Scott Fitzgerald and the 1920’s
by Arthur Mizener

There is a very obvious pitfall that yawns before anyone who undertakes to talk about an author and his period, a pitfall that is no less dangerous for being obvious. Imaginative writers are not historians, and the better they are—no matter how representative—the less they resemble historians. They have in them little or none of the generalizing and quantifying impulse of historians because they do not know the world as a play of something called forces and tendency on things called groups and classes. Imaginative writers know their experience of the world, not an abstraction from it, and know that experience symbolically, not logically. There is nothing mysterious about this process: it is the way we all know our experience a great deal of the time, so that every time we begin a story by saying, “a funny thing happened to me today,” or “wait till I tell you about…” we are doing, in our humble way, what the imaginative writer does. That is, we are finding a particular person acting in a particular way at a specific time and place significant of something beyond himself. It is worth repeating the “funny thing that happened today” only because that thing embodies a meaning for us, a meaning that may, when the person who tells the story is a gifted man, give us an understanding of our time different from the historian’s but complementary to it and—in some respects, at least—more revealing.

Scott Fitzgerald had an imaginative sense of the experience of the I920’s, was indeed a writer so closely related to his time that he was in danger of being wholly absorbed by his sense of it and of writing books that would not survive it. But if you are not careful to make clear that in saying this you do not mean his work is history in the usual sense, you are sure to land in trouble. I have almost never touched on this aspect of Fitzgerald’s work without having someone in the audience rise after the lecture to say that he personally lived through the 1920’s without ever wearing a coon-skin coat, reading The American Mercury, hearing Paul Whiteman, or entering a speakeasy. Certainly hundreds of thousands of people—the vast majority of Americans, in fact—did. Of course Fitzgerald’s work tells us nothing about the 1920’s in this sense. But one might as well argue that Shakespeare’s plays tell us nothing about Elizabethan England because Hamlet was a Dane, Macbeth a Scotsman, and Lear, if anything historical at all, God alone knows what.

The meaningful question to ask of Fitzgerald’s work is how much it reveals about the quality of his time, the movement of attitude and feeling in it: how much it penetrates to meaning and motive, that is, in the period, however statistically unrepresentative may be the specific particulars it selects from the period to convey this understanding. These things, too, are a kind of history, perhaps the essential kind of history, and of it Fitzgerald’s sense was extremely acute. Whatever he was writing about and whatever his other interests in it, he was always aware of what it suggested about his time and place. Thus he will remark in passing:

By 1927 a wide-spread neurosis began to be evident, faintly signalled, like a nervous beating of the feet, by the popularity of crossword puzzles. I remember a fellow expatriate opening a letter from a mutual friend of ours, urging him to come home and be revitalized by the hardy, bracing qualities of the native soil. It was a strong letter and it affected us both deeply, until we noticed that it was headed from a nerve sanitarium in Pennsylvania.

In an important sense, there is more history in that paragraph than there is in all the conventional social histories of the 1920’s put together, even though Fitzgerald is ostensibly talking about a statistically minute minority of Americans—the intellectuals of the period—and about only three of them, none of whom is, in the full sense, even in America, since two of them are expatriates living on the Riviera and one is in an insane asylum.

The advantage of such an imaginative grasp of life is that it can look at a time and a place and see past the normative statistical formulas, the pious falsehoods, and that exercise of a tenth-rate poetic faculty called the advertising business that produces what it likes itself to call “The Image” of America. 1 do not mean that even a fine imagination is always right; far from it. No doubt, in fact, the egg-head view of America is as frequently wrong as the mutton-head view. But right or wrong, it is always concerned to reach through the appearances of things to their essences—not, of course, as Mr. Tate has told us in The Forlorn Demon—directly, but indirectly. I suppose the way the imagination oftenest goes wrong in the ordinary sense is by becoming subject to the distortions imposed by its private experience, for it is ultimately always alone with itself, can never “prove” anything, even to itself.

