April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
The work of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald virtually defined what it meant to be American in the first half of this century
With his gift for locating the most symbolic place for himself, Hemingway was bound to end up in Idaho. And this was not just for the hunting and fishing. At every stage of his life he found a frontier for himself appropriate to his needs as a sportsman and his ceremonial needs as a writer.
Most American writer-wanderers, like Melville the sailor and Mark Twain the mobile printer, correspondent, lecturer, went where they were forced to go to make a living. Hemingway for the most part chose where he wanted to go. That was the impression he managed to leave, although he actually spent his early summers “up in Michigan” because his family summered there. And right after the World War he was sent by the Toronto Star to report still more fighting between Turks and Greeks. But his conjunction of Michigan and the Balkans in his first book, In Our Time (1925), made these startling stories read as if he had chosen these experiences. There was a point to being Ernest Hemingway and to writing like Ernest Hemingway. Everything was under control like one of his sentences. He was an entirely free man. He had shaped his own career.
To summer up in Michigan was wonderful. It was also wonderful to sit in a café, when Paris was “the best town for a writer to be in” and, nursing a single café crème, to write the first Nick Adams stories in a blue-backed notebook with the stub of a pencil you shaved with a little pencil sharpener as you went along. (Sharpening a pencil with a knife was too wasteful.) Remembering how poor you had been, thirty years later in A Moveable Feast (1964), you also made the point that “wasteful” referred to other people’s prose, not E. Hemingway’s. And when and where else was poverty so easy to bear that a young couple with baby could live on five dollars a day and go skiing in Austria when a story was finished? It also helped to skip lunch, because on an empty stomach all sorts of hidden details in the Cézannes in the Luxembourg became sharper, easier to grasp for your writing when you were learning “to do the country like Cézanne.”
Any place Hemingway sojourned in, any place he passed through, somehow took on Hemingway’s attributes as an artist. He was the most extraordinary appropriator. He learned to omit many things for his famous style, but a trout stream in Michigan or a street in Paris came rhythmically to belong to Hemingway alone. Michigan became primitive, brutish, but above all naked, like the starkness of a Hemingway story. Paris was electric, crowded, but above all derisory like the characters and scenes in The Sun Also Rises (1926), the novel that made his fame. Hemingway the foreigner established an intimacy with Paris streets just by the loving repetition of certain names—rue Cardinal Lemoine, the place Contrescarpe. And there were always the knowing little references (“The dancing-club was a bal musette in the rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève”) that established Hemingway’s ability to make part of his page anything that he had first absorbed as a stranger in Paris.
He was ambitious, he was shrewd, he seemed to have worked out in advance just what he needed to get from a place, and he became contemptuous of others as soon as he had learned it. So much command of experience belonged to an imperial race. Straight out of high school he defied his Victorian parents, went to the Italian front as a Red Cross volunteer, and got himself gloriously wounded. What other solidly middle-class boy from one of “our best families in Oak Park” could at nineteen have won for himself such lasting images of war, fright, and death? And who but Hemingway would so indelibly have recorded his wounding as his moment of truth: "… then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died.”
From now on it was his war, war was his. Reading Tolstoy’s Sevastopol stories while hunting in Green Hills of Africa (1935) made him think of riding a bicycle down the Boulevard Sevastopol in the rain: "… and I thought about Tolstoi and what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while, really, it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed.”
His wounding was a shock that went straight into Hemingway’s great early stories and fables of the war: it taught him to make great set passages out of the body’s response to a particular blow. Mastery was in the moment’s triumph over danger and soon made him set up, in life as in art, one deliberate trial of himself after another. Hemingway seemed to make a point of seeking out violence. Clearly accident-prone, he retained his ability to turn every new accident into the confrontation of something or someone. In his bilious last years he was to say that it was good for a would-be writer to hang himself and “then… be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his lite. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”
This need of risk, of the ultimate challenge, became something that only an international sportsman could buy for himself. In Green Hills of Africa he was still boasting to a chance acquaintance:
“And you know what you want?”
“Absolutely, and I get it all the time."
