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F. Scott Fitzgerald, Socialist Version

books and culture

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Socialist Version

A revisionist biography fails to convince in its portrait of the American novelist as a serious critic of market capitalism. October 6, 2017
Arts and Culture

Paradise Lost: A New Life of Scott Fitzgerald, by David S. Brown (Harvard University Press, 397 pp., 29.95)

The essence of revisionist history is boldness: if one is not prepared to overturn conventional readings radically, then there is little point to the exercise—and the bolder the revisionism, the greater the stakes. David S. Brown’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald deserves credit for taking such a bold approach. Most previous Fitzgerald biographies have been content to portray their subject as an honorable and hardworking writer of considerable talent whose inability to drink sensibly ruined his chances of writing the good books that he had it in him to write—more well-made books like The Great Gatsby, say, rather than potboilers like The Beautiful and the Damned or his often one-dimensional formulaic short stories or the ambitious but flawed Tender is the Night, which H.L. Mencken rightly regarded as “poor stuff indeed.” Instead of the gin-soaked scribbler trying, against all odds, to wrest literary greatness from personal ruin, Brown presents Fitzgerald as a social critic, who deplored the excesses and evils of market capitalism in nearly everything he wrote. Brown thus places Fitzgerald and his work not in the context of literary art but of intellectual history.

As theses go, this is not as implausible as it may sound. After all, The Great Gatsby could be read through this anti-capitalist lens. Gatsby, like Fitzgerald himself, invents a persona for himself in accordance with capitalist criteria for happiness—and winds up with what T.S. Eliot called “a receipt for deceit.“ In this reading, for the true dénouement of the book, readers can look beyond Nick Carraway’s conclusion about Gatsby’s inability to attain his dream to the disillusioned avowals of The Crack-up, where the romantic in Fitzgerald comes face to face, not with “man’s capacity for wonder,” but with a kind of purchaser’s remorse. In My Lost City (1932), Fitzgerald struck a distinctly Chestertonian note when, standing atop the Empire State Building, “the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers,” he recalled what he describes as the city’s “crowning error . . . its Pandora Box,” to which he gave characteristically trenchant expression: “Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never expected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits.” In Orthodoxy (1908), Chesterton had articulated this reality with a pungency that must have stuck in Fitzgerald’s youthful mind. “The moment you step into the world of facts,” the Fleet Street philosopher observed, “you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature.”

One can entertain Brown’s revisionist thesis on other grounds. Stories like “May Day” (1920), “The Diamond as Big as The Ritz” (1922), “The Rich Boy” (1926), and “Babylon Revisited” (1931) can be read as Fitzgerald’s sifting through the  sand on which so much of capitalist society was built, the boom and bust that reflected the remorseless cupidity of the Scotch-Irish who devised its rules—men like Mellon and Morgan, Carnegie and Frick and, indeed, Fitzgerald’s own maternal grandfather, Philip McQuillan, who made a fair pile out of the wholesale grocery business, though it was always with his own father, whom Fitzgerald’s first biographer Arthur Mizener characterized as “a quiet gentlemanly man with beautiful Southern manners,” that the novelist most identified.

Brown’s thesis has several problems, though. First, market capitalism does have limits, however much overzealous practitioners might sometimes wish to defy them: this is precisely why capitalism sees booms and busts. Fitzgerald can scarcely be credited with criticizing market capitalists by reminding them of a well-known reality. Second, Fitzgerald was nothing if not a lifelong fan of capitalism’s fruits. The Plaza Hotel, Ivy League colleges, Ivy League clubs, expensive cars, expensive tipple, the French Riviera, Brooks Brothers, and Jazz Age New York were just a few of his favorite things—and none would have been possible without a market economy. Third, if Fitzgerald was aware that the privileges and pleasures on which his often fortunate characters battened came occasionally at the expense of the less fortunate, he never indulged in the class resentment typical of capitalist critics. On the contrary, he often made no bones about his preference for writing of the more fortunate. An amusing example can be found in “May Day,” where Fitzgerald describes Yale undergraduates meeting against the backdrop of hopeless socialist protest. Here, readers of a certain age will recall what a mainstay of Manhattan’s class system could be found in one of its most characteristic eateries:

Childs’, Fifty-ninth Street, at eight o’clock of any morning differs from its sisters by less than the width of their marble tables, or the degrees of polish on the frying-pans.  You will see a crowd of poor people with sleep in their eyes, trying to look straight before them at their food so as not to see the other poor people.  But Childs’ Fifty-ninth, four hours earlier is quite unlike any Childs’ restaurant from Portland Oregon to Portland, Maine. Within its pale but sanitary walls one finds a noisy medley of chorus girls, college boys, debutantes, rakes, filles de joie—a not unrepresentative mixture of the gayest of Broadway, even of Fifth Avenue.

If a social critic hid beneath the aesthete in Fitzgerald, he was oddly inept at showing himself. For Brown, though, the Great Gatsby “offered readers a peek into the imposing Plaza Hotel, informed them that pharmacies were excellent places to buy illegal hooch, and effectively contrasted the nation’s new wealth-gathering with its older and presumably less material-minded ideals.” Here, the shakiness of Brown’s revisionist thesis becomes most apparent. Fitzgerald, on the one hand, is a purveyor of a kind of morose delectation and, on the other, a critic of the “new wealth-gathering,” which, despite the prurience to which he caters, he contrasts “presumably” with undefined “older” and “less material-minded ideals.” Fitzgerald might have famously said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” but this is hardly a good definition of a coherent social critic.

In any case, it’s dubious whether Fitzgerald’s idea of paradise, lost or regained, had anything to do with market capitalism. Slowly drinking himself to death with his friend Ring Lardner would have been more to his taste than yearning after an American agrarianism, unrealistic even in Thomas Jefferson’s day. Through page after page of this misguided book, I could not help recalling something Fitzgerald once said of his spendthrift wife Zelda and himself: “We’re too poor to economize. Economy is a luxury . . . our only salvation is in extravagance.” The idea that this improvident hedonist was a secret acolyte of Thornstein Veblen and The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) is comical—even if, to turn a needed buck, Fitzgerald once wrote something called “The Irresponsible Rich” (1924).

Even with Fitzgerald’s contradictions, Brown might have written a good book if he were a better intellectual historian. As it is, he never brings alive the figures whom he claims taught Fitzgerald to doubt the values on which he and his acquisitive society were reared. Speaking of Henry Adams,  author of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904), for example, Brown is not so much unenlightening as meaningless.

Like Adams, Scott wanted to understand the source of society’s disenchantment, to follow the accelerating pace of its power as it rippled through regions, peoples and cultures. Both men were interested in observing the dynamo’s impact. Adams developed a particular interest in fifteenth-century European origins; Fitzgerald, by contrast, headed straight to Gotham.

No revisionist biographer capable of this degree of nonsense will convince us that Scott Fitzgerald took any serious interest in ideas, let alone economics. Brown may make the novelist congenial to the anti-capitalist academy—the same academy that exhorts its charges to take to the ramparts in pursuit of utopian socialism’s elusive benefits—but he will not persuade anyone appreciative of the true source of Fitzgerald’s elegiac art. To understand that peculiarly romantic wellspring, we have to go to another romantic— William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who summed up in two verses what Brown cannot capture in nearly 400 pages: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes/What more is there to say?”

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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