Mere ink-flecks on a page

(This “Of Many Things” column first appeared in the October 5, 1996 issue of America)

As I write, the date is Sept. 24, 1996, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was not only the chronicler but also the personification of the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation and his finest achievement. The Great Gatsby (1925) stands apart as arguably the great American novel of the 20th century, that rare gem that transcends its era and still coaxes devotion from the computer generation.

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While he was conceiving The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, saying, "I want to write something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned." At age 19, when I first read Gatsby, I felt he had succeeded in his intentions wonderfully. Up till then, I had read many novels of varying quality, but on reading Gatsby I realized for the first time what enthusiasts had meant by the magic of literature, how words—mere ink-flecks on a page—can generate excitement through restraint, how the cadence of sentences can pulse with irony, poetry, sentiment without sentimentality—and do all this simultaneously. And I realized for the first time the pleasurable power of a simple, non-florid style, a style intent on intimation, where its very clarity heightened mystery and complexity. Had I not encountered Fitzgerald and Gatsby early on, I suspect the magical joys of literature would have been lost to me.

Had I not encountered Fitzgerald and Gatsby early on, I suspect the magical joys of literature would have been lost to me.

Unfortunately, our once-fervent youthful passions in art tend to diminish as we (ahem) mature, or they are replaced by more sober or intricate (or even stodgier?) attentions. Unlike Gatsby, we seem to lose that "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" and the romantic hopes generated by the green light at the end of the dock. Knowing this, I decided to revisit my old friend, and on a car trip from Worcester to New York last year, I listened to the audio tape of Gatsby, read by the wonderful Alexander Scourby. The years contracted within an instant, and I was transported once again. This time, though, the novel's majestic last sentence evoked more than a teen-ager's sense of nostalgic poignancy: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

There have been countless books and articles devoted to Scott Fitzgerald, many of which too generously confuse his (later sad) life with his fiction. My own favorite is a short tribute to Fitzgerald by the novelist John Cheever that appears in Atlantic Brief Lives: A Biographical Companion to the Arts, edited by Louis Kronenberger. Cheever, whose own narrative cadences and nostalgic themes owe much to Fitzgerald, says this: "Great writers are profoundly immersed in their time and [Fitzgerald] was a peerless historian. In Fitzgerald there is a thrilling sense of knowing exactly where one is—the city, the resort, the hotel, the decade and the time of day. His greatest innovation was to use social custom, clothing, overheard music, not as history but as an expression of his acute awareness of the meaning of time.... He gives one vividly the sense that the Crash and the Jazz Age were without a precedent, but one sees that this is a part of his art and that while Amory, Dick, Gatsby, Anson— all of them—lived in a temporal crisis of nostalgia and change they were deeply involved in the universality of love and suffering."

Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44 on Dec. 21, 1940, from a heart attack, the ultimate "crack-up" after a decade of alcoholism and depression. Before his death, he had expressed his desire to be buried beside his parents in the family plot in the cemetery of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockville, Md. But since age 20 the once-devout Fitzgerald had not practiced his faith, owing to the "oppressive mugginess" (his words) of Catholicism and Irishness, so intertwined at the time. As a result, since he was considered a "notorious apostate" (not true), the local bishop refused to permit his burial in a Catholic cemetery. He was interred, instead, in Rockville Union Cemetery.

Fortunately, Vatican II occurred, followed by further investigation of Fitzgerald's more complex sentiments about Catholicism, and in 1974 the bodies of Scott and his wife, Zelda, were reburied in the family plot at St. Mary's, where they lie in consecrated ground. May you rest in peace, Scott Fitzgerald, and welcome back.

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