from the INTRODUCTION by Malcolm Bradbury “The uncertainties of 1919 were over – there seemed little doubt about what was going to happen – America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it. The whole golden boom was in the air – its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America in prohibition. All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them.”
--F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Early Success” (1937)
No writer ever set out more determinedly to capture and condense in fiction the tone, the style, the spirit, the noise, the excitement, the hope and the despair of his own decade than Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. The decade was, of course, the American 1920s—the era when, in the wake of the Great War, the United States became modern and a leading world power, and in an era of economic boom and unprecedented change the nation entered on what Fitzgerald himself tagged the “greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” The great, gaudy spree was not merely something that Fitzgerald observed and then wrote about. Beside his flamboyant wife Zelda, herself a Fitzgerald flapper heroine and the obvious source for the headstrong new women who populate his five novels and his many short stories, Fitzgerald went on to live out the times as a great and glorious spectacle. He gave himself so thoroughly to the task, that it all became personal; on behalf of Ameicans at large, Fitzgerald publicly performed the Twenties. From the moment when his first novel, This Side of Paradise,
came out in 1920, just as the new decade started, to win immediate success because it seemed so exactly to voice the spirit, hopes and anxieties of the new post-war generation, he became a cultural icon, an embodiment of what was happening. “I who knew less of New York than any reporter of six months standing and less of its society than any hall-room boy in a Ritz stag line, was pushed into the position not only of spokesman for the time but of the typical product of the same moment,” he noted later. So it was Fitzgerald who ensured that the more frankly sexual and independent young men-women of this golden age were known as “flappers,” and that the age itself acquired, from the sound of its most novel and freewheeling music, the title of “the jazz age.” It was he who could be counted on to bring to fiction the new songs and dances, the new hairstyles, the new manners and mores of dating and petting, the glitz of the new urban amusements, the style of the decades’ parties, he who could voice the disillusionment of the young with their elders and sense the shifting rhythms of excitement and unease that belonged to a decade that was, more than most, in rapid and modernizing transition and, more than most, in a state of apocalyptic anxiety.
In a famous essay, “The Crack-Up,” written in the mid-1930s when the bubble had burst and his younger generation was no longer young and no longer carelessly wealthy, he summed up this singular identification between writer and times. The historical development of America from the weary decadence of the immediately post-war years, through the rising excitements of growing wealth, change and excess, represented, he said, his own psychic curve. The Great Crash of 1929, when the whole flimsy structure suddenly settled earthward, and the free credit was called in, was the exact analogy of his own and Zelda’s breakdown, when the psychic price was paid. The grim political assessments of the Depression Thirties, when glitter gave way to breadlines and dancing gave way to dustbowl, was the match for his onw bitter and struggling endeavor to put his spiritual and historical house in rder. Unlike some other American writers, who had watched the shift from expatriation in Paris, Fitzgerald had been no distant observer of the great American change. It was nothing less than the story of his own life, his parvenu
expectations, his obsession with success, fame, glittering wealth and beauty—and his rising sense of disaster, because he had the steady Calvinistic feeling that for all these amusements and fragile splendours there was an ultimate, and inward, price that would duly have to be paid.
Yet so lovingly had Fitzgerald given himself over to the great gaudy bubble that for a long time the critics doubted him and his works; indeed he came to doubt them himself. They saw him chiefly as a stylish chronicler, a literary popularizer, a writer so thoroughly immersed in the unworthy dreams of an age that, in retrospect, seemed so politically naïve and economically foolish that its discredit often became his. He was a writer who had involved himself so deeply with the themes and dreams, the extravagances and wastes, of an uncriticial age that he never himself found the time or the artistic strength to stand back, to examine, to criticize, and certainly not to produce a fully serious, detached and considered work of art. To a certain point (he acknowledged as much himself), the charges were deserved. No writer was apparently more willing to be taken along by the seductive rhythms of success and popular adulation. None granted more to the special and yet specious wonder of the American rich, the grandees of a time of confident American power, nor fell more readily under the sexual spell of its exotic, expensive and often self-destructive women. None seemed more wasteful of his own evident charm, more careless of his own obvious talent. Much of what he wrote seemed a writing of glitzy surfaces, deliberately designed for impermanence. This story was written, he was happy to suggest, to pay for the champagne at one of his famous and newsworthy parties; that novel was produced at speed to equip Zelda with the expensive squirrel coat that she craved and, since craving had to be satisfied, really had to have. As even his good friend Edmund Wilson, who had discovered his promising talents when both were students at Princeton, once said, “he has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without many ideas to express.”
