What artists call posterity is the posterity of the work of art.
—MARCEL PROUST, Remembrance of Things Past
The victor belongs to the spoils.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned
The object in the game of Monopoly is to squeeze the competition into insolvency. The winner ends up with all the valuable property, the losers are bankrupted. In a world where such games are played in earnest, legislatures try to rein in monopolists while widespread admiration goes to those who evade the rules to ride triumphantly above fallen competitors. Winning is a national obsession, as a weekend watching sports on television will prove. The “Just win, baby” mantra that Al Davis taught his gladiators on the Oakland Raiders was more than advice; it was a command. In baseball, our National Pastime, players do their best to get the umpire to make mistakes in their favor. Fair play doesn't count. Nice guys finish last.
As William James observed near the beginning of the century, “the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS… is our national disease,” and in the United States success has meant making money or becoming famous. This is the standard for the artist as well as for the tycoon or the athlete, during his lifetime. Thereafter the artist faces another and more demanding court of judgment, where it will be decided if the work merits the attention of succeeding generations. Out of every hundred writers who achieve a measure of financial success and/or recognition while alive, only one or two will be judged worthy for the pantheon.
“Who do you like best?” people ask about great writers. “Who is better? Who will last?” The three apparent winners in the American literary competitionas the twentieth century winds down are William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, in no particular order beyond this alphabetical one. That's the way it looks at this writing, but things change.
This is one reason friendships between writers are so unstable. “Literary friends walk on eggshells,” Richard Lingeman, biographer of Theodore Dreiser, commented, for “the demons of jealousy, envy, competitiveness” are forever lurking—usually in the shadows, sometimes more overtly. Lingeman had in mind Dreiser and H.L. Mencken, who had the gall to say frankly what he thought of Dreiser's writing. “To H.L Mencken, my oldest living enemy,” Dreiser inscribed one of his books. The eggshell comment also applies to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, once the closest of friends, who moved sharply apart under the pressure of rivalry. “Scott was crazy about immortality etc. and I was very fond of him even though he was a horse's ass,” Ernest wrote Harvey Breit as the Fitzgerald revival was heating up in July 1950. But of course he too was concerned about the favorable judgment of posterity. What else was there to work for?
The hope of recognition beyond the grave motivates most artists. Even the greatest are liable to wonder whether their accomplishment deserves the attention of future generations. On his deathbed, Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to have posed a melancholy question: “Tell me if anything ever was done.” And especially in America, given the cultural imperative of winning at all costs, the artist may look around him and regard the success of others as a threat to his own standing in the halls of judgment. There are so few niches, and so many competitors.
So it was that Ernest Hemingway took every opportunity to downgrade both of his principal rivals for preeminence in the literary sweepstakes: not only Fitzgerald but Faulkner as well. The battle was joined in the spring of 1947 when Faulkner did some informal ranking of contemporary American writers during a talk at the University of Mississippi. The best of them, he said, were Wolfe, Dos Passos, Caldwell, Hemingway, and himself. In that elite category, he placed Wolfe at the top for his courage in taking risks—including clumsiness and even dullness—in “shooting the works.” He had achieved the most “splendid failure.” Hemingway he placed at the bottom of the list, for unlike the others—Faulkner said—he lacked the courage to go out on the limb of experimentation.
The story got in the papers, and when Ernest read it he blurred the issue by taking Faulkner's remarks as a personal insult. He enlisted Buck Lanham, who had seen him under fire in World War II, to testify to his physical courage. Buck loyally wrote Faulkner that he thought Ernest “the most courageous man” he hadever known, in war or in peace. Thereupon Faulkner apologized to Hemingway. He was “just making $250” in doing his talk, and did not think he was speaking for publication. In direct communication with each other, neither writer openly addressed the sensitive subject of ranking.
In 1952, Faulkner had another opportunity to express his opinion of Hemingway's work, and once again he managed to infuriate his rival. Breit, at the New York Times, conceived the bright idea of getting Faulkner, who had just received the Nobel prize for literature, to review The Old Man and the Sea. He wouldn't know how, Faulkner said, but then sent Breit a “statement” about Hemingway and the situation of the writer. “A few years ago,” Faulkner wrote, Hemingway said that writers “should stick together, just as doctors and lawyers and wolves do.” That observation had more wit than truth in it, Faulkner thought, “since the sort of writers who need to band together… resemble the wolves who are wolves only in pack, and, singly, are just another dog.” Hemingway himself was not that kind of writer, Faulkner pointed out. In fact, he needed the protection of the pack least of all. Breit passed on Faulkner's letter to Hemingway, who chose to misconstrue it as an attack on himself as “just another dog.” In his own Nobel prize acceptance speech, two years later, Hemingway said almost exactly what Faulkner had been saying in his statement—that a writer had to work alone. Writers' organizations might “palliate” the loneliness but were unlikely to improve the writing.
In his own correspondence, Hemingway frequently disparaged Faulkner and his books. Faulkner could have his “Octonawhoopoo” or “Anomatopoeio” county. He felt cramped in any county. Faulkner's 1954 The Fable was full of phony religiosity; it was not even good night soil, only “impure diluted shit.” All you needed to write five thousand words a day like that was a quart of whiskey, the loft of a barn, and a total disregard of syntax. He started calling Faulkner “Old Corndrinking Mellifluous.” When a collection of Faulkner's hunting stories was published in 1955, Ernest sent a message via Breit that he would have been more impressed if Faulkner hunted animals that ran both ways. In his 1959 “The Art of the Short Story,” Hemingway took credit for promoting Faulkner's reputation in Europe many years earlier “because he never had a break then and he was good then.” Now, however, it was different. “Very good writer,” he said by way of summing him up. “Cons himself now. Too much sauce.” Faulkner had written “a really fine story” called “The Bear” that Hemingway would be proud to have done. “But you can't write them all, Jack.”
According to the conventional standards of success in America, Fitzgerald died a failure. The high-paying magazines would no longer buy his stories. The Modern Library took The Great Gatsby out of circulation. His books were not out of print, as has been widely reported—Scribner's had six of them in the warehouse, but they weren't selling. Fitzgerald's last royalty check, in August 1940, was for the unlucky sum of $13.13, and represented the sale of forty copies. Most of those he bought himself. “[M]y God I am a forgotten man,” he wrote Zelda in March 1940.
