Within a week after This Side of Paradise was accepted for publication, F. Scott Fitzgerald read a novel that gave his literary opinions a sudden new turn. The novel was Salt, by Charles G. Norris. Fitzgerald wrote about his response to it in an effusive and chaotic letter to a college girl acquaintance—a letter otherwise remarkable for the way it brought together nearly all the literary forms and intellectual poses from Fitzgerald's collegiate years. For the girl's benefit, Fitzgerald cast himself as a genteel romantic hero. He wanted, by entertaining her, to please her, and also, by his willful defiance, to shock her. The letter begins with poetic doggerel and musical comedy chorus lyrics. Later it pessimistically rejects religious and moral sanctions, then abruptly shifts into the language of youthful romance. It ends with a low-brow joke. Fitzgerald ostensibly was writing to proclaim his great success. “Most beautiful, rather-too-virtuous-but-entirely-enchanting Alida: Scribners has accepted my book. Ain't I smart!” Yet he confesses at once, “But hic jubilatio erat totam spoiled for meum par lisant une livre, une novellum, (novem) nomine Salt par Herr C. G. Norris—a most astounding piece of realism, it makes Fortitude look like an antique mental ashcan and is quite as good as The Old Wives' Tale. Of course, I think Walpole is a weak-wad anyhow. Read Salt, young girl, so that you may know what life B.” Fitzgerald does not make clear whether Norris's realism spoiled his happiness by depressing his emotions or by surpassing him in literary skill. Perhaps when he came upon the new realism just at the moment of his first success, Fitzgerald was convinced that Salt did both.
Salt may have been the first novel—at least the first new novel-Fitzgerald had read since he went through Fortitude ten weeks earlier coming home on the train from New York. No matter what precise value Fitzgerald gave to Salt, he vastly overvalued it. But the novel does bear an uncanny resemblance to This Side of Paradise, in a way that might have forced Fitzgerald to make a comparison unfavorable to himself. For Salt reveals how much This Side of Paradise dissembles; how much Fitzgerald avoided confronting the implications of his subject, how successful he was in putting on everything a sweet face. Salt implies that, for all its rhetorical overthrowing of the genteel tradition, This Side of Paradise is essentially a novel written in the sentimental mode. Salt tells much the same story, and tells it straight.
There is no confusion in Salt, as there is in This Side of Paradise, about the provenance of an American aristocracy. Griffith Adams, the novel's protagonist, carries the blood of the Massachusetts Adams dynasty in his veins. His mother is as attractive and as roaming as Beatrice was, but she takes as her third husband an Italian adventurer, and dies penniless, deserted, and duped. Rather than enrolling at Harvard, as one might expect, Griffith goes to a big Midwestern state university, where imagination and individuality are beaten out of him by fraternity life. Griffith wastes his time, is caught trying to steal examination papers, and leaves the university without graduating. He goes to New York, works for a railroad, and is fired for participating in a graft scheme. He marries a girl from a class far below his own, and she dies soon after giving birth to a child. Griffith Adams was a “blotter,” who could act only in response to the flow of experience. His hard knocks prepared him for the discovery that his will was chained down by false conventions. “I had to unlearn what I'd been taught,” he says, “and through hard experience find out for myself the real values and truths of life.” Much more than Amory Blaine, Griffith Adams deserved the epigram from Oscar Wilde—“Experience is the name so many people give to their mistakes”— that graced the title page of This Side of Paradise. Finally, at the end of the novel, Griffith performs his first autonomously willed act. Confronted with the love of two women, one rich and one poor, he chooses the poor one.
Salt had only one literary lesson it could teach Fitzgerald, and that was candor. Two years later when he reviewed another novel by Charles G. Norris, Fitzgerald had long outgrown whatever momentary interest he had felt for the writer. He could praise Norris only as the man who, by chance, had torn the draperies from Fitzgerald's window on the literary world.
Although not one of the first I was certainly one of the most enthusiastic readers of Charles Norris's “Salt”—I sat up until five in the morning to finish it, stung into alertness by the booming repetition of his title phrase at the beginning of each section. In the dawn I wrote him an excited letter of praise. To me it was utterly new. I had never read Zola or Frank Norris or Dreiser—in fact the realism which now walks Fifth Avenue was then hiding dismally in Tenth Street basements. No one of my English professors in college ever suggested to his class that books were being written in America. Poor souls, they were as ignorant as I—possibly more so. But since then Brigadier General Mencken has marshaled the critics in acquiescent column of squads for the campaign against Philistia.
Mencken's personal share in Fitzgerald's literary destiny must have become clear to Fitzgerald not long after he read Salt. Mencken—or George Jean Nathan, his co-editor—had taken “Babes in the Woods” for The Smart Set before Fitzgerald had left New York; it had appeared in the September 1919 number, before Charles Scribner's Sons had received the manuscript of This Side of Paradise. “The Debutante,” like “Babes in the Woods” an excerpt from the novel, came out in the November issue; “Porcelain and Pink,” a minor playlet, appeared in the January 1920 Smart Set, and the February number printed two Fitzgerald short stories, “Benediction” and “Dalrymple Goes Wrong.” Fitzgerald thus had appeared five times in The Smart Set before any other magazine had printed his fiction—and a sixth time before This Side of Paradise was published. Mencken, Nathan, and The Smart Set had launched Fitzgerald into the world of literature. Sometime during the same period Mencken's books began to launch Fitzgerald into a new world of ideas.