This was the mark of a special time and a particular ego. Only the florid buccaneers of the age of enterprise had talked that way. But Hemingway's crushing sense of self sought not wealth but fame—absolute distinction, to be top dog, the undoubted original and pacemaker for literary prose in his time. Writing was everything. And the journey that Hemingway actually undertook, the journey into the country of the dead, made possible a concentration of line and progression of effect so extraordinary that no matter how often we reread “The Battler,” “Fifty Grand, Big Two-Hearted River," they can still make us hold our breath. No other American “in our time" so captured the actual physical element. No one else so charged up the reader, for no one else was so charged up by the act of writing itself: “Nick walked back up the ties to where his pack lay in the cinders beside the railway track. He was happy. He adjusted the pack harness around the bundle, pulling straps tight, slung the pack on his back, got his arms through the shoulder straps and took some of the pull off his shoulders by leaning his forehead against the wide band of the tump-line. Still, it was too heavy. It was much too heavy.”
Of all the many things Hemingway appropriated, the nearest was his own experience. How he hammered any triviality into place, kept it luminous with his particular gift for shining in his own light! This was what he hungered for beyond anything else. With his particular talent for saving and treasuring his experiences, for turning life into the economy of art, he brought into his sacred circle many small things insubstantial and fugitive. It was typical of him to call them “rain" and to celebrate rain as what did not vanish when secured in the style of Ernest Hemingway.
They took me down behind the line of officers below the road toward a group of people in a field by the river bank. As we walked toward them shots were fired. I saw flashes of the rifles and heard the reports. We came up to the group. There were four officers standing together, with a man in front of them with a carabiniere on each side of him. A group of men were standing guarded by carabinieri. Four other carabinieri stood near the questioning officers, leaning on their carbines. They were wide-hatted carabinieri. The two who had me shoved me in with the group. … I looked at the man the officers were questioning. He was the fat gray-haired little lieutenant-colonel they had taken out of the column. The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on.
He told them.
He told them.
“Why are you not with your regiment?”
He told them.
“Do you not know that an officer should be with his troops?"
That was all. Another officer spoke.
“It is you and such as you that have let the barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland.”
“I beg your pardon," said the lieutenant-colonel.
“It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory.”
“Have you ever been in a retreat?" the lieutenant-colonel asked.
“Italy should never retreat.”
“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.” He made the sign of the cross. The officers spoke together. One wrote something on a pad of paper.
“Abandoned his troops, ordered to be shot," he said.
The picture is very distinct—and so is the paragraphing. The “fat gray-haired little lieutenant-colonel" is on that page forever, saying with perfect contempt, “Please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.”
Hemingway had many gifts. His greatest gift, the foundation of all his marvelous pictorial effects, was his sense of some enduring injustice, of some fundamental wrongness at the heart of things, to which an American can still rise, which he will endure (and describe) as a hero. Hemingway was an American from the Midwest, "the valley of democracy." He was brought up on the old American religion of the self-sufficient individual. He knew that the public world was pushing him and everyone else toward an abyss. But he still had a private code in the twenties that—as Lady Brett said in The Sun Also Rises about “deciding not to be a bitch”—became a sort of replacement for religion. When repeated often enough in the same tune of discovery, the code became the politics of himself and his friends. Of course this did not survive into the Hitler-Stalin era and still another world war. What, in the twenties, was pronounced with so much startled self-approval as a form of conduct was really a lean, war) style of writing—Hemingway’s style. This thrived on the disasters of war but somehow saved a few exceptional people from destruction. It was all the law and all the prophets.
Hemingway was born in the last year of the old century and fated to become one of the great expressers of enduring disorder in this century. His sense of incongruity was everything to him and came out as an uncanny intuition of stress, of the danger point, the intolerable pressure level in life personal and political. Women have their body fears and men have theirs; both relate to the sexual organs, to sexual vulnerability and respect. Such vulnerability is a universal condition, and only a Hemingway could simultaneously conceal and mythologize it. But in the transforming interaction between Hemingway's bruised psyche and his masculine need always to sound positive, something extraordinary did result. His self-disapproval at being vulnerable at all had to be hidden, but his shock at not being allowed always to have his own way made him see the world as inherently treacherous. His easy American claim to power—especially over his own life—was constantly being limited and denied. The self remained intact. But wary, very wary, it had premonitions of war after war. Hemingway was not just being cocky when he put down writers who had not seen battle. Phlegmatic types never suffered and understood as he did. Responding bitterly to accusations that he was “indifferent," Hemingway memorably responded in a letter: “These little punks who have never seen men street fighting, let alone a revolution.… Listen—they never even heard of the events that produced the heat of rage, hatred, indignation, and disillusion that formed or forged what they call indifference.”
