O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches
W. H. Auden
Even before he died, on December 21, 1940, the figure of F. Scott Fitzgerald had assumed legendary proportions, but that death, and in that place—Hollywood—and at that age— forty-four—, had a fitness which suggested that the legend had been approved and was now being appropriately resolved by some celestial myth-maker. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place, the final tessera of the mosaic that he himself might have called golden completed the pattern with an art, quiet, ironic, not very emphatic but terribly conclusive, that closely resembled his own. He had published no book and written very little since 1935. To the many who knew him only through his work, until that morning in December he must have seemed, if they thought ofhim at all, strangely like his own Dr. Diver who had suddenly gone away from the great places of this earth. “Perhaps,” Fitzgerald had written, “his career was biding its time, ... like Grant’s in Galena...” Now there was no room for a perhaps.
The early twenties had taken their note from him, the obituaries said. From the first it had been inescapable that in the rapid, easy ticketing that passes so often for criticism he bear the label “Chronicler of the Jazz Age,” whatever that may have been. Probably he did not object very much to the tag. The titles of some of his early books had in a sense courted it; and of those years that he loved so much, that decade which was perhaps less a chronological unit than a state of mind, he himself wrote “... the present writer already looks back to it with nostalgia. It bore him up, flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did, that something had to be done with all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War.” He had a natural sense of time and environment that makes the careful reconstructions of Dos Passos seem mechanical and artificial; and in the songs that his characters hummed or danced to, the places where they danced, the clothes that they wore, the hotels that they stopped at, and the slang that they babbled, there still resides a great power of evocation. He knew, or at least chose to write of, only that limited part of American society to which he aspired to belong, and his knowledge sometimes lacked the penetration that would have made it great, being always surer of manners than of character or too often content to assume that manners were character; but the critic was hardly wrong who, seeking to characterize one aspect of his talent, compared him with Marcel Proust. Fitzgerald’s victory was not a major one, but the spoils are safe, a heterogeneous collection: objets d’art and bric-a-brac united casually in an unclassified muddle, with a few ideals figuring as tattered banners—all captured from the flux of time and as permanent as that museum which is our literature.
His greatest weakness, ironically, was that he was so completely of his time and of his country. It was by no accidentthat he became a symbol of a good deal in American life and letters. The very map of his journey has significant form: the Middle West, Princeton, the North Shore of Long Island, Paris, the Riviera, Rome, Hollywood—those names in even casual juxtaposition are completely of a certain age. As the details are filled in, the lesson becomes clearer: the early flowering of a fine talent, the sudden wealth, the pleasant way of life that had to be paid for, the double compulsion to write—to meet the bills and to live up to one’s “promise” (and the same sort of writing would not satisfy both)—the necessity to go on when one wasn’t ready to go on, to attempt problems which were beyond one’s capabilities, the lack of much beyond a talent to begin with and little time allowed to develop anything else, little time for one’s own sort of maturity to come, and finally Hollywood. Immaturity and waste are the key words (two spectres that have haunted American literature), and with them (again very American) vitality and a profusion of gifts. It may be suggested that Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, is sufficient rebuttal to what has been said, but I can only dissent. Fifteen years after The Great Gatsby, nineteen years after The Beautiful and Damned! It was a very long wait for such a crop.
Yet one was willing to wait. There was always in Fitzgerald’s work a sense of tremendous possibilities. Looking over old reviews, one is struck by nothing so much as by the expectations the critics had for him even when they were being most bitterly disappointed by his current work. Something about Fitzgerald encouraged faith, as is perhaps most clearly shown by the articles published in The New Republic after his death, articles less remarkable for the praise they accorded him than for their inability to make very clear just why the praise was merited. No doubt here too the merging of the individual with the time is at work: as well ask the sobriety of today (with just a touch of the aching head, a faint flavor as of ashes on the palate, the reflexes a second too slow) wherein lay the charm and promise of yesterday, why the horizon of the twenties opened into golden immensities. Fitzgerald recorded such immensities and moved among them constantly in his life (indeed, he tried to make his life oneof them), until the very end when he perceived in his world and in himself that romantic flaw of imperfection. For him the perception was not pleasant; but the reader may find a nostalgic delight in its contemplation. Nostalgia implies expectations unrewarded, promises that were never fulfilled; and the good old days are remarkable chiefly for how badly they have turned out in the long run. “There are no second acts in American lives,” Fitzgerald wrote. How could there be then in his own work?
