Cracking Up: On F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Echoes of The Jazz Age”

What F. Scott Fitzgerald knew best, and wrote about with unsurpassed style and insight, was himself. The Crack-Up, a series of seven personal essays he published in Esquire (then published posthumously as part of a collection edited by his friend Edmund Wilson), marked Fitzgerald as a desperate man. Written before and after the 1934 failure of the heartbreakingly great Tender is the Night, they are a plea for his generation but also a justification of his behavior as a young man, an odd apologia for a figure who coasted through the 1920s with an alarming lack of shame. Their historical and biographical value is immeasurable, for Fitzgerald is painfully self-conscious: commenting on the times and his role in them, while keeping the kind of distance that is rare in autobiographical writing. The tone is closer to essay to than diary; the mood more elegiac than sentimental. Indeed, as a group — though we will just look at two — they are an encomium for the dangers and varieties of nostalgia, the perils and the inexplicable pleasures of early success, and the trouble with leading life with an eye always cast on the good times past.

In the first essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (November 1931), Fitzgerald proclaims, “It is too soon to write about the Jazz Age with perspective, and without being suspected of premature arteriosclerosis.” As a representative of his times, he has been diagnosed with an acute and painful form of degenerative and incurable heart disease: nostalgia. Fitzgerald, in retrospect, sees himself as a blur whizzing unthinkingly from a stag line to writing a novel to hopping a cab to another party in a non-stop, unthinking, don’t-rest-or-you-might-feel-the-exhaustion way of life. Even his wedding was a whirlwind affair. Like the music, everything was meant to be fast, fast enough so you could dance to it: “A whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure.”

The Jazz Age, as he defines it, was born in the May Day riots of 1919, and died in October 1929. Fitzgerald, like his cohorts, is appropriately cynical, as it was a “characteristic of the Jazz age that it had no interest in politics at all.” It did not need to, for “it was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.” Where is politics in that? He continues, “We were the most powerful nation. Who could tell us any longer what was fashionable and what was fun?”

Certainly not the grown-ups, and new freedoms for young people just got wilder and more widespread as men returned from the war. “Scarcely had the conservative citizens of the republic caught their breaths when the wildest of all generations, the generation which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War, brusquely shouldered my contemporaries out of the way and danced into the limelight.” These were flappers, who peaked in 1922, the “kids” who took Fitzgerald as their spokesperson, who read his books and swore he “got” them.

Fitzgerald puzzles over the gestation of the Jazz Age — since, after all, cultural shifts don’t just happen, they have origins somewhere. As for jazz, “it first meant sex, then dancing, then music,” and all three meanings collided in its exploding popularity in the post-WWI period to which it gave its name. Fitzgerald also notes that jazz is “associated with a state of nervous stimulation,” and there is unmistakable bit of foreshadowing in that “nervous.”

Just the hint that there is sex around — it exists in books, in movies, in all sorts of permutations, and adolescents KNOW way more about it than they ever did before, makes this generation scads more sophisticated than their parents were at their age. There are even these scientists, Freud and Jung, quoted in the magazines, who were convinced celibacy was dangerous. By 1927, Fitzgerald claims “wide-spread neurosis began to be evident, like a nervous beating of the feet, by the popularity of crossword puzzles,” so much had sex taken over the American psyche. He even suggests it was the driving force behind Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight.

Yet, like all phenomena, it had to grow up sometime. “The Jazz Age had a wild youth and a heady middle age. There was the phase of the necking parties, the Leopold-Loeb murder (I remember the time my wife was arrested on the Queensboro bridge on the suspicion of being the “Bob-haired Bandit”) and the John Held Clothes. In the second phase such phenomena as sex and murder became more mature, if much more conventional.” But skirts finally came down, as did moods. “Somebody had blundered and the most expensive orgy in history was over.” Writing about it now, two years ago, seems as far away as time before War. “It was borrowed time anyway — the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand ducs and the casualness of chorus girls. But moralizing is easy now and it was pleasant to be in one’s twenties in such a certain and unworried time.”

He recognizes he was lucky to be successful when success had, as it were, a low price of admission: you could be a genius on one book or play, a war general after four months’ field experience. “Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth.” But is he really horrified, or a bit embarrassed and sad? Giving up the feeling that old people would just step aside and let youth rule the world, “it all seems so rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.” “Surroundings” is doing a lot of work in this passage: it means place, time, social standing, something akin to milieu; and it also seems a rather grave pronouncement for a man not yet really old.

Why is Fitzgerald so convinced that he will never again feel with the kind of intensity that he did in his youth? What is left out of “Echoes” is that Fitzgerald’s life, not just his “surroundings,” has changed irrevocably. His wife, Zelda, who was his partner in all he described above, is mentally ill. He is severely depressed and an alcoholic. He is now a father, responsible for a child’s upbringing and education. And he is older, with all of the knowledge that comes with being knocked around by life. In his fictionalization of Fitzgerald’s life, The Disenchanted (1950), Budd Schulberg has this wise observation about that generation: “They thought youth was a career instead of a preparation.”

But that is all youth is, a preliminary stage, and to spend it as Fitzgerald did left him unprepared for what came next.

“The Crack-Up”

In the book’s piece de resistance, “The Crack-Up” (February 1936), Fitzgerald begins with a distinction between the inside and the outside:

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside — the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show in their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick — the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.

