A friend mailed me recently to ask if I was well and safely distanced socially. He also pasted the following letter and asked me if I’d seen it. I hadn’t.
A LETTER FROM F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, QUARANTINED IN 1920 IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE DURING THE SPANISH INFLUENZA OUTBREAK.
It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter. Outside, I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources. The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us. You should see the square, oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z. says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloud line of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Beautifully overwritten, was my first thought. Perhaps, faintly creaky. On consideration, it seemed that, in the ornate possibilities of the Jazz Age language, which Fitzgerald created, the letter distilled some essence of illusion and foreboding. It draws us darkly into the past, ‘and yet’ sends ‘a single strain of light’ 100 years into the future – into now, 2020, the strange days of Covid-19 and, beyond, hopefully, into ‘a better morrow’. I sent it on to numerous friends.
‘Wonderful’, ‘touching’, ‘nice’, ‘a bloody good letter’ and, more enigmatically, ‘comprehensive list of necessities but no loo paper’ were some of the responses. This was even though the need for local authorities to disperse the crowds, which were not socially well distanced on at Bondi beach the weekend before last, might have suggested the extremity of the description of ‘empty’ streets in the ‘letter’ for Australian readers – as my responders were. Another responder was in any case John Menadue: ‘How about a short blog based around this?’ I thought I would build such a blog around the letter’s centennial symmetry and began by googling a few things.
I found a problem: Fitzgerald didn’t write the letter in 1920; in fact, he didn’t write it at all. A recent Esquire Newsletter article by Olivia Ovenden explains it was posted on 13 March as a parody for the humour website McSweeney’s, by Nick Farriella. The fake letter has moreover gone ‘viral’ on Instagram and Twitter, mimicking the corona virus in global daisy chains, we might say.
‘I think it speaks to the strangeness of the times,’ Farriella told Esquire. ‘Where many can’t leave their homes, there’s no sports going on, barely any distraction.’ He thinks the ‘letter’s’ success on social media shows our yearning for historical assurance in the socially distanced world, assurance that others have preceded us in our isolation and, past that, for a more hopeful future on the other side of lockdown. ‘Even though it wasn’t an actual letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald,’ said Farriella, ‘I think the sentiment is still true, and we could all benefit from the way he lived his life, a relentless optimist.’
This leaves the questions: what is a literary hoax and what makes fake news and misinformation dangerous? Whatever the answers, the ‘true’ sentiment, which had made the ‘letter’ go viral, hardly seems perilous. The absence of authentication in the ‘viral’ version also makes it easy to believe the ‘letter’ is authentic, because we can impose our own context on it: Covid-19. On both counts, the ‘letter’s’ believability undermines it as parody.
And, as the ‘letter’ works so well, it is close to the intensely romantic sensibility that haunts the divided nature of some of the most breathtaking lines in modern literature. These come at the very end of Fitzgerald’s 1926 novel The Great Gatsby, where the narrator is ‘brooding on the old, unknown world’ of the tycoon Jay Gatsby, finally the victim of a senseless murder:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further … And one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Greg Lockhart is an historian who sometimes writes literary criticism.