The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘Echoes of the Jazz Age’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

On the essays shelf:

The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My friend De sent me this book years ago. It was such a thoughtful gift. Published in 1945, shortly after Fitzgerald’s untimely death, it was edited by his great friend Edmund Wilson. A couple of these pieces had already been published in Esquire (including, famously, the title essay, which caused a great deal of controversy: an author writing so openly about a nervous breakdown, or a “crack-up”, which is a term I prefer) There are also included in the compilation some unpublished letters, as well as pages and pages from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writer’s notebook, where he jotted down ideas, images, quotes. It’s a marvelous compilation. It took me years to finally read it. Occasionally I’d pick it up but then put it back down. F. Scott Fitzgerald is very intense for me. I have to be in a certain mood. I randomly picked it up in 2009, a year of my own crack-up, and read a couple of essays, wrote a couple of rambling posts here about it, which are distressing to me to read now, I am so clearly not well, and then put it down out of self-preservation. I wasn’t ready to read it. It was too perfectly expressive of exactly where I was at. Sometimes you need that, and sometimes you do NOT.

I finally read The Crack-Up in 2010. I’ve since used it as reference for other things more time than I can count, even my Elvis stuff (one essay in particular). These are famous essays, quoted all the time, some of his most famous lines, and it’s very very powerful to read the entire book in one sitting. I had a couple of moments where a familiar line would pop off the page and I’d think, “Oh, so THAT is where that came from.”

Fitzgerald’s journey is well-known. He was only 24 years old when his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published. He had started it while he was a college student. It was a smash hit. It is the kind of thing you want to happen to you, taking the world by storm your first time out of the gate. He not only explained the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age, he helped to actually create it. You could not imagine a more fortuitous and promising beginning. He made a ton of money, married Zelda, the Alabama girl of his dreams, and together they embodied the youthful carelessness so prized during the time he was writing. The pressure on him, to follow up, had to be enormous (and he does write about this very eloquently in one of my favorite essays in the collection, called ‘Early Success’.) He wasn’t just another writer. He was the Voice of a Generation. Not too much pressure there, eh?

He followed up This Side of Paradise with The Beautiful and Damned in 1922. It was first serialized in a magazine, and then came out as a book. He had been given a large advance, based on how well This Side of Paradise had sold. The Beautiful and Damned (based on his relationship with Zelda, he even quotes her word for word in it) also sold well, although it didn’t go off like the bomb that was This Side of Paradise. This is one of the pitfalls of “early success”, but we’ll get to that when we get to that essay. Meanwhile, he and Zelda were traipsing the world, being controversial and fabulous, symbols of the time. They had a baby in 1921, and traveled to Paris, and everywhere else, with the baby. He was a huge part of the American ex-pat community in Paris of the 1920s (so beautifully imagined in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris). Prohibition was on, which meant everyone drank, all the time, and Fitzgerald was a big drinker. After Beautiful and Damned, he had an idea for another book, a short quick elegiac look at a kind of America that was dying, that he could see dying, but also a book about nostalgia and lost youth, something that (although he was young himself) – he seemed to have an inside-track of understanding. The result was The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. The book was not a financial success, and it wasn’t a critical success, either, something that is hard to believe today. It was a crushing blow to poor Fitzgerald, who had poured his heart into the book. He could not understand it. It was heartbreaking. The Great Gatsby would not take its place in the American canon until after Fitzgerald’s death, something I find very upsetting. He died thinking he would be forgotten. That was a valid worry to have, if you look at the “fall” in critical approbation that he experienced. He could have no way of knowing that his first “failure”, The Great Gatsby, would become the book he was most known for.

After The Great Gatsby, there is almost a 10-year gap before his next novel, Tender Is the Night. That gap says it all. Of course, at the time, he was also keeping himself solvent by writing short stories (they paid very well), and three short story collections came out in the 20s. These helped pay the bills, helped keep him and Zelda afloat. They were always running from debt, however. It was the 1920s, I suppose everyone lived beyond their means. Fitzgerald was not happy about what was happening to his work. He would sell his stuff to Hollywood, he was paid well for short stories, but he referred to it all as “whoring”. When all is said and done, only the giant success of his first novel justified/paid for the extravagant lifestyle he became accustomed to with Zelda. The two of them lived off of that, primarily: that’s how well that first book sold. Amazing.

Zelda had her first crack-up in 1930. Worrying about her and finding proper treatment for her took up all of Fitzgerald’s time and heart-space. He was out of his mind with worry. Finally, in 1935, out came Tender Is the Night. It did not go well for Fitzgerald. Critics seemed put off by it, they didn’t like it. The public, who had been waiting for word from Fitzgerald for almost 10 years (he was that kind of writer: very important to his generation), had a lukewarm reaction. The Jazz Age author not translating into Depression-era concerns? There are myriad reasons why that book (which has, of course, found its audience as well, along with Gatsby) didn’t go well. Fitzgerald wrote it under duress. To make money, he de-camped to Hollywood, and wrote screenplays. This helped him financially but I think it was ruinous to his soul and spirit. It hurts to read his letters from that time. He was in a wilderness. Lost. He had nothing to hold onto. His wife was institutionalized. His drinking escalated. It’s just tragic. He wasn’t even 40 years old yet and he had a couple of heart attacks.

His time in Hollywood gave him the idea for another book, which he worked on when he could (his health was not good, he was often drunk and ill). This would be The Last Tycoon, and when he died in 1940 it remained unfinished, but it was brought out after his death in 1941. It’s a great book, one of the best books about Hollywood in existence. It was a fantastic topic for Fitzgerald, whose stuff always trucked in dreams, myths, and the American dream-space of itself – all of these things which is also the territory of cinema – and it’s just too damn bad what happened to this guy. It’s just too damn bad.

The Crack-Up gives us insight into what all of this was like for him, and in that we owe Edmund Wilson a great debt. It is superbly curated and edited. It’s essential reading, not only for any Fitzgerald fan, but for anyone interested in American culture.

I came to love Fitzgerald early. I was about 15 when I first read The Great Gatsby, went wild for it, and then read every single thing I could get my hands on, every short story, every novel, biographies, everything – I had torn through most of his ouevre by the time I was 16. I had been obsessed with flappers since I was 9, 10 years old. I loved that whole era. I wrote a paper in 8th grade on the 1920s and did a lot of research. Part of this was because of Bugsy Malone, which I saw when I was 10 or 11. There was also a TV series on when I was in high school called Gangsters, which took place in the 1920s, and totally satisfied my need to go back to that time and live it out. I wrote a novel when I was 12 about flappers and teenage Ziegfeld girls. I meant business. Fitzgerald, with his unforgettable prose, helped me to step back in time. That’s one of the best things about great literature – for kids, certainly, because it gives you perspective on a time other than your own – and also for adults, obviously. Fitzgerald had that rare ability, which is why his first book garnered such extraordinary success: He was able to look around him, at the culture he was a part of, and name it, call it out, see not only the trends, but the underlying meaning and themes. He could sense it. He was young to sense it. But he had that gift. The gift of sight. It is easy to look back on an era, from some distance, and pontificate, “Yes. That was what was going on at that time. I see it so clearly.” But to be able to do that from within the actual moment …. very few writers can do that. Hell, very few people can do that. It requires a certain brand of sensitivity, a certain acute sense of perception, a feel for the upheavals beneath the surface of a culture. It is easy to rattle off trends. But not as easy to examine why such trends emerged, and what the hell was happening in an entire culture during a certain moment in time.

While we certainly have many wonderful writers writing today, I can’t think of too many who are able to look, see, name … the moment in time in which they are writing from. It’s a short list. David Foster Wallace should be on it. I’d put Dave Eggers on there, too. Joshua Ferris’ extraordinary first novel, Then We Came to the End: A Novel (some thoughts here), is a unique book, the Office Space of literature, and it expresses something about our current culture that nobody else, no, nobody, has captured yet. It’s an eerie experience reading that book, because it mostly takes part in the more high-flying early 2000’s, before the crash of 2008. Ferris examines office culture in a way that is unparalleled, second only to Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. I got that creepy-crawly feeling on my neck as I read Ferris’ book. Here, here, is an author who is actually writing about “how we live now”, in a way that is fresh and new, in a way that OWNS the territory. I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it. Interestingly enough, it is already a historical piece. It is already out of date. Similar to Fitzgerald’s first two novels, which were practically “ancient history” during the rough and dirty Depression years. But, he was able to sit in that high-flying manic moment, and diagnose our culture, so that we have it for all time. Pretty extraordinary.

