My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Friday, September 24, 2021

September 24, 2021: American Modernists: F. Scott Fitzgerald

[September 24th is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 125th birthday! So in honor of that quintessential Modernist author, this week I’ll AmericanStudy him and a handful of other exemplary such writers. Share your thoughts on any of them, and any other Modernist authors and texts you’d highlight, for an experimental crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On a short story that can help us revisit and revise our overly familiar narratives of a famous Modernist author.

I tried in this post to make the case for why, to my mind, The Great Gatsby is overrated—not bad by any means, but not anywhere close to the Great American Novel either. That might seem like a funny present with which to begin a happy 125th birthday post, but I would actually argue the opposite: that it’s to Fitzgerald’s disadvantage that he’s become so closely associated with this one novel and character. I mean, not in every way; obviously no author would pass up having a book ranked as the 2nd greatest novel of the 20th century, for example. But beyond the ways in which such close associations of an author with one work always limit our narratives and images of that author (and they really always do), in this particular case I think the problem is exacerbated by the not insignificant fact that Gatsby is the superficial asshole, obsessed with another superficial asshole, about whom I wrote in that hyperlinked post. Fitzgerald and his novelist-narrator Nick do an excellent job beautifying that dude and that obsession, to be sure, but at the end of the day I’m really not convinced that Gatsby was worth the whole damn bunch of them together—and I’m definitely convinced that linking F. Scott Fitzgerald too fully to this one novel does him no favors.

Luckily, there’s a very easy answer to that problem, which is to read one (or ideally all, but one’s a good start) of the many other complicated and compelling books and stories that Fitzgerald wrote across his 15-year publishing career. My personal favorite is probably the short story that I highlighted briefly in this post, “Babylon Revisited” (1931). For one thing, the six years between Gatsby and “Babylon” are so important to the depth and success of the latter story—not just because it’s written and set during the Great Depression, and so can flashback self-reflectively and thoughtfully to the Roaring ‘20s rather than being so consumed by the superficial excesses of that moment (as at times Gatsby certainly is, such as the multi-paragraph descriptions of Gatsby’s utterly meaningless parties); but also because for this reader at least Fitzgerald’s style had grown and deepened substantially over those six years, with the result being that “Babylon” complements the unquestionable beauty of Gatsby’s prose with many more layers of complex human identity than Nick can give his focal characters in that novel. (Another reason why the association of Fitzgerald with Gatsby is problematic—it was a pretty early text! Give the man space to grow!)

Perhaps the most telling such human layer to “Babylon” and its protagonist Charlie Wales is an emotion that is undoubtedly a factor of that time shift but also seems largely absent from most of Gatsby’s characters: regret. Toward the end of the novel Nick critiques Tom and Daisy Buchanan as people who cause messes and then leave others to deal with the consequences, but I’d say the same for pretty much all of the novel’s characters—I’m not sure any of the main characters spare a second thought for example for Myrtle Wilson, the most direct casualty (among a few!) of Gatsby’s and Daisy’s and Tom’s (and Nick’s) actions. Charlie, on the other hand, is consumed by regret, forced to deal day in and day out with the consequences of his actions during that decade of Roaring 20s excesses and errors—consequences that have most fully affected and limited his relationship to his daughter (which we might compare for example to Daisy and her young daughter, whom we see and hear about precisely once in the entirety of Gatsby). That emotion, those struggles, that relationship are all more profound and more powerfully human than any of the superficial games played by the novel’s characters, and they remind us of just what this Modernist author was capable of. For his 125th, let’s agree to start reading him beyond that most famous book, okay?

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: what do you think? Thoughts on these authors and texts, or any other Modernist ones, for the weekend post?

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