The Function of Nostalgia: F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Wright Morris

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
—Jay Gatsby.

The “subject” of Wolfe, Hemingway, and Faulkner, however various the backgrounds, however contrasting the styles, pushed to its extremity, is nostalgia. But it was left to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the playboy, to carry this subject to its logical conclusion. In fictional terms this is achieved in The Great Gatsby. In personal terms it is achieved in The Crack-Up.

Thomas Wolfe’s nostalgia, his cry of “Lost, lost, lost—” was a cliche he neither transformed nor examined, but Fitzgerald made of it a form of consciousness. Nostalgia, quite simply, is all there is. In plumbing this sentiment to its depths, rather than merely using or abusing it, Fitzgerald dropped to the deep, dead-end center of the American mind. He let his line out deeper than Hemingway and Twain, deeper than the Mississippi and the Big-Two Hearted River, down to that sunken island that once mythically flowered for Dutch sailors’ eyes.

That was where the dream began, he tells us, that still pandered to men in whispers: that was where man held his breath in the presence of this brave new world. It was Fitzgerald, dreaming of paradise, who was compelled to an aesthetic contemplation that made of nostalgia, that snare and delusion, a work of art.

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.

That elusive rhythm, that fragment of lost words, that ghostly rumble among the drums are now, thanks to Fitzgerald, a part of our inheritance. Those who were never there will now be there, in a sense more compelling than those who were there, since they will face it, and grasp it, in the lucid form of Fitzgerald’s craft. Like Gatsby, he, too, believed in the green light, in the orgiastic future that recedes before us, leading by a strange circumambulation back into the past, back to those dark fields of the republic where the Big Two-Hearted River flows into the Mississippi, and the Mississippi flows, like time, into the territory ahead. Time and the river flow backward, ceaselessly, into the mythic past. Imperceptibly, the function of nostalgia reduces the ability to function. The power and sources of nostalgia lie beyond the scalpel. Nostalgia sings in the blood, and with age it grows thicker, and when all other things fail it joins men in a singular brotherhood. Wherever they live in the present, or hope to live in the future, it is in the past that you will truly find them. In the past one is safely out of time but not out of mind.

Nostalgia is a limbo land, leading nowhere, where the artist can graze like a horse put to pasture, feeding on such clover of the past as whets the appetite. The persuasive charm of Fitzgerald is that this clover, which he cups in both hands, is almost chokingly sweet. We dip our faces into the past as into the corridor of that train, homeward bound at Christmas, the air scented with luggage, coonskin coats, and girls with I snow melting in their hair. But it has a greater virtue still. It is inexhaustible. It is the artist—not the vein of nostalgia—that gives out or cracks up.

As a man steps from the wings of his own imagination to face the music, the catcall facts of life, Fitzgerald stepped forward in The Crack-Up to face the audience. It is a performance. He knows the crowd is openly snickering at him. For this curtain call, however, which nobody asked for, an apologetic apologia pro vita sua, he has reserved the few lines, implicit but unspoken, in his books. Self-revelation as revealing as this, many found contemptible. Not that he had cracked up—that was commonplace—but that in cracking up he had owned up to it. Nor would that have really mattered if, in owning up, he hadn’t owned anything. But Fitzgerald knew. That was the hell of it. He was the first of his generation to know that life was absurd.

It is fitting that Fitzgerald, the aesthete of nostalgia, of the escape clause without question, should be the first American to formulate his own philosophy of the absurd. But nostalgia, carried to its conclusion, leads nowhere else. Had he been of the temperament of Albert Camus, he might have been the first to dramatize the idea that the only serious question is suicide. Fitzgerald sensed that. In admitting to the concept that life is absurd he confronted the one idea totally alien to American life.

Therein lies the to-be or the not-to-be, the question of suicide. He goes on to tell us, in a further installment, why he had lost the ability to function. He had become identified with the objects of his horror and his compassion. He was in the shadow of the hallucinative world that destroyed Van Gogh. He points out that when Wordsworth came to the conclusion that “there had passed away a glory from the earth,” he was not compelled to pass away with it, nor did Keats, dying of consumption, ever give up his dream of being among the great poets.

