On the essays shelf:
The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
One of my favorite essays about New York City, up there with Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and E.B. White’s “Here Is New York”. F. Scott Fitzgerald was from St. Paul, Minnesota, and he went to school in Princeton, New Jersey, and yet, very young, he became a symbol for the possibilities in cosmopolitan New York. I imagine that there are still people today who would be surprised to learn that Fitzgerald was a Midwesterner. It is often the “outsiders” who can really help us see a landscape. Joan Didion was from California, for example. And to those who move to New York to chase a dream, as Didion did (well, she had a job, too), as Fitzgerald did … New York is different than to those who grew up here. It is a symbol, a mirage (on bad days), a glimmering backdrop on which we project our dreams and hopes. It’s that kind of place. It can build us up, it can let us down. It is eternal. If you come here when you are young, as most people do, it can break your heart in a million pieces. It opens doors, it slams them in your face. The city is so gigantic and insistent that you must be in relationship to IT at all times. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t lived here (which is why I so appreciate essays like the ones I name-checked here. If anyone is curious, I can point to Didion’s essay, or ‘My Lost City’ and say: “There. That’s what it’s like.”) New York is also something you take for granted, once you are immersed in it, once you spend the majority of your time here. It’s always fun to show people around who have never visited, or who are unfamiliar … because it can help me see this city in a new way. I remember when I first moved here, I would have an almost physical sensation of sudden relaxation/deflation-of-stress when I would take the PATH back over to the Jersey side. I would walk up the PATH steps and almost physically collapse in relaxation. That’s how much the stress of just living here, day to day, was for me at the beginning – and remember, I had come from Chicago to New York, I had lived in Los Angeles, I had lived in Philadelphia and Boston before that. I was not unfamiliar with city life. But New York … New York demands a lot of you, in a way that is unique. The air has energy. It is demanding, in that respect. I’m now so used to it I barely notice it, although on days when I am tired or heartsick or struggling, I certainly yearn to flee, which is why I get away so much and hole up in beach motels whenever I can.
In this essay, written in 1932, Fitzgerald covers the same territory that he covered in ‘Echoes of the Jazz Age’: the decade of the 20s. He describes his first view of New York, from the ferry from Jersey, and his first awe-struck trips there, seeing shows, and coming in from Princeton, and being amazed by the sheer size, scope, breadth of the place. He describes going to a party at the apartment of someone who had gone to Princeton, and how incredible it was to go into someone’s home, to get behind the facade of New York, to really see how people live. This is still true in New York, although you get a bit more used to it the longer you live here. New York seems so daunting sometimes, and it’s so hard to just flat out LIVE here, that questions like, “How much do you pay rent?” are not at all considered rude here: it’s a valid question, based on curiosity (“How do YOU manage?”), and it’s all a mystery how anyone gets along at all. F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing about a much cheaper time in New York, really gets that. He writes about his different times in New York: being there, briefly, when he was an anonymous young man … then coming back after the publication of his first novel, which made him famous, and suddenly all of the doors of the city flung open to him. Then, as the 20s progressed, the mania grew. When the crash came, Fitzgerald was in Africa, and he describes hearing it, dimly, from there. Returning to New York after that was like visiting a tomb. The boil had been lanced. People were chastened, back to normal.
As always, with Fitzgerald, he is writing about youth. Nostalgia for youth, but more than that; nostalgia for hope and idealism, the best parts of ourselves. How to gain experience in this world without sacrificing your idealism, your hope. Is it at all possible? (I have not, personally, found it possible. YMMV. Perhaps that is why I find Fitzgerald almost unbearably poignant.)
Here, he talks about his first “time” in New York, a period that lasted about 6 months (before he was famous).
The Crack-Up, ‘My Lost City’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I got back to New York in 1919 I was so entangled in life that a period of mellow monasticism in Washington Square was not to be dreamed of. The thing was to make enough money in the advertising business to rent a stuffy apartment for two in the Bronx. The girl concerned had never seen New York but she was wise enough to be rather reluctant. And in a haze of anxiety and unhappiness I passed the four most impressionable months of my life.
