“God damn the continent of Europe”. F. Scott Fitzgerald letter to Edmund Wilson, Hotel Cecil, July 1921.

The couple had demanded a lot from Europe, but for the most part, Scott’s high expectations of it were not being met on any front — culturally or intellectually. Things were proving to be “uncomfortable and trying” all round. [1] The weather didn’t help. Scott had arrived in London during a mild if murky May, but by the first week in July it was topping 34°C. It was to be the beginning of a long and gruelling drought. An oppressive weather system from the Azores was now sitting above the country and refusing to budge. The proverbial summer ‘scorcher’ was here and causing no shortage of furious meltdowns. The Pall Mall Gazette confirmed everyone’s worst fears: a new anti-cyclone was moving in from the Atlantic and the heatwave was here to stay. ‘Hot again!’, went the cry in London. Experts were recommending what and what not to eat, what and what not to do. The usual Sunday joints and hot vegetables were being usurped by sorbets and sherbets and cherries served in drifts of snow. In Paris and Italy it was even worse, with the mercury nudging 35°C (95°F) on occasions. In Rome it was being reported that sixteen tourists had died of sunstroke and ten others had “lost their reason”. In Tortona a powder works had burst in flames and wild fires were sweeping through Naples. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there were the fleas and the midges to contend with. The couple had left Saint Paul in Minnesota in a comparatively Arctic 10°C (50°F) — the lowest May-time temperatures for years.

After Paris, Venice [2] and Rome, Scott and Zelda had found themselves back in a hot and humid London. But it wasn’t only the heat that had them tugging at their collars, it was the sheer lack of conveniences. The whole experience had been oppressive. Scott would later joke that they had left America in May less than “one half of one percent American”. The descendent of the writer of The Star Spangled Banner had never really been proud to say he was American. He hadn’t even thought it possible — not in the same way that a Frenchman could say he was a Frenchman or a German could say he was a German. He would later claim that he had never said he was an American. But temporarily at least, several weeks in Europe had changed all that. As the weeks and months went by the “pernicious and sentimental sap” of nationalism began to rise within him. [3] The reason for this was as simple as it was embarrassing: the standards of living abroad, even at the swankiest hotels, left a lot to be desired.

Scott’s allusion to being “less than one half of one percent American” was a reference to the commotion around the top news story as they left New York: President Harding’s government were about to roll out the Restriction of Immigration programme. There had been considerable efforts to introduce the bill the previous year by Albert Johnson of the House Committee who wanted all immigration to the United States suspended immediately. The bill had been sensationally vetoed by the outgoing President Wilson, who during the last weeks of his presidency was determined to explore more a liberal immigration policy. [4] The response among Warren G. Harding’s supporters was wild. For the next few months the issue was in danger of splitting the country. Railroad owners feared a terminal shortage of labour and Republicans feared a horde of havoc-wreaking Bolsheviks of biblical proportions swarming across the States. Shortly after his inauguration in January 1921, President Harding called a special session of congress to reintroduce the bill. Congress needed little convincing. The “one hundred percent American” campaign rolled out by the National Republican Club had amplified emotions and steered the bill toward success. Less than 24 hours after Scott and Zelda had left for England the bill had been passed by Senate. [5] By the time he returned to America, the country would be restricting the admission of aliens to just 3% of each nationality registered in the 1910 census. America was rolling back time. It was something that everyone on the ship would have been talking about. As Scott and Zelda checked into their rooms in Paris on May 18, Philip Whitwell Wilson of the Daily News was filling in readers in London: no fewer than 200 bills for limiting or regulating immigration were now being brought before congress. America was enduring a nightmare.

Scott had clearly not got behind the campaign. Before his experiences in Europe he said he had never even thought himself as even “one half of one percent American”. It may have been said in jest, but it was a clear indication of what he thought about the bill. Europe wasn’t without its perks. Its more liberal censorship laws was one of them. In Paris, Scott had managed to pick up a copy of Theodore Dreiser’s banned novel, The Genius for a modest three dollars in Brentano’s bookshop, just a short walk from their digs. [6] The previous year Scott had been enraged by the puritan assault on Ulysses led by John S. Sumner and the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice. The complaint that Sumner had filed in September had culminated in the trial of Joyce’s publishers, The Little Review. In February the magazine’s founders, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were found guilty of obscenity and ordered to pay a fine of a hundred dollars. Scott would have viewed his lucky purchase in Paris as a small but significant win. In New York you could get busted just for mailing Dreiser’s book, but in Paris, the author’s book sat as proud as punch on the shelves.