This is a perfect segue to the first essay in The Crack-Up, which is called “Echoes of the Jazz Age”. Fitzgerald wrote it in 1931. The 20s, which came to a crash ending in 1929, were only two years in the past. Those good old days ended with an alarming swiftness. Fitzgerald’s essay looks at the trends in the culture, what helped create the Jazz Age, what jazz itself signifies, and what it felt like to be in your 20s during the 20s. What did it mean? What was really going on? Of course it was about sex. Fitzgerald examines that, and talks about the automobile, and how people having their own cars suddenly made “petting” a commonplace thing, that everyone did, and everyone talked about doing … and how, as with all youthful cultural revolutions, the Jazz Age began to turn when middle-aged people started hopping on the bandwagon. Fitzgerald doesn’t just see: he diagnoses. His conclusions are quite brutal.

It’s an extraordinary essay of insight and detail. He is writing from the trenches. He writes personally. Fitzgerald couldn’t write impersonally if he tried. And what a masterstroke: to include Lindbergh here, to not even name him (because you wouldn’t have to), but to understand that while the Jazz Babies were doing their thing and causing much hand-wringing, there were other Americans doing other things … perhaps not so silly, not so transitory. His words on Lindbergh are quoted all the time, and small wonder. Look at that paragraph. Masterpiece.

Here is an excerpt.

The Crack-Up, ‘Echoes of the Jazz Age’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

By 1927 a wide-spread neurosis began to be evident, faintly signalled, like a nervous beating of the feet, by the popularity of cross-word puzzles. I remember a fellow ex-patriate opening a letter from a mutual friend of ours, urging him to come home and be revitalized by the hardy, bracing qualities of the native soil. It was a strong letter and it affected us both deeply, until we noticed that it was headed from a nerve sanitarium in Pennsylvania.

By this time contemporaries of mine had begun to disappear into the dark maw of violence. A classmate killed his wife and himself on Long Island, another tumbled “accidentally” from a skyscraper in Philadelphia, another purposefully from a skyscraper in New York. One was killed in a speak-easy in Chicago; another was beaten to death in a speak-easy in New York and crawled home to the Princeton Club to die; still another had his skull crushed by a maniac’s axe in an insane asylum where he was confined. These are not catastrophes that I went out of my way to look for – these were my friends; moreover, these things happened not during the depression but during the boom.

In the spring of ’27, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have had nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams. Maybe there was a way out by flying, maybe our restless blood could find frontiers in the illimitable air. But by that time we were all pretty well committed; and the Jazz Age continued; we would all have one more.

Nevertheless, Americans were wandering ever more widely – friends seemed eternally bound for Russia, Persia, Abyssinia and Central Africa. And by 1928 Paris had grown suffocating. With each new shipment of Americans spewed up by the boom the quality fell off, until toward the end there was something sinister abut the crazy boatloads. They were no longer the simple pa and ma and son and daughter, infinitely superior in their qualities of kindness and curiosity to the corresponding class in Europe, but fantastic neanderthals who believed something, something vague, that you remembered from a very cheap novel. I remember an Italian on a steamer who promenaded the deck in an American Reserve Officer’s uniform picking quarrels in broken English with Americans who criticised their own institutions in the bar. I remember a fat Jewess, inlaid with diamonds, who sat behind us at the Russian ballet and said as the curtain rose, “That’s luffly, dey ought to baint a bicture of it.” This was low comedy, but it was evident that money and power were falling into the hands of people in comparison with whom the leader of a village Soviet would be a gold-mine of judgment and culture. There were citizens travelling in luxury in 1928 and 1929 who, in the distortion of their new condition, had the human value of Pekinese, bivalves, cretins, goats. I remember the Judge from some New York district who had taken his daughter to see the Bayeux Tapestries and made a scene in the papers advocating their segregation because one scene was immoral. But in those days life was like the race in Alice in Wonderland, there was a prize for every one.

The Jazz Age had 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 Queensborough 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. Middle age must be served and pajamas came to the beach to save fat thighs and flabby calves from competition with the one-piece bathing-suit. Finally skirts came down and everything was concealed. Everybody was at scratch now. Let’s go –

But it was not to be. Somebody had blundered and the most expensive orgy in history was over.

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2 Responses to The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘Echoes of the Jazz Age’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  1. Kent says:

    “…ceaselessly into the past…”

    • sheila says:

      If I could “like” this comment I would. yes: that kind of outlook was Fitzgerald’s true gift, he had it young. Very rare.

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