Since F. Scott Fitzgerald won a place among the major writers of his generation, many critics and interpreters have wondered how his mind and art advanced so swiftly and so far from The Beautiful and Damned to The Great Gatsby. Some have engaged so assiduously in a search for sources behind The Great Gatsby that their efforts have been rendered ludicrous. At worst this search has unearthed sources that could not have been. R. W. Stallman, for example, has discovered that Spengler's Decline of the West was a major influence on Gatsby. As evidence he offers Fitzgerald's remark in a letter of 1940 that “I read [Spengler] the same summer I was writing The Great Gatsby”; but he has not checked Fitzgerald's memory against the fact that the first volume of The Decline of the West was not published in English until 1926, and that Fitzgerald was not a reader of German. At best the search has assumed that Fitzgerald's development between 1922 and 1924 was a result of mere borrowing, just as he had in fact borrowed ideas and phrases from H. L. Mencken before 1922. Although several of Fitzgerald's critics have written exceptionally penetrating interpretations of what Fitzgerald learned from writers like Joseph Conrad, in general the critics have lacked a sense of process; above all they have not seen that Fitzgerald's development up to The Great Gatsby, no matter how astonishing the improvement in his intellectual and artistic grasp of his material,retains an essential continuity, builds upon the themes and attitudes that had gone before. To understand how Fitzgerald matured between The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby one must search within Fitzgerald's mind and art, not outside him; and one must assume that any development so profound as to form the background for a novel like The Great Gatsby cannot be traced to any single source, or be absolutely fixed in any sense. Nevertheless, there is evidence enough to suggest how The Great Gatsby grew out of what Fitzgerald had written and thought before; but the origins of a natural growth are necessarily more mysterious than those of a transplant.
For all his optimism about The Beautiful and Damned, both for its sales potential and as a work of art, Fitzgerald suffered from moods of disquiet about the novel from the moment he put the serial version into the hands of The Metropolitan Magazine. Later he was convinced that the shortened magazine serial had cut sales and prejudiced the critics against the book; for some of his friends, like James Branch Cabell, read the serial in lieu of the revised and expanded hard-cover book. Yet the tone of his letters after he returned from Europe in midsummer 1921 reveals his sense that the novel in either form suffered from haste of execution and confusion both of themes and of language. In July he complained to Perkins that Scribner's had not advertised This Side of Paradise well enough. Late in August he told Perkins that he had not worked for five months and he was in an “obnoxious and abominable gloom. My third novel, if I ever write another, will I am sure be black as death with gloom. I should like to sit down with ½ dozen chosen companions and drink myself to death but I am sick alike of life, liquor and literature. If it wasn't for Zelda I think I'd disappear out of sight for three years. Ship as a sailor or something and get hard—I'm sick of the flabby semi-intellectual softness in which I flounder with my generation.” But his desire to “ship as a sailor or something” was as incompatible with his character as it was with the fact that his wife was seven months' heavy with child. Two weeks later he wrote to a correspondent, in his Menckenian public voice, “There is nosuch thing as 'getting your values straightened out' except for third-class minds who are willing to accept the latest jitney interpretation of the universe by some Illinois or South Carolina messiah.” And for once his Menckenian voice spoke more perceptively than his own. His personal habits were by then set in a pattern that was not fundamentally to change, no matter where he lived, for more than a decade.
It was rather his intellectual and literary habits that had begun to oppress him. The faults of The Beautiful and Damned lay at the back of his mind; though he claimed, in a letter to Edmund Wilson, “I have almost completely rewritten my book,” it is probable that he did little more than revise the “Symposium” scene and the ending. And there was his competition. Floyd Dell, Stephen Vincent Benêt, and John Dos Passos were publishing novels in the fall of 1921. Dell and Benêt did not worry him; but in September he read Dos Passos' Three Soldiers. Reviewing Three Soldiers for the St. Paul Daily News, Fitzgerald called Dos Passos “an artist.” But Fitzgerald's Princeton classmate John Peale Bishop, reviewing Three Soldiers along with the serial version of The Beautiful and Damned in the October Vanity Fair, had called Dos Passos “a genius.” In his own mind—and in the mind of his friend—Dos Passos had replaced him as the most brilliant young writer of their generation. “I like Three Soldiers immensely,” Fitzgerald told Edmund Wilson, and in the next breath: “I am tired of modern novels.” Fitzgerald signed off the letter, “Yours in this hell-hole of life and time, the world.” The success of Dos Passos had increased his irritation at his own failure.
A few days later, when Perkins asked him to tone down a mocking reference to the Bible in The Beautiful and Damned, his frayed temper exploded. He accused Perkins of being intimidated and of trying to intimidate him, to force him into conformity with conventional and timid beliefs. He called up “Galileo and Mencken, Samuel Butler and Anatole France, Voltaire and Bernard Shaw,” among others, as precedent for his attitude. “It's the sort of thing you find continually in Anatole France's The Revolt of the Angels—as well as in Jurgen and Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger. The idea, refusing homage to the Bible and its God, runs thru many of Mark Twain's essays and all through Paine's biography. In fact, Van Wyck Brooks,in The Ordeal criticizes Clemens for allowing many of his statements to be toned down at the request of William Dean Howells or Mrs. Clemens.” Perkins immediately wrote back, “I should hate to play … the W. D. Howells to your Mark Twain.” In the aftermath Fitzgerald apologized for his letter and made the changes Perkins asked. But the exchange had opened up issues in Fitzgerald's career that were not so easily smoothed over. In the fall of 1921 Fitzgerald had been reading and thinking about the career of Mark Twain; and if Perkins was not playing Willian Dean Howells—the limiting voice of conventional values—to his Mark Twain, the feeling still lingered that somebody was.
The affinities between Fitzgerald's fiction and Mark Twain's fiction had always been strong. In Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain had created the archetypal figure of the genteel romantic hero, the basic fictional character Fitzgerald had developed from his own observations and attitudes toward life. And in the unlikely case that Fitzgerald had not read either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, he most certainly had studied the genteel romantic hero Booth Tarkington had copied from Tom Sawyer, Penrod Schofield. When H. L. Mencken reviewed This Side of Paradise he made a flattering, if not so favorable, comparison between Fitzgerald and Mark Twain. This remark may have been in the back of Fitzgerald's mind when, after returning to St. Paul in the fall of 1921, he began once more to read extensively. He went through Brass, by Charles G. Norris, and Three Soldiers at the request, presumably, of editors who sent them for review. When these two obligations were completed he turned to Albert B. Paine's three-volume biography of Clemens. Thereafter he read Van Wyck Brooks's The Ordeal of Mark Twain, which forms an interpretative guide and critical commentary to the facts in Paine's authorized biography. Fitzgerald extensively underlined and annotated his copy of Brooks's Ordeal; his response to the book may be measured also by his angry letter to Perkins. With all his awareness of the similarities between his fiction and Mark Twain's, Fitzgerald could not help but recognize how much his own personality and career were shaped to fit the tragic mold that Brooks had cast for Mark Twain.