He had been famous, early in his career, as a romantic playboy who chronicled the rebellion of the well-to-do younger generation against the convenional mores of their elders. Fitzgerald not only wrote about that generation, but was regarded as its representative figure. Newspaper accounts of the early 1920s concentrated on his personal appearance, as if he were a movie actor. “His eyes were blue and clear, his jaw was squared…, his nose was straight and his mouth, though sensitive looking, was regular in outline. His hair, which was corn colored, was wavy.” These were the features Americans associated with beauty, “but there was a quality in the eye with which the average mind [was] unfamiliar.” Recitations of his striking good looks—the blue-green eyes, “the thatch of curly, canary hair, sliced down the middle”—were often accompanied by photographs and reports on the gay and carefree life he and his beautiful young wife were pursuing. Still in his twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald had become a celebrity, and not a celebrity—as one commentator observed—to whom much deference need be paid. Like Jay Gatsby, he had the knack of inspiring tall tales about himself. “He was an old man; he was a young roué; he was a typical westerner, who wore a big sombrero; he was a college youth, who wrote only when completely spifficated on absinthe and gin.” Finally, and most tellingly, he “was a bad influence on the country”—a reckless youth who had a great deal of growing up to do. In his influential Main Currents of American Thought (1930), Vernon Louis Parrington wrote him off as “[a] bad boy who loves to smash things to show how clever he is, a bright boy who loves to say smart things to show how clever he is—a short candle already burnt out.”
There has always been a contradiction—or “disconnect,” in the present idiom—between Fitzgerald as a man and as an author. The beautiful bad boy side of his personality, which continues to generate admiration even as it invites scorn, stands in sharp opposition to the hard-working professional who observedin one of his last letters that “[w]hat little I've accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now that I'd never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: 'I've found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing.'” Instead, he had embarked on a decade of dissipation (one of his late stories is called “The Lost Decade”), and only in his final years in Hollywood did he begin to recover a sense of himself as “a writer only.”
The image of Fitzgerald as youthful playboy continues to influence popular thinking about his short unhappy life, and it has been joined in the public imagination by a conception of him as an artist in spite of himself. As Joseph Epstein concluded in an insightful essay, Fitzgerald “has been judged something like a lucky genius as a writer and an almost pure disaster as a man.” No one is more responsible for this view of him than Edmund Wilson.
The two men met at Princeton, where Bunny Wilson—a class ahead of Fitzgerald—was editor of the Nassau Literary Magazine. He first appears in Fitzgerald's Ledger in March 1915, at a time when Wilson was heavily editing Scott's material before running it in the Lit. They also collaborated that year on the Triangle Club's “The Evil Eye,” Wilson writing the book and Fitzgerald contributing the lyrics. The two undergraduates were radically different people. Wilson, with a large head surmounting his stocky body, was sternly rational in thought and already a practicing intellectual. The radiantly handsome Fitzgerald knew much less about literature, which he approached spontaneously and intuitively. In 1916 Wilson and John Peale Bishop, another undergraduate who was unusually widely read, deflated the relatively shallow and unlettered Fitzgerald in a satirical poem about his career at Princeton.
I was always clever enough
To make the clever upperclassmen notice me;
I could make one poem by Browning,
One play by Shaw,
And part of a novel by Meredith
Go further than most people
Could do with the reading of years;
And I could always be cynically amusing at the expense
Of those who were cleverer than I
And from whom I borrowed freely,
But whose cleverness
Was not of the kind that is effective
In the February of sophomore year…
No doubt by senior year
I would have been on every committee in college,
But I made one slip:
I flunked out in the middle of junior year.
This poem displayed two emotions that motivated almost everything Wilson wrote or said about Scott Fitzgerald. As Fitzgerald's intellectual and moral superior, Bunny looked down on him with an air of condescension. But he also envied him his “cleverness”—or, to use a more generous term, his talent.
“My relations with Scott were somewhat embarrassed by my position of seniority and mentorship at college, from which he never recovered.” So Wilson summarized their friendship in a 1962 letter to Morley Callaghan, omitting to mention that he too had difficulty recovering from his initial assumption of superiority. When Fitzgerald sent him the manuscript of This Side of Paradise to read, immediately after its acceptance by Scribner's in the fall of 1919, Wilson responded with a brutally frank letter. He liked the “pretty writing and clever dialogue” (the adjectives undercutting the praise), acknowledged that “some of the poems and descriptions are really exceedingly good” (singling out for admiration what was least important, and in those double adverbs at the end revealing his surprise), and confessed that he'd enjoyed reading the book, since Scott had “the knack of writing readably” (but only a knack, after all).
The rest of the letter laid down a barrage of criticism against Fitzgerald's first novel. It contained so many mistakes it might easily be confused with the recently published The Young Visitors, a book supposedly written by a nine-year-old British girl. It read “like an exquisite burlesque of Compton Mackenzie with a pastiche of Wells thrown in at the end.” Amory Blaine, the hero, struck Wilson as an “intellectual fake of the first water, and I read his views on art, politics, religion and society with more riotous mirth than I should care to have you know” (if I hadn't only just told you). Scott needed to “tighten up” his artistic conscience and pay more attention to form, “[c]ultivate a universal irony and… read something other than contemporary British novelists.” The “history of a young man stuff had been run into the ground. As in Paradise, it merely consisted “of dumping all one's youthful impressions in the reader's lap with a profound air of importance.” These criticisms were meant for Fitzgerald's benefit, Wilson maintained. “I feel called upon to give you thisadvice because I believe you might become a very popular trashy novelist without much difficulty.”
There may have been another reason for the apparent bile in this letter to Fitzgerald. Wilson had already begun to establish himself as a leading literary commentator and critic, but must have felt a twinge of envy that Fitzgerald preceded him in getting a novel written and accepted. He rarely could bring himself to say anything positive about Fitzgerald's fiction, without immediately undercutting the praise. That was Wilson's customary pattern, to be sure. As Daniel Aaron, editor of his Letters on Literature and Politics, observed, practically every literary friend of Wilson's received “one or more admonishing letters” of this sort; “even an enthusiastic commendation was sure to contain at least a remark or two on an error in fact, a mistake in diction, or some other lapse in style or content. Wilson gladly learned, but he even more gladly taught.” The harshness of the criticism Wilson customarily leveled against everyone was only exacerbated, in Fitzgerald's case, by memories of him as a foolish and pretentiously ambitious collegian. Wilson couldn't get that recollection out of his mind long enough to conceive of Fitzgerald's accomplishing anything really important.
Fitzgerald accepted his role as inferior pupil to Wilson's stern tutor, and adopted Wilson's barbs against This Side of Paradise as his own. He inscribed a copy of the novel for Mencken as “an exquisite burlesque of Compton Mackenzie with a pastiche of Wells at the end.” He also submitted the first draft of his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, to Wilson for revision. What he wanted, Scott wrote, was this kind of criticism:
P. 10x I find this page rotten
P. 10y Dull! Cut!
P. 10z Good! Enlarge!
P. 10a Invert sentence I have marked (in pencil!)
P. 10b unconvincing!
P. 10c Confused!
In response Wilson clarified fuzzy allusions, corrected illogical syntax, and applied his editorial discernment to passages like the following:
So the bottom dropped out of the world and the two people fell into the center of the earth where, presently, they were licked by purgatorial flames. The manna of one century is the hail of the next, and the two had hailstones for food.
