- Historic Sites
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
Every wish and feeling Scott Fitzgerald had was so important to him that it stretched over the visible world. He could never convey the importance to himself of being F. Scott Fitzgerald except as an author framing and interpreting the many different sides of himself. But if Gatsby was ultimately nothing but an “idea,” only life as idea, as a specter of the self, could have conceived of Daisy Buchanan leaving her faithless, tyrannical, but indispensable, husband. Only Fitzgerald would have been able to write in the lowest pit of his despair: “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter—it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”
Fitzgerald had this “willingness of the heart” as no one else did in his day. And because he knew, all too well, how to love—to the point of despair, out of sheer inability to do anything but love—he alone among the fancy minds and skeptics of his generation became a writer to love. The feeling that he got into that sad, sad novel Tender Is the Night was such that even the acrid Hemingway was astonished to find, as so many readers have, that Tender gets better with each reading. It also became more “personal,” transparent, too personal.
Fitzgerald, the perfect “representative man” of the twenties, accomplished something that no one else did at the time: he included America in his romanticism. It was not just literary fame, love for women, and other accomplishable goals that became his greatest dream and myth. It was his crowded, sprawling, disordered, increasingly pointless-seeming country. At the end of The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway still loves America—if only in a vision of the West’s last magic island before the people came—as he loves no human being after the disclosure of so much evil. Finally, Scott Fitzgerald possessed no other human being but himself. That is why he could close Gatsby with this hymn:” … for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an esthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”