Scott Fitzgerald conceived of the story which would become The Great Gatsby on Long Island, where man, in the person of a crew of Dutch sailors, was placed “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” That was in the spring of 1924. He wrote most of it, though, in a villa above St. Raphaël on the Riviera, with Roman and Romanesque aqueducts within sight, and beneath a skyline that reminded him of Shelley’s Eugenean Hills. There was a beach where he and Zelda swam daily, and came to know a group of young French naval aviators. Otherwise, he worked steadily at what he jokingly spoke of to friends as “a novel better than any novel written in America.” By late October the manuscript was ready to be mailed to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s.
He knew very well that the book in hand was far finer than anything he had attempted before. In April, on the eve of his departure for Europe, he told Perkins that “I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I am capable of in it or even as I feel sometimes, something better than I am capable of.” He would not be alone in that feeling; Perkins himself would say that the novel possessed the Fitzgerald glamour, but also “a kind of mystic atmosphere at times.” He may have been remembering Fitzgerald’s words in that April letter: “So in my new novel I’m thrown directly on purely creative work—not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world.”
He had first, however—and this would become a recurring problem—to clear himself of debt. He was at the beginning of a decade in which he would be one of America’s best-paid writers of fiction, but money kept vanishing as though at the command of an evil sorcerer. Renting a mansion on Long Island Sound could not have helped, of course, nor could driving into Manhattan for parties and hotels, or living next door to his friend Ring Lardner, a notorious alcoholic. Or a staff that included a live-in couple, a nurse for the baby, and a laundress. When he had dug himself out of the hole, he wrote an insouciant account of the matter for The Saturday Evening Post, which he had come to think of as his guardian spirit. “Over our garage is a large bare room whither I now retired with pencil, paper and the oil stove, emerging the next afternoon at five o’clock with a 7,000 word story.”
By April, he had sold enough commercial fiction to clear himself of debt, and to take himself and Zelda to France, where he would be free to write the novel. “I really worked hard as hell last winter—but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart and my iron constitution.” But they were going to the “Old World to find a new rhythm for our lives, with a true conviction that we had left our old selves behind forever—and with a capital of just over seven thousand dollars.” Arthur Mizener, his second and perhaps most subtle biographer, after quoting this passage, suggests that, like Gatsby, he “wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving [Zelda]. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.”1 Mizener deliberately borrows Nick Carraway’s language to suggest similarities of circumstance between Gatsby and his creator.
The comparison was irresistible, if only because we keep looking for themes that connect Fitzgerald with his greatest work of fiction. Certainly Fitzgerald had reached a crossroads of sorts, but not one that had anything to do with Zelda. That, ironically, would be reached later that summer, when he was writing productively in France. It had much to do, however, with money and with “some idea of himself.”
The sensational public success of This Side of Paradise in 1920, when he was twenty-three, had established him as a figure on the literary scene, and he had gone on to secure that reputation with enough commercial short fiction to fill two volumes—Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age. Those stories, even the slenderest of them, display with careless grace his uncanny ability to evoke atmospheres, moods, energies, through his deployment of sounds, colors, lights, shadows. But a few stories written later, and he knew which ones—“Winter Dreams,” “Absolution,” “The Sensible Thing,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”—had more than inborn grace and developing skill. Later, these would be the stories singled out by critics as signaling the tentative stirring of The Great Gatsby within his imagination. This may or may not be the case, but they may have reminded him that it had been his plan to become something more than the chronicler of flappers and playboys.
Fitzgerald himself had given currency to neither of those words; very few of his short-story women are flappers in the John Held sense of the word, and certainly not the young ladies, however liberated, in his novels. He did later admit ruefully to some responsibility for that phrase “the Jazz Age,” and at one of Gatsby’s parties a “Jazz History of the World” would be performed. He had shaped the literary image of that world, and it had been decided, in those quarters where such things are decided, that he was not merely the prophet of a new, reckless generation, with new songs to sing, but its living embodiment, with the looks of a movie star and a gift for outrageous public behavior. “The other evening at a dancing club,” one of numberless journalists reported, “a young man in a gray suit, soft shirt, loosely tied scarf, shook his tousled yellow hair engagingly, introduced me to the beautiful lady with whom he was dancing and sat down.” Mizener offers the familiar verbal snapshots: “They rode down Fifth Avenue on the tops of taxis because it was hot or dove into the fountain at Union Square or tried to undress at the Scandals, or, in sheer delight at the splendor of New York, jumped, dead sober, into the Pulitzer fountain in front of the Plaza. Fitzgerald got in fights with waiters and Zelda danced on people’s dinner tables.” They were already drinking far too much, especially Fitzgerald.
