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American Literary History 12.3 (2000) 359-381
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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Epochal Representation
An earlier version of this essay was presented at "History in the Making: The Future of American Literary Studies," a conference held at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in late March 1999. At the beginning of my talk, I remarked that I had grown up in Monona, a small town about five miles from the campus, and that I earned my BA from UW-Madison in 1975. Preparing for the talk, I confessed, had stirred up memories, among them my first reading of The Great Gatsby (1925), which powerfully evoked what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the promise of life. My students, I noted, hearing again that elusive tune I had heard 25 years before, tend to dislike, affably, my middle-aged reading, for instance my claims concerning Nick Carraway's bad faith or my preference for the centrifugal disturbances of Tender is the Night (1933). In the difference between my reading and theirs I see that, though Fitzgerald still interests me deeply, he has changed, or rather, the center of his gravity has for me moved not only to the discoveries of his later fiction but also to certain facets I had not noticed in The Great Gatsby, where he begins to think critically about history, about race, class, region, nationality, and about how the intersections of such powers provoke, shape, and frustrate desire. Fitzgerald's writing seems to me now less an expression and celebration of pure longing than an archaeology of American desire--not the unbroken lineage from Dutch explorers to Jazz Age dreamer that Fitzgerald posited at the end of his most famous work, but a sedimentation of desires, like the layers of Troy or the layers of meanings Freud peeled away in the analysis of the symptom--"America" as a condensation, aggregate, or depository of subject-residues, rather than a mystical being. This, I would say, is where Fitzgerald parts company from Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway and keeps company with William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston, his [End Page 359] historical sense laying the foundation for what would be called American studies and prefiguring some of the disciplinary transformations within literary study that were the topic of "History in the Making." To sketch out something of that prefiguration, I reflected on two terms, "the Jazz Age" and "The Last Tycoon." Since the term "Jazz Age" appears in the 1931 essay "Echoes of the Jazz Age," a postmortem of the 1920s, we have in both phrases an announcement that an American epoch has ended, an implied analysis of the subjective forms that the epoch produced, and speculations concerning the forces that brought about the end. I differentiated the two terms by contrasting the melancholia that typifies endings in The Great Gatsby and the 1931 essay with some new ways of thinking about social and personal coherence that Fitzgerald was exploring at the time of his death in 1940.
First, then, the "Jazz Age." For Fitzgerald the term may have resonated humorously with Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age--periodizations of archaic humanity that came into use among archaeologists during the second half of the nineteenth century. If so, the irony is two-sided: first, whereas an "age" used to span centuries, the velocity of change is now such that we run through an age in 10 years or so, as long as it takes a culture-defining group of young people to follow the arc of its third decade; and second, whereas the universal plastic material that defines us used to be substance--stone, bronze, iron--it is now an intense, ungraspable cultural energy, jazz, "an arrangement of notes that will never be played again," as Nick Carraway says of Daisy Buchanan's voice (11).1
As fundamental material, jazz saturates the culture of its epoch, supplying people, events, and artifacts with the character by which they are most succinctly grasped. The term "Jazz Age" therefore imputes to 1920s jazz what Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar...