahr of The Last Tycoon—have the roots of their characters implanted in the nature of the genteel hero, the creator of romantic dreams.
The romantic hero of genteel literature was linked to Fitzgerald's youthful writing by the novels and stories of Booth Tarkington. Tarkington was the only American writer in whom Fitzgerald took any sustained interest during his college years, and thus he established the first connection for Fitzgerald with an American literary tradition. Moreover, his own career may have formed the model for Fitzgerald's earliest literary aspirations. By the time Fitzgerald was a schoolboy Tarkington had published almost a dozen novels and had begun a successful career as a Broadway playwright. In 1913, Fitzgerald's last year in preparatory school, Tarkington was the only well-known American writer who had gone to Princeton; of other Princeton graduates, David Graham Phillips was recently dead and Ernest Poole had not yet become prominent, and their fiction wasnot so congenial to Fitzgerald's youthful interests as was Tarkington's. As a member of the Princeton class of 1893 Tarkington had edited the literary and humor magazines, sung in the glee club, orated, and written and acted in dramatics. He told the author of a promotional biography—published in 1914 during Fitzgerald's freshman year at Princeton, and later included in the Grosset and Dunlap reprint edition of Penrod—that Princeton gave him “Some happy years and recollections—an uninterrupted affection for and interest in classmates and friends. Princeton becomes part of the life of her sons. Also I have no doubt that I imbibed some education there. Though it seems to me that I tried to avoid that as much as possible.” The words might equally describe Fitzgerald's undergraduate career.
Tarkington earned a permanent place in Princeton history by founding the Triangle Club, the university's touring musical comedy organization, and writing its first production. Twenty years later, in Fitzgerald's youth, Triangle presented its annual show at Christmastime in a dozen Eastern and Midwestern cities. Over the years it has started a number of Princeton men toward stage and motion picture careers. With his youthful interest in writing for the theater Fitzgerald was drawn to Princeton—whatever more romantic reasons he occasionally gave—primarily by the Triangle Club. “Near the end of my last year at school,” he wrote in 1920 in an autobiographical essay for The Saturday Evening Post, “I came across a new musical-comedy score lying on top of the piano. It was a show called His Honor the Sultan, and the title page furnished the information that it had been presented by the Triangle Club of Princeton University. That was enough for me. From then on the university question was settled. I was bound for Princeton.” Of Fitzgerald's Triangle experience Christian Gauss was later to write, “Some of the incidents of that Triangle trip of 1915-16 make even the Golden Nineties pale their ineffectual fires. The Princetonian, reviewing the trip on January 7, 1916, reports that 'At the Chicago performance of “The Evil Eye” three hundred young ladies occupied the front rows of the house and following the show, gave the Princeton locomotive and tossed their bouquets at the cast and chorus.' This is the very ecstasy of admiration. I am not sure whether Bunny [Edmund Wilson] was present at this performance. I am quite certain Scott Fitzgerald was. It is not forcing the probabilities to assume that when under this hail of corsages he heard that Princeton locomotive issue from debutante throats his prophetic soul foresaw that age of the flapper whose chronicler he was to become.”
From his own Triangle Club experience, in the Golden Nineties that were to pale before the ardor of Fitzgerald's generation, Tarkington had gone on to become one of the most popular chroniclers of the age of the genteel romantic hero. In Penrod Schofield he created the most famous twentieth-century version of these boy heroes. Fitzgerald was so interested in the genre he wrote his first review—printed in the Nassau Literary Magazine for January 1917— on a book of stories in the Penrod series. If Penrod was not modeled directly on the figure of Tom Sawyer, certainly he was intended to be a successor to Tom's romantic style. In “an appreciation” written for a new edition of Tom Sawyer, Tarkington gave Mark Twain credit for writing the “first story of a boy in which the hero was recognized as a boy throughout the whole narrative.”
Tarkington in the Penrod series succeeds as an entertainer of children, but as a novelist he cannot sustain the interest of adult readers as does Twain. His style in the Penrod books is sentimental and literary. He assumes a tone of detached superiority, but his self-amusement lacks the compassion Twain could show for his characters. And Tarkington's stories contain none of the implicit social criticism in Tom Sawyer which Twain developed and made the foundation for the tone and structure of Huckleberry Finn. What Tarkington achieved in the Penrod stories was an honesty that enabled him to portray pre-adolescent genteel manners in a comic and sympathetic way. Fitzgerald praised this in his review of Penrod and Sam when he wrote, “Mr. Tarkington has done what so many authors of juvenile books fail to do: he has admitted the unequalled snobbishness of boyhood and has traced the neighborhood social system which, with Penrod and Sam at the top, makes possible more than half the stories.” Fitzgerald expressed even greater admiration for Tarkington's Seventeen when it appeared during his junior year in college. He listed it with The Varmint by Owen Johnson and Youth's Encounter by Compton Mackenzie as one of the finest novels of youth of the period. And it is in Seventeen, where the romantic herohas passed the age of puberty, that the problems of the genteel formula emerge most clearly.
William Sylvanus Baxter, the young man of Seventeen, aspires to be a romantic hero, but fate and an uncomprehending family seem to conspire eternally against him. At their hands he suffers a series of embarrassing indignities that he knows must make him look like a fool in the eyes of Miss Lola Pratt, the baby-talking visitor with whom William has fallen in love, along with all the other boys in town. William Baxter is presented to the reader rather as a victim than as a hero, and Tarkington takes pains early in the book to editorialize about the cause: “For in the elder teens adolescence may be completed, but not by experience, and these years know their own tragedies. It is the time of life when one finds it unendurable not to seem perfect in all outward matters: in worldly position, in the equipments of wealth, in family, and in the grace, elegance, and dignity of all appearances in public. And yet the youth is continually betrayed by the child still intermittently insistent within him, and by the child which undiplomatic people too often assume him to be … what injured his sensibilities was the disposition on the part of people—especially his parents, and frequently his aunts and uncles— to regard him as a little boy.” This is the kind of injustice, of course, which causes boys like Tom Sawyer and Penrod to begin their careers of willful imaginative revolt, leading eventually to re-acceptance and reward. But William Baxter possesses neither will nor imagination; his little sister Jane, who is Tom Sawyer and Penrod's age, possesses all the imagination and willfulness in the Baxter family, and William is the helpless sport of his social environment. This turnabout of expectations creates the basic comic situation of the novel. But it also points to a deeper problem genteel writers faced when their young heroes were ready to leap into manhood. William thinks he loves Miss Lola Pratt, and he thinks he wants to marry her. Yet marriage to William is nothing more than an inexpressibly vague state of bliss, and the only desire William feels for Miss Lola Pratt is to be in her presence or dance with her—he doesn't even dream about a kiss.
