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


“Madame, it is always a mistake to know an author.”
Death in the Afternoon

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway loved to dramatize themselves—to act out their own mythologies. One played the ruined genius; the other played the titan. Both roles met with public acceptance.

Writers become identified with their material. Since failure is a major theme in Fitzgerald’s fiction, readers have become conditioned to regard him as the objective correlative for failure. The concerns of Hemingway’s fiction are endurance-courage-cojones, which he embodied in his well-publicized nonliterary life. It became increasingly difficult to differentiate the public Papa from the private writer. Whether or not he sought publicity, he provided good newspaper copy and was an excellent camera subject. His photos show the ebullient Hemingway engaging in sport or war, or the bearded patriarchal Hemingway looking wise and indomitable. Hemingway’s photos, above all, present a man enjoying himself because he seems to be getting all there is out of life. The most frequently reproduced photos of Fitzgerald are of the young man doing a dance step with his wife and daughter—or the middle-aged man at forty-three with gray skin and unhappy eyes, wearing a checked jacket and a knit tie, looking like the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“Scott Fitzgerald was a failure as a success—and a failure as a failure,” remarked restaurateur Prince Michael Romanoff. He did not know Fitzgerald well, but the observation epigrammatizes the standard approach to Fitzgerald’s career: his self-proclaimed failure. Yet Fitzgerald’s achievements would constitute a triumphant career for most writers. In twenty years he published four novels, a play, some 160 short stories, a score of essays—and left a major novel unfinished at his death. Although Fitzgerald denigrated his stories as hack-work, they include some of the best in American literature: “The Rich Boy,” “May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “Babylon Revisited,” “The Last of the Belles,” “Winter Dreams.” He was not a careless writer who dashed off an occasional masterpiece during binges. Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, but his benders alternated with periods of sober hard work. He was not a quick and sloppy writer; his manuscripts show that even for the disparaged Saturday Evening Post stories there were layers of careful revision. For his novels Fitzgerald was accustomed to rewriting—not just polishing—in proof. He was as much a craftsman as Hemingway was. Yet Hemingway’s name evokes literary dedication, whereas Fitzgerald’s evokes irresponsibility. The publicly drunk Fitzgerald was an embarrassment, but the working Fitzgerald was unobserved. No writer writes eight hours a day, every day. Most writers are happy with two or three good hours. Hemingway occupied his non-writing time with sport, and made it appear that hunting and fishing were related to his aesthetic. He had the ability to make everything he did seem to have something to do with literature. Hemingway radiated confidence. Fitzgerald became identified with defeat—largely through his own public statements. A shrewd careerist would not have published the “Crack-Up” essays. Hemingway attributed Fitzgerald’s public humiliations to a love of defeat. A better explanation is provided by Fitzgerald’s symbolic quality, for he seemed to embody the national mood. So intense was his identification with his times that he assumed the roles which the prevailing mood required. During the Jazz Age he symbolized youth and confidence. During the Depression he symbolized thwarted expectations and remorse. Although Fitzgerald was a failure in his own judgment and in the eyes of a public that needed a totemic failure figure in the Thirties, evaluations of Fitzgerald’s failure provide gauges of his achievement.

Fitzgerald could not accommodate success or failure. In his 1937 essay “Early Success” he wrote, “The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter.” For the romantic the value of an experience is inseparable from the circumstances that attend it: the meaning of the moment is the moment itself. In This Side of Paradise Amory Blaine dreams of “being made the youngest general in the world”; and Fitzgerald observes that “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” It is hyperbolic to claim that Fitzgerald deliberately threw away his early success, but he was unable to shape a career from it. Neither could he accept failure. At the end of his life he was incapable of fading out as a Hollywood hack.