The decision to grab a copy of the book from Brentano’s and not from Sylvia Beach’s new bookshop on Paris’s infinitely cooler Left Bank reveals the scale of the split in the author’s character. On the one hand he was seduced by all that was shocking and unconventional and on the other, Scott sought rules and craved tradition, his appetite for Bohemianism somewhat dulled by his innate cynicism and a healthy distrust of fads. Despite the preponderance of available thrills, the vices of the Latin Quarter, like those of Greenwich Village, chaffed uncomfortably with his more instinctive prudish needs. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, being ‘a tortured artist’ meant staying at The Cecil and not The Ritz, or having to suffer the indignity of dining at the Savoy rather than Claridges. There would have been some minor kudos benefits in the bookshop’s proximity to the legendary Café de la Paix which would feature in that year’s Absinthe Drinkers, a dark and amusing poem by wannabee cowboy-poet, Robert W. Service — a monocle-wearing dandy and pal of Winston Churchill who’d been reared like a young James Gatz in the boats, and sleazy bars and bordellos of the Barbary Coast. The poem, published just a few days before Scott set-off for Europe, is set on the terraces of the restaurant and traces the observations of a “little wizened Spanish man” who in the best tradition of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Émile Zola, sits and sips his absinthe as the hordes of British and American tourists make their inauthentic pilgrimage to the Café de la Paix, which even then was known as the city’s most sacred memorial among its ripe, aspiring sensualists. [7] The Left Bank was where you found the artists. The Right Bank was where you found the fakes.

The Letter to Wilson

The couple’s two-week stay in Rome had also been less than idyllic. A flea-ridden hotel, surly, hot-blooded ‘natives’ and an abject failure to wrestle control of its language somewhat marred their experience of its ancient Forum and Colosseum. The heat too had been unbearable. In a letter to Carl Hovey, editor at the Metropolitan, Scott would write that they had a “rotten time”. The past in Southern Europe was unnavigable, it’s rich and syrupy Neo-Latin languages an overwhelming ‘Zuppa’ topped with the most extravagant and vulgar romance. In an age of jazz, Italy was like an ever–decreasing waltz, forever revolving and never tiring. The only thing that was ‘wild’ about it were the squads of Italian soldiers he and Zelda had seen knocking hell out of a perfectly innocent American tourist over a dispute about a seat on a train. Back in London Scott vented his fury in a letter back home to Edmund Wilson:

“God damn the continent of Europe. It is of merely antiquarian interest. Rome is only a few years behind Tyre and Babylon. The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors. Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter. France made me sick. It’s silly pose as the thing the world has to save. I think it’s a shame that England and America didn’t let Germany conquer Europe. It’s the only thing that would have saved the fleet of tottering old wrecks. My reactions were all philistine, antisocialistic, provincial and racially snobbish. I believe at last in the white man’s burden. We are as far above the modern Frenchman as he is above the Negro … They’re thru and done. You may have spoken in jest about New York as the capital of culture but in 25 years it will be just as London is now. Culture follows money and all the refinements of aestheticism can’t stave off its change of seat (Christ! what a metaphor). We will be the Romans in the next generations as the English are now.” [8]

It’s hard not be troubled by the letter. The expressions that Scott uses are by today’s standards unpleasant racist slurs that pre-empt much of the crude race ‘science’ that Scott places into the mouth of the ‘hulking’ Neanderthal, Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby three years later. And despite the fact that such violent sentiments are never repeated in any of his earlier or subsequent letters, Scott’s frighteningly candid outburst has, over the years, proved a complex and awkward affair for his biographers. However, after an extensive review of the period in which Fitzgerald wrote this letter, I think we can say with some degree of confidence that he wasn’t being entirely serious. Not about everything, anyway. The expressions that Scott uses have to be understood in their rightful historical context.

Naturally, none of this should excuse what is being said in these letters, or any in way justify the casual racism that the author is drawing-on for comic or rhetorical effect, but hopefully it should prevent him from being used as a standard-bearer by eager, modern xenophobes and fascists. Despite the vile and aggressive nature of the language, it’s my view that Scott is telling his old friend Wilson in a slightly self-parodying way that his experience in Italy has been intensely disappointing and so deeply irritating that it has unleashed his inner bigot. The ‘voice’ that Scott is using reminds me of the same voice used by Nick to mock Daisy’s wedding (and her ego) in The Great Gatsby: “The whole town is desolate. All the cars have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.” When overcome by these particularly theatrical mood swings, Scott would often assume the character and manners of that larger-than-life stage actor he had always wanted to be. Head thrown back, legs akimbo and chest thrust out, Scott is raging against the world with all the bombast and flamboyance of a young John Barrymore, who, it is interesting to note, had been playing Richard III on Broadway that year: “Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter!” But this hammy display of bravura in the first four lines of the letter conceals a hidden payload. Yes, it’s full of sarcasm, yes, it’s full of vitriol, yes, it’s full of arrogance, but there’s something he’s building up to.

