F. Scott Fitzgerald—Novelist of psychological and spiritual malaise

Robert Cotner

Author’s note: For this series, I have chosen four American writers of the 1920s to represent what I consider the dominant literary motifs emerging from American culture in that decade. Each arose from a distinct intellectual vantage point; each carried forth into later generations, and all are with us, in some form, to this day. Presented at the Bluestem Festival of Arts and Humanities, Lake Forest, IL, June 8, 2001.


. Scott Fitzgerald launched the 1920s with his novel This Side of Paradise, under the guidance of the most notable editor of the ‘20s, Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner’s Sons. The concluding passage of this novel enunciates well what might be considered the theme of the age. Fitzgerald, in a closing authorial summation, suggests that the final chapter, “The End of Many Things,” is a transcendental termination of things beyond the men’s college days:

It is graduation day at Princeton, and Amory Blaine, the novel’s protagonist, and his friend Tom sum up their university experience in this final conversation.

“And what we leave here is more than this class; it’s the whole heritage of youth. We’re just one generation–we’re breaking all the links that seemed to bind us here to top-booted and high-stocked generations. We’ve walked arm in arm with [Aaron] Burr and Light-Horse Harry Lee through half these deep blue nights.”

“That’s what they are,” Tom tangented off, “deep blue—a bit of color would spoil them, make them exotic. Spires, against a sky that’s a promise of dawn, and blue light on the slate roofs—it hurts . . . rather—— “

“Good bye, Aaron Burr,” Amory called toward deserted Nassau Hall, “you and I knew strange corners of life.”

His voice echoed in the stillness . . .

The last light fades and drifts across the land—the low, long land, the sunny land of spires; the ghosts of evening tune again their lyres and wander singing in a plaintive band down the long corridors of trees; . . .

. . . Here, Heraclitus, did you find in fire and shifting things the prophecy you hurled down the dead years; this midnight my desire will see, shadowed among the embers, furled in flame, the splendor and the sadness of the world.1

“The splendor and the sadness of the world” might well be the theme of the 1920s. Fitzgerald, fragile though he was, captured as well as any novelist that splendor and sadness throughout his writing. His novels are about those “certified,” by proper educational credentials from the “right” schools and by social-class identification, which sets them apart through wealth and its accouterments. Fitzgerald, with his own certification at Princeton, aligned himself with the tradition of Henry Adams and composed a life, in actuality and in fiction, that might well have begun “Under the shadow of Boston State House,”2 as Henry Adams began his Education of Henry Adams.

There were other great novelists of the age, including Ernest Hemingway, John DosPassos, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Wolfe, and E.E. Cummings, to name but a few. And there was a host of second-tier novelists, whose works yet live, including Gene Stratton Porter, Ring Lardner, and Marjorie Rawlings. But distinct from all of these creative masters, Fitzgerald captured the alienation and loneliness of the era better than any other.

Midway through the decade, in 1925, Fitzgerald wrote what may be the greatest novel of the era. I speak of The Great Gatsby, a novel that has a vital life even in our day. There have been various motion picture adaptations and a recently created opera, performed by the Chicago Lyric Opera in October 2000.3

The novel is the story of one Jay Gatsby, a popular, wealthy resident of West Egg. He has a penchant for fast automobiles and beautiful women. But he is flawed: he has not been duly certified by graduation from an Ivy League college, and he is an “outsider,” albeit a polished and wealthy outsider. In addition, he has connections with people whose reputations do not pass muster.

So we have here twin themes—alienation and accommodation. Surrounded by the symbols of success within America—his home, his car, his society—Gatsby cannot achieve full acceptance and is assassinated, the ultimate alienation. We learn that Gatsby’s real name is Jimmie Gatz, when his father, an Eastern European by birth, comes to West Egg for Gatsby’s funeral. Mr. Gatz reveals the painstaking way in which Gatsby had accommodated himself to what Gatsby thought to be the standards of personal behavior. From his earliest years in America, he had a daily schedule, which included exercise, study, work, the “Practice [of] elocution, poise and how to attain it,” and a list of “General Resolves,”4 which read like something from Ben Franklin.

But this thoughtful accommodation, without certification, avails nothing. What Gatsby does not grasp is the fact that, as Fitzgerald points out, Daisy Buchanan, whom Gatsby loves, “was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes.”5 It was Fitzgerald’s strength to create this “artificial world,” this “cheerful snobbery,” and the sadness that came from the “new tunes” of America in the 1920s. Fitzgerald was decidedly anti-democratic in his vision of America. And he was, though Midwestern by birth, an Eastern, urban novelist in spirit, who captured the decadence of the Jazz Age through his five novels and dozens of short stories. v

(Next month will feature Langston Hughes)

End Notes

1 F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, New York: Gramercy Books, 1996, p. 118.

2 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, New York: Modern Library, 1931, p. 3.

3 The opera, The Great Gatsby, with music and libretto by John Harbison and popular song lyrics by Murray Horowitz, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999 and performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000. A new and excellent, made-for-television version of The Great Gatsby was presented in 2000.

4 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925, p. 175.

5 Gatsby, p. 151.

Statue of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Rice Park, St. Paul, MN, by Michael B. Price. Photo by Jon A. Cotner.

View chronology of books by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Return to Caxtonian table of contents

Return to the Caxton Club home page