Hudspeth: The Jazz Age was not unlike the COVID age

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

F. Scott Fitzgerald is a depressing author — even in some of his most touching short stories, like the “Lees of Happiness” where, although the optimistic reader can sense through much of it the uplifting possibility of a somewhat happy ending after much suffering, its closing lines leave that as only a barely suggested, and probably unlikely, possibility.

Sadly, Fitzgerald may speak all too well to our time of COVID-19 confinement, tragic losses, and angst. That being said, the Wilton Library’s choice of this year’s Wilton Reads book — Fitzgerald’s “Tales of the Jazz Age” — was made well before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and was designed to fit with the Library’s jazz theme for this year of Dave Brubeck’s centennial.

“Tales” was Fitzgerald’s compilation of a half-dozen years of his writing from college through a rising literary career. By that point he had joined the august ranks of the first celebrities who were lauded simply for being well-known and widely recognized. Of course as a gifted author, he had more going for him than simply celebrity for its own sake.

Fitzgerald’s choice of this book’s title gave the name to the epoch — the “Jazz Age” — before it later became known as the “Roaring 20s.” We have ever-popular literary commentator Susan Boyar and Yale Dean Mark Schenker to thank for perceptive insights offered in their recent separate Wilton Reads Zoom presentations on Fitzgerald’s life, times, and writings.

The period immediately following World War I was a time of great angst. Pandemic deaths worldwide had added to the huge toll of war casualties especially among Europeans but also among Americans. By the 1920s, the war was coming to be understood in America as the 20th century paying the price for the previous century’s international treaty obligations — an assessment that would bear fierce fruit after the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. American isolationism reached full flower with the harshly restrictive 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act’s tariffs and quotas that triggered the virtual cessation of world trade when our principal trading partners retaliated in kind. American isolationism persisted right up to Pearl Harbor.

A huge recession overtook the American homefront as World War I ended. It was accompanied by labor uprisings, race riots, and Bolshevik hunting after the Communists’ takeover of Russia and their proselytizing for more revolutions. Their grandiose plans inspired fear nationwide and especially, one supposes, among Fitzgerald’s wealthy peers.

Fitzgerald’s work flourished in this chaotic time. He was barely out of college yet already a famous figure for his writing of short stories, novels, and the newly popular and lucrative movie scripts. His stories captured the angst of his times remarkably well, and they have a self-centeredness and sense of wild abandon — a frenzy — that encapsulated their age: things were coming apart at the seams, and no one saw quite how to put them back together. However, as the economy emerged from the postwar doldrums and the stock market took off, that unfocused frenzy turned into a kind of madness-like glee filled with recklessness and abandon that Fitzgerald captured with uncanny accuracy and insight.

He knew his subjects well, and they were almost invariably of the upper crust, privileged Ivy League college grads and scions of wealthy families. They reveled in riotous living and their lives were hollow shells — something that Fitzgerald understood perhaps far more than they themselves did. He certainly knew how to record it well. Even his one story in “Tales” with an unambiguously happy ending — “The Camel’s Back” — centers on a lavish party filled with excesses of spending, vacuous ways of frittering away time, and a racial and “inferior class” contempt that is unvarnished and harsh to modern ears, though one can see more than faint similarities in present-day life to those race and class attitudes.

What is one to make of it all? For me, it’s not more reading of Fitzgerald for pleasure, but it is reading him for insights into his time and disturbing echoes of our own time.

Note: On the subject of my recent column on town board appointments, I’m delighted with the actions recently taken by the selectmen to appoint outstanding residents to both the Police Commission and the Fire Commission, and I understand that more town board appointments will be forthcoming shortly. Our thanks to the selectmen for addressing these appointments on top of the many pressing matters that COVID-19 has thrust upon them and that they’re handling so well.