The Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1922
THE DIAMOND AS BIG AS THE RITZ
by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1922
Called a masterpiece by Matthew J. Bruccoli, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Diamond As Big As the Ritz," written in 1921 and published the following year in Tales of the Jazz Age, has elicited a great deal of critical interest for many reasons. Fitzgerald had married in 1920, and his daughter, and only child, was born in 1921. Setting aside the psychological adjustments involved in his being a newlywed and, soon after, a new father, at least one other matter apparently was working on his mind to shape his fictive fantasies. His scholastic record at Princeton from 1913 to 1917 had been a drawn-out misadventure. The numerous course failures, coupled with his realization that he was unable to meet Princeton's rigid standards, shattered his hopes and dreams about proving himself academically as a prelude to achieving even greater success in the outside world. The disillusionment resulting from his self-confessed unwillingness to do what Princeton required for its bachelor degree, coupled with the sorry results of that compelling refusal, had an effect on his outlook and his personality. When he received rejections from editors or sustained other comparable setbacks, his emotional vulnerability was intensified.
"The Diamond As Big As the Ritz" is about the immature disillusionment of the schoolboy protagonist and his girl as, at the end of the action-packed story, they separately announce that their youth was a dream. It reveals Fitzgerald's dislike of the very rich, an animosity noted by at least one critic and expressed in his 1926 story "The Rich Boy," with its explanation of just how the very rich "are different from you and me."
This ominous and grandiose story concerns young John T. Unger, from "a small town on the Mississippi," who is sent to St. Midas, an elite school near Boston. In his second year he is invited by Percy Washington, a schoolmate from Montana, to come home with him for the summer. As a result of this he finds himself in a death trap at the same time that he is being allured by Percy's two beautiful sisters, Jasmine and Kismine. Braddock Washington, Percy's father and the richest man in the world, possess an extraordinary diamond mountain larger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Fearful of outside threats to his treasure trove, he keeps his family isolated and secure, though he does allow Percy to attend the distant St. Midas School. Occasionally a fellow student such as John may be invited to the precious stone-fastness of the Washington family, but the unlucky individual is not permitted to return alive. Yet someone, a teacher of Italian, has recently escaped to tell the tale. Just before John himself is in immediate danger from his scheming host, there is an aerial attack on the paradisiacal hideaway.
Desperate to save his domain, Washington makes a serious effort to bribe God with a large chunk from his diamond mountain and with the promise of cutting, setting, and ornamenting the diamond in an unprecedentedly splendiferous manner. There is no reply. Seeing no other course to follow, he blows up his entire glittering alp. John and Percy's two sisters somehow manage to gain their freedom. At the end of the story John and his chosen one, Kismine (with Jasmine reduced to being a hanger-on), have a wacky love duet among the ruins in which they utter platitudes about the end of the dream they have supposedly just experienced and thus the end of their youth. Seeming to accept the temporary nature of their relationship, they will try to keep warm against the night chill and go to sleep.
According to Kenneth Eble's study of Fitzgerald's literary career, "The Diamond As Big As the Ritz" may be traced to his having been invited to spend part of the summer of 1915 at the ranch of an old friend, "Sap" Donahoe. The two were kindred spirits and schoolmates, first at Newman, a wealthy Catholic boarding school in New Jersey, and later at Princeton. Andrew Turnbull, in his biography of Fitzgerald, remarks that during the two months he spent at Donahoe's Wyoming ranch, while outdoor life did not appeal to him, Fitzgerald made himself accompany the rustlers in their occupational activities and joined in their recreations of drinking and poker playing. But he also incurred the hatred of the ranch manager for finding out about his secret liaison. The complexity and multiplicity of the thematic elements and the density of the symbols and allusions in the resulting story have several sources apart from Fitzgerald's time at the ranch, however.
There is first of all the title and primary symbol. The untold benefits a Ritz-size, or larger, diamond mountain might offer suggest an old folk song that Fitzgerald might have heard. "The Big Rock Candy Mountains" describes a hobo's utopia that offers all manner of delights to have-nots with a sizable want list. Then there are traces of Dante's Divine Comedy, as well as a number of allusions to the Bible and to Christianity that are transposed out of traditional contexts, suggesting that Fitzgerald meant to rewrite or reinvent certain elements of the culture in which he was raised. The more obvious of these references have been noted by Joan M. Allen in her book on Fitzgerald's Catholic sensibility. For example, there is the Dantesque motto over the gates of Hades, John's hometown. This is presumably "All hope abandon, ye who enter here," although the actual words do not appear in the story. The little settlement of Fish suggests the Greek word-symbol for Jesus, and the 12 godless apostle-like men of Fish who wait daily for the Transcontinental Express exist within an ambience devoid of Christianity.
