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Glamour or Gloom? Fitzgerald's Jazz Age

Glamour or Gloom? Fitzgerald's Jazz Age
Marithe Van der Aa By

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Many names have been given to the 1920s: the Roaring Twenties, the Golden Twenties, Les Années Folles and, of course, the Jazz Age. It was a decade fuelled by innovation and change; a time of movement: cars were becoming the favoured means of transportation, commercial airline flights were on the rise, social dancing was energetic and popular music was "hot." Those who are familiar with the writings of the celebrated author F. Scott Fitzgerald, will know that his work is undeniably packed with references to lyrics and lengthy interpretations of jazz songs. His relationship with jazz was, however, a complicated one, and it is often hard to pinpoint what exactly his thoughts were on the music.

In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald published his second collection of short stories under the title Tales of the Jazz Age. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, strongly advised him to change the title, claiming there "is an intense reaction against all jazz" and that the word, whatever implication it might have had, would itself "injure the book." It is important to understand that, in the early twenties, jazz still had a rather negative connotation, and was often linked to the hedonism, decadent parties and excessive drinking of the rebellious youth. This connotation clearly did not bother Fitzgerald, as he wrote back to Perkins explaining it was impossible to find a wonderful selling title unrelated to jazz. As an avid analyst of the effects of popular culture on American lives, Fitzgerald advocated a society where high-and lowbrow could fuse together rather than oppose each other, a view that undoubtedly shines through in both his novels and short stories.

The Jazz Age: a curious word choice to say the least. Upon publishing his book, Fitzgerald was the first to introduce and popularize the very term that would later be so widely associated with the twenties. Fitzgerald may have intended it as a humorous reference to terms such as the Stone Age or the Iron Age, in which case his subtle social critique already comes to light. Whilst other historical ages extended over numerous centuries, the technological evolution of the Jazz Age progressed so rapidly, that it was squeezed into a single decade. Equally interesting is the shift from the tangible substance that defines the age, such as stone or iron, to the ungraspable and immaterial phenomenon of jazz. In jazz, Fitzgerald saw an ultimate expression of his time; its rhythmical energy and vitality representing both primitivity and hypermodernity. Jazz saturated all aspects of life, becoming a whole lifestyle in itself rather than just a music genre. One could go so far as to consider it the expressive causality of its time, an Althusserian concept that describes the effect of a whole on its parts, in which the latter (jazz) is an expression of the former (the Jazz Age), a reflection of its very essence.

Though jazz is omnipresent in Fitzgerald's writings, the most striking passage on the music can be found in his manuscript of The Great Gatsby, his third and arguably most famous novel. The following extract describes the narrator's account of an orchestral jazz performance at the first Gatsby party he attends.

"I was curiously moved and the third part of the thing was full of an even stronger emotion. (...) There would be a series of interruptive notes that seemed to fall together accidentally and coloured everything that came after them until before you knew it they became the theme and new discords were opposed to it outside. But what struck me particularly was that just as you'd get used to the new discord business there'd be one of the old themes rung in this time as a discord until you'd get a ghastly sense that it was all a cycle after all, purposeless and sardonic until you wanted to get up and walk out of the garden. It never stopped-after they had finished playing that movement it went on and on in everybody's head until the next one started. Whenever I think of that summer I can hear it yet."

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