Fitzgerald first became aware of Mencken around January 1920. It was then that he inserted Mencken's name into the galley proofs of This Side of Paradise. Writing Maxwell Perkins about his interest in the novelist Frank Norris, Fitzgerald added: “Another of my discoveries is H. L. Mencken, who is certainly a factor in present day literature. In fact I'm not so cocksure about things as I was last summer—this fellow Conrad seems to be pretty good after all.” Other remarks about Conrad and Theodore Dreiser in Fitzgerald's letters through the early part of 1920 seem to derive from the essays in Mencken's A Book of Prefaces. After his marriage in April 1920 Fitzgerald and his wife became friends with George Jean Nathan. Late in the summer Nathan introduced them to Mencken, and the co-editors of The Smart Set were occasional visitors at the Fitzgeralds' suburban Connecticut home. The following winter The Bookman gave Fitzgerald Mencken's Prejudices: Second Series to review. This interesting review—interesting not only for Fitzgerald's praise of Mencken, but also for his perceptive insight into Mencken's intellectual dilemmas—was published in March 1921. It indicates that Fitzgerald had also read, from Mencken's already considerable corput, the first series of Prejudices and A Book of Burlesques. With Teutonic efficiency Mencken had completed his intellectual conquest of Fitzgerald in hardly more than a year.
But the question of influence on a creative writer is never quite so cut and dried. Over the next few years Fitzgerald made up two reading lists in which Mencken and Mencken's interests figure significantly, but not in ways one might expect. The first list, “The Ten Books I Have Enjoyed Most,” has been dated around the autumn of 1922. It places one of Mencken's books second, behind Fitzgerald's perennial favorite, The Notebooks of Samuel Butler. Fitzgerald's choice from among Mencken's works was The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and his comment was: “A keen hard intelligence interpreting the Great Modern Philosopher.” One may wonder whether Fitzgerald was more interested in Mencken or Nietzsche—especially in light of a second list made up five years later. Entitled “Scott Fitzgerald Lays Success to Reading,” it gives the books that influenced him most during his even-numbered years from fourteen to thirty. The titles for ages fourteen to twenty-two tell the familiar story: at fourteen, The Varmint, by Owen Johnson;at sixteen, Robert Hugh Benson's The Lord of the World; at eighteen, Dorian Gray; at twenty, Sinister Street; at twenty-two, Tono-Bungay. For the most influential book at age twenty-four— Fitzgerald celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday soon after he met Mencken in the fall of 1920—he put down, not a Mencken title, but a Nietzsche title: The Genealogy of Morals.
Meanwhile, in the third of a year between completing This Side of Paradise and inserting Mencken's name into the proofs of the novel, Fitzgerald wrote and sold thirteen short stories. It is to these one first must look to see in what directions Fitzgerald's art and intellect turned after This Side of Paradise. From a financial point of view, at least, these stories were spectacularly successful. Fitzgerald still wanted an income; the stories supplied it. But problems of adjustment to a professional career still remained to be solved, choices of forms and of roles still to be made. For all the prestige it gave, The Smart Set could not pay more than $40 a story; Scribner's magazine paid $150; The Saturday Evening Post paid $400 to start, quickly jumped to $600; and agents were eager to buy Post stories at even higher rates for the movies. What income the novel would bring was problematic. To live well as a writer one might want to sell to the Post and to the movies; to live with one's conscience was another matter. Trite as this issue may seem, it was a vital one for Fitzgerald in these early months of self-definition. He was only too ready at times to take the cue from others and depreciate himself. This was a case when his self-disparagement came without prompting.
It may be that Fitzgerald was troubled by his failure to start a new novel. In fact he began three different novel-length projects within a month after completing This Side of Paradise. When these came to nothing, he started a fourth around January 1920. But that too quickly petered out. One of the early efforts was to be a literary notebook modeled after Samuel Butler. The others, to judge from their titles and Fitzgerald's sketchy remarks in his letters, were to be works of realism in the fashion of Norris's Salt. The first was called “The Demon Lover,” the second “Drunkard's Holiday,” and the third “Darling Heart.” While this last one was lying moribund early in February 1920, Fitzgerald began a letter to Perkins,
I certainly touched the depths of depression tonight. The action on that book, Madeline, has knocked hell out of my new novel, Darling Heart, which turned completely on the seduction of the girl in the second chapter. I was afraid all along because of Susan Lenox, and the agitation against Dreiser but this is the final blow. I don't know what I'll do now—what in hell is the use of trying to write decent fiction if a bunch of old women refuse to let anyone hear the truth!
Then he abruptly shifted his tone to talk about his discovery of Frank Norris.
I've fallen lately under the influence of an author who's quite changed my point of view. He's a chestnut to you, no doubt, but I've just discovered him—Frank Norris. I think McTeague and Vandover are both excellent. I told you last November that I'd read Salt by his brother Charles and was quite enthusiastic about it. Odd! There are things in Paradise that might have been written by Norris—those drunken scenes, for instance—in fact, all the realism. I wish I'd stuck to it throughout!
