Surviving Modernity

Surviving Modernity

 

 

 

David Brown, Paradise Lost:

A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Belknap Press/Harvard University Press) 

                A half century ago, most American college students had read at least one F. Scott Fitzgerald novel by the time they graduated, most likely The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgerald may not be found so readily in college and secondary school curricula these days; he was, after all, a white male and, since 1940, a dead one.  But Fitzgerald remains one of the most written about American writers of the 20th century, on par with his sometimes pal Ernest Hemmingway.  With many general readers, especially those of my generation, more than vaguely familiar with the contours of Fitzgerald’s  life, and with several Fitzgerald biographies available, a biographer faces a challenge in bringing a fresh perspective to any portrait of the intense and often unruly novelist.  In Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Brown, Professor of History at Elizabethtown College, seeks to find that perspective by emphasizing Fitzgerald’s credentials less as a novelist and more as a social and cultural commentator – “one of the more important cultural commentators America has produced”  (p.5-6), Brown writes. 

               In a handful of novels, but also in an abundance of notes, letters, essays and short stories, Fitzgerald produced “penetrating descriptions of the Western world’s leap from feudalism to capitalism, from faith to secularism, and from the tradition oriented to the flux oriented” (p.5).  Fitzgerald’s historical sensibilities “leaned toward the aristocratic, the pre-modern, and the romantic” (p.2).  Brown identifies affinities between Fitzgerald’s social thought and that of numerous other thinkers, among them Thorstein Veblen, Frederick Jackson Turner, and H.L. Mencken.  But he finds historians Henry Adams and the German Oswald Spengler to be Fitzgerald’s “truest intellectual contemporaries.”  Like Adams and Spengler, Fitzgerald “doubted whether older, pre-Enlightenment notions of art, creativity, paternalism, and worship would survive the onset of what we have since come to call ‘modernity’” (p.6). 

              The Fitzgerald who opined on the perils of modernity was very much an “America first” social commentator.  Although he spent limited but highly publicized time in Europe, the Old World entered into Fitzgerald’s commentary primarily as a gauge for measuring America.  Fitzgerald saw in America a “continent of possibilities, a place to escape the Old World’s rigidly enforced class structures and adopt new identities” (p.6), yet he shared the pessimism of Spengler and Adams.  In Fitzgerald’s view, the virtues he ascribed to America had all but expired during the so-called Gilded Age, the last three decades of the 19th century following the American Civil War.  The industrialization of the Gilded Age brought the “rise of vast industrial fortunes that blotted out an earlier idealism,” replaced by a “soulless materialism” (p.6).  Depicting an America “unusually thick with fallen heroes, martyrs to a powerful social-mobility mythology,” Fitzgerald’s writings were fused with the “disquieting notion that we have drifted far from our inheritance as the children of pioneers to fashion a culture that teaches its young to love too much the privileges and protections of wealth” (p.344).

              Although Fitzgerald considered himself politically on the left – he self-identified as a socialist in the 1921 Who’s Who in America — his critique of capitalism was conservative and sentimental, Brown contends, based on nostalgia for a bygone agrarian and small town era.  Much like Mencken, Fitzgerald refused to vest much faith in “the people.”  Brown also sees a linking of common concerns between Fitzgerald and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner.  A generation older than Fitzgerald, Turner became famous for his thesis that the closing of the American frontier around 1890 had indelibly shaped American democracy.  Both men, Brown writes, were “motivated by romantic impulses, and each observed the settlement of once-open territory as an enclosure of imagination as well as property” (p.176).  Fitzgerald asked in his own way the same question that Turner had raised: if the unsettled lands of the American frontier had created a “‘democratic’ personality type – independent, inventive, egalitarian – then what was the future of an America without frontiers?” (p.176).   

            Brown deftly weaves Fitzgerald’s social commentary into an erudite, chronologically arranged biography, situating Fitzgerald in three historical periods, each a separate section: 1) “Beginnings,” 1896 -1920, his early years and youth, ending with his famous  — perhaps infamous — marriage to Zelda Sayre in 1920; 2) “Building Up,” 1920-1925, the “Jazz Age” (a term that Fitzgerald is credited with coining) that was his  triumphant period; and 3) “Breaking Down,” 1925-1940, when Fitzgerald’s world began to fall apart prior to and during the global economic collapse of the 1930s, up to his death in 1940.  Brown finishes with a final section, “Ghosts and Legends,” addressing Zelda’s life after Fitzgerald, up to her own tragic death in a fire in 1948, and the rise of a Fitzgerald legend which began unexpectedly after World War II. 