They were a well-known couple, Fitzgerald and his “barbarian princess from the South,” creating a rotogravure legend which still exists, wavering, in our cultural memory, decorated with anachronistic stills of Astaire and Rogers dancing against a montage of top hats and champagne bottles. If they went broke every couple of years, there were always those fountains of eternal replenishment, The Saturday Evening Post and Red Book, and Liberty and Woman’s Home Companion. But that isn’t how he had planned it. He had planned to become the best novelist of his generation, somehow or other.
This Side of Paradise had had a success which was almost freakish, capturing the aspirations of a generation and especially of those within that generation who, like its author, aspired to be great writers. Reading it today, one blanches at its emotional and rhetorical excesses, and yet, as Matthew Bruccoli says, it was received as “an iconoclastic social document—even as a testament of revolt. Surprisingly, it was regarded as an experimental or innovative narrative because of the mixture of styles and the inclusion of plays and verse.” It was the autobiographical first novel of a very young writer who took himself very seriously, and who had not provided for his hero those escape hatches of irony which Joyce had built into A Portrait of the Artist. But it was not, by any stretch, the work of a man who planned a career as a writer of commercial fiction.
H.L. Mencken, who turns out, rather surprisingly, to have been the most perceptive of Fitzgerald’s early critics, was the gentlest of them when writing of Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, when it appeared in 1922. For Edmund Wilson, the Princeton friend whom he would one day call his “literary conscience,” Fitzgerald “has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.” Wilson unkindly quoted Edna Millay as saying that he resembled “a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond.” But Mencken, who could wield a heavy saber when he wished, wrote differently. After the first novel, he wrote, Fitzgerald’s future seemed uncertain and the “shabby stuff” collected in Flappers and Philosophers changed uncertainty into something worse, but the new novel has “a hundred signs in it of serious purpose and unquestionable skill. Even in its defects there is proof of hard striving.”
Perhaps Mencken had been too easily impressed by the novel’s pretentious chat about Spengler (who had not yet been translated), and perhaps Wilson had not placed proper value upon his friend’s uncanny ability to evoke atmospheres, moods, emotional energies. Fitzgerald would never be an intellectual in the sense that Wilson already was, but he was beginning to learn that one uniquely novelistic gift which Wilson never quite mastered, the ability to translate ideas into art. It is at work, if falteringly and at times embarrassingly, in The Beautiful and Damned.
The sudden leap forward into the exquisite mastery of The Great Gatsby is likely to remain one of art’s abiding mysteries, but readers of Fitzgerald may be forgiven their speculations. The story called “Absolution,” which Mencken published in the American Mercury in June of 1924, just as Gatsby was being finished, is a case in point. In a letter to a fan, he tells us that the character of Gatsby
was perhaps created on the image of some forgotten farm type of Minnesota that I have known and forgotten, and associated at the same moment with some sense of romance. It might interest you to know that a story of mine, called “Absolution,” in my book All the Sad Young Men was intended to be a picture of his early life, but that I cut it because I preferred to preserve the sense of mystery.
This surely cannot have been literally the case—there seems little connection between Jimmy Gatz, who, as we learn in the novel’s final pages, had grown up a Lutheran, and Rudolph Miller, a Catholic boy who makes a boastful confession to a half-mad priest. There is, to be sure, a thematic connection: both boys live, dangerously, within the imagination, with the priest providing a creepy warning. As Fitzgerald explained to another reader, “The priest gives the boy a form of Absolution (not of course sacramental) by showing him that he (the priest) is in an even worse state of horror and despair.”
