From The Kenyon Review, Winter 1946, Vol. VIII, No. 1
“In the Twenties, his heyday, he was a kind of king of our American youth”—so a writer of Fitzgerald’s generation remembered him when he died five years ago. It would be pleasant to leave him there, among the fast cars, the bloom of youth, the beat of jazz, ruling from Princeton and Long Island and the Riviera his incoherent kingdom. This would be pleasant and historical; but we cannot do it. We have serious business with one or two of his books, and perhaps with the lesson of his shade, —what he calls back to us, if we care to attend. The king is extremely dead, his subjects are dispersed. We had better be critical, which is to try to save.
Some very good readers will wonder whether anything is worth saving. We may agree that this king went in heavily and childishly for fireworks, beautiful in the immediate darkness, a mess of wire and cardboard in the morning. We want something better than lips which are stated to be thrilling and day-dreams drifting over fatuity. But there can be no doubt that in The Great Gatsby we have something better. This short novel published in 1925 still has readers; three publishers flourish it on their current lists; there is a widespread impression that it is Fitzgerald’s best novel. Undoubtedly it is. An impression less widespread, which I wish to encourage, is that it is a masterpiece.
The word need not be pretentious nor invoke wild rivalries with Hawthorne or Stendhal. Let us mean by it a work of the literary imagination which is consistent, engaging, and dramatic, in exceptional degrees; which exhibits largely mastered a human subject of the first importance; and which seems in retrospect to illuminate the whole physical and spiritual situation of which it was, by the strange parturition of art, an accidental product. One easy test will be the rapidity with which, in the imagination of a good judge, other works of the period and kind will faint away under any suggested comparison with it. Now a small work may satisfy these demands as readily as a large one, and The Great Gatsby satisfies them, I believe, better than any other American work of fiction since The Golden Bowl.
Fitzgerald’s general subject in it is the irresponsible world of American wealth in the early Twenties, into which he thrusts up through the ambiguous levels of our society his elegant young roughneck Jay Gatsby, born James Gatz. Most of his scenes picture the semi-activities of the rich on Long Island and in New York, stretching to include Tom Buchanan’s journeys into the lower middle class to meet his mistress, and Gatsby’s continuing criminal associations. All these parties and meetings are imaged with a clear honesty and an exact feeling for relation. But his precise subject is the impact of this world upon the two outsiders who venture into it, and particularly upon Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, the history of whose disenchantment during one summer the novel practically is. Carraway stands with less distortion for the author himself than, probably, any other character he created, —the initiated but detached Middle-westerner, the moralist; and the closeness with which Fitzgerald’s cleaves to his narrator’s perception partly accounts for the great difference in control between this and his later novels. The Great Gatsby is in Chekhov’s sense a purely graceful book (“When a man spends the least possible number of movements over some definite action, that is grace”). Not a page could well be lost from it without disturbance to Fitzgerald’s achievement of the rapt immobility of Gatsby fixed upon his far object, and Carraway’s advance toward nausea. To Carraway the nature of the wealth-world can be revealed. He can suffer through his mistress, through his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom, and return to the Middle-west, summing up like an evening bell: “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 . . . ” Gatsby can be physically destroyed, and he is, his is one of the three deaths Tom and Daisy cause. But no revelation of their world can be made to him. Gatsby has had a prior and very different revelation.
He is described at the outset as possessing “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness,” “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” and it is clear that this is the quality that drew Fitzgerald to his creation. But how far and how strangely he insisted upon it does not appear to have been understood. When Gatsby and Daisy have been reunited, Carraway recognizes in Gatsby’s bewilderment “the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion. . . . No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.” The theme recurs blankly when Carraway attempts to warn him: “‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’ ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’” And finally in a profound moment as Gatsby is speaking to Carraway of Daisy’s feeling for her husband, whether at the beginning of their marriage she did really love Tom: “Suddenly he came out with a curious remark. ‘In any case,’ he said, ‘it was just personal.’ What could you make of that, except to suspect some intensity in his conception of the affair that couldn’t be measured ?”
These passages will locate for us, I think, the obsession which dominates Gatsby, the man and the book, and provides the permanent theme of Fitzgerald’s serious fiction. Carraway is not permitted to understand it fully, but I have no doubt that Fitzgerald himself did and wished his reader to do. In the Introduction he wrote in 1934 for a reprint of Gatsby occurs this startling claim: “How anyone could take up the responsibility of being a novelist without a sharp and concise attitude about life is a puzzle to me.” It was not intended, probably, as a claim, but a claim it is; and although Fitzgerald looked on himself as a moralist (and plainly is one) this seems to me less a reference to morality than to an attitude or pattern of the most general kind, a “figure in the carpet” as James called it. What is the “figure”?