This lack of candor about youthful desires came under attack from the critics in the different literary atmosphere of the 1920's, though with readers Seventeen remained as popular as ever. The columnist Heywood Broun accused Tarkington of ignoring the torment of sexual awakening, and Tarkington answered: “I don't see it. I never knew a youth who had that sense of torment under the circumstances depicted in 'Seventeen.' William didn't recognize anything.” With his acute awareness of social mores, Fitzgerald was later to set the date for the beginning of “petting” among young people in 1915, the very year Seventeen was appearing serially in a magazine; but he added, “petting in its more audacious manifestations was confined to the wealthier classes—among other young people the old standards prevailed until after the war.” Tarkington thus may have been telling the truth about the small-town boy. But if he had justification in social fact for depriving William of sexual consciousness, he had also to deprive William of will and imagination for connected reasons of literary taste. “We are not necessarily ignorant of what we ignore in art,” he was later to say in his reply to Broun. Both Tarkington and his readers, one must assume, were aware in 1915 that no young man of seventeen, who possessed will and imagination, could be so ignorant of sex. If for reasons of taste and sentiment Tarkington felt it necessary to deprive William of a particular awareness, he had also to deprive him of particular capacities. William then is a failure as a romantic hero. Much of the comedy derives from the unstated absence of those qualities which could make him a success—and we laugh at William, not with the sympathy and support which underlies our laughter at Penrod, but because he is weak and foolish. Unlike Penrod, Seventeen is a situation comedy in which character plays no role at all. So long as genteel restrictions prohibited the honesty that Tarkington displayed in Penrod, the genteel romantic hero could not be portrayed as a young man between the years of pre-adolescence and worldly maturity. It was the smashing of these restrictions in the aftermath of the First World War—to look ahead for a moment—that enabled young novelists like Fitzgerald to write about romantic youth and thus prolong momentarily the life of the genteel romantic hero.
Fitzgerald also drew in his youth on the intellectual tradition arising out of his Roman Catholic religion. From a present-day perspective one might assume that Roman Catholicism and the genteel American tradition stood in polar hostility to each other, re-enacting the old opposition between “Romanism” and nativist Protestantismthat dated back in America to colonial times. But the culture of the genteel tradition had begun to flourish only after strict Calvinist constraints had fallen away. By the end of the nineteenth century genteel American Protestants were struggling to build a culture which Roman Catholic intellectuals attained almost by birthright. In genteel eyes the Catholic intellectual culture lived in unself-conscious familiarity with the great art and literature of the past. It conducted its daily observances with ritual and beauty, and seemed to possess a natural sense of social decorum and order and ease. Unoppressed by the passage of time, it lived happily with a feeling for continuity and tradition. The young Catholic like Fitzgerald, whose secular ambitions were directed into the dominant Protestant social life, might find that his intellectual background fitted him as well as any to express the aspirations of genteel American culture.
Fitzgerald's first significant encounter with Catholic intellectual tradition came at a time when he was already beginning to feel that his Church stood in the way of his literary aspirations. For the last two years before entering Princeton he attended the Newman School, a Catholic preparatory school near Hackensack, New Jersey. There he became friends with Father Sigourney Webster Fay, a wealthy convert to Catholicism who introduced Fitzgerald to the sophisticated social and intellectual life of upper-class Eastern Catholics. Fay in turn brought Fitzgerald together with Shane Leslie, a visiting young Catholic writer from England, a member of the Irish land-holding aristocracy who was only a few years out of Eton and King's College, Cambridge. In their conversations Leslie made Fitzgerald familiar with the obscure English Catholic writers whose names crop up in Fitzgerald's early letters and reviews. From his later recollections it is apparent that Leslie, with all the confidence of his own youth and success and social standing, found the schoolboy Fitzgerald callow and ignorant, and humored his literary ambitions in the spirit of a lark. “The Monsignor and perhaps myself had induced Fitzgerald to believe he was the future Catholic novelist for the United States, a parallel to Mgr. Hugh Benson in this country,” Leslie wrote in The Times Literary Supplement. “We encouraged him to believe that he would write the unwritten great Catholic novel… of the United States.” Robert Hugh Benson was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a convert to Catholicism who entered the priesthood, whom Leslie had known at King's. Of Benson's novels George N. Shuster wrote in The Catholic Spirit in Modern English Literature, “His work… was prompted by peculiar and special interests which may be summed up here as curiosity in the borderlands of life and an appetite for magnificence … [A] ghost could have aroused him at any moment. The details of an apparition left him in a state of eager excitement… Philosophically, Benson was an egoist who did not consider sufficiently, perhaps, the nature and value of environment.” In writers like Benson, Fitzgerald no doubt found his precedent for the episode of the Devil that has so bothered later readers of This Side of Paradise; there was an even more elaborate ghost scene in the unpublished early manuscript, based on a story Fitzgerald heard from Father Fay. The romantic egoist of English Catholic literature cut, so it seems, a slightly more independent figure than his cousin, the romantic hero of genteel American fiction.
