- Furnishing Modernist Fiction:The Aesthetics of Refuse
As a number of critics have recently argued, attention to the literary treatment of material waste offers an interesting and important new perspective for appreciating and understanding modernist literature.1 A survey of the era's literature indicates that there is some weight to the claim that "all of modernist literature is a meditation on waste avant la lettre."2 The waste imagery saturating poems and stories from the early twentieth century suggests that many of the era's writers were attuned to the historical, economic, and environmental significance of the material waste that the modern culture of consumption was then beginning to create in such astonishing and unprecedented amounts.3 Since our culture's garbage-producing habits have recently become an increasingly popular matter of academic study and public debate, attending to how novels and poems from the era that witnessed the naturalization of the disposable commodity assisted people in imagining (or, conversely, ignoring) the creeping ubiquity of garbage has the potential not only to enrich our understanding of modernist literature but also to offer insight into our own era's vexed relationship to the wastes we create.4 In the essay that follows, I analyze the trash aesthetics informing the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos, two modernist writers among many whose works warrant careful analysis along such trashy lines. By articulating the ways in which material waste figures thematically and, in Dos Passos's case, stylistically into the composition of these authors' works, I demonstrate how garbage can function as a flexible and productive approach to literary analysis. [End Page 307]
Ashheaps and Millionaires
In his most famous novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald demonstrates a keen and prescient interest in the afterlife of disposable commodities. With Midwestern moralist Nick Carraway guiding us "among the ashheaps and millionaires"5 of New York during the roaring twenties, The Great Gatsby functions as a partial condemnation of Jazz Age wastefulness, offering a caustic account of the decade's moral vacuity that occasionally concedes the narrator's own eagerness to participate in a general wantonness we are invited to abhor. Fitzgerald's critique is distinguished by the connections it draws between morality and materiality, values and environments. The world depicted in Fitzgerald's fiction is one both recklessly devoted to consumption and strewn with garbage. Gatsby's tragic flaw, for which he pays with his life, is a failure to recognize the necessary connection between these two conceptual orders.
Gatsby's parties generate an astonishing amount of waste, and Fitzgerald memorably lavishes descriptive attention on the abundance squandered on these fêtes. Despite his guests' most frantic efforts, however, much of the material that goes into the production of these weekend-long extravaganzas necessarily remains unconsumed: "Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left by his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves."6 This monumental (literally a "pyramid") pile of peels effectively serves as an alliterative, refuse-based synecdoche for the inevitable results of Gatsby's extravagance. By what conveyance and to what ultimate destination this gutted fruit is carried away remains unspecified, but we might easily infer where these peels eventually end up, since many of the novel's pivotal scenes take place in close proximity to a landfill. The "valley of ashes" is described at some length at the beginning of the second chapter:
a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.7
The ashen imagery from this passage permeates the novel. Consider Nick's introduction: "No—Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what...