Camelot Meets Babylon: F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American Dream
By Jimmy Maher
At the turn of the last century, Horatio Alger was one of the most successful authors on the American popular literary scene. A quick glance at Alger’s oeuvre confirms that formula was as much a staple of the typical American’s entertainment diet then as now, for his books are relentlessly identical. In each, a young boy rises through hard work and resourcefulness from the most humble of circumstance to make a fortune, to get the girl, and to be invited to all the best parties. Alger’s dime novels are populated by an army of earnest ragamuffins with business plans in their heads and dreams in their hearts.
A quarter-century after Alger’s death, but while his books still remained lodged in the American consciousness, a much better writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald included as the titular character of arguably his best novel a self-made man whose own rags-to-riches story would easily qualify him for inclusion in Alger’s canon. I can imagine Dan Cody telling young Jay Gatz, as Mr. Whitney told Ragged Dick, "I hope, my lad, you will prosper and rise in the world. You know in this free country poverty in early life is no bar to a man’s advancement" (Alger 108). However, one thing separates the story of Jay Gatsby from that of Ragged Dick or Mark the Match Stick Boy: for Gatsby, the attainment of the American Dream brings not a "happily ever after," but pain, disillusion, and eventually death. Gatsby tasted the wine of success and found it bitter. His destructive arc demonstrates not only that his creator is a much better, more nuanced writer than Alger, but also points to a conflict that came to dominate much of Fitzgerald’s life and work. One part of him was perceptive enough to see the obsessive pursuit of wealth and, more importantly, that thing that wealth can buy, social status, as the road to moral and spiritual bankruptcy that it is, even as another part could not let go of his Algerian lust for material and social success. It is perhaps not terribly unusual to find a man who knows that what he desires is not good for him even as he continues to chase it. What is rarer, though, is to find a man who can honestly describe the conflicts in his nature in prose. Rarest of all is the man who can raise that prose to the status of art. Fitzgerald was a very autobiographical author, virtually all of his best works having their origin in his own circumstances and personal history. His life and his work form an inseparable, and ultimately heartbreaking, whole.
While we do not know whether Fitzgerald ever read Alger, we do know that the upward social mobility that Alger chronicled was very much on Fitzgerald’s mind even when attending prep school at Newman Academy. Fitzgerald’s ambition was such that it initially made him deeply unpopular at Newman, a situation he would later describe in "The Freshest Boy." Like Basil in that story, Fitzgerald gradually learned to conceal his drive under a veneer of "old sport" charm ala Gatsby, and "by his second and last year at Newman he had gradually succeeded in becoming, if not popular, at least accepted" (Mezner, Fitzgerald 14). He then had little trouble ingratiating himself with the smart set when he began attending Princeton. Fitzgerald’s family was comfortable but hardly wealthy, and attending a more modest university closer to their Midwestern home would have made more sense for everyone, but Fitzgerald was determined that only Princeton would do. There were two worlds at the school, one social and one intellectual. Fitzgerald, incongruous as it may sound today, was firmly a member of the former, for he saw Princeton not as a means to education but as a way of making the social connections that he, "one of the poorest boys in a rich boy’s school" (Mezner, Fitzgerald 13), so craved. Perhaps while still attending Newman Princeton was the first of his "winter dreams," those bright baubles that he would throughout his life strive to conquer only to be disappointed by.
I find myself wondering how others saw the young Fitzgerald during his years at Princeton. The photographs we have show him smartly dressed in a fashionable white suit on the lawn in front of the library, or in comical drag for a revue put on by the prestigious Triangle Club to which he belonged, or clowning about with other young men in classic fraternity brother fashion. Placed in terms of his fiction, specifically "May Day," he looks more like a Phil than a Gordon. Did he in fact appear to others as just another handsome and charmingly vacuous undergraduate, or did he show some sign of the mind that must have been keenly observing the Princeton social scene even as he participated with mad enthusiasm, that probably already harbored grave doubts about the milieu into which he had inserted himself so forcefully? It is this ability of Fitzgerald’s to be both inside and outside that I find so fascinating, and from which I believe much of his works’ power comes.
