F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism
For me, the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was an English Romantic Poet like John Keats (1795-1821), who experienced during his college years — that pivotal time of transition from youth to adulthood — the shock of World War I destroying the Belle Époque and unleashing the blaring, crass, destructive, frenzied and wasteful Youth Quake sociological explosion known as the Roaring Twenties, when the prewar Gilded Age was resuscitated — to eventually reach its apotheosis in Trumpian America — during the postwar prosperity of a hypocritically repressed Prohibition America that was an economic bubble flinging open the starting gates to the modernization of American manners, morals, rhythms, fantasies and expectations, and whose totality we have all experienced as the 20th Century, which we can date as the zeitgeist from 1919 to 2019.
The zeitgeist now is of self-evident global warming climate change, openly acknowledged by all except intransigent ultra wealthy buffoons clinging to their hoards and their pathetically transparent propaganda intended to ward off just taxation.
Fitzgerald was a literary artist, a lyrical romanticist who became the hip young voice of the 1920s outburst because he was able to apply his 19th century mindset and literary facility to articulate — as deep psychological insights of general applicability — his personal youthful experiences and observations of transiting through the World War I cultural shock wave thrusting his generation into the manic modernity of a vastly industrialized, depersonalized and entertainment-obsessed America.
It was because Fitzgerald’s conceptions had been formed in a previous social paradigm that he had a basis from which to objectively evaluate the new psycho-social realities of the 1920s. Younger and less alert people, whose entire awareness of social life awakened during the 1920s, lacked such a contrasting mental framework because they were blindingly immersed in, and distracted and buffeted by their times. Fitzgerald was young enough to be completely hip to and synchronized with the 1920s, but not too young to be unable to understand where the 1920s had emerged from, how they were different from the prewar past, and how they were experienced as matters of personal and societal character.
Fitzgerald, along with his older English contemporary W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), have given me the deepest psychological insights into women as men experience them, and into personal character as it expresses itself through interpersonal relationships, especially between the sexes.
A similar transition of American life occurred forty to fifty years later when the Vietnam War shattered the stability and stasis of 1950s America, from which erupted the cultural efflorescence and political turmoil of the late 1960s, which like the late 1920s burned off the general prosperity that had been accumulated during the economic boom hot-housed during the preceding period of victorious peace.
Culturally alert writers of the 1960s included Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007), Joseph Heller (1923-1999), Malcolm X (1925-1965) with Alex Haley (1921-1992), and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). These writers were as different from F. Scott Fitzgerald as he was from Mark Twain (1835-1910), and none of these others matched Fitzgerald for lyricism, except for a memorable passage in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — on the Mississippi River in early morning — and the calmly eloquent and reflective moments in Tennessee Williams’ dramas.
Fitzgerald was 14 when Twain died, and when Fitzgerald died at age 44 in 1940: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was 18, Joseph Heller was 17, Malcolm X was 15, Alex Haley was 19, and Tennessee Williams was 29. W. Somerset Maugham was 22 when F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, 36 when Mark Twain died, and 66 when F. Scott Fitzgerald died.
Twain’s war shocks were the American Civil War (1860-1865) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), while Vonnegut’s and Heller’s were World War II (1941-1945), primarily, and also the Korean War (1950-1953, for the hot war) and the Vietnam War (1954-1975, for the American phase).
Fitzgerald’s life was so timed that during the third decade of his life — and prime adult years — he also experienced the societal shock of the Crash of 1929 and its immediate aftermath, the Great Depression (1929-1942), when the outlandish and dissipative prosperity of 1920s capitalism collapsed into the socio-economic wreckage of the 1930s, with his own personal circumstances tumbling into ruins along with the times.
I find Fitzgerald’s keen insights on personal motivations and character, and on interpersonal relationships, to be far superior to those of both earlier and later American writers because of how his English Romantic Poetic frame of mind processed his experiences with youthful success and the allurements of fame while confronting the postwar shock of the new in the 1920s, followed by the collapse of illusions with the loss of wealth and social status in the 1930s, and all of that filtered through his intense emotions pulsing out of his marriage to and care for Zelda Sayre, his socially advanced and schizophrenic wife, and mother of his only child.
I can see why Fitzgeraldian lyricism was stripped out of American writing in reaction to the serial disappointments of the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the sterility of the Tailfin ’50s, and the Vietnam War, and why Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and imitators of his arid style became popular to this day, given the post World War II re-acceleration of life’s American rhythm, and the relentless commercially driven dumbing down of the American mind.
The loss of lyricism from American literary fiction, since that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is not a sign of its increased artistry and insight, but of the opposite.
If lyricism is a direct outpouring from the heart, as it were, American authors have not lost it. There are countless examples since Fitzgerald’s death. But writers now tend to lyricize more about themselves and their situations (Identity politics?). Fitzgerald registered surprise that American optimism no longer held true. That was part of his freshness and his charm. Few now wax lyrical about their country or even their generation. Optimism, related to the idea of American exceptionalism, is dead (for all but p.r. hacks). Though hard to swallow given our upbringing, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
I have found so many instances where Fitzgerald is lyrical about the natural setting that his characters are acting through, like Twain was about the Mississippi River in one lovely instance in Huckleberry Finn, and I find them so often breathtaking that I have to stop and just savor those images: art painted with words.
True, and those last lines of ‘Gatsby’ must strike every American like a wound.