Interest in Fitzgerald dies hard. Even those who recognize the truncation of his genius will rate him high for some quality—the most popular one at present being craftsmanship. In spite of the mastery of the smaller details of writing which his work showed almost from the beginning, it is hard to make a case for Fitzgerald as an American Flaubert. After all, a novelist must be judged by whole novels, and only in The Great Gatsby did Fitzgerald succeed in putting any amount of material into a form which was truly significant and expressive. Actually, there is no need to claim for Fitzgerald a technical virtuosity which he did not possess. I believe that one may find Fitzgerald’s greatest merit in his subject matter; and there seems to me to be no necessity to restrict one’s view of Fitzgerald by considering him merely as a highly accurate recorder of the surface of the contemporary scene. It was not his only preoccupation, though it constituted his most complete achievement. Since the majority of critics would agree on his skill in this respect, there seems to be no need to labor the point. A certain class, rich, easy-living, selfish, careless yet demanding of the world’s goods, hollow yet beautiful, and sometimes capable of showing a rare fineness, has been carefully delineated for us, along with its habitats and pastimes—Palm Beach, Park Avenue, the North Shore of Long Island, Paris, Rome, and the better watering places along the Riviera; the tea dance at the Plaza, the cocktail at the Crillon, the coming-out party, and the society wedding. Such literary embalming by itself, however, seems to me only a minor triumph.Fitzgerald, during most of his life, avoided any pretense of understanding or of evaluating this society in a larger sense, as a philosopher, a sociologist, an economist, or an historian might understand and appraise it. For the artist, nevertheless, any act or recording (unless we impossibly imagine he is recording everything) is after all evaluation, since it implies selection, which in turn implies a weighing of values, an interpretation of experience based on certain standards; and the whole process obviously implies as well some sort of understanding of whatever stuff constitutes society and the universe. That Fitzgerald’s understanding went very deep, or that his standards were much more than such tests of material as its picturesqueness or dramatic quality is not immediately evident. Amory Blaine, in This Side of Paradise, dabbles in ideas, speaks of the soul, analyzes history and society, and preaches socialism, but it would be hard to maintain that Fitzgerald understood and experienced such material very intensely. Towards the end of his life, he dissected himself in three tired, bare, tragic articles, noting the fact that his “political conscience had scarcely existed,” that he had done very little “thinking save within the problems of his craft,” and that he had constantly disregarded “motives and consequences in favor of guesswork and prophecy.” “For twenty years,” he admitted, “a certain man had been my intellectual conscience. That was Edmund Wilson.”
Yet to take Fitzgerald too much at his word, to deny him any understanding of his themes and characters in a deeper sense, is rash. In an earlier essay he had analyzed his generation—that famous lost generation—picking as its characteristics exactly those deficiencies which he later condemned in himself, selecting them unerringly, seeing them clearly, but comprehending them and explaining them as well. His analysis by now is a conventional one: the war is the villain of the piece, leaving behind it a generation of sad young men, distrustful of ideas or of ideals, shunning any sort of generalization, “cynical rather than revolutionary,” “tired of Great Causes.” An old explanation, yet for our purposes its strength rests in the fact that it is an explanation, a generalization, an evaluation, arrived at, onewould think, intellectually. Even in his first novel Fitzgerald could seem to go beyond the pure recording of sense perception to characterize this postwar generation as “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 faith in man shaken… ” Guesswork and prophecy, perhaps, to repeat his own words, yet one cannot be too sure. One cannot escape such sudden perceptions in his work, whatever their origin, perceptions which rise above the individual, above the surface, not only recording but evaluating whole fields of experience in a casual phrase, as when the expatriate American of “Babylon Revisited” remembers Paris in the twenties: “the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.”