The case with the story called “Winter Dreams” is stronger. Stylistically, it is fully on a level with Gatsby—well, almost—and it displays the same control of material. Young Dexter Green is a middle-class boy who works for pocket money each summer as a caddy on the local golf course, and each winter, in the fierce Minnesota cold, roams the frozen fields, imagining himself in scenes of local and imperial glory, swinging his arms to bring armies onto the field. He, or perhaps the authorial voice, has an ability to quicken both kinds of landscape into quiet, lyrical life. One day, this glory is entered by a girl, Judy Jones, a rich man’s daughter, flirtatious, perhaps wanton, desirable, fickle, self-obsessed. And by a subtle alchemy, she comes at first to dwell with the glory of wealth, then to embody, at last to replace it in Dexter’s increasingly eroticized imagination. He imagines the splendors of her mansion’s floor of bedrooms, in words which Fitzgerald (ever a thrifty husbandman of his own prose) moved bodily into an equivalent scene in Gatsby.
As Dexter enters manhood, the complex dream in which Judy and her world of social grandeur and illimitability remains with him, while he takes steps to transcend his own limited life, persuading his father to send him east to the Ivy League, where, with a subtle blend of dream and hard-headedness, he acquires the clothes and the mannerisms of Judy’s class, while realizing that he can never himself fully enter it. “His mother’s name had been Krimslich. She was a Bohemian of the peasant class and she had spoken broken English to the end of her days.” As Fitzgerald tells us, Dexter was at bottom a practical man, and he becomes rich by a touchingly imaginative blend of dream and reality, building up a chain of dry-cleaning and laundry shops, specializing in the proper treatment of the imported tweeds of upper-class men and the delicate French lingerie of the wives. At last, years later and by chance, after he is established in a New York skyscraper, he learns that Judy is married now, with a thick and unfeeling husband, tied down with the children. And she has lost her looks.
“Winter Dreams” is a kind of rough sketch for the novel which Fitzgerald did not yet know he wanted to write. It is more rooted in social reality than Gatsby would be, and for that reason it has problems that Gatsby does not have, but also, as we shall see, it avoids problems that would in Gatsby loom formidably. We don’t know what Dexter did in the war, beyond learning that, like Gatsby, he “went into the first officers’ training camp.” It is most doubtful though, if, like Major Jay Gatsby, he had held off the enemy for two nights with a hundred and thirty men and sixteen Lewis guns, winning a decoration from every government, even little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea. That sounds more like his adolescent imaginings on the frozen fairways. But then it is even harder to imagine Jay Gatsby as the proprietor of a dry-cleaning shop in Black Bear.
“Long ago,” Dexter says at the story’s close, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.” Like Gatsby, he has lived too long with a single dream, and when it shattered, he entered, as Gatsby would, a community of loss, “material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.”
Fitzgerald completed The Great Gatsby in the villa at St. Raphaël, had the typing completed, and sent it off to Perkins at the end of October. Soon after, Scott and Zelda drove to Rome, apparently because Zelda had been reading Roderick Hudson but perhaps also because the Riviera held complex and troubling memories for her. They settled into a hotel in the Piazza di Spagna, perhaps because it held associations with the dying Keats, whom Scott worshiped this side idolatry, but came swiftly to loathe the city and its inhabitants. “Pope Siphilis the Sixth and his Morons,” muttered the ex-Catholic, whom scholars tell us retained to the end something called “a Catholic sensibility.” He got drunk and was beaten up by the police.
On December 6 and 30, the galley proofs arrived from New York, and he set to work on his revisions. This may seem an odd way of proceeding, but in those primitive days of publishing, Scribners was in the fortunate position of owning its own printing plant, on West 43rd Street, close to its Fifth Avenue editorial offices. Perkins’s decision to have Fitzgerald’s novel set immediately into type presumes that he did not expect extensive revisions, and he was in any case following his customary practice: Fitzgerald’s earlier books were treated similarly, as Hemingway’s would be. More astonishingly, he “had the novels of Thomas Wolfe typeset before he and Wolfe got down to serious work on them.” Letterpress composition, back then, we are told, would not have cost much more than having a stenographer make a typescript.
