Two F. Scott Fitzgerald stories—”Babylon Revisited” and “The Lost Decade”—have always been favorites of mine, and I think it is, partially, because they make me think about the grandfather I never knew, and some of the “what-ifs” in my family history.
These stories focus on damaged men, hard drinkers with Social Register credentials, men struggling with the consequences of their fractured pasts. My grandfather, Carl Stanley Flanders, could have been one of Fitzgerald’s damaged men. A larger-than-life figure who played football for Walter Camp at Yale, Carl Flanders coached at the Carlisle Indian School just prior to Jim Thorpe’s arrival, and made a fortune as a lawyer and investor—but Carl was a binge alcoholic who squandered his gifts with his drinking. His immune system ravaged, the “Big Swede,” as he was nicknamed, died of pneumonia in March, 1936.
Over the years I have wondered about the “boom-and-bust” arc of my grandfather’s life; unlike the upper-class protagonists in Fitzgerald’s stories, Louis Trimble and Charlie Wales, my grandfather missed his chance at setting things right.
In “The Lost Decade,” Fitzgerald introduces us to Louis Trimble, a man who wanders around New York City, entranced by its simple wonders. “I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of,” he explains. Trimble is no stranger to the city; a native, he hasn’t left its environs in ten years—in fact, he has designed one of its premier buildings. But Trimble has been oblivious to its sights and sounds because he’s been “every-which-way drunk” for a “Lost Decade,” and has now only just emerged from his alcoholic stupor to begin to appreciate New York anew, aware of what he has lost and eager to reexperience life.
In “Babylon Revisited,” the setting is foreign, Paris (a Babylon of sorts during the Roaring Twenties), but the themes are similar. Charlie Wales visits the City of Light in hopes of gaining custody of his nine-year-old daughter, Honoria, and bringing her back with him to Prague. It has been three years since his wife Helen’s death (from “heart trouble”), and his own institutionalization for alcoholism, following a wild period of Jazz Age partying and dissipation with the American expats in Paris, and Wales is filled with remorse: “…he suddenly realized the meaning of the word “dissipate”–to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something.” Like Trimble, he understands what has been lost can never be fully regained:
“I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone.”
Honoria lives with her guardian, Wales’ sister-in-law, Marion, and her husband, Lincoln Peters. Marion holds Wales responsible for Helen’s death; she questions whether he has conquered his need to drink. Wales tries to soften her hostility and bitterness by acknowledging the hurt he has caused.
“Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material…”
In the end, when some of Charlie’s friends from the past surface, drunk and careless, it is too much for Marion; she cannot bring herself to forgive Wales and allow Honoria to go with him to Prague. Yet, we are left with the hope that Charlie and his daughter may be reunited at some point in the future (“He will come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever.”) We root for Wales to stay sober—he refuses a second drink at the Ritz bar—and we worry that Wales will backslide, even as he recognizes the stakes involved (“He wasn’t young any more, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself.”). There is a telling moment when the barman, Alix, questions him about the past.
“I heard that you lost a lot in the crash.”
“I did,” and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”
“Something like that.”
There is an appealing authenticity to this conversation—it is the way people talk—but Fitzgerald gives us more. Alix thinks Charlie Wales has lost financially in the boom, but it is the loss of his family that is “everything,” and we appreciate the difference. Fitzgerald writes from personal experience: he understands the nastiness in a failing marriage (“…they had senselessly begun to abuse each other’s love, tear it into shreds”); he knows what it is to squander large amounts of money during the “lavish times”; and he has fought the demons of the bottle. Further, Fitzgerald understands, and regrets, the cost of “something like that,” even as he struggles (unsuccessfully in the end) to change his ways.
Whether my grandfather regretted his behavior remains unknowable. His drinking was intermittent: stretches of sobriety (and brilliance and prosperity) interrupted by binges. Those binges led to the end of his first marriage (a cause for scandal in the 1920s) and “splits in the skin” in the fabric of the family. I’m not sure my grandmother ever recovered. Carl Flanders entered into a brief second marriage and had another daughter, a half-sister who my father and his sister never met. He left very little money for his survivors, a rude awakening in the middle of the Great Depression; my father’s college plans were shelved (he landed a spot at the New York Herald-Tribune as a copy-boy through Ogden Reid, a friend of his father’s from college) and his sister, my aunt, quickly married a rich socialite.
What if, like Charlie Wales or Louis Trimble, my grandfather had been able to seek sobriety? What if he had sought to repair the damage from his past? To change? Such questions can not be answered, of course; alcohol addiction remains a difficult disease to manage, let alone master, and it appears that my grandfather was firmly in the grip of the disease. So the “what ifs” remain “what ifs.”
Fitzgerald lost his own battle with alcohol; dying at the age of 44 from a heart attack, the result of years of abuse. At some level, Fitzgerald must have fantasized about becoming a Charlie Wales or a Louis Trimble; it is a case of wishful thinking. Fitzgerald was attracted to the idea of redemption, of making amends, of somehow setting the past right. As a writer, he knew how appealing a story of redemption could be, and he relished telling good stories, even if he couldn’t make reality conform to his imagination.
Never a favorite of literary critics (who are often suspicious of storytellers with a popular touch), Fitzgerald has slowly been winning more respect as a writer: The Great Gatsby has found its way onto several best novels of the 20th century lists. Readers have continued to respond—Fitzgerald’s novels and stories have stayed in print. And other novelists, often the toughest critics, admired Fitzgerald’s smooth economical prose; John O’Hara once wrote to John Steinbeck: “Fitzgerald was a better just plain writer than all of us put together. Just words writing.”
Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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