My own reading of the letter is that Scott is expressing his frustration with the Conservative ‘Old World’ Yank within him and he’s going well over the top to do it. It is there in the faux-grandiosity and melodrama of his language and in the humble self-reproof that follows it up: “My reactions were all philistine, antisocialistic, provincial and racially snobbish,” he confides to Wilson. The last bit is like that faint rumble of thunder that you get at the end of a storm. This is the moment that Scott has been working toward; he knows damn well how lousy and rotten this makes him sound, and he knows how bigoted it makes him feel, but it comes with a moment of clarity. Disappointment with Europe is one thing, but he is even more disappointed with himself — and it is this sudden insight into his own barely suppressed racism that he is sharing with Wilson.

On his return from Europe he wrote the essay, ‘Three Cities’ for Brentano’s Book Chat. The essay is interesting for several reasons. Not only does Scott specifically mention his purchase of Dreiser’s The Genius from the Brentano’s shop in Paris (a shameless plug for the publisher of the essay) he also reflects on the feelings of national pride that had stirred within him and which he had clearly felt ashamed of: “We boiled with ancient indignation towards the French,” he writes. The author isn’t proud of his response, he is ashamed of it, and this evidenced in the language he uses. The patriotic ‘sap’ that rises within him is described in pejorative terms — it’s ‘sentimental’ and ‘pernicious’. His contempt for the dark skinned children that played around them is ‘Nordic’ and ‘supercilious’. [9] The experience has left him feeling smug and condescending, and Scott knows it. In the distorted mirrors of Europe he has caught a glimpse a more clearly defined America, and, moreover, the more clearly defined American within him. His experience of the Three Cities of Europe has unified the three shifting personalities within him: the American, the Irishman and the undeserving parvenu. However briefly, Scott felt like he belonged.

Wilson would subsequently tell Scott that he should have given the whole ‘alienness’ of Paris a little more time to sink in: “The lowest animals frequently die when transplanted”, he said wisely, adding that Scott should cancel his return trip to the States and join him in Paris for the summer, surmising that he were to pick-up some of the language, he might begin to feel a bit more comfortable with the city. Wilson was also of the opinion that the ‘calmness’ of France would pacify “that restless and jumpy nervous system” of his and provide something of an ‘antidote’ to the intellectual complacency that was holding him back as a writer. Edmund was speaking from experience. He was the first to admit that he had benefited immensely from be in in a country that humiliated him “intellectually and artistically”. [10]

Whatever the case, the experience has left Scott shaken. Rome and Paris had promised so much and delivered so little. Even his hopes of seeing his literary hero Anatole France had come to nothing. After waiting little more than an hour, the impatient couple could only assume that whatever the “flame and the glory” that France had had in the past was as close to death as the ancient old poet himself. Whatever the true source of his aggravation, Scott’s experience of Europe had boiled to the surface all the deeply submerged impurities of being a modern ‘American’. This rigorous routine of self-analysis and emotional purging was something that Scott maintained all his life, especially after his discovery of Freud.

To get a better understanding of the letter, we should also spare a moment to consider who Scott was writing to and the pretty unique relationship the pair enjoyed. Written to his friend Edmund ‘Bunny’ Wilson, the letter shows Fitzgerald grappling, in what is probably a very drunken fashion, with the crippling disappointment that he has experienced during his twelve week tour of Europe. The two writers had formed a close, if slightly competitive relationship at Princeton, and it wasn’t uncommon for Scott to blow off in this way, sharing some of his frankest and most self-deprecating insights into his own bi-polar personality. It seems to me that the author, as brutal and self-flagellating as his outburst is, is recognising both his creative debt to the ‘Old World’ and his instinctive loathing of it. The anger he was feeling didn’t arise from any strong sense of national commitment nor any real objection to immigrants. It came from insecurity. Being abroad had left him feeling uncomfortable and anxious. Wilson had always been completely honest with Scott. Unlike some, he thought Scott possessed great potential, but had shown little in the way of realizing it. Scott appreciated that Edmund set the bar high and would use him as a barometer on practically everything. As someone who had already seen much of Europe, Scott had been desperate to impress him. The letter shows Scott in confession. The guilt is too great to carry, and the mask too frayed to wear.