* * *

             Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the upper Mid-West, and spent his earliest years there.  His mother Mollie, of Irish immigrant stock, was the daughter of a successful immigrant wholesale grocer.  His father Edward, also of Irish descent, came from an entrenched landowning family that counted Francis Scott Key as an ancestor; Scott’s birth name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.  Edward had grown up in Maryland, a border state during the American Civil War.  But his  family’s loyalties were unreservedly with the Confederacy during the war.  As an adult, Edward failed in many businesses.  Mollie and Edward, Brown writes, embodied “distinct sides of the American experience – the rising immigrant in Mollie’s case, the vanishing southern aristocracy in Edward’s,” all the while sharing a tendentious marital life “burdened by an inexorable slide into polite poverty” (p.9).

            The young Fitzgerald absorbed from his father much of the ethos and mythology of the Confederate “lost cause” and “doomed nobility,” retaining vaguely southern sympathies throughout his adult life.  But as Brown points out, Fitzgerald entertained an idealized notion of “Dixie,” chivalric, refined, and cavalier.  Like most white Americans of his day, Fitzgerald “never really considered the question of slavery and its aftermath as anything more than an abstraction, and thus he never wrestled with its deep ethical implications.  Consequently, he handled somewhat clumsily the few black Americans and Europeans who turn up in his novels and stories” (p.190).

            Bland St. Paul offered Fitzgerald a “wide avenue of exploration into the American character and its relationship to place and tradition” (p.26).  Fitzgerald’s St. Paul embodied “solidity and stability, a city of neighborhood hardware stores, spruced up Main Streets, and a few first families to establish tone” (p.26).  But Fitzgerald left St. Paul as an adolescent to attend the Newman School, a boarding school outside Hackensack, New Jersey, which styled itself as the “Catholic Andover.”   The young man played football, a rough contact sport that was relatively new at the time.  Although a mediocre player, he wrote about football frequently in future novels and short stories.  Despite poor grades and his share of fistfights, Fitzgerald manifested a talent for writing while at Newman.  When his maternal grandmother died and left his mother a small fortune, Fitzgerald determined that Princeton University, also in New Jersey, was the next place for him. 

              Princeton’s proximity to New York, its opportunities for literary output, and its aristocratic mien attracted Fitzgerald.  But he twice failed the entrance exam, after which he scheduled an appointment with the Admissions Committee.  Somehow the 17-year-old lad sold himself to the Committee (what a pity there is no record for posterity of that meeting), and he entered Princeton in the fall of 1913.  Then known as the Ivy League school for Southern gentlemen, Princeton was a place where callow, wealthy young men “basked in the superiority of their superiority” (p.44), as Brown puts it.  At best a mediocre student at Princeton, Fitzgerald never graduated. 

               Yet, Princeton shaped Fitzgerald profoundly.  He befriended future literary critic Edmund Wilson as an undergraduate and showed considerable promise as a writer.   Many of Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, Brown notes, “bear the indelible impress of the Princeton years and more broadly his experiences within the privileged world of the Ivy elite” (p.48).  From Princeton onward, wealth became a subject of intense interest to Fitzgerald “primarily as an entry to experiences otherwise denied.” (p.43).  His “complex reactions to the leisure class,” dating from his undergraduate years, can be bluntly reduced to his view that “wealth was wasted on the rich”  (p.44).   

              Fitzgerald drank a lot as a Princeton undergraduate, but so did many of his schoolmates.  Excessive drinking was written off as “nothing more than a rite of passage, part of the collegiate experience as much as athletics, course work, and clubs” (p.49).  From his Princeton days onward, however, Fitzgerald was a “functional alcoholic” in an era when alcoholism was considered a character defect or a matter of personal weakness rather than an illness.  Fitzgerald came to view drinking as an “almost indispensable part of the writer’s world.  Occasions on which to discuss books, publishing, and composing were invariably occasions to drink” (p.116-17).  Hard spirits for Fitzgerald were the “due of an Irish novelist,” with excessive drinking serving as a “necessary precondition to composition” (p.228).