Wilson wrote two sentences—in pencil—in the margin. “I don't understand about the manna and the hailstones and in my opinion the whole passage is bullshit” and “Purgatory wasn't supposed to be in the center of the earth and it [contained] no flames.” Fitzgerald deleted the paragraph.
In March 1922, Wilson published the single most influential article ever written about Fitzgerald's life and work. As a courtesy, he sent the piece to Fitzgerald in advance of publication, and as a further courtesy agreed to drop his references to Scott's excessive drinking. There was a good deal else that Fitzgerald might have objected to, but did not. As usual, Bunny mingled a few complimentary remarks with a good many derogatory ones. The essay, in the Bookman, assessed both of Fitzgerald's first two novels. This Side of Paradise possessed “almost every fault or deficiency” a novel could possibly have yet did not commit the unpardonable sin: it did “not fail to live.” The Beautiful and Damned, Wilson thought, represented an advance over the earlier book, but Fitzgerald remained a “dazzling extemporizer” who had not yet acquired the discipline to “produce something durable.”
The emphasis throughout was on what Fitzgerald lacked. In considering the writer himself, Wilson stressed Fitzgerald's Irish and middle-western origins. These had left him without qualities that he ought to have had. Scott was “extraordinarily little occupied with the general affairs of the world.” He was “not much given to abstract or impersonal thought.” He suffered from a “poverty of aesthetic ideas.” He lacked “a sound base of culture and taste.” His values, deprived of a firm foundation, centered on a “preoccupation with display” and an “appetite for visible magnificence and audible jamboree.”
Most significantly of all, Wilson borrowed a metaphor from Edna St. Vincent Millay to begin his portrait of Fitzgerald. To meet him, Millay said, 'is to think of a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond; she is extremely proud of the diamond and shows it to everyone who comes by, and everyone is surprised that such an ignorant old woman should possess so valuable a jewel; for in nothing does she appear so inept as in the remarks she makes about the diamond.” Wilson corrected the details of the comparison. Fitzgerald was “no old woman, but a very good-looking young man, nor is he in the least stupid, but, on the contrary, exhilaratingly clever.” Yet there was a symbolic truth to the description. “[I]t is true that Fitzgerald has been left with a jewel which he doesn't know quite what to do with. For he has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.”
This “jewel” passage is, I think, quoted more often than any other critical comment on Fitzgerald. In it, Wilson pinned his specimen butterfly to the wall— Fitzgerald as artistic naif, as lucky genius, as an Artist in Spite of Himself—and the characterization has stuck.
Fitzgerald not only accepted Wilson's strictures about himself as a man and a writer, he welcomed them. As he wrote Max Perkins at the time, he thought Wilson's article was “superb. It's no blurb—not by a darn sight—but it's the first time I've been done at length by an intelligent and sophisticated man and I appreciate it—jeers and all.” He expressed his thanks directly to Wilson, the “shy little scholar of Holder Court” who had already become an influential man of letters. He read Wilson's article with “uncanny fascination,” Fitzgerald said. He did not see how he “could possibly be offended by anything in it.” What Wilson wrote about him was “pretty generally true.” He was guilty of the faults and took “an extraordinary delight in its considered approbation.” This sort of bowing and scraping before a man he regarded as his intellectual superior could and did become tiresome over time, but it was entirely characteristic of Fitzgerald. He knew how to humble himself, and seemed to derive satisfaction from the process.
For his part, Wilson thought Fitzgerald had plenty to be humble about. In conversation with the New York literati, he repeatedly made slighting remarks about his Princeton protégé. Burton Rascoe's New York Herald “Bookman's Daybook” column for May 26,1923, reported Wilson's observation that “F. Scott Fitzgerald mispronounces more words than any educated person he knows” and that he spends much of his time composing “idiotic songs” in collaboration with Ring Lardner. In fact Wilson saw a good deal of the Fitzgeralds during the early 1920s, and on one of those occasions he and Scott slapped together a humorous song of their own, entitled simply “Dog.”
Dog, dog—I like a good dog—
Towser of Bowser or Star—
Clean sort of pleasure—
A four-footed treasure—
And faithful as few humans are!
Here, Pup: put your paw up—
Roll over dead like a log!
Larger than a rat!
More faithful than a cat!
Dog! Dog! Dog!
And so on. As Wilson saw it, Fitzgerald's talent was best concentrated on the trivial. Only given a mindset of this sort could a normally astute critic like himself have gone so far wrong on The Vegetable, or From President to Postman, Fitzgerald's comedy of 1923.
Wilson encouraged and supported Fitzgerald at every stage during composition and production of this play, a parody of the American success story. In a reversal of fortune, a drunken railroad clerk becomes president of the United States, predictably makes a mess of things, and in the end finds happiness as a postman. The characters have no depth and the comedy lacks bite and conviction, but The Vegetable displayed Fitzgerald's cleverness and that was enough for Wilson. It was “one of the best things” he'd ever written, Wilson told Fitzgerald, “the best American comedy ever written.” He urged Scott to go on writing plays, and with the help of Mary Blair, his actress wife, worked to place the play on Broadway. Wilson stuck to his guns even after the production bombed in Atlantic City. “The Vegetable,” he wrote, was “a fantastic and satiric comedy carried off with exhilarating humor… I do not know of any dialogue by an American which is lighter, more graceful or more witty.” Graceful, witty, and light: that was the sum of what he thought Fitzgerald capable. Reviewing Scott's story collection Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), he compared the author to humorists Lewis Carroll, W.S. Gilbert, and Edward Lear. In the hardcover edition of The Vegetable published in 1923, Fitzgerald dedicated the play to “Edmund Wilson, Jr. / Who deleted many absurdities/From my first two novels I recommend / The absurdities set down here.”
Helpful as Wilson had been in getting The Vegetable on the boards, he remained in print a singularly censorious friend to Fitzgerald. In April 1924, he exposed Scott's immaturity and irresponsibility in a New Republic essay called “The Delegate from Great Neck.” The piece took the form of an imaginary dialogue between F. Scott Fitzgerald, as a representative of the nation's younger generation of writers, and Van Wyck Brooks, the distinguished senior critic. Wilson had been thinking about doing such an article for two years. As he wrote H.L. Mencken in May 1922, it struck him “as ironic that while Fitz and Zelda were reveling nude in the orgies of Westport… Brooks in the same town, probably without even knowing they were there, should have been grinding out his sober plaint against the sterile sobriety of the country.” In the dialogue Wilson created between them, Brooks speaks with dignity of his dedication to literature, and Fitzgerald emerges as an intellectually limited young man with a hunger for the immediate rewards of money and publicity. Through Brooks, Wilson was articulating his conviction that Fitzgerald had been swallowed up by a culture of commercialism. Fitzgerald lapsed into the jargon of advertising during their conversation, for example, and discoursed on how difficult he found it to get along on the princely sum (for 1924) of $36,000 a year. To support himself, Fitzgerald added, he had “to write a lot of rotten stuff that bores me and makes me depressed.” When Brooks intervenes to ask whether he couldn't live more cheaply somewhere else, Fitzgerald replies, “Nowhere that's any fun.”
