Thursday, November 09, 2006

Week 12, Fitzgerald and Hemingway

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” and “Babylon Revisited” (1641-72). Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1846-64).

General Notes on Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” (1641-58).

Dexter Green is middle class in genteel Dillard, and his wise, practical way with money makes him very rich while he’s still in his twenties. He holds to the Protestant Work Ethic and isn’t a speculator in stocks like many of his Ivy League classmates. Still, he is a hopeless speculator in romance, having become hooked on Judy Jones when he was fourteen and she was eleven. She embodies Dexter’s “winter dream,” and seems to speak to what is most dynamic and vital in him. But as it turns out, the Siren has nothing to say. Judy is described as pure body and “direct personality,” more or less the promise of limitless beauty and sexuality. She is premature in her perfection, and burns out young, becoming hollow and domesticated. So Dexter’s dream is shattered, and his worldly success brings him only disillusionment. He returns to his home town, but the American Dream he has achieved rings hollow. Fitzgerald deals with both class and romance, but the two don’t go together easily. He’s interested in fundamental conflicts in the American character, if one may use such terms: a main conflict here is between the material, practical side of Americans and the spiritual, romantic side. It seems the Dexter projects romantic qualities onto Judy that she really doesn’t have. Judy is attractive because of her air of pure promise, her beautiful exterior that turns out to be hollow inside. Dexter is able to infuse this hollow or empty center with whatever content he likes.

Dexter associates with what we might call “the leisure class” of Lake Erminie. Thorstein Veblen’s classic sociology work The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) deals with this group and traces its history to modern times. Dexter sees himself as the “rough stuff” of the leisure class; he’s not really part of it, but can imagine that his children might fit easily enough and move with the leisured people in their casual, understated way. Why? Because they will not have had to earn their money the way Dexter did. People sometimes accuse Fitzgerald of really believing that the rich are fundamentally different from other people, but his stories don’t play that way. Wealth buys a person some distance from the crowd and freedom from immediate want, but of course this distance and freedom usually creates problems of its own—ennui, a sense that life is meaningless, etc. These problems aren’t the exclusive province of the “beautiful people”; it’s just that they have more time to dwell upon them.

General Notes on Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” (1658-72).

Babylon was an opulent ancient city of the neo-Babylonian Empire that flourished in the 600’s BCE. It’s also the place where the Israelites were held captive when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 586 BCE. So the spiritual ideal is there, but is held captive to the material realm. In Fitzgerald’s short story, Babylon is Paris, France in its pre- and post-Crash-of-1929 incarnations. For Charlie Wales, a once-wealthy businessman, Paris represents a time of drunken excess and irresponsibility. Later, Paris becomes the place where he must reckon the damages he has wrought upon himself and others. Charlie has reformed and, though haunted by guilt, seeks to rebuild a home with his sister and his daughter Honoria. But the lesson the Depression was that chickens really do come home to roost. I think Alan Greenspan would have to call the Roaring Twenties a time of “irrational exuberance” leading to financial meltdown. The global economy of the time was built on endless speculation, with little or no security net to protect the system from misuse or, as some would say, from its own flaws. Expectations of prosperity must be made real by tangible performance, or the bottom quickly drops out of the financial markets—something most of us are familiar with thanks to the 1987 Stock Market plunge and then the Dot.Com Boom/Bust cycle of the 1990’s, when many people invested in internet startup companies that themselves seemed to have no idea how they were ever going to turn a profit. On the personal level, Charlie has recovered from his troubles with the bottle, but the consequences of his past “irrational exuberance” remain to be dealt with in the present. There just aren’t any clean breaks from the past or any bright new beginnings, as is proven when Charlie’s old comrades-in-cups Lorraine and Duncan prove.

On the whole, the story casts materialism as a species of forgetfulness or oblivion-seeking, so Charlie’s actions during the Roaring Twenties were like a drug he was taking to forget his problems with his wife. Well, the new reality for him is a downer, just as it is for American and indeed for Western Europe. The wildness and conspicuous consumption of the Twenties, with its eternal sense of the present, has given way to an emergent and somber Protestant Work Ethic. (If, that is—as at least Charlie can—one can find any work that needs doing and brings pay.) Lincoln and Marion Peters represent that work ethic—they never whooped it up like so many during the period of easy living. Marion, especially, resents Charlie’s behavior; she sees that he ruined other people’s lives, went into a sanatorium, and then started over again, landing on his feet while so many others had no such luck. He’s making reasonable money again. I suppose that while Fitzgerald isn’t exactly a fictionalist who deals with the down-and-out class—the kind who find out the hard way that, as the song says, “you don’t get no bread with one meatball”—they’re in the background. Guys like Charlie get a second act, a second chance to make good, but millions of truly poor people whose only flaw was not being well connected didn’t have that kind of luck. John Steinbeck will, of course, give us a sense of the wretchedness and poverty that marked the 1930’s.

Page-by-Page Notes on Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1846-64).

1848-49. The story’s simple motif is that of “a person’s life reviewed at the point of death.” But this motif is complicated by the statement that talking is just something one does to pass the time and that the speaker really doesn’t much care about anything by now. His days as a writer are done, so he will not be able to pass along any of his insights about living or dying.

1850-51. One likes to think of snow as symbolizing purity, but here the references indicate something more like deception, or even cruelty and oblivion.

1852-54. The argument between Harry and his wife arises because he seems determined to wound her, to “leave nothing behind.” It’s better, he thinks, to reduce their relationship to sex, money, comfort, and reputation. Even privately, he casts himself as a hollow liar selling “vitality”—the vitality that should have gone into his writing. No doubt this was a serious consideration for Hemingway, too—he went in for politics and journalism, and adopted the George Orwell ethos that one should go to the front, to the slums, and so forth, to make authentic contact with one’s subject matter. But now Harry is a “kept man,” and he lacks the will to do better than, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald in writing about the upper crust, which is his current milieu.

1854-56. Circumstances really get the better of the characters in this story: Helen’s search for meaning in life was badly impacted by the death of her child in a plane crash. Then Harry’s random (?) failure to treat his wound properly—is it just chance that makes him behave so self-destructively? Or is it a will to annihilation? Well, in spite of his machismo, he will be taken down by some invisible germs. And on 1855, the Hyena symbolizes death as something stealthy and opportunistic—not at all like the famous Grim Reaper of medieval iconography.

1857-64. Harry’s mortal illness is especially galling to him because he has long felt it a duty to write about his experiences. Having rendered that experience inauthentic and fallen in love with lies as the grease of social interaction and romance, he has nothing about which to write, and now he’s too tired and sick to grapple with a final description of the ultimate experience, death. Becoming alienated and hollowed out, we might say, gives one a certain perspective on feelings, events, and relationships, but perhaps it is also fatal to a writer in that it strips him of the desire to write anything at all. In the end, Harry dreams of escaping to the white summit of Kilimanjaro. Harry’s failure, of course, allows Hemingway the scripter to offer us some of his finest insights and most lyrical (if stark as always) writing. So perhaps through Harry, Hemingway has at least for a time confronted his own anxieties as a writer and dealt with them.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.


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