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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
Fitzgerald was certainly dogged—in the use of his talent as in throwing his life away. His doggedness as a writer was like his wildness in the pursuit of pleasure, like his flickering sense of doom, like the touch of disaster he was so proud of getting into a story. In the twenties he felt unlimited, sacred to himself. Everything that happened to him seemed a release into the great world as well as a kind of early warning system. He saw himself as the glowing center of a period distinctly made for him—and one that by the same token was treacherous like the sudden evil in a fairy tale.
Fitzgerald’s burning sense of self, with all the drama this brought to his legendary rise and fall, was not unusual among American writers. It was paralleled by many a modern prima donna of the American novel, from Mark Twain to Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. They reacted on each other with mutual fascination and revulsion; being a novelist in the twentieth century could make everything about another writer not only unwelcome but positively repellent.
But what made Fitzgerald stand out, even in the personalized twenties, was such a vehemence of self-absorption and self-assertion as to make him feel that he had created himself. He was to say of his most famous character, Gatsby, that he was his own Platonic conception of himself. The ultimate loneliness of Gatsby pursuing his impossible dream was Fitzgerald’s unmistakable omen of what so much illusion, so much “unlimitedness"—in the mind alone—did to that precious sense of self that was one’s whole life and every resource.
But as Fitzgerald also made clear in his books, he had been born into an age that assisted every illusion. Just as he was the central subject and best historian of his personal drama, so he instantly found an audience that, like his wife, seemed a correlative of himself. When he died a "failure" in 1940, his books were all but unread. But with his genius for symbolization, he nailed history to himself even in death. Not only did he become a legend as writer, man, and frantic lover of his own wife; The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, both infinitely readable, sank so deeply into the national consciousness that they came to seem not just “personal" but a cryptogram as well as scenario of American fortune.
How did Fitzgerald the "spoiled child," the famously immature young wastrel of the twenties, manage to get such a hold on his readers, then and long after his death, that certain lines, passages, scenes in his novels became not just favorite quotations but unforgettable attachments to one’s own life?
“A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
"The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”
“There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
It was because he cared so much, but never slopped over. He had a talent for plot that fell into melodrama; he knew how to objectify, frame, and even satirize the very figure, his great Gatsby himself, who carried the weight of so much yearning for the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Fitzgerald became the twenties, and the twenties a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He put himself radiantly on the map of this time, stretched all his caprices across the American landscape. Nowadays, when no one (especially no one and his wife) would think of riding on top of a taxi, of throwing oneself into the fountain at Union Square as well as the one in front of the Plaza, a later generation reads with envy, stupor, disbelief, about the kind of assertiveness and self-aggrandizement, the sheer display of temperament, that went with the period.