<<

. 32
( 47 .)



>>

complete from some ruin overseas™™ (GG, p. ) is more in keeping with
his ¬ctitious pedigree. The fact that Gatsby only a¬ects what is Edward™s
birthright, masking his ethnic and class identity as the son of poor
central European immigrants, might seem to provide a ready explana-
tion for the lack of substance beneath his assumed character: ˜˜He
hurried the phrase ˜educated at Oxford,™ or swallowed it, or choked on
it, as though it had bothered him before. And with this doubt, his whole
statement fell to pieces and I wondered if there wasn™t something a little
sinister about him after all™™ (GG, p. ). Even after Gatsby presents Nick
with the ˜˜proof™™ of his wartime valor and his English education “ his
± Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
Montenegro medal and the photograph of himself at Oxford “ the
coherence of Gatsby™s character remains shattered. Nick, like Dowell,
tries a mock-epic catalogue to account for his other man:
Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those
who came to Gatsby™s house that summer . . . I can still read the gray names and
they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who
accepted Gatsby™s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing
nothing whatever about him. (GG, p. µ)

But the list of names that follows “ the names of people who ˜˜know
nothing whatever about™™ Gatsby “ does not add up to the man, any
more than Dowell™s catalogue adds up to Edward. In the ˜˜character™™ of
the ˜˜¬gure of the host™™ (GG, p. °), Gatsby inspires ˜˜romantic specula-
tion™™ (GG, p. ) among his guests because of the very blankness of the
surface he presents.
In The Good Soldier, the face of the proper English gentleman is
remarkable for its cipher-like blankness: ˜˜His face hitherto had, in the
wonderful English fashion, expressed nothing whatever. Nothing.
There was in it neither joy nor despair; neither hope nor fear; neither
boredom nor satisfaction. He seemed to perceive no soul in that
crowded room; he might have been walking in a jungle. I never came
across such a perfect expression before and I never shall again™™ (GS,
p. µ). (One can hear an echo, especially in the last two sentences, of the
fascination and regret that Marlow experiences in his scrutiny of both
Kurtz and Jim.) The perfection of Edward™s utter impassiveness
nonetheless registers a complex range of cultural identi¬cations; its very
neutrality is a sign of upper-class and English restraint, of imperialist
self-possession and masculine reserve. Similarly, Dowell™s detailed list of
˜˜the sort of thing [Edward] thought about™™ “ ˜˜Martingales, Chi¬ney
bits, boots; where you got the best soap, the best brandy, the name of the
chap who rode a plater down the Khyber cli¬s; the spreading power of
number-three shot before a charge of number-four powder™™ (GS, p. )
“ speaks everything about the type of man Edward is, and yet it tells
Dowell nothing of what he wants to know.³³
Dowell attempts another way to account for Edward™s character.
Taking Edward as the key to the past history of the ˜˜four-square
coterie™™ (GS, p. µ) consisting of Dowell and Edward, Florence and
Leonora “ it is actually a ¬ve-square coterie, if one includes Nancy
Ru¬ord “ Dowell proposes a key to Edward: ˜˜Good God, what did they
all see in him? . . . Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a ¬‚ash of inspiration, I
±
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists “ all good soldiers of this
type™™ (GS, p. ). Having seized upon this possible key to Edward,
Dowell runs with it: ˜˜I trust I have not, in talking of his liabilities, given
the impression that poor Edward was a promiscuous libertine. He was
not. He was a sentimentalist™™ (GS, p. µ·). And: ˜˜I hope I have not given
you the idea that Edward Ashburnham was a pathological case. He
wasn™t. He was just a normal man and very much of a sentimentalist™™
(GS, p. ±µ). And his penultimate word on Edward: ˜˜Well, Edward was
the English gentleman; but he was also, to the last, a sentimentalist™™ (GS,
p. µµ). Dowell™s formulation, ˜˜Well, he was a sentimentalist™™ (GS,
p. ±), carries the same totalizing weight as his more general refrain of
˜˜Well, that was Edward Ashburnham™™ (GS, p. ). The incantation of
this answer to the question of Edward reveals the utter unanswerability
of the question, or at least the emptiness of this answer. The formulaic
repetition of ˜˜he was a sentimentalist™™ ultimately reveals only the
unbridged gap between signi¬er and signi¬ed, the discrepancy between
character as cipher and character as moral rectitude, rather than tap-
ping into the essence of the man. Dowell™s ˜˜¬‚ash of inspiration™™ proves
to be a rhetorical tic.
This ticcing e¬ect is heightened by Dowell™s use of the word ˜˜type™™ to
categorize Edward and his sentimentalism. The clanging repetition of
˜˜type™™ immediately after Dowell™s assessment of ˜˜all good soldiers of
this type™™ (GS, p. ) compounds the stereotyped nature of Edward™s
sentimentalism: ˜˜he would pass hours lost in novels of a sentimental type
“ novels in which typewriter girls married marquises and governesses