While serving in the Army in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919, Fitzgerald met a young ingénue named Zelda Sayre, and promptly fell madly in love. His tumultuous relationship with Zelda would dominate the rest of Fitzgerald’s life. The often-tragic details of that relationship could and has been the subject of entire books in themselves, but Zelda’s impact on Fitzgerald’s fiction is well worth considering here. Like the protagonists in so many of his stories, Fitzgerald saw a woman as the living embodiment of his own American dream, attaching "the acquisition of Zelda to the acquisition of material success" (Fitzgerald, Dear Scott 6), and like so many of those fictional women Zelda was willing to return his love only conditionally. She put him off for months, for he initially suited her in all ways except one: he did not have the income to support her in the style to which she was accustomed. Zelda left Fitzgerald in no doubt about the situation, informing him plainly what would be required for him to win her hand in marriage and in the process fueling much of Fitzgerald’s early writing, as he worked feverishly to earn enough money to meet Zelda’s financial standards. A letter he wrote to his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, upon their acceptance of his first novel shows plainly what was on his mind: "Would it be utterly impossible for you to publish the book Xmas – or say by February? I have so many things dependent on its success – including of course a girl…" (Mezner, Paradise 95).
Not long after marrying Zelda, Fitzgerald published one of his most affecting early stories, "Winter Dreams." Its protagonist, Dexter, also desires the finer things in life, and his pursuit of them leads him away from the small Midwestern town where he grew up to college and eventually to a spectacularly successful career in business. "He wanted not association with glittering things and glittering people – he wanted the glittering things themselves" (Fitzgerald, Babylon 118). Foremost among those glittering things is Judy Jones. Judy is beautiful, witty, and charming, and Dexter, so sensible in other matters, cannot get enough of her, and cannot stop himself from allowing her to manipulate him.
He was, as he found before the summer ended, one of a varying dozen who circulated about her. Each of them had at one time been favored above all others – about half of them still basked in the solace of occasional sentimental revivals. Whenever one showed signs of dropping out through long neglect, she granted him a brief honeyed hour, which encouraged him to tag along for a year or so longer (Fitzgerald, Babylon 125).
Judy in this story is what beautiful women have always been to men, but she is also something more. She is that vision that causes young working class boys to dream of status and wealth beyond what their fathers ever knew. When Dexter learns at the end of the story that Judy’s vivacious beauty has been tamed, that she has lost that whiff of the exotic that made her so alluring, he weeps. "That dream was gone. Something had been taken from him" (Fitzgerald, Babylon 135). Fitzgerald claimed that the character of Judy Jones was based upon Ginevra King, a young lady he knew and courted for a time at Princeton, and we have no reason to doubt his word. Still, characters like Judy populate much of Fitzgerald’s work, just as they must have populated his life. Would he perhaps, in his more lucid moments, have included the decidedly socially ambitious Zelda among them?
Certainly Fitzgerald the writer was decidedly ambivalent about the values of the social circle he worked so hard to inhabit. I write ambivalent, not dismissive, because fascination for and criticism of the "beautiful people" are so equally mixed in Fitzgerald’s early work. As "Winter Dreams" closes, Dexter weeps for "that thing" which is "gone." He is a mature man of the world who has seen through Judy, and ought to be ready to move beyond her. Yet he has nothing to replace the dream of her with, and so he cries for what he has lost. Having dedicated himself to the dream of success, he finds himself with nowhere to turn when he learns that his definition of success was couched in all the wrong values. Throughout the story, I sense that Fitzgerald realizes these things as well, yet cannot pull himself away from the dream any more than Dexter can. As he describes how "the fragile glow of her face seemed to blossom as she smiled at him," how "a breeze of warmth and light blew through the room" (Fitzgerald, Babylon 129) when she appears, he seems as smitten with Judy as does Dexter.