In later life Fitzgerald never fulfilled the ambition which Father Fay and Leslie had harbored for him. During his college years his adherence to his faith was apparently already wavering. Later he was, nominally at least, to leave the Church, and after his death his body was refused burial in a Catholic cemetery. The Catholic intellectual background he absorbed from Father Fay and Leslie rarely shows up explicitly in his fiction. But when he was closest to Father Fay, Fitzgerald did write one story on a Catholic theme—“The Ordeal,” his first printed undergraduate fiction. It is not the most interesting of his college stories, but in many ways it is the most polished. “The Ordeal” is set at a seminary in Maryland, where Fitzgerald had once visited a distant relative who was entering the Jesuit order. The young man in Fitzgerald's story is about to take his vows and enter his novitiate. He has already overcome his desire for success in the world, his family's objections—“They told him he was ruining a promising young life because of a sentimental notion of self-sacrifice, a boyish dream”—overcome even his desire for a selfhood outside his faith. He knew “his individuality, his physical ego would be effaced.” Still, as he stands alone in the late afternoon sunshine, memories and doubts assail him. He recalls a girl. “Then as in a crystal he seemed to hear Huxley, Nietzsche, Zola, Kant cry, 'I will not'—he saw Voltaire and Shaw wild with cold passion. Thevoices pleaded 'why?' and the girl's sad eyes gazed at him with infinite longing.” Without difficulty he turns back this improbable combination of anti-Christs and enters the chapel. There a far more dangerous power confronts him. His eye is drawn to a burning candle. “He realized only that the forces around him were of hell and .. . the single candle contained the essence of evil. He felt himself alone pitted against an infinity of temptation… He must look at the candle and look and look until the power that filled it and forced him into this plane died forever for him.” He pits his faith against the evil power in the flame. “Then suddenly he became aware of a new presence… It was the stained window of St. Francis Xavier. He gripped at it spiritually, clung to it and with aching heart called silently for God.” The service ends, the flame goes out, he takes his vows.
Like all of Fitzgerald's college fiction, “The Ordeal” is no more than a good undergraduate story, of little interest except that its author was to become a novelist of importance; it demonstrates a youthful capacity to create a dramatic and evocative prose style accompanied by a corresponding crudity in the effects and feelings evoked. “The Ordeal” is unusual in that its supernatural element is well controlled by the symbols created in natural description and action. The emphasis on the afternoon sun and its effects on the seminary in the opening sentences leads through the young man's first response to the light within the chapel to the moment when the stained glass window, illuminated by the afternoonsun, seems to body forth his faith. Moreover, the movement of the young man's spiritual crisis in step with the outward forms of the service heightens the symbolic expiration of the flame, for the candle must go out at the proper moment in the ceremony. The quality of symbolism is undercut by the inability of Fitzgerald at this point to create a fictional conception, except in vague or crudely theological terms, of the evil which mystically lives in the flame. When he rewrote this story four years later after his first novel had been accepted—it was printed as “Benediction” in The Smart Set and included in Fitzgerald s first book of stories, Flappers and Philosophers—the theological implications of the symbolism were to lead a young girl, sister of a novice, almost to hold back from entering a love affair; but not quite.
Yet there were other aspects of Leslie's Anglo-Irish point of view which Fitzgerald responded to deeply, and absorbed into his own intellectual outlook. In 1916 and 1917, before the United States entered the war, Leslie brought out for American readers two books on English culture, The End of a Chapter and The Celt and the World. But they hardly resemble the patriotic appeals from the mother civilization to her infant that crossed the Atlantic in those months. Leslie's tone was surprisingly dispassionate. His Catholicism and his Irish ancestry enabled him to detach himself from blindly uncritical loyalty to the English cause. No matter how strong his love and admiration for English life, his world-historical attitude forced him to view the crisis in a philosophical and, on the whole, pessimistic way. He distinguished between two major races in Aryan civilization, the Celt and the Teuton, the one mystical in nature, the other material. And he viewed the world war as a struggle between two Teutonic nations, with the Celts—primarily the Irish—tragically divided and yet drawn into a conflict in which they could expect only further loss. From the point of view of Irish faith and Irish dignity, first England, then Europe, were judged and found wanting. And if Europe and England do not avail, where is civilization to turn? The last chapter of the second book ends with a veiled prophecy: “It will be a long time before the West and the East, the Republic of the Stars and the Empire of the Rising Sun meet in conflict over the bones of the old Kings of the Sea.”
The Celt and the World brought out Fitzgerald's Irish self-consciousness. Reviewing the book for the Nassau Lit, he wholeheartedly took up Leslie's Celtic point of view. “To an Irishman the whole book is fascinating,” he wrote, and he called the book a “bible of Irish Patriotism.” For a time thereafter he signed off his letters to Edmund Wilson “Celtically” and “Gaelically yours”; and in a letter of June 10, 1917, to his cousin Mrs. Richard Taylor he brought his hopes and his adopted attitudes strikingly together:
Had I met Shane Leslie when I last saw you? Well, I've seen a lot more of him—He's an author and a perfect knockout—On the whole I'm having a fairly good time—but it looks as if the youth of me and my generation ends some time during the present year, rather summarily—If we ever get back, and I don't particularly care, we'll be rather aged—in the worst way. After all, life hasn't much to offer exceptyouth and I suppose for older people the love of youth in others. I agree perfectly with Rupert Brooke's men of Grantchester
“Who when they get to feeling old
They up and shoot themselves I'm told.”
Every man I've met who's been to war—that is, this war, seems to have lost youth and faith in man unless they're wine-bibbers of patriotism which, of course, I think is the biggest rot in the world.
Updike of Oxford or Harvard says “I die for England” or “I die for America”—not me. I'm too Irish for that—I may get killed for America—but I'm going to die for myself…
Do read The End of a Chapter and The Celt and the World by Shane Leslie—you'd enjoy them both immensely.
