FROM THE STACKS DECEMBER 20, 2013
Review: "The Beautiful and Damned"
May 17, 1992
I have a suspicion—which I should hate to have to defend with concrete evidence—that a lot of people in the kindly but cool October of life are pointing to Mr. Scott Fitzgerald as the interpreter of the "younger generation," and are reading him as someone who understands what they do not quite understand nor altogether like, but which fascinates them as May will, I suppose, always fascinate October. They think of him, and at once their mouths are filled with such phrases as "these wild young people," “flappers," "petting parties," and their heads with vague images of human beings younger than themselves—and therefore, though they do not know it, already alien—who seem to be a different race by reason of a decided tendency to eat all of life as it is served to them and save nothing for the ice-chest of after-years. They view with alarm this youth whose slogan seems to them to be Freedom is a Bonfire, Come and Jump into it; they recall the crude cruel frankness of our twenties, the young drinking or dancing couples going through the motions of pleasure with faces passionately meaningless; they ruefully, perhaps enviously, accept what they take to be Fitzgerald's testimony and say to themselves, a little too self-consciously perhaps, Blessed be the ugly, for they shall not live on the seamy side of Paradise.
As a member of a generation which here chooses to remain nameless, I insist that Mr. Fitzgerald is not a witness, and not an interpreter. His novel may have a contemporary ring and contemporary furniture, but his story is an old one. So many people have read it—or are going to—that there is not much use in tracing its outline. It is the familiar one of character eroded by idleness, and love by time. Its two chief personages, Anthony and Gloria, have to start with the double gift, or curse, of beauty an money. These gifts, plus intelligence and an insatiable thirst for today, are their undoing. They lack that inward pressure, that mysterious binding stuff which makes the difference between sand and rock, and like sand they adding to nothing, but are forever shifting. Their motto is the poplar's. All winds bend me, and its prayer their only hope: May good winds blow. Spoiled children of fair weather, they call down foul weather upon themselves. They try to obey Nietzsche's injunction to live dangerously, but succeed only in living disastrously.
It is a novel not of disillusion but of decay. What happens to the kind of people that Anthony and Gloria are has happened to the same kind of people over and over again, and in a lesser degree to millions of more ordinary people, ever since man began to stand up on his hind legs. In our foolish optimism, our pride and certainty in progress, we like to forget that disintegration is a competing and often victorious force. And so, when we see signs of something uncommonly like it in the young generation, we think it has never happened before. What counts in the of The Beautiful and Damned has happened before millions of times, and has been written about, too. The setting changes, of course, but since Mr. Fitzgerald has described our modern setting with its prohibition parties and promiscuous kissing in such generous detail, we are apt to think that, because the scenery is startling, the play is a new one.
Let's leave the scenery and look at the characters. Mr. Fitzgerald starts to build up Anthony Patch with pages which, while blazing with clever irony, do not give us a picture of him in three dimensions. Later we find him using that mixture of standing aside and telling us what he says and does and acting as his intimate psychological confidant, which often betrays the autobiographer. Within rather large limits Anthony is clear, but clear as a type rather than a person. The most telling accounts of him, while real, could also seem real of other persons quite different from him in other ways. Gloria, admirably sharp at first, deliquesces and loses her personality as Mr. Fitzgerald grows intimate with her, until toward the end we find her speaking very little like her earlier self, and far too much like him. She too, broadens into a person with too many characteristics which other characters could share with her and still he different. The treatment of the two of them leaves the curious impression that Mr. Fitzgerald was at first inside Anthony's soul and watched Gloria from without, and gradually exchanged these positions.
His treatment of the minor characters is much sharper and much more limited. They are made to live by their creator's uncanny talent for picking out their weak and foolish spot—but one spot only. They are pieces of cardboard, and on them is a bulls-eye which he never misses. To me they serve a highly useful purpose—they bring out perhaps the most important facet of Mr. Fitzgerald's mind. He hates to be bored; he loathes the obvious, the flat, the second-hand (the "immemorial" he calls it), and those who utter these things, beyond any thing in the world. And dull people who play constantly upon one dismal string of the ancient and obvious not only bore him, they rouse all the impatience in him to a high and eloquent pitch of irony.
This irony, this impatience, which is both robust and feverish, runs all through the book. It irrevocably tinges its sentiment, it is a sort of undertone or background. Mf. Fitzgerald has a very small allowance of tenderness, and even less of pity, but for every pint of them his mixture contains gallons of blistering hatred. He hates, to be sure, just the things that I do, but it is a perilous mood to maintain. Such a mood in him gives birth to innumerable asides, semi-epigrammatic descriptions of or slaps at the times we live in. Here is a brief sample:
In April war was declared with Germany. Wilson and his cabinet—a. cabinet that in its lack of distinction was strangely reminiscent of the twelve apostles—let loose the carefully starved dogs of war, and the press began to whoop hysterically against the sinister morals, sinister philosophy, and sinister music produced by the Teutonic temperament…
The book is alive with epigrams, so many that one half suspects that their origin is less in a perpetually ironic state of mind than in a facility and joy in turning them out. It is a lively and amusing talent but, infecting as it does many of the characters, it tends to epigrammania.
In emphasizing this smartness it would not be fair to lose sight of Mr. Fitzgerald's cleverness, and of something far more than that, of a real sincerity and vigor of mind. The mind of one who reacts to life rather than explores it, who observes life by a sort of revulsion, a restless mind in which what you at first take to be poison turns out to be irritation and what you take to be madness, insomnia. A mind knowing both bitterness and triumph, and keenly enjoying both. Decidedly a mind with edge—perhaps the edge of a saw. A curious combination of energy and weariness, eagerness and cruelty, suggesting fire without warmth.