The resemblance between Mark Twain, as drawn by Brooks, and Fitzgerald is uncanny. Fitzgerald came from the same Midwesternprovincial background as had Clemens. He too had been the pampered son of a strong-willed mother and a weak father. He had developed the same deference, the same almost religious awe, toward great wealth. His character too was similar. He shared with Mark Twain a certain insecurity and lack of self-assurance; and he possessed with Mark Twain an exceptional capacity for prankishness and wild gaiety. He held the same racial prejudices; he too maintained, in the midst of his literary work, an extraordinary enthusiasm for advertising and sales promotion stunts. Mark Twain had attained the status of a spokesman for his generation that Fitzgerald aspired to for his own. But as Brooks interpreted Mark Twain, Fitzgerald learned the tragic cost in frustration and self-defeat that lay behind Mark Twain's success and popularity. Brooks's Ordeal must have come to Fitzgerald almost as a seer or a fortune-teller might, to tell a moral tale through the mirror image of a personality, living in another age, but thinking the same thoughts and nursing the same desires; a tale that foretold for Fitzgerald the life of outward success and inner failure that had, it seemed by the fall of 1921, already been shaped for him. Fitzgerald learned more than one lesson from The Ordeal of Mark Twain, and the results of those lessons are striking.
The most obvious connection between Fitzgerald's reading about Mark Twain, and his own development, may be observed in the stories Fitzgerald wrote in the winter of 1921-22. “Two for a Cent” carries the echoes of Mark Twain's bitter pessimism, his belief that blind fate and chance determine men's lives. The story turns on a single penny. An ambitious boy loses it, and condemns himself to a life of poverty; a lazy boy picks it up, and it propels him to a career of wealth and international fame. There is an intensely felt descriptive realism in the story, though it is weakened by the contrivance of its plot and the implicit anti-human irony of the title.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the story of a man who was born old and grew younger the longer he lived, “was inspired,” as Fitzgerald said in his table of contents to Tales of the Jazz Age, “by a remark of Mark Twain's to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” The story reflects how closely Fitzgerald's concern with time mirrored Mark Twain's lifelong obsession with time and history. It also gave him a chance to satirize the conformity and conventionality, the business ethos, the fear of what was not ordinary, that Van Wyck Brooks had criticized again and again in his portrait of the Gilded Age; but the gimmick, as with the gimmick in “Two for a Cent” and the gimmick in so many of Mark Twain's stories, was slight. The place to look for the major implications of Mark Twain's effect on Fitzgerald's development is the novella “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” which Fitzgerald also wrote in the early winter of 1921-22.
“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” Fitzgerald said in his table of contents to Tales of the Jazz Age, “was designed utterly for my own amusement. I was in that familiar mood characterized by a perfect craving for luxury, and the story began as an attempt to feed that craving on imaginary foods.” Fitzgerald's critics have found it difficult to interpret these remarks; but it is quite probable that they are related to Brooks's emphasis in The Ordeal that Mark Twain wrote his books for money, for newspapers, for his wife, for Howells, for any reason but that he wanted to; and he placed an inordinate emphasis on the work, good or bad, that he wrote for himself alone. It was part of the role Fitzgerald was playing in that table of contents—a role of self-denigration not unfamiliar to Mark Twain—that he should go on to say, “One well-known critic has been pleased to like this extravaganza better than anything I have written. Personally I prefer 'The Offshore Pirate' “; just as Twain might have said he preferred The Prince and the Pauper to Huckleberry Finn. Fitzgerald's private opinion on “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” which was his real opinion, was that it was “the best thing I've ever done—something really remarkable.” And it is remarkable, not only as a story but as an act of self-understanding and of self-creation. For if Fitzgerald had seen in Brooks's portrait of Mark Twain a mirror image of his own personality and a forecast of his potential failure and frustration, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” takes that nearly identical picture of himself as an opportunity to objectify his faults outside himself, and to exorcise them by recreating them as art. The story is an “exquisite novelette,” as Fitzgerald called it, both as satire and as creative self-satire.
Fitzgerald had read Mark Twain's “The Mysterious Stranger” presumably m the previous winter of 1920-21. If it had affected himthen in any direct way, it could only have contributed to the bleak, inartistic atmosphere of pessimism that pervades The Beautiful and Damned. Reading Brooks's Ordeal, Fitzgerald found an explanation for the failure of Mark Twain's satire. “One may say,” Brooks wrote, “that a man in whom the continuity of racial experience is cut as sharply as … it was cut in Mark Twain is headed straight for an inferior cynicism. But what is almost destiny for the ordinary man is the satirist's opportunity; if he can recover himself quickly, if he can substitute a new and personal ideal for the racial ideal he has abandoned, that solution of continuity is the making of him.” Later Brooks concluded, “The true satirist, however futile he may make life seem, never really believes it futile; his interest in its futility is itself a desperate registration of some instinctive belief that it might be, that it could be, full of significance, that, in fact, it is full of significance; to him what makes things petty is an ever-present sense of their latent grandeur.” These words were of extraordinary relevance to the author of The Beautiful and Damned, a novel that in its inferior cynicism and sense of futility had failed as much of Mark Twain's work had failed; and there is good reason to believe that they suggested to Fitzgerald a path out of his dilemma, on which “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” represents the first steps. For Brooks himself—as Edmund Wilson was to suggest when he so presciently made Van Wyck Brooks and F. Scott Fitzgerald partners in an “imaginary conversation”—had fallen into the trap with Mark Twain; he too had abandoned the racial ideal and replaced it with no personal idea; he too had succumbed to a sense of futility about American life, with no redeeming sense of latent grandeur. Reading The Ordeal Fitzgerald found in Brooks a cynicism equal in strength to his own; yet a cynicism directed, not to the rootless lives of New York hotel society, but rather to the conditions of life and the values that had shaped Fitzgerald's youth. In “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” Fitzgerald was thus able to use the details of Brooks's cynicism as the basic grounds for his detached satirical tone; and since he had no need to create a cynicism of his own, he could begin to create out of the same subject matter a sense of its latent grandeur, a personal ideal of his own.
