Malcolm in the muddle

I did one of those impulse street book buys last weekend that starts out by innocently plucking some dusty Penguin classic you forgot to read from a stack, and suddenly you are carting home an armload of crumbly paperbacks for $20, two of which you will actually end up reading this year. In any case, I have been carting around this Scribner edition of Fitzgerald’s short stories (note pls: Fitzgerald, was truly sad, and really very young, and also wildly talented), and the forward is this beautifully written thing by Malcolm Cowley, who I did not know about until now, but who appears to be the man who got On the Road published and lived in Montparnasse with Fitz and Hems and wrote about their self-imposed exile out of New York in 1934. The type who kept good company and had an appreciation for all the things that our dashing young literary/artful elite today like to talk about but might not move to Paris for. (Btw: When did exodus become so unpopular?)

In any case, he wrote this great introduction to the stories and about the 20s, and some of it has come back around (cycles and all that). Here’s Malcolm, 1951:

"The 1920’s were a good age for works of art and in some ways they were a bad age for artists as persons. The works of art have come down to us and we are now finding again how honest and impressive they were in their own fragmentary fashion. Some of the artists survived while others have gone under; in general the age did not encourage them to develop steadily or to acheive unified careers. The age is now being blamed for the relative failures of Fitzgerald and others like him, but a great deal of this talk is sentimental. They did not fail as artists or we should not be rereading their works. If they failed in their personal lives it was not because they were victims of the historical environment; it was-among other reasons-because they acted on dangerous principles which happened to be those of the age, but which they also took into themselves and accepted as their own. In that sense they succumbed to the age itself, not so much to the pressure of exterior forces as by inner necessity. "

Sometimes I feel like we are swallowing our own age, hook, line, and sinker, maybe because it feels good to be au courant, maybe because it feels good to accept something, to slip into the popular like a warm bath. In any case, I’m sure someone in the future will wonder if the times failed us or we failed the times, or rather, if we just loved them too much to overcome them.

Obviously, I’m no Malcom Cowley.