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The Missing All

ISSUE:  Winter 1937

Allen Tate, in the first of his recent “Reactionary Essays,” speaking of the tradition of Puritan theoc-racy as it was finally reflected in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, has this to say: “Socially, we may not like the New England idea. Yet it had an immense, incalculable value for literature: it dramatized the human soul.”

This is quite true. In those allegories which we call his novels, Hawthorne is concerned only with spiritual conflicts. But Hawthorne came late; before the Civil War his New England was already on the decline. Salem harbor was not empty: the clipper ships, still increasing in speed, scudded, all whiteness, on the farthest oceans; brigantines called with a Yankee twang among the Malayan islands; and captains from Bristol still occasionally caught a profitable black cargo on the Gold Coast of Africa. But the land, once neglected for the sea, was being abandoned for a western promise. The mercantile class was destined to go down before the mill-owners, for they, no more than the farmers, could withstand the necessities of the time. “The Scarlet Letter” is fine, intense, austere, but already a little strangely so. Hawthorne is at his best looking backward.

The great seventeenth-century certitude of God is gone. Emily Dickinson seldom came down to the parlor when there were guests in the house at Amherst.

The missing All prevented me From missing minor things. If nothing larger than a World’s Departure from a hinge, Or Sun’s extinction be observed, ‘Twas not so large that I Could lift my forehead from my work For curiosity.

This is magnificent. And it is New England. There the summer is brief, and after, the bedrooms are chilly. They admitted, however, “a polar privacy.” Upstairs, in New England, the soul was still intact.

But already Ohio had been settled with white villages dominated by a spire. New England moved westward; men and women followed the course of the rivers into Illinois, and mounted the currents, flooded yellow in spring, into the forests of Michigan. With them went the New England idea.


In the summer of 1922, in Paris, Ezra Pound told me about a young newspaper correspondent who had written some stories. Pound had not then renounced discovery; he had a restless passion for literature which led him to seek it out wherever it might be. And presently he took me to the rue Cardinal Lemoine, where I followed him up five flights of narrow winding stairs. At the top, answering the poet’s knock against a door under the roof, came a stalwart, smiling, good-looking young man. It was he, Pound said, who had written the stories. His name was Ernest Hemingway. As he led us into his apartment, I saw that he limped badly.

We did not stay long. On the way back across the Left Bank, Pound told me that the limping young man had been with the Italians during the war and, when his trench was blown up, wounded and, covered by falling dirt, left four days for dead.


Just how old Scott Fitzgerald was when I first met him is a question. He afterwards said that he had lied so often about his age that he had to bring his old nurse on from Saint Paul in order himself to know in just what year he had been born. He was, as nearly as I can make out, seventeen; but even then he was determined to be a genius, and since one of the most obvious characteristics of genius was precocity, he must produce from an early age. He did, but wanted through vanity to make it even earlier.

Long afterwards, I complained to him that I thought he took seventeen as his norm, making everything later a falling off. For a moment he demurred, then said, “If you make it fifteen, I will agree with you.”

He had, like myself, only arrived in Princeton; the Commons for Freshmen was not yet open; we sat side by side at a large round table in a corner at the Peacock Inn. It was the first time I had gone out alone, for in those opening days we stuck very close to the boys who had come down from school with us. It was by chance that I sat next to this youth so quick to conversation; we stayed on when the others had gone. In the leafy street outside the September twilight faded; the lights came on against the paper walls, where tiny peacocks strode and trailed their tails among the gayer foliations. I learned that Fitzgerald had written a play which had been performed at school. Places were cleared; other students sat down at the tables around us. We talked of books: those I had read, which were not many, those Fitzgerald had read, which were even less, those he said he had read, which were many, many more. It was the age at which we were discovering Meredith and the writers of the Yellow Book. Wells had not yet come, but to the youth from Saint Paul it was soon clear that Compton Mackenzie had.

