Trails of the Jazz Age

Do we need another biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald? Since Arthur Mizener’s inaugural one of 1951, there have been a number of successors including Andrew Turnbull’s (1962) and, most commandingly, Matthew Bruccoli’s “standard” one of 1981. This new one by David S. Brown concentrates, as the blurb tells us, on the “historical rather than the literary imagination of its subject.” (Brown is a professor of history.)

If this strikes one as a curious approach—what do we care about in Fitzgerald except his literary imagination?—it may be justified if one believes, as Brown does, that Fitzgerald was an unusually perceptive social critic of American life between the world wars. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920; 20 years later he succumbed to a heart attack, leaving as his legacy four novels (a fifth incomplete) and scores of short stories. The most famous of his books, The Great Gatsby (1925), is now required reading for most college and pre-college courses in literature; the other works elicit a good deal less attention. Brown would have us measure Fitzgerald’s importance not so much by aesthetic standards as by his “critical appraisal .  .  . of timeworn Victorian certainties,” a sociological-cultural explanation.

The biographer takes us capably through well-worn territory, as the young subject, five-foot-six and 130 pounds, fresh from Minnesota, comes east to the Newman School in New Jersey, then to Princeton. Fitzgerald would speak to this moment in one of his most attractive early stories, “Winter Dreams,” in which Dexter Green reaches out for “the precarious advantage of attending an older and more famous university in the East, where he was bothered by his scanty funds.” Brown describes the reaching-out to Princeton on Fitzgerald’s part as taking the school “only partly on its own terms the more self-conscious intellectual grind of a Harvard or Yale, romanticizing its gothic façade into a sentimental education distinct from the more intellectual Harvard and Yale.” This Side of Paradise pays tribute to his Princeton experience in glowing, nostalgic terms a reader may have trouble rising to: “ ’You know,’ whispered Tom, ‘what we feel now is the sense of all the gorgeous youth that has rioted through here in two hundred years.'”

In the stories and novels to come, Fitzgerald, in Brown’s terms, would divide the sexes into “female realism” and “male romance,” as in his early love for the wealthy Ginevra King, and the less rich but more flirtatious southern woman he would (after some difficulty) marry, Zelda Sayre. One might wonder how any woman could begin to live up to the intensity of Fitzgerald’s male romance: certainly not Judy Jones, who, in “Winter Dreams,” is the dream that fades away from Dexter Green’s eyes, as any woman character of Fitzgerald’s must inevitably do. Rereading “Winter Dreams,” a story that once meant a lot to this male reader, I encounter sentences that used to resonate to me:

There was a fish jumping and a star shining and the lights around the lake were gleaming. Over on a dark peninsula a piano was playing the songs of last summer and of summers before that.

As Judy Jones will soon be, the star and the songs are present only in the hero’s poignant memory.

“Winter Dreams” was published in 1922, three years before The Great Gatsby. Brown calls it a “fine” story, but has little to say about what makes it fine. He quotes and comments on the “reaching out” to Princeton, yet the reason the story is attractive, even powerful, must have to do with its stylistic appeal. What to say about sentences that describe Dexter’s anticipation of Judy’s kiss, in which he faces “the unpredictable compound that would form mysteriously from the elements of their lips,” in which he experiences “kisses that were not a promise but a fulfillment.”

In a word, the spell of romance—and as Hugh Kenner noted years ago, Fitzgerald’s only subject was not just romance but Romance. Nick Carraway in Gatsby is prey to a similar enchantment with Daisy the first time he meets her: “A stirring warmth flowed from her as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words.” Surely it’s Fitzgerald who is imagining these words and the thrill they convey. Can we begin to experience that thrill?

But matters of tone, nuance, and manner matter less to Professor Brown than presumably larger matters such as the novelist’s relation to historical phenomena like Victorianism. With reference to the first world war that Fitzgerald never saw up close, Brown writes: “His knowing and critical appraisal of the timeworn Victorian certainties that many people blamed for provoking the conflict—its self-consciously refined sensibilities, its stifling moralism, and its unreflective confidence in science and technology—reaches for a kind of higher interpretive truth.” We are invited to consider the novelist as a chronicler of American civilization “in flux, one whose stuffy Victorianism he lampooned.” Or he is a “ ’radical’ writer, eager to attack an antiquated Victorianism.” I know we should look down on “Victorianism,” but I have never thought about it as a major concern of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s art.