Fitzgerald identified himself so completely with the school of literary realism that the success of his sentimental short stories embarrassed him as often as it delighted him. In September he had informed Perkins, “Also I'm writing short stories. I find that what I enjoy writing is always my best….” By January he assured Perkins he was starting a new novel, “but I don't want to get broke in the middle and start in and have to write short stories again— because I don't enjoy it and just do it for money.” He desired money and he wanted to be a realist. It was like walking on two stilts of different length; he found it very difficult to co-ordinate them. “Now my novels,” he wrote his agent, Harold Ober, “at least my first one, are not like my short stories at all, they are rather cynical and pessimistic—and therefore I doubt if as a whole they'd stand much chance of being published serially in any of the uplift magazines … How about it— … do you think a story like C. G. Norris's Salt or Cabell's Jurgen or Dreiser's Jenny Gerhardt would have one chance in a million to be sold serially? I'm asking you for an opinion about this beforehand because it will have an influence on my plans.” Norris and Cabell and Dreiser represented the company he wanted to travel with, though it is certain he had then read, of the three novels he named, only Salt. But meanwhile he was quickly revising two of the stories he had even more hastily written back in the summer of 1919, and the Post bought them together for $1,000. Soon he was to call both stories “trash.” Of the thirteen stories he wrote between September and January he was to reject, as “trash,” or with adjectives meaning the same thing, six in all. Two others were slight little playlets for The Smart Set, and another much-revised story, “The Smilers,” eventually got into The Smart Set, where Fitzgerald let it forever remain. Thus only four of the thirteen stories did he consider worthy of respect. The day after Christmas 1919, he confessed to the editor of Scribner's magazine, “I'm in the most frightful literary slump—and I'm writing a movie to see if I can rest up my brain enough to start a new novel and also get the wherewithal to live until I finish it.” If one could not walk on stilts of different length, the best thing was to throw them down and hitch a ride, like Amory Blaine, in a rich man's limousine.
Still, one should be even more critical of Fitzgerald had these early stories been uniform in quality and consistent in their point of view. The wide gap between the strongest and the weakest of these stories was created in part by the turmoil in Fitzgerald's mind over conflicting intellectual and professional commitments. But it also represents the fertility of his imagination, his willingness to take risks, and most important, his capacity to question and criticize within his art his own newly developed points of view. Fitzgerald was stretching the truth when he told Harold Ober that This Side of Paradise, unlike his stories, was “cynical and pessimistic”; rather it ended with a positive commitment on a note of guarded optimism. Yet the two new stories Fitzgerald wrote immediately after finishing the novel, “Dalrymple Goes Wrong” and “Benediction”—two of the four early stories that escaped his condemnation—did in fact treat with cynical pessimism the individualistic credo he had developed at the end of the novel. Therein lies whatever permanent value they possess.
“Dalrymple Goes Wrong” represents the unimagined dark side of the willful independence Amory Blaine developed in This Side of Paradise. Bryan Dalrymple returns from the First World War, like Amory, and takes up the task of losing his illusions about the values of conventional society. But as he learns to free his will from restricting modes of conduct, Dalrymple lacks the imagination that made it possible for Amory to create a willful moral code of conduct on his own. Dalrymple instead turns to a conventional form of antisocial behavior. Though his daytime life remains as plain and colorless as before, at night he begins a life of crime. At times he found it difficult to square his behavior with his conscience. “The tremendous pressure of sentiment and inherited tradition kept raising riot with his attitude. He felt morally lonely.” But he succeeds at last in conquering his moral loneliness, by turning it into a positive credo. “Other men who broke the laws of justice and charity lied to all the world. He at any rate would not lie to himself. He was more than Byronic now: not the spiritual rebel, Don Juan; not the philosophical rebel, Faust; but a new psychological rebel of his own century—defying the sentimental a priori forms of his own mind——” (166). There is no difference between this self-definition and that of Amory Blaine—except that Dalrymple is committed, not to construction, but to destruction. Eventually, “He found that it was on the whole better to give up considering himself as a rebel. It was more consoling to think of every one else as a fool” (170). The conventional society recognizes Dalrymple's new attitude of willful superiority without a glimmer of its origin. At the ironic ending the community he defied accepts him as its future leader.
