Scott and Ernest: The Authority of Failure and the Authority of Success
by Matthew J. Bruccoli


V

Ernest Hemingway outlived F. Scott Fitzgerald by twenty-one years.

Hemingway made no public statement after Fitzgerald’s death. He was not among the six writers (Budd Schulberg, John O’Hara, Glenway Wescott, John Peale Bishop, Malcolm Cowley, John Dos Passos) who contributed to The New Republic symposium on Fitzgerald in 1941—but perhaps he was not asked.

Perkins kept Hemingway informed of his attempts to salvage The Last Tycoon and briefly considered asking Hemingway to complete the novel—which was probably the worst idea the great editor ever had. The idea was quickly dropped, partly at Zelda Fitzgerald’s insistence. Her response to Perkins conveyed her feelings about Hemingway without mentioning his name: “May I suggest that rather than bringing into play another forceful talent of other inspiration it would be felicitous to enlist a pen such as that of Gilbert Seldes, whose talent depends on concision of idea and aptitude of word rather than on the spiritual or emotional transports of the author.” The final plan was that Edmund Wilson would edit The Last Tycoon, which was published in 1941 as an unfinished novel with The Great Gatsby and a selection of stories.

The size of the first printing of The Last Tycoon is not known, but it was less than 5000 copies. The reviews were receptive; and many critics agreed with Wilson that Tycoon would have been Fitzgerald’s most mature work. The judgment that it would have been his masterpiece was not unusual. Stephen Vincent Benet’s assessment in The Saturday Review of Literature attracted considerable attention: “You can take off your hats now gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation—and seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.” The Last Tycoon sold slowly but steadily. A second printing was required in 1941; it was reprinted in 1945, 1947, and 1948.

Hemingway was not impressed when he read The Last Tycoon. Writing to Perkins on 25 November 1941, he complained of its deadness. Monroe Stahr is good, but Kathleen is unbelievable. Ernest applies to Scott the metaphor that he would later use in A Moveable Feast: the dust was off the butterfly’s wing, even though the wing could still move. Scott’s best novel is Tender Is the Night, which has none of the “impossible dramatic tricks that he had outlined for the final book.” Scott died inside when he was thirty or thirty-five; The Last Tycoon was written after Scott’s powers had died, too. Hemingway quarrels with Wilson’s selection of stories for the volume: “The Rich Boy” is silly, and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is trash. Ernest is glad the novel is getting good reviews, but a writer who knew Scott can tell that the writing is dead. It is like moldy bacon; if the mold has penetrated, then the meat will taste moldy. Scott was like a pitcher with a dead arm. He got some of his “old magic” into the airplane episode, but there is no magic in the characters. Scott never knew enough about people to write a novel that did not depend on magic.

During World War II Hemingway enlarged his legend. After running a civilian Q-boat operation in Cuba, he went to Europe. Nominally a Collier’s correspondent, he led irregular soldiers in France, personally liberating the Paris Ritz and Sylvia Beach. In 1944 he fell in love with correspondent Mary Welsh, who became his fourth wife in 1946.

On 17 February 1944 Perkins briefed Hemingway on Wilson’s projected Fitzgerald miscellany, which was published as The Crack-Up. Perkins never liked the plan and declined to publish the volume. Although Perkins doesn’t go into the disagreement in this letter, he was opposed to Wilson’s decision to reprint the “Crack-Up” articles—which embarrassed Perkins. The publication of The Crack-Up by New Directions was a catalyst for the Fitzgerald revival. It became a key volume for Fitzgerald’s admirers and has never gone out of print.

Hemingway wrote to Perkins on 25 November 1944 urging Max to hold Scott’s letters for a “definitive book” and not to let Wilson pee them away. Ernest has saved all of Scott’s letters about writing, which show his strengths and weaknesses. “I knew him, through some periods, better than anyone and would be glad to write a long, true, just, detailed (all of those I mean in the measure that anyone can do such a thing) account of the years I knew him.” Ernest recommends John Peale Bishop as a better editor for Scott’s letters than Wilson, who is dishonest and pretentious.

When The Crack-Up was published, Hemingway wrote Perkins on 23 July 1945 asking for a copy. Ernest is sorry that he hasn’t written about Scott because he knew Scott possibly better than any of the people who are writing about him. But he can’t write truly about Scott while Zelda is alive. Ernest insists that Scott would never have completed The Last Tycoon, which was really a prospectus for drawing advances. Scott pitched the novel at an “Epic note” that he could not have sustained. He did everything wrong in his writing, but it came out right. Ernest can speak honestly to Max because they both loved Scott and knew his weaknesses. Scott’s great flaw was the cowardice that made him live in a dream world. He thought he could have been a great broken-field runner, but Scott had trouble crossing Fifth Avenue traffic. Hemingway’s comment on The Crack-Up has not been found. If he read all of the volume, he found himself mentioned fourteen times in the “Notebooks” section (see Appendix).