In a remarkable way, then “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” creates satire out of Brooks's criticism of American life. In The Ordeallife in a provincial Mississippi river village is regarded as no better than life in hell—or rather “hell's back-yard”; John T. Unger in Fitzgerald's novella comes from Hades, “a small town on the Mississippi River.” Brooks portrays the American business elite as a dull crowd utterly lacking in originality and imagination; John T. Unger goes to St. Midas's School. “The fathers of all the boys were money-kings and John spent his summers visiting at fashionable resorts. While he was very fond of all the boys he visited, their fathers struck him as being much of a piece, and in his boyish way he often wondered at their exceeding sameness. When he told them where his home was they would ask jovially, 'Pretty hot down there?' and John would muster a faint smile and answer, 'It certainly is.' His response would have been heartier had they not all made this joke—at the best varying it with, 'Is it hot enough for you down there?' which he hated just as much” (76). During the Gilded Age, Brooks said, “wealth meant to Americans something else than mere material possession… the pursuit of it was nothing less than a sacred duty.” “The simple piety prevalent in Hades,” Fitzgerald wrote, “has the earnest worship of and respect for riches as the first article of its creed-had John felt otherwise than radiantly humble before them, his parents would have turned away in horror at the blasphemy” (80). Brooks presented a picture of frontier life pervaded by brutality and frequent murders; Fitzgerald's creative satire made something of far greater originality out of this suggestion. He alluded to murder and brutality in the bland evasive prose of official business histories. “From 1870 until his death in 1900, the history of Fitz-Norman Washington was a long epic in gold. There were side issues, of course-he evaded the surveys, he married a Virginia lady, by whom he had a single son, and he was compelled, due to a series of unfortunate complications, to murder his brother, whose unfortunate habit of drinking himself into an indiscreet stupor had several times endangered their safety. But very few other murders stained these happy years of progress and expansion” (88). Mark Twain wrote a novel, Fitzgerald learned from Brooks, where the hero finds a mountain full of coal; Fitzgerald thereupon wrote a novella in which a Civil War veteran, prospecting in the West at exactly the same time as Mark Twain's hero, came upon a mountain full of diamonds. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” begins in the laconic, matter-of-fact tones that Van Wyck Brooks associated with the straight-faced Western humorists of the Gilded Age. The style and the point of view of the novella are rendered so simply and conventionally that the satire on values arises not so much from exaggeration as from a bland openness. ” 'He must be very rich,' said John simply. 'I'm glad. I like very rich people. The richer a fella is, the better I like him.' There was a look of passionate frankness upon his dark face” (77). As Brooks described the Western humorists, one of their most important qualities was their ability to please both frontier and genteel audiences by a complex interconnection of two sets of values. The frontiersmen laughed at themselves; genteel Eastern audiences laughed at the frontiersmen. However much his satire implied a criticism of genteel conventions, the Western humorist rarely took a position directly opposed to dominant Eastern values. The violence and fantasy exaggeration of his stories were aspects of the failure and impotence of frontier lawlessness and disorder. The importance of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” as it relates to this frontier tradition, is that it operates by the same style and form, but that its values are radically altered. The frontier setting and the conventions of the Western tall tale are retained, but they are used as a grounds for satiric criticism of genteel Eastern values; the twelve pathetic men of Fish, the one element of actual frontier life in the story, are quickly passed over. The violence and fantasy exaggeration in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” are the aspects of success, and of the power of success, to create a lawlessness and disorder of its own; they are aspects of an apotheosis of success, the logical outcome of desires unexpectedly fulfilled. The two sets of values in complex interconnection—and in conflict—in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” are the American dream, and the American dream come true.
When Fitz-Norman Culpepper Washington discovered the diamond mountain in Montana after the Civil War, his act led naturally to what Nietzsche had called a transvaluation of values. Washington's diamond was so valuable, by old standards, that it was worth more than all the previously known wealth and property in the world. But since its value was so unprecedented, perhaps it could command no price, and thus be worth nothing at all. Washington was in the extraordinary position of having to protect the entireworldwide capitalist system, “lest in the possible panic attendant on its discovery he should be reduced with all the propertyholders in the world to utter poverty” (89). Moreover, he had to fear a government attempt to take control, which would also render him propertyless and penniless. Washington was responsible for the preservation of the economic and social values of all Americans; and therefore he had to exercise his power against the United States, in fact to remove his property from the United States entirely. By bribery, he corrupted government. By altering surveying instruments, he corrupted science. By deflecting the course of a river, he corrupted nature itself. But the progress of man's ingenuity had leaped beyond him, and in his son's generation the airplane was to pose a new and even more dangerous threat.
Yet their power and responsibility, and their ruthless protection of their secret, had not made the Washingtons any different in their personal habits from other wealthy Americans. Even amid the “honeyed luxury” of the Washington dining room, John T. Unger from Hades had to reply, “Yes … it certainly is hot enough for me down there” (83). The golf course was “all a green … no fairway, no rough, no hazards” (93). As for the décor of the Washington château, Braddock Washington had “caused to be kidnapped” a landscape gardener, an architect, a designer of stage settings, and a French decadent poet. None proved capable of rising to the opportunity. The “honeyed luxury” of the Washington estate was designed by “I blush to tell you, but it was a moving-picture fella. He was the only man we found who was used to playing with an unlimited amount of money, though he did tuck his napkin in his collar and couldn't read or write” (98). The Washingtons were the wealthiest family in the world, but they had not attained the status of an aristocracy; Fitzgerald no longer was mistaking plutocracy for aristocracy, as he had in The Beautiful and Damned. Nothing in the Washington style of life—not even their Negro slaves—cut them off from the aspirations or expectations of other enterprising Americans.
As a result the Washington redoubt was continually penetrated by daring and intrepid American fortune-hunters. Those whom Brad-dock Washington had captured were imprisoned in a pit. “These are some adventurous mariners who had the misfortune to discover El Dorado,” Washington told John when he showed him the prisoners. “It was too dark to see clearly into the pit below, but John could tell from the coarse optimism and rugged vitality of the remarks and voices that they proceeded from middle-class Americans of the more spirited type” (94). Neither Braddock Washington's power nor his responsibilities had daunted their ambition or their irreverence. In fact, they regarded him as a tyrant in the same simple-minded, super-patriotic way Americans had looked upon Wilhelm II as a tyrant during the First World War. As aviators, the men no doubt had been trained in the war; and when Washington tells them that one of their number—a man who was taken out to teach Washington's daughter Italian—has escaped, they burst into cheers and yodels and then into a First World War song,
“Oh, we'll hang the Kaiser
On a sour apple tree—” (96)
By his own super-American success, Braddock Washington has paradoxically turned himself into an enemy of America. A squadron of planes, directed by the escaped Italian, soon comes to attack the Washington kingdom. When the Negro quarters are blown up by a bomb, Kismine Washington cries, “there go fifty thousand dollars' worth of slaves,… at pre-war prices. So few Americans have any respect for property” (105).