The other story, “Benediction,” took its setting and its frame from the old Nassau Lit story, “The Ordeal.” But in the new story the spiritual crisis of a seminary novice is transferred to a nineteen-year-old girl. “Benediction” begins as Lois Moran, en route to visit her older brother at a Maryland seminary, has agreed by implication to go to bed with her boy friend when she returns. At the seminary Lois is surprised to find her brother Kieth much stronger and happier and more confident than she had expected. Kieth was sweet; and Lois suddenly discovers that “real sweetness is a sort of hardness—and strength” (148). “Hard” is a major new word in Fitzgerald's vocabulary of personal virtues. Dalrymple learned to be “hard.” Lois Moran considered herself “hard”; but if Kieth too was hard, then her boy friend was made of “soppy softness” (148). Kieth explains to Lois how he has learned to be strong. “No, I don't think that to help others you've got to show yourself at all. Real help comes from a stronger person whom you respect. And their sympathy is all the bigger because it's impersonal… It's like that idea of saving your life by losing it. You see we sort of feel that the less human a man is, in your sense of human, the better servant he can be to humanity” (149). Like Dalrymple's self-definition, this too closely resembles Amory's secular code. But Kieth is a seminarian, and his creed is not merely temporal. At the Benediction service, Lois, with future immorality in her heart, sees evil in a candle flame snuffed out by faith. As they part Kieth begs for her support. She sobs, “You've got me, Kieth” (155). Faith and morality have won out over doubt and immorality—or so it seems. The strong shall help the strong, Kieth had implied; but his request to her is too sentimental and romantic, his strength giving in to her weakness in an effort to turn her weakness into strength. Lois returns to Baltimore and writes a telegram cancelling her rendezvous with her lover. But the last line of the story gives it an ironic twist. ” 'Tore it up, eh?' said the second clerk” (156). Constructive morality can offer nothing to compare with a love affair.
In “The Ice Palace,” a third story that survived Fitzgerald's harsh self-criticism, the plot turns partly on a rejection of Amory Blaine's form of self-expression—making oneself indispensable to others, giving them a sense of security. Sally Carrol Happer, the Southern belle who becomes engaged to a Northerner, admits, “I'm the sort of person who wants to be taken care of after a certain point, and I feel sure I will be” (60). But she soon discovers that the desire of her Northern fiancé to take care of her masks the selfishness and lack of human kindness of which Amory himself had boasted. Her hours of wandering lost in the ice palace symbolize the death of her spirit that awaits her in the North; she breaks off the engagement and goes home. So far, then, as Amory Blaine's form of individualism represented a workable alternative to sentimental or conformist values, Fitzgerald seems quickly to have rejected it. Intellectually he was back at ground zero. As a stylist he had grown more and more clever and subtle. But the artist cannot escape taking some point of view; the question now became, would the point of view be created in Fitzgerald's mind, or would his stories reflect, like mirrors, the prejudices of his readers. Booth Tarkington, who had once been for Fitzgerald the model of a Princeton writer, remained for him the living example of a professional. Tarkington was a brilliant success in fiction and as a playwright; he was a man made wealthy by his writings; he was ranked as one of the most “naturally ” gifted of all American writers; and he was put down already in 1920 by the serious critics as a sentimentalist, a man who had wasted his talent writing trivia.
The last of the four stories Fitzgerald considered “worth reading”—this is how he designated them in inscribing Flappers and Philosophers for H. L. Mencken—”The Cut-Glass Bowl,” was Fitzgerald's first exercise in the school of realism. A cut-glass bowl has been given to a woman by a rejected suitor, who chose it as an appropriate gift because it was “as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through” (97). She is an immoral woman, and the bowl figures in a series of family disasters. Finally the woman tries to throw the bowl out of her life. She trips, and falls on the bowl as it smashes to pieces. In the end we are to assume she bleeds to death. Fitzgerald may have included it in his list of stories “worth reading” because he felt Mencken would appreciate its realism, or because he was proud of its realism. But “The Cut-Glass Bowl,” with its inexorable march to a ruthless punishment, belongs to that branch of fiction Mencken himself called pseudo-realism, that uses the fashion of realism as a cloak for sentimental moral judgments.
Then what can be said for the remainder of the stories, which Fitzgerald considered not worth reading? “Head and Shoulders” is a clever little story about an intellectual genius and a chorus girl who marry and reverse their roles. It is lightly anti-intellectual and takes for its theme the moral that life plays strange tricks. But there is a suppressed cruelty and despair in the situation; and the weakness of Fitzgerald's treatment may be suggested by comparing it to the 1930 German film The Blue Angel. “The Four Fists” is about a man who gets socked in the nose four times when he commits immoral acts. The fourth time he changes his business plans and does something moral; “some instinct in him, stronger than will, deeper than training, had forced him to do what would probably end his ambitions and his happiness” (188). But no, of course, morality makes him wealthier and more important and happier than ever. “The Camel's Back,” of which Fitzgerald boasted that he wrote it in one day, and later wrote “I like it least of all the stories” in his second collection, turns on an acute feeling of class-consciousness and is marked by scarcely contained threats of violence against social inferiors. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is a comic story built around feelings of social superiority and indifference, and ends with a physical act of revenge. There are many definitions of the true purpose of fiction in the modern age, but none includes the purpose that Fitzgerald's humorous early stories largely served: the vicarious satisfaction of sentimental inclinations and latent animosities.
There remains yet one story from this first group of thirteen. “The Offshore Pirate” was the last Fitzgerald wrote, the most amusing, and in many ways the most interesting. In his list for Mencken, Fitzgerald put it neither with the four stories “worth reading” nor with the four “trash” stories, but stuck it like a balance between them. He called it “amusing”; later he was to reject it as cheap. It is cheap, but only the last page reveals this to a first reader. Yet for an understanding of Fitzgerald's mind and art the story is more important than any other from this early group; one could do without This Side of Paradise and the full dozen other stories more readily than “The Offshore Pirate.” As much as it is clever and entertaining it is also ideological, indeed it is dialectical; it incorporates a debate over values more substantive than any in the novel. “The Offshore Pirate” not only retreats from the skepticism with which earlier stories had treated Amory Blame's solution to life's problems; it retreats also from Amory's solutions. All the issues that This Side of Paradise apparently resolved are here open to question once more. And this time Fitzgerald brought to them not only his innocence and earnestness, but also his new preference for realism, strangely mingled with the tricks and evasions he had quickly absorbed as a budding writer for the slicks.