Fitzgerald had been able, for many years, to hold certain opposing ideas in his mind, but when he had lost the ability to function he had cracked up. The myth of Sisyphus became his personal myth. While he had the resources, he was able to function in spite of the futility of the situation, but when he had overdrawn these resources, he cracked up. He lay at the bottom of the incline, the rock on top of him.

Some time before World War II made it fashionable, Fitzgerald had discovered the philosophy of the absurd. Different from the philosophers themselves, he lived and died of it. He had come, alone and prematurely, on a fact that was not yet fashionable: he had come on the experience rather than the cliche. The absurd, for Fitzgerald, was truly absurd, though nothing is ever truly absurd if enough clever people seem to believe in it.

The Crack-Up is a report from the limbo of the All-American mind. At the point where these two opposing dreams cross, the dreamer cracks up. Such crack-ups are now common, the Nervous Breakdown now joins the All-American in a fraternity that goes deeper than his gold lodge pin. But only Fitzgerald, twenty years ago, was both sufficiently aware and sufficiently honest to look through this crack into the limbo of the mind and report what he saw.

Those deformed souls in Dante’s hell, the Diviners, each so strangely twisted between the chin and the chest that they had to come backward, since seeing forward was denied them, symbolize the schizoid state of the American mind. In this confusion of dreams it is the orgiastic future that engages our daytime talents and energy, but the dark fields of the Past is where we take refuge at night. The genius and progressive drive of a culture that is both the reproach and the marvel of the world is crossed with a prevailing tendency to withdraw from the world and retire into the past.

The ability of most Americans to function—as artists, citizens, or men of business—resides in their capacity to indulge in one of these conflicting dreams at a time; to be all for the future, that is, or all for the Past. Sometimes the rhythm is that of an alternating current, the past and the present playing musical chairs, but when they meet in the mind at the same moment, that mind is apt to lose its ability to function. It cracks up.

No more curious or revealing statement than The Crack-Up exists in our literature. After such knowledge Rimbaud wrote A Season in Hell then stopped writing, and Dostoevski gave us his Notes from Underground. The author of Gatsby, reduced to “clowning it” in the pages of Esquire, had to strike a “tone” that would permit him to commit hara-kiri in public. It is this tone, plus the setting of Esquire, that gave the statement its curious reputation. The sober-minded need not take it “seriously.” What Fitzgerald knew can be discounted because of where and how he said it. Most readers found, as Fitzgerald had predicted, such self-revelation contemptible, and dismissed the testimony of The Crack-Up as an ill-bred example of self-pity. It is the giving up, rather than the cracking up, that we find inadmissible.

The author of The Great Gatsby, stripped of his luck and his illusions, neither had the guts to keep it to himself nor the talent to forge new ones. In this complaint there is some justice. It is an indictment, however indirect, of the limbo of Nostalgia. But where others merely lost themselves, Fitzgerald knew where he was lost. He knew what they did not know—that from this maze there was no way out. It was neither fatigue nor the aimless wandering, but the paralysis of will that grew out of the knowledge that the past was dead, and that the present had no future. The Good, that is, in the last analysis, might not prevail. It led him to a conclusion not unlike that reached by Twain in What is Man?

So what? This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.

Does it seem a tame monster—after the sense of horror—to be frightened by? Qualified unhappiness, if we examine it, is the opposite of unqualified happiness. It is the opposite, that is, of Jay Gatsby, of the Goethe-Byron-Shaw medley of Fitzgerald, of J. P. Morgan and Beauclerk, and St. Francis of Assisi, of all those giants who were now relegated as Fitzgerald tells us, to the junk heap—the same junk heap where we will find the shoulder pads worn for one day on the Princeton football field, and that overseas cap never worn overseas.