Who in the world remains with any respect for Braddock Washington's property? As dawn comes up on the morning after the attack, John sees Braddock Washington standing on a mountaintop, silhouetted against the sky. ” 'You out there——' Washington cried, 'You—— there——'” (108). Braddock Washington was making a bribe to God; to protect his precious domain he was not beyond this supreme corruption. All nature grew silent, then burst out with joyous sound and light; for God refused the bribe. Fitzgerald so loads his language in this section of the story that the reader cannot fail to recognize Washington's overweening pride and blasphemy. “A quality of monstrous condescension” was in his voice (108). “God has His price, of course. God was made in man's image, so it has been said: He must have His price” (109). The laconic tone of the early satire shifts to a heavily didactic moralizing style. Yet Fitzgerald's loss of control over the prose mitigates his condemnation of Braddock Washington. For Fitzgerald begins Washington's bribery speech toGod by calling him “Prometheus Enriched” (108). And to readers familiar with the classical myth of Prometheus that reference will bring to mind complexities of which Fitzgerald, with his newly moral tones, seems unaware. In his defiance of Zeus, Prometheus was a friend and benefactor to mankind. By his responsibility to capitalism Braddock Washington is also, like Prometheus, chained to a rock. And when God refuses his bribe—Prometheus too had not been above blackmail—Washington, like Prometheus, brings about a cataclysm. The symbolism Fitzgerald invokes, then, makes Braddock Washington a figure almost of tragedy, rather than of satire or moral condemnation. Washington believes he bears a responsibility to a social and economic system which paradoxically makes him an enemy of his own country; and Americans, pursuing the dream that Washington himself had fulfilled, threaten ironically to destroy the foundation of all wealth. God refuses to intervene; and Washington, in tragic recognition of his responsibility, destroys himself and his diamond mountain to protect the property-holders of the world.
In his satire on American respect for wealth and desire for riches, Fitzgerald reversed the forms of the Western tall tale by criticizing, not the unsuccessful, but the successful. And in the process he discovered, perhaps despite his own intentions, that wealth carries with itself not only banalities and absurdities, but also a heavy burden of responsibility. When the bombs begin to fall, Kismine Washington cries, “We'll be poor, won't we? Like people in books. And I'll be an orphan and utterly free. Free and poor! What fun!” John answers grimly, “It's impossible to be both together. People have found that out. And I should choose to be free as preferable of the two” (106). But to be the opposite of poor is not to be free either, as Kismine knew. Fitzgerald had taken the Western humorist's contrast of failure and success and turned it into an opposition between aspiration and an apotheosized fulfillment. The American dream, he was implying, could not survive its own extraordinary success; but neither could it accept failure. This is the burden of the sentimental and evasive conclusion, a sudden touch of Mark Twain pessimism, in which wealth becomes an illusion of youth, and youth itself a dream. ” 'His was a great sin who first invented consciousness. Let us lose it for a few hours,' ” John T. Unger says, falling off to sleep(113). In “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” Fitzgerald deepened his perception of ambition and possession of wealth in America.
After completing “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”—and calling it “the best thing I've ever done—something remarkable”—Fitzgerald wrote two slick magazine stories and then almost completely turned his back on prose fiction for more than a year and a half. From January 1922 to November 1923, he devoted himself primarily to the play, The Vegetable, until it failed in its pre-Broadway tryouts, leaving him deeply in debt. The Vegetable represented a gamble for Fitzgerald, a gamble on a second quick and overwhelming success, which he would manage more astutely than the first; but The Vegetable was neither original nor timely, as This Side of Paradise had been, and though it contains clever lines and subtle insights into lower-middle-class American life, as a whole the play was derivative and clichéd. What is interesting in The Vegetable are Fitzgerald's obsessions, pervasive but not quite coherent, confusing and diffusing the main lines of the play—age and time, boredom and restlessness, movies and popular delusions. After his fine achievement in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” what reason, other than hope of large financial returns, could Fitzgerald have had for raising his questions in such a compromised, inadequate form?
There are interesting clues to an answer in Van Wyck Brooks's Ordeal of Mark Twain. In Edmund Wilson's Bookman sketch—which Fitzgerald read at precisely the moment he was starting to write The Vegetable—Wilson portrayed Fitzgerald as a writer who has “the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal”; and it was also by the standards of an aesthetic ideal that Van Wyck Brooks judged and condemned Mark Twain's literary career. Mark Twain's ambition for popularity and wealth, his eclectic interest in mechanical devices, his deference to the tastes of his wife and Howells, Brooks criticized as ambitions and interests and deferences no true artist ever would have entertained. Though Mark Twain undoubtedly possessed the soul of an artist, Brooks said, that soul had been crushed beneath the external pressures of gentility and social approval; and in “blind, indirect, extravagant, wasteful ways, thecreative self in Mark Twain constantly strove to break through the censorship his own will had accepted, to cross the threshold of the unconscious.”
Yet one of the surprising inadequacies of Brooks's argument was his inability to specify what his aesthetic standards were. Nowhere in The Ordeal does Brooks make clear how Mark Twain might have liberated his creative self in direct, useful, or economical ways. Brooks does profess an obvious allegiance to a vague and undefined high art ideal, to which all true artists presumably dedicate themselves; but when he refers to Mark Twain's actual circumstances, he seems to suggest that Mark Twain's creative self would have found fulfillment best by giving up literature entirely. “The life of a Mississippi pilot,” Brooks wrote, “had, in some special way, satisfied the instinct of the artist in him; in quite this way, the instinct of the artist had never been satisfied again.” Mark Twain, Brooks implies, should have remained always a riverboat pilot; what counts most is “the happiness of the soul in process of delivering itself,” and from that criterion Samuel L. Clemens should not have written a word of prose. Fitzgerald possessed no coherent aesthetic values against which to judge the contradictions and evasions in Brooks's argument; and it may be that, so identifying himself with Mark Twain's personal and artistic dilemmas, he grasped at the solution Brooks offered, and turned to playwriting for more than its potential financial rewards; for the Elizabethan Drama group and the Triangle Club had first stimulated his artistic impulse in his boyhood, and he may have hoped the stage would satisfy his instinct of the artist once again.
But for the development of Fitzgerald's mind and art, 1922 and 1923 were not wasted years. For one thing, his editor Maxwell Perkins often stimulated him to read books of social interpretation and criticism. During the winter of 1921-22 Fitzgerald read Upton Sinclair's The Brass Check and The Mind in the Making by the historian James Harvey Robinson, both presumably at Perkins's urging. Fitzgerald told Perkins in March 1922,
When I wrote you about The Mind in the Making, I'd only read two chapters. I have finished it and entirely changed my views on its importance. I think it's a thoroughly excellent book. It states the entire case for modernity's lingering hope of progress. It is a depressing book, I think, as are Wells' and Shaw's late things, and all those of that bravecompany who started out in the '90's so full of hope and joy in life and faith in science and reason. Thomas Hardy survives them all. I think when I read Upton Sinclair's The Brass Check I made my final decision about America—that freedom has produced the greatest tyranny under the sun. I'm still a socialist but sometimes I dread that things will grow worse and worse the more the people nominally rule. The strong are too strong for us and the weak too weak.
