Youth!

Something in reference to a man who subscribes to an agency for “clippings,” to send him everything “that appears about him”—and finds that nothing ever appears. That he never receives anything.

—Henry James, Notebooks,
quoted in All the Sad Young Literary Men

When F. Scott Fitzgerald published the mostly slick, romantic-sentimental short story collection All the Sad Young Men in 1926, he was only thirty years old and yet, in the accelerated and vertiginous atmosphere of the Jazz Age, after his early, giddy success at the age of twenty-three, a Princeton dropout who’d written the best-selling This Side of Paradise (1920), he had already begun the lengthy, fractured “second act” of his career—an interlude of fourteen years during which, while drinking heavily and living carelessly, Fitzgerald continued to write and to publish such powerful works of fiction as Tender Is the Night (1934), the short stories “Babylon Revisited” (1931) and “The Swimmers” (1936), and the highly influential memoir “The Crack-Up” (1936), before his premature death at the age of forty-four, in 1940.

In 1925, he’d published The Great Gatsby, now a “classic” of our literature and at that time a clear expression of the young author’s disillusion with his very success. The nine stories of All the Sad Young Men contain portraits, widely varying in quality and originality, of young men whose “winter dreams” of religious belief, the love of beautiful women, and the pursuit of wealth have collapsed about them. These “sad young men”—self-portraits at times verging upon self-caricatures—are naively inexperienced, immature, and foolish in their expectations. We are likely to side with Ernest Hemingway, who’d rebuked Fitzgerald’s romantic fascination with the rich (“[They] are very different from you and me” begins “The Rich Boy”) in a famous passage in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”:

The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The rich are very different from you and me.” And how someone had said to Julian, “Yes, they have more money.”*

By contrast, the “sad young literary men” of Keith Gessen’s first novel will not strike most readers as unusually naive or foolish in their expectations, especially as 1990s Ivy League graduates with a more than ordinary interest in contemporary history and politics, who find themselves, soon after graduation, in an America whose presidency has been brazenly hijacked by reactionary politicians:

…I was ashamed of us. Nothing had gone as we had hoped. We might still recover—I might still make a wonderful career in liberal punditry, [a Harvard classmate, the daughter of the outgoing Vice-President] could still rejuvenate the Democratic Party—but the success we’d glimpsed, that we had smelled with our noses…was denied us. We might still make it but it would not be for many years, and we would not be so beautiful as…


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