By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Lost Decade’ is one of the shortest works by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), the American author best-known for The Great Gatsby. Published in Esquire magazine in December 1939, just one year before Fitzgerald died, ‘The Lost Decade’ is one of his most powerful short stories to deal with the effects of drink and the way it leads people to forget their surroundings and to lose touch with their everyday life.
You can read ‘The Lost Decade’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of this very short story below.
‘The Lost Decade’: plot summary
Orrison Brown, one of the editors for a newsweekly in New York, is asked by his boss to take a visitor named Louis Trimble out to lunch. The boss tells Brown that Trimble has ‘been away a long time’.
Trimble tells Brown that his last memory of the city was in around 1928 when the Empire State building was being built. But it isn’t clear how Trimble has been out of ‘civilisation’ for the last decade. Brown even wonders if Trimble has been living somewhere far more exciting and interesting than 1930s New York, but it remains a mystery at this point as to what happened to Trimble during his ‘lost decade’.
Trimble tells Brown that he wants to go to a restaurant where there are young people he can look at, so they go and sit down in a restaurant. Trimble talks about how he wants to watch the backs of people’s heads and overhear the conversation between two little girls and their father. Even small things like the ‘weight of spoons’ as he holds them seem to fascinate him.
To Brown’s surprise, Trimble tells him that he last dined in this restaurant the previous May, and he recognises the waiter. But how, if it’s ten years since he last saw the city? The plot thickens.
Trimble tells Brown that he designed the Armistead building in the city; the building was erected in 1928. Then the mystery is solved: he tells Brown that he has been drunk for the last decade. This is why he hasn’t really experienced the city for the last ten years.
Now what Trimble wants to experience is being around people, watching them and observing what their clothes are made out of: the little details. He asks Brown if he would mind shaking his hand, and Brown agrees. They will meet back at the office later in the afternoon, but Trimble wants to walk off and experience the city some more first.
When Trimble has gone, Brown seems more aware of the things that Trimble had mentioned: the feel of things when he touches them, such as the texture of his coat and the granite of the building he stands outside.
‘The Lost Decade’: analysis
‘The Lost Decade’ is, first and foremost, a story about alcoholism and how it leads people to lose their memory and fail to experience and appreciate the things around them. Although he has been living in the city and dining in its restaurants for the last ten years, the effects of alcohol have meant that Trimble may as well have been living somewhere else entirely. Indeed, Trimble cannot even remember the Armistead building: a building he himself designed.
Fitzgerald cleverly constructs the story around these two men who have just met, with a mystery that deepens as the story progresses. Initially, Brown wonders where his companion has been for the last decade:
‘You’ve been out of civilization?’
‘In a sense.’ The words were spoken in such a measured way that Orrison concluded this man wouldn’t talk unless he wanted to – and simultaneously wondered if he could have possibly spent the thirties in a prison or an insane asylum.
But then, as they are leaving the restaurant in which they dine together, another twist: Trimble can’t have been in prison or otherwise incarcerated, because he reveals that he dined in that very restaurant only the previous year. So what happened? The mystery deepens: how can he have been ‘out of civilisation’ – at least ‘in a sense’ – and yet, clearly, in it?
When Fitzgerald reveals the solution to the mystery in the story’s closing paragraphs, everything becomes clear, including why Trimble’s name would have ‘evoked some vague memory’ within Brown’s mind when he first heard it (Louis Trimble, we learn, is an architect and designer so this is presumably where Brown had heard the name).
Of course, Trimble’s lack of connection to, and memory of, his last ten years in the city in which he has continued to live, is down to the effects of alcohol: he has been too drunk to appreciate and sense things when they were happening, and then drink eroded his memory of things once they had happened.
But Trimble’s drunken stupor is also mirrored, on a more subtle level, by Brown’s own lack of understanding of his companion. He experiences the city attended by Trimble’s own confusion, in a sense, because he is still in the dark about his companion’s back-story and why he takes such an interest in the backs of people’s heads and the material their clothes are made from.
When the truth is revealed at the end, he, too, has an awakening, a kind of epiphany (something common to many modernist short stories of the early twentieth century), and develops a new-found appreciation for the feel of his clothes and the buildings of the city.
Fitzgerald focuses this epiphany not on seeing or the visual but on a different sense: touch. Indeed, even though Trimble states several times that he wants to see people and things, such acts of seeing are focused on a more complex intersection of different senses:
‘I’ve been in it – lots of times. But I’ve never seen it. And now it isn’t what I want to see. I wouldn’t ever be able to see it now. I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of. And their eyes and hands. Would you mind shaking hands with me?’
This delicately and cleverly shifts with each new clause: he has been in the Armistead building and yet he has never seen it. He has never seen it and yet he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to see it and couldn’t see it even if he did want to, because he has lost the ability to appreciate the building he designed.
He wants to see people but really he wants to ‘see’ what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of, and wants to experience the movement of people as they go about their lives: an experience not confined to the visual but taking in a more complex kinetic awareness of sights, sounds, movement, texture, and so on.
And then that final question, asking Brown to shake hands with him: an experience grounded not in the visual (although he is now aware of how others will view the act: ‘I suppose it looks strange – but people will think we’re saying good-bye’) but in the tactile or haptic. A strong connection between two people. ‘The Lost Decade’ is about getting back ‘in touch’ with the world, and about ‘feeling’ in a very tangible and direct sense.