1920s American Identity, as Seen by Fitzgerald and Hemingway

Reference & EducationEducation

  • Author Paul Thomson
  • Published April 15, 2010
  • Word count 866

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were not only best friends, bitter rivals, and fellow members of the Lost Generation literary movement, they also helped redefine American identity in a post-world-war world. Rather than simply construct a new sense of nationalism, however, they actively dissected and deflated American archetypes such as the self-made man and the hardened gangster. And what better time to question people’s sense of reality than in the 1920s, when everyone was simultaneously depressed about WWI, filthy rich from the stock market, and illegally drunk for an entire decade?

Published in 1922, just after the postwar recession ended, Fitzgerald’s "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is a sharp criticism of the lavish 1920s lifestyle Fitzgerald would later become all too acquainted with. John Unger, a boarding school kid, is spending the summer at his friend Percy Washington’s estate in the middle of nowhere, Montana. More specifically, it’s located "where the United States ends" – figuratively speaking, anyway, as the US government has no knowledge of its existence. (And since the chateau sits on a flawless diamond the size of a small mountain, the Washington family intends to keep it that way.)

The family’s opulence is "beyond human wish, or dream," and John is so overwhelmed that he can barely stay conscious. The fact that the estate is named "El Dorado" after a mythical Amazonian city of gold not only heightens the undiscoverable unreality of the place, but also hints at the Spanish conquistadors’ exploitative pursuit of riches; creepily, the Washingtons house some 250 slaves, whom they have tricked into believing that the North lost the Civil War. This universe is so tightly controlled, in fact, that when a landscaper, gardener, architect, designer, and poet try to "agree upon the location of a fountain" together, they lose their minds and are all sent to an asylum.

What really makes the situation absurd, however, is not its otherworldliness, but the fact that everyone living there is so blasé about it. The family considers some of their nicest things "old junk." Jasmine is so spoiled that she pushed her father down the stairs as a child and no one batted an eye. The men try to keep killing outsiders to a minimum because it "upsets" the women. Mr. Washington refers to the incident where he murdered his own brother as "unfortunate." Captured soldiers are kept imprisoned on the grounds because it’s the practical thing to do. The list goes on.

The complete emotional compartmentalization characteristic of The Diamond as Big as the Ritz is the same thing that makes Hemingway’s 1927 classic American crime story The Killers tick. The story starts with two badly dressed men named Max and Al entering a restaurant and attempting to order dinner. Since it isn’t six o’clock yet, however, they’re restricted to lunch menu items only. They bicker with the manager for a few pages, harass the patrons, and then lead everyone to the back room and take over the restaurant for about two hours. Turns out they’re both hitmen on the mission to kill some boxer, who presumably didn’t cooperate in a rigged fight. Yes, this sounds remarkably like the plot of Pulp Fiction.

The totally surreal mood of the story comes not only from the fact that Max and Al are two trained killers who spend the first quarter of the story arguing over ginger ale and egg salad sandwiches, but also from the strange setup of the restaurant itself. The clock, for example, is said to be twenty minutes fast – and since Hemingway doesn’t always specify whether times mentioned are restaurant time or real time, both the readers and the killers are equally disoriented by it. (Not to mention, the only thing more surreal than an incorrect clock is a melting one.)

Weirder still is the fact that Max spends his whole evening sitting directly facing the manager, but conducts all their conversations via the mirror behind the counter. If that isn’t reality in reverse, consider the fact that Max gets so bored waiting to make his kill that he actually drops the ol,’ see any good movies lately? What’s more, when Nick, one of the restaurant patrons, finally tracks down the boxer to warn him about the assassins, the guy can’t be bothered to defend himself. So much for fighting spirit. Or the glorification the American gangster, for that matter.

By juxtaposing wild situations with totally apathetic characters, Fitzgerald and Hemingway create scenarios that feel impossible but are all too real; what sticks in the readers’ throats is not that crimes are committed, but that they’re committed by totally ordinary characters. The zillionaires are accustomed to their family routines. The hitmen don’t want cold sandwiches for dinner. Under any other circumstances, these behaviors wouldn’t give us a moment’s pause, but against the backdrop of murder and destruction, it hits uncomfortably close to home. There’s a reason we like our movie villains with eyepatches and evil cackles, or dissect our serial killers hoping to find brain deformations: the last thing we want to see in these situations is ourselves.

Shmoop is an online study guide for Literature, novels like The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, 1920s, The Killers and many more. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels.

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