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F. Scott Fitzgerald and WWI: The "Crack-up" Essays
| Fitzgerald in 1918 (top line, middle) at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, where he |
served in the 167th Infantry, the Alabama Pioneers. Alabama State Archives
By Colin Halloran
Presented at the WWI Centennial Commission Website
Paul Fussell, in his seminal The Great War and Modern Memory, posits that “logically, one supposes, there’s no reason why a language devised by man should be inadequate to describe any of man’s works. The difficulty was in admitting that the war had been made by man and was being continued ad infinitum by them” (170).*
While there is much debate and discussion over the “official” definition and dates of Modernism, we cannot overlook WWI and the ways it changed literary language. Broadly, the Modernist movement sought to move away from traditionalism and towards originality, particularly focusing on a “non-logical, non-objective, and essentially causeless mental universe.”**
Because the war itself was non-logical. Even the innovative language and stylizations that propelled Modernist writings prior to the war were suddenly inadequate after the horrors the world now knew humankind was capable of.
Yet much of the poetry to come out of World War I was still focused on the collective “we” and the broader identifiers (things like “English,” “American,” “French,” “German,” “Home front,” “Trenches”), and non-fiction remained largely historical and fact-based (which is to say, external). Writers of fiction, on the other hand, delved into the internal workings of the individual brain. For example, Freud’s work with WWI veterans and dreams helped fuel the movement’s interest in the human subconscious and psyche, leading writers to approach their realities and experiences through metaphor, mythology, internal monologues, and even dream sequences, as in Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting.”
In addition, the Great War stripped young authors—many of whom would shape the Modernist movement of interwar literature—of their idealism. Included in this group was titan of the Twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald, in spite of dropping out of Princeton to join the Army as a second lieutenant, never shipped out, a fact that he would later lament.
Unlike many Modernist authors of the time who were pushing the boundaries of fiction with experimental forms and techniques, Fitzgerald and his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, kept their writing largely in the realm of realism that was so popular in the 19th century. However, Fitzgerald’s stylization, characters’ attitudes, and choice of themes place him firmly within the Modernist oeuvre. For example, while there is no question that Hemingway’s fiction is highly autobiographical, he was able to distance himself from his own experiences by assigning them to his various characters such as WWI ambulance driver Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms. This technique surely contributed to his success, as many of his readers recognized their own thoughts and experiences in the musings of Hemingway’s fictional narrators. Hemingway and his work embodied the values of stoicism and ambivalence that were to be expected from a world emerging from the devastation of war. Boys had become men and men had died doing their duty, serving their homelands, protecting what was right and good, as extolled in so many poems and media of the time. Detachment was viewed as strength, and strength was now expected.
Which is also why some lesser-known works by Fitzgerald are so important.
I am referring especially to the so-called “Crack-up” personal essays published in Esquire in 1936. The first essay sets the fragmented, dismal tone of the collection; it begins “Of course, all life is a process of breaking down…"
Many of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries and friends recoiled at these autobiographical, emotional essays that chronicled his own personal postwar crisis. In fact, as if embarrassed for his friend, novelist John Dos Passos, wrote to Fitzgerald, “…most of the time the course of world events seems so frightful that I feel absolutely paralysed [sic]…We’re living in one of the damndest tragic moments in history—if you want to go to pieces I think it’s absolutely O.K. but I think you ought to write a first rate novel about it…instead of spilling it in little pieces.”
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