              Halfway through his sophomore year at Princeton, Fitzgerald fell head over heels for Ginevra King, a debutante from a prominent Chicago banking family.  Brown characterizes Scott’s courtship of Ginevra as a “fool’s errand, a case of begging for inevitable disappointment” (p.59).  But Ginevra proved to be a model for many female characters in his forthcoming novels, a “composite of flapper, flirt, and baby-vamp, the temptress who stands for wealth and irresponsibility in relation to a man situated precariously between his work and his woman” (p.59).  Fitzgerald’s courtship of Ginevra, Brown continues, “tells us something important about his mixed attitude toward women.  Even a cursory perusal of his published writing reveals a penchant for dividing the genders between female realism and male romance.  In the Fitzgerald canon, women are often wreckers of men, taking their dignity, extracting their vitality, and dulling their work habits” (p.63). 

               Fitzgerald left Princeton for the military after the United States entered World War I, but was never sent into combat.  While stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, near Montgomery, he met Zelda Sayre.  An Alabama Belle, as Brown repeatedly terms her, Zelda was four years younger than Fitzgerald.  Her father, then serving as a justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, traced his family’s roots to the planter class of the Old South.  Zelda thus spoke to the side of Fitzgerald enamored of the “lost cause” and taken in by ostensible Southern gentility.  Scott’s interest in Zelda intensified after he learned of Ginevra’s engagement to another man.  But Zelda had doubts whether the aspiring writer had the means to support her.  By November 1919, however, he had proven himself to be a sufficient money-maker after he sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post, and the couple married the following April in a small, rushed ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

              Eight days prior to the wedding ceremony, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, was published.   The novel, which he had worked on while stationed in Alabama, “touched on the social permissiveness of the era, increasingly candid attitudes toward sexuality, and the general coming down of prewar cultural taboos” (p.5).  A coming-of-age novel in which the main character “achieves a hard-earned insight . . . no love goes unpunished, no creed escapes unscathed” (p.85), This Side of Paradise established Fitzgerald’s reputation as an authoritative cultural commentator.  The novel in Brown’s interpretation demonstrated Fitzgerald’s particular affinity to radical economist Thorstein Veblen, offering a “penetrating commentary on the American failure to transcend the cash nexus that sustained, as Veblen had put it, the country’s peculiar loyalty to its glittering if rapacious ‘leisure class”” (p.86).

              The Fitzgeralds’ earliest days as a married couple coincided with Scott’s rising celebrity, due primarily to the early success of This Side of Paradise.   Despite strains that were evident early in the marriage, Scott and Zelda formed what Brown terms a “productive if one-sided partnership” (p.78).  But rather than simply enjoy the moment, they seemed “determined to push it forward, prolonging its intensity and exhausting its possibilities.  As if performing, they played up several personalities (the writer, the belle, the flapper, the moralist, the drunkard . .  . ) before attentive audiences.  What they lacked was a stretch of time off the society pages to develop a deeper rapport, though in fact neither seemed to want this” (p.77). 

              The nomadic couple was famous for living in Paris and the French Riviera (where Scott befriended fellow novelist Ernest Hemmingway, who never got along with Zelda); and in Manhattan and Great Neck, on Long Island.  But they also had stints in Connecticut, Delaware, Alabama and a return period in St. Paul.  Wherever they went, they rented.   Whenever they could, they rang up high hotel bills, kept cooks and nannies, and threw lavish parties.  Their only child, daughter Frances, always called “Scottie,” was born in 1921.  Fitzgerald also formed a long-standing relationship during this high-visibility period with Scribner, the distinguished New York publishing firm, and he earned steady money by selling imaginative short stories to the Saturday Evening Post. 

              Then, in 1925 and not yet 30 years old, Fitzgerald saw the publication of The Great Gatsby.  Written primarily while in France, The Great Gatsby brought Fitzgerald to the “summit of American letters” (p.11).  The novel takes place in the fictional Long Island towns of East and West Egg and portrays the mysterious Jay Gatsby and his obsessive passion for Daisy Buchanan (whose father was modeled after Ginevra’s father).  Gatsby, Brown writes,  “stands in a long line of Fitzgerald types – flawed heroes, poor boys – who smash against the collective might of their well-to-do tormentors” (p.125).  

              Fitzgerald’s portrait of Gatsby presented what Brown terms a “stunning interpretation of historical progression, commencing with the age of European discovery and concluding with the closing of the American frontier.  In place of the virgin land that once attracted European settlers stood a nation whose grandest dreams had run to a dull materialism” (p.172).  In his ruminations on the “restless nature of the human spirit in tension with a taming ‘civilization’” (p.179-80), Fitzgerald echoed the thought of Frederick Jackson Turner.  Brown also finds The Great Gatsby to be in line with Sinclair Lewis’ satiric Babbitt, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, with their “sharp and unsparing” criticism of the “strong association of success with materialism” (p.169).

