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Eating Poetry (XXXII) – The Ecstasy of Unreasoning Happiness

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Patricia Hampl’s fine essay in the spring The American Scholar,  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Essays From the Edgesurveys the background to Fitzgerald‘s “The Crack Up” essays, published  in Esquire in 1936. She finds in the controversial product of Fitzgerald’s attempt to write himself back from personal and authorial oblivion a meeting point in consciousness between poetry and fiction.

The publication of the “Crack-Up” essays looks now like a sharp pivot, marking a fundamental change in American consciousness and therefore in narrative voice, an evident moment when the center of authorial gravity shifted from the “omniscience” afforded by fiction’s third person to the presumption (accurate or not) of greater authenticity provided by the first-person voice with all its limitations.

Whitman had set American poetry on this road a few generations earlier: the voice of “Song of Myself” belongs to a lyric essayist, contending with himself and his time, using the personal self as the representative of the national type, fusing the individual to history. And the presence of faux memoirists as narrators in American fiction—including Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s own Nick Adams, and before that the narrators of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick—also betrays a preference for the first-person voice.

The “Crack-Up” essays are a similar poetic project. Fitzgerald’s strangled cry in them makes clear that a lyric impulse links the personal essay with poetry, even though essays are a prose form and seem to pose a chronic scourge (or companion) to their apparent kin—narrative fiction. In fact, the essay inhabits an intermediate territory between story and poem. That may be its fundamental appeal. Tell a story and then think about it—all in the same work.

Whitman didn’t employ (or deploy) the first person to recount his life story or reveal his secrets: we need Whitman’s biographers to suss out his sex life, for example. Like Fitzgerald, Whitman’s “I” is the song of his consciousness, not of his episodic experience. Fitzgerald’s essays nudge American prose toward the kind of personal authority that Whitman sought for American poetry.

Hampl closes ruminating from some of the jeweled prose Fitzgerald was still capable of writing.

“This is what I think now,” Fitzgerald writes at the end of the third essay: “that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.” Yet his loyalty remains fastened to happiness, to youth—even if only the memory of its shimmer. He was, after all, an elegist at heart. “My own happiness in the past,” he writes in the essay’s final valediction, “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.”

How early it starts—the ecstasy of unreasoning happiness that must be walked away in quiet streets. And how quiet these St. Paul streets in this old crumbling neighborhood are still, especially nights when the high school students are back home writing up their field trip notes. How valiant the effort to distill the fragments, against all caution, into little lines that perfect strangers will read and recognize as their own.

 

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