It seems a little hard to believe—hard in the sense that we would rather not believe it—but Master Hemingway, whose nostalgia is care-fully de-mothed before he wears it, bears witness to those things in Death in the Afternoon. Speaking of the Good Old Days, those times when men were men and bulls were tremendous, he sums up the past, the mythic past, in these words:

Things change very much and instead of great athletes only children play on the high-school teams now … they are all children without honor, skill or virtue, much the same as those children who now play football, a feeble game it has become, on the high-school team and nothing like the great, mature, sophisticated athletes in canvas-elbowed jerseys, smelling vinegary from sweated shoulder pads, carrying leather head guards, their moleskins clotted with mud, that walked on leather-cleated shoes that printed in the earth along beside the sidewalk in the dusk, a long time ago.

The irony of this passage neutralizes the charge of sentiment that it carries. Hemingway mocks it: Fitzgerald admits to its crippling effects. It seems manly to mock; it seems unmanly to acknowledge the effects. Sure, we felt that way long ago, but certainly we are not suffering from it now. It is this knowledge, knowledge that we are suffering, that deprives Fitzgerald, in spite of his power, of the manly persuasion the reader derives from Hemingway. It is classically summarized in Fitzgerald’s observation that “the rich are different from us,” and Hemingway’s characteristic rejoinder, “Sure, they’ve got more money.” [See the note on this anecdote on p. 14 above. Mr. Morris’ version of it apparently derives from Edmund Wilson also. [A.M.]]

That kind of answer, that kind of simplification, understandably pleases the athlete in each of us, grown old, who feels that he has put such childish things behind him, and is not dying of them. Fitzgerald knew otherwise. Not only Tom Buchanan, but every American, in his fashion, went through life with invisible goal posts on his shoulders, torn from the green sod on an afternoon of never-to-be-forgotten triumph.

But was this unqualified happiness? It takes some doing; it takes the total recall of what the ambiance of such a dream is like, one wherein the towers of Princeton, the Triangle Club, the football shoulder pads, and the overseas cap are all transmuted by the dreamer into pure gold. On the night the world changed, Fitzgerald tells us, he hunted down the specter of womanhood and put the final touch to the adolescent season in hell. On just the other side, a mere year or two later, was paradise.

It was not the vein that played out in Fitzgerald—since nostalgia is inexhaustible—but when he knew where he was, when he grasped the situation, he stopped mining it. In this sense, as in many others, he reminds us of James. As a man he continues to indulge in it, but as an artist he knew it was finished. He did not know, however, that art can sometimes begin where life stops. He was too profoundly and incurably committed to life itself.

“I have now at last become a writer only,” he said, but he had been suckled too long on the sweep pap of life, and the incomparable milk of wonder, to be more than a writer in name only, resigned to that fact.

… just as the laughing stoicism which has enabled the American negro to endure the intolerable conditions of his existence—so in my case there is a price to pay. I do not any longer like the postman, nor the grocer, nor the editor, nor the cousin’s husband, and he in turn will come to dislike me, so that life will never be very pleasant again, and the sign Cave Canem is hung permanently just above my door. [In the original, the first sentence of this passage reads: “And just as the laughing stoicism which has enabled the American negro to endure the intolerable conditions of his existence has cost him his sense of the truth—so in my case there is a price to pay.” [A.M.]]

Knowing better as an artist could not salvage him as a man. “The depths of nostalgia, the slough of its despair, offered him no key to the facts of the absurd. They merely became absurd in their turn, like everything else. Having drawn on the resources he no longer possessed, and having mortgaged his remains, body and soul, he did what his countrymen now do by the thousands—he cracked up. He was different in the sense that he knew what had happened—and owned up to it.