This view of Fitzgerald persisted well after his early death from alcoholism in Hollywood in 1940, when he had been doing boring work as a screenwriter and when his reputation had fallen low. In 1951, Arthur Mizener produced an excellent and important biography, The Far Side of Paradise,
which, along with other studies of the time, did much to rehabilitate his reputation as one of the great modern American writers. Yet the book takes the form of a Modernist tragedy (indeed, with the suicide of Ernest Hemingway in 1961, it increasingly came to seem that most of the tales of the major American novelists of the 1920s took the shape of a tragedy). Mizener’s version seemed to confirm Fitzgerald’s own dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. His Fitzgerald is an American dreamer who squanders his talents, loses his way, finds himself trapped in an unhappy marriage which was to culminate in Zelda’s final madness, caught in a world of bills, economic and emotional, that proved too great ever to pay. He was a man who admitted himself, using a favorite economic analogy, that all his investments had gone wrong, who had “been drawing on resources that I did not possess, . . . mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” His writing came from a singular identification with the life of his times – “my material” – but the demands of popular fiction persistently discouraged him from seriousness. In later life his powers cracked, and he became, in Hemingway’s famous and condescending phrase, “poor Fitzgerald.” It was a familiar American literary tragedy, the story of the writer who always meant to write something “maybe great,” but granted too much to his own glossy, impermanent culture, and who therefore could never acquire the detachment, the originality, to achieve what his talent and ambitions seemed to promise.
To a considerable extent this still remains the “myth” of Fitzgerald, the myth that sees him as what Lionel Trilling once called him, the “maimed hero” of modern writing. It has encouraged the still very common view that of the truly important and genuinely radical modern writers—Hemignway, Stein, Faulkner, Dos Passos—who emerged in the United States during the remarkable literary decade of the 1920s, when the American novel was totally transformed and when it acquired the dignity and character of a true world literature, Fitzgerald, though of the greatest representative importance, was one of the most profligate and least realized authors of the generation. So, where Hemingway, through style, achieved a pure and hard perfection of modernist prose, and Faulkner and Dos Passos, through complex formal experiment, achieved the experimental radicalism of modernist vision, Fitzgerald was to stay the eternal amateur who never mastered what his talent and imagination offered. It is certainly true that Fitzgerald was one of the less obviously experimental writers of experimental times; but that was largely because he made the first object of his experiment not the literary text, rather life itself in an experimental time which he sought to understand in its contradiction and complexity. For Fitzgerald, style in life and style in art were always to be inextricably interwoven, and his writing is in endless passage from one to the other. It is of course entirely true that, of the many short stories Fitzgerald wrote and indeed lived by, many were slight and trivial. It is also true that, of the five novels he wrote, the first two—This Side of Paradise
and The Beautiful and Damned,
so popular in their time—were works of youthful charm but indulgent and imperfect method, while the last two –the brilliant Tender Is the Night
and the final The Last Tycoon
, which were largely disliked in their time—were works of vast ambition that were nonetheless, for different reasons, never truly finished. This, however, still leaves us with a good deal worthy of the highest respect. There remain many remarkable short stories, some cunning and subtle criticism and commentary, of which the once despised “Crack-Up” essays are a distinguished example, and one novel so perfect that it surely stands among the finest of twentieth-century American novels. That book, the book T. S. Elio called “the first step the American novel has taken since Henry James,” the book that in fact offers the most profound and critical summing up we have of the ironies and disorders behind the wonderful glow of the Twenties, the great novel of the American Dream in its modern condition, was The Great Gatsby.
. . .
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