To use a favorite Hemingway metaphor (and, indeed, Hemingway’s spirit infuses this essay, as if Fitzgerald was trying to draw on his friend’s brute strength to write about such a harrowing subject), Fitzgerald sounds like a boxer walking out of a bout with multiple blows. There are the visible bruises and cuts tended to after the fight, the evidence of his physical toughness, his survival skills. He’s been beaten but walked out of the ring on his own steam. Yet no one knows what those other blows, the ones that jostle the brain and shift the internal organs, the repeated plunges onto the canvas and ricochets off the ropes, will eventually add up to. How can anyone assess the unseen damage of the setbacks, large and small, we absorb from everyday life?

Fitzgerald’s next observation is often-quoted: “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.” This was Fitzgerald’s philosophy in early life, and he witnessed, in his own case, the impossible come true: he wrote the novel, got the girl, had the glamorous life he never could have imagined in his craziest fantasies growing up a grocer’s son in St. Paul. Thus, it makes perfect sense that he would believe, also Hemingway-style, that “life was something you dominated if you were any good.”

This is the American 1920s attitude, very William James: sheer exercise of will can change you and your life, the transformation of circumstances is a matter of work and faith, your fate is in your hands. As the 1920s pass, though, life takes over; “and then, ten years this side of forty-nine, I suddenly realized that I had prematurely cracked.” All of those blows had done their damage after all. He continues, “I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking. I saw that even my love for those closest to me was become only an attempt to love, that my casual relations — with an editor, a tobacco seller, the child of a friend, were only what I remembered I should do, from other days.”

This is a classic description of depression, the loss of interest in what one used to like, the going through the motions, the should rather than want to feeling. A friend tries to convince Fitzgerald it’s in his head (well, yes, where else would it be?); that desire doesn’t matter, it’s vitality that is key. Either you want to live or you or don’t, and if you do, you go through those motions no matter how empty they (or you) feel.

Here the essay pivots, and Fitzgerald starts a new section called “Pasting It Together” (March 1936). He jokes that it is the “further history of a cracked plate,” but it is really his taking stock of whether he has the ability to restore himself to some kind of equilibrium.

He discovers how hard he has leaned on other people to play important roles in his psyche (Fitzgerald, a chronic list-maker, actually writes one out, but I will paraphrase): his “intellectual conscience” was Edmund Wilson; his “artistic conscience,” though they would always differ markedly in style, was Hemingway; and he looked to his socially suave friend Gerald Murphy for guidance in social matters, “how to do, what to say, How to make people at least momentarily happy (in opposition to Mrs. Post’s theories of how to make everyone thoroughly uncomfortable with a sort of systematized vulgarity).” After breaking this down — or pasting it together — Fitzgerald comes to a disturbing conclusion. “So there was not an ‘I’ any more — not a basis on which I could organize my self-respect — save my limitless capacity for toil that it seemed I possessed no more.”

Without work, who was he? Not a happy person — in fact, he had come to believe that ecstasy, the kind he knew in his youth, was an unnatural state.

At his best, now, he was just a writer, writing. At his worst he was a crack-up.

A conclusion, “Handle With Care,” tries to puzzle out how others had survived these self-revelations. He hits on the idea of conserving all of his energy for writing and making what he calls “a clean break.” He can no longer pretend that he can also be generous, kind, loving, or engaged in the world. The best he can hope for in this new life as a “sentient adult is a qualified happiness.” Ecstasy is as “unnatural as the Boom; and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over.”

So again, he is exemplary, a barometer of the times. The Crash and Fitzgerald’s crack up are presented as ineluctable parallel events. It certainly takes a lot of ego to feel like you are so perfectly in tune with your generation, but Fitzgerald has been told this is so since he published This Side of Paradise in 1920, and makes a strong, and eloquent, argument for still being emblematic of the times.

Reaction to “The Crack-Up” essays was just as strong. Fitzgerald’s friends were horrified and slightly embarrassed by his confessions of depression and resignation. Their attitude reflects a stricter standard of acceptable self-revelation — to the twenty-first century reader it is a beautifully written account of a breakdown; there is nothing to be ashamed of or disgusted by. It has no lurid details or even particularly personal moments: reconstructed dialogue, excerpts from his diaries, all the fodder contemporary memoir readers are all too familiar with (and, in the present moment, weary of). Of course, many of Fitzgerald’s friends were also heavy drinkers and depressives, and this material could have struck chords a bit too familiar.

His editor, Max Perkins, wrote to their mutual friend John Peale Bishop that he wished Fitzgerald would return to the Catholic Church. Perkins wrote to Hemingway that he thought the mere existence of the essays, furthermore, meant Fitzgerald was not as bad off as he claimed: “Nobody would write those articles if they were really true. I doubt if a hopeless man would tell about it, or a man who thinks he is beaten for good.”

Yet Fitzgerald never really did come back. His last-ditch attempt to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood was a disaster, and he never finished his novel about that experience, The Love of the Last Tycoon. The Crack-Up essays represent Fitzgerald’s last best work after Tender Is the Night. The blows from without and within were too much for him to handle. He died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940.

Sketch: F. Scott Fitzgerald by Lisa Brown