F. Scott Fitzgerald,
by Lionel Trilling.


“’So be it! I die content and my destiny is fulfilled,’ said Racine’s Orestes; and there is more in his speech than the insanely bitter irony that appears on the surface. Racine, fully conscious of this tragic grandeur, permits Orestes to taste for a moment before going mad with grief the supreme joy of a hero; to assume his exemplary role.” The heroic awareness of which Andre Gide speaks in his essay on Goethe was granted to Scott Fitzgerald for whatever grim joy he might find in it. It is a kind of seal set upon his heroic quality that he was able to utter his vision of his own fate publicly and aloud and in Esquire with no lessening of his dignity, even with an enhancement of it. The several essays in which Fitzgerald examined his life in crisis have been gathered together by Edmund Wilson—who is for many reasons the most appropriate editor possible—and published, together with Fitzgerald’s notebooks and some letters, as well as certain tributes and memorabilia, in a volume called, after one of the essays, The Crack-Up. It is a book filled with the grief of the lost and the might-have-been, with physical illness and torture of mind. Yet the heroic quality is so much here, Fitzgerald’s assumption of the “exemplary role” is so proper and right that it occurs to us to say, and not merely as a piety but as the most accurate expression of what we really do feel, that

Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast, no weakness, no contempt.
Dispraise, or blame, nothing but well and fair.
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.

This isn’t what we may fittingly say on all tragic occasions, but the original occasion for these words has a striking aptness to Fitzgerald. Like Milton’s Samson, he had the consciousness of having misused the power with which he had been endowed. “I had been only a mediocre caretaker … of my talent,” he said. And the parallel carries further, to the sojourn among the Philistines and even to the maimed hero exhibited and mocked for the amusement of the crowd—on the afternoon of September 25, 1936, the New York Evening Post carried on its front page a feature story in which the triumphant reporter tells how he managed to make his way into the Southern nursing home where the sick and distracted Fitzgerald was being cared for and there “interviewed” him, taking all due note of the contrast between the present humiliation and the past glory. It was a particularly gratuitous horror, and yet in retrospect it serves to augment the moral force of the poise and fortitude which marked Fitzgerald’s mind in the few recovered years that were left to him.

The root of Fitzgerald’s heroism is to be found, as it sometimes is in tragic heroes, in his power of love. Fitzgerald wrote much about love, he was preoccupied with it as between men and women, but it is not merely where he is being explicit about it that his power appears. It is to be seen where eventually all a writer’s qualities have their truest existence, in his style. Even in Fitzgerald’s early, cruder books, or even in his commercial stories, and even when the style is careless, there is a tone and] pitch to the sentences which suggest his warmth and tenderness, and, what is rare nowadays and not likely to be admired, his gentleness without softness. In the equipment of the moralist and therefore in the equipment of the novelist, aggression plays an important part, and although it is of course sanctioned by the novelist’s moral intention and by whatever truth of moral vision he may have, it is often none the less fierce and sometimes even cruel. Fitzgerald was a moralist to the core and his desire to “preach at people in some acceptable form” is the reason he gives for not going the way of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart —we must always remember in judging him how many real choices he was free and forced to make—and he was gifted with the satiric eye; yet we feel that in his morality he was more drawn to celebrate the good than to denounce the bad. We feel of him, as we cannot feel of all moralists, that he did not attach himself to the good because this attachment would sanction his fierceness toward the bad—his first impulse was to love the good, and we know this the more surely because we perceive that he loved the good not only with his mind but also with his quick senses and his youthful pride and desire.

He really had but little impulse to blame, which is the more remarkable because our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect. “Forbearance, good word,” is one of the jottings in his notebook. When it came to blame, he preferred, it seems, to blame himself. He even did not much want to blame the world. Fitzgerald knew where “the world” was at fault. He knew that it was the condition, the field, of tragedy. He is conscious of “what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams.” But he never made out that the world imposes tragedy, either upon the heroes of his novels, whom he called his “brothers,” or upon himself. When he speaks of his own fate, he does indeed connect it with the nature of the social world in which he had his early flowering, but he never finally lays it upon that world, even though at the time when he was most aware of his destiny it was fashionable with minds more pretentious than his to lay all personal difficulty whatever at the door of the “social order.” It is, he feels, his fate—and as much as to anything else in Fitzgerald, we respond to the delicate tension he maintained between his idea of personal free will and his idea of circumstance: we respond to that moral and intellectual energy. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” he said, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind, at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

