During the last world war, many cosmic destinies were strung together on the tone of tragic gallantry and courage to the purpose of binding within tradition the dramatic and pictorial tempos to which the age had fallen heir. Habits of men at this time included shivering to death in boxcars over the lost frontiers of lonely foreign provinces, drowning in mud, and smothering in submarines. Many had learned too much of painful and even exotic ways to die so that life presented itself by contrast in less agonizing, if more immutable, terms than before the trouble in Europe.
This era assisted at the nursing of a badly shell-shocked logos back to some semblance of tenability on the dreary and dusty sun parlors of chateaux converted to convalescent hospitals and entered a failing social structure from personal necessities of survival.
A few facetious gestures: dancing with the dead at Cambrai, the painting of the Portughese leavened the four-year spectacle and diverted some of the spiritual casualties from despair to bitterness—perhaps the easier to bear.
When nobody could think up any more mathematical formulas for destruction and no further ways for forwarding the plot, the war was declared to be a political inconvenience, and ended. Through the disorientations resultant from many distrusted and uncondoned experiences the soldiers looked toward home as the right of a long and hard-earned holiday. People that had been spared active participation in the gala debacle converted themselves into a grand pleasure chorus as effectively as possible and dedicated the decade to reconstituting the shattered illusions of those who had served in France with, perhaps, more verve and courage than judgment.
The United States greeted the returning young men with appropriate tragic and ecstatic pathos, and compensatory dramatics, but still the erstwhile doughboys languished, and weren’t quite able to take up the thread on the same attenuate pitch as before.
It was past time for whatever had been scheduled to have happened and people were worn out with long abeyant attendance.
The prophet destined to elucidate and catalogue these pregnant and precarious circumstances was F. Scott Fitzgerald. The times exacted a dramatization compelling enough to save its protagonists from sleepwalking over the proscenium in the general doesn’t-matter suasion of the letdown; and splendidly tragic enough to turn the barbarism of recent war experiences into drama. Fitzgerald was the first and always the most indicative of authors to persuade the desperate latent flare of these souls so tolerantly and self-abnegatively pursuing policies of qui en-faire to attitudes of a better-mastered Olympian regret. He endowed those years that might have been so garishly reckless with the dignity of his bright indicative scene, and buoyed the desperation of a bitter day with the spontaneity of his appreciation.
Fitzgerald’s heroines were audacious and ingenuous and his heroes were fabulous strangers from lands of uncharted promise. His tragedies were hearts at bay to the inexorable exigence of a day whose formulas no longer worked and whose ritual had dwindled to less of drama than its guignol. His pathos was the pressure of inescapable necessities over the keeping of a faith. His poignancy was the perishing of lovely things and people on the jagged edges of truncate spiritual purpose. These were the themes that transcended the crassness and bitterness which so easily betrays the ironic pen and leads the conviction of tragedy too frequently astray in the briars of scathing invective.
Fitzgerald seized, from the nebulous necessities of an incubating civilization, the essence of a girl able to survive the new, and less forbearing, dramas and presented in poetic harmonies the tragically gallant stoicism so indispensable to traversing that troubled and turbulent epoch between world wars.
As the era is absorbed by its category and lost in its platonic sources, one remembers romantically the figure who so ingratiatingly reconciled his readers to the diminution of individuality and rendered more tangible those movements which he affectionately and indulgently humanized: “youth movements, sufferage drives, temperance objectives,” and many no-matter-how-dearly-bought subscriptions to any dominant idea which carried the promise of salvation by rote.
As promissorily as the least tractable wellings of the soul are curbed to the poet’s pentameter, as surely as the most unique of cadets is lost on the line of march, so does each generation yield to the thematic persuasions of the day. The meter being waltz time which moves nostalgic twilights to their rendezvous, the world believes again in sentiment and turns to fairy tale; whereas those years haunted by the more aggressive sadnesses of march time produce a more dynamic, tragic spiritual compensation. Thus the manners and aspirations that were not too long ago recut and polished in the staccato relevance of This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned have been able to defend themselves with a better-perfected hardihood and by means of a faith in technique from the heartbreak and subsequent ruthless purpose of the 1920s.
Fitzgerald’s books were the first of their kind and the most indicative. If his people didn’t have a good time, or things come out well at the end, the scene of their activity was always the arena of some new philosophic offensive, and what they did was allied with many salient projects of the era. The plush hush of the hotel lobby and the gala grandeur of the theater porte-chochere; fumes of orchidaceous elevators whirring to plaintive deaths the gilded aspirations of a valiant and protesting age, taxis slumberously afloat on deep summer nights——
Such Fitzgerald made into many tragic tales; sagas of people compelling life into some more commensurate and compassionate measure. His meter was bitter, and ironic and spectacular and inviting: so was life. There wasn’t much other life during those times than to what his pen paid the tribute of poetic tragic glamour and offered the reconciliation of the familiarities of tragedy.
Rest in peace.
Published in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual (1974); was probably intended for the group of posthumous recollections and assessments of Fitzgerald published in The New Republic in 1941.