It was perceptive of Fitzgerald to sense Robinson's relation to Wells and Shaw, and to see, beneath the crisis tone on the surface of The Mind in the Making, Robinson's optimism about applied scientific knowledge. When Fitzgerald spoke of himself as a socialist, he was acknowledging little more than his own affinities with Shaw and Wells, but even in his fears about nominal popular rule he was responding to a serious concern of intellectuals in the early twenties, how popular democracy could know enough to control increasingly complex and technical economic and political decisions. Both The Brass Check and The Mind in the Making are, in their own ways, about the problem of knowledge. Robinson believed that advances in scientific knowledge could be put to use in improving society, but he also implied—in a way Thorstein Veblen was to make explicit— that only scientific experts knew enough to make the decisions. Sinclair's study of the distortions and omissions in news-reporting suggested that it was impossible, under the then present state of American journalism, for the public to learn enough facts on which to base coherent decision. After his remarks to Perkins about popular rule, Fitzgerald added, “I shall not write another novel for a year but when I do it will not be a realistic one. At least I don't think it will.” Undoubtedly Fitzgerald considered both This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned realistic novels; and it may be that his concern with the problem of knowledge had made him feel that the realistic novel, like the novels of Wells and the plays of Shaw, was too optimistic about the future and too sure it knew all the answers. Already in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” he had suggested that Braddock Washington held responsibilities of which the aspiring middle-class Americans who destroyed him could not know; and it is not too much to say that in The Great Gatsby some of the mystery of Gatsby's past life and business affairs derives from this concern with the problem of knowledge.
There was another unresolved problem in Fitzgerald's mind on which, at the same time, Perkins helped him to focus his thinking. After Fitzgerald had written angrily accusing Perkins of trying to censor The Beautiful and Damned, Perkins in his reply made an effort to show Fitzgerald the distinction between contempt and pity. “The Old Testament,” Perkins wrote, “ought not to be treated in a way which suggests a failure to realize its tremendous significance in the recent history of man, as if it could simply be puffed away with a breath of contempt; it is so trivial… You speak of Galileo; he and Bruno showed themselves to have a genuine sense of the religious significance of the theories they broke down. They were not in a state of mind to treat the erroneous beliefs of man with a light contempt. France [the author Anatole France, whom Fitzgerald had cited in his own defense] does not so treat Christ in that story of Pilate in his old age. And 'Whited Sepulchre' is an expression of a high contempt, although applied to an object which has no such quality of significance as the Bible. My point is that you impair the effectiveness of the passage—of the very purpose you use it for— by giving it that quality of contempt.” Fitzgerald's contempt for his characters, for their behavior, and for their values, pervades The Beautiful and Damned and stories like “The Jelly Bean.” In “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” the satire attains an uneasy balance between contempt and sympathy, both for Braddock Washington and for his antagonists. By February 1922, Fitzgerald was writing to Perkins, “I found that thing by Anatole France very interesting. It's the same thing that Mencken says about Hardy and Conrad and Dreiser, the thing that lifts them above the 'cerebral' novelists like Wells—the profound gesture of pity.” Fitzgerald was beginning to grow out of that mood of contempt that had dominated much of his writing since This Side of Paradise; it was in March that he told Perkins his next novel would not be “realistic,” and his rejection of realism stems not only from his belief that it was an inadequate form to cope with his intellectual problems, but also from a feeling that realism was associated with contempt. Later, when he was discussing the title for the Tales of the Jazz Age collection, he half-jokingly, half-seriously suggested to Perkins, “I might possibly call my book Nine Humans and Fourteen Dummies if you'd permit such a long title (in this case I'd have to figure out how many humans and how manydummies there are in the collection).” But he assumed, off the cuff, that there were more dummies than humans in the stories; and the implication was that in the future humans would predominate.
Perkins had brought into the open the weaknesses of Fitzgerald's attitude toward his characters, but once again it was Fitzgerald's own reading and thinking that gave him the foundation for his development. As his remarks to Perkins suggest, Fitzgerald continued to be influenced by Mencken's philosophy and criticism; but now, after completing The Beautiful and Damned, he began to read for the first time those names he had found so prominent in Mencken's books and which he had previously adopted, on Mencken's authority alone, as his mentors. From the available evidence, it was in the winter of 1921-22 that Fitzgerald read Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals, and it was then that he first began to read the novels of Joseph Conrad. Fitzgerald's interpreters have correctly traced many of the qualities in The Great Gatsby to the influence of Conrad; yet in the case of the novels and tales they claim to be the sources for The Great Gatsby—Chance, Lord Jim, “Heart of Darkness”—no evidence exists that Fitzgerald read them until much later. By stressing affinities between form and technique in The Great Gatsby and in some of Conrad's novels, these interpretations have obscured more interesting and important connections between Fitzgerald and Conrad in the realm of attitudes and ideas. In The Genealogy of Morals Fitzgerald had read Nietzsche's assertion, “An artist must resist the temptation to 'analogy by contiguity,' which would persuade him that he, himself, is what he imagines and expresses. The truth of the matter is that if he were that thing, he would be unable to imagine or express it. Homer would not have created Achilles, nor Goethe Faust, if Homer had been an Achilles or Goethe a Faust. An artist worth his salt is permanently separated from ordinary reality.” It was in his reading of Conrad that Fitzgerald found, not merely method, but a philosophy of life that raised Fitzgerald's own concerns to a higher, calmer, more understanding, and more generous plane.
Before The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald seems to have read two novels, Nostromo and Victory; the tales “Youth” and “The Nigger of the Narcissus”—at least the preface to it; and a personal memoir, The Mirror of the Sea. Of this list only “Youth” was written with the character Marlow as a narrative device, and in this case Marlow is telling his own story rather than the story of someone else. “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and The Mirror of the Sea are basically conventional third-person narratives, while the two novels are narrated in the conventional third-person authorial voice. There are techniques in these works that Fitzgerald was to adopt for himself, particularly the shift away from chronological time sequence in Nostromo; but what was of greatest interest to him was not so much Conrad's devices—these after all are of little value without a story compelling and complex enough to require them—as Conrad's attitude toward human hopes and human destiny. In his one substantive reference to Conrad before The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote—quoting himself in a letter to Edmund Wilson—”'See here,' he said, 'I want some new way of using the great Conradian vitality, the legend that the sea exists without Polish eyes to see it. Masefield has spread it on iambics and downed it; O'Neill has sprinkled it on Broadway; McFee has added an Evenrude motor—' But I could think of no new art form in which to fit him.” At about the same time Fitzgerald put Nostromo sixth on his list of “the ten books I have enjoyed most,” calling it “the great novel of the past fifty years”—a comment that anticipates the consensus of Conrad's critics, that Nostromo is his greatest book.