At the end of their conversation, an exuberant Fitzgerald invites Brooks to attend “a little party” he and Zelda are giving at Great Neck. Gloria Swanson was coming. And John Dos Passos and Sherwood Anderson. And Marc Connelly and Dorothy Parker. And Rube Goldberg. And Ring Lardner. And some dumbbell friends of Scott's from St. Paul. And a man who sings a song called “Who'll Bite Your Netk when My Teeth Are Gone.” He'd like “ever so much” to come, Brooks responds, and he'd like to meet all those people, but he cannot accept. He must devote all his free time to writing about Henry James.
Wilson's piece was obviously written to entertain readers of the New Republic at the expense of Fitzgerald. Still, the contemptuous portrayal may have had the beneficial effect of awakening Scott to an awareness of the way his frivolous existence impinged on his obligations as an artist. Shortly after publication of “The Delegate from Great Neck,” he noted in his Ledger the decision, as of April 15, 1924, to go to Europe. There he escaped the partying long enough to write The Great Gatsby.
After the Fitzgeralds decamped from Great Neck that summer, they never again lived in the orbit of New York City where Wilson was headquartered. There were only a few meetings thereafter, and the dynamics of the relationship stayed the same. Bunny was the master, Scott the pupil. Revering Wilson's erudition and critical acumen, Fitzgerald deferred to him on literature and politics and other important issues. In “The Crack-Up,” he declared Wilson his “intellectual conscience.” In 1939, he wrote Wilson that he was “still the ignoramus that [he] and John Peale Bishop wrote about at Princeton.” In his notes for The Last Tycoon, he set down a proposed dedication: “This novel is for two people— S.F. [daughter Scottie] at seventeen and E.W. [Edmund Wilson] at forty-five. It must please them both.” Wilson was one of those he always wanted to please, if only because he so rarely succeeded in doing so. “My one hope is to be endorsed by the intellectually elite,” Fitzgerald wrote Max Perkins at the beginning of his career. During his lifetime, the hope went largely unrealized. Fitzgerald's deferential attitude toward Wilson led to the only serious quarrel between them in the fall of 1933, when Bunny objected to playing the “scholar” to Scott's “vulgarian.” Like Hemingway, he did not much fancy being hero-worshipped.
A great critic, Wilson yearned to be what he was not: a great novelist. Privately, he was able to recognize Fitzgerald's talent as superior to his own, as in a 1929 letter to Hamilton Basso. “I was re-reading The Great Gatsby last night, after I had been going through my page proofs [of the novel IThought of Daisy], and thinking with depression how much better Scott Fitzgerald's prose and dramatic sense were than mine. If I'd only been able to give my book the vividness and excitement, and the technical accuracy, of his!… I think it's one of the best novels that any American of his age has done. Of course, he had to pass through several immature and amateurish phases before he arrived at that one.” Of course.
Wilson did not share his admiration for Gatsby with Fitzgerald, nor did he express it in print. In his published comments about Fitzgerald's work, qualified praise is outweighed by brutally frank criticism. This pattern was undoubtedly caused, at least in part, by Wilson's resentment of the adulation Fitzgerald commanded from publishers, particularly as it took the form of financial support. His anger boiled over in an October 1938 letter to Perkins, where he reminded him of two previous occasions when Scribner's refused to assist him. “You wouldn't do anything for me on either occasion at a time when you were handing out money to Scott Fitzgerald like a drunken sailor—which he was spending like a drunken sailor.” Bunny Wilson would have given his eye-teeth to achieve half of Fitzgerald's reputation as a novelist, Max Perkins observed. Not until Fitzgerald died was Wilson able to regard his writing with an unprejudiced eye.
In The Crack-Up Wilson finally did his best for his old Princeton friend. As Marc Dolan perceptively commented in Modern Lives, a significant change in Fitzgerald's orientation toward his work occurred in his autobiographical pieces of the mid-1930s, and particularly in the three “Crack-Up” essays of 1936. His previous demands for personal attention gave way to a new demand for attention as “a writer only.” “‘Look at me,’ he had always implicitly proclaimed, but these new texts sang a different refrain: ‘Look at my writing.’” In editing the Fitzgerald memorial volume The Crack-Up, Wilson did his best to comply with that request.
Very likely it was the shock of editing The Last Tycoon, and discovering in the process Fitzgerald's extensive planning for that book, that stimulated Wilson to an understanding that the charming and insignificant undergraduate he had known in college had grown into a mature and accomplished artist. Then in putting together the Crack-Up volume, Wilson took it upon himself to help rescue Fitzgerald from his notorious reputation as a Jazz Age playboy—a reputation he had been instrumental in establishing. Fitzgerald was both a popular author and an artistic one, he had decided, and it was the artistic one who deserved to last.
“Consequently,” as Dolan expressed it, “throughout the editing of [The Crack-Up],Wilson remained singularly focused on what he saw as his primary task: the depiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald as a writer rather than a celebrity….” The selections from Scott's notebooks and letters were designed to illustrate the seriousness of Fitzgerald's dedication to his craft. Among the essays, Wilson included only those wherein Fitzgerald addressed his particular problems as a writer, leaving out the casual “advice” pieces of the 1920s about, for example, how former flappers and sheiks could keep their marriages alive. Omitted too was the not entirely lovable Fitzgerald who expounded for the amusement of the readers of the Saturday Evening Post on how he had gone broke on $36,000 a year (the very figure Wilson borrowed for his satirical thrust in the New Republic). Only two lighthearted autobiographical articles found their way into the volume, and both of these—though sold and signed as the work of “F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald”—were written by Zelda. In the other eight essays Wilson chose to reprint in the Crack-Up volume, Fitzgerald considered such issues as the passing of the Jazz Age and of his youthful excitement about the dreamland of New York City, and his subsequent struggles as a writer: the quest for material, the problem of how much of himself to reveal in his work, the flagging of energy and enthusiasm, the problem of “encore” confronting someone disadvantaged by too much early success.
The title page, with its roster of impressive literary contributors, lent authority to Fitzgerald as a major American writer—a description that few would have applied to him in 1945. Wilson decided on The Crack-Up as a heading for the book, followed by several subheadings:
With other Uncollected Pieces, Note-Books and Unpublished Letters Together with Letters to Fitzgerald from Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos And Essays and Poems by Paul
Rosenfeld, Glenway Wescott, John Dos Passos, John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson
The letters from luminaries Stein, Wharton, and Eliot all praised The Great Gatsby. Eliot's was especially commendatory, with its famous avowal that he thought Gatsby “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.” The essays about Fitzgerald made up a mixed bag. Rosenfeld's, published in February 1925, confessed a certain surprise at discovering “ideas so mature and poignant and worthy of fine settings” in writing so carelessly and exuberantly undertaken by this “bannerman of the slicker and flapper.” Fitzgerald showed tremendous promise but had “not yet crossed the line that bounds the field of art.” Wescott's 1941 memorial essay, written for the New Republic at Wilson's instigation, lauded Fitzgerald for daring to adopt a confessional stance in “The Crack-Up,” but otherwise rehearsed the standard party line on Scott's life and work. “In the twenties, his heyday,” Wescott wrote, “he was a kind of king of our American youth” and “[a]side from his literary talent—literary genius, self-taught—I think Fitzgerald must have been the worst educated man in the world” and “[h]e was our darling, our genius, our fool.”
