To Stones loyalists, the Beatles were too superficial and naive, simplistically idealistic and romantic, too elaborate and pandering. Their Stones on the other hand were primal and earthy, and recognized the power if not supremacy of the dark side of human nature. Hemingway adherents felt more or less the same way about Fitzgerald.
The opposition was itself simplistic and superficial in many ways. But in our early 20s, the end of our partial protection from the determining power of the outside world hovering over the horizon, we read for signs, for clues, for answers, or at least ways to be. Every book was a guidebook to the future, though in an obscure language and with lots of filler.
Old books as well as new music offered interpretations of the world but more than that, they suggested new paths, or confirmed and defined our feelings and beliefs, providing us with something--images, characters, metaphors, catch phrases, melodies--we could use in action and defense.
Hemingway was the preeminent figure of the writer even in the 1950s when we were growing up. He was on the cover of Life magazine in 1952 when I was six, and again in 1960. I remember having read the short novel that took him to the height of his fame in the mid-50s: The Old Man and the Sea, before I saw the 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy. I read his memoir of Paris, A Moveable Feast, probably at Knox, and I recollect reading In Our Time there and admiring it.
But my serious immersion in his work would happen only after college, first in 1969, when I read his First 49 Stories accompanied by oreos and California white wine as I lay on a mattress in a former kitchen pantry in a Berkeley house, covered with a baking soda paste, a supposed hippie cure for poison oak. Then in Cambridge and back in Greensburg in the 1970s, partially inspired by the post mortem publication of his unfinished novel, Islands in the Stream.
On the other hand, when I was born F. Scott Fitzgerald had been dead for a half dozen year. His reputation had faded quickly by the 1930s--about as fast as he achieved fame in the 1920s. Even in his lifetime his books were mostly out of print. However, after his death in 1940, his literary status rose again in the 1950s, and the public began to rediscover him, both in his writings and his life, throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.
I evidently read Lionel Trilling's essay on Fitzgerald in his book, The Liberal Imagination, which I acquired. I suspect I consulted other sources in the Knox library. I know I read the alternate version of Tender is the Night, edited by Malcolm Cowley from revision notes left by Fitzgerald. (The main difference is placement of the opening section. Most but not all editions today keep to the original version.) I probably saw the collection of essays edited by Alfred Kazin in 1951, which more or less started the upward swing of attention to Fitzgerald, along with the Mizener biography.
By the end of the term I had produced a long manuscript which covered Fitzgerald's entire opus, though I believe it did so through more detailed treatment of at least three of his four completed novels. Unfortunately for me, the manuscript in its blue binder has disappeared. I lent it out once that year and forgot to whom; it was accidentally found in a pile of magazines in the Post Hall lobby and returned, only to be lost again. So I have only scattered memories and the notes and underlinings in the books themselves to suggest what those pages said.
Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920, and together with his popular short stories, it made him famous at the age of 24. Andrew Turnbull wrote of this book, "as a picture of American college life it has never been surpassed." I think I sensed that if this were true, there was a prime opportunity for a new college novel that reflected the great changes on campus beyond 1917 when Fitzgerald dropped out of Princeton, or even 1942, when Turnbull himself graduated from Princeton. The GI Bill and the Baby Boom, among other cultural phenomena, transformed higher education beyond the province of Ivy League affluent white males. My college experience in the 1960s--even back then--was greatly different, though I did recognize elements of the youthful search for identity and meaning.
Even though Fitzgerald's own college experience was a little earlier, this novel (and his early short stories) became emblems of the 1920s. And there were discernible parallels with the 1960s: disillusion with a warfare society, a rebellious new hedonism, changes in sexual mores, and the sense of a generation gap with a distinct self-identified Younger Generation. There was a common alienation from the established political, economic and cultural order. The most vocal elements of both the 20s and the 60s young saw themselves as a generation, distinct from what came before.
The Lost Generation emerged just as standardized education across the country took hold and the consumer society began: consumer credit, advertising and with radio a diminishing of regional differences and a national consciousness, with national brands and products. Describing the most rebellious, Malcolm Cowley observed, "Feeling like aliens in the commercial world, they sailed for Europe as soon as they had money enough to pay for the steamer ticket." So began the expatriate 20s.
By the 60s of course, the consumer society was even more extensive and dominant. There were differences in response--the 60s generation was probably more political, more like this generation became in the 30s. There was also the feeling of doom in my 60s generation shared with the Lost Generation, and a sense that we weren't going to live long. The post-Great War generation felt they'd inherited a bankrupt civilization, while we saw we were inheriting as well a ruined planet.
While in the end both decades became known for their excesses, they were also propelled in large part by ideals, both visceral and thoughtful. "We were young, we were irreverent, we were arrogant," Abbie Hoffman summarized the 60s, "but we were right."
This struggle often began from a place I knew well--like Fitzgerald, from a provincial upbringing (in his case, Buffalo and St. Paul) with a Catholic background defining a moral perspective. In any case, this is likely the direction I took in my paper--especially in the section I recall most clearly.
One thing I remember doing is following certain imagery throughout the novel. I believe I'd followed water imagery in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man for my Modern Fiction course in the fall. This time I followed variations of "clean" as an image for innocence as well as beauty, as one seems to depend on the other in this narrative.
