A while ago I was re-reading some short stories by one of my favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I was struck again by the old-fashioned chasteness of his characters and their culture. Considered daringly progressive in his day, Fitzgerald’s portraits of young people during the 1910s and 20s now read like discovering one’s grandparents or great-grandparents transferred to fresh bodies – the antiquated customs and worldviews remain the same, but the emotions are surprisingly, heartbreakingly new.
The romances Fitzgerald imagined in The Beautiful and Damned, This Side of Paradise, and in classic pieces like “Winter Dreams,” “The Rich Boy, “A Short Trip Home,” and “Basil and Cleopatra,” are built around chaperones, formal dances, domestic servants, long engagements, long train rides, and newspaper society columns. No one hooks up; there are no friends with benefits, no STDs, and there is no mention of birth control. Casual encounters are hinted at but rarely seen. In “Winter Dreams,” the protagonist Dexter Green has an illicit liaison with the elusive Judy Jones: “‘Won’t you come in?’ He heard her draw in her breath sharply. Waiting. ‘All right,’ his voice was trembling. ‘I’ll come in.'” Fade to black. In “The Rich Boy,” Anson Hunter arranges a hurried affair with a paramour, Dolly Karger, by paying off the night watchman of a country estate: “‘Yes, Mr. Anson.’ Being of the Old Word, he neither winked nor smiled. Yet Dolly sat with her face turned slightly away.” Such was debauchery, circa 1926.
Nearly one hundred years after the era in which Fitzgerald’s fiction was set, what’s remarkable is how poignant such narratives remain, even if they seem almost unimaginably tame in the Twenty-First century. Unlike his contemporaries John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, or Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald held on to romantic ideals of courtship and fidelity; he certainly never could have composed a passage like this one from Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936): “…she felt as over-ripe as she looked but smooth, rose-petal, syrupy, smooth-bellied, big-breasted and needed no pillow under her buttocks...” (I’ve never figured out that pillow thing, incidentally.) Fitzgerald also had a very delicate sense of what he called “rough” material – in her memoir Beloved Infidel, his companion Sheilah Graham recalled “a straitlaced, almost puritanical streak in Scott… At parties he was acutely uncomfortable if anyone told a suggestive story…He winced each time I forgot myself and used any of the colorful language I had picked up from my friends in the British aristocracy, or from the chorus girls backstage at the Pavilion.”
For all his early notoriety as the chronicler of the Jazz Age – flappers, Prohibition, and a licentious modernity – Fitzgerald was no sophisticate when it came to intimate relationships. He was really concerned with ambition more than attainment, with wanting more than having, with timeless matters of love, longing, and regret: his observations of the present were made sharper by the way he framed them as irrevocable breaks with the past. The deepest psychological drive of Jay Gatsby, Dick Diver, Amory Blaine, Basil Lee and his other heroes is that of nostalgia for real or imagined histories they will never experience again. Fitzgerald’s sexual mores may be hopelessly dated now, but the author of “Basil and Cleopatra,” describing young Basil at a society dance, understood that some other, more important things never change:
…for the first time in his life he wanted passionately to be older, less impressionable, less impressed. Quivering at every scent, sight or tune, he wanted to be blasé and calm. Wretchedly he felt the whole world of beauty pour down upon him like moonlight, pressing on him, making his breath now sighing, now short, as he wallowed helplessly in a superabundance of youth for which a hundred adults present would have given years of life.