The Crack-Up was followed in 1945 by The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald, with an introduction in which John O’Hara announced: “All he was was our best novelist, one of our best novella-ists, and one of our finest writers of short stories.” Hemingway characterized this introduction as “wrapped in O’Hara’s old coonskin coat that he never wore to Yale.” The Viking Portable series included a Hemingway volume.

Maxwell Perkins died in June 1947.

Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire at Highland Hospital, Asheville, North Carolina, in March 1948.

Hemingway’s first public post-mortem reference to Fitzgerald appeared in the introduction to the 1948 illustrated edition of A Farewell to Arms, where “Scott FitzGerald” is included without comment in a list of friends who have died since the novel was published. When Arthur Mizener was working on the first biography of Fitzgerald in 1950, Hemingway responded with eight long letters and granted permission to print excerpts from his letters to Fitzgerald. Hemingway wrote Mizener that he loved Scott very much but never had any respect for him, “except for his lovely, golden, wasted talent.” He placed much of the blame for Scott’s destruction on Zelda’s jealousy of his work and informed Mizener of her complaint about Scott’s penis—which Mizener did not use in The Far Side of Paradise. Scott’s best book is Tender; Gatsby is good but over-rated; but Tycoon was a scheme for borrowing money. Hemingway also provided Mizener with accounts of the Callaghan bout and Fitzgerald’s letter of advice about A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway acknowledged receipt of an advance copy of The Far Side of Paradise on 4 January 1951, complimenting Mizener on his research and offering to correct the “many errors” when he has time. Hemingway was “sickened” by Mizener’s article, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tormented Paradise,” in the 15 January 1951 issue of Life. Writing to Harvey Breit of the New York Times Book Review on 17 January, Hemingway described the article as “straight grave robbing” and “all scandal and a nickel’s worth of literature.” On the 6th of February he wrote Breit that he would like a chance to kill Mizener for his “body-snatching” Life article.

Budd Schulberg’s novel The Disenchanted was published in November 1950, preceding The Far Side of Paradise by two months. Schulberg has insisted that Manley Halliday, the hero of The Disenchanted, was not intended to be a portrait of Fitzgerald—but a synthesis of several Hollywood writers. Nonetheless, the novel was read as a roman a clef about F. Scott Fitzgerald; and this interpretation was supported by the circumstance that the central action of The Disenchanted draws upon Schulberg’s experiences with Fitzgerald on location for a movie about the Dartmouth Winter Carnival in 1939. The close publication of the biographical novel and the biography made Fitzgerald literary news again in 1951.

The biographical interest in Fitzgerald generated a new market for his work. In 1951 Malcolm Cowley edited two volumes for Scribners, The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the so-called “author’s final version” of Tender Is the Night. Writing to Cowley (who had edited The Portable Hemingway) in April 1951, Hemingway assessed the Fitzgerald revival and its spokesmen.

I had the same re-action you did about what a shame it was for Scott not to be around for his own revival. But to be revived by such strange people: First Schulberg, a very nice guy everybody says, and most pleasant when I met him once in Key West, writes something that really balls up everything about Scott and Zelda. I never saw Scott in that stage of his life. But the way Zelda is handled makes the whole thing sort of pointless.

Mizener deceived me completely by his letters. I thought he was a straight guy and then came that unspeakable piece of grave robbery he wrote for LIFE…

Poor Scott; what robes, or shroud, he had were torn and sold by very strange people. I hope to hell you will be able to set some things right. As you know only a few of the short stories are good. Gatsby is good and Tender Is The Night is mixed up but absolutely excellent. The Last Tycoon is very good. But it was more a beautifully organized scheme to borrow advances on than a completed novel. I am sure Scott would have fought to complete it. But from what I heard from the people who were with him at the end; especially one man I knew and who told me very detailed things, he was quite incapable of finishing it. But Scott tried hard and did not die from dear old Dartmouth nor on the playing fields of Princeton and I am afraid I think both Schulberg and Mizener are swine; no matter how plausible.

You are a decent man and whatever you do, according to Scott’s wishes, about Tender In [sic] The Night is ok. People have a choice of reading either version. But that Schulberg-Mizener Axis could well be hanged, head down, in front of any second rate garage.

