F. Scott Fitzgerald and WWI: The "Crack Up" Essays
By Colin Halloran
Paul Fussell, in his seminal The Great War and Modern Memory, posits that “logically, one supposes, there’s no reason why a language devised by man should be inadequate to describe any of man’s works. The difficulty was in admitting that the war had been made by man and was being continued ad infinitum by them” (170).*
While there is much debate and discussion over the “official” definition and dates of Modernism, we cannot overlook WWI and the ways it changed literary language. Broadly, the Modernist movement sought to move away from traditionalism and towards originality, particularly focusing on a “non-logical, non-objective, and essentially causeless mental universe.”**
Because the war itself was non-logical. Even the innovative language and stylizations that propelled Modernist writings prior to the war were suddenly inadequate after the horrors the world now knew humankind was capable of.
Yet much of the poetry to come out of World War I was still focused on the collective “we” and the broader identifiers (things like “English,” “American,” “French,” “German,” “Homefront,” “Trenches”), and non-fiction remained largely historical and fact-based (which is to say, external). Writers of fiction, on the other hand, delved into the internal workings of the individual brain. For example, Freud’s work with WWI veterans and dreams helped fuel the movement’s interest in the human subconscious and psyche, leading writers to approach their realities and experiences through metaphor, mythology, internal monologues, and even dream sequences, as in Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting.”
In addition, the Great War stripped young authors—many of whom would shape the Modernist movement of interwar literature—of their idealism. Included in this group was titan of the twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald, in spite of dropping out of Princeton to join the Army as a second lieutenant, never shipped out, a fact that he would later lament.
Unlike many Modernist authors of the time who were pushing the boundaries of fiction with experimental forms and techniques, Fitzgerald and his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, kept their writing largely in the realm of realism that was so popular in the 19th century. However, Fitzgerald’s stylization, characters’ attitudes, and choice of themes place him firmly within the Modernist oeuvre. For example, while there is no question that Hemingway’s fiction is highly autobiographical, he was able to distance himself from his own experiences by assigning them to his various characters such as WWI ambulance driver Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms. This technique surely contributed to his success, as many of his readers recognized their own thoughts and experiences in the musings of Hemingway’s fictional narrators. Hemingway and his work embodied the values of stoicism and ambivalence that were to be expected from a world emerging from the devastation of war. Boys had become men and men had died doing their duty, serving their homelands, protecting what was right and good, as extolled in so many poems and media of the time. Detachment was viewed as strength, and strength was now expected.
Which is also why some lesser-known works by Fitzgerald are so important.
I am referring especially to the so-called “Crack-Up” personal essays published in Esquire in 1936. The first essay sets the fragmented, dismal tone of the collection; it begin “Of course, all life is a process of breaking down…”(36).***
Many of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries and friends recoiled at these autobiographical, emotional essays that chronicled his own personal post-war crisis. In fact, as if embarrassed for his friend, novelist John Dos Passos, wrote to Fitzgerald, “…most of the time the course of world events seems so frightful that I feel absolutely paralysed [sic]…We’re living in one of the damndest tragic moments in history—if you want to go to pieces I think it’s absolutely O.K. but I think you ought to write a first rate novel about it…instead of spilling it in little pieces.”
Dos Passos’ statement reflected the ways American society shunned the display of male emotion. In the post-war years, male emotion was acceptable for public consumption only if it were fictionalized, not as an autobiographical confession.
Fitzgerald explored this very dilemma in the essay, “Sleeping and Waking,” published just more than a year before “The Crack-Up” essays appeared in print. Written in response to Hemingway’s short story, “Now I Lay Me,” which discusses the agony of insomnia, Fitzgerald observes “there was nothing further to be said about insomnia…it appears that every man’s insomnia is as different from his neighbour's as are their daytime hopes and aspirations” (67). Fitzgerald acknowledges here that “Now I Lay Me” must be a fictional representation of Hemingway’s own struggles with insomnia and emotional suffering; but, in recognizing that insomnia is deeply personal, he also seems to say sees that there is a need for further, public discussion on this kind of suffering, perhaps directly, rather than filtered through fiction.
Fussell points out that in real correspondence, WWI soldiers in the trenches would make use of the passive voice in order to create a sort of narrative distance. For example, Fussell says that a soldier might write in passive voice “A very odd sight was seen here,” instead of using the active voice with “I saw …” to “avoid designating themselves as agents of nasty or shameful acts” (177).
The deployment of fiction served the same purpose: distancing the author from real emotion. Fictionalizing acts and thoughts and psychological struggles allowed the author to maintain a sense of credibility in the public’s eyes. It allowed them to maintain the masculine façade of the early twentieth century. It allowed them to maintain a perspective gained and solidified during the war years, no matter how long after it they were writing. As Fitzgerald himself observes in his essay “Ring,” “A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighted and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five” (79).
This reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” and John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” As a war veteran, I know firsthand that the rest of soldiers’ lives are shaped by what we were taught on the way to war, in war, and as we made that terrible transition back into a civilian world that lauded those “nasty or shameful acts” as heroic. These experiences shape the way we view all those that follow, whether we want to acknowledge them or not.
Fitzgerald explores these ideas later in his essay “Sleeping and Waking” as he recounts “the war dream.” In an attempt to get himself to sleep, he replays a fabricated scenario in which the Japanese have invaded the US and made it as far as Minnesota, Fitzgerald’s home state. In reality, he was a never-deployed, but, in the dream, he is an assistant to a general and called “Captain Fitzgerald.” He is “the character who bears [his] name has become blurred,” but, in the dream is also vital to the survival of his men and his country. As he recounts the heroics of defending the place he knows so well, Captain Fitzgerald’s tale falls apart. He writes, “waste and horror—what I might have been and done that is lost, spent gone, dissipated, unrecapturable. I could have acted thus, refrained from this, been bold where I was timid, cautious where I was rash. I need not have hurt her like that. Nor said this to him. Nor broken myself trying to break what was unbreakable.” We see, perhaps for the first time—in fiction or personal essay—the guilt Fitzgerald bears because he was never deployed during the Great War.
This is a feeling that many veterans I know share. Not having deployed, or having deployed but not left Kuwait or Bagram or the FOB. Or having deployed but only once or twice, when that guy there had deployed seven times. Or, in my case, having been med-evaced out and living with the guilt of leaving my men behind, even though I had no say in the matter. And just like Fitzgerald, this particular guilt of war is so often the launching point, the pry bar that opens the vast fissure of all other guilts in my life. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and Hemingway would not approve. At least Fitzgerald might.
In the opening lines of “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald states, “Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from the outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once.” This sentence, packed with dense ideas, changed the way Fitzgerald’s contemporaries viewed him and perhaps the way he viewed himself; he was no longer the debonair socialite with an acute talent for observing human behavior in social interactions but a broken, troubled man. First comes the idea of the internal vs. the external with “the big sudden blows…that seem to come from the outside”.
As mentioned earlier, the majority of WWI and interwar literature focused on factors external to the human psyche: facts, figures, patriotism, illustrations of events and scenes while Modernists focused on the internal process that happens long after such events take place: “the ones” that “don’t show their effect all at once.” Second, it hints at the idea of life as a continuous process of breaking down, which, if applied globally, speaks to war as a natural part of humanity, which goes against Fussell’s claims of the inadequacy of language to describe it. It also speaks to the idea of key moments in life lingering, not showing their full impact all at once, which contextualizes Fitzgerald’s own view that a writer’s viewpoints are solidified by the age of 25. But perhaps most importantly, it points out that the act of acknowledging that you are breaking down, even to one’s closest friends and confidantes, is the result of weakness, the antithesis of early twentieth-century masculine values, and one of the hurdles contemporary military writers like me still face.
Part of this could be attributed to the trend we see in the poetry of World War I of the collective “we,” the soldier as a part of an idea, something bigger than himself. This foundational concept is still an essential part of military tradition: the stripping of the individual, the reshaping of a recruit into part of a unit, a piece of a greater whole. Uniform. Maybe this is why Full Metal Jacket remains one of the most popular war films among veterans; it focuses on how a soldier is made rather than on what they are intended to do.
In the second “Crack-Up” essay, “Pasting it Together,” Fitzgerald parallels this concept by considering those who influenced him most. His ultimate conclusion? “So there was not an ‘I’ anymore—not a basis on which I could organize my self-respect—save my limitless capacity for toil that it seemed I possessed no more. It was strange to have no self.” Such realizations, he acknowledges, “always confused me and made me want to go out and get drunk” (81).
These sentiments, the breaking down of individual identity, and the realization there is a lack of a true self are elements that are at the forefront of contemporary military literature. How does one balance their own personal feelings and beliefs with the mission of the machine in which they are a cog? How do we reconcile the idea that the many influences in our lives may, at times, be in conflict? How do we, as veterans especially, find an individual identity when we leave the collective “we” of the military? These are all questions that Fitzgerald raises and that come up in post-9/11 war literature. Another commonality? The solution: it “made me want to go out and get drunk” because it’s damn confusing. These are themes that run throughout much of the personal creative-nonfiction coming out of these current wars. How do we reconcile our roles as warfighters once we’re back in the realm of civilians?
The answer to this question is something Fitzgerald gets closer to in the third and last of his “Crack-Up” essays: “My self-immolation is something sodden-dark. It was very distinctly not Modern—yet I saw it in others, saw it in a dozen men of honor and industry since the war…I had stood by while one famous contemporary of mine played with the idea of the Big Out for half a year; I had watched when another, equally eminent, spent months in an asylum unable to endure any contact with his fellow men. And of those who had given up and passed on I could list a score” (81). At its core, “The Crack-Up” is an account of how “an exceptionally optimistic young man experienced a crack-up of all values, a crack-up that he scarcely knew of until long after it occurred.”