What it does know, however, it knows as experience. Fitzgerald’s favorite poet, Keats, felt the importance of this kind of knowledge so strongly that, as he said in a famous letter to Benjamin Bailey, he had “never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reason.” Because he hud never been able to, he cried out for a life of “Sensations”—that is, the felt understanding of the imagination—rather than “Thoughts”—the logical conclusions of consecutive reasoning. That is why he said that “what the imagination seizes as beauty—that is, experienced knowledge—must be true.” Fitzgerald loved Keats as he did because he too had that conviction.

It is the astonishing flowering of the imagination in this sense during the American 20’s—most strikingly no doubt in our poetry, but in our prose too—that justifies our special interest in the period, however silly some of the manifestations of that interest in the popular press may be. America had had its great writers before the 20’s. In fact, it had had four or five in the nineteenth century who were probably greater writers than any of those who appeared in the 1920’s—at least this is, I believe, so of the prose writers. But writers like Hawthorne and Melville and James were isolated giants—isolated not simply from their society but even from the society of their fellows. We know the pathetic and unsuccessful effort of Melville to reach an understanding with Hawthorne; we know the artificiality of the relation between Emerson and Whitman; we know the pitiful failure of Thoreau’s famous call on Whitman; we know Henry James’s remark to the group in Edith Wharton’s drawing room at Lenox, after he had read aloud a poem of Whitman’s: “One cannot but deplore his knowledge of foreign languages”; perhaps most pathetic of all, we know that Melville and Whitman lived quite near each other for years without, so far as we know, ever meeting at all.

The result was that though (he imaginations of these men were undoubtedly profoundly affected by their times, they achieved no common sense of them and could never deal directly with them. This is still a problem for the American writer, so that there is a sense in which our best prose writers are often still producing, not novels but philosophical romances—which for all I know is a greater form than the novel, but does not do one important thing the novel does do, that is, present a verisimilar image of its world. Hawthorne and Melville certainly wrote romances, fictions that are located at a distance of time or place from their own world: James may be a more arguable case, but I think he did too. At least when Ford Madox Ford, in his large, easy way, asserted that there was a period of his boyhood that he “passed very largely in Paris, and very largely in exactly the same society as that in which Newman himself moved,” people laughed at him, quite rightly, since there never was—as Henry James clearly recognizes in the preface to The Americanany such society. The American is a romance. So. surely, are most of Faulkner’s novels. But if this difficulty in dealing directly with the author’s world still bothers American fiction, it is clearly not the problem it once was, and it is not, I think, because in the 1920’s there was a sudden flourishing of talented young men in America who popped up all over the country, filled with a common conviction that it was possible to produce serious works of the imagination directly about American experience. Moreover, these young men quickly found one another and formed that loose, anarchic, strife-torn society that still constitutes the intellectual community of our time—intellectual underground, perhaps I should call it. There are lots of neat, superficial little historical and sociological explanations of this odd flowering—many of them produced for public lectures by members of the intellectual community itself: intellectuals will of course try on any idea for size. None of them is, I think, to be trusted very far. We really haven’t the faintest idea why this miracle occurred. But whatever the reason for it, it produced something very different in the way of a literature than had been produced by the lonely giants of the nineteenth century.

When William James urged his brother Henry to stay in America and write about that wonderful product of democratic American society, The New Man. Henry went off to live in England and to write about its cultivated upperclass life, for reasons he made quite clear in his life of Hawthorne. The best he could do for William was to create the hero of The American, a fellow called Newman; Newman did not satisfy William at all. But Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Dos Passos and Cozzens and the rest could not have been persuaded not to write about The New Man and his society, though I doubt if William James would have been pleased by their vision of him either. They clearly felt what always seems to be felt by writers in periods of great imaginative activity: they seemed to themselves to have suddenly been released from some invisible restraint, to have been made free to discover and reveal the private truth about American experience. Even Sinclair Lewis clearly felt this, though his sense of the private truth of American experience was sentimental and crude. Lewis’s strength was a Mencken-like feeling for the absurdity of the public and conventional American life of his time, of the world so admired by Time Magazine.