In later years, Scott would do exactly the same thing with Zelda. He had idolised Zelda and he had idolised Europe. It had become a ‘talisman’, an ideal. Scott’s dreamy, romantic fantasies had allowed him to build something in his imagination that the reality could never live up to. Worse still, his fondness for Europe had been nothing less than a dependence. His expectations had been huge and few if any of the cities he had visited during the trip had lived up to the promise on any major front. Europe’s “antiquarian interests” were not just holding him back, they now risked holding America back: “Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter.” It may have been said in jest but it certainly reflected the pitiful condition of race discussion at this time, even if his flirtation with it had only been experienced in a momentary burst of drunken irritation, exacerbated by the scorching summer heat. On the one hand there’s Scott’s philosophical and analytical response (“My reactions were all philistine, antisocialistic, provincial and racially snobbish”) and then there is how he is responding emotionally (“God damn the continent of Europe”). Either way, it needs to be noted that Scott’s ‘hot take’ on Europe is recycling the noisy stock expressions of ‘Yellow journalism’ at this time.  To appreciate this we have to get back to the newspaper coverage of the Restriction of Immigration Bill being heard by Senate in the week that Scott and Zelda were leaving for Europe.

The ‘Nordic race’, the ‘negroid streak’ and ‘the bars of immigration’ were the wedge issues of the day. Phrases like these were as important to the 1921 Emergency Quota Bill as the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan was to the Brexit campaign in Britain or the ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ was to Donald Trump when he was canvassing for the White House in 2016. Forcing through the emergency immigration quota plan that month had revived the loud-mouth monster that was ‘Eugenics’ and had given rise to a slew of powerful slogans that were splitting the psyche of the average American. In February that year, Scott’s publisher, Scribners had published their sixth imprint of Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color. Just a few days before Scott and Zelda had left for England, The Saturday Evening Post had run a broadly supportive opinion piece about anti-immigration campaigner, Lothrop Stoddard and his colleague Luther Burbank, who were massaging public opinion for the Emergency Quota Bill. [11] In his cruel and ominous book, Stoddard had predicted a race war if migration could not be stemmed from a revision to the Peace Treaty that Wilson had signed in Versailles. Over the next few years, the editor of Saturday Evening Post, George Horace Lorimer would publish a remarkable number of stories and essays from Scott — so many in fact, that Scott’s literary agent Harold Ober would refer to him as Scott’s employer.

You can’t gloss over the period, and it’s for this reason that Scott’s xenophobic outburst should really be viewed as part confession, part explosion, part social commentary and part parody — and Wilson would have known that. The phrases are not shibboleths exactly, but catchwords — in-jokes and shared knowledge. Scott is goofing around in the most bastardy of ways and maintaining his well-earned status as King of the Jazz Age divas, purging himself of all his worst excesses of superiority. There were no ‘Smilies’ to add in those days. Scott could have used nominal, single quotes to convey the intertextual dimensions his wrath, but the writer wasn’t overly fastidious about grammar. He takes the gamble that his friend will know what is sincere and what is said in jest. And this is backed-up by evidence. In a letter to Christian Gauss written in February 1950, Edmund Wilson would protest about the way that some of Scott’s biographers would misinterpret his dark humour. The various “jokes and nonsense” that Scott would often scribble off in letters were invariably being re-served by scholars as “sinister realities.” It was Edmund’s opinion that every anecdote being shared by his biographers was being distorted to present his old friend in the worst possible light. The couple had never been the ghoulish society freaks of the popular imagination, they had always been completely “enchanting”. It was clear to Wilson that they hadn’t known him. [12] To know Scott you had to know the period in which he had self-fashioned himself as author.

The Johnson Emergency Quota Act, May 1921

In the run-up to the Johnson Emergency Quota Act of May 1921, the expression “raising the bars” had become the go-to jingle for its sponsor, Congressman Albert Johnson. As a House Committee got to work on drawing-up the details of the most drastic immigration law ever to be proposed in America, Johnson was telling newspapers that they intended raising “the bars against immigration through a series of new restrictions on the naturalisation of aliens so that they may have a higher appreciation of citizenship”. [13] The phrase had even been used by Willfred W. Lufkin at the conclusion of a speech in which he had quoted figures provided to him by Eugenicists, Madison Grant and Harry Laughlin. After analysing the figures, Grant and Laughlin had deduced that the American Nordic was headed for trouble unless the bars of immigration were raised. [14] Almost overnight the ‘bars of immigration’ had become the go-to expression for headlines and editorials. As the couple stepped on to the deck of the R.M.S Aquitania on May 3rd, phrases like these would have been ringing in Scott’s ears.

Johnson’s restriction bill had been shored-up by the ‘100% American’ campaign, a plan to preserve the country’s mythical national heritage that was exhorted and promoted by everyone from The American Legion to the National Americanism Commission led by Arthur H. Woods and Henry W. Marsh. However, a letter that Scott would write to his old school friend, Robert D. Clark around this time leaves us in absolutely no doubt that he considers those who go around screaming the “100 percent American” message were ‘99% village idiots.’ [15] It was a sentiment that Scott would repeat in June 1924: “We have seen the war and its attendant ferocity, the hysteria both of the communists, and, over here, of the 100% Americans, the cheating of the wounded veterans, the administration corruption, the prohibition scandal.” [16]