“The Offshore Pirate” is the story of a genteel romantic hero, restored to his full glory, as if the war had never taken place. The story is set in a classic genteel conventional pattern. For the first time since finishing the novel, Fitzgerald reverted in style to his vague and sentimental romantic-poetic prose. A beautiful, willful, temperamental young girl, Ardita Farnam, is cruising with her uncle on a yacht off the Florida coast. She is fed up with stuffy, boring, moralizing, conventional suitors. She has taken up with a bad man, because he seems the only one who can give her life the romance and powershe desires. “He's the only man I know, good or bad,” she says, “who has an imagination and the courage of his convictions” (20). The task of her suitor from the conventional upper class—though neither Ardita nor the reader is aware of this until the end—is to prove that he is equally as imaginative and courageous, though also good. Ardita is left alone on the yacht, and in a moment it is boarded and taken over by a handsome young man with a crew of faithful Negroes-otherwise known, in jazz circles, as Curtis Carlyle and his Six Black Buddies. Curtis and his crew have apparently staged a large robbery and are using the Farnam yacht for their get-away. “Ardita scrutinized him carefully—and classed him immediately as a romantic figure. He gave the effect of towering self-confidence erected on a slight foundation—just under the surface of each of his decisions she discerned a hesitancy that was in decided contrast to the arrogant curl of his lips” (25). Curtis tells his life story. He was a poor boy who grew up in the Negro slums of a Tennessee town. “There were inevitably a dozen pickaninnies streaming in his trail, passionate admirers whom he kept in tow by the vividness of his imagination and the amount of trouble he was always getting them in and out of” (27). Indeed he was a Huck Finn who grew old. He had become an extremely successful Broadway musician and entertainer. But he wanted more, much more.
He wanted to have a lot of money and time, and opportunity to read and play, and the sort of men and women round him that he could never have—the kind who, if they thought of him at all, would have considered him rather contemptible; in short he wanted all those things which he was beginning to lump under the general head of aristocracy, an aristocracy which it seemed almost any money could buy except money made as he was making it. He was twenty-five then, without family or education or any promise that he would succeed in a business career. He began speculating wildly, and within three weeks he had lost every cent he had saved.
Then the war came. He went to Plattsburg, and even there his profession followed him. A brigadier-general called him up to headquarters and told him he could serve the country better as a band leader— so he spent the war entertaining celebrities behind the line with a headquarters band. It was not so bad—except that when the infantry came limping back from the trenches he wanted to be one of them. The sweat and mud they wore seemed only one of those ineffable symbols of aristocracy that were forever eluding him. (28-9)
Curtis is extraordinarily class-conscious; and Ardita finds it extraordinarily stuffy and boring. She believes in the credo of Amory Blaine : “Courage to me means ploughing through that dull grey mist that comes down on life—not only overriding people and circumstances but overriding the bleakness of living. A sort of insistence on the value of life and the worth of transient things” (37). Curtis argues that this attitude is determined by her class and social position, and thus is one he cannot share. The sheer brazenness of his adventure draws her to him, despite the “caste nonsense in his head” (40). But he knows that two so disparate in their views of money could never make a go of love. “Oh, blessed are the simple rich, for they inherit the earth!” (40). Soon a coastal patrol finds them at their island hideout. They await capture.
Suddenly against the golden furnace low in the east their two graceful figures melted into one, and he was kissing her spoiled young mouth.
“It's a sort of glory,” he murmured after a second.
She smiled up at him.
“Happy, are you?”
Her sigh was a benediction—an ecstatic surety that she was youth and beauty now as much as she would ever know. For another instant life was radiant and time a phantom and their strength eternal—then there was a bumping, scraping sound as the rowboat scraped alongside. (44)
Then it is revealed to Ardita that Curtis Carlyle is none other than Toby Moreland, the conventional suitor she has refused to see. She is radiant, pleased beyond belief. ” 'What an imagination!' she said softly and almost enviously. 'I want you to lie to me just as sweetly as you know how for the rest of my life' ” (46). Imagination and convention march to the altar side by side; it is almost an archetypal genteel romance. “Curtis Carlyle's” life and aspirations are left to dangle; the end implies that only an aristocrat could have devised the adventure and conceived the tale, yet the pathos and the realism of the tale remain. On the other side, much of the humor and color in the story comes from Negro songs, Negro dialect, and the incongruities of the Six Black Buddies. But Fitzgerald uses them as stereotypes marked by insensitivity and prejudice, capped by a remark of Toby's father: “We've been keeping pretty close to you in case you should have trouble with those six strange niggers” (45). The crass-ness and the blind sentimentality that lie just below the surface leave this story amusing to skim through—as its Saturday Evening Post readers were no doubt accustomed to do—but distasteful to consider. Yet for Fitzgerald's development it is of greatest significance, for it weds the refurbished concept of the genteel romantic hero to the idea, developed by Amory Blaine and re-expressed by Ardita Farnam, of unconventional, individualistic self-creation. And in that state the fused idea was to remain until Fitzgerald took it up again; for immediately after finishing “The Offshore Pirate” he turned to other things.