earls . . . And he was fond of poetry, of a certain type “ and he could even
read a perfectly sad love story™™ (GS, p. ·; emphasis mine). The clatter-
ing type that the typewriter puts on the page here drowns out the
referential resonances of the sentimental type. Like ˜˜character,™™ ˜˜type™™
starts to ring hollow, becoming a signi¬er emptied of meaning, a cipher.
Just as the disruption of unitary, knowable character is an element of
modernist ¬ction, the foregrounding of language as a thing, of words as
objects or images on the page, is a feature of modernist form. At this
moment in Dowell™s narrative, these two markers of modernist aesthet-
ics go together.
While the potential for thoroughly destabilizing both conventional
character and conventional signi¬cation is palpable in The Good Soldier,
the novel does not go all the way. Indeed, Edward™s sentimentalism has
certain distinct meanings for Dowell, even though his rhetorical insist-
ence upon it verges on outright Dadaism. It stands, for example, as a
°° Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
marker of relative literary value when Dowell asserts that Edward
˜˜talked like quite a good book “ a book not in the least cheaply
sentimental™™ (GS, p. ). Dowell™s ambivalent critical judgment of Ed-
ward “ ˜˜But the fellow talked like a cheap novelist. “ Or like a very good
novelist for the matter of that, if it™s the business of a novelist to make
you see things clearly™™ (GS, p. ±°) “ echoes Conrad™s ±· de¬nition of
the novelist™s task: ˜˜My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the
power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel “ it is,
before all, to make you see!™™³⁴ This echo reinforces the high cultural
imperative by which Ford and Conrad valorized their literary e¬orts.
Yet Dowell™s uncertainty about the di¬erence between a ˜˜cheap novel-
ist™™ and a ˜˜very good novelist™™ also undermines such cultural distinc-
tions, especially considering that Ford™s early title for the novel was The
Saddest Story. Sentimentalism is both cheap and not cheap, both distinct
from and aligned with good books, both an occlusion of vision and a
way of seeing things clearly.
Sentimentalism is crucial to Dowell™s identi¬cation with Edward,
despite his disparagement of Edward as ˜˜a sentimental ass™™: ˜˜For I can™t
conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham “ and
that I love him because he was just myself . . . And, you see, I am just as
much of a sentimentalist as he was™™ (GS, pp. µ“). The transgression
or dissolution of boundaries between selves that Dowell describes here
recalls Adam Smith™s seminal account of sentimentalism itself. Accord-
ing to Smith, moral sentiment depends upon an imaginative identi¬ca-
tion with another: ˜˜it is by the imagination only that we can form any
conception of what are [the] sensations [of our brother on the rack] . . .
By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive
ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his
body, and become in some measure the same person with him.™™³µ As a
discourse which foregrounds emotional ful¬llment as part of a process of
identi¬cation and a facet of refamilialization, the sentimental is a par-
ticularly apt discursive rubric for the imaginary merger of masculine
selves in this narrative. If the generational hierarchy suggested in
Dowell™s image of Edward as a ˜˜large elder brother™™ keeps Dowell
watching him ˜˜from a distance,™™ this quasi-fraternal relation neverthe-
less a¬ords an undeniable intimacy between them. The hierarchical
distance that threatens to separate them is closed, or at least fore-
shortened, when Dowell counts himself, with Edward, among the ranks
of the sentimentalists.
The disruption of stable, unitary selfhood e¬ected by Dowell™s de-
°±
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
ployment of the ˜˜sentimental type™™ to characterize both himself and
Edward reveals a point of commonality between sentimental discourse
and modernist discourse. Suzanne Clark describes the ˜˜shatter[ing of ]
the pure, proper, inviolable ˜I™ in modernist literature,™™ noting that this
disruption was ˜˜con¬ned to the text™™ as a way of insulating the critical
intelligence of the author from the questioning of identity that im-
plicated his ¬ctional characters. She exposes an unacknowledged ten-
sion in the writings of those modernists and ˜˜modernist new critics™™
who ˜˜wrote with a longing and sense of loss that suggested utopian
critical perspectives, not a rejection of the sentimental. Even The Waste
Land gains power from its melancholy nostalgia. But T. S. Eliot, taking
up Hulme™s severity, wrote insistently about the priority of form over
content in judgements about art . . . This formalism connects Eliot to the
new critics.™™³⁶ The dismissal of literary and cultural others as merely
sentimental was hardly invented by the New Critics, but they re¬ned
this exclusionary technique, making a virtual science of what had
formerly been a mere art.³· The repudiation of sentimentality was a
stock gesture of self-legitimization which many male modernist writers