What Fitzgerald meant when he said he wanted to use “the legend that the sea exists without Polish eyes to see it” was not that he wanted, with Masefield, O'Neill, and McFee to write about the sea, but that he wanted to emulate Conrad's success in making life on the sea symbolic of human desires and human fate. The sea was a subject and a setting commensurate with the moral and philosophical seriousness Fitzgerald had tried to bring to his fiction, with little success. The sea, Conrad said, was life itself; and as Marlow began his story in “Youth,” “You fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.” What Fitzgerald wanted to take from Conrad was not a feeling of anger and impotence in the face of defeat, decay, and time—that after all was what he rejected when he turned his back on realism—but a feeling of romance and power that was even enhanced, rather than destroyed, by inevitable loss. “I did not know how good a man I was till then”—this was the quote from “Youth” that Fitzgerald in 1923 put at the head of a review—“…I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men … the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires—and expires, too soon, too soon—before life itself.” In the poignance of “Youth” Fitzgerald found the “profound gesture of pity” Mencken had described. In Nostromo he found—here the thematic parallels between Fitzgerald and Conrad are more suggestive than those of technique—a vague, mysterious figure, “Nostromo,” romantically risen from the lower class and endowed with legendary power, “enormous vanity,” “absurd fidelity”; corrupted and betrayed by a material symbol that had become enmeshed with his romantic ideals; fatally shot in error. The style and form of Nostromo conveyed a unified visual and moral experience, romanticism and corruption side by side, and told the story with pity and dignity, despite the failure of all human desires in the end. Conrad showed Fitzgerald what it was to be an artist who had truly risen into Nietzsche's aristocratic class; who had turned away from judgment, resentment, revenge, those attitudes and motives Nietzsche had called slavish; who had thus attained the Apollonian power, as Nietzsche described it in The Birth of Tragedy, to control Dionysian vitality and to turn it into art. But Fitzgerald could not learn from Conrad how to do it for himself; that was the meaning of his confession to Edmund Wilson that he “could think of no new art form in which to fit him.” For that Fitzgerald needed a writer whose subject matter was closer to his own; and by the summer of 1922 Wilson had already supplied him.
Wilson apparently brought Ulysses to Fitzgerald's attention in May of 1922. Fitzgerald was obviously replying to remarks Wilson had made when he wrote, “I have not read Ulysses but I'm wild to—especially now that you mention some coincidence. Do you know where I can get it at any price?” A month later Fitzgerald reported to Wilson, “I have Ulysses from the Brick Row Bookshop and am starting it. I wish it was laid in America—there is something about middle-class Ireland that depresses me inordinately—I mean, gives me a sort of hollow, cheerless pain. Half of my ancestors came from just such an Irish stratum, or perhaps a lower one. This book makesme feel appallingly naked.” Fitzgerald's feelings about middle-class Ireland suggest the reason why his interest in James Joyce had earlier been so slight. Fitzgerald had read A Portrait of the Artist before he wrote This Side of Paradise; but his attitudes toward Ireland and his Celtic heritage had been shaped by two genteel Catholic aristocrats, Father Fay and Shane Leslie. Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise “was rather skeptical about being an Irish patriot—he suspected that being Irish was being somewhat common—but Monsignor assured him that Ireland was a romantic lost cause and Irish people quite charming, and that it should, by all means, be one of his principal biasses.” The Monsignor's interest in Ireland, nevertheless, like Father Fay's and Leslie's, was primarily aesthetic, if not politically reactionary; later he is reported as “having a frightful time” about the Irish Republic: “He thinks it lacks dignity.” Into this atmosphere the fiction of James Joyce could only enter as a jarring note; Amory Blaine is said to have been “puzzled and depressed” by A Portrait of the Artist, a judgment that has less to do with style and technique than with the Irish life and aspirations it depicts. Fitzgerald's feelings toward Joyce were much more bluntly laid down in October 1919, when he wrote Robert Bridges, the editor of Scribner's Magazine, about his short-lived project to write a “diary of a literary failure.” “It will be bound to have that streak of coarseness that both Wells and Butler have,” Fitzgerald wrote, “but there won't be any James Joyce flavor to it.” Fitzgerald had been brought up to believe that James Joyce was a common Irishman, outside the bounds of literary taste.
But Wilson was teaching him something different. Early in his career Wilson had dedicated himself to enlightening the reading public, as he later said, “to the understanding of the most recent literary events in the larger international world—Joyce, Eliot, Proust, etc.”; and 1922 was the decisive year, when both Ulysses and The Waste Land appeared, changing the course of English and American poetry and fiction ever thereafter. It was Wilson's good luck to get The Dial's assignment to write the first criticism of The Waste Land, in connection with the presentation of the 1922 Dial Award to Eliot. Earlier he had reviewed Ulysses for The New Republic. These reviews were only the beginning for Wilson of a ten-year task which was to culminate in 1931 with Axel's Castle. Yet in 1922 Fitzgeraldwas only one among many whose ideas about literature were drastically revised because Wilson had guided them to the meanings in Ulysses and The Waste Land. “I read your article on Ulysses, the only criticism yet I could make head or tail of,” Fitzgerald wrote Wilson in July 1922; and to ascertain the impact of Ulysses on Fitzgerald, one must first turn to Wilson's review.