In “The Crack-Up” Fitzgerald refers to his once-held conviction that “life was something you dominated if you were any good.” The obvious and awful irony is that he was not a dominator. Indeed, he was a born hero-worshipper who sought models for his conduct. The greatest hero Fitzgerald found was life-dominating Ernest Hemingway. The intensity of Fitzgerald’s identification with Hemingway is hard to understand. Perhaps the best clue to Fitzgerald’s feelings about Hemingway is provided by the phrase “Ernest who was an equeal and my kind of idealist.” Fitzgerald saw Hemingway as someone who shared his values—which is puzzling at first. Fitzgerald was a great believer with a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” Hemingway confronted an antagonistic world in which there was nothing to believe except courage. Stay around and they would kill you. The Hemingway code provided a method for enduring in the absence of traditional beliefs. Il faut d’abord durer became his chief commandment. There is a malevolent presence in Hemingway’s work, and the Hemingway hero copes with it by substituting courage and discipline for the lost beliefs and comforts. The concern of Hemingway and his heroes with craftsmanship provided a way of imposing certain controls over life. The value of the experience is in how well it is performed. The apparent absence of emotion in Hemingway’s early work fooled many readers into classifying him as an anti-romantic writer. But the insistence on personal standards, the self-testings against private gauges, the courage required to confront a hostile world, the controlled despair—in Hemingway these formulate an anti-romantic romanticism.

Fitzgerald was able to identify with Hemingway as “my kind of idealist” in literature. At every stage of his career, from obscure apprentice to graybeard master, Hemingway spoke with conviction about his dedication to his craft—as well as the irresponsibility of other writers. Fitzgerald responded to the intensity of Hemingway’s commitment, which allowed Fitzgerald to feel that he was among the insiders of American literature. As an artist Hemingway embodied the standards of discipline and dedication that Fitzgerald aspired to. One of the many paradoxes of Fitzgerald is that he cherished high goals for his work while dissipating his creative energies. As a Princeton undergraduate he had remarked that he wanted to be one of the greatest writers that ever lived. So did Hemingway, whose ambitions manifested themselves in competition with all writers, living or dead. When he spoke about beating Stendhal or retaining his championship, he meant it: “I won the title in the twenties and defended it in the thirties and forties. I am not afraid to defend it in the fifties.” Yet Hemingway did not progress from strength to strength. His best work was done before he was thirty, and he produced only one major novel—For Whom the Bell Tolls—after 1929. Nonetheless, he spoke with the confidence of success. Everything he did, everything he wrote, became important because he was Ernest Hemingway.

At the time of their first meeting in spring 1925 Fitzgerald was at the peak of his powers, having developed from the inconsistent brilliance of This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned to the control of The Great Gatsby. A year earlier he had announced to Maxwell Perkins: “I want to write something new —something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.” The Great Gatsby—published before Fitzgerald was twenty-nine—fulfilled that ambition. Instead of building on the achievement of Gatsby, Fitzgerald was unable to concentrate on sustained work for the next seven years. Despite his well-earned playboy image, Fitzgerald suffered guilt over his dissipations. Maybe he needed to feel guilty. The example of Hemingway made Fitzgerald feel both more and less guilty. If Hemingway’s dedication to writing shamed Fitzgerald, it also allowed him to feel that he shared it. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” Fitzgerald stated in “The Crack-Up.”

Neither Hemingway nor Fitzgerald influenced the other’s writing. Hemingway grudgingly accepted Fitzgerald’s advice about cutting; and Hemingway read the work-in-progress on Tender Is the Night, but there is no record of his reactions. Although they discussed problems of technique and the aims of fiction, it requires ingenuity to suggest evidence of imitation. By the time they met, their styles and material had been fixed.

The literary relationship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway existed on the basis of shared ideals about the value of literature. Their work was utterly dissimilar in style, themes, material, and technique. Fitzgerald was a traditional stylist who wrote a modulated lyrical prose. Although some of his social material seemed sensational in the early twenties, Fitzgerald was a rather old-fashioned novelist with conventional standards of conduct. He was an intrusive author in the sense that he was a storyteller who commented on the story as he told it. Fitzgerald never wrote a straight first-person novel. When he employed narrators in The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon, they function as novelists. Fitzgerald’s stance as a storyteller required an authorial voice. Hemingway, however, had difficulty breaking away from the first-person narrative of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. His early fiction tries to eliminate the authorial presence, conveying the impression of experience reported as directly as possible. In his time Hemingway was regarded as an experimental writer. His style represented a new method in its abrupt rhythms, understatement, and objectivity.

