F. Scott Fitzgerald, the first chronicler of the flapper, in “This Side of Paradise” makes this explanatory reply when I asked him what book he would rather have written than any other:
Dear Miss Butcher:
I’d rather have written Conrad’s “Nostromo” than any other novel. First, because I think it is the greatest novel since “Vanity Fair” (possibly excluding “Madame Bovary”), but chiefly because “Nostromo,” the man, intrigues me so much. Now the Nostromo who exists in life and always has existed, whether as a Roman centurion or a modern top sergeant, has often crept into fiction, but until Conrad there was no one to ponder over him. He was dismissed superficially and abruptly even by those who most admired his efficient handling of the proletariat either in crowds or as individuals. Kipling realized that this figure, with his almost autocratic disdain of weakness, is one of the most powerful props of the capitalistic system, and under various names he occurs in many of Kipling’s stories of Indian life—but always as a sort of glorified servant. The literary attitude toward him has been that of an officer sitting in his club with a highball during drill.
“Well, I’ve got nothing to worry about. Sergt. O’Hare has the troop and——” this with a patronizing condescension—”I believe he knows just about as much about handling them as I do.”
Now Conrad didn’t stop there. He took this man of the people and imagined him with such a completeness that there is no use of any one else pondering over him for some time. He is one of the most important types in our civilization. In particular he’s one that always made a haunting and irresistible appeal to me. So I would rather have dragged his soul from behind his astounding and inarticulate presence than written any other novel in the world.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Public letter to Fannie Butcher, Chicago Daily Tribune, May 19, 1923, p. 9. (Fanny Butcher was book critic for the Chicago Tribune.)
1. Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 novel of French provincial life.