The Diamond As Big As The Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1922
The magic trick:
Using a degree of imagination and fantasy atypical of Fitzgerald fiction
Fitzgerald’s central appeal is his singular ability to tweak reality ever so slightly in the direction of romantic fantasy. Every character in his stories is laden with the limitations and expectations of society, yes, but every agony and every triumph is celebrated in addictive hyperbole. There is little room in that romanticized-reality formula for out-and-out fantasy. “The Diamond As Big As The Ritz” is one of the few exceptions in Fitzgerald’s catalogue.
Here, he’s still dealing with his typical topics: wealth, status and the gaining and losing of each. But the setting is not New York or Europe or Minnesota or the Deep South. It’s pure fantasy. It’s a fairy tale, really. The setting is an imaginary mountain made out of diamond in uncharted Montana. Being Fitzgerald, he of course feels compelled to create a very realistic explanation for such a setting (including a complete family history that dates back before the Civil War), but nevertheless the entire plot is quite imaginative.
Now, what is he using this setting and plot to achieve? That’s a wholly different question, and not one I’m sure I can answer. I’d like to say he’s criticizing such a gross display of wealth and selfishness. The Washington family’s abhorrent use of slaves – not to mention the unfortunate “explorers” being kept prisoner in a pit on the property –certainly merits criticism. However, we must also consider the way that Fitzgerald seems to revel in new ways to describe the luxury in which they live. Don’t forget, either, that our protagonist, the man who is serving as our narrative conscience, falls in love with Kismine Washington, who like so many Fitzgerald heroines has her many obvious flaws fast forgiven in descriptions of physical beauty.
I’m not sure Fitzgerald, himself, even knows what side he’s on. The story seems to ramble out of his control. And that’s kind of why I like it so much. It’s a story that takes its own author out of his comfort zone, pitting his standard conflicts against foreign backdrops. It is creative, imaginative, and memorable. And that’s quite a trick on Fitzgerald’s part.
It was too dark to see clearly into the pit below, but John could tell from the coarse optimism and rugged vitality of the remarks and voices that they proceeded from middle-class Americans of the more spirited type. Then Mr. Washington put out his cane and touched a button in the grass, and the scene below sprang into light.
“These are some adventurous mariners who had the misfortune to discover El Dorado,” he remarked.
Below them there had appeared a large hollow in the earth shaped like the interior of a bowl. The sides were steep and apparently of polished glass, and on its slightly concave surface stood about two dozen men clad in the half costume, half uniform, of aviators. Their upturned faces, lit with wrath, with malice, with despair, with cynical humor, were covered by long growths of beard, but with the exception of a few who had pined perceptibly away, they seemed to be a well-fed, healthy lot.
Braddock Washington drew a garden chair to the edge of the pit and sat down.