Fitzgerald was pert and fresh and blond, and looked, as some one said, like a jonquil. He scribbled in class, or sat in an apparent dreaming drowse, from which he was startled from time to time by a question which he had only half heard. Though he arrived at what seemed a clever way of stalling until he could at least guess what had been asked him (“It all depends on how you look at it. There is the subjective and the objective point of view.”), it did not prevent his being dropped from the class. He had an ailment, which served as excuse for his departure. Like so many precocious literary talents, he had, I believe, a tendency to tuberculosis. When he returned, it was, so far as the registrar of Princeton was concerned, to take his place in another class. I saw as much of him as ever, perhaps more, for his ambitious political career on the campus had been damaged by his absence.

He left Princeton without a degree and without much of an education; but he had with him the material for two novels. The first, “The Romantic Egoist,” not many have seen in its entirety beside myself, a few old school friends who appeared in it, and the unwilling publishers. It was written on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons at the Officers’ Club at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was stationed during a period of training as Second Lieutenant in the regular Army. Scraps of it were saved, trimmed, and refurbished to appear here and there as patches in “This Side of Paradise,” a book which, when it appeared, was reviewed by one of the author’s Princeton friends, T. K. Whipple, as The Collected Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. So it was, for the time being, for not a line from any of those poems scribbled in lecture halls, if it chanced to be good, had been wasted.


Some of his earliest stories Hemingway wrote lying on a bed in a roof-sharpened room which once had provided shelter for Verlaine in his last decrepit and drunken years. After the war, which Hemingway had seen fought, with terrible retreats, on the Italian front, he passed as newspaper correspondent from line to line of the Turkish-Greek War; talked to the Greek King; heard at the Quai d’Orsay what the French Foreign Office wanted the reporters to hear; saw in the Ruhr a good deal that Poincare did not want him to see. Between times, he drank with the other reporters in the bars of the rue Daunou. He ranged from Pamplona to Kansas City, but always came back to Paris. Much of his writing was done there, and perhaps only there could he have developed a perfect consciousness of his craft. From Pound, he learned the lesson of Flaubert, profiting by it only because of his innate honesty, his incorruptible subjection to his art. He dislikes, with strange intensity for a writer who has successfully surmounted every one he has undergone, to admit influence. Mark Twain apart, there is none that he freely owns. Yet in those years he read Tur-geniev and Defoe, masters both of straight narrative, and Marryat, and showed his sound instinct by learning from the Joyce of “Dubliners” and discarding, with immense admiration, the Joyce of “Ulysses.” Yet it was Sherwood Anderson of the Ohio Valley, and Gertrude Stein, who sat among the Picassos like a monument of home, who taught the young Hemingway to write as an American. It was from his own speech that he made his admirable prose.

Fitzgerald came over for the second time in 1924. We had a late and confused lunch at Armenonville in the Bois, the green of early summer making a calm background for the disturbed waiters. His wife and child were with him, and it was very hard to order satisfactorily for a little girl in so expensive a restaurant. Fitzgerald, to quiet her, took out his shoestring and gave it to her with a handful of French coins to play with on the gravel under the tables.

He was on his way to the Riviera, which was not then, as it soon became, a summer resort, “The Great Gatsby” was written at Saint Raphael, and that other novel, which was to consume nine years in the writing and accumulate as a trunkful of manuscript before he called it “Tender is the Night,” was started at Juan-les-Pins. It is an uneven and at times unnecessarily romantic book; yet, crowded with incident, it is as complete a record as any yet written of the discordant doings of Americans abroad in that decade.


“All modern American literature comes out of one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Hemingway allows himself to say in a conversation in “The Green Hills of Africa.” And to insist upon it he adds: “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

And Fitzgerald, toward the end of “The Great Gatsby,” has his narrator meditate on the tragedy which has just occurred and remark that all the principals have come out of the Middle West. The body of Gatsby, after the bullet, floats on the bathing mattress around the artificial pool on his Long Island estate. But all that had made the life of Gatsby had come out of the Midwest. This return toward the East was one of the factors that made the time. The Midwesterner had become the American. He was ready to deny the authenticity of any compatriot not of his kind. Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt had superseded an older conception which Henry James had dared call “The American.”