              Writing The Great Gatsby “marked the high point of Fitzgerald’s restive years abroad” (p.183).  In the years following their return to the United States,  Scott’s increasing alcohol abuse and recurrent financial difficulties coincided with Zelda’s hospitalization for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia.  She spent time in institutions in Switzerland, Maryland and North Carolina, and never fully recovered.  Scott, “once the embodiment of twenties excess,” (p.12) seemed to be wrestling in the disorderly 1930s with what Brown describes as the “loss of a romantic idealism that had once served as the rock on which he rested – both emotionally and artistically” (p.281).  He came to recognize the cultural consequences of modernity:  the “volatile merging of capitalism, secularism, rationalism, and industrialism that had become the dominant impulse propelling Western civilization” (p.282).  Brown emphasizes affinities between Fitzgerald’s thinking and that of contemporaries also questioning the efficacy of modernism, among them philosopher George Santayana, poet James Russell Lowell, and art critic Bernhard Berenson.

             After The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald did not publish another novel until 1934, when Tender is the Night — in Brown’s view Fitzgerald’s finest novel — appeared.  Within the narrative framework of a dying marriage, Tender is the Night analyzes the “collapse of the old Victorian universe and its replacement by a brave new world dominated by hardened ‘survivors’ who had managed to pass through the carnage of the Great War seemingly without regret or reflection,” only to inherit a “diminished social order bereft of compassion, sentimentality, or even the comforting consistency of . . . ‘middle class love’” (p.11).  In its criticism of a capitalist system in which money was the arbiter of power, prestige, and morality, Tender is the Night captured Fitzgerald’s historical vision “more completely than anything else he ever wrote” (p.263). 

              With Zelda hospitalized, Fitzgerald ventured to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter.  Hollywood seemed like an ideal location for Fitzgerald, a modern place with a special role in portraying and shaping American culture, as well as the geographic end point of the American frontier.  Fitzgerald had an intimate relationship in Hollywood with Sheilah Graham, a British-born gossip columnist.  Decidedly more stable than Zelda, Graham “may well have constituted a relationship of atonement for Fitzgerald.  Accordingly, he both loved and begrudged her as the devoted caregiver whose mere presence affirmed his fallen star” (p.301).  Fitzgerald “never liked living in California and found it impossible to mute his deeply ingrained aversion to the business-first mentality of the studio bosses,” contributing further to a “sense of alienation on the West Coast” (p.12).     

              In the last portion of the book, Brown brings into focus Fitzgerald’s relationship with his daughter Scottie.  We don’t learn much about Scottie’s youth, but she must have had an exceedingly difficult childhood, given her mother’s mental health problems, her father’s alcoholism, and the tumultuous existence her parents lived together.  While not discounting these factors in shaping Scottie’s life, Brown emphasizes the depth of affection between father and daughter (he spends little time on the mother-daughter relationship).  In passages from several letters which Brown quotes, Scottie shows an awareness of the degree to which she was denied a normal childhood.  Yet, love plainly bound her to her father.  Fitzgerald, for his part, was determined that Scottie be “self-sufficient, an equal partner, and to carry her share – all the things he had wished for in Zelda” (p.312).

               Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack in late November 1940, as he was seeking to finish what would be his last novel, The Last Tycoon. He died amidst little fanfare on December 21, 1940, with The Last Tycoon appearing the following year.  Zelda died in a fire in 1948 at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was institutionalized. 

               Surprisingly, Fitzgerald’s works sold far better after World War II than they had during his lifetime.   His friend Edmund Wilson wrote that a cult had grown up around Fitzgerald after his death, which had “gone beyond mere admiration for the author of some excellent books.  He had taken on the aspect of a martyr, a sacrificial victim, a semi-divine personage” (p.337).  Several biographies on Fitzgerald appeared in the post-World War II period.   In 1958, however, Sheilah Graham came out with Beloved Infidel, which disparaged all prior works on Fitzgerald.  “This is not the Scott I knew” (p.343), she wrote.  Approaching Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and other demons with compassion, Graham emphasized his humor, humanity, and efforts to finish his last novel while ill.   Wilson found her book to be by far the best on Fitzgerald.  In Graham, he wrote, Fitzgerald had found an “effective advocate, just as the debate over the ‘meaning’ of his life was beginning to take shape” (p.344).   