In his review Fitzgerald quoted from memory—and thus slightly misquoted—a phrase from Leslie's preface to The End of a Chapter: “I had witnessed the suicide of the civilization called Christian and the travail of a new era to which no gods have been as yet rash enough to give their name.” Leslie's books were the earliest sources for the historical perspectives, and a persistent philosophical pessimism, which form an important, and neglected, aspect of Fitzgerald's artistry.
How little Fitzgerald took from the academic side of his Princeton years is well known. What Princeton provided for Fitzgerald's intellect is more difficult to say, and leads in turn to an even more problematic question, that of what one should expect from the encounter between a modern university and a young man of creative talent. Fitzgerald has always been one of the chief targets of those critics who have found the generation of the twenties wanting in the capacity to handle general ideas. “It is in this department of fiction,” Irving Howe wrote in his study on Faulkner, “… that so many gifted American novelists conspicuously fail, particularly those 'natural talents' of Faulkner's generation who are unstained by the imprint of literary tradition or training.” But the young writer at Princeton fifty years ago could have had nothing imprinted on his intellect from his studies in the humanities—particularly his studies in English literature—if not formal literary tradition and training. The issue is more complex than one of simply acquiring a literary tradition. Tradition is valuable when it deepens the writer's historical and philosophical perspective on his style and his aims and his contemporary situation. The young men of Princeton before the First World War were burdened with a formal literary tradition which was absolutely hostile to the living arts and culture of their day. The English Department set up its barricades against the present on a line running—on its most exposed front—from A Tale of Two Cities through Silas Marner and Robert Browning's poetry to the criticism of Matthew Arnold. For them the choice truly lay between their culture, in Arnold's phrase, and anarchy. Christian Gauss made a daring choice in 1914 when he gave the last lecture in his French romanticism course on Anatole France, who had celebrated his seventieth birthday that year, and thus may have qualified because he was past his allotted three-score-and-ten. Moreover, Gauss lectured to his students on a literary movement he defined as “a movement to obtain freedom from tradition and conventions which were beginning to be felt as constraining, a movement toward freedom for modern artists to choose their own subjects and to treat them in their own way.” Young writers at Princeton found no such impetus to freedom in the English curriculum. “Princeton is stupid…,” Fitzgerald wrote to Edmund Wilson in the fall of 1917, just before he left to take up a commission in the Army. “I'm rather bored here but I see Shane Leslie occasionally and read Wells and Rousseau.” One cannot condemn Fitzgerald out of hand for turning his back on the classroom and learning what he could of contemporary literature on his own and in company with other undergraduate writers.
Outside the lecture hall Princeton did confront Fitzgerald and his fellow writers with living traditions—with the eating clubs, with athletics, with wealth and cultivation and power in the old aristocratic names among their friends, with the values and habits of Princeton's old Presbyterian small-college past as it moved into the twentieth century. In This Side of Paradise Fitzgerald tried to convey in lyric prose the emotions evoked out of the beauty of the Princeton campus and the customs and tenor of college life/Later he and Wilson and John Peale Bishop, the three writers who went through Princeton together, each gave in essays his memories and interpretations of university life/The atmosphere of Princeton obviously worked itself deeply into Fitzgerald's intellectual outlook, but no one can say objectively what effect it was eventually to haveupon his art; each time he drew on it for his fiction, or in his essays, he was to re-create it and shape it for his own immediate artistic purposes. After both Bishop and Fitzgerald were dead, Wilson, in a letter to Christian Gauss, made the most penetrating attempt to judge the significance of their Princeton experience for their later careers as writers; it is also the least known. When Gauss published in 1944 his memoir of Wilson's undergraduate days, Wilson wrote to him:
I have been thinking about the whole group and I believe that, in certain ways, Princeton did not serve them very well. I said this to Mary [McCarthy, then Wilson's wife], who has had considerable opportunity to observe the men from the various colleges, and she said: “Yes, Princeton didn't give them quite moral principle enough to be writers.” Instead, it gave us too much respect for money and country house social prestige. Both Scott and John in their respective ways, I think, fell victims to this.—I don't want to be pharisaical about them: I was more fortunate than either of them, not in gifts, but in the opportunity to survive, because I had enough money for study and travel in the years when those things are most valuable, but not so much that… I didn't have to think about earning some.—One's only consolation is that Princeton did give us other things that were good—a sort of eighteenth-century humanism that probably itself was not unconnected with the rich-patron relationship of the University to somebody like M. T. Pyne. And then, if we had gone to Yale, though we should probably all have survived in the flesh, we might never have survived in whatever it is that inspires people not to take too seriously the ideal of the successful man.
Fitzgerald's indifference, as an undergraduate, to success in the classroom led directly to his failure to realize his theatrical ambitions at Princeton, and brought about the first major shift in the movement of his artistic career. Though he wrote the lyrics for three consecutive Triangle shows, he was declared ineligible, because of low grades, to participate in any of them. In the fall of his junior year he fell ill, quite possibly because he overworked himself in Triangle rehearsals, and subsequently was asked to leave college for the remainder of the year. When he returned in the following September the prestige and the power of the Triangle presidency, which he had expected to gain, were closed off to him; though he still worked hard for Triangle, he was ready to give most of his time to literature. He had already contributed two stories and a poem to the Nassau Lit and a great deal of humor and light verse to The Tiger. Over the next two years he was to publish six stories and more than a dozen poems, sketches, and reviews in the literary magazine. At the same time he began to read fiction and poetry in a consciously literary context, for discussion with other writers and as impetus and example toward composition.