Dos Passos put things right in “A Note on Fitzgerald,” composed for publication in The Crack-Up. Fitzgerald, it was true, lived through the “roaring twenties” and wrote about them. But he was no mere recording machine for the times. In fact, Dos Passos declared, Fitzgerald's best work had the admirable quality “of detaching itself from its period while embodying its period.” Now that he was gone, surely it was time to value Gatsby and The Last Tycoon (“the beginnings of a great novel”) as they deserved. “The celebrity was dead. The novelist remained.”
Everything in The Crack-Up is sandwiched between two reminiscent poems by John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson. Bishop's “The Hours,” which closes the book, recalls the dazzling Fitzgerald of their youth:
No promise such as yours when like the spring
You came, colors of jonquils in your hair,
Inspired as the wind, when woods are bare
And every silence is about to sing.
None had such promise then, and none
Your scapegrace wit or your disarming grace…
But it also poignantly recorded the despair that overtook Scott during the 1930s.
I have lived with you the hour of your humiliation.
I have seen you turn upon the others in the night
And of sad self-loathing
Heard you cry: Iam lost. But you are lower!
And you had that right.
The damned do not so own to their damnation.
I have lived with you some hours of the night…
Wilson's opening poem, called “Dedication,” presents a picture of Fitzgerald at Princeton, but without the glamour. It begins with Wilson doing for this last time what it was he had always done with Fitzgerald: fixing his copy.
Scott, your last fragments I arrange tonight,
Assigning commas, setting accents right,
As once I punctuated, spelled and trimmed
When, passing in a Princeton spring—how dimmed
By this damned quarter century and more!— You left your Shadow Laurels at my door.
The memory takes him back to a day when he unlatched his door at college and found Scott inside:
The pale skin, hard green eyes, and yellow hair—
Intently pinching out before a glass
Some pimples left by parties at the Nass…
An Atlantic storm is raging outside as Wilson writes his dedicatory poem, and the vision of Fitzgerald as self-absorbed juvenile gives way to a mirror image of “hard and emerald eyes” that
…leave us, to turn over, iris-fired,
Not the great Ritz-sized diamond you desired
But jewels in a handful, lying loose:
Wilson may have settled on the jewel image to make amends for the devastating 1922 essay where he stigmatized Fitzgerald as a man given a jewelhe did not know what to do with. In the 1945 poem, Wilson by no means discovers that all the stories and novels Fitzgerald left behind are precious stones. That would be to ask more of the critic—to shut down his conviction that the worst deserved mention at least as much as the best—than he was able to grant. So he discovers among his handful of Fitzgeraldian jewels flawed amethysts and shifty yellow opals and tinsel zircons. But also, and for Wilson this was an enormous but,
Two emeralds, green and lucid, one half-cut,
One cut consummately—both take their place
In Letters ' most expensive Cartier case.
In so celebrating Tycoon and Gatsby—two emeralds, one half-cut—Wilson went as far as he could go. Although generous with time and energy in editing both Tycoon and The Crack-Up, in the end he did Fitzgerald's reputation more harm than good through his unshakable condescension.
One difficulty was that Wilson was afflicted by what Perkins called a “Jehovah complex.” In the early 1960s, Punch lampooned this side of his personality. In this piece, William Shakespeare traveled to Princeton in order to seek Wilson's advice about the play he was working on, King Lear. The visit went badly, Wilson reported in his journal:
That week had already been a hard one for me, teaching Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway how to write, and explaining to them about T.S. Eliot and Henry James, so I may have spoken abruptly when Mr. Shakespeare did not seem to get my meaning at once…
Worse yet, Shakespeare did not take Wilson's advice about how to put right the flaws in the play's psychology. “I am beginning to suspect,” Wilson concluded, “that some writers are not worth helping, or at least that a stopover in Princeton is not enough for them to absorb all I have to tell them.”
Formidably in the right as Wilson considered himself to be, he invariably argued his case with lucidity and logic. He and Fitzgerald were—quite literally— of different minds. In a January 1929 letter to Hemingway, Perkins mentioned that Scott and Bunny were coming in for lunch the next day. The odds were that Scott would steer them to a speakeasy. “The only trouble with him is that in talk he's all over the place. You can never finish up anything you start to talk about. Wilson is thorough in his talk. I'll be glad to see them together.”
Here Perkins caught the distinction between them: Wilson rational and closely reasoned, Fitzgerald imaginative and maddeningly inconsecutive. As Eliot said of James (the very writers Wilson was “explaining” about in the Punch piece), Fitzgerald “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Eliot meant this as a compliment to James. Immersion in the realm of the rational was, in his view, the greatest danger that artists faced: “instead of thinking with our feelings (a very difficult thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas.” Reading Fitzgerald, we are moved to care about his characters nearly as much as he does, and often we take in a moral as well. But we are not taught or lectured to or reasoned with, as in even the best of Wilson's criticism.
When he first knew Scott, he was a radiant youth, handsome and early rewarded with success. Women were “beglamored” by Fitzgerald, Bunny observed. He seemed to have everything that the American dream could envision. “Youth, beauty, success—” Andrew Hook posed the dilemma, “how many critics are prepared to tolerate such a combination?” It was to be expected that Wilson, and the other critics who followed his lead, should have characterized him as immature and lacking in intellect (as compared to them), and hopelessly devoted to creation of superficial characters in a superficial Jazz Age society. In his 1934 preface to the Modern Library edition of Gatsby, Fitzgerald rose up in protest against this kind of dismissal. “I had recently been kidded half haywire by critics who felt that my material was such as to preclude all dealing with mature persons in a mature world. But, my God! it was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.” Despite this sensible complaint, and despite the corrective effect of his rise in reputation, the picture of Fitzgerald in the collective mind continues to be that of an extraordinarily good-looking young man who was somehow occasionally visited by genius.
That image has persisted, but did not seize hold on the popular imagination until it was combined with the poignant saga of Scott and Zelda as star-crossed lovers destroyed by the fates as much as by alcohol and schizophrenia. A few documents from Fitzgerald's revival outline the progress of this legend. John Abbot Clark, in his April 1952 “The Love Song of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” drew on the Schulberg and Mizener books in a parody of Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock.
Let us go then, you and I,
When Dartmouth is spread out against the sky
Like a student cracked up on a ski-run.
