Through the analysis of two classics of American literature, Cristina Apuzzo explores the darker side of both The Roaring Twenties and The Tranquilized Fifties, questioning and complicating the concept of ‘normalcy‘.
1. The aftermath of WWI in 1920s America
2. Gatsby and the crumbling of a national dream
3. The dissolution of human connections in The Great Gatsby
4. The 1950s: the illusion of recovery
5. The legacy of WWII and Holden’s disillusionment
6. The weight of conformity and Holden’s unconventionality
7. The tension between normalcy and insanity
8.The terrifying prospect of the future
The aftermath of WWI in 1920s America
Post-war America in the 1920s was a deeply damaged society desperately trying to recover from a conflict that had shaken the nation to its very core.
The country had decided to join Europe and go into war, riding the crest of the wave of confused enthusiasm and patriotism. Stories like Hemingway’s, when they started to appear, revealed the untold atrocities of the war, dismantling the idealized reality that propaganda had depicted and that had convinced so many to enlist. They were stories of a senseless conflict, carried on for way too long and with too little regard for the many lost lives. In this narrative, soldiers were hardly the heroes everyone talked about. Rather, they were men, often young boys “badly, sickeningly frightened all the time”, to quote Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home. Once they returned home, soldiers found that war was an issue either to be celebrated as an heroic event or not talked about at all. In both cases, they were left with a sense of utter alienation.
It is thus for good reasons that, in the speech he delivered in Boston on May 14th 1920, soon-to-be President Warren G. Harding indicated the “fevered delirium of war” as the primary cause for America’s unrest. Harding believed that the country needed to lick its wounds and the best way to do that, he made clear, was to go back to normalcy. What Harding meant by ‘normalcy’ was a return to slower rhythms and a retreat into the familiar:
America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
America did heal from that point onward, at least on the surface. Indeed, the years following Harding’s speech were to become famous as the Roaring Twenties. It was a golden age for the economy, that reached an unprecedented high in the United States, contributing to a general increase in wealth that in turn encouraged people to spend more money in leisure and entertainment.
However, the general feeling was far from the tranquility that President Harding was advocating for. The delirium did not cease to exist but, rather, it was normalized and absorbed into society often in the slightly more acceptable form of a confused frenzy. The concept has become something of a cliché but it is true that, in many ways, the 1920s in the United States were an explosion of euphoria. New forms of entertainment contributed to the process: radio started to become a mass commodity during these years, inspiring wonder and the promise of endless possibilities. Music benefitted from it, and soon the Roaring Twenties came to be also known as the Jazz Age. Films were already known to the general public, but it was during this decade that they truly became a phenomenon. People seemed to indulge in these new and exciting forms of entertainment with an intensity that bordered on madness.
Behind this madness, however, real struggles were being endured every day: alcohol consumption was increasing steadily, despite or because of the recent laws on prohibition that did nothing but encourage both criminality and the growth of the black market; workers were rising up on a daily basis, demanding better rules and regulations and often paralyzing the nation with their frequent strikes. A major issue was the Red Scare, the general paranoia that enveloped the States following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 Russia. According to many American citizens and politicians, the threat of communism was everywhere and needed to be fought at all costs. The cost, as it turned out, were the lives of many innocent people that were arrested or whose career was damaged under the pretense of fighting communism. Although not always, the Red Scare was the perfect opportunity to silence unwanted voices, and the execution of Sacco e Vanzetti is an emblematic example.
For a country that was supposedly on its way to recovering, those were inconvenient factors. Discussing them out loud was a dangerous and, in fact, rarely attempted hazard. Conformity was already a crushing weight on society and it was going to become even more so in the following decades, up until the peak of the 1950s, when the country was to face the aftermath of yet another World War.
Whatever the perspective, it appeared that normalcy was indeed an ambitious goal, more of a utopia than an actual reality.
Gatsby and the crumbling of a national dream
The literary works written during the Roaring Twenties pierce through the surface of this alleged normalcy, unveiling a much more problematic reality. The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of such literary insight.
Fitzgerald’s prose is often rich in details and descriptions of luxury, but the tone he uses frequently borders on irony, revealing how the majestic appearances of the 1920s actually rested on much more frail and unstable grounds. Having worked, if briefly, both in the advertising and in the movie industry, Fitzgerald was well aware of the impact images and words can have on society, and how deceiving they can sometimes be. Thus, while the protagonists of his works often belong to the wealthy elites of the Twenties, it is not a celebration but rather a critical exploration of this complex and often corrupted world. The post-war euphoria that had gradually been normalized and celebrated as an all-american phenomenon was in part a facade meant to conceal deep-seated uncertainties about the future and the very identity of many americans.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator Nick Caraway has just moved to West Egg. The wealthy society he encounters there is, to him, both baffling and fascinating, exactly like his cousin Daisy, the perfect product of this scintillating universe, ‘sad and lovely with bright things in it’ (Fitzgerald, chap. 1). Like Daisy, it is a world at once full of promises and dangerously frail, an illusion liable to fade away any moment.