It has been the tendency of criticism to stop at this point, content with having established Fitzgerald as an accurate observer. His preoccupation with the rich has generally been considered a rather snobbish peculiarity. A more careful reading of his work can open up several new lines of inquiry for the critic. All of Fitzgerald’s major work is tragic. All of it recounts aspiration, struggle, and failure. The characters and setting chosen to embody this theme are indeed limited, but no more so than the characters and setting of Faulkner, Wolfe, or Hemingway. The immediate problem is essentially twofold: why did Fitzgerald see and express life in such terms; and did he provide an adequate expression?
I do not think that there can be a full understanding of Fitzgerald’s work without a full understanding of his own character. Fortunately for the critic, in the fragments of self-analysis that I have already mentioned Fitzgerald has told us enough to make a good deal of his personal problem clear. The dominating idea in his life was that of success. What the origins of that idea were one cannot surely say: perhaps the lectures of a father or a schoolmaster, perhaps the pressure of an exclusive eastern preparatory school and Princeton on a sensitive Midwesterner, perhaps too much of Henley and other inspirational literature, perhaps an absorption of the whole spirit of America. Or maybe we must go even deeper, for Fitzgerald speaks of “my first childishlove of myself, my belief that I would never die like other people, and that I wasn’t the son of my parents but a son of a king, a king who ruled the whole world.” At any rate, the ideal was there, and Fitzgerald’s problem was complicated by the fact that for him success was not an inner matter; it had to be visible, accessible in material terms. In his first novel, he tries, though with a certain confusion, to establish a distinction between a “personality” and a “personage.” A personality is born with power, destined to be admired and followed, to override others. But a personage must consciously gather distinctions; “he is never thought of apart from what he’s done,” Fitzgerald wrote; “he’s a bar on which a thousand things have been hung—glittering things sometimes…”; and only when his garnered prestige and honors are there to be seen can he dominate life. In his own eyes, Fitzgerald was a personage, and his life a struggle to capture enough glittering medals.
As he looked back on it, his early life seemed to him a failure. He did not become a football hero, he missed the presidency of the Triangle Club, in the war he never got overseas. Poverty almost kept him from marrying the girl he loved. It seemed, he wrote, that “there were to be no badges of pride, no medals after all.” But now, as he had written poetry for his school magazine to recover prestige lost on the football field, he wrote This Side of Paradise. The novel made him rich; Zelda Sayre married him. The possibility of success was thus demonstrated. “Life,” he decided, “was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both.” Yet a few scars remained; after all, he had almost lost his wife, and describing himself he wrote: “The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity toward the leisure class—not the conviction of a revolutionist but the smoldering hatred of a peasant. In the years since then I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl.” And so he went on “distrustingthe rich, yet working for money with which to share their mobility and the grace that some of them brought into their lives.” His own life was a scramble for success, a fight against great odds, and one in which money was, if not an end in itself, at least a powerful ally. He expressed the conflict in terms which could well describe the problem of his own heroes: “I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to ‘succeed’…” In his own case, the balance was finally upset; futility and failure tipped the scales to the point where he could write “I think… that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are, ‘a constant striving’ (as those people say who gain their bread by saying it) only adds to… unhappiness in the end—that end that comes to our youth and hope.” He himself failed as tragically as any of his characters: “The old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition with an opulent American touch, a sort of combination of J. P. Morgan, Topham Beauclerc, and St. Francis of Assisi 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.” But this did not come until 1936.
“The necessity to struggle,” “the determination to ’succeed,’” “the old dream of being an entire man”—here are the motifs of Fitzgerald’s work. And associated with them there is always wealth—“an opulent American touch.” Money drew him with a golden spell; there is in American literature no more penetrating investigation of certain aspects of its power. Not that Fitzgerald was ever very concerned with how money was made. The analyses of a Dreiser, a Norris, or an Upton Sinclair were not for him. Most of his characters have made their million before they appear in his pages—in railroads, in mines, in oil—it really does not matter. But there is no naivete in this summary dismissal of origins. Fitzgerald was under no illusions as to the means by which a fortune is generally acquired. His interest lay in another direction: the fortune being made, what could be done with it, what was done with it? Wealth meant power, magnificence; andit was the only road to power. There are no old families in Fitzgerald. None of his heroes traces his ancestry to the Mayflower. A few times, chiefly in short stories, he tentatively explored the relationship between Southern “first families” and Northern money, and the South hardly wins even a moral victory. The very panoply and ostentation of extreme wealth bewitched him: Dick Diver rides in the motor car of the Shah of Persia, an extra-long, jewel-incrusted vehicle with wheels and radiator of silver; when thirteen-year-old Amory Blaine is stricken with appendicitis, Italy bound, four hours out from land, the great ship wheels slowly and returns him to New York. It was not life, Fitzgerald wrote, but it was magnificent. Sometimes his visions of riches passed beyond all reality and found expression in fairy tales such as “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”
Still, Fitzgerald went far beyond adoration of power merely as power. “Let me tell you about the very rich,” he wrote. “They are different from you and me.” “They have more money,” Hemingway answered, laughing at him, and missing the point. It was riches that put a man above the mass, gave him freedom and mobility, granted him the opportunity to develop the finest qualities of his nature, afforded him the heroic stature that made his success a triumph or his failure a tragedy. It was the tragedy of a capitalist society that Fitzgerald attempted to write, a tragedy in which the kings and commanders have been replaced by millionaires. “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters,” Hemingway remarked. For “bull-fighters” Fitzgerald would have read “the rich.”
Not that all of the rich were heroic. Money could serve as a eld for vulgarity, treachery, and stupid arrogance, as witness most of the characters in The Great Gatsby. Even if one escaped corruption, one might never hit upon the proper path to nobility. Fitzgerald’s work is studded with frustrated characters, men and women sensing obscurely their potentialities, seeking more or less blindly for an object on which they may be worthily expended, as the hero of “The Rich Boy” turns to Europe and the heroine of “Majesty” marries a Balkan king. Not everyone sees so clearly as Richard Diver the “old dream of being an entire man”; and noone soars as high as he. Equipped with wealth, charm, intelligence, and nobility of character, he has turned even his most routine actions into pure art, he has made life “yield the utmost from the materials at hand.” Watching him and Nicole, Rosemary Hoyt feels herself in the presence of something unmistakably superior: “Even in their absolute immobility… she felt a purpose, a working over something, a direction, an act of creation different from any she had ever known.” In her eyes he is perfection achieved, and even the most trivial articles of his wardrobe take on meaning: “They reached the hotel and Rosemary walked a little behind him, to admire him, to adore him. His step was alert as if he had just come from some great doings and was hurrying on toward others. Organizer of private gaiety, curator of a richly incrusted happiness. His hat was a perfect hat and he carried a heavy stick and gloves.” He has succeeded for a time at least in holding the conflicting forces of life in a delicate balance; and Fitzgerald does not forget to make clear the difficulty of the synthesis, to point out that Rosemary, in admiring his charm, was “unaware of its complexity and its lack of innocence, unaware that it was all a selection of quality rather than quantity from the run of the world’s bazaar; and that the simplicity of behavior also, the nursery-like peace and good will, the emphasis on the simpler virtues, was part of a desperate bargain with the gods and had been attained through struggles she could not have guessed at.”
The desperate quality of such success, the rareness with which it could be achieved, Fitzgerald never forgot. Not all natures were capable of it, nor was the structure of American society any longer such as to provide an easy release for the old ideas of universal success. The frontier tradition of rugged individualism, the Horatio Alger legend of the sudden emergence of the poor boy into the golden upper world might take strange forms. Gatsby, the bootlegger and racketeer, is, by Fitzgerald’s classification, a personage, a bar on which a thousand glittering things must be hung if he is to dominate his environment, to win back the girl he loved as a poor lieutenant and lost to a rich man. He must, and does, create an illusory character for himself, a precarious and impossible glamour out of a hundred half-truths and falsehoods. And whenthe character and the glamour crumble at the end, the final irony of the novel resides in Fitzgerald’s uncovering of their genesis. In the ragged copy of “Hopalong Cassidy” that Gatsby had owned as a boy, on the last fly-leaf, dated September 12, 1906, is printed the word SCHEDULE, and underneath it:
|Rise from bed
|Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling
|Study electricity, etc.
|Baseball and sports
|Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it
|Study needed inventions
What childhood dreams of Franklin or Edison lay behind the scrawl, what lectures on self-improvement, what tradition that every American boy could make a million dollars or become President!