Despite his outrage at Mizener’s treatment of Fitzgerald, Hemingway confined his protests to private letters. His comments on Tender reiterated the ambivalence of his original judgments. The characters were imperfectly conceived, but the novel succeeded because of the brilliance of the writing. In July 1951 Hemingway reacted to Cowley’s editing of Tender in accordance with Fitzgerald’s second guess that his novel had been flawed by its flashback structure: “I’ll read the new Tender Is the Night if you think it is better. But I thought its lack of chronological order was one of the things that redeemed it from the mixing of Scott and Gerald, Zelda and Sara, and gave it that fine mixed-ness of a Frozen Daiquiri. Scott had, most of all, charm and in this book more than any other. I think there is a danger in over-dissecting charm. .. . But Tender Is the Night was a damned beautiful and most sad book and I thought it only achieved the unity it had by the extraordinary mixing it received in Scott’s mixing machine. . . .” Two months later, in September, Hemingway again analyzed for Cowley Fitzgerald’s imperfect understanding of people and his inability to create true characters.

As you know Scott was one of the worst writers who ever wrote prose… Scott caught the surface and the people that he knew or met with a fine brightness… But Scott would mix up (as in Tender I.T.N.) himself and Zelda with Gerald and Sarah and they were very different. He got balled up inventing from mixtures of opposites in people instead of inventing from his knowledge of people themselves. How could he ever know people except on the surface when he never fucked anybody, nobody told him anything except as an answer to a question and he was always too drunk late at night to remember what anybody really said… Maybe the strain of trying to out-write himself ruined him, as you said. But he was a true rummy when I met him when I was married to Hadley… that was one of his big problems, that and Zelda, and cowardice, and ambition and love of earning money which meant social, economic, and for a while, he figured, artistic success…

In 1951 Scribners sold 29,821 copies of Fitzgerald’s books; in 1958 Scribners’ sales broke 50,000; and in 1960 the total was 177,849 copies. Hemingway’s response to the books and articles about Fitzgerald was a mixture of incredulity and annoyance at the inaccuracies he found. Writing to Charles Scribner in 1951, he characterized Fitzgerald as a liar and a drunk with the talent of a frightened angel. While trying to dissuade Charles Fenton from writing a study of the Hemingway apprenticeship in 1952 he commented, “…a good man is dead and a garrulous fool speaks for him, and no amount of Mizener makes it come alive.” When the New York Herald Tribune Book Review asked Hemingway for a list of books he liked in 1951, he provided six titles he would have liked to read if they had been published—including “Longevity Pays: The Life of Arthur Mizener by F. Scott FitzGerald” and “The Schulberg Incident by F. Scott FitzGerald.” In March 1953 Hemingway commented to Charles Poore: “Scotte was a good friend of mine. He could not stay the course for many reasons. But I have never written about them except the one reference in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and would hate to have a slighting reference now.” When Harvey Breit was collaborating with Budd Schulberg on the play version of The Disenchanted, Hemingway wrote Breit in August 1954 describing Zelda’s destructive influence on Fitzgerald—including her complaint about Scott’s penis. Scott was an Irish rummy; he seemed to enjoy humiliating himself and the people with him. “But when, after one awful night when I had to give a large sum to the doorman at the Plaza to square something really awful Scott had done, I told him I couldn’t ever go out and eat with him any more unless he would promise not to be horrible to people, or make an effort not to be anyway, he was able to write that thing about how he spoke with the authority of failure and I with the authority of etc. and so we would never be able to sit at table together again.”

In the fifties Ernest Hemingway became the most famous and successful living author in the world. John O’Hara’s New York Times review of Across the River and into the Trees (1950) began: “The most important author living today, the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare, has brought out a new novel… The author, of course, is Ernest Hemingway, the most important, the outstanding author out of the millions of writers who have lived since 1616.” Although Across the River and into the Trees was a critical disaster, Hemingway reclaimed his championship in 1952—if he had ever lost it—with The Old Man and the Sea. The news that Ernest and Mary Hemingway were missing in an African plane crash in January 1954 made the front pages all over the world; and Hemingway was able to read his own obituaries. In October 1954 Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hemingway began work on a memoir of Fitzgerald in 1957 for the 100th-anniversary issue of The Atlantic Monthly but dropped it because, he explained to Breit, he didn’t want to betray Scott. This project probably initiated work on a book of Paris reminiscences he had been considering for some time, which was posthumously published as A Moveable Feast in 1964.

Ernest Hemingway shot himself at Ketchum, Idaho, on 2 July 1961.


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