Oh, damn it, Budd, don't ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit…
And when I was a youngster, prepping at Newman,
The coach sent me in to play safety,
And I was frightened. And out I came.
In one's room with a book, there you feel free.
I drink, much of the night, and go south in the winter…
And so on, in a series of glimpses showing Fitzgerald in his most foolish and least mature moments.
Mizener's groundbreaking biography was followed by Andrew Turnbull's Scott Fitzgerald (1962), by four books from Sheilah Graham, most notably Beloved Infidel (1958), and in 1970 and 1971 by Nancy Milford's best-selling Zelda and Sara Mayfield's Exiles from Paradise. The emphasis in these books shifted from Fitzgerald as artist in spite of himself to the unhappy saga of Scott and Zelda. Russell Baker, in a December 1971 column, blamed his fascination with these proliferating books for his failure to achieve recognition as “Man of the Year” from Time magazine. In turning him down (in favor of Richard Nixon), Time explained why. In April, Baker read “a new book about the tragedy of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” and that impressed the magazine's editors, because they were “literary men.” But in May he read “another new book about the tragedy of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” in June “a magazine article about the tragedy of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” and in October “two new books about the tragedy of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
“The editors agreed that if the Man of the Year was going to read every new manuscript that came along about F. Scott Fitzgerald, he was going to have precious little time to do Man-of-the-Year things.”
The wonder is that Fitzgerald has survived this kind of stereotyping to command his place as one of the major literary artists of the century. To achieve a similar level of recognition, Hemingway has had to outlive the deleterious effects of an even greater celebrity.
When Hemingway shot himself in July 1961, one editorial commented that it was as if “the Twentieth Century itself ha[d] come to a sudden, violent, and premature end.” Hemingway was then the most famous writer in the world (as he still is, for that matter), and his passing brought messages of condolence from the Kremlin as from the White House. In the public mind, he existed as a rugged bearded figure known as Papa, better known for his battles with great beasts than for anything he happened to write. People knew a good deal more about what he looked like than about what he wrote (and that, too, is still true).
To a considerable extent, Hemingway was complicit in the formation of this public image. He rejected the concept of the writer as aesthete in favor of the writer as man of action, and went to bullfights and wars in order to prove the point. But much of his celebrity he could not have prevented, for he possessed from the beginning a rare charisma. Archibald MacLeish declared that he had known only two men in his life who could empty the air from a room simply by entering it: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. In large part, Hemingway simply could not stop people from talking about him.
As Dorothy Parker pointed out in her adoring 1929 profile of the thirty-year-old Hemingway for the New Yorker, “[p]robably of no other living being has so much tripe been penned and spoken.” Unable to get from Ernest much by way of information about his background, Parker presented some wild rumors about his toughness and athleticism. “About all that remains to be said,” she concluded in a passage reminiscent of the tall tales about Jay Gatsby, “is that [Hemingway] is the Lost Dauphin, that he was shot as a German spy, and that he is actually a woman, masquerading in man's clothes.” It was odd, too, that as a far-fetched legend, Parker should have come up with Ernest as a woman in disguise, for the single word most associated with Hemingway's public persona is, as everyone knows, macho.
In July 1929, an article in a magazine called Spur profiled Hemingway at the fiesta in Pamplona. The piece concentrated on description. Hemingway is spotted “at a table against one of the pillars, with a bottle of beer in front of him, and a newspaper folded to the criticism of yesterday's bull-fight, exchanging idle comments with two friends, heedless of the racket that encompasses him… dressed in loose tweeds, his collar is low and soft and his necktie is pulled awry, he is hatless and one foot is thrust into a clumsy woolen carpet slipper. Somehow he cut his foot a day or so ago.” Somehow, in fact, Hemingway was constantly injuring himself, and whenever he did it made news.
During the 1930s, as at no other time in his life, Hemingway indulged in presentation of himself (and his ideas about life and love and literature) in his writing, particularly in Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa. In a 1933 cartoon, William Steig caught the spirit of his public persona by depictinghim holding a rose in his hairy tattooed fist. In the same year, Ernest expressed his legitimate impatience with the garbage spilled onto the page about him by various publicity agents. He got Max Perkins to issue a statement in protest against Paramount's stories about him in connection with the Gary Cooper-Jennifer Jones film version of A Farewell to Arms. “Mr. Ernest Hemingway has asked his publishers to disclaim the romantic and false military and personal career imputed to him in a recent film publicity release… While Mr. H. appreciates the publicity attempt to build him into a glamorous personality like Floyd Gibbons or Tom Mix's horse Tony, he deprecates it and asks the motion picture people to leave his private life alone.”
The engines of publicity, once started, could not easily be brought to a halt. As a young man crafting a prose style for his time in Paris, Hemingway aimed high, with the prospect of fame driving him. It was his misfortune, as it was Fitzgerald's to a lesser degree, that his pursuit of fame was to have what Leo Braudy in The Frenzy of Renown called a “baroquely warping effect” on his life and reputation. Famous people in the twentieth century have characteristically shrunk into celebrities under the klieg lights of the mass media, their achievement ignored as every detail of their private lives comes under intense scrutiny.
To claims that Ernest courted such publicity, Mary Hemingway objected that they frequently dodged contact with reporters and photographers. Yet her husband seemed perfectly willing to exhibit his competitiveness and belligerence in public, as in a 1950 burst of braggadocio to Lillian Ross. “I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I've fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody's going to get me into any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I'm crazy or I keep getting better.” Then he proceeded, for Ross's edification, to denigrate Fitzgerald for his lack of knowledge of prizefighting and football. By this time, the dedicated and hard-working writer of A Farewell to Arms (1929), who withheld so much of himself that Dorothy Parker was reduced to making up rumors about him, had apparently deteriorated into a long-winded buffoon capable of thinking Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) his very best work.
In January 1954, Hemingway reached the pinnacle of his fame when reports of his premature death were circulated in newspapers around the globe. Twice in three days, planes carrying Ernest and Mary crashed, and in the second case Hemingway very nearly did die of his injuries: a concussion, a ruptured liver, spleen, and kidney, loss of vision in his left eye, loss of hearing in his left ear, a crushed vertebra, a sprained right arm and shoulder, a sprained left leg, paralysis of the sphincter, and first-degree burns on his face, arms and head. Biographer Carlos Baker believed that Hemingway never fully recovered from those injuries, which were severe enough to undercut the pleasure he might have taken in reading his own obituaries. At the end of 1954, he was fully resurrected—in the public mind, at least—by the award of the Nobel prize.
In the time remaining to him, Hemingway could never escape the glare of publicity. He had become a celebrity who was only by the way a writer. Playing the role of Papa Hemingway became a bore and a burden. Then the books began, joining the magazines and newspapers in an intolerable invasion of privacy. In his last paranoid years he became terrified that everyone—the IRS, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service—was watching him.
