From the Writers and Society series published in the October-December 1956 issue of Forum
It is a convenient fact that American outlook in recent years, and consequently American Literature, can be divided fairly accurately into decades—the 'twenties, the 'thirties and the 'forties. After the first world war, the first period takes us to the financial crash and the depression, and the next lasts until the beginning of the second world war.
The 'twenties were remarkable years in American history, and the films, plays and books of the period bear convincing testimony of the post-war disillusionment, the denial of former moral values, and the gangsterism and political corruption of the time. It was an age of bitterness and frustration, but a frustration that was expressed, at least among the middle and upper classes, by wildness and irresponsibility. Hip flasks, cocktail parties, speakeasies, petting parties, flappers and jazz-mania were all aspects of this breakdown of pre-war values.
As far as literature is concerned, the most significant spokesman of the age was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who actually gave the period its name — "the Jazz Age." Fitzgerald himself was one of that class fresh from Princeton or Yale, who found themselves pushed into a war whose cause they were unable to appreciate. The war over, they found life unreal and purposeless. The sons of the rich families, or poorer boys infected by the easy money ideology, they had not time for the outmoded doctrines of Carnegie or Rockefeller exhorting them to "win wealth by hard work." The pace of life for them quickened until it became a crazy merry-go-round that crashed to the ground with the stock market in 1929.
Fitzgerald's earlier novels, "The Beautiful and Damned" and "The Far Side of Paradise," are skillful and often moving accounts of the emptiness and pointlessness into which these people's lives were channeled. They do show, on Fitzgerald's part, a struggle to express himself and also to express the frustration of his age. Although not a "social critic" in the direct sense, he became a far more important social critic in the sense that he accurately presented the lives of people in this situation, of whom he was one, and consequently made the greater impression. The first novel is an account of the childhood, schooling, and college days of one of these sons of the rich, and the second is almost a continuation, dealing with the lives of a young man a flapper, and their hardening by the conditions of the futile world they knew.
The focal point in Fitzgerald's career was "The Great Gatsby." Although some might argue that it is not his best novel, it is certainly the hub of his work. The early works look forward to it, and the latter ones seem to refer back to it. It is the story of an ambitious nobody, Jay Gatsby, who achieves his riches by racketeering, and becomes almost a legend in the display and extravagance of his parties and style of living. His tragedy is basically that of all the people around him-they have not what they want, and do not even know what it is they want.
The irony of the novel is that in spite of Gatsby's lavish hospitality and the enormous parties that he gives, he is almost completely friendless, and his funeral produces only two mourners—the one friend who tries to help Gatsby find his desires, and one out of the thousands of people who had taken Gatsby's hospitality.
The novel is much tighter in construction than the earlier works, and has a much more stimulating plot. The narrator is Gatsby's friend, and, because it is the view of an outsider looking in, the tragedy is made the more intense.
This was a period when current psychological thought had a considerable effect on American, and other literature. Fitzgerald himself, although sufficiently interested in Freudian psychology to make extensive use of it in his novel "Tender Is The Night," never closely examined the background of the life of his characters, and never enquired into the basic motives and causes that gave rise to them. It could be said that this is the secret of Fitzgerald's success as a writer. He does no more than honestly and skillfully depict the lives of people as he knew them, and for this reason his characters and situations have far more conviction and applicability to life that the intentional propaganda works of writers such as Upton Sinclair and Jack London.
"Tender Is The Night," has been regarded by many literary critics as a failure, although Fitzgerald himself thought highly of it. In order to overcome what he considered to be the main flaws in construction, he revised the form of the novel in 1940, and it was subsequently published in this form (it is available in Penguins). The latter version certainly seems to have gained clarity and interest, but the basic faults remain, that is, the veering between an onlooker's view and the writer's omniscience, and a tendency to over-complicate the story by an unnecessary wealth of characters and incident.
This novel takes us from the world of flappers and speakeasies to the world of the older rich expatriates at play on the Riviera, and having their psychological problems sorted out at the clinics of Zurich. Even if it does not come up to Fitzgerald's intention of making it the best American novel of the century it certainly presents a superb and engrossing picture of the lives of these people.
Fitzgerald's last and unfinished work, "The Last Tycoon" (published in 1941 in a form edited by Edmund Wilson), reverts to the earlier successful method of "Gatsby" and the story is told through the eyes of Cecelia Brady, a daughter of a Hollywood producer. Here also, we have a story of tragic failure, this time of a "wonder-boy" producer of the order of Irving Thalberg. Many of the characters are recognizably real-life Hollywood titans, and the book represents the most convincing and authentic account of Hollywood in literature (with the possible exception of Nathanael West's satire, "The Day Of The Locust"). In possessing this authenticity, it becomes a damning indictment of the American film factory, and clearly indicates that the horrors of "The Big Knife" and "The Day Of The Locust" are no exaggerations.
Some of Fitzgerald's short stories, too, well repay attention. Many of them are trite and banal, and were produced not as a labour of love, but merely as a means to provide the wherewithal to pay for an extravagant existence. On the other hand, some of them are brilliantly contrived, and rank with the novels as examples of efficient and persuasive writing. "May Day" or "The Diamond As Big As The Ritz" are stories which favourably bear comparison with any American short story writing of the period. The best of the stories are published in a collection entitled "Borrowed Time."
As with many other novelists, much of Fitzgerald's work is plainly autobiographical. The first two novels are apparently based on his early life at Princeton and after, and even in his later works, the echoes of his own existence are apparent. Dick Diver's failure in "Tender Is The Night" is a reflection of Fitzgerald's own failure in life, and even the reference to Diver's publication of a "popular" work on psychology and the perennially unfinished treatise, seems to indicate a conscience troubled by the glib short stories that Fitzgerald turned out in order to raise easy money, at the expense of his serious work.
"The Last Tycoon" too, reflects Fitzgerald's own experiences in Hollywood. With regard to this part of his life, "The Disenchanted" by Budd Schulberg, is based on Scott Fitzgerald's experiences as a script writer, and is well worth reading as a novel, in addition to the light that it throws on Fitzgerald's life and Hollywood generally.
A competent biography of Fitzgerald—"The Other Side of Paradise" by Arthur Mizener, also makes interesting reading, and helps considerably in an appreciation of Fitzgerald's work, as does a collection of notes and observations entitles "The Crack-Up," which also gives an insight into the tragedy of Fitzgerald's last days. Fitzgerald's life, like those of his heroes, was a failure. Like so many of his contemporaries, he saw his age, tied to a thriving industrial and financial giant, come crashing down in 1929, and after this he never again really got to grips with the world. He suffered nervous breakdowns, mainly caused through heavy drinking, and eventually died in 1940.
So much then, for the work of an absorbing writer, who in the words of Frederick Hoffman in "The Modern Novel in America," was successful beyond all of his contemporaries in keeping his work free of the pretentious intellectual faking that has handicapped so much of American fiction since Norris and Dreiser." In spite of all his flaws, Fitzgerald sums up an age of capitalism in an entertaining and stimulating way, which is more than be said for nine-tenths of the so-called social historians.