mad in pursuit journal


Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story. [F. Scott Fitzgerald]

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Just as I try to dig into Faulkner and reacquaint myself with Vonnegut, F.Scott Fitzgerald refuses to stay in the wings.

Fitzgerald was the subject of my first assignment in literary criticism at the age of 16 and, while my classmates were tackling Steinbeck, Faulkner and Conrad, I dove into the glittery tragic world of The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and The Beautiful and the Damned.

We were taught to analyze texts according the dictates of New Criticism, in which only text matters, not the author's life, not the culture or times in which it was written. Odd, when you think about it — but maybe good for school girls who would get too wrapped up in gossipy pseudo-psychoanalysis.

A diligent student, I read for theme, not for pleasure. I read to develop my analytic skills and to get my paper done. What can a 16-year-old virgin in a St Louis girls' school know about Fitzgerald's Jazz Age world, anyway? I dutifully reflected the opinions of other Fitzgerald critics, that women generally represented the downfall of potentially heroic men.

...let me make a general observation -- the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. [F. Scott Fitzgerald]

What did I know? I do think that such intense, if innocent, reading of Fitzgerald influenced my restlessness to get out of St Louis and experience the world.

Yesterday I downloaded the latest edition of Studio 360 and the full hour was about "The Great Gatsby."* So I wound up pulling the book off the shelf and starting to read. Nick Carraway is the young Midwestern narrator who opens the book with this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

He didn't say any more, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.... three o'clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence... and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day. [F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up"]

Nick's summer on Long Island with Gatsby is, of course, about the loss of this innocent openness and the story he tells is full of sharp judgments. On page 2 he readily admits his sourness as he returns to the Midwest:

I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpes into the human heart. Only Gatsby... was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament" — it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

(I typed out those passages to get some Fitzgerald into my fingertips.)


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*Studio 360. Cultural Icons: "The Great Gatsby"

Another entry driven by Fitzgerald: There are no second acts. (9.27.04)