Fitzgerald’s theme in its full complexity—the futility of effort and the necessity to struggle—seems to me a noble one and one which perhaps forms the basis for all great tragedy. Yet in his books it cannot be said to result in that. What are the reasons? Does the fault lie exclusively with Fitzgerald?
To begin with, it must be admitted that Fitzgerald has not always found the proper form for his material, has not always calculated with sufficient exactness the relationships which he presents. Why, for example, does Dr. Diver lose his battle? Whereis his weakness? Is it his drinking, the potentiality for corruption of his wife’s millions, or—a more subtle poison—the desire to have everything, to be loved too much, to be too brave and kind, to be too greatly used and admired by weaker souls, which drove him into a perilous relationship with a neurotic woman? Or is his final failure only a symbol of the inevitable passing, as a Marxist would see it, of a way of life whose finest bloom he represents? Fitzgerald has not given the answer with sufficient force and clarity.
More important is Fitzgerald’s failure to make the reader contemplate the problem in its larger implications. The commonest criticism of his work (and it is a just one) has been that his heroes lacked stature; the reader never realizes their potential nobility, never understands wherein lies the tragedy of their failure. For Fitzgerald, personally entwined with the subjects of his work as he was, every failure was in a sense tragic, yet the reader cannot be expected to feel so. The novelist must of necessity deal with individuals, yet he must at the same time suggest the universality that lies behind them. Essentially symbolic like most art, tragedy cannot succeed if its symbols are not understood or are rejected. Too often Fitzgerald will meet with rejection. His preoccupation with wealth will suggest the snobbishness of a Hergesheimer or the intellectual and spiritual poverty of an Alger. Not all readers will be willing to accept his characters at his own valuation. The Daimler cars, the Brooks Brothers suits, the Charvet neckties of his heroes, to him outward manifestations of an inner fineness, badges of honor under the proper circumstances, to many will seem quite the opposite. A progression might easily be established, I think, from Henry James to Fitzgerald to John O’Hara—a steady materialization and vulgarization of the idea of an aristocracy, and a corresponding increase in the importance of an artificial propriety of dress and behavior in a society which is losing all inner, spiritual propriety. O’Hara seems at times to be aware of this; but Fitzgerald, in his own longing to sit down among the rich, among the right people, in his own admission that his art was somehow not so much a value in itself as a means of procuring for him these other values, seems to havefailed to recognize it in himself or in his work. However that may be, he certainly suffers, like his contemporaries Wolfe, Hemingway, and Faulkner, from the lack of a view of life, a set of standards in which both he and his readers can share.
Perhaps Fitzgerald could have lifted the struggle to greatness if he had been able to deal with it more successfully in his life. But as it was, that life reproduced too closely the pattern of his own work. Like Gatsby and Diver, he came a long way, he climbed to a very rarefied atmosphere, but finally he fell, he had to go back. “Gatsby believed in the green light,” he wrote, “the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Dr. Diver went off to the Finger Lakes region and ended how?—we do not know. Fitzgerald went to Hollywood and abandoned his ideals. The entire man was an impossible chimera, the “combination of J. P. Morgan, Topham Beauclerc, and St. Francis of Assisi” was a scrapped illusion. A man had to be content with failure and unhappiness, to give over generosity and nobility, to husband his resources, to live selfishly for himself. “If you were dying of starvation outside my window,” he wrote, “I would go out quickly and give you the smile and the voice (if no longer the hand) and stick around till somebody raised a nickel to phone for the ambulance, that is if I thought there would be any copy in it for me.” How well did such bitterness serve him, I wonder, how content was he to be the cracked plate he called himself: “It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under left-overs…” Sometimes, we know, he looked back on the glory he had left behind him, as when he said to a friend “You know, I used to have a beautiful talent once, Baby. It used to be a wonderful feeling to know it was there, and it isn’t all gone yet,” or when in his notes for a love scene in The Last Tycoon he wrote: “Where will the warmth come from in this?… My girls were all so warm and full of promise.”
Published in The Virginia Quarterly Review magazine (1944). Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work, ed. by Alfred Kazin (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1951).