Too many students of Fitzgerald have taken for granted that the quality of this reading was poor, that it directed Fitzgerald's interests toward inferior or dying movements in the arts, delaying and ultimately stunting his full development as a modern artist. They have seized on Wilson's youthful admonition to Fitzgerald—“do read something other than contemporary British novelists”—and his later recollection, “I remember Scott Fitzgerald's saying to me, not long after we had got out of college: 'I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don't you?' I had not myself really quite entertained this fantasy because I had been reading Plato and Dante. Scott had been reading Booth Tarkington, Compton Mackenzie, H. G. Wells and Swinburne…” It is difficult to re-establish the consciousness of young writers before the First World War, groping to discover what was original and innovating in modern literature in an atmosphere of confusion and hostility; not everyone was as brilliant as T. S. Eliot at Harvard, or as fortunate in coming upon Jules Laforgue. Wilson himself, in his letter of 1944 to Christian Gauss, recalled his undergraduate days in a somewhat different way: “Shaw and Wells had been my gods at boarding school and I was still very much under their influence. Don't you remember those Shawesque articles that I used to write about campus problems? I considered myself a social reformer. Fabian Essays, which I read at college, made a great impression on me. And, whatever I may have said at some point, I very much admired some of Masefield…” It was Wilson who reviewed Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street for the Nassau Lit. Wilson's literary interests had developed at an earlier age than Fitzgerald's, but both young men went through the same process of literary development. The success of a writer in finding his own voice depended—in their generation as in the present generation—not so much on his ability to acquire literary tradition as in his capacity to shake it off.
There is no doubt that the novelist Fitzgerald most admired, as an undergraduate, was H. G. Wells. The novelist to whom Fitzgerald should rather have turned, it has been assumed, was Henry James. And the controversy over the nature of the novel that Wells and Tames engaged in between 1911 and 1915—part of it in Boon, one of Wells's books that Fitzgerald certainly did read—has come neatly to symbolize the wrong and the right road, respectively, for the modern novelist to take. But the restricted technical terms of the dispute which have been applied to Fitzgerald's development fail to do justice to his youthful interest in writing fiction. From the perspective of a young writer seeking an independent voice, James before the First World War must have appeared as a dubious model. He had created in the New York Edition his own forbidding monument, and then turned himself into an English country squire; for disciples he had acquired a coterie of lady novelists who proclaimed their exquisite sensibilities. Of James, Wells wrote in Boon, “he is eager to accept things—elaborately. You can see from his books that he accepts etiquettes, precedences, associations, claims.” However unfair this is to James, it differs little from the impression one might then have got independently—short of actually reading James.
To young persons Wells as a man and as a writer was a much more exciting figure. In 1915 he seemed the most original new voice of the age; from a historical point of view Fitzgerald's preference was intelligent and, in a way, inevitable. “Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells's own creation,” George Orwell once wrote. “… I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much.” Through Wells, Fitzgerald first came into contact with those modern philosophers whose names he began to invoke in his letters—Schopenhauer, Bergson, William James. In addition Wells was an outsider, a breaker of pretensions, an individualist standing outside the establishment. “He abhors 'personages,' ” Van Wyck Brooks wrote in 1915 in his The World of H. G. Wells—a book that indicates how important Wells was to the emerging new mood in American literature which Brooks among others was helping to form. “For the personage is one who, in some degree, stands on his achievement, and to Wells man, both in his love and in his work, is experimental : he is an experiment toward an impersonal synthesis, the well-being of the species. It is true that this idea of man as an experiment does not conflict with a very full development of personality. It consists in that; but personality to Wells is attained purely through love and work, and thus it comes to an end the moment it becomes static, the moment one accepts the laurel wreath, the moment one verges on self-consequence.” The idea of heroism that Fitzgerald encountered in Wells's fiction represented an absolute and inescapable challenge to the concept of the romantic hero in genteel American literature.
For about half a century the genteel tradition had dominated American literature. It had shaped and directed the movement toward realism in most of its phases, and the naturalists of the turn of the century—with the exception of Theodore Dreiser, whose first novel, Sister Carrie, was suppressed—had published under its wary surveillance. The two greatest novelists of the period, Mark Twain and Henry James, in their separate ways fought against the genteel tradition, yet each had suffered in his career because of its demands. But in the circumstances of the First World War, as the genteel romantic hero attained his apotheosis on the battlefield, the influence of the genteel tradition on American literature reached a climax, and died. Writers who experienced the war, writers who experienced the atmosphere at home, were faced more distinctly than ever before with the decision of whether to celebrate or to oppose the values of their society. As what they saw and what they knew came more sharply into conflict with accepted ideas, the choice grew more definitely into a simple yes or no, to write as a propagandist or to stand separate and alone as an artist. Fitzgerald's formative years as a writer of fiction overlapped with America's entry into the war, and it was inevitable that he should bear to some extent the burden of this conscious choice. It is from this point of view, the conflict between taking over genteel standards or challenging them, that Fitzgerald's stories in the Nassau Lit between January and October, 1917, become significant. Fitzgerald was as yet unable to abandon completely the conventions of the genteel tradition, though his experience and his adopted attitudes were drawing him away from them. In a way he compromised, and in compromising he created a new type of character in American literature—a character who brought together, in an imperfect and volatile balance, the old idealsand a new mode of behavior. The post-war age called her the flapper; in literature she may better be named the genteel romantic heroine. She is a young woman who dares to use her independent will for what she wants, and is not punished for it, either by depiction as an odious character or by the author's censure. The only model for her in American literature is Gertrude Wentworth in The Europeans, who triumphs over genteel repression in Henry James's satire on genteel values; but at that moment Fitzgerald no doubt had never heard of her.
Fitzgerald's genteel romantic heroine appears, still in her teens, in two Nassau Lit stories that Fitzgerald later extensively revised and used in This Side of Paradise. At sixteen she is Isabelle in “Babes in the Woods,” out to win the heart, for the sake of her ego, of the attractive college boy on the last night of his holiday. When Isabelle's hostess says, “I guess he knows you've been kissed,” Fitzgerald interpolates for Isabelle: “She wasn't quite old enough to be sorry nor nearly old enough to be glad.” Her first kiss with him is frustrated, and she goes to bed muttering into her pillow, “Damn!” A year or two older she is Helen Halycon in “The Debutante,” who smokes and carries a silver flask and tells her mother, “You can't run everything now, the way they did in the early nineties”; and when her father joshingly asks her, “about to fit into the wide, wide world?” she replies : “No, daddy, just taking a more licensed view of it.” To her dejected suitor, John Cannel, she says, “I like to run things, but it gets monotonous to always know that I am the key to the situation.” Far too much in love with her, Cannel—in the Tarkington manner—has lost his will, and his imagination has grown morbid; in him the genteel romantic hero has turned into a pathetic figure.
