By H.L. Mencken
AuthorsF. Scott FitzgeraldH.L. MenckenBooksBooks and MagazinesLiterature
Time Machine: A look back at H.L. Mencken's 1925 review of "The Great Gatsby"
Time Machine is a new Printers Row Journal feature offering a look at past Tribune books coverage. This week, we offer H.L. Mencken's 1925 review of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Scott Fitzgerald's new novel, "The Great Gatsby" is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that. The scene is the Long Island that hangs precariously on the edges of the New York City trash dumps — the Long Island of the gandy villas and bawdy house parties. The theme is the old one of a romantic and preposterous love — the ancient fidelis ad urnum motif reduced to a macabre humor. The principal personage is a bounder typical of those parts — a fellow who seems to know every one and yet remains unknown to all — a young man with a great deal of mysterious money, the tastes of a movie actor and, under it all, the simple sentimentality of a somewhat sclerotic fat woman.
This clown Fitzgerald rushes to his death in nine short chapters. The other performers in the Totentons are of a like, or even worse, quality. One of them is a rich man who carries on a grotesque intrigue with the wife of a garage keeper. Another is a woman golfer who wins championships by cheating. A third, a sort of chorus to the tragic farce, is a bond salesman — symbol of the New America! Fitzgerald clears them all off at last by a triple butchery. The garage-keeper's wife, rushing out upon the road to escape her husband's third degree is run down and killed by the wife of her lover. The garage keeper, misled by the lover, kills the lover of the lover's wife — the Great Gatsby himself. Another bullet, and the garage keeper is also reduced to offal. Choragus fades away. The crooked lady golfer departs. The lover of the garage keeper's wife goes back to his own consort. The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.
This story is obviously unimportant and, though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, "This Side of Paradise." What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story — that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people. It is not that they are false: it is that they are taken too much for granted. Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes — often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.
What gives the story distinction is something quite different from the management of the action or the handling of the characters; it is the charm and beauty of the writing. In Fitzgerald's first days it seemed almost unimaginable that he would ever show such qualities. His writing then was extraordinarily slipshod — at times almost illiterate. He seemed to be devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words. He could see people clearly and he could devise capital situations, but as writer qua writer he was apparently little more than a bright college boy. The critics of the Republic were not slow to discern the fact. They praised "This Side of Paradise" as a story, as a social document, but they were almost unanimous in denouncing it as a piece of writing.
It is vastly to Fitzgerald's credit that he appears to have taken their caveats seriously, and pondered them to good effect. In "The Great Gatsby," highly agreeable fruits of that pondering are visible. The story, for all its basic triviality, has a fine texture, a careful and brilliant finish. The obvious phrase is simply not in it. The sentences roll along smoothly, sparklingly, variously. There is evidence in every line of hard and intelligent effort. It is a quite new Fitzgerald who emerges from this little book, and the qualities that he shows are dignified and solid. "This Side of Paradise," after all, might have been merely a lucky accident. But "The Great Gatsby," a far inferior story at bottom, is plainly the product of a sound and stable talent, conjured into being by hard work.
Reversing the Order
I make much of this improvement because it is of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start off with popular success. The usual progression indeed, is in the opposite direction. Every year first books of great promise are published — and every year a great deal of stale drivel is printed by the promising authors of year before last. The rewards of literary success in this country are so vast that, when they come early, they are not unnaturally somewhat demoralizing. The average author yields to them readily. Having struck the bull's-eye once, he is too proud to learn new tricks. Above all, he is too proud to tackle hard work. The result is a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.
There is certainly no sign of petering out in Fitzgerald. After his first experimenting he plainly sat himself down calmly to consider his deficiencies. They were many and serious. He was, first of all, too facile. He could write entertainingly without giving thought to form and organization. He was, secondly, somewhat amateurish. The materials and methods of his craft, I venture, rather puzzled him. He used them ineptly. His books showed brilliancy in conception, but they were crude and even ignorant in detail. They suggested, only too often, the improvisations of a pianist playing furiously by ear, but unable to read notes.
These are the defects that he has now got rid of. "The Great Gatsby," I seem to recall, was announced a long while ago. It was probably several years on the stocks. It shows, on every page, the results of that laborious effort. Writing it, I take it, was painful. The author wrote, tore up, rewrote, tore up again. There are pages so artfully contrived that one can no more imagine improvising them than one can imagine improvising a fugue. They are full of little delicacies; charming turns of phrase, penetrating second thoughts. In other words, they are easy and excellent reading — which is what always comes out of hard writing.
Pen of Accuracy
Thus Fitzgerald, the stylist, arises to challenge Fitzgerald, the social historian, but I doubt that the latter ever quite succumbs to the former. The thing that chiefly interests the basic Fitzgerald is still the florid show of modern American life — and especially the devil's dance that goes on at the top. He is unconcerned about the sweatings and sufferings of the nether herd; what engrosses him is the high carnival of those who have too much money to spend, and too much time for the spending of it. Their idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality, their glittering swinishness — these are the things that go into his notebook.
In "The Great Gatsby," though he does not go below the surface, he depicts this rattle and hullabaloo with great gusto and, I believe, with sharp accuracy. The Long Island he sets before us is no fanciful Alsatia; it actually exists. More, it is worth any social historians study, for its influence upon the rest of the country is immense and profound. What is vogue among the profiteers of Manhattan and their harlots today is imitated by the flappers of the Bible Belt country clubs weeks after next. The whole tone of American society, once so highly formalized and so suspicious of change, is now taken largely from frail ladies who were slinging hash a year ago.
Fitzgerald showed the end products of the new dispensation in "This Side of Paradise." In "The Beautiful and the Damned," he cut a bit lower. In "The Great Gatsby" he comes near the bottom. Social leader and jailbird, grand lady and kept woman, are here almost indistinguishable. We are in an atmosphere grown increasingly levantine. The Paris of the Second Empire pales to a sort of snobbish chautauqua; the New York of Ward McAllister becomes the scene of a convention of Gold Star Mothers. To find a parallel for the grossness and debauchery that now reign in New York one must go back to the Constantinople of Basil I.
This story originally appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune on May 3, 1925.