Language and Experience
By Ronald Berman


All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1278-7

Chapter One

The Last Romantic Critic

In any discussion of romanticism the number of respondents will equal the number of definitions proposed. It is sobering to read Isaiah Berlin's "In Search of a Definition," the first of his Mellon Lectures on romanticism, in which he goes over ground covered by A. O. Lovejoy, adding his own thoughts on its thematic elements of youth, exuberance, the natural, the morbid, decadence, radiance, turbulence, darkness, the strange, the weird, the familiar, the antique, novelty, desire to live in the moment, rejection of knowledge, the love of innocence, timelessness, creativity, will, dandyism, art, and primitivism. I have condensed liberally; the above is a fraction of what Lovejoy and Berlin respectively listed.

In regard to Fitzgerald a certain amount of defining needs to be done. His romanticism takes specific tactical form, extending images past reality and past the capabilities of realism; he creates an extraordinary sense of the spirit of place; and he reminds us of emotional powers not easily understood by (mere) rationality. He is rightly linked to Keats, whose verses "stick in your memory." But Fitzgerald's romanticism went against the national grain. Simply to assert romanticism was to take part in a cultural argument loudly conducted. Romantic expectation was a theme, he recognized, not of high culture but of movies and magazines.

The American tendency in literature had been to affirm or (as H. L. Mencken wrote at comic length) to avoid reality. We sense the former in the grand finale to William James's Pragmatism. James was an extraordinary intellectual presence. But he had a Victorian conception of literature, understanding it as a guide to moral action. The last chapter of Pragmatism begins, remarkably, with fifty-two lines cited from Walt Whitman's long poem "To You." James then translates these lines into moral suasion: they "may mean your better possibilities phenomenally taken, or the specific redemptive effects even of your failures, upon yourself or ... your loyalty to the possibilities of others." They set "definite activities in us at work." As James and other late-Victorian critics understand the issues, poetry civilizes, gives us workable advice. Characteristically generous, James allows for many interpretations of Whitman's poem. He was himself more complex, but Victorians understood poetry in terms of the moral quality of what was said-and romanticism arrived in the twentieth century as interpreted by Victorians.

The problem was recognized by Van Wyck Brooks, who between 1915 and 1927 published a group of essays attacking late-Victorian sensibility. He took on both James and Whitman, finding in the former literary ideas that were far too simple, really only forms of poetic utilitarianism. Brooks wrote that the great pragmatists (he called them "awakeners" of the twentieth-century American mind) deserved respect, but that "they were not sufficiently poets to intensify the conception of human nature they had inherited from our tradition. Their own vein of poetry, golden in William James, silver in John Dewey, ran too thin for that." The crucial point was that they converted poetry into something else. "Assuming that the intelligence is the final court of appeal ... all they can do, therefore, is to unfold the existing fact in themselves, and in the world about them." Referring to Emerson's utilitarian view of Shelley, Brooks sums up what a new generation of writers should know: Victorians understood poetry as public advice.

The problem with "original" early-nineteenth-century romanticism was that it had been transvalued by Victorianism. Transvalued, one might say, with a vengeance: the Shelburne Essays of Paul Elmer More, published before and during the war years, understood romantic sensibility as social philosophy. More saw great danger in the creation of "the infinitely craving personality, the usurpation of emotion over reason, the idealization of love, the confusion of the sensuous and the spiritual, the perilous fascination that may go with the confusions." Not a good entry into Gatsby for the common reader. More was especially hostile to the effects of romanticism on individuality-which was raised, he said, "to a state of morbid excess"-and he hated the confusion of things finite and infinite. He was joined by Irving Babbitt, whose Rousseau and Romanticism of 1919 famously described Keats as beauty without wisdom, and Shelley as feeling without understanding. Neither poet was, he thought, useful to Americans-their ethics were simply too confused-and they should be read only now and then for purposes of wary "recreation." If we are to judge from these evaluations of artistic purpose, Victorians taught Fitzgerald's generation that romanticism should be identified with advice either good or bad directed toward some ulterior purpose.

Romanticism had become less persuasive as an intellectual mode after the propaganda of the Great War ground out thousands of posters of soldiers in shining armor and circulated the awful "epic" poetry of Henry Newbolt and W. E. Henley encouraging patriotism-and enlistment. Intellectuals had little faith left in those themes of quest, chivalry, idealism, and sacrifice that inform The Great Gatsby. In any case, after Wittgenstein, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell had attacked politicized rhetoric in the early twenties one no longer trusted high-sounding intent. Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and T. E. Hulme exerted their influence in favor of a different sensibility. As Geoffrey H. Hartman puts the matter, "in the years following World War I, it became customary to see classicism and romanticism as two radically different philosophies of life, and to place modernism on the side of the anti-romantic."