The genteel romantic heroine wants her man to be a hero, but in the very act of giving him her love she destroys his capacity for heroism. This is the serious dilemma posed as a theme in the two most ambitious stories in the Nassau Lit group, “Sentiment—and the Use of Rouge,” and “The Pierian Springs and the Last Straw.” In The Pierian Springs .. .” George Rombert, uncle of the young narrator, is a scandalous author, “a Romeo … a combination of Byron, Don Juan, and Bernard Shaw, with a touch of Havelock Ellis for good measure. He was about thirty, had been engaged seven timesand drank ever so much more than was good for him.” With his fierce willfulness and his skill as an entertainer, he is an exemplar of the genteel romantic hero, unredeemed by society though he is entering dangerous middle age. He was drunk when the narrator encountered him, “but he was perfectly conscious of himself and the dulling of faculties was only perceivable in a very cautious walk and a crack in his voice that sank it occasionally to a hoarse whisper. He was talking to a table of men all in various stages of inebriation, and holding them by a most peculiar and magnetic series of gestures. Right here I want to remark that this influence was not dependent so much upon a vivid physical personality but on a series of perfectly artificial mental tricks, his gestures, the peculiar range of his speaking voice, the suddenness and terseness of his remarks.” But within himself George Rombert is a bitter man. Years before his stupid behavior had cost him the love of his life, and he had gained his revenge ever since by writing novels about bad women and conducting affairs with debutantes. Then in a sudden gesture he takes the boy to meet his old sweetheart, now a widow. In her company he astonishes the narrator by acting like a “naughty boy to a stern aunt,” and then, flaring into sudden anger and violence, he twists off her wedding ring and stamps on it, breaking her finger. The man and boy rush out, and the narrative ends.
Yet Fitzgerald cannot leave his genteel romantic hero, with his clever disruptive pen and his anti-social animus, as an outcast who may threaten social order. He continues: “The story ought to end here. My Uncle George should remain with Mark Anthony and De Musset as a rather tragic semi-genius, ruined by a woman. Unfortunately the play continues into an inartistic sixth act where it topples over and descends like Uncle George himself in one of his more inebriated states, contrary to all the rules of dramatic literature. One month afterward Uncle George and Mrs. Fulman eloped in the most childish and romantic manner the night before her marriage to the Honorable Howard Bixby was to have taken place. Uncle George never drank again, nor did he ever write or in fact do anything except play a middling amount of golf and get comfortably bored with his wife.” The genteel romantic hero wins his woman and a firm social place; society has tamed him. But he did not write again, and this renders the story significant beyond its value as a portrayal ofgenteel romantic stereotypes. By making George Rombert a writer, Fitzgerald gave his genteel hero's passage from revolt to acceptance -so badly tacked on at the end— a deeper meaning, suggestive of the myth of Philoctetes that Edmund Wilson used later as the theme of his book of essays, The Wound and the Bow. The wound makes the writer; heal the wound, and the Pierian Springs—the reputed home of the Muses—dry up. Fitzgerald gave this story of the genteel romantic hero its standard ending, but he was capable by this point, both as an intellectual and as an artist, of treating it with irony. “You see”—this is his last line— “I claim that if Dante had ever won— but a hypothetical sixth act is just as untechnical as a real one.” As a writer, George Rombert wins the girl only to throw away the creative talent which gives him any claim to heroism in our eyes.
“Sentiment—and the Use of Rouge” is set in wartime England, and what it loses in authenticity it gains in candor. Clay Harrington Syneforth, a young aristocrat, comes back after two years away at the front and is deeply disturbed by the sudden turn to moral lax-ness he sees everywhere. “He found that he had come to picture England as a land of sorrow and asceticism and while there was little extravagance displayed tonight, he thought that the atmosphere had fallen to that of artificial gaiety rather than risen to a stern calmness .. . there was something in the very faces of the girls, something which was half enthusiasm and half recklessness, that depressed him more than any concrete thing.” But when he criticized his sister's use of rouge on her face, his mother answered, “Really, Clay, you don't know exactly what the standards are, so you can't quite criticize.” At a dance Clay meets Eleanor Marbrooke, the fiancé of his brother who was killed in the war. Clay is stiff and moral, and they talk.
Eleanor: “I believe you're a sentimentalist. Are you?”
Clay: “Tonight, I am—almost—for the first time in my life. Are you, Eleanor?”
Eleanor: “No, I'm romantic. There's a huge difference; a sentimental person thinks things will last, a romantic person hopes they won't.”
Fitzgerald is re-defining for himself the vocabulary of the genteel tradition. Eleanor forces Clay to take her to his bachelor apartments. He talks of “compromising” her. “Compromise!” she exclaims. “What's that to words like Life and Love and Death and England. Compromise! I don't believe anyone uses that word except servants.” He is helpless before her, and she seduces him. Why? “It's this—,” she tells him, “self-sacrifice with a capital S. Young men going to get killed for us—We would have been their wives—we can't be—therefore we will be as much as we can.” In the genteel American vocabulary self-sacrifice meant giving up life to preserve morality. Eleanor has turned it around to say, morality must be sacrificed to life—and perhaps to lust. “How about old ideas, and standards of women and that sort of thing?” Clay asks. “Sky-high, my dear,” answers Eleanor, “dead and gone.” He tries to salvage morality by saying that their act was Love, similar to Life and Death, but she cuts him off: “not that.”
