MODERNITY AND PROGRESS

Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Orwell
By RONALD BERMAN

THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS

Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5430-5


Chapter One

Fitzgerald and the Geography of Progress

We see the connected and opposed regions of North and South in many of Fitzgerald's stories and novels: "The Ice Palace" (May 1920), "The Jelly-Bean" (October 1920), "Two For a Cent" (April 1922), "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" (June 1922), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), "Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar" (May 1923), "The Third Casket" (May 1924), "The Sensible Thing" (July 1924), The Great Gatsby (1925), "The Dance" (June 1926), "The Last of the Belles" (March 1929), "Basil and Cleopatra" (April 1929), "Two Wrongs" (January 1930), "Flight And Pursuit" (May 1932), "Family in the Wind" (June 1932). Simply by recalling the tenor of these works we can begin to understand their thematic importance. There is, clearly, a modern conflict between North and South. The War between the States takes on contemporary shape in these works. The new war involves our national character and purpose. It sets certain traditional values against those of progress and success. We are intended to rethink-as Fitzgerald himself did-not only our Victorian past but historical time itself.

There were a number of American Dreams in the twenties, and Robert Nisbet reminds us that some of them had a theology: "Faith in mankind's advance to an even better future assumed the same kind of evangelical zeal, especially among the American masses, that is associated with religion." That seems to be accurate-we recall that The Rise of American Civilization had in 1927 connected our "invulnerable faith" in the means of technology to the end of "unlimited progress." Nisbet, like Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, reminds us that our native, material version of the Idea of Progress was not killed off by the Great War. In fact, it was "never more compelling than during the first four or five decades of the twentieth century." Not everyone agreed with this variant of civic religion. Yet, despite the satire of writers like H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, it was indeed conventional to think that prosperity incarnated the Idea of Progress.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was among those who took the notion with a grain of salt. We think almost automatically of Gatsby presiding over his transformation, looking first at the windows of his palace and then at every one of his doors and towers and counting the years it took to buy them. But property offers the same problem to literature as to philosophy. Towns, buildings, and markets are ephemeral. They inevitably become reminders of material limits. The same images used by advertisers to celebrate growth were used by writers of the twenties to reverse the common judgment about it. Van Wyck Brooks wrote about pioneer cities no longer populated, ghost towns "all but obliterated in alkali dust." Fitzgerald wrote about the entropic ruins of the American landscape in the village of Fish and the Valley of Ashes. He often used architectonic images-arrogant towers, faded mansions, bungalow tracts crawling along farm fields, even one particular broken-down billboard-to suggest defeated national expectations. These things were, after all, imagery in the public realm.

There is in Fitzgerald not only an idea of but a geography of progress. When Nick Carraway organizes Gatsby's funeral, he asks Mr. Gatz if he "might want to take the body west." But the answer is that "Jimmy always liked it better down East." Both remarks need their context. Fitzgerald's description of America rests on a real and also metaphorical sense of geography. As to the first, his map consists of familiar quadrants: North, South, East, and West. As to the second, East and North, conventionally the same, are poised against West-and especially against South. The East opposes other regions and is understood in relation to them. That should be factored into our understanding of passages that seem confined to geographical meanings. Here, for example, is Tom Buchanan on New York:

"Oh, I'll stay in the East, don't you worry," he said, glancing at Daisy and then back at me as if he were alert for something more. "I'd be a God Damn fool to live anywhere else." (12)

