in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon
In the posthumously published unfinished novel The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western (1941), F. Scott Fitzgerald invoked a constellation of biblical, literary, and racial conventions in articulating a tentative and decidedly American morality. Monroe Stahr, the Hollywood executive of the book's title, is in many respects the quintessential Fitzgerald protagonist: a charismatic young man of goodly wealth and "social potency." He is also, atypically for Fitzgerald, Jewish. After commencing an affair with Kathleen Moore, his deceased wife's doppelganger, Stahr encounters a solitary African American fisherman reading a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The nameless fisherman - a token of moral and, indeed, literary inquiry in a grossly commercial landscape - is shown to have a stake in Fitzgerald's self-consciously American narrative. Presenting an example of self-reliance and an indictment of tales of American material and moral progress, he is also implicated in Stahr's decidedly unliterary movie-making. In keeping with the novel's (partly ironic) frontier trope, the scene occurs in the relatively uninhabited western outskirts of Los Angeles, shadowed by the frame of Stahr's partly constructed beachfront home, an apparent monument to the insidious social and racial exclusivity that has already forced the black fisherman so far afield.
Euro-American literature is marked by a tradition of intensely moral, typically solitary, African-American figures: Harriet Beecher Stowe's saintly Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852); Walt Whitman's "picturesque giant" in "Song of Myself" (1855-1867); Mark Twain's Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). These often reproachful figures rarely herald the prospect of racial harmony. Nevertheless, they are agents of what Lauren Berlant describes as the "National Symbolic": "an alphabet for a collective consciousness or national subjectivity." While my paper will argue that the fisherman in The Love of the Last Tycoon represents a departure from Fitzgerald's customary relegation of African American characters "to clownish and inferior roles," I will show that the fisherman's "wish for another pail" to haul in his catch is nevertheless allied, with Monroe Stahr, to what Mitchell Breitwieser calls Fitzgerald's "fervent articulation of American exceptionalism."
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