Notes and underlining in my copy of The Beautiful and Damned suggest that I caught onto other themes. The male protagonist's name is Anthony Patch, and I heavily underlined a passage in which Anthony refers to "the sense of life as a mysteriously correlated piece of patchwork..." And his thought that he isn't a realist. "No, only the romanticist preserves the things worth preserving."
Judging from underlinings in one of the biographies, I traced incidents in the novel to the riotous exploits of Scott and Zelda in the early 1920s. Anthony Patch is quite different from Fitzgerald however, and while Gloria is partly a glorified Zelda, she is also less complex. It's never quite clear whether they are meant ironically or sincerely (probably both, at different times), or whether they simply personify and test an idea, a theme.
In examining Fitzgerald's other novels and his stories, I had the analyzes of published critics to consider. But at that time very little was available on this book, apart from the consensus that it is a muddle, a transition from the mostly autobiographical Paradise to the transmutations and mythic themes of The Great Gatsby. And it is these things. As a story it is awkward and the characters are maddening at times. But what I found, and find again now, is that it contains complex observations and some beautiful and courageous writing.
What did I find to say about the book then considered a Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby? I know I agreed with that assessment: it is an indictment of America through the corruption of its dreams and destruction of its natural legacy, as well as a tragic view of human life, at least in the determinative epoch of money. Yet the dreams remain its most memorable feature.
Probably I considered Fitzgerald's short stories, "Winter Dreams" (which he said was the first draft of "the Gatsby idea,") and "Absolution," meant for a time to be Gatsby's back-story. I may not have known of Fitzgerald's devotion to T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," but I couldn't have failed to notice its imagery in "Gatsby" (although some of it is also found in H.G. Wells, a writer Fitzgerald greatly admired in his "Paradise" years.)
But I am certain that I noticed this passage in the Turnbull biography: "In 1934 Fitzgerald would say that never had he tried to keep his artistic conscience so pure as during the ten months of writing Gatsby. Before beginning it he had reread the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, and Conrad's dictum that a work of art should carry its justification in every line had been his guide."
Conrad again. I remember reading that preface then, which is itself the purest expression of a certain approach to fiction as has ever been written.
There is some highlighting in my copy of Gatsby, but not much. How can you select sentences in a book that carries its justification in every line? There's a gold line beside the paragraph on the last page about the "Dutch sailors" who first gazed upon the American continent, " (no mention of Indians--here as elsewhere, Fitzgerald partook of the casual racism of his times): "the fresh green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house..." It ends with the contemplation of those European eyes, "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
And earlier, each line highlighted in the paragraph about Tom and Daisy, who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness..."
But I'll bet in my paper I emphasized two sentences from the first two pages of the book: Nick Carraway, explaining why he tends to reserve judgment, adds: "Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope." And Nick's impression of Gatsby and his "extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness..." That's the carry-away.
It is Fitzgerald's best structured book and his richest in theme and meaning. But especially, large sections of The Great Gatsby remain, word for word, sentence for sentence, among the most nearly perfect pieces of writing I've read.
But was it even Fitzgerald's best novel? Upon publication, The Great Gatsby was widely praised, though it did not sell particularly well. His next novel, Tender is the Night, published almost a decade later, was not praised, sold badly, and was quickly forgotten.
Its literary reputation soon began rising, and by the 1960s some critics ranked it ahead of Gatsby. Today, even more do. I'm sure I did not go that far (and still don't) but I recall exerting considerable effort defending it in my paper.
Fitzgerald made his living as a popular writer, mostly by short stories in large circulation magazines. In his novels there remained a tension between his artistic efforts and his crowd-pleasing instincts. From the partly satiric religious imagery applied to the rituals of the rich on a Riviera beach in the opening pages, his emphasis in this book was more fully artistic, though perhaps not so obviously as in Gatsby. It is a longer book with more characters, and a more complex structure--meant to be more of a Vanity Fair than The Heart of Darkness.
But the protagonist, Dick Diver (I'm sure I made much of that "diver"), is a psychologist, caring for his mentally ill wife Nicole. This reflects Fitzgerald's experience as Zelda slipped into mental illness. Diver's attempts to heal Nicole, and to redeem his aimless friends, constitute his heroism, but he fails to survive the ordeal intact. When he loses his vitality and self-discipline, it is the final end of innocence, yet even that is ambiguous.
The last section of The Great Gatsby begins with Nick Carraway's memories of returning from college by train to the Midwest. The elusive magic and mystery, the beauty he recalls were easier for me to feel, as I was in the midst of similar experiences. He even mentions Union Station in Chicago, the starting point for trains to Galesburg. Returning from vacations, there were often other students I knew scattered through the train, eager escapees from the constraints of family and the selves they had shed, who would find each other and gather in the club car. Once I was welcomed into a group of faculty on their way back. The lights in the train brightened, as we moved through a softening landscape.
Fitzgerald captured and described the ineffable beauty as well as the moodiness, confusion, delusions and ardent emotions of being young. I can forgive myself for focusing on this aspect of his work, especially since his ability to evoke it remains unique. But he saw more, and all of his books end sadly.
