On 19 October 1929, just five days before the first stock market crash and 10 days before Black Tuesday, Scott Fitzgerald published a now-forgotten story called "The Swimmers," about an American working for the ironically named Promissory Trust Bank, and his realisation that American ideals have been corrupted by money. This corruption is emblematised by sexual infidelity: as in Gatsby, Fitzgerald again used adultery to suggest a larger world of broken promises and betrayals of faith. There's a remarkable moment early in "The Swimmers" – which Fitzgerald called "the hardest story I ever wrote, too big for its space" – when an unfaithful wife, who is French, complains about the American women she sees on the Riviera:
"How would you place them?" she exclaimed. "Great ladies, bourgeoises, adventuresses - they are all the same. Look! …"
Suddenly she pointed to an American girl going into the water:
"That young lady may be a stenographer and yet be compelled to warp herself, dressing and acting as if she had all the money in the world."
"Perhaps she will have, some day."
"That's the story they are told; it happens to one, not to the ninety-nine. That's why all their faces over thirty are discontented and unhappy."
The story has much relevance for today:
The American dream comes true for just 1%: for the other 99%, only discontent and bitterness await, ressentiment on a mass scale. More than 15 years later, the Marxist critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer used a similar image of the typist who believed she would be a movie star to reveal the American dream as a rigged lottery that no one wins but everyone plays. Today, almost 100 years after "The Swimmers" appeared, the Occupy movement has clenched its fist around the same angry realisation that we are all the 99%, not the 1%. More remarkable than the fact that Fitzgerald beat Adorno and Horkheimer and the Occupy movement to the punch, however, is that he saw all this before Wall Street came smashing down.
The villain of "The Swimmers" is a rich, vulgar banker who preaches an updated version of the gilded age's "gospel of wealth": "Money is power … Money made this country, built its great and glorious cities, created its industries, covered it with an iron network of railroads." The banker is wrong, the story makes clear, but his vision of America is winning. Feeling increasingly alienated, the protagonist, Marston, finds himself musing on the meanings of America, and especially its eagerness to forget history: "Americans, he liked to say, should be born with fins, and perhaps they were – perhaps money was a form of fin. In England property begot a strong place sense, but Americans, restless and with shallow roots, needed fins and wings. There was even a recurrent idea in America about an education that would leave out history and the past, that should be a sort of equipment for aerial adventure, weighed down by none of the stowaways of inheritance or tradition." The buoyancy of modern America depended on its being unanchored by history or tradition, and this is the America we have inherited. Historical amnesia is certainly liberating – so liberating that America is once again diving into free fall, unmoored by any critical or intellectual insight into its own myths, or even into the histories of the debates that we think define our moment.
Marston eventually decides that there is no place for him in the crass society symbolised by his rival, but he will not relinquish his faith in the ideals that America can represent. As Marston sails for Europe, watching America recede into his past, Fitzgerald offers a closing meditation nearly as incantatory as the famous conclusion of Gatsby: "Watching the fading city, the fading shore, from the deck of the Majestic, he had a sense of overwhelming gratitude and of gladness that America was there, that under the ugly débris of industry the rich land still pushed up, incorrigibly lavish and fertile, and that in the heart of the leaderless people the old generosities and devotions fought on, breaking out sometimes in fanaticism and excess, but indomitable and undefeated. There was a lost generation in the saddle at the moment, but it seemed to him that the men coming on, the men of the war, were better; and all his old feeling that America was a bizarre accident, a sort of historical sport, had gone forever. The best of America was the best of the world … France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart."
Wall Street crashed 10 days later.
And finally, Fitzgerald foresaw the doom and gloom of the Depression and the war long before they happened:
Two years after The Great Gatsby appeared, a reporter was sent to interview the famous author. Meeting "the voice and embodiment of the jazz age, its product and its beneficiary, a popular novelist, a movie scenarist, a dweller in the gilded palaces", the reporter found instead, to his distinct hilarity, that Fitzgerald was "forecasting doom, death and damnation to his generation". "He sounded", said the reporter, like "an intellectual Sampson" predicting that the Plaza Hotel's marble columns would crumble. Fitzgerald's absurd prophecy was that America would face a great "national testing" in the very near future:
"The idea that we're the greatest people in the world because we have the most money in the world is ridiculous. Wait until this wave of prosperity is over! Wait ten or fifteen years! Wait until the next war on the Pacific, or against some European combination! … The next fifteen years will show how much resistance there is in the American race."
"There has never been an American tragedy," Fitzgerald ended. "There have only been great failures."
It was 1927. The reporter was vastly amused.
Perhaps Scott was forecasting his own personal doom and gloom and projecting that onto the country.
Alcoholics with dysfunctional personal lives and families sometimes do that.
Nonetheless, Fitzgerald's critique of America and American culture was quite apt.
I think I shall seek out some Fitzgerald stories this weekend.