We are now in the fortunate position of having available to us, and in two forms, the text as Perkins had it set into type, both of them bearing the word Trimalchio as title.2 This is the title which Fitzgerald was insisting on at the time, and it is the running head on the galleys. The first is a facsimile publication of the proofs themselves, limited to five hundred numbered copies on laid paper, resting handsomely and snugly in a box of royal blue, with more or less the proportions, although of course not the size, of a coffin. There is an afterword by Professor Matthew Bruccoli, the dean of Fitzgerald scholars, to whose work on Fitzgerald and other writers of the period we are all of us in debt. His is the one biography which can be said to supercede Mizener’s, although its title, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, may suggest that his admiration sometimes surges over the top.3 We also have Professor James West’s Trimalchio, described by Cambridge University Press as “An Early Version of The Great Gatsby.” It is a bound volume, one in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it is therefore easier to use than the reproduced galleys, although much less fun.
Unless you are a scholar of bibliography, which is not a fun profession, there are two reasons which make instructive a comparison of Trimalchio and The Great Gatsby. Cambridge tells us that reading the “early and complete version” is like listening to a familiar musical composition—but played in a different key and with an alternate bridge passage. It is the same work and yet a different work.” I myself am tone-deaf, unfortunately, but this seems fair enough: maybe a bridge passage is like a transition, at which Fitzgerald, as we shall see, was a master.
In the years that had followed his first publications, Fitzgerald had become a thoroughgoing professional, and the way in which he managed a major revision simply (!) by moving materials from various chapters to other chapters, on the galleys, is breathtaking, and he did it without diminishing, but rather intensifying the required moods and tonalities. He did it in two months, while turning out potboilers to cover expenses—they were broke again—and getting into more mischief with the Romans. Most of the revisions were addressed to a specific problem, which Perkins had raised with him, but there was another, more fundamental problem, which he could not quite define, not even in a well-known letter to Wilson, who had written to congratulate him:
The worst fault in it I think is a BIG FAULT: I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy from the time of their reunion to the catastrophe. However, the lack is so astutely concealed by the retrospect of Gatsby’s past and by blankets of excellent prose that no one has noticed it—though everyone has felt the lack and called it by another name.
And that is what everyone did. Mencken “said that the only fault was that the central story was trivial and a kind of anecdote (that is because he has admiration for Conrad and adjusted himself to the sprawling novel) and I felt that what he really missed was the lack of any emotional backbone at the height of it.” As for the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.
When Perkins read the typescript of—let us call it Trimalchio—he was shaken. “I think the novel is a wonder,” he wrote back. “I’m taking it home to read again, and shall then write my impressions in full—but it has vitality to an extraordinary degree, and glamour and a great deal of underlying thought of unusual quality.”
The novel has rarely had a better reader, so generous yet judicious as to restore what may be a waning awe for Perkins as a great editor. His remarks focus precisely upon the book’s method and the scenes which are the most memorable and signifying. They deserve quotation at length:
You adopted exactly the right method of telling it, that of employing a narrator who is more of a spectator than an actor: this puts the reader upon a point of observation on a higher level than that on which the characters stand and at a distance that gives perspective. In no other way could your irony have been so immensely effective, nor the reader have been enabled so strongly to feel at times the strangeness of human circumstances in a vast heedless universe. In the eyes of Dr. Eckleberg various readers will see different significances; but their presence gives a superb touch to the whole thing: great unblinking eyes, expressionless, looking down on the human scene. It’s magnificent!
…I have only two actual criticisms:—
One is that among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport,” not verbal, but physical ones perhaps…. The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course. But at the end you make it clear that his wealth comes through his connection with Wolfsheim…. The total lack of an explanation through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect;—or not of an explanation, but of the suggestion of an explanation…. There is one other point: in giving deliberately Gatsby’s biography when he gives it to the narrator you do depart from the method of the narrative to some degree, for otherwise almost everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it—in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them….
The presentation of Tom, his place, Daisy and Jordan, and the unfolding of their characters is unequalled so far as I know. The description of the valley of ashes adjacent to the lovely country, the conversation and the action in Myrtle’s apartment, the marvellous catalogue of those who came to Gatsby’s house,—these are such things as make a man famous. And all these things, the whole pathetic episode, you have given a place in time and space, for with the help of T.J. Eckleberg and by an occasional glance at the sky, or the sea, or the city, you have imparted a sort of sense of eternity. You once told me that you were not a natural writer—my God! You have plainly mastered the craft, of course; but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.