The power of love in Fitzgerald, then, went hand in hand with a sense of personal responsibility and perhaps created it. But it often happens that the tragic hero can conceive and realize a love that is beyond his own prudence or beyond his powers of dominance or of self-protection, so that he is destroyed by the very thing that gives him his spiritual status and stature. From Proust we learn about a love that is destructive by a kind of corrosiveness, but from Fitzgerald’s two mature novels, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, we learn about a love— perhaps it is peculiarly American—that is destructive by reason of its very tenderness. It begins in romance, sentiment, even “glamour”—no one, I think, has remarked how innocent of mere “sex,” how charged with sentiment is Fitzgerald’s description of love in the jazz age—and it takes upon itself reality, and permanence, and duty discharged with an almost masochistic scrupulousness of honor. In the bright dreams begins the responsibility which needs so much prudence and dominance to sustain; and Fitzgerald was anything but a prudent man and he tells us that at a certain point in his college career “some old desire for personal dominance was broken and gone.” He connects that loss of desire for dominance with his ability to write; and he set down in his notebook the belief that “to record one must be unwary.” Fitzgerald, we may say, seemed to feel that both love and art needed a sort of personal defenselessness.

The phrase from Yeats, the derivation of the “responsibility” from the dreams,“reminds us that we must guard against dismissing, with easy words about its immaturity, Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with the bright charm of his youth. Yeats himself, a wiser man and wholly fulfilled in his art, kept to the last of his old age his connection with his youthful vanity. A writer’s days must be bound each to each by his sense of his life, and Fitzgerald the undergraduate was father of the best in the man and the novelist.

His sojourn among the philistines is always much in the mind of everyone who thinks about Fitzgerald, and indeed it was always much in; his own mind. Everyone knows the famous exchange between Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—Hemingway refers to it in his story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and Fitzgerald records it in his notebook—in which, to Fitzgerald’s remark, “The very rich are different from us,” Hemingway replied, “Yes, they have more money.” [Mr. Trilling has apparently taken this anecdote from Edmund Wilson’s footnote in The Crack-Up (New Directions, 1945), p. 125, though in Mr. Wilson’s version Fitzgerald says, “The rich,” not “The very rich.” This anecdote originated in Hemingway’s story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” though Hemingway does not there claim that he and Fitzgerald actually exchanged the remarks. “He remembered… how [Scott Fitzgerald] had started a story once that began, ’The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, ’Yes they have more money.’” Near the beginning of “The Rich Boy” (1926) Fitzgerald had written, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” When “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” appeared, Maxwell Perkins wrote Fitzgerald: “I was present when than reference was made to the rich, and the retort given, and you were miles away.” Of Fitzgerald’s observation about the rich, Mr. Trilling has said, in “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” “But the truth is that after a certain point quantity of money does indeed change into quality of personality: in an important sense the very rich are different from us. … Fitzgerald was right, and almost for that remark alone he must surely have been received in Balzac’s bosom in the heaven of novelists.” [A.M.]] It is usually supposed that Hemingway had the better of the encounter and quite settled the matter. But we ought not be too sure. The novelist of a certain kind, if he is to write about social life, may not brush away the reality of the differences of class, even though to do so may have the momentary appearance of a virtuous social avowal. The novel took its rise and its nature from the radical revision of the class structure in the eighteenth century, and the novelist must still live by his sense of class differences, and must be absorbed by them, as Fitzgerald was, even though he depise them, as Fitzgerald did.

No doubt there was a certain ambiguity in Fitzgerald’s attitude toward the “very rich”; no doubt they were for him something more than the mere object of his social observation. They seem to have been nearest thing to an aristocracy that America could offer him, and we cannot be too simple about what a critic has recently noted, the artist’s frequent “taste for aristocracy, his need—often quite open—of a superior social class with which he can make some fraction of common cause—enough, at any rate, to account for his own distinction.” Every modern reader is by definition wholly immune from all ignoble social considerations, and, no matter what his own social establishment or desire for it may be, he knows that in literature the interest in social position must never be taken seriously. But not all writers have been so simple and virtuous—what are we to make of those risen gentlemen, Shakespeare and Dickens, or those fabricators of the honorific “de,” Voltaire and Balzac? Yet their snobbery—let us call it that—is of a large and generous kind and we arc not entirely wrong in connecting their peculiar energies of mind with whatever it was they wanted from gentility or aristocracy. It is a common habit of writers to envision an actuality of personal life which shall have the freedom and the richness of detail and the order of form that they desire in art. Yeats, to mention him again, spoke of the falseness of the belief that the “inherited glory of the rich” really holds richness of life. This, he said, was a mere dream; and yet, he goes on, it is a necessary illusion—

Yet Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life’s own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet…