John's early life in Hades seems to represent the Inferno stage of human experience. Fitzgerald includes a number of gags about the heat in Hades that were worthy of college humor magazines of the early 1900s but that appear vapid to a reader today. John's stay at St. Midas School would then represent the Purgatorio stage in the sense that he was being prepared spiritually and psychologically for the Paradiso. John's guide to the next stage is Percy Washington. But Percy, who is a direct descendant of George Washington (who actually had no direct descendants), takes him to another type of inferno, one in which outsiders should be forewarned by the motto "All hope abandon, ye who enter here." Escaping from this other inferno—the diamond as big as the Ritz—at the end of the story John is bedded down near Kismine on a high cliff under the stars as they contemplate their future life together in a kind of travesty of paradise.
If this possible linkage, however twisted, with Dante seems farfetched, another citation involving religion may be more understandable. The scene in which Percy's father attempts to bribe God with what Fitzgerald aptly calls "a quality of monstrous condescension" has been given relatively brief notice by critics. But in light of Fitzgerald's remarks on the scene he has described, the implications of the man's attempt at bribery should be considered more closely. Fitzgerald uses a reference from Greek mythology to help make his point: "Prometheus Enriched" demonstrated sacrifices, rituals, and prayers that had become obsolete before Jesus was born.
A broad range of satire informs the story. There are suggestive wordplay (a Rolls-Pierce motorcar, symbolizing both Rolls-Royce and Pierce-Arrow; Kismine's use of her name to invite John to kiss her); ridicule or insult (references to the living habits of Braddock Washington's black slaves, one of whom is named Gygsum [perhaps "Some Jig"]); romantic comedy (the first meeting of John and Kismine); and, among other things, socioreligious criticism (the effect of the absence of religion in Fish; the workings of the religion of money at St. Midas School and in Braddock Washington). Considering the fact that Fitzgerald was hardly the one to correct society's foibles in pride of purse, the social satire running throughout "The Diamond As Big As the Ritz" has been much commented on, but it ought not to obscure other important aspects of the story.
The influence of Mark Twain on Fitzgerald merits consideration. Bruccoli cites evidence of Fitzgerald's exposure to a number of works by and about Twain, and he credits Twain with being an early influence. Bruccoli makes two significant comments: first, Twain had "minimal direct influence" on what Fitzgerald wrote; and, second, the coal mountain in Twain's (and coauthor Charles Dudley Warner's) The Gilded Age may have suggested the diamond mountain in the present story. While the second statement seems far-fetched, the idea of minimal direct influence should be considered. John Unger's family came from a small town on the Mississippi River; Twain grew up in the town of Hannibal, Missouri, located on the Mississippi and immortalized in his best-known stories; and Fitzgerald himself was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, another town on the Mississippi. Though the coal mountain in The Gilded Age seems to have very little in common with Fitzgerald's diamond mountain, the money madness that informs the present story may be found in some form throughout Twain's writings, including the bitterly nihilistic novellette The Mysterious Stranger. As noted in a letter to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribners, that was dated 12 December 1921, Fitzgerald had already read The Mysterious Stranger by the time he wrote "The Diamond As Big As the Ritz."
"The Diamond As Big As the Ritz" has much in common with boys adventure stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An individual boy or a small group of boys ventures into totally unfamiliar territory—possibly involving a cave, an underground domain, or a hitherto inaccessible region—and encounters deadly danger but finds no way out. Eventually, at least one boy escapes, transformed by the experience that in some versions serves as an initiation into manhood. Often a taboo violation is involved, which puts the adventurers in dire peril. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for example, adapted this format for the boy-men in her 1915 feminist adventure novel Herland. There the three jolly chums intrude into a 2, 000-year-old realm, "For Women Only," with surprising results. Fitzgerald's schoolboy appears at the end as he and his girl, speculating about the future, foreshadow the way his creator would appear from time to time in the coming years: fatuous, frivolous, and juvenile.
—Samuel I. Bellman