Fitzgerald had heard from Wilson that there was “some coincidence” between him and Joyce; for Fitzgerald a most interesting coincidence may have been the fact that Wilson devoted more than half his review to finding fault with Ulysses, that Joyce fell below Wilson's critical standards almost as often as Fitzgerald had in the earlier Bookman article. The more obvious coincidence between Joyce and Fitzgerald lay in the consequences of their lapsed Catholicism. “I feel that though [Joyce's] taste for symbolism is closely allied with his extraordinary poetic faculty for investing particular incidents with universal significance,” Wilson wrote, “nevertheless— because it is the homeless symbolism of a Catholic who has renounced the faith—it sometimes overruns the bounds of art into an arid ingenuity which would make a mystic correspondence do duty for an artistic reason.” Wilson had made very clear the conscious parallels between Ulysses and The Odyssey, a connection between modern life and ancient mythology which, since the reference to Prometheus in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” may also have been in Fitzgerald's mind; but Wilson's criticism of the symbolism in Ulysses was based on Joyce's too literal adherence to the structure of The Odyssey. And this fault, according to Wilson, led Joyce to extend his style beyond the limits of his strength. “You cannot inflate such a style or splash it about,” Wilson wrote. “Mr. Joyce's native temperament and the method which it has naturally chosen have no room for superabundance or extravagant fancy. It is the method of Flaubert—and of Turgenev and de Maupassant: You set down with the most careful accuracy and the most scrupulous economy of detail exactly what happened to your characters, and merely from the way the thing is told—not from any comment of the narrator— the reader draws his ironic inference. In this genre—which has probably brought novel-writing to its highest dignity as an art—Mr. Joyce has long proved himself a master.” But where Joyce had truly risen above Flaubert, Wilson said, was in his capacity to tell the truthabout human ignobilities, and yet to make “his bourgeois figures command our sympathy and respect by letting us see in them the throes of the human mind straining always to perpetuate and perfect itself and of the body always laboring and throbbing to throw up some beauty from its darkness.” This was the quality that had “depressed” Fitzgerald and made him feel “appallingly naked,” and yet it was the quality that Wilson and Joyce had forced Fitzgerald to face. “Am undecided about Ulysses application to me,” Fitzgerald wrote Wilson in August, “—which is as near as I ever come to forming an impersonal judgment.” It would be difficult to divine a meaning from these words, unless they are meant as a clever equivocation; for Ulysses' application to Fitzgerald must by nature be personal; and a personal judgment would be decisive. But perhaps one who wished for an immediate conversion experience would have asked for too much; for Ulysses, as Wilson said, had set “the standards of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama.” Fitzgerald had put off his third novel, hoping to find “a new art form” that would reshape his style and themes. James Joyce confronted him with a new art form, and Wilson had made plain to him the close connection between Ulysses and Fitzgerald's Irish Catholic social and religious background, his poetic style, and his universal themes. “Who else has had the supreme devotion,” Wilson asked rhetorically at the end of his review, “and accomplished the definitive beauty?” If Ulysses had any application to Fitzgerald, it must have seemed this question was addressed to him.
What Wilson accomplished, in fact, by his persistent interest in Fitzgerald during 1922—by his Bookman article, his extravagant praise for the play, his calling Fitzgerald's attention to his connections with Joyce—was to close the gap between Fitzgerald and modern movements in the arts. The climax came in November 1922, the month The Waste Land was published in The Dial and T. S. Eliot was awarded the Dial Award for 1922. In an article on modern art and literature, “The Rag-Bag of the Soul,” that Wilson wrote for The Literary Review of the New York Evening Post, he linked Fitzgerald's name with that of Eliot. “It is no longer a question,” Wilson wrote, “as it once was, of man in relation to God, or man in relation to society, or man in relation to his neighbor. Let us merely explorea single human consciousness and make a record of what we find there without venturing even the most rudimentary ideas as to what their significance may be or as to which of them may be considered the most valuable.” Quoting from The Waste Land, Wilson went on, “T. S. Eliot's lines … furnish an apt description of the situation, and a quotation from a more conventional author who has yet caught something of the spirit of the time puts it even more clearly and briefly. 'I know myself but that is all,' cries one of Scott Fitzgerald's heroes, who has 'grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken.' And that is precisely the point of view of the modern novelist or poet: 'I know myself but that is all.'“
It was Wilson's purpose to say that this alone was not enough, that unchecked consciousness was an inadequate literary form to express what positive values his generation would devise. “When we do become capable again of believing in something,” he wrote, “we shall probably begin to censor the record of our consciousness in the interests of our faith. … in a genuinely vigorous society some selection will have to be made among the instincts which make a menagerie of every human being—that certain impulses and ideas will have consistently to be suppressed while certain others are cultivated with a superlative intensity—if man is to have even the illusion of controlling his own fate.” This remark, too, made a peculiar appeal to Fitzgerald's stylistic and thematic needs. For the first time since the earliest moments of his career Fitzgerald could feel that his interests and his talents were in tune with the advance guard in the arts, and perhaps that he possessed a foundation in values even more firm. By the winter of 1922-23—a year after the winter of his doubts-Fitzgerald was speaking in a new voice of leadership, conveying a sense that he was on the brink of coming into his own. Reviewing one more realistic novel, he showed that he knew what was to come after realism. “And, when our Conrad or Joyce or Anatole France comes,” he wrote, “such books as this will have cleared his way. Out of these enormous and often muddy lakes of sincere and sophisticated observation will flow the clear stream—if there is to be a clear stream at all.” There can hardly be a doubt that the American “Conrad or Joyce or Anatole France” whom Fitzgerald envisioned was to be himself.
But of course at that moment Fitzgerald was busy getting hiscomedy ready for the stage. Between the winter of 1921-22 and the brief start he made on a novel in the summer of 1923, Fitzgerald wrote only three stories; of these the first, “Winter Dreams,” is of particular interest, for it was written in September 1922, just after Fitzgerald read Ulysses, and it marks the first attempt Fitzgerald made to assimilate what he learned from Conrad and Joyce into his own art. “Winter Dreams” is not an entirely successful story, it never quite brings its separate parts into a focused unity; but the development it represents in Fitzgerald's mind and art are of great significance. For the first time Fitzgerald chose as his hero a lower-middle-class figure out of his boyhood observation and experience. Dexter Green, to be sure, ends up with fabulous wealth and power; but neither his temperament nor his circumstances prepare him to be the typical upper-middle-class genteel romantic hero of Fitzgerald's slick magazine stories. “He knew that to be careless in dress and manner required more confidence than to be careful. But carelessness was for his children. His mother's name had been Krimplich. She was a Bohemian of the peasant class and she had talked broken English until the end of her days. Her son must keep to the set patterns.” And so for the first time—first time at least since Fitzgerald's prewar collegiate stories—the hero does not win the girl. There are no substitute genteel romantic values in “Winter Dreams” either, such as Amory Blaine devised for himself when he lost the girl in This Side of Paradise; despite Dexter Green's financial success, “Winter Dreams” is a story of inevitable loss.
It does not seem, though, that the loss of Miss Judy Jones is worth crying over. Her power over Dexter Green is real enough, over and over again “her casual whim gave a new direction to his life” (122). In her willfulness Judy Jones resembles the genteel romantic heroines of Fitzgerald's collegiate stories, in her mysterious wild moods she recalls the “Caroline” who beguiled Merlin Grainger in “O Russet Witch!,” the earlier story which dealt more crudely with similar themes; but Judy Jones does not seem at all a realized or a created character, commensurate with her role as the embodiment of the story's idealism. Perhaps, after all, this was Fitzgerald's intention— to make Judy Jones the accidental catalyst, and thus the unworthy object, for Dexter's general romantic readiness: “It was a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificentlyattuned to life and that everything about him was radiating a brightness and a glamour he might never know again” (121). So Dexter “surrendered a part of himself to the most direct and unprincipled personality with which he had ever come in contact” (125). It was this yielding that Dexter was to mourn when he learned that Judy Jones had lost her beauty, this commitment of his dreams to a mortal object that time must destroy. For with the end of his dream he could not escape his own imprisonment in time. “The gates were closed, the sun was gone down… 'long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone' ” (135). Youth was ended; and he, too, was mortal.