The most quoted section is this: "...the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." But the rarely quoted sentence that follows is this: "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."
Fitzgerald read Keats and knew of his similar idea of "negative capability." But he took it further, to define a certain kind of romanticism that is more than a perspective. It is a commitment.
I finished my paper, and put away the books. It was months later--perhaps that summer or the next fall--that Fitzgerald's direct influence showed up in a piece of my writing. That spring of 1967 I became involved in a brief but intense love affair, that, as the saying goes, ended badly. To the usual emotions of being left waiting past dark on the Gizmo patio with "a comical look on my face" like some young Rick Blaine in Casablanca, I had my first taste of finding myself an incident in someone else's relationship.
The young woman in question was a professed romantic, a Keats ("the holiness of the heart's affection") and Fitzgerald partisan; I recall that she was particularly taken with the scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby shows Daisy all his beautiful shirts, and she is overcome. Perhaps that was part of the motive, plus the triangle aspect, but when I wrote a short story about this affair, I deliberately adopted a kind of Nick Carraway voice for the narrator. The difference was that it was my narrator's affair of the heart he was observing. I tried to be as precise and economical as The Great Gatsby.
This was the one story of mine that a few people remember, that the New Yorker fiction editor wrote to me that they could "hardly bear" not publishing, called "Diamond in the Sky" (another glancing reference to Fitzgerald.) Re-reading it recently, I was impressed by how thoroughly I transmuted the actual affair, and layered questions of faith and community that weren't Fitzgerald themes. It has a Fitzgerald kind of ambiguity, though without nearly the same depth.
(I also found a note, which indicates that the narrator's early remark-- that his mother had told him that fiction is that which is not true-- came from something David Axelrod said. It resonated with me because I remembered that I startled my fourth grade teacher who asked the class for examples of opposites, and I came up with "fact and fiction." I learned of course it's a more complex relationship, as did my narrator.)
At this remove I can't recall which events in "Diamond in the Sky" story were based on real experience (I suspect the visit to the church was) and which were wholly or partly invented. The central metaphor of the UFO was probably inspired by the report of one in January 1967 in Galesburg. The Student of 1/27/67 carried an interview with a man who claimed he'd seen a craft land near the Gates plant (the box plant in the story), with news of a similar sighting near Green Oaks. If I recall correctly, there was news some time later that a kite rigged with lights had been identified as the hoax UFO, but (as in the story, in which general skepticism turns to general belief), not everyone felt this explanation was credible. (The Student interview was co-written by Ron Zager, one of my third floor Anderson House compatriots of freshman year.)
|Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Theresa Russell in|
The Last Tycoon (1976)
This The Last Tycoon failed critically and at the box office. But when I saw it on a cable TV channel I loved it. It stars Robert De Niro in a unique role in his career, that of the boy genius moviemaker Monroe Starr, a character based on Irving Thalberg, the legendary MGM impressario. Fitzgerald was himself almost unique among novelists in becoming a student of film when he went to Hollywood to write screenplays, as so many novelists did. Fitzgerald's fascination with Hollywood was already evident in Tender Is The Night.
This movie version is rich in detail and insights about moviemaking and the movie business in the 1930s sound era of the big studios. The cast is full of famous actors, future and past. I saw it again recently and still enjoy it.
(After the casting was announced but probably before the film was released, I was one of a group that had lunch with director Joan Micklin Silver, who would soon go on to successfully adapt one of Fitzgerald's short stories for television. We were suggesting our own ideal casting of the Gatsby movie, when Silver said that she would have cast Bruce Dern as Gatsby, and Robert Redford as Tom. A Hollywood impossibility, but a provocative bit of casting--which was a particular Silver talent.)
The movie, criticized as "lifeless," did respectable business, and after a brief vogue in 1920s fashions, the Fitzgerald boom began its decline. I still have a few books from this period: Crazy Sunday: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood by Aaron Latham (1972 paperback), F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald: Bits of Paradise (1973), a collection of previously unpublished stories by both of them, and especially one slim collection of critical essays edited by Kenneth E. Elbe in 1973 (F. Scott Fitzgerald, McGraw Hill's Contemporary Studies in Literature series.) These essays are by critics who were just a bit older than me, and it's interesting to see how often their readings comport with what I remember about mine in 1967.
These days however it seems that Fitzgerald is chiefly remembered for his drunken sprees. In this age they seem inexplicable unless seen as expressions of a disease, an addiction. Granted that they were pathetic and, especially in what they did to his health, tragic. Yet for someone with such natural ebullience and such powerful feelings and acute sensitivities, the intensity of writing novels (never as lucrative as stories) would naturally entail powerful reaction. (The depression after finishing a book is now a known phenomenon among writers.) That's an element seldom mentioned.
For all the dissipation, the sense of waste that haunted his later years, consider that it was only five years between Fitzgerald's college novel and The Great Gatsby. His entire writing career was scarcely more than twenty years. He'd lived haunted as well with serious chronic conditions that might have included tuberculosis. His character Anthony Patch cavalierly says he doesn't expect to live past 40. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44.