Hemingway’s attraction to violence, to hunting and fishing, to war (he saw a lot of war, but was never a soldier), was not just a form of hell-raising and self-testing in the usual masculine way. It was a way of coming close to certain ordeals fundamental to his generation. From the beginning, because of his upbringing as a young Christian gentleman in a suffocatingly proper suburb of Chicago, Oak Park, "where the saloons end and the churches begin,” violence fascinated him. Like so many great modern writers, he was of solid bourgeois background, and therefore knew that, morally, the bourgeois world was helpless.
Confronting danger everywhere, he made himself one with his time by running full tilt into everything that would bring a fresh emergency into his life. When he did not seek damage, it sought him. As a boy he fell and had a stick driven into the back of his throat, gouging out part of both tonsils. In 19I8, when he was a Red Cross worker in Italy distributing supplies to soldiers, a mortar shell exploded more than twenty fragments into his legs; he was then hit twice by machine-gun bullets while carrying a more seriously injured man to the rear. As a young writer in Paris during the twenties, he was clipped on the forehead by pieces of skylight that fell as he was standing under it. In Wyoming in 1930 his car turned over and his right arm was pinned back by the top of the windshield and badly fractured, the bone sticking through the muscle. Another time, his brother Leicester reports, Hemingway shot a shark with a pistol, but the bullets split into several small pieces of hot lead that ricocheted into the calves of both legs. In 1949, while duck shooting in the marshes near Venice, he got a bit of shell wadding blown into his eye, and a serious infection developed. In 1954 he crash-landed in Africa and then chartered a second plane, which crashed and burned; when he reached medical aid at Nairobi—just in time to read his obituaries—his internal organs had been wrenched out of place, his spine was injured, and he was bleeding from every orifice.
It is absurd to separate Hemingway from his work. He pushed his life at the reader, made his fascination with death and danger the central theme in his many pages about bullfighting, sport, and war, brought the reader closer to his own fascination with violence and terror as a central political drama. His great gift was to embody these repeated episodes of violence (so linked by some profound compulsion that we anticipated his shotgun suicide) in his works: in the Turks expelling the Creeks in the lacerating inner chapters of In Our Time, in the horns perforating the bullfighter in Death in the Afternoon (1932) so that all the internal organs were sliced through at once, in the very impotence of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and Into the Trees (1950).
One could go on, as Hemingway certainly did, from the early story “Indian Camp," where the Indian husband in the upper bunk cuts his throat as the doctor in the bunk below performs a Cesarean on his wife with a jackknife and sews her up with nine-foot, tapered, gut leaders, to the ridiculously inflated episodes in the posthumous Islands in the Stream (1970), where Hemingway talked of going after German submarines all by himself. But the point is that Hemingway was a soul at war. He wins our assent because it is the “outside” world that is increasingly violent. Hemingway may have been as big a braggart and egotist as ever lived, but he had the stamp of a true artist. His emotions were prophetic; he knew that destruction is a god over our lives, that fear of death shapes us, that without any belief in immortality there can be no expectation of justice, so that the whole ghastly twentieth century is beginning to look like one unending chain of murder and retribution.
Hemingway’s greatest gift was to identify his own capacity for pain with the destructiveness at large in our time. The artist works by locating the world in himself. Hemingway did something more: he located in himself his century’s infatuation with technology, technique, instruments of every kind. His own sense of this was cold, proud know-how, professionally detached and above all concerned with applying a systematic, consistent method to everything he described. Obviously one attraction of sport, war, and bullfighting was that each called for maximum concentration on technique. Hemingway was clever and informed and quick to tell you what he knew. He always made a point of giving you, in the midst of a story, the exact name of a wine or the exact horsepower of a machine.
Hemingway liked to write from technical detail to detail. He had grown up in a world where men still traveled by horse, took care of their horses, repaired things themselves, walked everywhere, often grew or shot their own food. He believed in the work of his own hands, even to the point of usually writing by hand. It was this that led him to his great discovery of what painting could do for writers. Newspaper work for the Kansas City Star and the Toronto Star had taught him that to write professionally is to write to somebody else’s mind. As managing editors of newspapers said, you had to “reach the readers.” You must lay out all the facts in an assured, flat, knowing manner without the slightest suggestion of indecision or demonstrative emotion about what you know.
The young Hemingway saw the connection between this method of writing and the kind of painting he encountered in France, most intimately at Gertrude Stein’s flat, 27, rue de Fleurus. These modern works were spellbindingly the work of an artist’s own hand, of new theories of perception, of common physical materials. Nothing could have been more instantly pleasing to his imagination and his native sense of things. Painting was the decisive experience for an American abroad; Europe could seem one great painting. Painting stimulated a young reporter, already shrewdly aware of war and sport as the stuff of literature, to think of writing as a method.