New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world. The returning troops marched up Fifth Avenue and girls were instinctively drawn East and North tower them – this was the greatest nation and there was gala in the air. As I hovered ghost-like in the Plaza Red Room of a Saturday afternoon, or went to lush and liquid garden parties in the East Sixties or tippled with Princetonians in the Biltmore Bar I was haunted always by my other life – my drab room in the Bronx, my square foot of the subway, my fixation upon the day’s letter from Alabama – would it come and what would it say? – my shabby suits, my poverty, and love. While my friends were launching decently into life I had muscled my inadequate bark into midstream. The gilded youth circling around young Constance Bennett in the Club de Vingt, the classmates in the Yale-Princeton Club whooping up our first after-the-war reunion, the atmosphere of the millionaires’ houses that I sometimes frequented — these things were empty for me, though I recognized them as impressive scenery and regretted that I was committed to other romance. The most hilarious luncheon table or the most moony cabaret — it was all the same; from them I returned eagerly to my home on Claremont Avenue – home because there might be a letter waiting outside the door. One by one my great dreams of New York became tainted. The remembered charm of Bunny’s apartment faded with the rest when I interviewed a blowsy landlady in Greenwich Village. She told me I could bring girls to the room, and the idea filled me with dismay — why should I want to bring girls to my room? — I had a girl. I wandered through the town of 127th Street, resenting its vibrant life; or else I bought cheap theatre seats at Gray’s drugstore and tried to lose myself for a few hours in my old passion for Broadway. I was a failure – mediocre at advertising work and unable to get started as a writer. Hating the city, I got roaring, weeping drunk on my last penny and went home….
. . . Incalculable city. What ensued was only one of a thousand success stories of those gaudy days, but it plays a part in my own movie of New York. When I returned six months later the offices of editors and publishers were open to me, impresarios begged plays, the movies panted for screen material. To my bewilderment, I was adopted, not as a Middle Westerner, not even as a detached observer, but as the archetype of what New York wanted. This statement requires some account of the metropolis in 1920.
There was already the tall white city of today, already the feverish activity of the boom, but there was a general inarticulateness. As much as anyone the columnist F.P.A. guessed the pulse of the individual crowd, but shyly, as one watching from a window. Society and the native arts had not mingled – Ellen Mackay was not yet married to Irving Berlin. Many of Peter Arno’s people would have been meaningless to the citizen of 1920, and save for F.P.A.’s column there was no forum for metropolitan urbanity.
Then, for just a moment, the ‘younger generation’ idea became a fusion of many elements in New York life. People of fifty might pretend there was still a four hundred, or Maxwell Bodenheim might pretend there was a Bohemia worth its paint and pencils – but the blending of the bright, gay, vigorous elements began then, and for the first time there appeared a society a little livelier than the solid mahogany dinner parties of Emily Price Post. If this society produced the cocktail party, it also evolved Park Avenue wit, and for the first time an educated European could envisage a trip to New York as something more amusing than a gold-trek into a formalized Australian Bush.
For just a moment, before it was demonstrated that I was unable to play the role, I, who knew less of New York than any reporter of six months’ standing and less of its society than any hall-room boy in a Ritz stag line, was pushed into the position not only of spokesman for the time but of the typical product of that same moment. I, or rather it was ‘we’ now, did not know exactly what New York expected of us and found it rather confusing. Within a few months after our embarkation on the Metropolitan venture we scarcely knew any more who we were and we hadn’t a notion what we were. A dive into a civic fountain, a casual brush with the law, was enough to get us into the gossip columns, and we were quoted on a variety of subjects we knew nothing about. Actually our ‘contacts’ included half a dozen unmarried college friends and a few new literary acquaintances – I remember a lonesome Christmas when we had not one friend in the city, nor one house we could go to. Finding no nucleus to which we could cling, we became a small nucleus ourselves and gradually we fitted our disruptive personalities into the contemporary scene of New York. Or rather New York forgot us and let us stay.