The phrase ‘the White Man’s burden’ that Scott had used in his letter to Wilson, was no less infamous. In an address made by William Jennings Bryan at the Hotel Cecil on July 4th 1906, the Presidential hopeful had quoted Kipling: “Take up the White Man’s burden/In patience to abide/To veil the threat of terror/And check the show of pride.” Standing before members of the American Society meeting, Bryan had assured them that it was the duty of every American and every Englishman to civilise the rest of the world. No one could travel among the dark-skinned races of the Orient without feeling that “the white man” occupied an especially favoured position among the “children of men.” Winston Churchill, who attended the meeting that day, thought it a very fine speech indeed. [17] The phrase was duly resurrected for Empire Day 1921, celebrated in Britain just two weeks after Scott’s ship had docked in Southampton and ‘native unrest’ continued to spread throughout Palestine, Egypt and India. Just weeks before Scott sailed for England, the new US Secretary of State, Charles Evan Hughes had used the same phrase himself when addressing the need for Britain and America to remain partners in “saving the world”. Like Britain, Hughes thought it was only right that America bore the intolerable strain of helping to settle the world questions but rejected any kind of broader imperialist agenda or occupation. For months there had been loud complaints of the financial burden imposed by the Mesopotamian and Palestine Mandates. The solution, as the Brits saw it, was in the Mesopotamian oil fields. [18] Just 24 hours before that year’s Fourth of July Celebrations, the phrase had been revived as a sub-headline by J. H. Thomas MP, who had just returned from a visit to America where he had held discussions with a large number of prominent politicians and businessmen. In his article for The Daily Telegraph, Hughes reiterated his belief that America and Great Britain should work together in solving the world’s problems. It was no longer practical for the United States of America to take an isolated position on the world stage. [19] As far as Hughes was concerned, it was only right that the US should share in the ‘White Man’s Burden’. Whether it was because Scott had heard the phrase in London, or seen it in some newspaper, these words were stuck on repeat, and there was certain inevitability in them appearing in his letter to Wilson that week.

Among the legions of men and women pushing for an Anglo-American alliance, the battered old slogan of the British Empire was becoming the mantra of an expanding New World. As Scott sat in the lounge of the Hotel Cecil on the 15th anniversary of that speech, perhaps the phrase had returned to haunt him in the most self-deprecating and self-recriminating of ways. Although passed by Senate on the very day that Scott set sail for England, Johnson’s Emergency Quota Act would be signed into law by President Warren G. Harding on May 19, 1921, a week after Scott’s arrival in London. [20]

The Paris That’s Not in the Guide Books

Scott’s letter to Wilson is a tongue-in-cheek affair, full of self-loathing and self-insight, but just how tongue-in-cheek it is, is really quite difficult to fathom. His reference to the First Series of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices elsewhere in the letter may offer some clues, as it is a book that is likewise characterized by raw and intolerant outbursts that are as amusing as they are brutal. [21] Scott had mentioned Mencken and his book by name in the letter, conscious that Wilson had just received a fondly extended thanks from Mencken for the review of the book he had printed in the June edition of The New Republic. In Wilson’s review of the book, he had observed that Mencken had painted a “comic portrait” of himself and had even pretended that that this was the character by which he preferred to be accepted. Wilson had written that the most striking things about Mencken’s mind were its “ruthlessness” and “rigidity”. It had a “fearlessness” and a “courage” that was lacking in modern America. Inflexible and outspoken, Mencken seized upon simple dogmas and stuck them with a fierce tenacity. Wilson also noted that the writer was saturated with the “thought and aspect of modern, commercial America”.  [22] In a way that exposed his own “antisocialistic, provincial and racially snobbish” views on Europe, Mencken had told the story of his fury at being unable to find a first-class drug-store in Paris. As an acolyte of Mencken, whose approval Scott sought but seldom got, it is hard not to see a smidgen of the master being channelled in his ‘violent’ letter to Wilson — even at the level of pastiche.

If Scott really is aping Mencken in the ‘ruthlessness’ and ‘rigidity’ of his observations, then he also seems to be indulging in some form of cultural exfoliation. Like Mencken, he is expressing his innermost prejudices in the frankest and most provocative of fashions. It’s a tough call for the reader; is Fitzgerald saying that he IS “philistine, antisocialistic, provincial and racially snobbish” or is he saying that the longer he stays in Europe, the more un-American and boorish he is likely to become? Either way, the line about being ‘racially snobbish’ is at least an indication that Scott was conscious of these prejudices and ready to address them in conversation with his friends. Yes, they are the ravings of a drunk, but the sentiments he is expressing may have been partly aroused by his setting. Scott had written his letter to Wilson during his stay at the Hotel Cecil. At the time of his stay several meetings of The Empire Council were taking place at the hotel in preparation for the very first Empire Conference at the end of June. [23] Every time Britain or America staked their claim in world affairs, the phrase ‘the White Man’s Burden’ would be dutifully unearthed from its crypt and made to stumble around rhetoric like the walking dead. Presidential hopeful Williams Jennings Bryan had used it in 1906 and Henry L. Stimson would drop the same phrase years later in his justification of the attack on Hiroshima.