Without seeing Gertrude Stein’s collection of paintings, without listening to the infatuated conversation about painting at her flat, Hemingway might not have become Hemingway at all. As Stein was jealously to charge in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Hemingway was a sedulous ape, an all too adept pupil of other people’s ideas and methods. But her comparative indifference to the subject matter of painting and the way she took off from painting to emphasize for psychological purposes the authority of the eye gave Hemingway the advantage over her.
Stein’s genius was for conversation and especially for listening to other people’s conversation. What fascinated her in the “new” painting by Cézanne and Matisse was the fact that something, anything, could be done by a temperament sufficiently self-willed—the slashing lines and thickly encrusted colors, Matisse in particular with his use of color as line, the thick, joyously rhythmical color building up an impression totally sufficient to the design that would satisfy the eye. Every image is made up of minute particulars. Every particular is realized by the maximum concentration and toil. The world is built up from such particulars. As the cubists soon proved, an object is a form made up of inherent forms. We go from cube to cube, atom to atom, as nature did in the long creation of every living thing that makes up the whole.
Hemingway’s approach to understanding painting was more diffident than Stein’s but actually closer to sensuos content and to his own delight in method. The difference between the two can he seen even in their handwriting. Her letters were tall, sprawling, intensely mental with the large, telltale spaces between words that were so characteristic of her reflective mind. His letters were close, carefully and slowly shaped. They remind me of Nick Adams making camp in "Big Two-Hearted River,” another demonstration of Hemingway's planned, anxiously careful, tidy assemblage of words as objects: “He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off.”
Painting, far more than writing, suggests the actual texture of human happiness. Hemingway understood that; what excited him, as a writer, about painting was a promise of relief from civilization, a touch of the promised land. The Hemingway hero is usually alone in nature, and the landscape he sees (and will bring back in words) is in minute particulars unseen by anyone but him. Again and again in his work this often cruel writer shows himself to be an unabashed American romantic positively melting in the presence of beauty. The opening lines of A Farewell to Arms, for example, cast a spell. They don’t altogether make sense except as pure visual impressionism, repeated and echoing Hemingway’s own effort to get these “impressions” down: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
If Cézanne’s greatness lay in the removal of his subjects from the contingent world, this opening paragraph is an imitation of that removal. It is exclusively an impression from the outside, resting within the eye of the beholder. As an impression it is static, for it calls attention to the beholder’s effort to capture one detail after another rather than to the scene of war. As so often happens in Hemingway’s prose forays into war, bullfighting, marlin fishing, or hunting, there is an unnatural pause in the last sentence—“leaves, stirred by the breeze”—a forced transition made necessary by “painting” the scene in words. We positively see the writer at his easel.
What Gertrude Stein caught from painting—it was a literary idea—was the ability of the writer to call attention to each stroke. Hemingway said that writing is architecture, not interior decoration. When he turned from the obedient pupil into the world-famous Ernest Hemingway, he made a great point—in talking about his own writing through his contempt for other people’s writing—of saying that they were “unreadable.” Readable meant the reduction of the world to a line of glitteringly clear sentences. Ironically, Stein criticized his first writings as being inaccrochable, not hangable on a wall, not ready to be looked at. Nevertheless it was she, with her thousand-page soliloquies and meanderings, who turned out to be inaccrochable.
Hemingway had the magnetic gift of fame, of arousing the attention of a great public with every word, that Stein bitterly missed. He had learned his lesson from her all too well. He had in fact learned to lasso the reader, to become the reader’s eyes and ears exactly as a Cézanne or a Matisse rivets attention, obliterates everything around it. This works better in Hemingway’s marvelous short stories, which are short and consistent, all “composition,” every inch of the canvas filled, than in his novels. There he often stops the action to do some scene painting and is swaggeringly self-indulgent, both in self-portraiture and as a maker of beautiful effects.
A picture is an action that must fill up its available space. Stein was fascinated by the concentration that is behind all true painting. She was always telling Hemingway, “Concentrate.” He certainly learned to concentrate. The interchapters of In Our Time , with a condemned man being carried to the gallows in a chair because he lost control of his sphincter muscles and German soldiers climbing right over a wall and being potted one two three—“We shot them. They all came just like that”—showed that Hemingway was concentrating all right, right on the reader. Hemingway influenced a whole generation of journalists to become pseudoartists, especially around Time, where every little article was called a “story,” and was rewritten and rewritten as if it were a paragraph by Flaubert instead of the usual Luceite overemphasizing the personal characteristics behind some big shot who had made the week’s cover story.