Gatsby’s parties, for example, are a majestic display of wonders and the extravagant guests that move around, often uninvited, are an endless source of entertainment. On the whole, his parties are not that different from a circus, as Nick points out, noticing how the guests “conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks” (Fitzgerald, chap.3). That is why, when one guest wanders through Gatsby’s house and ends up in his library, he is disconcerted when he realizes that what he sees is actually real. Contrary to every expectation, the objects in the room have substance. As strange as it could appear in such a surreal atmosphere, the books in the library are ‘absolutely real – have pages and everything!’ (Fitzgerald, ivi).
The dissolution of human connections The Great Gatsby
In the midst of this confused euphoria, what seems to be missing at each of Gatsby’s parties is the luxury of actual human empathy. While the house is overcrowded almost every night of the summer, the crowd is often of people randomly arranged together, strangers even to one another, on display for the other guests’ entertainment and at the same time barricaded in their own mind.
Gatsby’s parties are not really a place where people can interact socially, but rather one where they can spend time alone. The paradoxical consequence is that Gatsby’s huge parties become very intimate. This paradox appears repeatedly in the novel. In more than one occasion, privacy seems to be most achieved when there is a spectator there to witness it. For example, when Gatsby and Daisy meet again for the first time after a long period, Nick attempts to sneak away and give them privacy, but fails to do so as the two insist he stay, because his presence ‘made them feel more satisfactory alone’ (Fitzgerald, chap.5).
Nick feels the same contradiction while wandering in New York: the pace of the city is restless just like it is at Gatsby’s parties, a ‘constant flicker of men and women and machines’ (Fitzgerald, chap.3), all rushing from one place to another. What Nick feels, however, is not companionship, but a ‘haunting loneliness’.
Nick’s feelings describe a complex society in which people are constantly exposed to one another and yet rarely able to authentically connect. It is mainly to escape this sense of loneliness that the characters of the novel seek out entertainment with such a ferocity. There is pure desperation in Daisy’s words when she asks ‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon? [..] and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’ (Fitzgerald, chap.7). Idleness does not seem to be an option, because to stop would mean to let disconcerting thoughts about past and future creep into awareness.
In a fleeting moment of authenticity, Daisy confesses to Nick that she has become ‘pretty cynical about everything’ (Fitzgerald, chap. 1). Although she only says this aloud once in the novel, this cynicism is always present in the subtext of her character, and often takes the form of detachment and restlessness. This detachment, however, is merely a defensive act, as Daisy believes that ‘that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’ (Fitzgerald, ivi).
At the end of the novel, this carefully crafted illusion collapses on itself. Indeed, Gatsby’s murder is merely the final act of a destruction that had long been awaiting him. He had striven his whole life for respectability and wealth, sacrificing his integrity in the process and eventually landing into unlawful territory, all for the sake of a dream that only superficially was named ‘Daisy’. Daisy really stood for an ideal life that Gatsby, and a whole nation with him, had elected as final destination but that was out of reach. What Fitzgerald really depicts is a grotesque new rendering of the American Dream, more ephemeral than ever and yet still desperately evoked.
During his life, Gatsby had surrounded himself with top-quality furniture, flattering murmurs, noisy crowds perpetually in his house, but when he dies he is only surrounded by silence. His majestic house, empty at last, becomes a memorial of his faded dream. The novel is ultimately a story of alienation, not only Gatsby’s, but of every character that, in the end, gives up on his own illusion. The doubt, as Nick ponders in the final chapter, is that, perhaps, ‘[they] possessed some deficiency in common which made [them] subtly unadaptable to Eastern life’ (Fitzgerald, chap. 9).
The 1950s: the illusion of recovery
In a different timeframe, but in a very similar atmosphere, another famous character lives struggling with society: Holden Caulfield.
The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 but the story itself is set in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of yet another world conflict. Exactly like had happened in the Roaring Twenties, the end of the war had elicited a general cry for normalcy. It was once again going to be an unrealistic goal.
WWII was followed, in the United States, by a new phase of economic prosperity and by a general sense of overwhelming enthusiasm. The new period of peace was welcomed by many as a new phase of the American Dream. The baby boom that followed the war is the ultimate proof of the euphoria and optimism that pervaded the country in the 1950s. The very concept of family evolved, as it was in these years that the now stereotypical image of the American family took shape. The G.I. Bill contributed to the process by offering financial support to veterans and thus allowing them, amongst other things, to buy houses, generally in the suburbs just outside the cities.