Similar feeling play through his colorful fantasy "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," published the same year as "Winter Dreams." This unusual little parable is as close to outright moralizing as Fitzgerald would ever come, and it is telling that the morality he invokes is not that of the socially exclusive with which he was spending his days at the time of its writing but rather the bedrock sensibility of the Midwest. Having escaped from the beautiful and luxurious but ultimately deadly land of Braddock Washington, described in an almost fetishistic detail that suggests once more that Fitzgerald is himself more than half enchanted, young John sits down with Kismine and Jasmine to see how much wealth they have absconded with. Kismine discovers that in her haste she mistakenly grabbed rhinestones in lieu of diamonds. The three quickly decide that all will be okay, however, for they will make their way in the world themselves on the basis of honest toil.
Jasmine spoke up.
"I love washing," she said quietly. "I have always washed my owned handkerchiefs. I’ll take in laundry and support you both" (Fitzgerald, Babylon 113).
This sentimental, bordering on trite, expression of the virtues of a simple life of honest labor would be surprising enough coming from a writer with such a reputation for running with a fast and loose crowd. What comes next, however, is even more surprising. Kasmine asks John if they will meet her father when they go to live in John’s hometown of Hades. "’Your father is dead,’ he replied soberly. ‘Why should he go to Hades? You have it confused with another place that was abolished long ago’" (Fitzgerald, Babylon 113). The heedless pursuit of glittering things has blown away the life of the spirit.
Fitzgerald was not a religious man, but when it comes into his work he treats it with a mournful, almost guilty sensitivity. In "Absolution," he eulogizes the graceful morality of Catholicism, the same grace that the sophisticated crowd he runs with have destroyed, at least for themselves, by treating right and wrong as less important than the imprint of a designer dress. I am not a religious man either, and I find myself frequently arguing that the world should be seen in shades of gray rather than black and white, and yet, perhaps like Fitzgerald, I sometimes wonder how much moral nuance is too much. At what point does moral nuance become moral compromise, and where does sophistication become degeneracy? "Absolution" concerns a boy, originally conceived as a young Jay Gatsby, who learns that he can violate the sacred rites of Confession and Communion and suffer no consequences, at least in the immediate temporal sense. Following this revelation, Rudolph begins to seek material and social success with all his heart, for he believes that he has found "something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God" (Fitzgerald, Babylon 150). As God becomes an obsolete concept for Rudolph and millions of others like him, their lack of faith means the end of Father Schwartz. The pretty baubles they have begun to worship in God’s stead, "legs shaped under starchless gingham" and "necks of dresses warm and damp" (Fitzgerald, Babylon 151), torture him and finally kill him.
In 1925, Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, the novel that was arguably his masterpiece. If one were to glance at a summary only, one would see that its themes, characters, and plot are all of a piece with many of the earlier stories we have been discussing, to the extent that the less charitable reader might wonder if Fitzgerald was stuck in a rut. Jay Gatsby is yet another wide-eyed young man who has given himself entirely to the pursuit of the American Dream, which is once again personified by a woman, in this case Daisy Buchanan. Also like Fitzgerald’s other heroes, Jay Gatsby eventually finds its fruit to be better. A closer look, however, reveals that Fitzgerald has gone deeper and much more assertively into his theme than before, as if he is himself finally sorting out what he really believes and taking a stand. The story is told not from the viewpoint of Gatsby himself but rather through Nick Carraway, a solid Midwesterner. Carraway flirts with the beautiful life during his time on Long Island, attending his share of elaborate parties and even dating young socialite Jordan Baker, but unlike Gatsby and, his author is never seduced by it, and chooses to return to a simpler life at the close of the novel. His fundamentally grounded personality allows Fitzgerald to comment upon Gatsby’s fate from outside the principal plot arc of the novel.
