F. Scott Fitzgerald's Evolving American Dream: The "Pursuit of Happiness" in Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and the Last Tycoon

By Callahan, John F. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Evolving American Dream: The "Pursuit of Happiness" in Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and the Last Tycoon


Callahan, John F., Twentieth Century Literature


Since the first stirrings of the F. Scott Fitzgerald revival in the 1940s, readers have been fascinated by the oppositions in his work and character. Critics from several different generations have noted how Fitzgerald used his conflicts to explore the origins and fate of the American dream and the related idea of the nation.(1) The contradictions he experienced and put into fiction heighten the implications of the dream for individual lives: the promise and possibilities, violations and corruptions of those ideals of nationhood and personality "dreamed into being," as Ralph Ellison phrased it, "out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past."(2) Fitzgerald embodied in his tissues and nervous system the fluid polarities of American experience: success and failure, illusion and disillusion, dream and nightmare.

"I did not care what it was all about," Hemingway's Jake Barnes confessed in The Sun Also Rises. "All I wanted to know was how to live in it."(3) Fitzgerald, who named and chronicled that brash, schizophrenic decade, was no stranger to the dissipation of values and the pursuit of sensation in the Jazz Age of the 1920s. But for all that, he strained to know what life is all about and how to live in it. To him, Hemingway's it was not simply existence and the soul's dark night of melancholia and despair. It also stood for an American reality that, combined with "an extraordinary gift for hope" and a "romantic readiness,"(4) led to the extravagant promise identified with America and the intense, devastating loss felt when the dream fails in one or another of its guises.

Face to face with his own breakdown, Fitzgerald traced his drastic change of mind and mood in his letters and Crack-Up pieces. From the conviction during his amazing early success in his 20s that "life was something you dominated if you were any good,"(5) Fitzgerald, at the end of his life, came to embrace "the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not `happiness and pleasure' but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle."(6) Abraham Lincoln was Fitzgerald's American exemplar of this "wise and tragic sense of life" (Turnbull, Letters [L] 96). And in The Last Tycoon (LT) he associates Monroe Stahr's commitment to lead the movie industry closer to an ideal mix of art and entertainment with Lincoln's creative response to the contradictions of American democracy embodied in the Union.

Fitzgerald's invocation of Lincoln recalls the proud and humble claim he made to his daughter from Hollywood. "I don't drink," he wrote; then, as if freed from a demon's grasp, he recounted the inner civil war he fought to keep his writer's gift intact: "I am not a great man, but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value have some sort of epic grandeur." "Some sort" he qualifies, as it! preparing for the ironic, self-deflating admission in the next sentence. "Anyhow after hours I nurse myself with delusions of that sort" (L 62, 61). But Fitzgerald did preserve the "essential value" of his talent; the pages he left confirm that. Like Lincoln who lived only long enough to sketch out what a truly reconstructed nation might look like, Fitzgerald was defeated in his attempt to finish his last novel. Yet what he wrote is all the more poignant because, finished, The Last Tycoon might have recast and reformulated the intractable oppositions of The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

"The test of a first rate intelligence," Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up (Wilson, CU), that posthumous collection full of his sinewy, mature, self-reliant thought, "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function" (CU 69). By function, Fitzgerald means more than cope; he's affirming that readiness to act in the world with something approaching one's full powers--"a willingness of the heart" combined with enabling critical intelligence. …

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