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All he was was one of our best novelists, one of our best novella-ists, and one of our finest writers of short stories.
In a new biography of J. D. Salinger, we learn that F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the most important influences on the writer of the novel that was to become one of the most popular of the twentieth century – and beyond, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Salinger had met Hemingway in 1945, shortly after the American troops of World War II entered Paris. He knew from Hemingway’s writings that he could be found at the Ritz Hotel, so Salinger wrote to “Poppa” and asked whether he could meet him at the Ritz Bar. He knew of the conflict between Fitzgerald and Hemingway and was careful not to reveal his admiration for the writer who, for him, far exceeded the merits not only of Hemingway, but of William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson as well. Indeed, for Salinger, Fitzgerald belonged with Hawthorne, Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, and the other masters of fiction from the previous century.
The importance of The Great Gatsby rests partly on its entrance into our vocabulary – as a word with specific connotations: “gatsbyesque” today is short for the desire to raise oneself out of a lower-class background, to achieve in life the dreams that the early settlers of the country pursued until they were able to rise on the social ladder, realizing the possibilities they had always believed awaited them. Although this classic sells more than 300,000 copies every year, it did not achieve the instant success that might have been expected. Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), was the work that catapulted him into instant fame. Although it was rejected in its original form, titled The Romantic Egotist, the editor Maxwell Perkins, with whom Fitzgerald had been corresponding, urged him to revise it and to resubmit it to Scribner’s.
In the summer of 2002 the American media, predictably, gave extensive coverage to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. Journalists and pundits analyzed the remarkable influence that Presley's music and image still wields over popular culture; concurrently, the “Elvis Number Ones” CD headed straight to the top of the Billboard chart. Yet little notice was taken in October of the same anniversary of the death of the most successful and influential American entertainer of the first half of the twentieth century—Bing Crosby. Though they both died in the same year, by 1977 Crosby's music had come to seem hopelessly anachronistic to the younger generations of record buyers, and to them his image had faded into that of a kindly old man who did occasional Christmas specials with other aging crooners of a bygone era. Elvis's early, sad self-destruction and death created for him an instantaneous, immortal place, alongside the other tragic American icons Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, while his music continued to be the archetypal basis of all rock ‘n’ roll, from rockabilly to punk. Elvis impersonators have become a staple of the American entertainment scene—who has heard lately of a Crosby impersonator?
Yet the truth is, all American popular singers, including Elvis, are Crosby impersonators of one kind or another. Bing emerged as a solo act in the very early 1930s just as the microphone became available to show business, and he quickly learned to use it as an instrument that allowed him to create a new, intimate kind of singing that was both masculine and sensitive to the emotions implicit in the melodies and lyrics. Instead of “belting” like Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor, Crosby—well—he “crooned” the song, of course. Meanwhile, his up-tempo records jumped and jived as much as the best jazz recordings of the time. There had been no one like him before and his achievement inspired countless young singers to follow his musical path—including his most famous “son,” Frank Sinatra. And through Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, and many others, the Crosby style eventually became an ingredient in the musical mix that was rock ‘n’ roll.