All that Perkins singled out for praise—the narrative method, the individual scenes, are of course carried forward intact from Trimalchio to Gatsby and so too is that light dusting upon existence for which Perkins could find no better word than “glamour” and neither can anyone else.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. There was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
There is no need, surely, to rehearse the plot of “probably the most widely read novel written by an American in the twentieth century.” The opening chapters of Trimalchio and The Great Gatsby are pretty much the same, barring the kind of fussing every writer does with galleys. The chief changes come in Chapters Six and Seven of Trimalchio, and the long, late chapter, as Gatsby and Nick sit by the open French windows in Gatsby’s house, the dawn after Myrtle’s killing, when Gatsby breaks out “exuberantly”: “I’ll tell you everything. The whole story. I’ve never told it to anyone before—not even Daisy. But I haven’t told many lies about it, either, only I’ve shifted things around a good deal to make people wonder.” And shifting things about is what Fitzgerald, his creator—one of his surrogate fathers, like Cody and Wolfsheim—now proceeds to do. Perkins had surely been right: Gatsby’s story comes to us much more persuasively measured out among chapters. And it has effects that could not have been anticipated. It is right, for example, that we should learn, much earlier, that “Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that.”
In a jubilant, indeed cocksure letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald reported that he had brought Gatsby to life, accounted for his money, fixed up the second party scene and the climactic scene at the Plaza, and successfully broken up the long, autobiographical scene at Gatsby’s French windows. In brief, by an act of stylistic legerdemain, he had addressed all of Perkins’s concerns. What he had not addressed were his own misgivings about the novel’s emotional center, or rather, its lack of one.
There is a moment in Trimalchio at one of the parties, when Daisy and Nick are dancing and Daisy, leaning backward to look into his face, tells him that she just wants to go, and not tell Tom anything. She is afraid of the riskiness of Gatsby’s world, afraid of “some authentically radiant young girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion.” A few weeks later, the lights failed to go on one Saturday night, and “as obscurely as it had begun his career as Trimalchio suddenly ended.” “I’m very sad old sport,” he tells Nick a few days later. “Daisy wants us to run off together. She came over this afternoon with a suitcase all packed and ready in the car.” In other words, Nick tells him, understandably if a bit brutally, you’ve got her—and now you don’t want her. What Gatsby wants, as far as he had figured things out, is that he and Daisy should go back to Louisville and be married in her house and start life over. The bewilderment which this bizarre enterprise might cause in that conventional household seemed to him of no concern. As he walks frantically up and down, he seems to be in some fantastic communication with time and space. With a bit more experience, Nick could have pointed out to him that when you mess around with an excitable young married woman, you are buying yourself a peck of trouble.
It is at this point that there occurs the passage that, when carried over from Trimalchio into Gatsby, has caused much spilled ink. Gatsby remembers the time, five years before at the change of the year, when he kissed Daisy, and knew that now his mind would never romp again like the mind of God: “So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
The extremity of the language is necessary, though, if the relationship of these star-crossed lovers is to be grasped, and it is at least possible that Fitzgerald has conjured into being sets of feelings that run on different tracks. Daisy lives in the world we like to call real, in which women, real women, stuff their suitcases with real silks and drive real cars over to a lover. A bit headstrong, perhaps, but none the less real for that. But Gatsby lives in the world of romantic energies and colors, a world shaped as a conspiracy between himself and the writer who has been creating him. It is the world of Emma Bovary and Julien Sorel and Balzac’s heroes. How it was wandered into by a cornball from the shores of Lake Superior must remain, no doubt, a mystery. But there you are.
As Fitzgerald wrote to his other literary friend from Princeton, John Peale Bishop, “You are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at any one time saw him clear myself—for he started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself—the amalgam was never complete in my mind.” But that would happen always with his central figures—Amory Blaine and Anthony Patch, Dexter Green, Dick Diver, Monroe Stahr. It is a common affliction of the romantic sensibility and still more of romantic aspiration. Small wonder that Keats was his favorite poet—perhaps his favorite writer—or that he wrote to his daughter that The Eve of Saint Agnes “has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not excepting Shakespeare.” It would be somewhere within his mind when Gatsby begins throwing his London-made shirts before Daisy in multicolored disarray, “shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue.” Small wonder that when the single romantic dream shatters, the world disassembles itself, uncreates itself, drains off its colors and names for things. “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found out what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.”