It is not an idealism, and not Hope, though it is kin to these. It is hardly even an attitude toward experience, although it is a way of taking Life. It is a view of Life in which the creature’s supreme admiration is commanded by that which the artist knows to be wrong, in which the supreme allegiance is forced to be felt—producing “creative passion” —toward a hopeless error. It insists that the enthusiast be impersonal or selfless, and certain. It is as if a young artist, a young man, saw every road blocked and sent his characters forward singing. There is helpless irony in the mounting of such a theme, owing to an incongruity between what the hero is made to be obsessed by, his impersonal devotion and confidence, and what the author knows, his own despair. But this irony is not tragic in Fitzgerald; it is as unhappy and tender as a farewell. The superior knowledge has no condescension or rebuke. Carraway knows for instance that Gatsby’s chance for Daisy is long past, but there is only love in his witness to Gatsby’s fantastic vigil, —or there is envy. This feeling is as idiosyncratic and as literal as some of Wordsworth’s feelings, and as difficult to understand for the same reason: most people are familiar with the attitude in some diffused form but cannot imagine that anyone really believes it in a strict form. What Fitzgerald valued was a beauty and intensity of attachment, which his imagination required should be attachment to something inaccessible. For the wholly inaccessible he admitted two modes, the never existent and the already past. He drove his characters sometimes towards the first, as in certain of the stories which are actual fantasies, but regularly toward the second, as in Gatsby. And his finest work is saturated with the desperate or ecstatic nostalgia, the firm hope and the firmer despair, of the superb conclusion of this novel.
. . . And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that is was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Any reader in 1925 (one would suppose, but it is hard to hear new music justly) should have been astonished by Gatsby, not least a reader who had followed the author from the beginning. Nothing in Fitzgerald’s earlier books strongly suggests the access of rein and understanding shortly to come. They are fluent and gaudy, vague and self-indulgent, a little embarrassing now. Suddenly he was able, not yet thirty, to lay out and execute a masterpiece. He was happily married, widely admired, and had made money. One might have expected such a career of production as American artists rarely have achieved. What happened then?
After almost ten years he published Tender is the Night, a novel diffuse, lush, uncertain, and badly designed. There are admirable things in it, a few scenes, some description, some epigrams; but it is hard to believe that anyone ever found it as a story anything but a failure. Perhaps Nicole is all right. The other characters are not, and one hears a personal insistence in the degeneration of Dick Diver and Abe North which seems external, morbid. It would wreck a firmer book than this. Episodes too, almost uniformly disagreeable, are hurried in and out without reason, —simply, one guesses, because they happened once. The style alters senselessly from section to section, as if the book were a series of exercises. Most of the second half can hardly be read as continuous narrative. All the talent of Carraway’s summer has gone to bits.
Six years later Fitzgerald left The Last Tycoon unfinished when he died. Resisting the inclination to exaggerate the merit of posthumous work, as James’s The Ivory Tower has been overpraised and Stephen Crane’s The O’Ruddy would be if it were read, one must testify that Fitzgerald had gone far enough with it to demonstrate a reassembled gift. His film producer, Monroe Stahr, comes from the imagination that made Jay Gatsby: “He had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, when he was young. And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun . . . he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth. . . . You could say that this was where an accidental wind blew him, but . . . I would rather think that in a ‘long shot’ he saw a new way of measuring otur jerky hopes and graceful rogueries and awkward sorrows, and that he came here from choice to be with us to the end.” The opening chapters are excellent, the writing compact as well as rich, the symbols working plainly and quietly, as in Stahr’s name, as in the suicide of Mr. Schwartz beside the mysterious Hermitage. There is no doubt that we suffered in losing the novel’s completion. To try to measure the loss is futile, although I should note that Fitzgerald was having extraordinary difficulty already with his point of view, —perhaps ill-chosen, a producer’s daughter, —as he had had in Tender Is the Night for similar reasons; and that he appeared in Chapter VI to be moving toward areas of his subject imperfectly familiar to him though necessary to his conception. Both these books will have to be kept afloat, if at all, by The Great Gatsby.
Then there are the magazine stories, of which he collected the least trivial from time to time into volumes. Claims have been made for some of these, without much justification, unless perhaps for “The Rich Boy.” The two most ambitious strike me as about equally false: “May Day,” banal, fundamentally disordered, and “Absolution,” which (besides relying unduly upon Joyce’s profound story called “The Sisters”) at its climax imposes shamelessly upon the little boy the obsession which I have called the permanent theme in Fitzgerald. This is accomplished, or attempted, with a brazen rhetoric perfectly characterized by the author in another place—the Gatsby Introduction—when he speaks of “the large false face peering around the corner of a character’s head.”