We need only remind ourselves of Edmund Wilson's position as the decade began: If the new subjects of poetry were to be "blank buildings and slaughter-houses and factories ... Claxon-blowing motor-cars and typewriters cracking like machine-guns, taxicabs, jazz-bands, trick electric signs, enormous hotels plastered heavily with a garish magnificence, streets and street-cars ... the crash and grinding of the traffic ... the whole confused and metallic junk-heap of the modern American city" then it would no longer be possible for emotions to "find expression in the forms of Milton and Shelley." In the face of such attitudes, it took some determination to announce romantic purpose between the Great War and The Great Gatsby.

During that period, Fitzgerald produced not only novels and short stories but essays, reviews, and letters, also. He gave some notable interviews. In general, his critical work will identify his literary allegiances; compare romanticism (favorably) with realism; and introduce, recall, and elaborate romantic theory. An interview of 1923 invokes a list of literary godfathers: Henry James, Nietzsche, H. G. Wells, Shaw, Mencken, Dreiser, and Conrad. All are to be admired. But Fitzgerald understands something that Wells, Shaw, and Mencken do not: the idea of criticism has changed. Here is how the interviewer puts the matter: "F. Scott Fitzgerald, the prophet and voice of the younger American smart set, says that while Conrad's Nostromo is the great novel of the past fifty years, Ulysses by James Joyce is the great novel of the future." We see the silent presence of Edmund Wilson who had shortly before this reviewed Ulysses, recommended it to Fitzgerald, and begun to elaborate modernism's own great tradition.

Fitzgerald is consistently interested in what is happening among other writers. For example, his review of Sherwood Anderson's Many Marriages tries to set that novel within the intellectual context of the twenties. He raises public issues and issues of moral intention and consequence. Although self-consciously a modern, he notes that opinion about society matters very little in the business of writing. Fashionable ideas about the end of monogamy (a subject now and then on Tom Buchanan's mind) may be simply "propaganda" for intellectuals. Ever conscious of fact, Fitzgerald criticizes the failure of Anderson to measure up to the social thickness of Dreiser, Joyce, and Wells, stating that "for purpose of the book no such background as Dublin Catholicism, middlewestern morality, or London Fabianism could ever have existed."

This kind of assessment is often made in Fitzgerald's short pieces, requiring us to know something about the literary scene in the generation before the twenties. But, even more emphatically, we keep being referred by his allusions to ideas that long antedate the twenties. When Fitzgerald uses the term "romantic" to analyze contemporary fiction-and he uses the term a lot-he expects us to understand particular sources and to arrive at some sense of their modern applications.

Fitzgerald's "Public Letter to Thomas Boyd," which appeared in the St. Paul Daily News in the winter of 1921, reflects on the opposition between the real and the romantic. Fitzgerald admitted that fake romanticism-exemplified by novels such as Floyd Dell's Moon-Calf-might be entirely too successful. (Fitzgerald often mentioned this particular novel when he was irritated by best-seller banality. Dell became his W. H. Hudson, and the Moon-Calf his Purple Land.) The great flaw of such novels was, Fitzgerald wrote, their mindless dependence on formulaic sentimentality. How many novels about the weltschmerz of the privileged young could the public absorb? It was a warning to himself, and he wrote with a certain sympathy that "Dreiser would probably maintain that romanticism tends immediately to deteriorate to the Zane Grey-Rupert Hughes level, as it has in the case of Tarkington." But "the romantic side" was bound to have a great deal of support from other writers, because facts are insufficient as a basis for narrative. Reporting has no plot, cannot substitute for meaning. The interview displays a man of letters who knows how hard it is to navigate between realism and romance, and who is fully aware of the literary scene. He distrusts his audience, a theme often to be invoked. He uses the term "romantic" as if it were a synonym for insight, implying knowledge as well as feeling. Most important, it allows us to understand how facts affect our consciousness. Later statements of the point will emphasize that romantic ideas are philosophical ideas, not effusions, and that they work better for fiction than other ideas propounded in the drab, unintellectual American milieu of the early twenties.

Later that year, in reviewing Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos, Fitzgerald again argued that the conventional audience for fiction is an adversary to its writing: "This book will not be read in the West. Main Street was too much of a strain. I doubt if the `cultured' public of the Middle Border will ever again risk a serious American novel, unless it is heavily baited with romantic love. No, Three Soldiers will never compete with The Sheik or ... Zane Grey." He knows from his own work how difficult the choice is between genuine feeling and sentiment. He then argues an issue that goes considerably beyond the literature of the early twenties: there is in good writing no "uncorrelated detail" or "clumsy juggling with huge masses of material" so characteristic of American realism. The argument is central to the history of romantic thought, and Fitzgerald revives its original formulation.