The next thing was “May Day.” How and why Fitzgerald came to write “May Day” after a baker's dozen of popular, largely undistinguished short stories is a matter only for conjecture. When he wrote his agent Ober early in January 1920—“The excellent story I told you of probably won't be along for two or three weeks. I'm stuck in the middle of it”—most probably he was referring to “The Offshore Pirate.” In the letter to Perkins from New Orleans early in February, where he complained about the effect of censorship on his projected novel, and first mentioned his interest in Frank Norris and Mencken, Fitzgerald also speculated on his writing plans for the rest of the year. He would discard the threatened novel, and not begin “my fall novel” until June—with the idea of finishing it in August. Meanwhile, he would write three stories a month, one each for The Smart Set, Scribner's, and the Post. One may take this simply for ambitious day-dreaming that he was careless in committing to paper. In fact during the following twenty months Fitzgerald wrote, besides “May Day,” only three stories; all were written and published in the fall and winter of 1920-21, none appeared in Fitzgerald's “only three magazines.” “May Day” was the single product of the first half of 1920. Begun apparently in New Orleans, it was completed late in March in Princeton, where Fitzgerald had gone to prepare for his marriage to Zelda Sayre. The Smart Set printed “May Day” in July.
Fitzgerald has given us the clues to understand how nine months of full-time writing should have given birth suddenly to a novella unlike anything that had come before; our only obligation is to use them with care. “May Day” marks the first of several important advances, or turns, in Fitzgerald's career, where latent developments in style and thought suddenly came to fruition in his art. The question of influence, once more, is a delicate one. Did he borrow the fuel, or borrow merely a spark to ignite his own? Later, more significant, shifts in the direction of his art need to be traced in some detail. In the case of “May Day,” new aspects of style and theme surely were inspired by his reading of Frank Norris and Mencken. Fitzgerald's adoption of Mencken's views—the adoption he spoke of when he inscribed This Side of Paradise to Mencken—comes out quite obviously in a letter he wrote in June 1920 to President Hibben of Princeton. “My view of life, President Hibben,” said Fitzgerald, “is the view of the Theodore Dreisers and Joseph Conrads—that life is too strong and remorseless for the sons of men.” There is no definite indication that Fitzgerald had read either Dreiser or Conrad by June 1920; rather he is quoting directly from Mencken's Book of Prefaces. From Norris's Vandover and the Brute Fitzgerald no doubt took the theme of the degenerating pseudo-artist for the character of Gordon Sterrett in “May Day.” From McTeague: A Story of San Francisco he may well have been inspired to try a more expansive social setting, to widen his range of characters—in short, to tell rather than just imply the story of a place and time. Yet these are simple technical borrowings compared to the influence Norris and Mencken must have had on Fitzgerald's self-awareness as an artist. They were the first American literary men against whom he judged his own ambitions as a writer. For the first time Fitzgerald recognized that the editor of The Smart Set, who had so amiably welcomed his work, was one of America's most important critics, with high and demanding standards of art. And the young Saturday Evening Post author, whose cleverness and sentimentality were beginning to mark him as his generation's Tarkington, must have read Frank Norris's views on “The True Reward of the Novelist,” quoted by Charles G. Norris in his introduction to Vandover.
Once more we halt upon the great word—sincerity, sincerity, and again sincerity. Let the writer attack his… novel with sincerity and he cannot then go wrong … His public may be small, perhaps, but he will have the better reward of the knowledge of a thing well done.Royalties on editions of hundreds of thousands will not pay him more to his satisfaction than that. To make money is not the province of the novelist. If he is the right sort, he has other responsibilities, heavy ones. He of all men cannot think only of himself or for himself. And when the last page is written and the ink crusts on the pen point and the hungry presses go clashing after another writer, the “new man” and the new fashion of the hour, he will think of the grim, long grind, of the years of his life that he has put behind him, and of his work that he has built up volume by volume, sincere work, telling the truth as he saw it, independent of fashion and the gallery gods, holding to these with gripped hands and shut teeth—he will think of all this, then, and he will be able to say: “I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God! … I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then, and I know it for the truth now.” And that is his reward—the best that a man may know; the only one worth striving for.
One should read “May Day” not so much for what Fitzgerald may have borrowed from Norris and Mencken, but for what their standards helped him to bring out from himself. What truths was he capable of telling, if he tried? And what kind of art does the truth make?