Clay returns to the front, and together with an Irish Sergeant O'Flaherty he is mortally wounded. O'Flaherty represents Fitzgerald's Celtic patriotism, and as he dies he tells Clay, “Blood on an Englishman always calls rouge to me mind. It's a game with him. The Irish take death damn serious. … I may get killed for me flag, but I'm goin' to die for meself.” He dies, and then Clay dies, sentimental about love and war, confused and helpless before sex and before death; in his last conscious moments Clay thinks of God as an old sports referee. Genteel sentimentality is the rouge that puts on reality a falsely pretty face. Fitzgerald is less ambiguous in his criticism of genteel ideals than in his treatment of morality on the home front; but if one may still accuse him of sentimentality toward his willfully immoral women, it was at least part of his effort to set himself free from false conventions. From his sensitivity to social change and his developing self-consciousness as a writer, he was discovering the weakness of genteel American ideals. One of his stories of this period, “Tarquin of Cheepside,” in a way symbolizes the opportunities and the difficulties he faced through this new serf-awareness. Tarquin violates a woman, runs and hides from his pursuers, then writes furiously through the night. What he writes is “The Rape of Lucrèce.” Tarquin is Shakespeare, and he proclaims in answer to the criticism of his protector, “I am responsible only to myself for what I do.” To break the confines of the genteel tradition, to be truly an artist in America of 1917, one had to accept the possibility of also becoming an immoral man.
There was still the problem of what form of literary art to concentrate upon, and how to get it published. In 1917 Fitzgerald gave over most of his writing energy to poetry. Three years later, as a successful first novelist and short-story writer, writing about himself for The Saturday Evening Post, he regarded that effort with humorous self-irony: “I had decided that poetry was the only thing worthwhile, so with my head ringing with the meters of Swinburne and the matters of Rupert Brooke I spent the spring doing sonnets, ballads, and rondels into the small hours. I had read somewhere that every great poet had written great poetry before he was twenty-one. I had only a year and, besides, war was impending. I must publish a book of startling verse before I was engulfed.” Shane Leslie may have encouraged him in this ambition. Leslie had been close to Rupert Brooke at Cambridge, and though he recalled a generation later that he had hoped Fitzgerald would be the American Robert Hugh Benson, back in 1918 he had also referred to Fitzgerald as an American Rupert Brooke. Collegiate poets were bringing out books of verse in 1917, no doubt from the same ambition and uncertainty; Fitzgerald's classmate John Peale Bishop and Stephen Vincent Benêt at Yale both published books of poetry in the fall. But they had had a comparatively long foreground as poets; Fitzgerald was just beginning and was by no means so dedicated to verse. In the summer of 1917 he spent a month with Bishop and wrote, as he told Edmund Wilson, “a terrific lot of poetry mostly under the Masefield-Brooke influence… I sent twelve poems to magazines yesterday. If I get them all back I'm going to give up poetry and turn to prose.” One of the poems was accepted by the magazine Poet Lore, but the war cut off Fitzgerald's poetic career. He took up a commission in the Army in November 1917, and by Christmas he was writing to Leslie from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, “the reason I've abandoned my idea of a book of poems is that I've only about twenty poems and can't write any more in this atmosphere.” It was not a great loss. Very few of the images and none of the ideas in Fitzgerald's collegiate verse are worth remembering, and the impression is strong that Fitzgerald was more interested in quickly publishing a book than in writing poetry. For no sooner had he given up his hope for a book of poems than he was hard at work on a novel.
This is how, in 1920, he described the shift in his literary intentions:
By autumn I was in an infantry officers' training camp at Fort Leavenworth, with poetry in the discard and a brand-new ambition— I was writing an immortal novel. Every evening, concealing my pad behind Small Problems for Infantry, I wrote paragraph after paragraph on a somewhat edited history of me and my imagination. The outline of twenty-two chapters, four of them in verse, was made, two chapters were completed; and then I was detected and the game was up. I could write no more during study period.
This was a distinct complication. I had only three months to live— in those days all infantry officers thought they had only three months to live—and I had left no mark on the world. But such consuming ambition was not to be thwarted by a mere war. Every Saturday at one o'clock when the week's work was over I hurried to the Officers' Club, and there, in a corner of a roomful of smoke, conversation and rattling newspapers, I wrote a one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand-word novel on the consecutive week-ends of three months. There was no revising; there was no time for it. As I finished each chapter I sent it to a typist in Princeton.
Meanwhile I lived in its smeary pencil pages. The drills, marches and Small Problems for Infantry were a shadowy dream. My whole heart was concentrated upon my book.
It was obviously an act not so much of art as of expediency. Haste marked its conception and its composition. Whatever was available should go in: the poems, “Babes in the Woods,” from the Nassau Lit, Father Fay's long story about seeing an apparition. With a dash of braggadocio in his letters he made a virtue out of his necessity. “I'm sandwiching the poems between reams of autobiography and fiction,” he wrote Leslie, who had offered to show the book to his own American publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons. “It makes a potpourri, especially as there are pages in dialogue and in vers libre, but it reads as logically for the times as most public utterances of the prim and prominent.” And to Wilson: “It rather damns much of Princeton but it's 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 Harold' and really if Scribner's takes it I know I'll wake some morning and find that the debutantes have made me famous overnight. I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation. …” Fitzgerald's allusion to Lord Byron indicates that he may have discoveredin the early-nineteenth-century romantics a more relevant and sustaining literary tradition for himself; he had already begun at Princeton his life-long admiration for the poetry of John Keats, whose themes and images were to be of great importance in Fitzgerald's later fiction. But the bravado of his letters reflects more a vague desire than a conscious intention. In the manuscript portion which survives from that unpublished first novel, “The Romantic Egotist,” there are few traces of defiant Byronic self-exaltation. Writing in such unreflective haste, Fitzgerald took the events of his own past experience at their face value and created a character who represents—as much as Fitzgerald did in his own boyhood—the conventional romantic hero of genteel American literature.