The other important story in which, before The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald put his intellectual development to artistic use, was “Absolution.” It was in fact salvaged from the novel Fitzgerald began in July and August 1923 and broke off to revise The Vegetable during rehearsals. As a story in itself “Absolution” is among Fitzgerald's best; its significance for The Great Gatsby lies in its skillful fusion of Fitzgerald's old theme of the genteel romantic hero with his new capacity to write with feeling and penetration about lower-class lives and aspirations. Rudolph Miller, Fitzgerald's little-boy hero, with his romantic other self, “Blatchford Sarnemington,” with his sin of not believing he was the son of his parents, with the “honesty of his imagination” that made him plan too cleverly and betrayed him, is the imaginative romantic hero imprisoned within the circumstances of his poverty; Fitzgerald at last had learned, from the characters of Nostromo and Leopold Bloom, how truly to create his own Huckleberry Finn. Fitzgerald no longer needed the rich and well-born as characters to fit his major themes; in “The Rag-Bag of the Soul” Edmund Wilson explained how modern literature had grown out of the chaos of status and values, “all established society in flux, all institutions imperilled, the gentleman among the gallipots and the underling on the throne,” and in “Absolution” Rudolph Miller, “like the commoner in the king's chair… tasted the pride of the situation.” But unlike Fitzgerald's old upper-middle-class genteel hero, Rudolph is too far removed from power and status for his inner consciousness to conceive of its own objects. Thus for the first time in Fitzgerald's fiction the conventional goals of romantic imagination, money and the girl, are missing.
The major symbol of power in the story is the Roman Catholic Church. And it was Fitzgerald's brilliant stroke to counterpoint Rudolph's imagination with that of the priest, Father Schwartz, whose diseased imagination conjures up images of magic places mingled with sexual desire. Rudolph's growth into the isolation of adolescence is also, of course, partly shaped by the awaking of his sexual desire; but by the extraordinary device of bringing the two imaginations together in the confessional, where the man of God exposed his wild dreams, Fitzgerald enabled Rudolph's romantic imagination to soar even higher than God. “There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God. He no longer thought that God was angry at him about the original lie, because He must have understood that Rudolph had done it to make things finer in the confessional, brightening up the dinginess of his admissions by saying a thing radiant and proud.” Rudolph could believe that his romantic imagination might entertain God Himself. This was a pride and a responsibility that might raise him above mortality to the status of a Prometheus, of a Braddock Washington—and which could only end as Prometheus and Braddock Washington had ended, in a cataclysm, that would destroy him and with him, man's hopes. In outline most of The Great Gatsby is there.
Fitzgerald put away the novel of which “Absolution” was a part to revise The Vegetable. When the play failed in November 1923, he was deeply in debt. He had exhausted his advances on the novel from Scribner's, and the rest of its potential earnings lay far in the future. His one recourse was the magazine market, where his name was powerful and his price was on the rise. The novel was put aside, and for the next half year Fitzgerald wrote full-time for the magazines. He turned out eleven stories in that period and almost as many articles and reviews. He accomplished what he had set out to do, clear off his debt. It would be simple to say that the stories that poured regularly, one every two weeks, from his pen, were trash, as Fitzgerald himself was later to say. More than half, it is true, were variations on the conventional formula of the genteel romantic hero—upper-class boy loses upper-class girl, boy does something outrageously clever, boy wins girl and fortune. Most of the others, it is also true, were sentimental domestic tales. Fitzgerald knew the needs of the magazine market well enough to give editors what they wanted; forwhat other reason were they paying him over one thousand dollars for each story? Yet his mind and his art had reached a stage of maturity that made several of these stories far more interesting than their outward shell suggests. That six months' output was, as Fitzgerald had written earlier about The Vegetable, “like most of my stuff, a very bad performance full of exceedingly good things.” Fitzgerald had important questions on his mind, questions of time, of youth, of mystery, and power. These themes crop up at the beginning of almost every story; then, at the end, typically, the action of the story suddenly speeds up, so the characters may be hurried back into line for a sentimental happy ending. But the questions remain, unanswered. In ”'The Sensible Thing'” George O'Kelly “knew that the past sometimes comes back,” and he wins the girl, though their new love is different from their lost youthful love. John M. Chestnut in “Rags Martin-Jones and the Pr-nce of W-les” controls a mysterious worldwide network of power to entertain the girl he wants to marry. Cyrus Girard in “The Third Casket,” “who filled the position of Telamonian Ajax among the Homeric characters of Wall Street,” is giving away in a kind of knightly tournament “about everything they used to give away in the fairy tales—half of my kingdom and, if she wants him, my daughter's hand.” In “The Unspeakable Egg” there is a “Society for the Preservation of Large Fortunes” which, when an engagement between two wealthy young people was announced, arranged to have the newspapers print a “picture of a crosseyed young lady holding the hand of a savage gentleman with four rows of teeth… the public was pleased to know that they were ugly monsters for all their money, and everyone was satisfied all around.”
The last story of these eleven, “John Jackson's Arcady,” was different. It was a rare story for Fitzgerald, a story about an older man. John Jackson was wealthy and powerful, but unhappy in his inner life. His wife had deserted him, and his son had grown up to be bad. One day he ran away from his wealth and power to the small town where he grew up. There he found the sweetheart of his youth, who was the wife of a garage owner, and still lived in the poverty from which John Jackson had long ago escaped. Alice still loved him, he still loved her. He asked her to run away with him, and she accepted. John Jackson at last was happy again. “He felt that he had established dominance over time itself, so that it rolled away forhim, yielding up one vanished springtime after another to the mastery of his overwhelming emotion.” But when he went to take Alice away, she told him she could not desert her children. John Jackson returned alone to his wealth and power, ready to accept it as his lot in life. The story ends with a rapid burst of sentimentality. Time had conquered John Jackson after all, but it had left him with a happy ending. Take away this Saturday Evening Post requirement, and the movement toward The Great Gatsby is complete. From the fall of 1921 to the summer of 1924, a period dominated by an unsuccessful play and concluded by a dozen conventional slick magazine stories, Fitzgerald had nevertheless rediscovered the values of his intellect and the value of his art. The preparations for The Great Gatsby were over; all that remained for him was to write it.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon by Robert Sklar (New York: Oxford Up, 1967).