Fitzgerald and Hemingway belong to what was in its day the Younger Generation. It was certainly not the first to be called so, but it was the first to gain capitals from the press. And, as Malcolm Cowley has pointed out, it was really the first literary generation in America. There had been groups before, but they were not united by a communion of youth, a sense of experiences shared and enemies encountered simply because they happened to have been born within certain years. They were those who were of an age to be combatant when America declared war on the Central Powers.

Not all of them fought; but most of them had of their own choice supported a uniform of some sort. When they returned from arms, it was in revolt. What they protested against was called Puritanism, which is a fairer name than it deserves; for the enemy was the New England idea, not in its original purity, but in that corrupt state to which it had arrived through the hundred and more years in which the West was settled.

The pioneer had not gone into the wilderness empty-handed. For beyond those two instruments of the Puritan condemnation of nature, the rifle and the axe, he carried the New England idea. In the shadow of the forest, something of his intellectual toughness was shed. When at last the pioneer strode out on the prairies, his skin was toughened by the sun and the rain; he was hardened to the bone; his distrust of nature had not lessened. That hatred of death which is behind the Puritan hatred of life was still with him, but through varying vicissitudes was lost. The meaning of Puritanism is a contempt for mortality; in the Midwest it was forgotten.

The New England idea had never provided the new country with a particularly satisfactory morality. Along the seaboard, it was counterbalanced by other forces, inherited decencies, values transmitted and transmuted, some brought by sailing vessels, all altered by these shores. There was, in brief, a culture, rather cold, but flowering nevertheless in a lovely and inclement air. But across the Appalachians, New England began to go bad. It needed the strictness of the village, it demanded the sense of the community. Else it was disembodied. Beyond the mountains, in the limitless expanse of the West, it was not all wrong. But it certainly was not so good.

Mark Twain has shown its shortcomings. To him, it was all meanness and hypocrisy, so that his serious work is one long protest against a morality that neither aided goodness nor sustained honesty. Huckleberry Finn, who is his creator’s exponent of natural morality, becomes in Missouri a notoriously bad boy. All is reversed, so that Huck himself is almost convinced that he is lost.

So long ago did the Midwesterner decide that New England morality was inadequate. But with what could he oppose it, unless with conceptions which had been shaped for him, as for all Americans, in Concord and by Walden Pond? The Midwesterner was self-reliant, he had a profound trust in the natural goodness, the sanctity almost, of unrestricted man. If we look closely, we shall see his beliefs return, altered but recognizable, not only in the “Green Hills of Africa,” but in all of Hemingway. We shall find them as well in Fitzgerald.

They came from all over, those who made up the Younger Generation, but it is scarcely an accident that those I consider here as its spokesmen had their origin in the Middle West. There were others, no doubt, who equalled them in talent. But the time was favorable to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. They had, as Hemingway was to say later of the garbage men of Havana, the view-point. And more than any others who wrote in prose, they succeeded in communicating their emotional attitudes to their contemporaries. They were never consciously regional, as a somewhat older lot of Middle Western writers were: Masters, Sandburg, and the Anderson of those years when Mr. Mencken was proclaiming that Chicago was the literary capital of America. They had no need to be. They could, as Middle Westerners, assume that they were the country. And in many ways they were right. “Wait and see,” Masters had written, not all ironically, in 1918, “Spoon River shall be Americee.” And now Middletown was spreading from coast to coast its monstrous and monotonous regimentation of mediocrity. Besides, the Younger Generation were conscious of belonging nowhere. How could they have a place in space, whose roots, whether deliberately or through the uncontrolled accident of war, had been destroyed in time?