It was no doubt a dramatic and exciting time in America, the 20’s, and that may have had something to do with the feelings of these young men. The shift of power from Europe to America that took place after the first world war was bound to excite any imagination capable of grasping it at all. As Fitzgerald put it in his characteristic way,

With Americans ordering suits by the gross in London, the Bond Street tailors perforce agreed to moderate their cut to the American long-waisted figure and loose-fitting taste, (and) something subtle passed to America, the style of man.

Moreover, it was a period that ran its course rapidly and excitingly. Fitzgerald said afterwards that it lasted almost exactly ten years, beginning with the May Day riots of 1919 “when the police rode down the demobilized country boys gaping at the orators in Madison Square” and leaping, as he put it, “to a spectacular death in October, 1929.”

What it felt like to be living through the early days of that decade is most beautifully realized in one of the finest of Fitzgerald’s early stories, “May Day.” Of the so-called “May Day riots” described with such wonderful irony in that story. Fitzgerald said elsewhere that “we didn’t remember anything about the Bill of Rights until Mencken began plugging it, but we did know that such tyranny belonged in the jittery little countries of south Europe. If goose-livered business men had this effect on the government, then maybe we had gone to war for J. P. Morgan’s loans after all.”

This feeling made two courses possible, and they were both followed in the period. These young people with their optimistic belief that the good life was possible in this new and powerful America could either fight to make America what they thought it ought to be or they could—and it was easy in a wealthy period — retire into a small world of their own where they might live as they pleased and let the booboisie go its own benighted way. There were people like Walter Lippmann and Heywood Broun—and. in part, Mencken—who followed the first course, but the majority—“tired,” as Fitzgerald said, “of Great Causes” and alienated by the kind of small-town pettiness that could imagine Prohibition a Great Cause—followed the second course. Mencken is such a key figure for the period because he did both, and did so with a kind of gross and ebullient wit that makes him peculiarly appealing to Americans.

He liked to say, when asked to lecture to Women’s Clubs, “I am seldom out of Baltimore, and when I am, I am never out of my cups.” When he was confronted by that favorite witticism of the stupid, “If you do not like America why do you live in it?” he would say, “Why do men go to zoos?” This was the way intelligent young people, staring confidently out from the privacy of their little would, saw the absurd public and ordinary life of America.

They did so with very considerable political courage and honesty. The fact that they were libertarians interested in private freedom rather than in public equality as liberals are, and that they hardly participated in organized political movements until the Sacco-Vanzeui case in 1927, ought not to blind us to their impertinent defiance of the ruling powers. Mencken was a master of such impertinence, calling the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, “the heir of Washington. Lincoln, and Chester A. Arthur,” and describing the average well-behaved 101% Rotarian business man as someone “who goes to bed every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed, and gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.”

When William Jennings Bryan—the idol of those Americans who disapproved of all new ideas, including the one Bryan fought so energetically at the Scopes trial, namely, evolution—when Bryan died, Mencken wrote an obituary of him for the Baltimore Sun that begins, “Has it been duly marked by historians that the late William Jennings Bryan’s last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies?” and goes on to observe of Bryan that,

For forty years he tracked [Homo neandertalensis] with coo and bellow, up and down the rustic backways of the Republic. Whenever the flambeaux of Chaiauqua smoked and guttered, and the bilge of idealism ran in the veins … and men gathered who were weary and heavy laden and their wives who were full of Peruna and as fecund as shad—there the indefatigable Jennings set up his traps and spread his bait. He knew every country town in the South and West, and he could crowd the most remote of them to suffocation by simply winding his horn.

Thus Mencken talked about Calvin Coolidge, the President of the United States, and Bryan, its dignified ex-secretary of State. If you will try to imagine anyone talking today in this way about President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles you will have some measure of Mencken’s political impertinence and courage.