shared with the New Critics who canonized them. It enabled these
writers to make distinctions between their own manly arts and the
debased products of women and mass culture.
This characteristic gesture of exclusion disguised the fact that high-
cultural writers and their literary critic champions sometimes had more
in common with their popular literary predecessors and contemporaries
than they wanted to admit. Thus, in Chance, the external narrator jokes
that ˜˜[t]his is like one of those Redskin stories where the noble savages
carry o¬ a girl and the honest backwoodsman with his incomparable
knowledge follows the track,™™ leading Marlow to reply ˜˜indulgently™™
that ˜˜It is not exactly a story for boys™™ (C, p. µ). Yet when Conrad was
targeting a readership that would include women with a novel that
¬nally garnered him the popular audience and ¬nancial success he had
long desired. And Lord Jim links Jim™s fatal ¬‚aw to his taste for ˜˜light
literature™™ (LJ, p. ·) while the novel™s Patusan episode reads as a rough
approximation of Jim™s favorite genre: adventure romance.³⁸ Ford
shared Conrad™s manifest disdain for the debased products of mass
culture, singling out for opprobrium the mid-Victorian ˜˜novel of com-
merce™™ which he scathingly called ˜˜the nuvvel.™™³⁹ Yet Ford was not
above promoting ˜˜The Commercial Value of Literature™™ in a radio
address of ±, a foray into mass media which he undertook to
publicize his own recently published The March of Literature. This guide to
° Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
literature through the ages was meant to encourage the culturally and
commercially bene¬cial ˜˜habit of reading something more lasting™™ in
those more accustomed to reading the ˜˜sports columns of the news-
papers . . . [and] detective or mystery stories.™™⁴°
In contrast to Ford, Fitzgerald did not espouse the notion that
popularity and high-cultural status must be antithetical, at least not
initially. Although he supported himself by magazine-writing and some
Hollywood script-writing, Fitzgerald at ¬rst expected his novels to be
both critical and ¬nancial successes. His ¬rst novel, This Side of Paradise
(±°), garnered both critical acclaim and high pro¬ts, but his next one,
The Beautiful and the Damned (±), did less well on both scores. The Great
Gatsby, his third novel, actually sold poorly, even though it had very
strong reviews and later ascended to its seemingly timeless place in the
canonical ¬rmament on the wings of the New Criticism.⁴¹ Before Gatsby
came out, Fitzgerald worried in a letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins,
that ˜˜it may hurt the book™s popularity that it™s a man™s book.™™ By this,
Fitzgerald alluded to his and Perkins™s shared feeling that the male
characters in Gatsby were more fully developed than the female ones.
When his fears about poor sales were con¬rmed, he reiterated his
interpretation of the situation: ˜˜. . . the book contains no important
woman character and women control the ¬ction market at present.™™⁴²
Female producers certainly had no monopoly on the popular literary
market. It is true that in the same year that Gatsby died in the market-
place, one of the ten best-selling novels was Anne Parish™s The Perennial
Bachelor, a family romance about three self-sacri¬cing sisters and one
self-satis¬ed bachelor brother. But at least half the ten best-selling novels
of ±µ were written by men, a statistic that undercuts the ˜˜melodrama
of beset manhood™™ that Fitzgerald rhetorically stages in his letters to his
editor.⁴³ High-cultural modernists were not all men; best-selling popular
and sentimental writers were not all women. And while women readers
may have played a vital role as consumers of contemporary ¬ction, their
tastes were neither entirely di¬erent from those of male readers, nor did
their consumption entirely cancel out the market for whatever di¬erent
preferences male readers may have had. Signi¬cantly, modernist ¬ction
and sentimental ¬ction were not so profoundly opposed, either in their
aesthetics or their values, as the literary practitioners and critical pro-
ponents of modernism may have wished to believe.
The ambivalent repudiation and recuperation of the sentimental is
palpable in The Great Gatsby, just as it is in the other modernist bachelor-
narrated ¬ctions discussed in this chapter.⁴⁴ This ambivalence is particu-
°
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
larly visible, for example, when Gatsby tells his ˜˜life story™™ “ it is a story,
to be sure “ to Nick, a passage in which the voice of the novel is
e¬ectively doubled. Gatsby™s story is given as direct discourse but it is
obviously mediated through Nick whose recounting is shaped by an
aesthetic sensibility both distinctive and familiar. We are presented here
with a narrative that alternates between Gatsby™s sensationalist story
and Nick™s cynical reception of it, creating a kind of collaborative, or
even dialogic, utterance in which Gatsby™s mass-cultural telling sounds
the call and Nick™s high-cultural gloss provides the response:

[Gatsby:] ˜˜My family all died and I came into a good deal of money.™™

[Nick:] His voice was solemn, as if the memory of that sudden extinction of a
clan still haunted him. For a moment I suspected that he was pulling my leg, but
a glance at him convinced me otherwise.

[Gatsby:] ˜˜After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe “
Paris, Venice, Rome “ collecting jewels, chie¬‚y rubies, hunting big game,
painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad
that had happened to me long ago.™™

[Nick:] With an e¬ort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter. The very
phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image except that of a
turbaned ˜˜character™™ leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger
through the Bois de Boulogne.

[Gatsby:] ˜˜Then came the war, old sport. It was a great relief, and I tried very
hard to die, but I seemed to bear an enchanted life . . . I was promoted to be a
major, and every Allied government gave me a decoration “ even Montenegro,
little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!™™

[Nick:] . . . [m]y incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like
skimming hastily through a dozen magazines. (GG, pp. ·°“±)

Nick™s cynical commentary calls attention to Gatsby™s sensationalist
implausibility and sentimental cliches, the ˜˜threadbare™™ covering which
´
fails to contain the sawdust, the stu¬ng that ¬lls out this hollow man™s
˜˜character.™™ Nick™s criticism betrays not so much his moral objection to
Gatsby™s whoppers, but rather his disgusted fascination with the me-
dium of Gatsby™s message. Although Nick disdainfully compares
Gatsby™s narrative to ˜˜skimming . . . through a dozen magazines,™™ the
novel in which he makes these distinctions is itself a pastiche of mass-
cultural icons and ephemera, its narrative studded with advertising
° Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
slogans, the lyrics to Broadway songs, the names of producers and
starlets, and the titles of popular novels.
Self-conscious irony informs Nick™s allusion to the ˜˜dozen maga-
zines™™ since Fitzgerald himself wrote more than ±° magazine stories to
subsidize his extravagant lifestyle and his novel-writing. Indeed, irony is
the preferred modernist antidote to the dreaded sentimental. While

<<

. 32
( 47 .)



>>