Earl Wasserman has written that romantic philosophy needed "to find a significant relationship between the subjective and objective worlds." That is to say, between ideas and perceived details. Coleridge had emphasized that "the material" (unlike Fitzgerald, he means facts, not subjects) had to be governed by "the formal." Wasserman's essay concludes that "What Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley chose to confront more centrally and to a degree unprecedented in English literature is a nagging problem in their literary culture: How do subject and object meet in a meaningful relationship? By what means do we have a significant awareness of the world?" Romantics disagree among themselves about what "imagination" means, but they do not disagree about the need to apply to "the external world" some pattern that allows us to understand it. As Fitzgerald put the matter in a later review, out of muddy lakes of observation should come clear streams of ideas.

Also in the fall of 1921, Fitzgerald set down one of his many observations on Europe: it is an American subgenre. What he has to say about France, England, and Italy was in the early twenties part of a national dialogue on the decline of "civilization." Fitzgerald's piece contains ideas that will be repeated in his later writing and unwinds one of the grand themes of romantic history, the entropy of race and nation.

We had been to Oxford before-after Italy we went back there arriving gorgeously at twilight when the place was fully peopled for us by the ghosts of ghosts-the characters, romantic, absurd or melancholy, of Sinister Street, Zuleika Dobson and Jude the Obscure. But something was wrong now-something that would never be right again. Here was Rome-here on the High were the shadows of the Via Appia. In how many years would our descendants approach this ruin with supercilious eyes to buy postcards from men of a short, inferior race-a race that once were Englishmen. How soon-for money follows the rich lands and the healthy stock, and art follows begging after money. Your time will come, New York.

The ruins of time will be a theme of "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" and The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald's "Handle with Care," one of his confessional essays in The Crack-Up, suggests what the theme meant to him. This essay cites Wordsworth's line, "there had passed away a glory from the earth" from the Immortality Ode. Such theory as there was in the early thirties had drawn connections: Hoxie Fairchild's The Romantic Quest (1931) observing that the passage was not merely a plangent meditation on mortality, but part of a great argument over "the dominance of man's creative will over the material world." That in itself is of enormous interest for the Gatsby theme of corrupted American history. But the line is written in a kind of psychological shorthand, which may be the main point, implying the loss of authorial control and the inability to structure experience in language. To keep writing about the decay of the world was to state an essential problem of writers and subjects. We are accustomed to making the leap from subject to self with Hemingway, and need to do the same with Fitzgerald. When he talks about the end of history or of life stages he means us to extrapolate, to understand that the failure of the self has been prefigured by history. It is useful to see Fairchild's analysis of romantic subject and romantic self dated shortly before Fitzgerald's own account of his loss both of self and authorial powers in 1936. Fitzgerald's essay emphasizes that "I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion" and adds that the main implication is "the death of accomplishment." The conjoining of narrator and subject is, according to Marilyn Butler's useful definition, "self-reflexivity," an essential aspect of romantic poetry.

Fitzgerald made some comments in a letter of late 1921 that extend his point. The passage begins with a sardonic line that has become famous among writers: "Who in hell ever respected Shelley, Whitman, Poe, O. Henry, Verlaine, Swinburne, Villon, Shakespeare ect when they were alive." Isaiah Berlin has devoted a good deal of thought to this trope (the anger of art at culture has a long literary history) because it is central to romantic education, and also to a certain view of philosophy. He makes the point that the trope of neglect matters not because artists believe it or are comforted by it but because it is true. It is also important, because pluralistic knowledge is essential for social being. Berlin reminds us that we require alternative ways of judging experience, and asserts that romanticism produces knowledge otherwise unavailable. Yet, writers have become "superfluous persons" who cannot assert themselves "against the fearful opposition offered by the philistines, the slaves, the heteronomous creatures of the society in which they live." But in this argument, which is difficult if not impossible for art to win, the intellectual as well as social stakes are high. The artist correctly perceives that virtually all attempts to manufacture order out of being are artificial. The powers that be (and there are many such in Fitzgerald's writing) have an interest in defining the temporary as the real and lasting, which means that the idea of order can itself be an interesting fiction. The artistic "complaint," much undervalued, is in fact a critique.


Excerpted from Fitzgerald-Wilson-Hemingwayby Ronald Berman Copyright © 2003 by THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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