Yet, much like it had been in the ‘20s, it was a barely held together illusion of tranquility, as The Catcher in The Rye reveals. Through Holden’s adventures in his three-days wandering around New York, the loopholes of the newly evoked normalcy come to the surface, revealing insecurities that were not only Holden’s, but indeed general trends.
The legacy of WWII and Holden’s disillusionment
It is clear from early in the story that Holden loathes his society with a fervor that cannot simply be ascribed to a teenager’s fascination with rebellion. Yet, as the story progresses, it becomes obvious that this resentment actually conceals a deeper and more complex tangle of emotions. There is, in Holden as there was in Gatsby, a visceral longing for human connection, that seems destined to remain unfulfilled. However, if Gatsby was consumed by a dream, Holden is consumed by disillusionment. The outcome does not change, as both Holden and Gatsby are profoundly alienated from their surroundings.
Undoubtedly, this disillusionment is also rooted in the historical background of the novel. Although war is only mentioned explicitly a couple of times, its shadow never leaves the text. Salinger himself had fought in the war, witnessing first-hand not only the atrocities of the conflict itself, but also the aftermath of a society gradually losing its values. In its own way, The Great Gatsby was also a novel about war, as it accounted for the restlessness that the war had left behind. Indeed, the often reckless lives of Fitzgerald’s characters are but a response to the horrors of the conflict. It deals with the fear, perpetually forced into numbness, that everything could end suddenly or that, even worse, the possibility of success was only imagined but never quite real, as in Gatsby’s case.
In The Catcher in the Rye, the unvoiced presence of war is also revealed by Holden’s obsession with images of death and sickness. In part, this obsession can be traced back to his brother’s death, undoubtedly a traumatizing experience for Holden. However, it is reasonable to assume that ‘the exposure to images of war and death from a young age causes an awareness of mortality that these kids would otherwise not experience’, as has been pointed out.
And, indeed, death is a topic that Holden thinks about constantly. While sitting on a bench in Central Park, for example, he feels chilly and immediately convinces himself he will die of pneumonia, even going as far as imagining what his funeral would look like. In another passage of the novel, when his sister Phoebe asks him to tell her one thing he really likes, Holden finds he can’t concentrate because his mind is filled yet again with death as he remembers the suicide of a classmate.
The weight of conformity and Holden’s unconventionality
Interestingly, the reader learns that the boy, James Castle, was beaten by other children after he refused to take back a nasty opinion he had expressed about a classmate. Ultimately, then, what cost him his life was his uncompromising attitude, one that closely resembles Holden’s own behavior. On some levels, indeed, James can be seen as a mirror for Holden, as he represents the extreme consequences of such an uncompromising attitude. Because he is unable to compromise, Holden does not want to belong or fit into society. Indeed, more than once he makes delirious plans to simply take off and live estranged from everyone, even pretending to be deaf and mute so as to discourage any potential attempt to communicate with him. Although he never does follow through with any of his plans, it is telling of the disgust he has towards his contemporaries.
Holden begs to belong not to society, but rather to the grey zone, the ambiguous, the non-defined. He takes pride in his being unconventional, even in his physicality. Holden’s age and features seem to be flexible, changing from moment to moment. Although he’s sixteen, he sometimes finds himself acting as a thirteen-years old, but he also has gray hair, which is unexpected for a boy of his age. His very existence breaks the pattern, much to Holden’s satisfaction, because ‘people always think something’s all true’ (Salinger, p.10), labelling and separating with a neat line what he, instead, wishes to blur.
If Holden is unconventional, the rest of society strives towards conformity. The first agent of conformity, according to Holden, is academic education. At the very beginning of the novel, the reader finds Holden standing alone on a hill, looking down at a school game where everyone else is, trying and mostly failing to feel a connection to the place so that he can properly bid his farewell to it. Eventually, Holden realizes he is unable to feel anything but disgust, not merely towards his school but towards the system of education as a whole. What Holden despises in particular about the education system is the ‘molding’ process. The ads of the school proudly announce ‘Since 1888 we have been molding guys into splendid, clear-thinking young men’.
Here the novel tackles an important issue, as conformity was a distinctive feature of this decade. Part of the reason is to be found in the technological innovations of the Fifties. Indeed, as the television started to become a mass commodity, the entertainment that this new technology provided came to be standardized, since the programs available to the audience were still few. As a result, most of American watched the same shows, regardless of social status or geographical location. It was only natural, in this context, that conformity would become a defining aspect of society. Moreover, movies and theater continued to attract thousands of Americans, thus further contributing to the shaping of a mainstream culture.