And Fitzgerald makes good use of young Nick. Through him, he indicts the heedless pursuit of material and social success that becomes the undoing of a fine, worthy man. Nick gradually comes to hold in contempt the shallow, thoughtless people who are part and parcel of that lifestyle, as evinced by his last words to Gatsby:
"’They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted, across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’"
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end (Fitzgerald, Gatsby 162).
His final thoughts about Tom and Daisy, those two very personifications of the idle rich, cut even deeper:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made… (Fitzgerald, Gatsby 187-188).
The tone of passages like this one is even more striking when contrasted with the somewhat confused melancholy of a story like "Winter Dreams." There, Dexter never seemed to completely understand what Judy Jones represented to him or why the loss of his dream of her left him in tears. Here, though, Nick if not Gatsby himself understands that the dream at the center of the story was a false one, and responds not just with sadness but with moral outrage. In fact, The Great Gatsby could be read, though due to the power of the tragedy at its center it very seldom is, as the coming of age story of Nick, as he learns what he truly believes in through observing Gatsby’s downfall. Perhaps Nick’s growth is analogous to changes that Fitzgerald has himself gone through between the start of his writing career and the publication of The Great Gatsby.
It would indeed be nice to think so, and would certainly make for a neater essay, but the evidence does not entirely bear it out. Even as the novel awaited publication, Fitzgerald was boozing his way through Europe with Zelda, pausing only to send the occasional telegram home requesting more of the money the couple needed to continue to maintain their position within their lavish social circle. The drinking and partying would actually increase markedly in the years after The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald’s career would suffer tremendously for it. His short story output decreased enormously in both quality and quantity in the second half of the twenties, and there would be no more novels forthcoming for almost a decade. Even more tragically, the couple’s jet-setting lifestyle and the constant quarreling it seemed to engender eventually caused Fitzgerald’s beloved Zelda to have a complete emotional breakdown. She would spend the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums, while Fitzgerald mourned her memory. And so we are left again with a frustrating paradox, as if Fitzgerald the author is a different person entirely than Fitzgerald the man. His creation Nick Carraway can see the self-destructiveness of a completely hedonistic lifestyle, yet the creator cannot, or does not care, or (most tragically of all) can see and does care but cannot stop himself.
The party ended for America in October of 1929 and, not surprisingly for this writer whose fate seemed curiously intertwined with his generation’s, Fitzgerald’s personal and financial fortunes went into deep decline around the same time. Surprisingly enough, though, hard times led to something of an artistic rebirth for Fitzgerald, although the contemporary literary establishment had painted him as a washed-up has-been -- or, worse, never was -- by this time, and was almost completely uninterested in his work. Still, the 1930s marked the birth of his late style, whose sparer prose made up for in the elegiac honesty of age what it had lost in the giddy wonder of youth. Also striking about these works, especially considering the circumstances of general disarray in which they were written, is the sense of quiet hope that can sometimes be found there. One of the best examples of this is 1931’s "Babylon Revisited." While this tale of an erstwhile party boy who has returned to view the wreckage of an American Dream that had been quite literally physically transported to the playground of Paris is hardly a happy story in any conventional sense, it nevertheless refuses to surrender to that note of tragedy with which the younger Fitzgerald loved to indulge himself in stories like "Mayday." Reading this story for the first time and knowing what I did of Fitzgerald’s other work, I fully expected the newly sober Charlie to go on a raging drunk after he learns that he will not, at least today, be given custody of his daughter Honoria. However, Fitzgerald defies my expectation and denies the flashy ending in favor of something much subtler and, in its quiet way, even heroic: "’No, no more,’ he said to another waiter. ‘What do I owe you?’" (Fitzgerald, Babylon 230). This ending, neither fully tragic nor fully happy, is somewhat messier, and perhaps in some ways even unsatisfying to the reader. It is also, however, much more honest, much more evocative of the rhythms of real life. I am reminded of another great writer, William Shakespeare, who in his final works turned away from the pat tidiness of both comedy and tragedy to craft something balanced, like life itself, in between those extremes.