Wilson’s response to Scott’s letter, written on July 5th 1921 makes no specific mention of the ‘racist’ expressions he uses. He attributes Scott’s “violent” loathing of Continental Europe to the sense of alienation that most Americans reported feeling during their first visits to France: the language barrier, its poorer and more primitive facilities and amenities. Italy and France had nothing that could compare to The Ritz and The Plaza in New York, and this meant that the whole ‘jazz’ of American life that Scott and Zelda had become accustomed to had been shockingly absent during their trip. The author’s expectations had been swaddled in such syrupy romantic ideals that his demands of the place had been as lofty and impossible as those placed by Gatsby on Daisy Buchanan or by Wilson on The League of Nations. Scott just “wanted too much.”  He had expected the likes of Keats and Shelley to be sat reciting long, beautiful elegies on the Spanish Steps of Rome or an 80 year old Anatole France lobbing weapons of mass wisdom from his windows in the Villa Saïd. Instead he had found peasants selling postcards and cheap, nasty keepsakes for tourists. Landing in Rome and Paris he had expected to be presented with a pass to a secret club, and all he had come away with were souvenirs. He had come and left a visitor — nothing more.

Ten years later, the American journalist and travel writer, Basil Woon would publish, The Paris That’s Not in the Guidebooks, a sharp riposte to the scourge of tourism that even by this point was beginning to obscure not just Paris, but Rome and London also. [24] The cafes were no longer a place to find real writers, writing real books, but tasteless, Belasco affairs staged for the benefit of credulous tourists. Twelve months before Scott and Zelda arrived in Paris, the New York Sun was telling its readers how “great throngs of American tourists” were now crowding the streets. The determination of the American colonies to make “life interesting” had resulted in a proliferation of activities with a “distinctly American character”. [25] Like Scott, they were cities that were becoming increasingly self-conscious about their own public worth. Cities like Paris and Rome were becoming aware of themselves as brands.

Former art student, Jane Symons was amongst the young fringe of Americans seizing on the opportunity to capitalise on this change. In November 1921 Jane would tell Ohio’s The Lima News how she had become a professional tour guide. She offered no excuses. Some of the things she had done in the course of her work in Paris had been wrong, and if not wrong, then just plain doubtful. Either way, she had always tried to give value for money. Twelve months earlier Symons had been dabbing at a canvass in a studio in Greenwich Village, only to find herself trying art in “the real Latin Quarter of Paris”. Before she knew it, she was down to her last 50 francs. One day she was sitting at one of those little sidewalk tables at La Rotonde, a café that was popular with students. It was here that she heard a burly American voice behind her: “It’s just because we don’t know these people that we don’t find it interesting here. Let’s get a guide.” The first few weeks as a guide had been simple enough, but then Symons had realised that if one could provide the kind of revelry and debauchery the millionaires craved, and to some degree expected of Paris, it would have to be organised. Paris’s prosperity depended on maintaining its reputation for “delivering the goods” and giving the “gullible tourists” precisely what they expected. [26]

If Scott had opted to stay on the Left Bank of the city, there’s no telling how disappointed he’d have been. At least on the Americanised Right Bank of the city the couple had some degree of protection from the Paris of the “cheap trick” and the “dollar bill”. [27] On the Right Bank of the city there were far clearer boundaries between what was fake and what was authentic — which for a man who doubted his own authenticity, was definitely a line worth having. Whilst both sides of the Seine had been Americanized over the years, it was the Right Bank that could be relied on for a totally unapologetic and shamelessly polished New World experience. On the Left Bank of the city, things were a little less obvious, less clear.

Spanish Realist author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who had moved to Paris at the onset of war, was likewise telling the press that it wasn’t just the Right Bank of Paris that had yielded to the influence of the Stars and Stripes, the Latin Quarter too had been totally Americanized too. Life here was full of dreams and illusions. Such was its transformation that now he didn’t know whether New York’s Greenwich Village should be called ‘the Latin Quarter of New York’, or whether the Latin Quarter should be called ‘the Greenwich Village of Paris’. Imitations of the original Latin Quarter of Paris were springing up everywhere — even in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It had become an embarrassing self-parody. The original Left Bank had been a district of carefree creativity and poverty — alcoholic poets, painters “who never made good gray whiskered celebrities” — people who never craved fame and never got fame. Today the district had become a spurious and rather lucrative imitation of itself. If the truth be known: “the Latin Quarter had passed away”. The true Bohemians had long since disappeared, only to be replaced with “melancholy dreamers”. [28] If what Ibáñez was saying was true, then like Gatsby, the dream that Scott had been pursuing with madly rowing oars would have seemed “so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it”. The dream was already behind them both, somewhere back in that “vast obscurity of time”. [29] The only time the dream was real, the author contended, was when the hunger was real and not faked. [30] Perhaps in observing the wealth of bluff and counterfeit in Paris, Scott had caught an unwanted glimpse of himself in one of Brentano’s windows.