Eventually Hemingway’s influence began to influence Hemingway too much. The famous brushwork became bloated. But at his best he understood that a short story by its very compressiveness comes nearest a lyric poem or haiku in its total intactness. A novel is by tradition too discursive, epic, and widespread. Of all of Hemingway’s novels, The Sun Also Rises has the best chance of surviving, for it is more consistent in its tone, its scene, and even Hemingway’s scorn than A Farewell to Arms, which veers between the sheerest personal romanticism and Hemingway’s desire to give an essentially lyric cast to his observations of the Italian-Austrian front in World War I. More and more in his big books Hemingway used his well-developed style as a lyric diversion from his increasing sense of being closed in. The old rugged individualist had somehow known from the beginning that the coming century was going to be war on the individual. That was the dark and even ominous climate of feeling that he got so unforgettably into his great stories and especially into “Big Two-Hearted River.” This story sums up the Hemingway hero’s courage and despair, his furthest need and his deepest fear, in a way that also sums up the Western American’s virtually sexual encounter with nature, his adoration and awe, his sense of being too small for it, his abrupt, unfulfilled confrontation of what once seemed the greatest gift to man, but which somehow always threw him off.
“Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that. The branches grew so low.
"… He did not feel like going on into the swamp. He looked down the river. A big cedar slanted all the way across the stream. Beyond that the river went into the swamp.
"… Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”
Hemingway was a painfully complex man, one who was indeed as gifted and, yes, as brave as he claimed to be. He did his work. He hauntingly intimated on paper some fundamental conflicts that, like all of us, he did not resolve in the flesh. Especially not in the flesh. Nor did he realize these conflicts in his novels as the great novelists have done. He was too immature and self-absorbed, in the fashion of so many gifted Americans maddened by the gap between their talent and their vulnerability.
What made Hemingway important, what will keep his best work forever fresh, was his ability to express a certain feeling of hazard that men in particular do not suffer any less because they go out of their way to meet it. Who is to say how much this sense of hazard, peril, danger, with its constant rehearsal of the final and perhaps only real battle—with death as the embodiment of a universe that is simply not ours alone, that may not be ours at all—who is to say how much Hemingway sought it out for his natural subject matter as much as it constantly whipped him to prove himself again and again? In Gregory Hemingway's memoir, he says that he felt “relief when they lowered my father’s body into the ground and I realized that he was really dead, that I couldn’t disappoint him, couldn’t hurt him anymore…
“I hope it’s peaceful, finally. But, oh God, I knew there was no peace after death. If only it were different, because nobody ever dreamed of, or longed for, or experienced less peace than he.”
This is the truth about Hemingway that all the carousing and boasting could not conceal. Yet it is one that every reader recognizes with gratitude as the heart of the darkness that Hemingway unforgettably described: the sense of something irremediably wrong. Against this, Hemingway furiously put forth his dream of serenity, of nature as the promised land, for which composition—the painter’s word that he picked up as his ideal—suggested the right order of words in their right places. As Ford Madox Ford put it so beautifully in his introduction to A Farewell to Arms, “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water.”
He did not get to Europe until This Side of Paradise, Flappers and Philosophers, Tales of the Jazz Age, The Beautiful and Damned —all published between 1920 and 1922—made him newsworthy, luridly successful, and the voice of the “jazz generation.” He had had to be successful, he wrote in the bitter thirties, in order to win the girl. He won the girl—a wife amazingly his spiritual twin, so talented, spoiled, endlessly driven and demanding, like Fitzgerald himself, that they seemed born to excite and destroy each other. Sensation was necessary to him; Zelda, like the bottle, provided continual sensation. But it was also typical of his respect for his craft that he was able to begin the novel that first catapulted him, This Side of Paradise, while sitting on cracker barrels at an officers training camp in Kansas. Near the end of his life he was to produce his most deeply felt novel, Tender Is the Night (1934), while struggling against a mountain of debt, his notoriety as a drunk and has-been, and his despair over his schizophrenic wife. Just before he died in 1940 in Hollywood, he was doggedly working at the uncompleted The Last Tycoon. Published in 1941 in skeletal form, it proved to be subtler about the social facts in Hollywood and more luminous and sharp-edged in its creation of individual character than anything else in sight.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.”