“There had been a war fought and won and the great city of the conquering people was crossed with triumphal arches and vivid with thrown flowers of white, red and rose.” Thus “May Day” begins. The indefinite time and setting of the prologue serve several purposes for Fitzgerald. Not only does the prologue provide the story with overtones of universal meaning. It attains also for Fitzgerald a necessary and highly useful detachment from the actual time and place of his story, New York City on May 1, 1919. Moreover, the archaic, formal, slightly ornate language of the prologue broke Fitzgerald free from his conventional style and tone; and in the language of the novella he took full advantage of his opportunity. “May Day” is simpler in style than any work of fiction Fitzgerald had written before. The language is descriptive and direct, where in Fitzgerald's earlier stories it had been weighted with value judgments, and rather vague. It is primarily a language of action. Persons are described more by movement and act than by interior states of mind. The language is sensual; it is full of textures, odors, colors. There is an extraordinary awareness of physical presence. The characters are not merely ideas, but three-dimensional figures, movingon a stage. Edith Bradin does not simply dance, she performs an intricate dialogue with a series of partners that conveys information about her social and intellectual position more effectively than an explanatory narrative.
A fat man with red hair cut in.
“Hello, Edith,” he began.
She slipped, stumbled lightly.
“I'm sorry, dear,” she murmured mechanically. (46)
But the most pervasive aspect of physical description in “May Day” is its concentration on the human body; and it is this emphasis of style that gives the novella its primary moral and intellectual meanings.
As “May Day” weaves together the destinies of nearly a dozen major and minor characters, two principal focal centers for the story emerge, one a linear progression, one a personal point of view. The linear progression is in fact a linear retrogression, the degeneration of Gordon Sterrett, the pseudo-artist; or rather it is a display of the consequences of a degeneration that has already been accomplished, and has only in the story to reap its inexorable ends. Immediately after the prologue Gordon Sterrett is introduced in the language of physical decay: “his eyes were framed above with unusually long eyelashes and below with the blue semicircle of ill health, this latter effect heightened by an unnatural glow which colored his face like a low, incessant fever” (26). Sterrett had been drinking, let his talent go, got involved with a cheap girl, lost his job, and was in desperate need of money. “You seem to be sort of bankrupt,” a friend tells him, “—morally as well as financially… there's a regular aura about you that I don't understand. It's a sort of evil” (28). This description of Gordon Sterrett combines the mystic element in Fitzgerald's old idea of evil with the social dimension of his later concept of moral bankruptcy—but neither gives depth or meaning to Gordon Sterrett's character. The idea for Sterrett is the most obviously derived element in “May Day,” and also the least interesting. It comes from the character of Vandover in Frank Norris's Vandover and the Brute, who was also an upper-class pseudo-artist who drank, let his talent go, lost his money, and got in trouble with a girl. But while Vandover'sdecline takes place in Norris's novel through a lengthy Calvinistic struggle between the good and the beast in man,! Sterrett's decline has already been accomplished when Fitzgerald's story begins. His suicide at the end is simply the last step of an already determined solution to a naturalistic equation; and the story of Gordon Sterrett contributes to “May Day” only a thread by which to tie together start and finish, and a non-moral language which yet provides a moral context as it spreads beyond into the lives of others.
The second focal center, the personal point of view, belongs to Edith Bradin. She is the only major character in “May Day” whose perception is capable of extending beyond her own person, and much of the moral meaning of “May Day” derives from the occasions when her vanity overcomes her wider perception. Edith was in love with her own body.
She thought of her own appearance. Her bare arms and shoulders were powdered to a creamy white. She knew they looked very soft and would gleam like milk against the black backs that were to silhouette them tonight. The hairdressing had been a success; her reddish mass of hair was piled and crushed and creased to an arrogant marvel of mobile curves. Her lips were finely made of deep carmine; the irises of her eyes were delicate, breakable blue, like china eyes. She was a complete, infinitely delicate, quite perfect thing of beauty, flowing in an even line from a complex coiffure to two small slim feet… closing her eyes she drew in a deep breath of pleasure. She dropped her arms to her side until they were faintly touching the sleek sheath that covered and suggested her figure. She had never felt her own softness so much nor so enjoyed the whiteness of her own arms.
“I smell sweet,” she said to herself simply, and then came another thought—“I'm made for love.” (43-4)
Edith was also “falling in love with her recollection of Gordon Sterrett” (43). He had taken her up to New Haven in his senior year. “There was a quality of weakness in Gordon that she wanted to take care of; there was a helplessness in him that she wanted to protect” (44). But when she meets Gordon Sterrett at the dance she sees at once that he has sunk far too deeply into degeneration. She turns cool. “—Love is fragile—she was thinking—but perhaps the pieces are saved, the things that hovered on lips, that might have been said. The new love words, the tendernesses learned, are treasured up forthe next lover” (49). Edith Bradin's love for Gordon Sterrett dies, with the suggestion that the emotion of love for another may be no more than a desire to express one's vanity, one's competence, romantic skills. Edith leaves the dance and goes to see her brother Henry who is working late as an editor of a radical paper. She tries to dissuade him from his idealistic self-sacrifice.
“I wish you'd—you'd come back to Harrisburg and have a good time. Do you feel sure that you're on the right track—“
“You're wearing beautiful stockings,” he interrupted. “What in earth are they?”
“They're embroidered,” she replied, glancing down. “Aren't they cunning?” She raised her skirts and uncovered slim, silk-sheathed calves. “Or do you disapprove of silk stockings?” (60)
Pleasure in her physical self quickly blunts her concern for her brother. But at that moment the novella's concentration on the human body takes a violent turn. A gang of soldiers, out roaming the streets beating up socialist May Day orators, breaks into the radical paper's office. In the melee one soldier is pushed out a window and crushes his skull on the pavement below; and when the police come Henry Bradin, Edith's brother, is discovered sitting on the floor with a leg broken.