* * *

               In this complex yet highly readable biography, Brown shines intriguing light upon Fitzgerald as a social commentator and cultural historian, the “annalist as novelist who recorded the wildly fluctuating fortunes of America in the boom twenties and bust thirties” (p.1).  Fitzgerald was able to write as powerfully as he did about historical change in America because, as Brown ably  demonstrates, he identified with the country in an intensely personal way. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

August 13, 2019

10 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, Literature

10 responses to “Surviving Modernity

  1. David Gross

    Thanks for the interesting information, most of which I was previously unaware. It seems difficult today to understand critiques of class in America while ignoring the situation of African Americans, Latinx, and Indigenous people.

    I noticed on Wikipedia that all three Fitzgeralds were buried in Rockville.

  2. Thanks, Dave. Fitzgerald’s father was from Rockville, when it was a small town far away from Washington. I knew Fitzgerald was buried there, but probably didn’t realize both wife and daughter are also there. I never visited the grave in the time we lived there. I’m wondering whether you, as a member of the generation between mine and the current college crowd, read Fitzgerald in high school English class or college literature class; if so, what books?

    Fitzgerald was really a 19th century type of guy, trapped in the 20th century, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that his views of African-Americans and women were, to be polite, politically incorrect by 21st century standards. But we come back to the recurring point of how useful it is to chastise people of earlier generations for not having the wisdom or foresight to see matters that seem very clear to us today. A time will come, surely, when people will look back at our time and think, wow, those folks were really hung up on issues of race, gender and sexual preference. Why was there so little social commentary that addressed . . . who knows what?

    • David Gross

      Tom, my recollections of educational curricula are not nearly so specific as yours, despite being decades more recent. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure I read The Great Gatsby for class, and I’m almost certain it wasn’t in college. I think I read it for a high school class, and liked it.

      I understand the need to view earlier eras in the context of their times, but there are usually some writers and thinkers who have a better understanding of their times than others. Progressive Americans have been criticizing the treatment of African Americans and Indigenous people since 1776. There was a war fought to end slavery in the 1860s. Plenty of Americans opposed taking half of Mexico in the 1840s. Many Americans viewed the closing of the frontier in 1890 as tragic for Indians. Lots of people decried American imperialism in the Philippines in the 1890s. Women were fighting for their rights during Fitzgerald’s adulthood. He should also have been well-aware of immigrants’ struggles.

      I’m not giving Fitzgerald any passes for being a man of his times, but I don’t feel a need to chastise him either. I might still appreciate his books for what they are.

      When people look back at our time, I’m pretty sure they will be shocked at what occurred between 2016 and 2020, and I don’t think they will excuse anyone for being a product of their era.

  3. Chanh X. Nguyen

    Who knows what the future holds for us? “The metaphysical vertigo of the human predicament [!]”

  4. Joan/Doug Smith

    I enjoyed reading your review. I keep re reading Fitzgerald’s books, and see more complexity in his simple writing as I age.Joan

  5. Thanks, Joan, really good to learn you’re keeping your head and mind young by reading F. Scott.

  6. Tom, alas, neither the one nor the other although I am very much honored by your playful speculation indeed.The source of the quote:
    The metaphysical vertigo of the human predicament
    Posted on November 24, 2018 by jmanning@sympatico.ca
    Fitzgerald had been a brilliant young man and he was an outstanding writer but he missed WWII, the Cold War, JFK, Martin Luther King, Dr.Spock, Vietnam, AIDS, the rise of China and the fall of the USSR. Nobody is perfect.

  7. ccoe@nc.rr.com

    Dear Tom Thanks for the review. Marty and I found it very engaging and informative. As casual readers of Fitzgerald many years ago, I thought we knew him well enough. Not the case, we have ordered the book. Forced to go to GPUS by my mother, parented by 2 functional alcoholics, at the edge of “high” Midwest society (an oxymoron), in a time when excessive drinking was a “stage,” I found many similarities to my early years. All the best. Charlie

    —————————————–

  8. Thanks, Charlie, the ultimate compliment for a reviewer – you’re gonna read the book! Interesting that you see parallels between Fitzgerald’s upbringing in St. Paul and yours in GP. It’s only been in recent years that I have come to realize that not all my GP friends enjoyed the structured and stable upbringing that I always took for granted. All best, Tom

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