That summer Fitzgerald sometimes spoke of his need for corresponding with friends; letters kept him from feeling forgotten and out of touch with the world. Regardless of his mental or physical state he wrote to two friends in particular, his agent Harold Ober and his editor Maxwell Perkins; he wrote to Zelda, who needed cheering up, and to Scottie, who needed fatherly counseling as she neared fourteen. He was concerned about her adolescent problems, seeing himself as her sole guide because of Zelda’s illness.
He preferred women’s company but there were times when he wanted someone with whom he could discuss books, writers, and contemporary events. The bookshop, which reminded him of his early days in St. Paul, and my Contempo background served as his link in Asheville with such a world. And though he did most of the talking and was plainly irritated by my youthful convictions, he seemed to need a critical and questioning companion as much as a pliable and adoring one. As our old intimacy faded, he spoke less of his troubles and more about literature, radical friends, and writers since the turn of the century.
One day in the bookshop, during one of his short dry spells, he said that Shane Leslie and H. G. Wells had influenced him more than Compton Mackenzie or Booth Tarkington. Mackenzie’s Sinister Street had nevertheless served as one of the models for This Side of Paradise, and Tarkington’s Penrod was supposed to have started him writing about his own youth as Basil (in stories some of which were reprinted in Taps at Reveille). Leslie and Wells appealed to his inner nature; they were social thinkers and moralists rather than entertaining storytellers.
Fitzgerald mentioned two of Leslie’s books that interested him as a young writer of Irish heritage, End of a Chapter and Celts of the World. Like his friend Monsignor Fay, Leslie was an aesthete and a Catholic convert; they had both tried to keep him in the bosom of the church. Ten years before the Soviet revolution, Leslie had gone to Russia and there had become a friend of Tolstoi, whose social philosophy appealed to him. At King’s College, Cambridge, he was involved with Christian Socialism and the Irish literary renaissance. Leslie also wrote a college novel, which Fitzgerald said was withdrawn in the mid-twenties because of objections by Cambridge.
Speaking of Wells, Fitzgerald reminded me that his Ann Veronica was the novel he had chosen to represent the prewar generation, which, in his opinion, fancied itself modern but was strongly attached to Victorian traditions. As I had not read Ann Veronica, he told me that it was the first popular English novel in which a heroine was allowed to show honesty of desire and have sexual freedom. Ann was a virgin who chose a lover instead of waiting, as was customary, for a man to choose her.
“The book created a scandal and was banned in the libraries,” he said. “It was a moral offense for an English girl to be sex-conscious before a man had awakened desire in her. Some called her a whore, and Wells lost most of his friends, except Shaw and Chesterton. After Ann, heroines like her began to appear in dozens of novels and by the thousands in real life. Things were never the same in the British Empire or in English popular fiction.”
While he spoke I thought of his flappers ten years later, who were called “speed” for kissing and necking with boys. I wanted to ask him why American popular fiction was shackled by Victorian taboos later than the English, but he went on to talk about Wells’s The New Machiavelli, which he considered another literary milestone in presenting a girl’s uninhibited passion. Macmillian refused to publish it, and Wells’s socialist friends called him “the Fabian Casanova.”
“Feminists who had joined the Fabian Socialists to push for women’s rights turned their backs on Wells. The only right they wanted was the right to vote. When it came to opinions about sex, the feminists wanted nothing to do with him. He said they were mostly Victorian women whose modesty went deeper than their boldness as modern rebels. Wells’s novels are more cerebral than emotional, and they influenced the young generation as the plays of Shaw and Ibsen did.”
He then spoke of Joyce and Stein, two of his literary idols, though their work was becoming increasingly difficult for him to understand. Both owed a great deal to avant-garde magazines such as The Transatlantic Review, transition, or The Little Review for making them known as the baffling revolutionaries of the word. He was puzzled that Joyce and Stein did not meet for a long time and that, when they were introduced at a Jo Davidson party in Paris, they had exchanged less than a dozen words. “Banalities,” Fitzgerald said. “I think Stein said that they lived in the same Parisian quarter and Joyce said that their names were often linked together. And then they shut up like clams. I know Joyce shunned her—but why?”
“Perhaps Joyce couldn’t bear the sight of her anymore than Braque could,” I ventured to explain. “Braque thought that Stein and Toklas were like a pair of carnival freaks.” Remembering something I had recently read, I added, “Also Stein has a gift for self-advertising. If Joyce were to be seen with her, it might give the impression that she had influenced him as she had done Anderson, Hemingway, and you, perhaps in a different way from the development of style, rhythm, and—”
I stopped abruptly, and I remember his searching gaze.
“Why do you say that?”
“Call it a hunch, as you might say. Stein had a way of creating such an impression—if she didn’t come right out and claim credit. Such as discovering painters, being intimately involved with the origins of Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and transition. I know there are petty quarrels over such things, as in that Cowley-Munson controversy over Secession, but anyhow Stein gives that impression in her Toklas autobiography.”
“Wasn’t Stein mixed up with all that stuff?”
I went to the desk and dug out a pamphlet published that February as a transition supplement and handed it to him. It was entitled “The Testimony Against Gertrude Stein” and was signed by Braque, Matisse, Andre Salmon, Tristan Tzara, and Eugene and Maria Jolas. They offered facts to show that Stein had only a superficial knowlege of all the movements she claimed a role in. Tzara, who had fathered Dada, said that her connection with art was due solely to money. Braque declared that she completely misunderstood Cubism, and that none of the painters had known about her until she appeared in transition. Mme. Jolas, whose husband had founded the magazine, told the story of its origins and editorship.
