While being mentally flogged by the headlines and news stories of the past weeks, I thought several times of the above lines from A.E. Housman. Our motivation for such reminiscences differed. Housman was contemplating a man’s wistful view of his youth, while I was thinking of a poor, maligned “Shining City upon a Hill,” otherwise known as the United States of America.
Whether the United States was ever a land of content, lost or otherwise, I cannot say, but most of us would surely agree that discontent is today lord of the land. Indeed, polls released in the last three or four years indicate that we Americans are about as jolly as Ebenezer Scrooge on the day before Christmas.
Part of this current melancholy stems from personal economic and social conditions. Wages have not kept pace with inflation, and in spite of (or perhaps because of) such vehicles as Facebook and Twitter, more people than ever claim they feel more isolated and unhappy.
In this stew of discontent we also find two other key ingredients: politics and culture. We have evolved into a fractious society, with each day’s headlines bringing new accusations, shrill messages of hate, and charges, proven and unproven, of corruption and evil.
Identity politics — and though I have never heard the term, identity culture — lie at the heart of this rancor. We lump ourselves, or else find ourselves lumped, into opposing camps: blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians; Christians, non-Christians; progressives, conservatives; men, women; gay, straight; young, old; rich, poor. When we look into the mirror, and some of us gaze obsessively into that glass, we may see ourselves as various combinations of the groups claiming our loyalties: black and straight, conservative and gay, young and female, rich and progressive, and any other blend we care to dream up.
But how many of us look into that mirror and see an American?
How many of us wonder what America means today? Or what it means to be an American, for that matter?
In Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Harvard University Press, 2017, 397 pages), writer and professor David Brown reveals how and why Scott Fitzgerald wrestled with those questions for most of his professional life.
When I spotted Paradise Lost on the new bookshelf of the public library, my first thought was: Another Fitzgerald biography? Really? How many of these do we need?
Then I opened the book, read the first six pages of “Introduction — Clio and Scott,” and realized that yes, we needed one more biography of the author of such American classics as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is The Night. We needed Professor Brown, who from that first reference to Clio, the Muse of History, tackles Fitzgerald’s deep interest in America, its meaning, and its history.
As indicated in the title, Paradise Lost offers an examination of Fitzgerald’s life. Here those of us acquainted with his story find ourselves on familiar ground: his midwestern boyhood and youth, his successes and failures at Princeton, his service in the Army, his marriage to Zelda and their embodiment of the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age, his life overseas, the time spent in such diverse places as Maryland, Asheville, and Hollywood.
Throughout these excursions, however, Brown looks at Scott Fitzgerald less as a literary personage than “as a cultural historian, the annalist as novelist who recorded the wildly fluctuating fortunes of America in the boom twenties and the bust thirties.” This is the vital difference between Brown and other Fitzgerald chroniclers. From short stories like “The Diamond As Big As The Ritz” and “Babylon Revisited” and from Fitzgerald’s novels like The Great Gatsby and Tender Is The Night, Brown share with us Fitzgerald’s intense interest in America, the ways he tried to set down his impressions of the interactions between a lost past and the rapid changes in the aftermath of World War I, and his exploration of American values and “the American dream.”
Brown’s investigation of The Last Tycoon, though brief, is particularly rewarding. This unfinished Hollywood novel has received deserved critical praise for certain lyrical passages and for its depiction of Hollywood in the 1930s. As Brown points out, Monroe Stahr, a producer and the hero of The Last Tycoon, fully embodies Fitzgerald’s visions of an American hero. Stahr surpasses even Jay Gatsby in his pursuit of the American dream. Gatsby is “compromised by fatal flaws,” but “Stahr retains the strengths and virtues of a great commander who leads by the force of his genius and the appeal of his vision.” Like other Fitzgerald protagonists, and perhaps like most of us, Stahr finally loses the battle to realize his dream, but in him we sense greatness in his capabilities and efforts.
A new year is once again here. As we enter into that year, perhaps the time has come to push aside the rancor felt toward others, to stop the shouting and the imprecations, and to count our blessings without feeling the need to curse those we regard as enemies of our democracy. In his work, Fitzgerald pondered the meaning and mystery of America. We might consider doing the same.