Once again it is hard to avoid drawing parallels between Fitzgerald’s life and work at this juncture. Like Charlie, Fitzgerald had lived fast and hard during the boom years of the twenties; like Charlie, he had by 1931 lost his wife, albeit due to a mental breakdown rather than death; like Charlie, he had a daughter by that wife whom he adored and fretted over. Unlike Charlie, though, and in a pattern we have witnessed before, Fitzgerald was unable to control his love of alcohol or to craft a life of moderation for himself. Instead he plunged ever downward. Rock bottom arrived in September of 1936, when a reporter named Michael Mok from The New York Post published an interviewed with Fitzgerald to commemorate his fortieth birthday. Fitzgerald as described by Mok was not a pretty sight:
He spent the day as he spends all his days – trying to come back from the other side of Paradise, the hell of despondency in which he has writhed for the last couple of years…(Turnbull 288).
Mok went on to describe his "jittery jumping off and onto his bed, his restless pacing, his trembling hands, his twitching face with its pitiful expression of a cruelly beaten child" (Turnbull 288). Fitzgerald’s humiliation in the wake of the article’s publication was so great that he attempted suicide. Fitzgerald’s descent during these years follows the same pattern as that of Dick Diver, the central character of his fourth, and personal favorite, novel, Tender is the Night. Like Fitzgerald and Gatsby, Dick is a son of the Midwest who is consumed by the East. The book ends at loose ends, with no redemption for Dick. Depending on how one looks at it, though, perhaps Fitzgerald’s own story is different.
In 1937, Fiztgerald moved to the city that, perhaps even more than New York, embodies the American Dream: Hollywood. Fitzgerald had decided to remake himself, in classic Algerian style, as a writer for the movies. The life he made for himself there might be considered noble, that of a man who has put away his pride and put the alcohol and excess behind him to return to honest work; or pathetic, that of a once-respected and still hugely talented writer who has chosen to whore himself out to the Hollywood machine. Whichever view one takes, however, Fitzgerald seems to have found a measure of peace for himself in these, his last years. He stayed largely sober, found love, or at least comfort, with a columnist named Sheilah Graham, and worked steadily, although he chaffed at the formulaic nature of the productions he wrote for. He also began a fifth novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, which some critics claim might have turned out to be his best. It was unfortunately barely half-finished when Fitzgerald died on December 20, 1940. There is something ironic and yet strangely appropriate in this quintessential chronicler of the American Dream in all its material splendor and spiritual bankruptcy spending his last days in the city that is something of a monument to both.
I have throughout this essay conflated Fitzgerald’s life and work in a way that seems somewhat dangerous even to me. In my defense, though, I must point out that Fitzgerald seemed unable to write about anything other than his own experience, and this creates unusually close connection between the author and his work. In 1934, for instance, Fitzgerald started to write an historical novel to be titled The Count of Darkness. He completed only four serialized installments before abandoning it. Luckily so, for "they were as bad as anything Fitzgerald ever wrote" (Mezner, Paradise 275). There seems to me something essentially American in this inability to separate self and work, as there is in Fitzgerald’s eventual end, unnoticed and unmourned at the fringes of the city of dreams. We have no sense of tragedy in this country, and so no ability to eulogize a man like Fitzgerald, who sacrificed, consciously or unconsciously, his life and his soul for his art. That art contains all that is good and bad in the American worldview, and makes Fitzgerald perhaps the most American writer of them all.
Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick and Mark, the Match Stick Boy. New York: Collier, 1962.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Love of the Last Tycoon. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender is the Night. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. Ed. Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002.
Le Vot, André. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. Trans. William Byron. New York: Warner, 1983.
Mizener, Arthur. F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1972.
Mizener, Arthur. The Far Side of Paradise. New York: Vintage, 1959.
Turnbull, Andrew. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. New York: Ballatine, 1962.