And Henry James, at the threshold of his career, allegorized in his story “Benvolio” the interplay that is necessary for some artists between their creative asceticism and the bright, free, gay life of worldlincss, noting at the same time the desire of worldliness to destroy the asceticism. [George Moore’s comment on Æ’s having spoken in reproof of Yeats’s pride in a quite factitious family line is apposite;” Æ, who is usually quick-witted, should have guessed that Yeats’s belief in his lineal descent from the great Duke of Ormonde was part of his poetic equipment.“]

With a man like Goethe the balance between the world and his asceticism is maintained, and so we forgive him his often absurd feelings— but perhaps absurd as well as forgivable only in the light of our present opinion of his assured genius—about aristocracy. Fitzgerald could not always keep the balance true; he was not, as we know, a prudent man. And no doubt he deceived himself a good deal in his youth, but certainly his self-deception was not in the interests of vulgarity, for aristocracy meant to him a kind of disciplined distinction of personal existence which, presumably, he was so humble as not to expect from his art. What was involved in that notion of distinction can be learned from the use which Fitzgerald makes of the word ‘aristocracy’ in one of those serious moments which occur in his most frivolous Saturday Evening Post stories: he says of the life of the young man of the story, who during the war was on duty behind the lines, that ‘it was not so bad—except that when the infantry came limping back from the trenches he wanted to be one of them. The sweat and mud they wore seemed only one of those ineffable symbols of aristocracy that were forever eluding him.’ Fitzgerald was perhaps the last notable writer to affirm the Romantic fantasy, descended from the Renaissance, of personal ambition and heroism, of life committed to, or thrown away for, some ideal of self. To us it will no doubt come more and more to seem a merely boyish dream; the nature of our society requires the young man to find his distinction through cooperation, subordination, and an expressed piety of social usefulness, and although a few young men have made Fitzgerald into a hero of art, it is likely that even to these admirers the whole nature of his personal fantasy is not comprehensible, for young men find it harder and harder to understand the youthful heroes of Balzac and Stendhal, they increasingly find reason to blame the boy whose generosity is bound up with his will and finds its expression in a large, strict, personal demand upon life.

I am aware that I have involved Fitzgerald with a great many great names and that it might be felt by some that this can do him no service, the disproportion being so large. But the disproportion will seem large only to those who think of Fitzgerald chiefly through his early public legend of heedlessness. Those who have a clear recollection of the mature work or who have read The Crack-Up will at least not think of the disproportion as one of kind. Fitzgerald himself did not, and it is by a man’s estimate of himself that we must begin to estimate him. For all the engaging self-depreciation which was part of his peculiarly American charm, he put himself, in all modesty, in the line of greatness, he judged himself in a large way. When he writes of his depression, of his ‘dark night of the soul’ where ‘it is always three o’clock in the morning,’ he not only derives the phrase from St. John of the Cross but adduces the analogous black despairs of Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. A novel with Ernest Hemingway as the model of its hero suggests to him Stendhal portraying the Byronic man, and he defends The Great Gatsby from some critical remark of Edmund Wilson’s by comparing it with The Brothers Karamazov. Or again, here is the stuff of his intellectual pride at the very moment that he speaks of giving it up, as years before he had given up the undergraduate fantasies of valor: ‘The old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition … has been relegated to the junk heap of the shoulder pads worn for one day on the Princeton freshman football field and the overseas cap never worn overseas.’ And was it, that old dream, unjustified? To take but one great name, the one that on first thought seems the least relevant of all—between Goethe at twenty-four the author of Werther, and Fitzgerald, at twenty-four the author of This Side of Paradise, there is not really so entire a difference as piety and textbooks might make us think; both the young men so handsome, both winning immediate and notorious success, both rather more interested in life than in art, each the spokesman and symbol of his own restless generation.

It is hard to overestimate the benefit which came to Fitzgerald from his having consciously placed himself in the line of the great. He was a ‘natural,’ but he did not have the contemporary American novelist’s belief that if he compares himself with the past masters, or if he takes thought—which, for a writer, means really knowing what his predecessors have done—he will endanger the integrity of his natural gifts. To read Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter—they are among the best and most affecting letters I know—and to catch the tone in which he speaks about the literature of the past, or to read the notebooks he faithfully kept, indexing them as Samuel Butler had done, and to perceive how continuously he thought about literature, is to have some clue to the secret of the continuing power of Fitzgerald’s work.