It is little to show for fifteen years of the fulness of such a gift. The fulness?—hardly. If the similarity of Gatsby’s story and Stahr’s suggests to us that the gift was a limited one, we should remember that not only did Fitzgerald not develop it beyond 1925 but he hardly exercised it at all thereafter. The whole story is not clear in the articles and letters and notes printed by Edmund Wilson in The Crack-up; one would like to see it told one day. But enough is clear there to show that during most of these years he could not use his gift because he no longer had it. He had sold it for money. He got a good deal of money for it, — four hundred thousand dollars in fifteen years, he estimated in 1934. And he missed it a good deal before the end, —six months before his death he wrote to his daughter: “I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back” —but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: “I’ve found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing.”
No man knows another’s temptations well; I am not concerned to judge his long apostasy, but merely to look at some of its results, because no other recent history known to me exhibits so sharply the difficulty and danger an artist undergoes who must do his work in a culture essentially confused in the way and to the degree that ours is. A division between intellectual and popular culture, between the million semi-literate and the hundred more or less educated, between the standards of Collier’s and the standards of The Dial, is a natural division. But it is unnatural—it is essentially confused—that either should submit to, or wish to usurp, the standards of the other; and this is our desperate case.
Fitzgerald for instance appears to have lived his whole life in the well-heeled infantile world of American popular writing. I cannot pause to describe this world; a representative spokesman for it is John O’Hara, who contributes a vacant gossip by way of introduction to a recently published selection of Fitzgerald’s writings. Fitzgerald did not share all of its attitudes (for example its jealous hatred of intellectuals) and his judgment remained to some degree independent of it (for example he notes about a book of his friend O’Hara’s, “He just began chewing with nothing in his mouth”). But he accepted its standards, made his friends in it, castrated his work for it, and took its rewards. When halfwits in editorial offices cracked the whip, Fitzgerald danced. And yet he somehow believed—perhaps at intervals only—that he was really on the other side. In one of his weakest sketches for Esquire, the Author, showing a visitor about his house, takes him finally to the attic, where are piles of old Dials and Little Reviews, clippings, letters, and says “This is the loot. This is what one has instead of a bank account.” It is true that his $400,000 had been spent when he wrote this, but the capacity for self-deception is surprising and must be due to Fitzgerald’s knowledge that his best work was really on the other side. In the popular world work is dead in a month; Fitzgerald had been forgotten before he died; he must have needed the hope that his work would cross the line and be accepted, where alone acceptance is meaningful, on “the other side.”
Meanwhile there was Fitzgerald among the formula-boys. What did it cost him, besides the ability to practice his art? It cost him, first, the criticism that might have saved him: by shaming him from his bad work, stiffening his conscience, protecting him against his abasements. The old association with Wilson and Bishop seems to have been his only link. When Eliot wrote to him that he thought Gatsby “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James,” the praise was agreeable but the encouragement fell into a vacuum. Fitzgerald prostrated himself always, apparently, before Hemingway—even in To Have and Have Not he discovered “pages that are right up with Dostoiefski in their undeflected intensity.” The attitude hurt his work, and no body of responsible judgment was close to show him Hemingway’s feet of clay—coyness, random brutality, fatuousness—or the superiority in certain ways of his own highest work. “Trollope kills me by his mastery,” Tolstoy thrust into his Diary while he was writing War and Peace; then he added, “I console myself that he has his and I have mine.”
It cost Fitzgerald, second, his sense of reality. He could not write, and publish, what he felt, so at intervals for years he abandoned the realm of truth altogether: he wrote fantasies, one his intolerable play The Vegetable, the rest stories, of ghosts, diamond mountains, men growing young. Here he could construct his own laws, and his own conscience, for feeling; not even his own reproaches would reach him. It cost him, last, his faith in art. The papers printed in The Crack-up witness again and again to his sense of “a rankling indignity, that to me had become almost an obsession, in seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power.” By this he meant the film, but artistic power is subordinated in other passages to “great animal magnetism” and to “experience,” or is found inadequate in itself. On this heresy followed lacerations. A long misery for Fitzgerald, the last years of the Thirties, —alcohol, poverty, Hollywood, despair, illness. Then the miraculous return of nerve just before the end: the organic style again of “There was an eager to-do in the eastern sky, and Wylie could see me plain—thin with good features and lots of style, and the kicking fetus of a mind,” and the creation of Stahr.
What he calls back is clear enough after all: “ . . . without this I am nothing.”