He talked the same way about issues. In the midst of the Palmer Red Raids, one of those periodic displays of childish hysteria about communism that we Americans regularly disgrace ourselves with, Mencken wrote,

Let a lone Red arise to annoy a barroom full of Michigan lumberjacks, and at once the fire-alarm sounds and the full military and naval power of the nation is summoned to put down the outrage. But how many Americans would the Reds convert to their rubbish, even supposing them free to spout it on every street corner? Probably not enough, all told, to make a day’s hunting for a regiment of militia. The American moron’s mind simply doesn’t run in that direction; he wants to keep his Ford even at the cost of losing the Bill of Rights.

There is a gift here, amounting almost to a kind of genius, for insulting all the conceivable sacred cows of American society at once. But behind Mencken’s delight in stirring up the animals there is a serious attitude that was common to the intelligent young people of his time. It is made up of a love of personal freedom and a respect for the rights of individuals, however wrong one may think them, of a dislike of doctrinaire egalitarianism and a respect for superior intelligence and talent, however annoying it may be, of a dislike of the complacent vulgarity of the majority and the politicians and advertisers who pander to and encourage it and a respect for intellectual dissatisfaction and the artists who represent it.

This, then, was the way the public world looked to the cultivated, young people of the American 20’s. Most of them, in the early 20’s at least, saw little hope of changing it and felt little impulse to try, though more of them became interested in politics toward the end of the period. Most of them stayed inside their little underground community and there tried and—alas, because it was in many ways an admirably conceived ambition—failed to live the good life. Occasionally—Fitzgerald was a great one for this kind of thing—they made a serio-comic foray into the world of conventional behavior and newspapers in order to say boo to the Babbitts, but mostly they stayed within their own world. Looking back at it afterwards, Zelda Fitzgerald said with her sharp insight and her slightly schizoid wit,

“We’re having some people,” everybody said to everybody else, “and we want you to join us,” ami they said, “We’ll telephone.”

All over New York people telephoned. They telephoned from one hotel to another to people on other parties that they couldn’t get there—that they were engaged. It was always teatime or late at night.

And Fitzgerald himself said.

It was borrowed time anyhow—the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dues and the casualness of chorus girls. But moralizing is easy now and it was pleasant to be in one’s twenties in such a certain and unworried time…Sometimes … there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said “Yes. we have no bananas,” and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were—and it all seemed rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.

Keatsian romantic that he was. Fitzgerald could never deny the kind of truth that intensity gave, and that is why, of all this brilliant group of writers in the 20’s who were bent on showing—in Hemingway’s phrase—exactly “the way it was” in that time of hope and promise, Fitzgerald was most acutely aware of the way it was.

All these writers were romantics of one kind or another, as perhaps all Americans must be, but Fitzgerald was by temperament the special kind of romantic that Keats also was, and he therefore felt with special poignancy, just as Keats did, the irony of time. He lived, as Malcolm Cowley once put it, in a room full of clocks and calendars. Small wonder that he borrowed a phrase from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” for the title of the novel in which he described with loving hindsight the 20’s defeated romantic dream of the good life, and called the book Tender Is the Night. Or that the most brilliant passage he ever wrote about American experience—the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby—deals with the romantic dilemma in exactly the same terms, and in almost as complex a figure, as do the famous opening lines of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Precisely because he so loved the products of time in all their mortal and evanescent glory, Fitzgerald longed to have them last forever, unchanged, just as Keats longed to believe that he could remain “awake for ever in a sweet unrest” “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast.” Both knew that they could not, that even the foster child of silence and slow time, the Grecian urn that was not even truly eternal, achieved its merely relative permanence at the cost of being incapable of the very thing they wished to make permanent, what Keats called “the wild ecstasy.” the passion and intensity of a realized love.

The dilemma is familiar enough to western culture. It was by no means a recent poet, even as the history of literature goes, who remarked that,

When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age …
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate —
That time will come and take my love away.

Fitzgerald’s wry, twentieth-century version of this feeling was: “It grows harder to write, because there is much less weather than when I was a boy and practically no men and women at all.”