Again, this is a sentiment expressed throughout the literature of the Global War on Terror. On September 11th, 2001, the world changed. For the first time since WWII young people, the government, the citizenry, had a clear “them” to our “us.” Though this new war would not have the clarity of blue uniforms against grey uniforms, of the khaki and green of the allies against the grey of the Germans that WWI poets used to subvert Romantic tropes, there at least was a clearly defined good versus evil. Or at least that’s how it seemed at the start, at least that was the sentiment that caused so many young Americans, including myself, to enlist.
Fitzgerald’s final essays in the 1930’s finished with a great deal of cynicism. Gone was the hopeful—if arrogant—character readers met in This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine, a reflection of Fitzgerald in fiction that would make even Hemingway proud. In his place was a man, a writer, a patient, who saw the value in no longer fictionalizing his truth. In his place a man who, rather than seeking the false glories of war, declares, “Let the soldiers be killed and enter immediately into the Valhalla of their profession. That is their contract with the gods. A writer need have no such ideals…the old dream of being an entire man…has been relegated to the junk heap of the shoulder pads worn for one day on the Princeton freshman football field and the overseas cap never worn overseas.” Fitzgerald never became the Princeton football star he dreamed of. He never became the leader of military men who he tried to use to find rest years after the war had ended.
And yet, Fitzgerald leaves his readers with an odd parallel: “My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distil into little lines in books.”
Once again, we see the repression of emotion, though this time it is happiness. What we’re left with, is the conclusion that the men of the interwar years we’re supposed to be stoic. That trials and triumphs alike were to be suppressed, even to those they were closest to. And yet in the last decade of his life, Fitzgerald—who had never gone to war, but who wished to and who moved in circles of those who had—wrote about what the previous decade had caused him to feel, to do. He gave voice—real voice, not fictionalized—to what so many of his contemporaries were feeling. What so many of his contemporaries were not allowed by society to write as true experience. Though he expressed what so many had translated to fiction—what so many people saw, but ignored in society—he was shunned, berated, dismissed, even by those closest to him.
And yet, without his writing, without the death of his dreams, contemporary war writing would not be where it is today. Confessional poetry would emerge after World War II. The Vietnam War would see poetic narrative voice shift from the collective, nationalistic “we” to the confessional, shamed “I.” But it would not be until post-9/11 war literature that Fitzgerald’s influence would truly be felt.
This man, who would receive so much flak from me and my combat arms brethren today for being a POG, paved the way for us to write honestly about our experiences in poetry and non-fiction. His bravery in alienating himself from his peers preempted so many war writers of the last fifteen years who have been questioned, criticized, and ridiculed by their peers. Much of this negative response has been directed toward female veterans, but the truth is that male veterans experience this underlying conflict just as much, if not more.
The difference is, men are perhaps more hesitant to reveal the true impact of their experiences. It is my hope that they will turn to Fitzgerald as an example. That they will do what I and so many of my peers have done, and reveal the true impact of war—whether deployed or not. It is my hope that civilians and veterans alike will share their true stories, not bury the emotional impact of war in fiction.
And it is my hope that our peers, those whose voices aren’t able to reach the public eye, are able to learn from the courage of F. Scott Fitzgerald and share their stories.
And it is my hope that those who are not able to share, willing to share, or allowed to share because they are still in the military, will recognize their own stories in ours.
But most importantly, it is my hope that in these wars, a century after the cessation of hostilities in WWI, we can all—military or civilian—recognize the value in sharing not just the external truths of war (something modern media allows us to experience daily), but also in sharing the true psychological impact of war. To recognize those sleepless nights, those many looking for the “Big Out,” that drive to drink, and that loss of self. Let us, as writers, follow the path Fitzgerald laid for us, and let us, as readers, not respond as Hemingway and Dos Passos, but as citizens who recognize that it is we who have sent these young men and women to their own particular “Crack-Up.”
* Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press, 2000.
** Everdell, William R. The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought.University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (July 15, 1998)
*** Fitzgerald, F. Scott and Edmund Wilson. The Crack Up. New Directions; Reprint edition (February 27, 2009)
Colin D. Halloran served as an infantryman in the US Army, deploying to Afghanistan in 2006. He writes about this experience in his debut book, 2012's Shortly Thereafter, a memoir-in-verse that was named a Massachusetts Must-Read Book of 2013. His follow-up poetry collection, Icarian Flux, was published in 2015, and explores themes of PTSD and post-traumatic growth through metaphor, persona, and experimental form and narration. In addition to poetry, his essays have been published broadly, including in 2016's Retire the Colors and in translation in Japan. He also has a short story featured alongside two dozen veteran-writers in the anthology The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War. When not writing or teaching writing, Halloran leads creative writing workshops for veterans and their families in an effort to promote healing and connection through the arts. He can be found online at www.colindhalloran.com, facebook.com/colindhalloran, and on Twitter @poetinpinkshoes.