It may seem strange to see nostalgia in the Modernists, who so adamantly “made things new,” to use Ezra Pound’s phrase. Nevertheless, nostalgia was precisely the feeling sparked in this reader by Dartmouth professor Jeffrey Hart’s new work, “The Living Moment: Modernism in a Broken World”. This charmingly idiosyncratic book offers many examples of the mournful air that fills Modernist literature. The authors that Hart discusses broke with their predecessors, yet they did so aware that they had lost their predecessors’ certainties. Hart begins with the poems of T.S. Eliot, whose “Waste Land” decried the emptiness of the modern world, and he concludes with Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”, a work that analogizes 1940s Germany with a syphilitic mind’s descent into madness. Although the Modernists may be sure of pre-war Europe’s desolation, their confidence gives them little joy. The old Europe was not supplanted by a new, coherent worldview, but rather was destroyed without ready replacement. Though many Modernist writers were nostalgic, few possessed idealism to match F. Scott Fitzgerald’s intense idealization of his alma mater, Princeton University. If the Modernists at large had a sense of a world that had been lost, Fitzgerald specifically located that world in Princeton, New Jersey. In turn, this idealization offers interesting parallels to present attitudes on this campus.
Particularly relevant to the Princeton campus is Hart’s portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald as a man energized by romantic ideals and conceptions. He was much like his famous character Jay Gatsby, “a romantic idealist, the prisoner of a dream, which is a form of transcendence that for such an idealist provides focus and meaning in life, and desolation when the dream dies.” Fitzgerald was very much aware of nostalgia’s dangers, a sort of reformed romantic. Gatsby’s romantic blindness is his necessary downfall, as epitomized by his exclamation, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Though Fitzgerald may recognize the past’s dangers, and the dangers of forsaking the present for it, he still understands and feels the attraction that it holds. His own idealism, for which Hemingway so harshly rebuked him, is thoroughly tied up with Princeton University, the setting of his first novel.
Hart describes This Side of Paradise as a “valentine to Princeton,” seen by Fitzgerald as “aristocratic, poetic, and beautiful.” Similarly, Hart quotes Fitzgerald’s ecstatic description of the Princeton campus before an important football game: “The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts at the last edge of twilight. The early moon had drenched the arches with pale blue and weaving over the night, in and out of the gossamer rifts of moon, swept a song, a song with more than a hint of sadness, infinitely transient, infinitely regretful.” For Fitzgerald, it is not simply the past, but Princeton in particular, that is gossamer, ghost-like, transient, past.
Fitzgerald’s nostalgia remains a part of Princeton culture even at present. To a limited extent he is a direct reference; many Princeton students continue to enjoy This Side of Paradise. Nevertheless, current students of the school do not view it in the same light that Fitzgerald did, and still less do they harken back to the first decades of the twentieth century as a golden age. Furthermore, Princeton’s school spirit alone is not significant, for such spirit is found at most other schools, and often there to a greater degree. It appears, however, that there is an enormous and uncommon level of nostalgia in the Princeton community. Many alumni of many institutions long for their school days, yet Princeton reunions are an event practically without equal. Princeton alumni donate to their school at virtually unequalled rates. The alumni of Princeton clearly remain quite close to their school.
What is more, this nostalgia extends to the student body. Evidence of this can be found in the beloved Triangle shows, one of Princeton’s oldest and most naturally preserved traditions. Two of their most famous songs, at least in the memory of this writer, are “The Orange Bubble,” and “Old Folks Home,” which describe Princeton as a place like a retirement home, where one could “come back in fifty years / and nothing will have happened.” Doubtless these numbers are tongue-in-cheek, but their very humor derives from their exaggeration of a common attitude.
Princeton students not only enjoy their college experience, but self-consciously do so with a keen sense for the passage of time. We do not wait for time to remove the context of our memories, but instead form them within an “orange bubble” that minimizes outside influence. Retirement is a time when one looks back upon life, yet we look forward to the time when we will look back. We may not be nostalgic for a Princeton of the past, a Princeton that perhaps never existed, but we are strangely nostalgic for the Princeton that we attend now, and we feel pain at a separation that has not yet occurred. On a certain level, we think of Princeton as the “best old place of all,” however new it may be to us. We do not, like Gatsby, think we can repeat the past, yet we possess an acute confidence that we someday will wish we could.