One thing shared by the work of Fitzgerald and Hemingway— although achieved by different methods—is a concern with “the way it was.” Writing to Perkins in 1934 about himself, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, Fitzgerald observed: “What family resemblance there is between we three as writers is the attempt that crops up in our fiction from time to time to recapture the exact feel of a moment in time and space, exemplified by people rather than things…” Hemingway utilized things much more than Fitzgerald—and named them. There is a reportorial quality in Hemingway’s work that is absent from Fitzgerald’s fiction. Hemingway’s technique—in his early work, at least—was to let the observed detail convey emotion with no authorial analysis. Fitzgerald was more concerned with evoking and analyzing the feeling of an experience than with recording detail. As he advised his daughter, “But when in a freak moment you will want to give the low-down, not the scandal, not the merely reported but the profound essence of what happened at a prom or after it, perhaps that honesty will come to you—and then you will understand how it is possible to make even a forlorn Laplander feel the importance of a trip to Cartier’s!”

The Fitzgerald / Hemingway friendship was lopsided. It was not one-sided. A Moveable Feast—written thirty years after the events—does not present an accurate view of Hemingway’s feelings about Fitzgerald during the early years of their friendship. Feast is not the young Hemingway’s diary; it is not a record of the way it was at the time. The mood is that of an aging giant looking back from the perspective of what he has become. His letters to Fitzgerald in the Twenties are more trustworthy, for Feast was written during Hemingway’s darkening years. While his letters do not show that Hemingway held personal respect for Fitzgerald, they do reveal his affection and his high opinion of Fitzgerald’s talent. In 1932, after the friendship had become mostly a memory, Hemingway was still insisting, “He is the great tragedy of talent in our bloody generation.”

In a literature crowded with bad drinkers, Fitzgerald may have been the worst. Alcohol turned him foolish, destructive, truculent, childish. His drinking behavior cost him the respect of many friends. The response was strong in the case of Hemingway, who had developed drinking conduct as a test of manhood. Another Hemingway test of manhood that Fitzgerald failed was the ability to control women. Distrusting the destructive or castrating power of women, Hemingway was sickened by what he regarded as Zelda Fitzgerald’s domination of her husband. He was particularly disgusted by her interference with Fitzgerald’s work. Hemingway’s work came before all things.

At the same time that Fitzgerald was capable of exasperating conduct, he possessed enormous charm and had the ability to make people believe he was really interested in them—because he was. Looking back at himself as he had been in the Twenties, Fitzgerald commented, “Once I believed in friendship, believed I could (if I didn’t always) make people happy and it was more fun than any thing.” Fitzgerald had a compulsion to help people. He was extremely generous about other writers and did not manifest any sense of competition with them. It could be argued that his generosity was a form of ego-gratification; but his benefactions were real. When they first met, Hemingway needed Fitzgerald’s help to advance his reputation, and Fitzgerald joined the cadre of writers who were promoting Hemingway’s career. Indeed, Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins about “Hemmingway” some seven months before they met.

Like many other ambitious young writers, Hemingway cultivated the good will of influential literary figures and accepted all the help he could get. Breaking into print and developing a reputation is such a chancey process that ambitious young writers learn to develop influential supporters. (Fitzgerald had come to Scribners under the aegis of Shane Leslie.) Not only was Fitzgerald’s interest in Hemingway’s career helpful, but Fitzgerald—sober— was an extremely attractive friend. “Endearing” is the word Hemingway applies to him at this time in A Moveable Feast. Moreover, Hemingway was an excellent judge of writing and assessed Fitzgerald’s talent very high, although he was not greatly impressed by Fitzgerald’s achievement. Hemingway thought that This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned were silly and regarded Fitzgerald’s short stories as trivial. The Great Gatsby impressed Hemingway in 1925, but he later revised his opinion of that novel.

Hemingway was ruthless in his judgment of people. As a man who lived by a strict code of conduct, he had no empathy for weakness. Yet he needed friends and made close friendships easily— possessing the ability to draw people to him and make them feel that they had been accorded membership in an exclusive cult. Membership did not carry tenure, for the friends of Hemingway were subject to permanent banishment. As he grew older he found it better to have nonliterary friends. He was more comfortable with stooges than with equals. Nonetheless, for five or six years Hemingway made allowances for Fitzgerald, forgiving his alcoholic misconduct and mending breaks in the friendship. After Hemingway became in his thirties the most famous living American author, Fitzgerald’s friendship became a nuisance. As Archibald MacLeish wrote of Hemingway, “Fame became of him.”

One of Hemingway’s basic doctrines was that “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” There was a long time when its application to Fitzgerald would have seemed remote. Now most of the evidence is in, and it turns out that Fitzgerald was, in his own way, undefeated: “I am not a great man, but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur.”

The End.