Thursday, March 15, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald: All The Sad Young Men (1926)

This is Fitzgerald's third collection of short stories, and best so far.  The most consistent, that is;  it doesn't have the jazz-age sass that the first two had in places, and it doesn't have anything quite as unforgettable as "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," but there are fewer duds, fewer things that have aged as badly as some of the things in the first two collections.  That's why it's so odd that it's not in print.  Some of the stories (I won't say the best) are in the big Fitzgerald omnibus, but like his others, this really deserves to be read as a conceptual whole.  So, library.

Second things second, then:  why are all the young men sad?  It's the young women's fault.  Best to get this out right up front:  Fitzgerald, I'm learning anew with every book, exemplified some of the worst traits of the America of his day.  Racism, chauvinism, sexism, materialism.  At his best, he can maintain an ironic distance that makes you think he's putting these evils under a microscope.  But at other times they're just there, unexamined.  I suppose this shouldn't surprise me:  what I've always liked most about Gatsby (which is, I guess, always going to my touchstone for Fitzgerald) is just how conflicted the author/narrator is about the superficial hypermaterialism he portrays.  That is, he's both horrified by it and drawn to it.  This ambivalence - this eager ambivalence - has always struck me as honest, and therefore beautiful.  It's one of my core aesthetics.

So why should it be acceptable for him to be that way about one mental vice - materialism - and not others - racism and sexism?  Because that, really, is it.  In The Beautiful and Damned, he seems at first glance to be blaming Anthony's fall on the women in his life, but any careful reading will recall how lazy and privileged Anthony acted before ever meeting Gloria.  Similarly, the expressions of chauvinism in the book are couched in Anthony's own shrivelled Waspish p.o.v., which allows us to read them as part of his moral failure. 

But some of the stories in this book quite nakedly blame women for men's downfall.  "Gretchen's Forty Winks," "The Rich Boy," "The Adjuster," "The Baby Party", "Winter Dreams" - most of the stories, in fact.  The biographical reading would note that these stories are the product of a time of trouble in Fitzgerald's own marriage - which may explain, but hardly excuses, the misogyny. 

So, that's there.  At the same time, these are among Fitzgerald's most psychologically nuanced stories - at least in their portrayal of the male characters.  All those varieties of sadness, of defeat, of failure.  Even a surprisingly sincere and effective look at Catholic guilt and apostasy, in "Absolution."  Of what I've read, this is the short-story collection that comes closest to equaling his novels.

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