The first of the couple’s two trips to Oxford in England had been marginally more satisfying, largely on account of the layout of the town chiming with the neat little rows and squares of Scott’s hometown, Saint Paul. Much to Scott’s delight, he found it exactly as Thomas Hardy had painted it in his 1895 novel, Jude the Obscure. Matthew Arnold had described it — a ‘city of dreaming spires’ and in this respect, it didn’t disappoint. The same hopes and insecurities that had driven Hardy’s hero to make his pilgrimage to Oxford were like those that had brought Scott: it was a “heavenly Jerusalem” symbolising the young author’s hope and idealism in a largely antiquated literary world. Like Jude, Scott too would have been “looking upon the ground as though the future were thrown thereon by a magic lantern.” [31] Writing of the trip in Three Cities in October that year, Scott would describe his first trip to Oxford in May. On that occasion he had arrived “gorgeously at twilight when the place for us was fully peopled by ghosts of ghosts.” Even Jude had gotten a mention.  It was the second trip in July that had failed him so intensely. After Rome, Scott begun to see Oxford in a whole new light. Instead of something that was “forever England” he saw only the gradual decay of a once fabulous empire, reduced to caricature by a dysgenic race of Englishmen selling postcards. There was something in the city that would never be right again. [32]

A Betrayal of Persistent Idealism

Scott’s obvious identification with Jude Fawley may yet provide the clearest insight into the ‘violent’ letter he had composed to Wilson in July. Whenever he felt threatened, the young man’s default insecurities would kick in. In later years, Scott would recognise that attack had always been his first line of defence. The “half Black Irish’ part of his personality had always clashed with the long lost “breeding” of his other half. The “two cylinder inferiority complex” that he would tell his friend, John O’Hara about, had resulted from this explosive inner conflict. Like Jude, Scott had always seen himself as the classic peasant underdog, cruelly excluded from the powerful university elites. As a result, Scott’s intuitive defence mechanisms had been tuned to run like a watch, giving him the “exaggerated pretensions” of a parvenu and a knee-jerk tendency to trash anyone he considered his better and any place he didn’t fit in. When his success was on the decline he had felt the same way about New York, the city of opportunities and “hypotheses.” Scott was so down upon New York that by 1936 he was feeling “a betrayal of persistent idealism” each time he revisited it in his memory. And by the time that he was settled in Hollywood “not one pleasant memory of it remained.” [33] Scott was the first to admit that he’d been born in an atmosphere of “crack, wisecrack and counter crack.” He had spent his entire life either “crawling in front of kitchen maids” or “insulting the great.” [34] When confronted with all that was unfamiliar and socially challenging, Scott’s instinctive response was to loathe it with a passion. The whole experience had left him feeling more and more like a fake. In the absence of learned responses and adequate masks, Scott Fitzgerald had felt exposed. On one disappointing trip to Rome he had learned that he wasn’t Shelley and he wasn’t Keats. He was a Minnesota Yank in the Court of King Arthur — a man of his time but out of time and quite clearly out of his depth.

In his reply to Scott’s letter, Wilson had wisely identified the source of his problem: Scott was “so saturated with 20th Century America” that he wasn’t able to take in all the beauty and all the freedom that Paris had offer. Wilson conceded that in terms of the arts, “America was just beginning to express herself in something like an idiom of her own” but that she still had a long way to go. America had nothing more ancient on its shores than the curiously 18th Century affectations that had been preserved on its East Coast. The country’s chronic “commercialism and industrialism” were holding a tight rein on its intellectual and aesthetic ambitions. It was America that was holding Scott back, not Europe. The dense creative gravity of Europe was doing its best to pull Scott into its orbit and Scott, for the time being at least, was defying it. [35]

[1] ‘Dear Mr Galsworthy, Max Perkins’, Editor to Author, Scribner, 1979, August 2, 1921, p.29; ‘Dear Mr Leslie, May 24, 1921, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bantam Book, 1971, p.385

[2] In Venice, Zelda would be pictured with Lieutenant Thomas Hinckley Robbins Jr of the US Navy. Born in Paris in May 1900, Robbins would go on serve as a Rear Admiral. His Boston-based father had studied medicine at the Ecole de Medeein after graduating from Harvard in 1899.

