Rockville.---ABOUT A DOZEN miles north of Washington's sparkling monuments, which celebrate American successes, one of America's saddest stories is commemorated by this inscription: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
The last words of "The Great Gatsby" mark the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died 50 years ago, Dec. 21, 1940. He was emblematic of an era and his life is a cautionary tale for this one.
Success ("This Side of Paradise") came to him suddenly, at 23. At 28, he published "Gatsby." At 43, he was dead. (In 1919, Gatsby was poor. In the spring of 1922, he was rich. In late summer, he was dead.) Fitzgerald spent most of his adult life dissipating his talent and health in drug abuse. He was an alcoholic.
Not long before his fatal heart attack, he wrote, in a heart-rending past tense: "In a small way, I was an original." In a big way, he was. He not only named, he incarnated, the Jazz Age.
His way of living ruined his talent but rose, like his talent, from romanticism. It was the romanticism of style, flair, extravagant gesture. And in the 1920s, as in the 1960s, the cultivation of intensely felt experiences was bound up with drugs, a category properly understood to include alcohol. (Gatsby refers to his bootlegging as "the drug business.")
The decade in which Fitzgerald was born marked the closing of the frontier. The virgin West no longer beckoned. The year he was born, 1896, saw the victory of McKinley over Bryan, city over country. The East beckoned. He went from Minnesota to Princeton to become a chronicler of urban America's new manners (the urban America of Jay Gatsby, who was Jimmy Gatz before he left North Dakota).
Fitzgerald was born when ragtime, movies and airplanes were born, amid an expansive sense of possibility. World War I, said one veteran of it, had taught disdain for civilian virtues (thrift, caution, sobriety) and taught instead extravagance, fatalism and fear of boredom. The war punched history's fast-forward button, revving up the 1920s.
Production soared; speculation soared even more. Producing goods lost stature next to marketing, advertising, salesmanship. Hence the new virtues were poise, self-assurance, personality. "If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about (Gatsby). . . ." Gorgeous, if you overlook the fact he was a gangster.
Suddenly youth -- Flaming Youth, it was called -- came knocking at the door. And when the older generation answered the door, it saw out at the curb a roadster. In 1920, the year the presidency was won by a man promising a return to "normalcy," Fitzgerald published "This Side of Paradise," announcing a new sense of the normal.
"None of the Victorian mothers -- and most of the mothers were Victorian -- had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed." It was an age of saxophones, women wearing makeup, bobbed hair and "eating three-o'clock after-dance suppers in impossible cafes, talking of every side of life."
Now, that seems impossibly quaint in 1990, the year the Boy Scout Handbook was revised to include this counsel: "You owe it to the women in your life to keep their best interests in mind. . . . Don't burden yourself and someone you care for with a child neither of you is ready to bear." However, the giddiness of the 1920s arose from the exhilaration of not knowing where, or if, the carnival would stop.
Part of it came to a screeching halt on Wall Street in October 1929. For Fitzgerald, the carousel closed Dec. 21, 1940. But there is a sense in which the carnival of modernity never closes here, and the nation is more wary, less exhilarated by that fact.
Fitzgerald's life and writings conveyed the idea that the Old World, congealed in its heavy, viscous history, inhibited "freedom" by too much inheritance. But here on the fresh green breast of the New World, people could live "honestly," unconditioned and true to impulses. Fitzgerald's crackup tells a new-old story: Being unconstrained carries its own burdens, the heaviest of which is self-creation. He was not a skillful author of himself.
"The expressions of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby's face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness."
Fitzgerald's writings are like jazz: improvisations on a short theme. The theme is dreams dissipated by indiscipline. His grave is in a churchyard now crowded by commercial clutter and enveloped in roaring currents of traffic. But his life, like his best writing, reverberates out where the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night.