Those interested in reading Fitzgerald’s work as cultural history and as insight into the era’s fashions must be aware of two potential problems. The first is the author’s predilection for nostalgia and the second is his idiosyncrasies as a writer. Jay Gatsby’s line, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” speaks to his creator’s penchant for reveling in days gone by. “Nostalgia is a limbo land leading nowhere, where the artist can graze like a horse put to pasture feeding on such clover of the past as whets his appetite,” writes Wright Morris in his essay “The Function of Nostalgia: F. Scott Fitzgerald.” “The pervasive charm of Fitzgerald is that this clover, which he cups in both hands, is almost chokingly sweet.”1 For all of its creativity and cleverly crafted prose, Fitzgerald’s work is unable to shake loose the veil of artifice. Edmund Wilson writes, “For many, Fitzgerald is a childlike fellow, very much wrapped up in his dream of himself, and his projection of it on paper.”2 From early in his career, critics have named Fitzgerald’s integration of “self” and “character” as one of the biggest flaws in his writing.
Because Fitzgerald’s work is so autobiographical, the modern reader must be particularly careful of a story’s timeframe. For example, Tender is the Night depicts life on the French Riviera between 1919 and 1925, but Fitzgerald himself did not arrive in that area of France until May 1924. The book was published in 1934. His novels are often set in the past as are The Beautiful and Damned and Tender is the Night. Some of his references to popular culture and fashion trends are downright misleading. Yanci Bowman spends time “dreaming of what she might buy at Hempel’s or Waxe’s or Thrumble’s”—department stores that never existed in New York City. Of Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night, he writes, “She put on the first ankle-length dress that she had owned in years, and crossed herself reverently with Chanel Sixteen” (223). Chanel No. 5 was introduced in 1921; Chanel No. 22, aptly, was released in 1922. Chanel No. 16 never existed. Fitzgerald’s inability to separate himself from his art that further complicates his work’s validity as a resource for cultural history. To a large degree, Fitzgerald is Amory Blaine, the Princeton-loving, bon vivant ruined by his own good intentions. Later in his life, he is the patient in “The Alcoholic Case.” The writer’s personal attachment to his material allows him to manipulate the real with the contrived. In “Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he merges Rolls-Royce and Pierce-Arrow to produce Rolls-Arrow and turns Brooks Brothers into Rivers Brothers.
The second potential problem in reading Fitzgerald as a source of cultural history is that his idiosyncrasies as a writer can produce a mixed bag of information. His elaborate notebooks and files were used for storing material that had been edited out of other writing, and he often recycled these pre-written descriptions of people, places and things into later pieces. For example, “Babes In the Woods” was named after the popular song of 1915 written by Jerome Kern and Schuyler Greene. The fiction was first published in the Nassau Literary Magazine in May 1917 and a revised text was published in The Smart Set in September 1919, marking the author’s first sale of a story. He received $30. The piece was again published in the “Spires and Gargoyles” chapter of This Side of Paradise. While each version deals with Fitzgerald’s favorite subject of courtship rituals, details were changed with every publication. In the first printing, the main character was imagined to be “of Vernon Castle-ish slenderness,” a reference to the famed dancer who died in 1917. The reference was then changed to “pencil slenderness” and finally to “garter-advertisement slenderness.”
With so many revisions by Fitzgerald, as well as by his editor Maxwell Perkins and various friends, the reader is left wondering to what degree his character descriptions are original creations and to what degree they have been cobbled together in later drafts. If one approaches his work with these two stumbling blocks in mind, the path to an historical interpretation is a bit more navigable.
1. Wright Morris, “The Function of Nostalgia: F. Scott Fitzgerald” in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Arthur Mizener, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), 28.
2.Edmund Wilson, “F. Scott Fitzgerald” in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, 82.