It has not been widely realized that Edmund Wilson played a crucially important role in establishing Hemingway's reputation, just as he did with Fitzgerald's. Wilson gave Ernest's career a very early boost and later scolded him for the self-indulgent writings of the 1930s. The young Hemingway initiated the contact between the two of them after reading in Burton Rascoe's “Bookman's Daybook” column that Wilson was amused by the in our time sketches Ernest had published in the Little Review. On October 11, 1923, he wrote Wilson an ambitious writer's letter mentioning the Rascoe column, sending him a copy of Three Stories and Ten Poems (which had been published in a limited edition that summer), and humbly asking for the names of “four or five people to send it to to get it reviewed.” Wilson acknowledged receipt of the book and said he might do a note on it for the Dial, eliciting from Hemingway flattery—“[a]s far as I can think yours is the only critical opinion in the States I have any respect for,” gratitude for Wilson's “offer to help [him] get a book before the publishers,” and praise for the helpfulness and insight of Gertrude Stein.
At the time, Hemingway's work had not been reviewed anywhere, or so he thought. In fact, Stein had done a review of Three Stories and Ten Poems for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, but Hemingway, living in Toronto at the time, did not know that. As he wrote Wilson, “[y]ou don't know anything in Canada.” Stein, oddly, preferred the poems to the stories. When he composed his review of both Three Stories and in our time for the October 1924 Dial, Wilson took the more sensible view that “Mr. Hemingway's poems are not particularly important, but his prose is of the first distinction.” After pointing out Stein's salutary influence, Wilson turned to in our time: “I am inclined to think that this little book has more artistic dignity than anything else about the period of the war that has as yet been written by an American.”
Ernest, back in Paris, wrote with thanks for the review. “It was cool and clear minded and decent and impersonal and sympathetic”: refreshingly different from “this terrible personal stuff' others were writing about him. Wilson was the only critic he could read when the book being criticized was one he knew something about. Intelligence was “so damn rare.” He did not yet know that he was already in Wilson's debt on another account. It was Bunny who recommended his work to Scott Fitzgerald and so introduced Hemingway to his greatest benefactor.
Wilson reprinted these early letters from Hemingway as aspiring writer in The Shores of Light (1952), where he took some pride in having written (as he thought) the first criticism of Hemingway's work in print. As Robert Frost said of Ezra Pound, one of the good things about Wilson as critic was that he was not “afraid to jump.” Having jumped on Hemingway's bandwagon at the start, Wilson stayed on for some time. As literary editor of the New Republic, he wrote Hemingway in January 1927 with his assessment that The Sun Also Rises was “a knockout—perhaps the best piece of fiction that any American of this new crop has done” and asking for something from Ernest for the magazine. Hemingway sent along the “Italian sketches” for the May New Republic, which were printed that fall as “Che Ti Dice La Patria?” in Men Without Women.
In part because of the title—it put Virginia Woolf off, for example—that collection of stories came in for a good deal of criticism. Wilson defended Hemingway in a December 1927 article that took reviewers Lee Wilson Dodd and Joseph Wood Krutch to task. Dodd complained that the characters in Hemingway's stories were “very vulgar people” and “very much alike: bullfighters, bruisers, touts, gunmen, professional soldiers, prostitutes, hard drinkers, dope-fiends.” In Hemingway's hands, according to Krutch, the subject matter of literature was reduced to “sordid little catastrophes.” It was true that he depicted a world full of suffering, Wilson admitted, but his attitude toward it was subtle and complicated. Wholesale condemnation of his work, like Dodd's and Krutch's, ignored such sensitively realized stories as “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Canary for One.” More importantly, even in the stories dealing with primitive types the “drama almost always turns on some principle of courage, of pity, of honor.” Hemingway was best understood “not [as] a moralist staging a melodrama, but an artist exhibiting situations the values of which are not simple.”
By way of a more aggressive retaliation, Hemingway wrote a doggerel, “Valentine For a Mr. Lee Wilson Dodd and Any of His Friends who Want It”:
Sing a song of critics
pockets full of lye
four and twenty critics
hope that you will die
hope that you will peter out
hope that you will fail
so they can be the first one
be the first to hail
any happy weakening or sign of quick decay.
(All are very much alike, weariness too great,
sordid small catastrophes, stack the cards on fate,
very vulgar people, annals of the callous,
dope fiends, soldiers, prostitutes,
men without a gallus*)
If you do not like them lads
One thing you can do
stick them up your asses lads
My Valentine to you.
What that asterisk stood for was not clear. Hemingway's fury was. Invariably hurt by such critiques, he found that lashing out was one way of relieving the attacks of depression that they brought on. Wilson, at least, was one critic who seemed to understand what he was working at. When Scribner's brought out a new edition of In Our Time in 1930, Hemingway recommended to Perkins that Wilson write an introduction, and so he did. Ernest read it while laid up in a Billings, Montana, hospital with a broken arm, and grumbled about some of Wilson's judgments, but did not ask for changes.
Relations between author and critic worsened during the 1930s, as Wilson became increasingly disillusioned about Hemingway's output. He thought “Hemingway's bullfighting book,” Death in the Afternoon, “was pretty maudlin,” Wilson wrote Fitzgerald in March 1933. Two months later the three men had their infamous dinner in New York City, where Hemingway showed signs of grandiosity while Scott alternated between flattering and insulting both of his heroes in his “half-truckle, half-bait” fashion. This was the time, Bunny twice told Scott, to “creep up” on Hemingway. In fact, Fitzgerald did more thanthat by publishing Tender Is the Night in 1934, a book that has lasted longer than anything Hemingway brought out in that decade.
Wilson had his critical say about several of those publications. “Green Hills of Africa is certainly far and away [Hemingway's] weakest book,” he declared in December 1935. It even made “Africa and its animals seem dull.” The Hemingway of Green Hills was writing about himself instead of about Africa, and, when he spoke in his own person, he often sounded fatuous or maudlin. Wilson suspected that this failure in self-criticism might be owing to the publicity legend which had been created about Hemingway. “But, in any case, among his creations, he is certainly his own worst-drawn charracter, and he is his own worst commentator.”
To Have and Have Not, Hemingway's episodic novel of 1937, Wilson regarded as “lousy,” “Hemingway in pieces,” his “Popeye-the-Sailor” novel that “from a literary point of view” surpassed even Green Hills as the worst one he had written. Nor was Wilson sympathetic to Hemingway's conversion to the cause of the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. A reformed Communist himself, Wilson became militantly anti-Stalinist in the late 1930s, and thought that Hemingway was unwittingly circulating the Moscow party line in his writing about the Spanish war. Ernest made four trips to observe the fighting in Spain during 1937 and 1938, and sent back twenty-eight dispatches to the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA) between May 1937 and June 1938.. These revealed a man willing or even eager to put himself at risk from enemy aircraft, artillery, and rifle fire, in order to report upon and support the Spanish Republicans in their struggle against fascism. A number of his dispatches were collected to make up an entire issue of a left-wing magazine called Fact. Wilson characterized them as “inept” in their insistent presentation of Hemingway's courage under fire.