They converged on Chicago, and one or two, I believe, stayed there. They came to New York, and once so far, found it as simple to cross the Atlantic as to survive in that costly city. From Land’s End to the Golden Horn they scattered; carried, as it were a knapsack, their childhood through the Alps; saw girls with print dresses over their starving nakedness throw themselves from bridges of Vienna; saw the hungry eyes of boys, ready for depravity, in the underworld of Berlin; saw the collapse of empires. Some sought the more than sunny warmth of the Mediterranean; some reached Persia; a few, even in those years, penetrated Russia. The world was in throes, but, like the Magi in Eliot’s poem, when they had come to the end of their journey, they did not know whether it was a birth or a death they had come for. But most Paris attracted them. In the international intellectual ferment there, they were variously aware of their century, increasingly conscious that they were creatures of its catastrophes. There it seemed possible to know what was happening: not that the event was likely to take place there—Paris was too old; but because it was old and sensitive with a very long memory, it seemed possible that the import of the event would be known there sooner than elsewhere. The collapse of the New England idea was only one more loss in the spiritual debacle of the times. Meanwhile, one could eat on the sidewalks of Paris, drink at every corner, make love in the streets, under the trees.


In Fitzgerald the romantic will is strong, all its pursuits subject to disillusionment. In his novels, these pursuits are many, and love is among them, particularly the first loves of endowed youth, prolonging anticipation, delaying those satisfactions which are of the feelings rather than the senses. For his young men are assuaged by what stirs them, the scents, dresses, the slippers of silver and gold. He lingers with knowledge over these adolescent sentiments, confined, like those nostalgic dance tunes which recur through his pages, to the shortest of seasons. Obviously he prefers these young attachments, in which the emotion, part vanity, part desire, has been just felt and is not yet proved by performance. He has not, however, evaded his responsibilities as a novelist; he has seen his lovers through, to tell what becomes of them later. Afterwards come the broker’s office, the bank, the racket; the sad young men take to drink; successful or failures, they know the discouragements of a predatory civilization. For let no one be mistaken: though love is always in the foreground in the sentimental world of Fitzgerald, no allure is so potent as money.

“The rich are not as we are,” So he began one of his early stories. “No,” Hemingway once said to him, “they have more money.”

This belief, continually destroyed, constantly reasserted, underlies all that Fitzgerald has written. It made him peculiarly apt to be the historian of the period. Those who have wealth have an assurance that those without cannot hope to have; they dance, they play, they marry none but the loveliest girls; they beget their own kind. They dare where the others falter. Pretty much anything goes, so long as there is money. At their worst, the successful will still have the air “of having known the best of this world.” They must have spiritual possessions to match their material accumulations.

That the rich are a race apart is a current and not always complimentary assumption. In the Midwest where Fitzgerald grew up, it was the common dream that riches made the superior person. To the acquisitive powers all others would be added. His America, at least in recollection, was that country which, with a sort of ignorant corruption, could profess its love for Lincoln, while completely satisfying the appetites of James K. Hill. And worse than Hill. The Great Gatsby is the Emersonian man brought to completion and eventually to failure; he has returned to the East; the conditions which could tolerate his self-reliant romanticism no longer exist.

Fitzgerald partakes of that dream and is too intelligent not to know it for what it is worth. One can scarcely say that he thinks; like the Rosemary in “Tender is the Night,” his “real depths are Irish and romantic and illogical.” He has an uncanny touch for probing his own or another’s weakness; politically ignorant, he can see much that ails society. He gave as no other American writer the expensive charm, the sensational display of the post-war decade, but began counting the cost long before the bills came in. He made money, and like Gatsby remained an intruder in the moneyed world; he admired it and would have liked to be a part of it; and yet with every passing year it becomes more difficult for him to face it. He has learned the price of everything, and is not a cynic, but a moody sentimentalist who gives himself a very bad time. At heart, he is a prude and suffers from remorse. For Fitzgerald, brought up as a Catholic, cannot but recognize damnation when he sees it. His Nicole, irresponsible, heartless, beautiful, and mad, crosses herself reverently with Chanel Number 5.


The story that Ezra Pound told me in the taxicab was that Ernest Hemingway, at nineteen, had been dead and brought to life again. He had lain four days under the debris of the trench, which is one day longer underground than Lazarus. I do not doubt Pound’s word, but I have never asked Hemingway to substantiate the story and it is not in his writings, as almost everything else from his youth is. Even if it should not conform to fact, it would still be true. It was true for a great part of Hemingway’s generation.

