The Great Fitzgerald

greenlightI went to see Baz Luhrmann’s beautiful film The Great Gatsby a few weeks ago. The reviews had been lukewarm, as if the critics were reluctant to admire a movie that (very cleverly) used pounding rock and disco to provide the soundtrack for a classic novel of the 1920s. The talking heads on BBC Radio’s culture programs tended to return wistfully to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, and I heard one critic refer to its final passage as a quintessential example of truly superb English prose.

It struck me immediately that when it was published in 1925, William Strunk was in mid-career at Cornell’s English department. His little book The Elements of Style had been commercially published five years before (by Harcourt Brace and Howe, in 1920). If Strunk was a reliable guide to the good writing of his day, we should find Fitzgerald naturally respecting Strunk’s edicts: “Omit needless words”; replace “perfunctory” formulae like there is/are/was/were with active transitives; “Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause”; “Use the active voice” because it is “more direct and vigorous than the passive”; and so on.

It was easy enough to investigate. I took down Fitzgerald’s book and turned to that wonderful final passage. (For a free e-text, click here.) And I marveled once again at the credulousness of college-educated Americans today. They swear by The Elements of Style (still in print, after revision and expansion by E. B. White in 1959); they presume (without checking) that fine writing respects its brainless overkill and opinionated bullying; and they have faith in its power to improve their own writing.

That final passage (from “Gatsby’s house was still empty when I left” to the end of the novel) contains 529 words. Any needless ones? Of course. Fitzgerald could have replaced “those gleaming, dazzling parties of his” (six words) by his gleaming, dazzling parties (4 words), or for that matter (since the early part of the book made the gleaming and dazzling clear enough), his parties (two words).

He could have replaced “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” (10 words) by the orgastic future that year by year eludes us (nine words), or (getting rid of optional modifiers) the future that eludes us (five words).

Continue, if you wish, this game of hunting for needless words (the many adverbs make a tempting target). But it is insane, surely: Fitzgerald’s prose is not to be improved by trimming away all technically omissible words.

Does Fitzgerald avoid that “perfunctory” existential there is/was/are/were that Strunk reviles? No: “There were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound”.

Is there always a comma before and or but when an independent clause follows? No; there are several cases like “I didn’t want to hear it and I avoided him when I got off the train.”

Did Fitzgerald at least write in the active voice and avoid the passive? No. Like any other competent writer, he uses passives when they are called for. Most writers use about 15 percent of their transitive verb occurrences (± 2) in the passive (see my tutorial essay here on recognizing passive clauses). In that final passage of The Great Gatsby the rate is over 20 percent. There is a finite adjectival passive (“Most of the big shore places were closed now”), but Fitzgerald has a particular fondness for bare passive clauses functioning as adjuncts (or within adjuncts): “with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer” has two; “an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick” contains another; “man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired” has another. The novel actually closes with one: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Commenters sometimes complain that I repeat myself on this topic. I do. But not nearly enough. So, one more time: The just-say-no advice of bossy usage books and writing tutors is useless or worse. Two minutes of looking closely at any passage from a great writer will reveal this, provided you know enough grammar to identify adjectives, adverbs, and participles. F. Scott Fitzgerald brings tears to your eyes with some of his extraordinary writing, but he didn’t comply with the bonehead prohibitions of The Elements of Style.

There are many kinds of writing, from tersely explicit scientific reporting to floridly beautiful literary description. Learning to write in any of these ways will be difficult and time-consuming (though very enjoyable). And oversimplified lists of usage prohibitions will not help students with any of them.

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