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« In Which F. Scott Fitzgerald Is Suffused With Longing »

fine morning

And One Fine Morning—


Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, Notebooks

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was a writer and a dreamer and an alcoholic. Early in his life, he was lucky and he believed in what he dreamed and wrote about it and America loved him for it.  A little later in life, the dreams began to tarnish and he no longer believed and he wrote about that too— but, by then, we had heard too much and we began to be bored.

There are a few things that define Fitzgerald’s work and the chief of these is longing— longing for the infinite, the unattainable or the simply gorgeous. Often, it takes the form of a lovely debutante who is a little mad or maybe just marvelously idiosyncratic. It is longing for success, for approbation, for love, for money, for a lasting seat at a moveable feast. And not only the content of the stories concerns itself with longing, but the language also. There are the great gasping sentences reaching for the skies—and, yes, there are myriad skies and stars and eyes and much quavering and quivering and trembling. There is lyrical imagery that spreads itself into a rose-fingered gauze of philosophy. There are passages that are so musical that it’s possible to mark their rhythm. And, on top of all that—despite the vividness of color and keenness of feeling— there are places where the language circles deliberately into vagueness and repetition, as if to say that there are truths here that are ineffable but we shall do our best to get you there.

It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy— they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

For many of us in American high school English classes, The Great Gatsby was an introduction to what a novel could be: something both scintillating and substantial, intricately assembled and yet so sound that it responds even now to our longing like a plangent bell. We learned how a broken clock, a name, a game of golf, a car, a color, an ugly stretch of road could take on larger meanings that infected everything around them. How beautiful it was! And, even as the dream died and its beauty faded at the final pages, the longing for it still remained.

Fitzgerald longed to be as free and careless as Tom and Daisy, and yet he longed to be free of the longing. This tension is so present in everything he wrote that, sometimes, we forget about the characters and wonder a little more Fitzgerald himself. We pick up The Beautiful and the Damned and it’s almost unreadable. All the familiar furniture is there: the lives of the rich and fabulous; the clever dialogue; the polemics about art and writing and the nature of people; the unlikeable hero we're supposed to forgive because he’s just a sad victim of irresponsible times; the unlikeable heroine whose sophisticated attitude substitutes for charm. The book isn’t unreadable because it unfolds like a gossip column; it’s unreadable because it makes a pretense at honesty and pathos but is only a dalliance in poshlost. The omniscient third-person narrator pretends to laugh at these characters, to despise their wantonness and swell at their punishment accordingly— but he wallows too thoroughly through their glittering muck for us to believe it. Is this not a case of the writer doth protest too much? The Anthony Patches’ fall from grace is so operatic that they are no longer just people any more but specters of very personal demons.

Fitzgerald is one of those writers who was always writing about himself and who did so in the pursuit of a stronger, worthier, more beautiful self. It is this that makes him so American, so emblematic of the American Dream. But what Fitzgerald did (and isn’t this dangerous for any writer to do?) is lay his neuroses out like an offering. Nowadays, bloggers do this daily and we either gawk or avert our faces. There is, after all, something riveting about a first-rate intelligence so fluidly curating its own mass of  insecurities. When it’s done well enough—when the characters live and the language shines—we submit ourselves and are moved and even enriched. But when nothing falls into place except the need to just get it out, the attempt turns into a mere exercise in self-indulgence.

I had developed a sad attitude towards sadness, a melancholy attitude toward melancholy, and a tragic attitude toward tragedy— why I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion.

Fitzgerald tells us in The Crack-Up that it’s loss of faith in himself that did him in— but it’s the inability to stop obsessing over this loss of faith that ultimately undermines him as a writer. He longs for truth and beauty but he cannot accept it when he finds it— not in himself, nor in any of the dishes at that fabulous, jazz-fueled feast. Anything that might last, he must tear down again. He cannot imagine a diamond as big as the Ritz without deciding that it ought to crack into a deep abyss of rubble. He cannot imagine a beautiful girl without dooming her to bring some man to his ruin. He can no longer imagine: he can only just write.

And so out come all the lovely, lilting sentences, the paralyzing self-knowledge, the usual Fitzgeraldian themes... Tender is the Night, the most gorgeously written of Fitzgerald’s books, it is not so much a novel but a catalog of objects and moments and the many fleeting glories of a blonde woman’s hair. We are called to worship quietly at the feet of our author’s past, but, by now, the jig is up. There is so much verisimilitude that all the air seems to have gone out of the room and what’s left is a tapped illusion, an emperor caught without his clothes: the spectacle of a first-rate intelligence still counting out paces and picking up crumbs.

People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away.

Almost 70 years after his death, America has reclaimed F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it is not so much his work that fascinates us but his life. Zelda is now a feminist icon. Esquire writes about Britney’s breakdown using The Crack-Up as an archetype. There are biographies, anthologies and screen adaptations for Hollywood. Every summer, Governor’s Island hosts a Jazz Age Lawn Party in full-on Gatsby regalia. We are becoming nothing so much as a nation built on our own nostalgia. And, if Fitzgerald is “borne back ceaselessly into the past” to worry over the same material, to fret over a self that might have been — well, what of it? We know all about dreams now and how they shrink under the weight of our own gaze. But, to mythologize ourselves… now, there’s a fine concept—

Like Jay Gatsby or Dick Diver or Monroe Stahr or Amory Blaine or Anthony Patch, at least we can all be tragic heroes in the comfort of our own minds.

Shahirah Majumdar is a contributor to This Recording. You can find her website here.

Again he had offended some one— couldn't he hold his tongue a little longer? How long? To death then.


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    In Which F. Scott Fitzgerald Is Suffused With

Reader Comments (1)

Things should be better than they are and things should be more than they are. To some people everything is more than it is to everyone else. No one can disagree with that.

You also long to long. You too crave desire and want nothing more in the world than to be released from wanting and striving and chasing. Contentment feels sad and scary and we are running toward it with, quite literally, with our dying breaths.

Who cares about F. Scott Fitzgerald? I would read you over F. Scott Fitzgerald any day.

Please write more, I have not been satiated and time is running out.

October 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWesley Evans

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