The soldiers, two soldiers in particular, make up a third focal point of “May Day,” as well as a second major aspect of Fitzgerald's borrowed naturalism. Whatever contact Fitzgerald may have had in the Army with lower-class enlisted men, Carrol Key and Gus Rose are drawn not so much from life as in naturalistic physical terms taken from Frank Norris's McTeague. Gordon Sterrett represents the degeneration of one pseudo-artist; Key and Rose represent “generations of degeneration” (35). The paths of Key and Rose run together with the paths of the other characters, adding a comic note and also a social perspective to the aristocratic pretenses of the Yale fraternity men, and a pathos to the social and personal violence. The soldier who fell from the melee at the radical paper and crushed his skull was Carrol Key; and later it was Rose whose animal nostrils breathed in the odor of decay from Gordon Sterrett. At the true end of the story—Gordon Sterrett's suicide comes really as an anti-climax—Rose is made to stand alone as the person responsible for violence. In theBiltmore lobby he watches stupidly as Philip Dean and Peter Himmel, who had been Edith Bradin's escort, drunkenly cavort as “Mr. In and Mr. Out.” Edith enters with her brother's co-editor of the radical paper. Pointing at Rose, she cries, ” 'There's the soldier who broke my brother's leg,' ” and the editor makes a “lightning-like spring” (73). In the end Edith's desire for love and the editor's radical principles—the only positive values in a story marked by physical degeneration, physical vanity, and physical violence—are themselves reduced to revenge and violence.
In “May Day” Fitzgerald proved that his imagination and his breadth of vision were greater than he had theretofore demonstrated. But he did not show that his imagination and his breadth of vision were under control. One reason why the novella has proven such rich material for critics is that its themes and motivations seem often so contradictory. It has sometimes been argued, for example, that Gordon Sterrett is the victim of society and of poverty. But there is no evidence in the story that Gordon Sterrett is the victim of anything more than natural weakness; and his poverty is not a cause of his degeneration, but its result. Equally, Edith Bradin represents the one internal center of consciousness in the story, but her point of view is undercut as much as all the others. The reader is permitted to share only one perspective on events, the author's detached and ironic point of view.
There is one passage in “May Day” that has attracted particular attention, a passage which stems from this naturalistic irony and perhaps from something more. It comes in the all-night restaurant, where Gordon and his cheap girl, the soldier Rose, and the college drunks Dean and Himmel have gathered. Himmel has been ejected for flinging hash around.
But the commotion upon his exit proper was dwarfed by another phenomenon which drew admiring glances and a prolonged involuntary “Oh-h-!” from every person in the restaurant. The great plate-glass front had turned to a deep creamy blue, the color of a Maxfield Parrish moonlight—a blue that seemed to press close upon the pane as if to crowd its way into the restaurant. Dawn had come up on Columbus Circle, magical, breathless dawn, silhouetting the great statue of the immortal Christopher, and mingling in a curious and uncanny manner with the fading yellow electric light inside. (67)
This has been treated, in many ways justly, as a passage of profound moral meaning and historical significance. “Magical, breathless dawn” silhouettes “the great statue of the immortal Christopher.” It mingles in a curious and uncanny manner with the electric light. Here are the heartfelt yearnings for the greater than real, the new dawn, the virgin offering of nature, linked inextricably with Columbus and his discovery of the New World. But, however significant this vision and this theme were later to become in Fitzgerald's fiction, in “May Day” they cannot yet be separated from the language and meanings that surround them.
One way to place them properly in their context is to recall an advertisement for “Edison Mazda” light bulbs, painted by the artist Maxfield Parrish, which appeared in the Ladies' Home Journal for January 1918. In the painting dawn is rising over a mountain lake. A lightly-clad, golden-haired beauty of nature sits on a rock in the center foreground, watching with sublime awe as golden dawn strikes the mountainside, driving back the “deep, creamy blue” of a Max-field Parrish moonlight, quite as Fitzgerald has described it. Beneath the scene an epigraph from Shakespeare appears:
And Night is fled
Whose Pitchy Mantle over-veil'd the earth.
The purpose of the painting, and the epigraph, was to sell electric light bulbs. It would be farfetched to suggest that Fitzgerald had this advertisement in mind when he wrote his passage of dawn, though of course he knew well enough the blue of a Maxfield Parrish moonlight. But with this painting in mind—and Fitzgerald's drawing on Parrish's name—it is possible to see that such “magical, breathless” dawns are false and sentimental dawns, and that if nature produces dawns equally as beautiful as the commercial artist can, they are equally to be distrusted. Nature plays many cruel jokes on men, and an appeal to romantic sentiment is chief among them. This passage is not an evocation of romantic wonder, but a heavily ironic deflation of it. Fitzgerald would have to alter his point of view and develop his control before he could, or would wish to, draw from this romantic vision a radically different moral value. Meanwhile, it was to lie waiting, like other seeds sown earlier, until Fitzgerald turned over new ground.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon by Robert Sklar (New York: Oxford Up, 1967).