But the remarkable thing about Fitzgerald is that he was not a historian, even of ideas: he was a poet, a man who experienced this idea, felt it anew and as if no one had ever experienced it before, and felt it therefore wholly in terms of the world he lived in. By doing so, he displayed, unintentionally, and as the result of an accident that made his experience representative, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the American sensibility, one of the attitudes that do make us new men in western culture, if a very different kind of new men from those William James thought he saw. Do we not feel that one of the characteristic polarities of the American consciousness is that between an intense idealism, an extravagant vision of the good life, and a passion for the actual and concrete? Men with a passion for the actual and concrete are usually willing to settle for limited goods that can be realized here and now; politics, they say, is the art of the possible. Idealists are likely to put the realization of their ideals into the remote future, when the state will wither away, etc., in order not to have to face the impossibility of realizing them here and now. But the American imagination seems to combine a powerful idealism with a passion for the actual, and, indeed, the peculiarly American actual. It is this insistence on having both the dream and its realization that makes Jay Gatsby’s life tragic, and no less so because he is innocently unaware of how much he is asking for. It is also what made Scott Fitzgerald’s life tragic. It is, indeed, the source of tragedy for American life in general.

There is a wonderful intuitive grasp of this fact about us in Fitzgerald’s making his most important hero a man of provincial American origin, an almost Horatio Alger young man from a Middlewestern farm named James Gatz, who has what Fitzgerald calls “a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” and is determined to the point of dying for it to realize these promises in an actual marriage with the novel’s heroine. Daisy Fay. Neither the realities of time nor the contingencies of human character discourage him. When he discovers that in the five years since he has last seen Daisy Fay she has married and had a child. Gatsby decides that he will take her back to Louisville to the place— and the time. he obviously believes—where they had left off, and that they will start their life over again from there. “I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” Fitzgerald’s narrator says to him. “You can’t repeat the past.” “Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cries incredulously, “Why. of course you can!” And when he is finally driven to admit that Daisy may have loved her husband, as he says, “just for a minute, when they were first married”—an enormous concession for him—he immediately adds. “In any case, it was just personal.”

Like the hero he imagined as the embodiment of the romantic’s “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” the world he imagined those promises conceived in and defeated by is the world he—and all of us—actually experiences them in Fitzgerald understood the essential act of Keats’s imagination so well precisely because he had experienced it independently, not in the world of nightingales, of “green hills in an April shroud,” of “globed peonies,” but in a world where the full glory of nature is known as Nick Carraway knows it in The Great Gatsby when he suddenly becomes conscious that “it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas pumps sat out in pools of light.” If Wordsworth, looking once again, after five years absence, at the countryside a few miles above Tintern Abbey will say with intense excitement that once again he sees “these pastoral farms, / Green to the very door,” Nick Carraway will know the same feeling of excitement by contemplating a Long Island estate where “the lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”

No wonder Fitzgerald understood—indeed, had felt himself—what Gatsby feels about Daisy Fay’s house in Louisville, that

There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.

This was a luxurious house, because Daisy Fay’s family was wealthy. This fact is crucial to an understanding of Fitzgerald and of the 20’s he represented, and I want in conclusion to examine it and even to argue that the attitude Fitzgerald and the 20’s took toward wealth is a more honest one than we allow ourselves today, and perhaps “the only one that will justify the life of the richest country in the world, insofar as that country lives up to any ideal and can be justified at all.

The first thing that has to be recognized is that, though Fitzgerald’s imagination was much preoccupied by wealth, he was almost completely uninterested in it for its own sake, just as he was deeply scornful of rich people who were merely rich, feeling about them, as he said, “not the conviction of a revolutionist [that makes one think he can improve things] but the smouldering hatred of a peasant [that assures one he cannot].” Beautiful as Daisy Fay was, most things about her were faintly disappointing to Gatsby when he met her again after dreaming about her for nearly five years, for almost “no amount of fire and freshness.” as Fitzgerald puts it. “can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.” The only thing about Daisy that docs not thus slightly fail Gatsby is her voice with its “inexhaustible charm,” a charm that has been cultivated, refined, and preserved by the conditions of her whole life, the circumstances that have surrounded her because she has lived always in the luxurious world of wealth. “Her voice,” says Gatsby suddenly, like a man blurting out the unmentionable secret of all our lives, “is full of money.” The money means nothing in itself; the last thing Gatsby loves is money. What he loves is the full realization of the natural beauty of Daisy’s voice and—as he mistakenly believes—of all the rest of her nature that has been made possible by wealth.

