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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
What was it about the twenties that made Fitzgerald picture an even worse drinker, Ring Lardner, drinking all night in a slow methodical effort to destroy himself? Obviously the twenties did seem to many gifted people a release from private bonds. It was a period in which widespread poverty (in the wrong class) found no interest, in which the poor had no one to identify with. Much of the release was an expression, at last out in the open, and in concert, of that skepticism that had been filling up the consciousness of the “elect” ever since the dying of the old gods.
And in the twenties the elect were at last acceptable by a middle-class audience that had not been “sophisticated” before. That audience was not created by writers, but the new writers bolstered its skepticism and gave status to its self-regard. Walter Lippmann complained of the “modern” period that “it is useless to command where there is no one to obey.” The “booboisie” consisted of everybody who did not enjoy the raillery of Lippmann, Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser—and Scott Fitzgerald.
But Fitzgerald, more than Mencken or Hemingway or Dos Passos, actually loved America and attached himself to its myths. (No one else in his generation so seriously took American history as his history.) At the same time, he had this extraordinary and perhaps self-destructive gift of feeling himself to be the center of the universe and so a marked man. He was the reason for everything in sight but, at the same time, its wallflower observer; he was Frank Merriwell on the mound but a half-Irish, ultimately dubious “outsider” as well. He was the center of things and the everlasting margin.
Despite all the rueful sounds Fitzgerald was to make in The Crack-up about wasting and spending in the twenties, his heyday was distinctly a period of joy if not of hope. There was joy because people who had often felt out of things, like Scott Fitzgerald, were now in the “big money” and were spending it, grumbled the envious and resentful, “as if there were no tomorrow.” There was joy because the war-liberated ex-Puritan American self that had risen from bitterest poverty in Minnesota could now, like Gatsby, buy as many shirts, and in as many colors, as his heart desired. (When Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby’s bedroom laughed and cried over Gatsby’s many shirts falling in the air, she surely came nearer to loving Gatsby than she ever would again.) And there was joy in this heady new American weather because the self seemed unlimited in its possibilities, its pleasures, its sense of itself.
The “golden” twenties were such only for a small group but it left the memory of something soon inconceivable—some ancient belief in freedom at all costs, freedom for the sake of nothing but the enjoyment of one’s freedom. This marks in the generally upper-class writers of the twenties an attitude inseparable from the vitality, ingenuity, and openness to new experience that had been the mark of an American elect since the days of the Puritan migration and that helped, in the hands of a minority, to bring about the American Revolution and, ultimately, with that remarkably self-sufficient man Emerson, our literary independence.
Emerson’s great theme was that the freedom of the individual soul is the only guarantee of truth. As D. H. Lawrence rapturously wrote of American literature before he saw America, “The leaving of the soul free unto herself, the leaving of his fate to her and to the loom of the open road.” But soul was no longer a term Americans could use. The dying writer in Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” bitterly remembered, “It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell.”
Hemingway in that story made fun of Fitzgerald for calling the rich “different.” But Fitzgerald never doubted that there was truth to tell, and that the individual could ultimately trace truth to its hiding place in personal experience. Fitzgerald, for all his ambitious worldliness, remained spiritually innocent; that was one benefit of “always taking things hard”—“the stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like Braille.”
He was also perpetually in love and a man who above all else believed that love was destiny and had its rewards. Of course his dream was one of possession. As the fable of Gatsby unrolled, the attempted possession turned into a joke against himself and the making of his disaster. And it is true that just as Gatsby was some ultimate expression of the American Dream, so that dream often has no content but “I want! I want!”
Gatsby was not a character but an idea of the everlasting self-creation that Americans have mastered. It was not enough for him to turn Jimmy Gatz into Jay Gatsby; he had to become a symbol of the great dream and its foolishness. It was typical of Fitzgerald’s regard for the “idea” of everlasting self-creation that Gatsby died without learning just how foolish he was. When Nick Carraway tries to settle him with “you can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby incredulously cries, “Why of course you can!”