Fitzgerald didn’t care who founded transition or how little Stein knew about modern art, but he was concerned over Stein’s angry feelings toward Jolas for using less and less of her work and more and more of Joyce’s. At the time, Jolas was publishing portions of Work in Progress, which was to become Finnegans Wake. When Stein reproached Jolas for neglecting her in favor of Joyce, she is reported to have said, “Why do you continue to lay emphasis on the work of that fifth-rate Irish politician?”
“Probably there is something to your hunch. It bears out what Ernest told me about Stein and his decision to quit being her pupil,” Fitzgerald said, slowly handing back the pamphlet. “There was a somewhat similar situation between Ernest and me when he was writing The Sun. He didn’t want me to read it until it was finished, thinking I might take credit for making suggestions. But when I did make them he was too good a writer to ignore them. Instead of bringing us closer, this led to his growing coolness that I told you about.”
I set aside the pamphlet and picked up a Contempo I wanted him to see because of its review of Death in the Afternoon. It was entitled “I Come Not to Bury Hemingway” and was written by Henry Hart. The passage that interested Fitzgerald read, “The inevitable human necessity of smashing the idol that has been worshiped now appears against Hemingway. His time had come, he had served his purpose, the novelty he supplied had become familiar. There was now a need to get even with the object of adulation. Smashing the idol and spitting into the Hemingway legend consisted of getting up and saying, ’Poor Hem! He’s made a big show of being virile. The world has passed him by.’ Then the Max Eastman crack, ’We know you, Hemingway. Take that false hair off your chest!’ It is true that Hemingway served his purpose. … In his stripped prose there is the staccato beat of hope. . . .
“There are two things he profoundly believes in. One is that it is his fate to perceive what tragedy does to people, what it makes them do, and how it leaves them, and that because of this no personal tragedy to himself can ever happen that would be anything other than another occurrence for him to observe. The second thing he believes in profoundly is having a good time and in changing whatever you are doing when it no longer makes you feel good. This is important from the standpoint of vitality. …”
Fitzgerald looked up and said, “I served my purpose and am finished. But I can’t believe Ernest’s vital talent will fade during his lifetime or his work will be neglected like mine now that its novelty is gone. He is a finished artist. A genius. Our friendship is one of the high points of my life. I’m sorry we won’t see much of each other again. It’s my fault as much as his. But it’s a shame success seems to have gone to his head, as it did to mine when I was a cocky, arrogant youth and landed on top.”
This led him to speak of changing trends in fiction, a subject that concerned him a lot that summer. He noticed in Contempo two writers who were striking examples of the new and the old. The old was James Branch Cabell, whose erudite fable Jurgen was the modish book of the early twenties and who had recently made his appearance simply as Branch Cabell. The new writer was Nathanael West, whose realistic fable Miss Lonelybearts was admired by intellectuals during the mid-thirties.
He was both annoyed and pleased that we had published, two years earlier, an obit on Cabell; annoyed because Cabell was a friend of Mencken’s and Nathan’s, and pleased because no young writers were trying to imitate him. In a recent book Cabell had given a trumpet call to announce his own demise. Our article stated that he would have been dead from the first—if the censor hadn’t fumed against Jurgen’s merry eroticism and made the book notorious and fashionable by trying to suppress it.
“Zelda knew Cabell’s novels before I did. She would break into wild fits of laughter while reading Jurgen. I didn’t read it until the winter after we were married. Then I thought it was second-rate Anatole France. Cabell was very kind to Gatsby and The Beautiful and Damned. I was lucky to hit it with my first book. Cabell made it after years of comparative neglect—and you bury him while he’s still alive and turning out a book a year. I admit that’s too many, but I know what it is to be buried in one’s lifetime.”
He turned to the space we had given West and Miss Lonelyhearts. We had run an excerpt prior to book publication, then four articles praising the novel, and a personal portrait by his brother-in-law, S. J. Perelman. One of the reviews was by William Carlos Williams, another by Bob Brown. “West is a bright new talent. I hope he doesn’t get buried under that avalanche of novels about the great unwashed and exploited American masses.”
He directed a sardonic look at me as I went to answer the phone. I couldn’t be sure whether he meant what he was saying or was simply trying to get a rise out of me. When I rejoined him, his thoughts were elsewhere and he was somewhat sad.
“Know anything about Ted Coy?”
“I don’t think I do.”
“I thought so.” He turned on me sharply, so sharply that I withdrew a step or two. “That’s the trouble with you radicals. You know about art and literature, cuckoo magazines, anarchism, communism, Sacco and Vanzetti, Mooney and Billings, the Five Year Plan, Dada, and the coming revolution, but you don’t know a God-damned thing about football!”
I almost laughed but didn’t, knowing it would have made him more furious.
“Ted Coy, if anybody asks you, was one of our greatest athletes,” he said like a patient schoolmaster. “He’s Ted Fay, Basil’s godlike football hero in ’The Freshest Boy,’ and I used him in other characters. He was married to Jeanne Eagles.”
“I know her,” I was happy to say. “Sadie Thompson in Rain. I went daffy about her in The Letter, One of the most—”
“It’s Ted I want you to know about and remember. He was one of my heroes.” Fitzgerald looked away and, after a silence, added in a restrained voice, “Ted died a couple of days ago. A heart attack. Forty-seven, bankrupt, and forgotten except by his teammates, sportswriters, and fans like me.”
He bowed his head, walked out of the bookshop, and marched off as though bringing up the rear of a street funeral.