[3] ‘Three Cities’ (1921),  F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Short Autobiography, ed. James L.W West, Scribner, 2011. p.8

[4] ‘Wilson Kills 4 Bills in Kast Days of Office’, New York Times, March 5, 1921, p.5

[5] ‘Immigration Bill Passed by Senate’, New York Herald, May 4, 1921, p.6

[6] ‘Three Cities’, F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Short Autobiography, ed. James L. W. West III, Scribner, 2011, p.8

[7] The Absinthe Drinkers, Ballads of a Bohemian, Barse & Hopkins (Newark, New Jersey), 1921; ‘Another Smashing Hit by Robert W. Service’, New York Tribune, May 1, 1921, p.8. Service and his wife lived in a sixth floor apartment at Place du Panthéon in the Latin Quarter and as a former Red Cross man was probably known to Sylvia Beach. He was there in the summer of 1921 before making his way to Hollywood in November. Like Scott he is believed to have arrived back in Paris in the spring of 1921 after being invalided out of the Red Cross.

[8] Letters, p. 330

[9] ‘Three Cities’, F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Short Autobiography, ed. James L. W. West III, Scribner, 2011, pp.8-9. Scott mentions Brentano’s in his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, Tender is The Night and various short stories.

[10] ‘To F. Scott Fitzgerald,  July 5, 1921’, Paris, Letters on Literature and Politics 1912 – 1972, Edmund Wilson, ed. Elena Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957,pp.63-64

[11] ‘The Burbanks of a People’, George Horace Lorimer, Saturday Evening Post, April 30, 1921, p.20. In August Scriber would publish the second imprint of another anti-immigration tome, The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant.

[12] ‘To Christian Gauss’, February 24, 1950, Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, Edmund Wilson,  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977, p.476

[13] ‘Barrier to Aliens’ San Antonio Express, November 16, 1920, p.1

[14] Hon. Willfred W. Lufkin, December 11, 1920, Congressional Record  1921: Vol 60 Appendix, p.4562

[15]  ‘To Robert D. Clark, 1921’” A Life In Letters, F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Mathew J. Bruccoli, Simon & Schuster, 1995, p.45. 

[16] ‘Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own’, F. Scott Fitzgerald), Woman’s Home Companion, July, 1924, Vol. LI, No. 7, p.13, p.105

[17] Bryans July 4 Speech on White Man’s Burden, New York Times, July 5, 1906, p.5

[18] ‘Britain Sees Hope in Hughe’s Note — Complaining of White Mans Burden’, New York Times, March 31, 1921, p.2

[19] ‘America’s Duty — No Isolation — The White Mans Burden’, RT. Hon. J. H. Thomas, MP, The Sunday Times, July 3, 1921, p.10

[20] The law restricted the number of immigrants to 357,000 per year. Only 3 per cent of the total population of any overseas group already in the USA in 1910 could come into America after 1921.

[21] Letters, p.331. In his letter dated May, 1921 Scott says he has just read a review of Mencken’s Prejudices in The Times. However, The Times review was only published on June 16, 1921 (p.13). Mencken was known for making outrageous and deliberately provocative racial slurs. The publication of his diary revealed virulent antisemitism. Mencken was a friend of Gerald W. Johnson who used the ‘negroid streak’ phrase a few years later.

[22] ‘H. L Mencken’, Edmund Wilson, The New Republic, June 1, 1921, pp.10-13

[23] ‘The Empire Conference’, Dundee Evening Telegraph, June 14, 1921, p.5. The conference would subsequently become known as the First Imperial Conference. Sidney ‘Ace of Spies’ Reilly used the Hotel Cecil as his base in London for many years.

[24] Scott had a copy of this book in his collection.

[25] ‘Great Throngs of Americans Crowd Paris’, New York Sun and Herald, June 27, 1920, p.1

[26] ‘Confessions of a Paris Guide’, Mary Symons, The Lima News, Sunday November 26, 1921.

[27] Hemingway: the American Homecoming, Michael S. Reynolds, Blackwell, 1992,  p.21

[28] ‘Ibanez Regrets Passing of Latin Quarter’, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, Syracuse Herald, November 21, 1920, p.1

[29] The Great Gatsby, 1925, p.218

[30] ‘Ibanez Regrets Passing of Latin Quarter’, p.14

[31] Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy, 1895, p.14, p.33

[32] ‘Three Cities’, F. Scott Fitzgerald. September-October, 1921

[33] ‘My Lost City’, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack, James Laughlin, 1945, p.23

[34] ‘Dear O’Hara …, July 18, 1933’, A Life in Letters, F. Scott Fitzgerald, p.233

[35] Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, Edmund Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977, pp. 62-65. Wilson does mention Scott’s remark about ‘the Negro’ in an another letter to their Princeton friend, Stanley Dell (Ibid, p.73).

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