It was his awareness of death that separated Hemingway from the Middle West. The West had never known what the war was about; Hemingway returned from it like Krebs in that story which is the best account written by an American of the returned soldier. Krebs found all communication with his family impossible. He sat on the front porch and saw the girls that walked on the other side of the street. “He liked the look of them much better than the French or the German girls. But the world they were in was not the world he was in.” He could not talk to any of them. The Midwest had never, like the lady in Amherst, known what it was to die every day it lived. Behind the Puritan hatred of life was always the hatred of death. That alone gave it excuse and dignity.

It was in a Midwestern town that the old prizefighter of “The Killers” merely waited for death. Lying on a slovenly bed, he waits for nothing but the courage to get up and go downstairs to take what is coming to him in the street from the two men who also wait, with black gloves and hands in the bulging pockets of their tight black overcoats. It was the first of the gangster stories, and was never bettered. Hemingway concentrates not on the killing, but on the apprehension of the old double-crosser on the bed.

Presently, Hemingway was to be found in Spain, seeking to learn from the bullfighters how it is a man confronts death on the sunny sand with skill and beauty and discipline. For in the corrida he saw his own apprehension reduced to a ritual, publicly performed, more violent than any ritual of the Church, and more immediate, since it was concerned only with the body, its courage and control. It was because of their tragic sense that the bullfighters were utterly alive; Hemingway’s famous remark about them has been misinterpreted as an admiration for mere toughness. But his real meaning is made clear if we see how, in “The Sun Also Rises,” he plays his other characters—Americans, British, Jews—of the contemporary world against his Spaniards. Plenty of things can happen to his drunken expatriates, but nothing they do, nothing that is done to them, can have any significance. For they are all of them, amusing as they are, aimless and will-less; they are so completely devoid of spiritual life that neither stupefying drink nor the aware intelligence can save them. The Spanish Romero, young and courteous, is there for lively contrast. He is as far as anyone could be from a tough guy.

The most tragic things about the war was not that it made so many dead men, but that it destroyed the tragedy of death. Not only did the young suffer in the war, but every abstraction that would have sustained and given dignity to their suffering. The war made the traditional morality in-acceptable; it did not annihilate it; it revealed its immediate inadequacy. So that at its end, the survivors were left to face, as they could, a world without values.

Conscious of this as he is, Hemingway is, among his contemporaries, incomparably conscious of the art of prose. He seems to have known throughout what he had to do; and that was, as he discovered on the bed in Verlaine’s old room, to find out in any given incident what really had happened. It is the mark of the true novelist that in searching the meaning of his own unsought experience, he comes on the moral history of his time. It is a hard task, and one that requires great scrupulousness; it is not one that can be generously undertaken while serving a cause.

Hemingway’s accomplishment will, I think, stand. It has an historical, as it has a literary importance. It is idle to predict for posterity, but what he has done should give him a place in American literature as sure as that of—to name a writer he admires not at all—the New England Nathaniel Hawthorne. For it was given to Hawthorne to dramatize the human soul. In our time, Hemingway wrote the drama of its disappearance.


To those returning from the war, the New England idea appeared no more favorable than it had to Mark Twain. It showed as meanness and hypocrisy and repression; it had crossed the continent and was everywhere. So now, to every revolt that had been started against it, intensity was added. The war had removed young men from families and all the ordinary restraints of society, and had given them to the army which imposed strange new restrictions of its own. It left them impatient of all discipline and profoundly distrustful of the very words which had once been used to signify virtue. They returned from whatever danger they had been in to find the country made safe, remarkably safe, for complacency. Their lives had been salted by the taste of death. They thought they had now a right to lead them. Returning, they found an opposition in control decidedly prepared to deny this. For neither had their opponents come unchanged through the war. They had discovered, or so they thought, better means and more competent to prohibit, to cast out, our corruptible nature. Intolerance had new screws and they would twist them. Never had the old Puritanism looked so strong. It was about to collapse.

It was precisely because all spirit had gone out of it that Puritanism had now resorted to laws, depending on the police to enforce what the conscience would no longer command.

Against all this, then in his earliest twenties, Fitzgerald appeared, proclaiming anew the inalienable rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Handsome, gifted, fortunate, he made himself for a time the embodiment of youth’s protest against the inhibitions and conventions of an outworn morality. He had allies, and quickly found followers. Sincerity for hypocrisy, spontaneity in the place of control, freedom for repression—who could resist such a program? The response was prodigious. Success, as we know, was only less immediate. The faults in that program were not so soon apparent.

Only one of them can I comment on here. With all respect for the original author of the phrase, happiness cannot be pursued. At least not so rapidly as the Younger Generation demanded. Sensation can. No man can say, I will be happy at such an hour. He can perfectly well say, I intend to get drunk tonight, and if only he has money, or friends, to pay for his drinks, by midnight be as drunk as he pleases, in spite of all prohibitions. In this discrepancy between happiness and dissipation lies, I should say, something of the history of the 1920’s in America.

The decade was over when Fitzgerald wrote an essay which was a sort of farewell to it.

“Contemporaries of mine,” he wrote of those years, “had begun to disappear into the dark maw of violence. A classmate killed his wife and himself on Long Island, another tumbled ‘accidentally’ from a skyscraper in Philadelphia, another purposely from a skyscraper in New York. One was killed in a speakeasy in Chicago; another was beaten to death in a speakeasy in New York and crawled home to the Princeton Club to die; still another had his skull crushed by a maniac in an asylum where he was confined. These are not catastrophes that I went out of my way to look for— these were my friends; moreover, these things happened not during the depression but during the boom.”

This is not exaggerated: I could put names to most of these catastrophes and for every one I cannot name I could offer three out of my acquaintances. All these were excellent people, personable companions. Morally, they were, perhaps, the last romantics, and it may be that the worst enemy the romantic has to fear is time. Or it may be that like the earlier Romantics, they did not know enough. But at least they knew their own predicament.


This account may conclude with a short note on John O’Hara, for, though he is not properly speaking one of the Younger Generation (he was fifteen at the time of the Ar-mistice), he shows in his novels something of the conclusion of its history.

O’Hara has been affected by both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, though the influence is not particularly literary. According to a passage in his writing which may be taken as autobiographical, he read them at that impressionable age when all reading tends to become an imaginary extension of experience. His world, as we see it in his novels, is that of the Younger Generation, no longer so young, but still sustaining a fiction of youth. It has been supplemented by those who were boys and girls when the soldier’s pole had fallen and who, at bars, are level now with men.

It is a world of country clubs and speakeasies, manufactured in Detroit, where in the 1920’s the frontier took its last stand and for a time paid tremendous dividends, for though there was less of nature to exploit, there was more of humankind. It runs, this world, as it has been said the motors of the future will do, on alcohol. We are in the prosperity of Mr. Coolidge, the depression of Mr. Hoover.

Here are the loves of Fitzgerald turned into quick adulteries on the seats of parked cars or in the apartments of Park Avenue, the freedoms that have run to perversions, lost happinesses, and lives mechanized out of all meaning. That consciousness of death which pervades so much of Hemingway’s writing has here become that gout du suicide which gave a special savor to the decade. It is fitting that the Appointment in Samara should be kept in a garage: Death could not come more appropriately than in the fumes of a running motor. In Hemingway, the emotions that are not there are a silence underlying all sound, a lack which, once felt, constantly gives poignancy to the whole. But in the world of John O’Hara, these emotions are not even missed. His plots have a mechanical perfection, which well they may, for nothing from within moves these people. They merely react, like Behaviorists’ dogs, to certain stimuli; they have appetites, they come into heat, they suffer from sex as from a last disagreement of nature. One imagines their emotional connections as having been put through by the telephone operator of Butterfield-8. It is a mere matter of putting in and taking out plugs. The rest is conversation. For when, as in his latest novel, O’Hara would give us a human emotion, the episode falls flat; any affair which involves love is nothing more than a schoolboy recollection. It does not, in this world cannot, exist.

It is the world of the Younger Generation played out to the doom. These are the lost people: they are below moral condemnation. The Missing All is no longer missed.


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