Fitzgerald—and Zelda too, in her different way—had received a raven’s wing of that terror of the suddenly unreal in that summer when he was writing Gatsby, and Zelda either became infatuated with or fell desperately in love with a young French naval aviator named Édouard Jozan. He would appear, variously renamed, in Tender Is the Night and in Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz. “Everybody knew it but Scott,” Sara Murphy said. But he found out. They always do. Even Tom Buchanan did when he heard Daisy say to Gatsby: “You always look so cool.” Apparently the jury is still out on whether Zelda went to bed with Jozan, but it might not have much mattered in view of the enormous, the almost Gatsby-like investment which Fitz-gerald and Zelda had made in each other.
Back in 1920, a young woman friend of Fitzgerald’s, bearing the somewhat improbable name of Isabelle Amorous, heard that the engagement had been broken off, and wrote to tell him that from all she had heard he was well out of it. She got an earshot in reply, which is what such people deserve:
No personality as strong as Zelda’s could go without getting criticisms and as you say she is not above reproach. I’ve always known that. Any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has “kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,” cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it. But Isabelle I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be.
But of course the real reason, Isabelle, is that I love her and that’s the beginning and end of everything. You’re still a Catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.
So much for this “lapsed Catholic sensibility” nonsense. He ends the letter with admirable restraint, perhaps because he is writing from Princeton’s Cottage Club: “And don’t reproach yourself for your letter. My friends are unanimous in frankly advising me not to marry a wild, pleasure-loving girl like Zelda so I’m quite used to it.” To speak of Zelda, then at least, as what he has instead of God (which is eerily prophetic of something Brett says to Jake in The Sun Also Rises) is more than a lover’s rhetoric; it is something closer to the fact.
Now, from the Riviera in August, a month after he has confronted Zelda, and as he is finishing the novel, he writes to another old friend, Ludlow Fowler, the model for Anson Hunter in “The Rich Boy”: “That’s the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”
There remains now only the hygienic task of clearing up a misconception about this novel which has grown mushroomlike beside it, and threat-ens at times almost to replace it. This is the belief that The Great Gatsby is about something called “the Ameri-can Dream.” Scholars exchange their learned articles on the subject, and generations of college freshmen are told about it. If you whispered into a reader’s sleeping ear the words “Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,” she would murmur drowsily “and the corruption of the American dream.” By the time Mizener was at work on his biography, he was writing with confidence of “Gatsby’s embodiment of the American dream.” Subsequent libraries of Gatsby criticism are elaborations of the theme. There probably is an American dream, and it probably deserves some of the things that are said about it. (How else could we have wound up with Gore and Bush—such things are not accidents.) But this is not the subject of Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel, which is “about” our entrance into the world “trailing clouds of glory” until
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Wordsworth was not in a particularly American mood when he wrote the Immortality Ode. And he even went out of his way to tell us in a long note what he took his own poem to be about. Many times when going to school, he tells us, “have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality.” In his poem, he chooses to regard this “as resumptive evidence of a prior state of existence,” an idea “not advanced in revelation” but with “nothing there to contradict it.” And, if one would want some more recent speculations upon the subject, one might study what Nick feels after Gatsby’s fear that his mind will not romp again like the mind of God:
Through all that he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there were more struggling on them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.
That memory came to a first European life in a Platonic dialogue, and since then we have been listening to fragmentary echoes from the Cave. Of course, Fitzgerald has much to tell us about the life and the history of American culture, about the textures, the richnesses and thinnesses of our national life—because after all, as we’ve been told, poetry must have a local habitation and a name. And maybe we have persuaded ourselves that all American novels are really about America, and not about love and eros and death.
December 21, 2000
Arthur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Houghton Mifflin, 1951). ↩
In the Satyricon by Petronius, Trimalchio is a vulgar and rich ex-slave who gives gaudy banquets to derisive guests. Gatsby scholars who specialize in clocks (and there are some: Time and all that) should note Trimalchio’s water-clock. ↩
Harcourt Brace, 1981. ↩