The Great Gatsby, for example, after a quarter-century is still as fresh as when it first appeared; it has even gained in weight and relevance, which can be said of very few American books of its time. This, I think, is to be attributed to the specifically intellectual courage with which it was conceived and executed, a courage which implies Fitzgerald’s grasp —both in the sense of awareness and of appropriation—of the traditional resources available to him. Thus, The Great Gatsby has its interest as a record of contemporary manners, but this might only have served to date it, did not Fitzgerald take the given moment of history as something more than a mere circumstance, did he not, in the manner of the great French novelists of the nineteenth century, seize the given moment as a moral fact. The same boldness of intellectual grasp accounts for the success of the conception of its hero—Gatsby is said by some to be not quite credible, but the question of any literal credibility he may or may not have becomes trivial before the large significance he implies. For Gatsby, divided between power and dream, comes inevitably to stand for America itself. Ours is the only nation that prides itself upon a dream and gives its name to one, ‘the American dream.’ We are told that ‘the truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.’ Clearly it is Fitzgerald’s intention that our mind should turn to the thought of the nation that has sprung from its ‘Platonic conception’ of itself. To the world it is anomalous in America, just as in the novel it is anomalous in Gatsby, that so much raw power should be haunted by envisioned romance. Yet in that anomaly lies, for good or bad, much of the truth of our national life, as, at the present moment, we think about it.

Then, if the book grows in weight of significance with the years, we can be sure that this could not have happened had its form and style not been as right as they are. Its form is ingenious—with the ingenuity, however, not of craft but of intellectual intensity. The form, that is, is not the result of careful ‘plotting’—the form of a good novel never is— but is rather the result of the necessities of the story’s informing idea, which require the sharpness of radical foreshortening.” Thus, it will be observed, the characters are not “developed”: the wealthy and brutal Tom Buchanan haunted by his “scientific” vision of the doom of civilization, the vaguely guilty, vaguely homosexual Jordan Baker, the dim Wolfsheim, who fixed the World Series of 1919, are treated, we might say, as if they were ideographs, a method of economy that is reinforced by the ideographic use that is made of the Washington Heights flat, the terrible “valley of ashes” seen from the Long Island Railroad, Gatsby’s incoherent parties, and the huge sordid eyes of the oculist’s advertising sign. (It is a technique which gives the novel an affinity with The Waste Land, between whose author and Fitzgerald there existed a reciprocal admiration.) Gatsby himself, once stated, grows only in the understanding of the narrator. He is allowed to say very little in his own person. Indeed, apart from the famous “Her voice is full of money,” he says only one memorable thing, but that remark is overwhelming in its intellectual audacity: when he is forced to admit that his lost Daisy did perhaps love her husband, he says, “In any case it was just personal.” With that sentence he achieves an insane greatness, convincing us that he really is a Platonic conception of himself, really some sort of Son of God.

What underlies all success in poetry, what is even more important than the shape of the poem or its wit of metaphor, is the poet’s voice. It either gives us confidence in what is being said or it tells us that we do not need to listen; and it carries both the modulation and the living form of what is being said. In the novel no less than in the poem, the voice of the author is the decisive factor. We are less consciously aware of it in the novel, and, in speaking of the elements of a novel’s art, it cannot properly be exemplified by quotation because it is continuous and cumulative. In Fitzgerald’s work the voice of his prose is of the essence of his success. We hear in it at once the tenderness toward human desire that modifies a true firmness of moral judgment. It is, I would venture to say, the normal or ideal voice of the novelist. It is characteristically modest, yet it has in it, without apology or self-consciousness, a largeness, even a stateliness, which derives from Fitzgerald’s connection with tradition and with mind, from his sense of what has been done before and the demands which this past accomplishment makes. “… I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes— a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Here, in the well-known passage, the voice is a little dramatic, a little intentional, which is not improper to a passage in climax and conclusion, but it will the better suggest in brief compass the habitual music of Fitzgerald’s seriousness.

Fitzgerald lacked prudence, as his heroes did, lacked that blind instinct of self-protection which the writer needs and the American writer needs in double measure. But that is all he lacked—and it is the generous fault, even the heroic fault. He said of his Gatsby, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of ‘the creative temperament’—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as 1 have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” And it is so that we are drawn to see Fitzgerald himself as he stands in his exemplary role.


“F. Scott Fitzgerald.” From The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: The Viking Press, Inc., London: Martin Seeker & Warburg Limited, 1951) by Lionel Trilling. Copyright (c) 1945 by Lionel Trilling. Reprinted by permission of the author. The Viking Press, Inc., and Martin Seeker & Warburg Limited.


LIONEL TRILLING is a professor at Columbia University and the author of Matthew Arnold, The Liberal Imagination, The Opposing Self and other influential critical work. His essay on Fitzgerald is from The Liberal Imagination.


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