Holden is quite vocal in his distaste for these agents of conformity. Movies, in particular, are his primary target. He criticizes his brother’s choice of starting to work for Hollywood, saying that in doing so his brother has ‘prostituted’ himself. The very notion of people wanting to go to the movies and having the patience to wait in generally long lines to get their tickets is, to Holden, incomprehensible and depressing.
However, even Holden, who despises the movies, finds himself being caught up in their imagery, such is the force of their influence. After a fight with an elevator operator at a hotel, for example, Holden imagines that the punch he receives in the stomach is actually a gun-shot and creates a very Hollywood-like narrative in his mind that closely resembles a scene from a war movie. A moment later, however, he catches on to himself, as if regaining control of his mind, and swears against ‘the goddamn movies. They can ruin you’. (Salinger, p.113)
The tension between normalcy and insanity
Because of his rebellious attitude, Holden is promptly considered insane, outside the realm of what is accepted and considered normal. However, his alleged madness is less a pathological condition and more a collective attempt to isolate a dangerously unconventional behavior. Indeed it has been pointed out that
what Holden criticizes as “phony” is proposed as sanity and social accepted behavior; therefore, it is clear that Holden’s resistant behavior would be regarded as madness’.
Sorour Karampour Dashti, Ida Baizura Binti Bahar, ‘Resistance as Madness in The Catcher in the Rye’, Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 5, No 3, 2015, p. 457-462.
Madness, however, seems to run both ways in the novel, as Holden believes that it is not him, but the rest of society, that has gone mad: ‘much as the society regards Holden mad, Holden cynically refers to his surrounding people as madmen’ (ivi, p. 458). The reader is thus forced to at least entertain the possibility that there could be something wrong not in Holden, but in the people around him, effectively questioning the concept of normalcy. In Holden’s view, normalcy is but a synonym for corruption, ‘phoniness’, as he obsessively repeats in his often delirious recollection.
The terrifying prospect of the future
It is only in children that he sees true innocence: they are genuine and straightforward, uncorrupted. The very few people he admires unconditionally are children: Allie, the brother he lost and that is thus forever stuck in childhood, and his sister Phoebe, at times much more mature than Holden himself. However, they, too, could grow up into corrupted adults, because that’s the normalcy they are compelled to conform to. Holden wishes to prevent them from this possibility by being the ‘catcher in the rye’, metaphorically preventing them from falling over the cliff of adulthood.
Because it could bring corruption, adulthood and growing up in general are terrifying prospects to Holden, and it is precisely this fear that keeps him in the ‘twilight-zone between adolescence and adulthood’ (Leysen). It is quite ironic that, in novels like those of Fitzgerald and Salinger, set during presumably prosperous periods, the future is seen with such suspicion. Gatsby can only conceive the future as a return to the past, while Holden can see no future at all, terrified as he is by the possibility of change. That is the reason why he is fascinated with museums, as they preserve the past by freezing it in time. Holden believes that ‘certain things they should stay the way they are’ (Salinger, p. 132), but he lacks Gatsby’s delusional optimism and thus is painfully aware that he will have to face change eventually, which renders him unable to make long-term plans. After all, as Holden himself says, ‘how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it?’ (Salinger, p. 230).
In different ways and for different reasons, both Gatsby and Holden struggle with the idea of normalcy, both when they try to reach it, as in Gatsby’s case, and when they take their stand against it, as Holden attempts to do. The outcome is dubious in both cases. Gatsby is ultimately incapable of living up to his public persona, finally forced to realize that the struggle to conform to an ideal life has robbed him of authenticity and genuine fulfillment. Holden, on the other hand, rejects normalcy from the start, but is unable to compromise an alternative identity, isolating himself and thus preventing himself from reaching his full potential.
What is ultimately made clear in both novels is that the very concept of normalcy is a problematic one. Far from being a neatly defined concept, it is culturally determined and thus entirely subjective, requiring constant negotiations between the individual and the rest of society.
Fitzgerald F.S, The Great Gatsby, Project Gutenberg, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200041h.html (26.12.2017)
Salinger J.D, The Catcher in the Rye, London, Penguin Books, 2010
Fink, Guido, et al. Storia della letteratura americana, Firenze, Sansoni Editore Nuova, 1991
Leysen Fien, From Lost Soldier to Lost Teenager: J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield as a representation of a post-war value system https://www.academia.edu/3375731/From_Lost_Soldier_to_Lost_Teenager_J.D._Salingers_Holden_Caulfield_as_a_Representation_of_a_Post-War_Value_System (25.12.2017)
Sorour Karampour Dashti, Ida Baizura Binti Bahar, ‘Resistance as Madness in The Catcher in the Rye’, Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 5, No 3, 2015, p. 457-462. http://www.academypublication.com/ojs/index.php/tpls/article/view/tpls0503457462/122 (25.12.2017)