Both The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night are full of personal revelation and prophecy. It is why they have such haunting immediacy when read today. The issues are still alive in anyone who is still alive. The cost of consciousness, like the expense of greatness, sometimes defies accounting, but we can see it more clearly in the life of Fitzgerald than in his works. In the life it showed. He was not a subtle craftsman on that plane. He was one of the lost, the truly lost; his flight established the classic itinerary, including that final ironic genuflection on the bright tan prayer rug of the Riviera.

If we reflect that Fitzgerald, while writing Gatsby, might have been one of the playboys in The Sun Also Rises—one of them, not merely with them, observing—his achievement is almost miraculous. The special charm of Gatsby, its durable charm, is that of recollection in tranquillity. The enchantment itself seems to come from the distance the narrator stands from the experience. The book has a serene, almost elegiac air; there is nothing frenetic or feverish about it, and the fires of spring, no longer burning, have filled the air with the scent of leaf smoke. The dark fields of the republic are bathed in a moonlit, nostalgic haze.

Fitzgerald was not yet thirty, but he was aware how well he had written. But the meaning of the book, its haunting tonal range, opening out into the past and portending the future, went considerably beyond both intentions and performance, into prophecy. This lucid moment of balance, when he was both fully engaged with living, yet aesthetically detached, may account for the higher level of performance than he achieved in Tender Is the Night. The later book is wiser, consciously wiser; the sun that had been rising is now setting, and Dick Diver is plainly stigmatized with the author’s sense of his own predicament. But both books, however different in conception, close in such a manner that they blend together. The final scenes have a fugue-like harmony—an invocation in the one, a requiem in the other, to the brooding fertile god of nostalgia, dearer than life in life, and, at the moment of parting, sweeter than death.

Where else, we might ask, in the literature of the world has the landscape of nostalgia, created by the author, served as the refuge for both the author and his characters? Dick Diver, having had his enchantment, having listened to the dream that pandered in whispers, and having been compelled to an aesthetic contemplation he has finally come to understand, returns to the dream of West Egg, knowing the green light will be missing from Daisy’s dock, knowing that the future now stands behind him, with its tail in its mouth.

So he drifts from Buffalo to Batavia, from Geneva, New York, to Hornell, where that dream of a girl, Nicole, finally lost track of him. But Fitzgerald was too honest, now, to kill him off, or to let him die. He also knew too much to let the reader see him alive. So he deposited him in that limbo where there is neither a past nor a future, the world of nostalgia where he was an aimless drifter himself. Up ahead, but not too far ahead now, faint but persistent as the music from Gatsby’s parties, the blinking marsh lights of The Crack-Up were all that shimmered in the dark fields of the republic.

My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstacy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distill into little lines in books…

What sort of happiness was this? Unqualified happiness, of course. The kind Gatsby had the moment he kissed Daisy, seeing, at the same moment, out of the corner of his eye that the blocks in the sidewalk seemed to form a ladder to the stars. At that moment the incomparable milk of wonder overflowed his cup of happiness, and Fitzgerald was able to distill it into more than a few little lines. In Gatsby this gift of hope is made flesh, and the promise is still one that Americans live by.

But the quiet streets and lanes of nostalgia soon turn upon themselves, a labyrinth without an exit, both a public madness and a private ecstacy. The strings of reminiscence tangle on themselves, they spin a choking web around the hero, and he must either surrender himself, without a struggle, or risk cracking up. Fitzgerald ran the risk. He did not, with Wolfe’s adolescent bellow, try to empty the house of its ghosts by shouting, nor did he, like Faulkner, generate his escape with an impotent rage. He simply faced it. But he faced it too late. Having dispensed with his resources, he cracked up. The artist in him, as self-aware as Henry James, went on plying its hand, sharpening all the old pencils, but the man within him had died of nostalgia. The sign of Cave Canem that hung above his door meant exactly what it said.

Wright Morris, the American novelist, is the author of The Deep Sleep, The Huge Season, and a number of other well-known novels. His essay on Fitzgerald comes from his book on the American novel, The Territory Ahead.

Published in The Territory Ahead by Wright Morris (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1958). Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection Of Critical Essays ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963).