This is what Fitzgerald’s imagination grasped about American life, that wealth is enormously important to it because as American society is constituted—just possibly as any society is constituted — only wealth provides the conditions that make the full realization of life’s promises possible, and that a preoccupation with material possessions is justified only when those possessions are used for the realization of the finest life an imagination of heightened sensitivity can conceive. This is almost exactly the inverse of George Orwell’s lifelong argument that the essential virtues are simply not possible in a life of grinding poverty, and there is perhaps something characteristic in the fact that Eton’s great secular moralist dwelt characteristically on the evils of poverty and Prince-ton’s on the promises of wealth.

We Americans seem to suffer under a peculiar taboo about wealth. By some kind of conspiracy of silence, we work together to persuade ourselves that we think what we call “beautiful homes” — perhaps because they are so often only houses—clubs, schools, universities, cars, clothes, all of which, heaven knows, cost a great deal of money, are nice enough but not necessary to our virtue and happiness. Almost pathetically, tor a business civilization, we even cling to the pretense that wealth is not the foundation of social position. Fitzgerald’s, imagination was somehow freed from this taboo; he recognized clearly, and did not even know he was not supposed to say, that the rich are different from you and me—and luckier in the possibilities of their lives. Thus he was able to perceive without confusion all there was to know about the subtle and complex structure of sentiment and attitude we build up almost from birth around objects and activities that are conspicuously expensive. He understood completely our feelings for cars, for resort hotels, for interior decoration and antiques, for what we ambiguously call “the best” colleges and universities. He can make us laugh in a very special way at his schoolboy hero, Basil Duke Lee, lounging— as he says—“passionately” behind the wheel of a Stutz Bearcat, because he knows that he is making us laugh at a secret passion of our own. There is a whole aspect of American culture to be defined in terms of our never-forgotten youthful feelings about, a car, especially as that car is associated with social prestige and with our first experiences of love.

Fitzgerald’s imagination, with its American impulse to fix on the concrete and actual, understood supremely well how close our feelings cling to the objects with which they were associated when they were most intense—to the cars, the clothes, the country-club or college dances, the popular tunes so expensively played on those occasions. He understood that we must face honestly the fact that the great good place we can imagine is a place that requires money for its existence.

He was not strikingly optimistic about the prospect of our not being damned by our materialism, of our dream’s surviving its entanglement with particularly expensive objects. Who was ever so damned, finally, as Daisy Fay. whom Gatsby dreamed of as his golden princess high in a white tower? All the beautiful people of Fitzgerald’s stories are damned in one way or another. Rut damned or not, Fitzgerald’s imagination told him, we live along the lines of that web of feelings we have woven around what he once called “the appurtenances of happiness.” the expensive physical objects with which all our feelings are identified. Which one of us, if he is quite honest with himself, does not know that the sources of our secret emotional lives are in the unforgotten triumphs and griefs of our youth and that our dream of happiness is. however sophisticated, always a version of what Fitzgerald once described in a little ballad:

There’d be an orchestra
Bingo! Bango! Playing for us
To dance the tango. And people would clap
When we arose. At her sweet face
And my new clothes.

Whether it is good or bad to be this kind of people—and I suppose it is both—we are indeed something like that. And it is Fitzgerald’s true greatness as a writer that he helped his age—and therefore us—to see that this was “the way it was.”

Published in Minnesota Review magazine I (Winter 1961), pp. 161-174. Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Criticism, ed. by Kenneth Eble (New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 1973).