On the face of it this is unmysterious, conveying information the same way Mr. Gatz does when he tells Nick that Jimmy "rose up to his position in the East" (131). But Tom both asserts and conceals. He is from monied Chicago-and H. L. Mencken had just written that rich men come from "the fat lands of the Middle West" to New York because "the ordinary American law does not run there." Mencken is not referring solely to the Volstead Act; his essay is about sexual opportunism in commercial form. In Mencken, Metropolis is a marketplace of commodities, including things human. "There is little in New York," he writes in another essay of 1927, "that does not spring from money." It is reasonably plain in The Great Gatsby that Tom's affair with Myrtle is a transaction. Myrtle knows a lot about price and marketplace values. She despises her husband for having borrowed a suit for their wedding, falls in love, in part, with Tom's own shoes and suit and high style, uses his money to transform her own social class from blue-collar to bourgeois. Myrtle knows about two subjects important to Mencken and to his theme: everything is for sale, and "most of these fellas will cheat you every time" (27). Cheating is the essential mode of capitalism in Mencken's New York essays. He provides a long catalog of terms like "exploiter," "merchants," "customer," "sharper," and "bawds and pimps," which define each other while defining the economy. Notably, he writes about bootlegging as the central "industry" of Metropolis. The East, the home of progress, embodies serious contradictions. Fitzgerald wrote that his story "May Day" shows his attempt to "weave ... into a pattern" his experience of living in New York. The meaning of that pattern is displayed in the story's opening-and is reinforced by ideas in circulation at the time. New York is the incarnation of marketplace values that are "hymned by the scribes and poets" of advertising (98). We know that writers resisted the confusion of progress with prosperity. They were not satisfied by industrial democracy and resented its commercialism. More than anything, they resented its claims. Toward the end of the decade, in A Preface to Morals, Walter Lippmann stated that the theory of "mechanical progress" was the latest false religion. Lewis Mumford located this inflation of values in New York, which was the East incarnate: "Broadway, in sum, is the fa��ade of the American city: a false front. The highest achievements of our material civilization-and at their best our hotels, our department stores, and our Woolworth towers are achievements-count as so many symptoms of its spiritual failure. In order to cover up the vacancy of getting and spending in our cities, we have invented a thousand fresh devices for getting and spending. As a consequence our life is externalized."

Fitzgerald's writings of the early twenties invoke "devices for getting and spending" in the form of advertised commodities. Artifacts appear everywhere in the fiction, like these from "The Last of the Belles": "I stumbled here and there in the knee-deep underbrush, looking for my youth in a clapboard or a strip of roofing or a rusty tomato can" (462). Roland Marchand's Advertising the American Dream remarks of copy text and image that such objects had already entered the nation's visual vocabulary in the twenties. To refer to them is to refer to the vast and necessarily false metonym of progress. When that tomato can had first been described, it was in the language of superlatives and even adulation; it meant future satisfaction and not only in a material way. Fitzgerald's extraordinary images of decay in the public realm constitute a formidable argument against progress. Marchand identifies the imagery of the new with a social apologetic:

Civilization ... had found a way to regain Nature's intended gifts without sacrificing the fruits of progress.... In proclaiming the victories over threats to health and beauty that the products of civilization now made possible, these parables of Civilization Redeemed never sought to denigrate Nature.... Civilization, which had brought down the curse of Nature upon itself, had still proved capable of discovering products that would enable Nature's original and beneficent intentions to triumph.... the advance of civilization ... need never exact any real losses. Civilization had become its own redeemer. Fitzgerald has his own notion of civilization, expressed by contravening images. In "The Ice Palace" we see colors "of light gold and dark gold and shiny red" dominating the Bellamy library. These are the colors of money and desire. But the books appear to be unread-they are objects and artifacts, as in the later scene of Jay Gatsby's own library. The more important point is the opposition of cost and value in the Bellamy household, a place specifically identified with cost and value in the North. Unmediated wealth has accumulated only "a lot of fairly expensive things ... that all looked about fifteen years old" (56). These commodities have no past-which makes them perfect objective correlatives for wealth without history, that is, for progress without meaning.

Because the North is where progress happens, it is bound to display the uneasy connection between prosperity and progress. Fitzgerald disputes that connection repeatedly. In his fiction, "success" involuntarily aspires to a higher, moralized form of itself. Even the provincial Mr. Gatz believes that his son would "of helped build up the country" (131) if he had lived. Our civic religion holds that the accumulated sum of individual successes adds up to national progress. This was the promise of the North. But, even in the South, our duty is to change and improve.

Fitzgerald's stories about the South point out the failure of unaided "tradition." The mention of that phrase in the twenties assumes the need to recall and even to embody the past. Yet, in Fitzgerald's South, evolution is imperative: the Jelly-bean realizes that he has to "make somethin'" out of his farm and his life (157); Sally Carrol Happer explains that she needs "to live where things happen" (51). Sara Haardt, who grew up in Montgomery with Zelda Sayre, understood the necessity for change-or at least of escape: "Oh, no use talking, the South was sweet. But it was a sweetness tinged with the melancholy of death. It was because beauty, somehow, is shorter lived in the South than in the North, or in the West; and beauty, more than mere survival, is the most poignant proof of life." In "The Ice Palace" Fitzgerald dealt with this conception through the idea of the vita activa. Evanescence was the field of vitality.

"Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar" is a regional parable of the early twenties. Its central figure, Jim Powell, is southern, romantic, chivalrous, unsophisticated. He sees things with great clarity but no perspective. Jim is on his way north to the land of money and opportunity. Equipped with the kinds of knowledge implied by the story's title, he is innocent of the knowledge of how the social world works. By the end of the story he offends his wealthy patrons, is put in his place, and then is forced to leave. Present works against past in this story, as city works against province. Fitzgerald's language dwells insistently on "Victorian" qualities of character, mind, and landscape. He was of two minds about the meaning of that phrase. It could mean what Wells, Shaw, and Strachey intended it to mean, serving as a synonym for outmoded ideas. But it also meant a connection to time, place, and even to one's own beginnings: "here and there lie patches of garden country dotted with old-fashioned frame mansions, which have wide shady porches and a red swing on the lawn. And perhaps, on the widest and shadiest of the porches there is even a hammock left over from the hammock days, stirring gently in a mid-Victorian wind." The passing tourist "can't see the hammock from the road-but sometimes there's a girl in the hammock" (237). In this story the term "Victorian" does not suggest repressiveness. The opposite is suggested, as if the past had something to offer at least as important as "the twentieth century" did. There is in fact a girl in the hammock; her name, Amanthis, connotes (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) both love and belief. The text argues through images. It tells us not only that she has wonderful yellow hair but that "there was something enormously yellow about the whole scene" (238). The language offers a prevision of the yellow and gold in The Great Gatsby, colors that symbolize promise. But the Victorian scene cannot contain those feelings generated within it. Amanthis is attracted to Jim Powell, who brings to the monied North a sense of style and idea long since forgotten. But he is disarmed by his innocence, and she by her sophistication. He will return to the ever more eccentric South; she will become part of the ever more progressive North. A sleeping beauty quite literally awakens in this story, but Harold Lloyd is in a role that needs Tyrone Power.

In "The Ice Palace" Sally Carrol Happer has her own "awakening." Both stories begin with real and figurative possibilities. In Fitzgerald, the idea of "beginning" often needs to be qualified because an opening may be a continuation of history: "The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigor of the bath of light. Up in her bedroom window Sally Carrol Happer rested her nineteen-year-old chin on a fifty-two-year old sill" (48). It seems unlikely that "Life in Tarleton, Georgia, after all, nurtured only the most negative aspects of romantic egotism." Nor do I think that such passages are meant to be viewed under the aspect of Tennyson's "Lotos-Eaters." The argument that the South was an example of cultural enervation was commonplace enough before Fitzgerald's story appeared, but it took a different slant. The region was agrarian in an industrial age and fundamentalist in an age of skepticism. As seen by H. L. Mencken the South had no textual culture: its poets, historians, and novelists were simply a national joke. But Fitzgerald was not much concerned with Baptist morality or with literary amateurism. To worry about those things was to confuse ideas with essences.

Fitzgerald's southern characters are important because their minds and manners have been shaped by time and place. In the first part of "The Ice Palace" time is more than referential; it is a protagonist. Sally Carrol Happer keeps returning to the graveyard in Tarleton because it is history objectified. Like Fitzgerald himself, she is of two minds about past and present. She knows how important it is to use her energies, to operate within the realm of material substance. She is not an innocent and knows that money and power are the means of life. But she also values the style of life that understands money and power to be means and not ends. She is an idealist, and Santayana had observed in 1920 that American idealism is material to the extent that it "goes hand in hand with present contentment and with foresight of what the future very likely will actually bring." That idealism wants to work, achieve, produce. As Sally Carrol puts the issue, the "sort of energy" she has "may be useful somewhere" (51). Energy needs a field of action, and the North provides that. But without the past, Santayana writes, Americans could have no "fixity in human morals, in institutions, or in ideas." Necessarily (and we think of Fitzgerald's invocations of "Victorian" permanence and southern stasis), "America is full of mitigations of Americanism. There are survivals; there are revolts; there is a certain hesitation in the main current itself, carrying the nation towards actions and sentiments not altogether congruous with experimental progress." His conclusion applies to Sally Carrol Happer and also to Charlie Wales in "Babylon Revisited," who "wanted to jump back a whole generation" (619). As Stanley Brodwin put it, certain of Fitzgerald's stories show "the tension between living presence and its gift of ontological triumph through a past, lost moment of history on the one hand and ongoing personal experience on the other."

(Continues...)



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