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HEMINGWAY & FITZGERALD: THE COST OF BEING AMERICAN
The work of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald virtually defined what it meant to be American in the first half of this century
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
But then, Scott Fitzgerald from St. Paul remains the only Proust of luxurious upper-class landmarks in New York like the Plaza Hotel. New York was dreamland to Fitzgerald. It represented his imagination of what is forever charming, touched by the glamour of money, romantically tender and gay. No writer born to New York’s constant pressure has ever associated so much beauty with it or could ever think of New York as the Plaza Hotel. Fitzgerald felt about New York what a man might feel about a woman too exciting to be trusted. New York was the pleasure capital, the fulfillment of all possible dreams in St. Paul—New York was much more beautiful to Fitzgerald than was Paris. But by the same token it was as unreal as Gatsby’s too-glamorous life on Long Island, as subtly corrupt and even cannibal-like as Meyer Wolfsheim’s cufflinks of human molars, Meyer Wolfsheim describing (over “a succulent hash”) the murder of the gambler Rosenthal: “Then he went out on the sidewalk, and they shot him three times in his full belly and drove away.”
What is most striking about Fitzgerald in the twenties is his alliance with its élan vital. It was one of his boasts and premises—his and Zelda’s—“never to be too tired for anything.” He had an old-fashioned gift for hero worship, a sense of the ideal, that led him to say to an incredulous Edmund Wilson when they were still at Princeton, “I want to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived, don’t you?” When Joseph Conrad visited the United States and was secluded on the Doubleday estate, Fitzgerald was unable to visit him but, humble as Gatsby, waited on the lawn for the merest sight of the great man.
European writers and artists in the twenties, many of them far deeper and more comprehensive in their talent, not so everlastingly “personal” as Fitzgerald, never achieved (or wanted) so much identification with a period . But the twenties were America’s reprieve from Puritanism and provincialism, or so H. L. Mencken led his superior readers to believe. Mencken had a spectacular ability to turn into personal “prejudices” his own prose comedy of the American scene: “Q: If you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, why do you live here? A: Why do men go to zoos?"
In Europe the “men of 1914” found their inspiration, their language, much of their audience, in the recall of the trenches that never left a generation. The violence of 1914 through 1918 seeped, just a little, into every American writer who experienced the war as the great adventure of his generation. Europe in its national savagery was just part ofthat adventure and of a writer’s initiation. In Tender Is the Night Dr. Dick Diver, who found the war his chance to train as a psychiatrist in Switzerland, takes his new love, Rosemary Hoyt, on a tour of the battlefields. He grandly—too grandly!—tells the “child” what it was all about:
“All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love," Dick mourned persistently. “Isn't that true, Rosemary?"
“See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”
Mourning persistently as he croons his litany over fighting he never saw, Dick Diver rhetorically proclaims his failure as a man, his submission to the rich, crazy wife whose real attractiveness for him has been his ability, as a physician, to take her over. Of course she takes him over. Dr. Diver on the subject of war is as fancy as the casualness that Nick Carraway and Gatsby exchange in chapter three of The Great Gatsby :
“Your face is familiar,” he said, politely. “Weren’t you in the Third Division during the war?”
“Why, yes, I was in the ninth machine-gun battalion.”
“I was in the Seventh Infantry until June nineteen-eighteen. I knew I’d seen you somewhere before."
The tone of this is pure swank—as many far-distant peaks of American status were for Fitzgerald, though he invariably found the right social tone even for his own wistfulness. Fitzgerald's war is a bit of a joke, a "phantom" like Jay Gatsby, who was real only as the Platonic conception of himself.
Still, no one caught the uproar of the great American party in the twenties as Fitzgerald did. How could a period be epitomized as an unending party ? What was it about “Mr. Wilson’s War,” as some wild joy from it seeped into the twenties, that made mischievousness, provocation, “smartness” so important to this generation? Only the dissociation produced by alcohol could carry people beyond their old limits.