Still, if Stephen Palms of “The Romantic Egotist” portrays a standard genteel romantic hero, that figure has attained in him an advanced state of decline; for Stephen Palms has raised the unconscious social ambition and social conformity in the genteel romantic hero to an acute level of conscious thought. Stephen's egotism has nothing to do with the self in any Cartesian sense, nor with the self-creative, socially destructive egotism of a Napoleon, which fascinated and appalled the romantic temperament. “I had a definite philosophy,” Stephen Palms says, “which was a sort of aristocratic egotism.” His form of egotism, that is, represented at heart a desire for high social position. Stephen Palms constantly interprets the nuances of his social situation. As a youth he looks at life much as had Tom Sawyer: “… hotel life made me rather inclined to the view that life was a series of tricks 'pulled off' with more or less success by the individual.” Gradually his social sense develops. “I am capable now of the utmost snobbishness and class hypocrisy, but was not so until later in life. I think I always believed that social barriers were made by the strong to bolster up their weak retainers and keep out the almost-strongs. Father had a distinct class sense—I suppose because he was a Southerner. He used to tell me things as precepts of the 'School of Gentlemen' and I'd use them as social tricks with no sense of courtesy whatever. For instance, he told me once, that when he had entered a crowded room, he had walked through the dozen or so present without speaking, although he knew them all, and going to the old grandmother wished her a very good evening. He told me that people complimented him on this act of courtesy for months, and the host and hostess were his friends almost through life.” At prep school it first became clear to him, “my object was to pass as many people as possible and get to a vague 'top of the world.' ” Finally at college he comes into his own: “class was the first thing you noticed at Princeton … all the petty snobbishness within the prep-school, all the caste system of Minneapolis, all were here magnified, glorified and transformed into a glittering classification… I liked the idea of a big competition for success of classes and caste within classes and the triumph of ability and personality.” Ability and personality, of course, were what finally mattered; wealth and birth merely qualified one for the race. For all the infinite gradations of the social system at any given moment, it was remarkably fluid with the passage of time. The genteel American aristocracy always kept its doors open to talent that was willing to conform. Once Stephen's social antennae were fully developed, once he had his social techniques well in hand, it was time to look inward, to see what he had to offer in the way of content.
Looking within himself, he was not absolutely reassured. “I considered that I was a fortunate youth,” he analyzed himself, “capable of expansion to any extent for good or evil. I based this, not on latent strength, but upon facility and superior mentality.” He gave himself credit for being handsome, potentially a great athlete, an extremely good dancer; talented, ingenious, quick to learn; personable, charming, magnetic, and poised. “I was convinced that I had . .. the ability to dominate others. Also I was sure that I exercised a subtle fascination over women.” But there were debits on the ledger, too. He thought himself unscrupulous, cold, cruel, lacking honor, selfish, desirous of influencing people even to evil, in short, morally rather worse than most; a slave to moods, liable to lose his poise, surly and sensitive, by no means the “Captain of my fate.” “Generally,” he said, “I knew that at bottom I lacked the essentials. At the last crisis, I knew I had no real courage, perseverance or self-respect.” On a certain level this sounds like very harsh self-criticism indeed. But it may also be read as a candidly self-conscious, though otherwise normal, statement of the qualities required for genteel romantic heroism. All of the good attributes of the genteel romantic hero are there. Naturally, being willful, he appears on the surface morally worse than others; naturally, being imaginative, he should be more subject to moody ups and downs. Saying that he lacks “the essentials” is simply another way of expressing his willingness to conform. The last crisis of which he speaks may symbolize the moment of passage to maturity, when the genteel romantic hero gives up his opposition and accepts the proffered social place.
Yet one element in this self-appraisal jars with such a simple reconciliation. The genteel romantic hero may very aptly be defined, by using one of H. G. Wells's terms, as a young man growing up to be a “personage.” In his study of Wells, Van Wyck Brooks described a personage as one who “stands on his achievement”—“personality comes to an end the moment it becomes static, the moment one accepts the laurel wreath, the moment one verges on self-consequence.” George Rombert, in Fitzgerald's short story “The Pierian Springs and the Last Straw,” lost his personality when he stood on his achievement. Stephen Palms looks at the situation from a slightly different point of view. “There seemed to have been a conspiracy to spoil me,” he says, “and all my inordinate vanity was absorbed from that. All this was on the surface, however, and liable to be toppled over at one blow by an unpleasant remark or a missed tackle; and underneath it, came my own sense of lack of courage and stability.” How thoroughly Fitzgerald absorbed Wells's definition and applied it to himself may be seen in a letter he wrote to a young cousin shortly after finishing “The Romantic Egotist”: “A personage and a personality are quite different—I wonder if you can figure the difference. Your mother, Peter the Hermit, Joan of Arc, Cousin Tom, Marc Antony and Bonnie Prince Charlie were personalities. You and Cardinal Newman and Julius Caesar and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and myself and Mme. De Stael were personages. Does the distinction begin to glimmer on you? Personality may vanish at a sickness; a personage is hurt more by a worldly setback.” Stephen Palms knows then, with his exacerbated social- and self-awareness, on what a precarious foundation of social etiquettes, precedences, associations, claims—all those arrangements that H. G. Wells accused Henry James of too elaborately accepting—the conventions of the genteel romantic hero rest; and though he possessed “a sense of infinite possibilities that was always with me whether vanity or shame were my mood,” he was right sometimes to be pessimistic about his situation.
It must have been Fitzgerald's capacity to make articulate the unstated conventions of the genteel romantic hero—and also to bring them into doubt—that attracted the attention of the Scribner's editors, though they turned down “The Romantic Egotist.” Maxwell Perkins liked the manuscript and wanted to ask Fitzgerald to rewrite it in the third person; Edward L. Burlingame described it as “hard sledding”; and William Crary Brownell, chief editor of the firm, a leading conservative critic, author in 1917 of a book, Standards, defending the genteel tradition—in the words of Scribner's official historian—“could not stomach it at all.” In 1918 Fitzgerald was not yet able to break away from the genteel tradition; rather, it rejected him.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon by Robert Sklar (New York: Oxford Up, 1967).