Brown is eager to ramp up that art by connecting it with big names in literary circles. He tells us that Fitzgerald’s second (and feeble) novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), “might plausibly be paired with the politically tinted poetry of contemporaries T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate, or the slightly more distant observations of Henrys James and Adams”—comparisons that seem quite implausible to me. When, in discussing the “conspicuous consumption” instanced in Gatsby’s extraordinary house and clothes (“a fantasy moment of romantic promise,” writes Brown), he has recourse to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class even though, he notes, Fitzgerald almost certainly never read Veblen. I, too, who have successfully avoided dealing with the forbidding Norwegian-American economist, remain unwilling to see him in any way linked with Fitzgerald’s extraordinary novel.

Reread, The Great Gatsby proves irresistible as ever, and much of its distinction is the product of Nick Carraway’s reflections, on the verge of the pretentious as they sometimes are. But the solidity of specification is everywhere, from the names of the guests at Gatsby’s parties, to his colorful shirts that tumble out and make Daisy speechless, to the abandoned grass roller Nick sits on as he watches Gatsby watching the stars. In Lionel Trilling’s fine, short appreciation of Fitzgerald in The Liberal Imagination, he finds “a tone and pitch to the sentences which suggest [Fitzgerald’s] warmth and tenderness .  .  . his gentleness without softness.” Brown usefully points out Fitzgerald’s desire, stated a year before he began Gatsby, to be an American Joseph Conrad: It was Conrad’s Nostromo that Fitzgerald particularly admired, but the Conrad novel that seems to me closest in tone to Gatsby is Victory, with the doomed Axel Heyst—the last of Conrad’s great books, and one with some of the warmth and tenderness Trilling found in Fitzgerald.

But Gatsby could be done only once, and when Fitzgerald finally published Tender Is the Night nine years afterwards, there is a great falling-off. Unlike Gatsby, Tender has a narrator who is nowhere and everywhere, without the immediacy and “personal” concern that characterizes Nick Carraway. It is too long a novel for its subject, and whether you go with the version into which Malcolm Cowley rearranged it or not, there is the lack of a coherent core of feeling. Fitzgerald thought it his best novel, and Brown calls it a “masterwork,” but there is nothing in his commentary that convinces us of its masterliness. Overall, its awkward effort to make the different stories, characters, and places jell is evident.

The six years after Tender Is the Night that ended with Fitzgerald’s death in Hollywood are depressing to read about. As others before him, Brown makes a case for the promise of the final, uncompleted novel The Last Tycoon (1941), and he provides a sympathetic portrait of Sheilah Graham, the woman who seems to have understood the man and writer she took in hand and learned from. Fitzgerald kept churning out stories—the “Pat Hobby” sequence and short autobiographical pieces—but they take up only a few pages in Matthew Bruccoli’s nearly 800 page selection of the stories.

As I consider his literary legacy, diminished from the enormous place it once occupied in my reading life, I thought of Willa Cather, whose novel The Professor’s House appeared the year of Gatsby, as well as A Lost Lady, which Fitzgerald read but only after Gatsby was completed. How much more sustaining and impressive Cather now seems, put next to Fitzgerald and, maybe, next to Ernest Hemingway as well. What remains uniquely Fitzgerald’s is what Lionel Trilling found in The Great Gatsby and called (perhaps too grandly) “the ideal voice of the novelist .  .  . characteristically modest yet .  .  . without .  .  . self-consciousness a largeness, even a stateliness.” Perhaps no critical account can find the right words for that central voice, but it is not likely to emerge through well-intentioned efforts to treat F. Scott Fitzgerald as a cultural historian.

William H. Pritchard is the author, most recently, of Writing to Live: Commentaries on Literature and Music.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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