This was too much for Ernest, who sat down and wrote Wilson an exceedingly insulting letter. (It may not have been sent.) He began calmly enough. “You were the first critic to take any interest in my writing and I have always been very grateful and I have always looked forward to reading anything you write about what I publish.” He had not authorized the reprinting of his dispatches in Fact, Ernest explained, but he was certainly not ashamed of them. He was hired to provide eyewitness accounts of the fighting, and that was what he did. “If you are being paid to be shot at and write about it you are supposed to mention the shooting.” Then Hemingway shifted to an ad hominem attack on Wilson as a non-combatant.
Someday, he supposed, his children would ask him, “Papa, did you really know Edmund Wilson?”
And he could say proudly, “Children I was as close to him as that… We called him Wilson the Incomparable. There was no one like him. Brave, cool, never at a loss what to do.”
“What did he do, Papa?”
“He stayed in New York and attacked everybody who went to Spain as a tool of Stalin.”
“Wasn't he smart,” said the children admiringly.
In the same December 10,1938, review where he condemned Hemingway's Spanish dispatches, Wilson considered the merits of The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. The play, “The Fifth Column,” he thought almost as bad as To Have and Have Not, but the volume was redeemed by the stories and particularly by such great new ones as “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” The collection of Hemingway's first forty-nine short stories “represents one of the most considerable achievements of the American writing of our time,” Wilson summed up, “and ought, as they say, to be in every home.”
At the same time, however, Wilson was disturbed by the transformation of Hemingway from a private writer into a celebrity, displayed in “handsome photographs with the sportsman's tan and the outdoor grin, with the ominous resemblance to Clark Gable, who poses with giant martin which he has just hauled in off Key West.” He was thus heartened, like many other critics, by the appearance of For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940. “The big game hunter, the waterside superman, the Hotel Florida Stalinist, with their constrained and fevered attitudes, have evaporated like the fantasies of alcohol. Hemingway the artist is with us again; and it is like having an old friend back.” Wilson wrote those semi-ameliorative words in October 1940, but by that time he had already published his most influential essay on Hemingway—one that drove a wedge between them.
“Hemingway: Gauge of Morale” was printed in the July 1939 Atlantic Monthly. In this extensive essay, Wilson reconsidered Hemingway's career to date, repeating and elaborating on his distaste for the books of the 1930s. “As soon as Hemingway begins speaking in the first person, he seems to lose his bearings, not merely as a critic of life, but even as a craftsman.” Nonetheless, he regarded Hemingway as a major artistic figure who had the capacity—as stories like “Macomber” and “Snows” proved—to recover from his mistakes. Hemingway's greatest achievement, Wilson saw (and however prickly and arrogant he may have been, as a critic Wilson was uncannily often right), was to tune “a marvelous prose” that derived “effects of the utmost subtlety” out of colloquial American speech. In doing so, Ernest had learned from Stein and Anderson and Lardner, but he made the technique peculiarly his own by applying it to auniverse charged with pain. For his characters, the condition of life was one of struggle against the odds, ending in defeat. Though destined to lose the struggle, they could manage a kind of moral victory by losing with honor.
To Wilson, it seemed clear that the tensions faced by Hemingway characters confronted the author himself. Yet “if he has sometimes, under the menace of the general panic, seemed on the point of going to pieces as an artist, he has always pulled himself together the next moment.” In his closing paragraph, Wilson introduced the Bourdon gauge that gave his article its title. The principle of the gauge, used to measure the pressure of liquids, “is that a tube which has been curved into a coil will tend to straighten out in proportion as the liquid inside it is subjected to an inner pressure.” Out of such pressures, if he could stand them, emerged the artist.
When Wilson attempted to reprint this essay in The Wound and the Bow, Hemingway did everything he could to stop it. Scribner's contracted to publish the book, but backed down when Ernest vehemently objected. Max Perkins then sent Wilson's manuscript to Houghton Mifflin, where Hemingway raised legal objections before finally retiring from the field. What most bothered Ernest, judging from a 1950 letter to Arthur Mizener, were Wilson's intimations about his psychological difficulties. “I get sick of Bunny Wilson writing about some mysterious thing that changed or formed my life,” he wrote to Mizener. “Why doesn't he say what the mysterious thing is? Could it be that my father shot himself? Could it be that 1 did not care, overly, for my mother? Could it be that I have been shot twice through the scrotum and through the right hand, left hand, right foot and left foot and through both knees and the head?” Luckily, he could console himself with “a beauty picture” of Wilson being kicked in the ass that Perkins had sent him.
As an early discoverer of Hemingway, Wilson had a certain investment in his success. And there can be no question that he admired the prose style Ernest was working toward in the mid-1920s—his dedication to setting down words, as Ford Madox Ford put it, that “strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place.” When he encouraged Fitzgerald in 1933 to produce more fiction in the competition with Hemingway, the implicit assumption between them was that Ernest was the more gifted and committed artist. Only after Fitzgerald's death, when he edited the manuscript of The Last Tycoon and assembled material for The Crack-Up, did Wilson recognize him as an important American writer who did not need to take a back seat to Hemingway. Ernest's spiteful attempt to stop republication in book form of the “Gauge of Morale” essay may have influenced Wilson in arriving at that judgment. By 1942, in any case, he was able to write Gertrude Stein agreeing with her that Scott had a much stronger sense of form than Ernest, “the constructive gift that Hemingway doesn't have at all.” He felt sure that some of Fitzgerald's work would last.
Hemingway's suicide in 1961 upset Wilson. Even though Ernest often made a fool of himself, he wrote, his passing made it seem “as if a whole corner of [their] generation had suddenly and horribly collapsed.” Wilson also thought it depressing that after encouraging writers to last and get their work done, Hemingway “should have died in such a panicky and undignified way as by blowing his head off with a shotgun.” Depressing, but not entirely surprising. “The desperation in his stories had always been real: his most convincing characters are always just a few jumps ahead of death. It is a wonder that this was not more noticed.”
Wilson expressed similar thoughts in his 1963 review of Morley Callaghan's That Summer in Paris. Mary Hemingway objected to his description therein of Hemingway's life as one of “acute moral strain that gave a sharp edge to sensuous enjoyment, of delusions, euphoric or frightening, that made his personal relations erratic, of deep malaise.” To that, she felt sure, Ernest would have said “Rubbish!” He cultivated no “deep malaise,” she insisted. In the twenty-five years they had been together, she “never knew him to wake up in the morning any way but happily.” That this could not have been true of the last couple of those years hardly lessened her sense that Ernest's ghost had been somehow violated.
The violation took a more overt form in 1966, when A.E. Hotchner, the magazine writer who befriended Hemingway in his late years, published Papa Hemingway, with its revelations about the debilitating mental illness that overtook him. Mary sued in an unsuccessful attempt to squelch the book. She told me afterwards that if Ernest had known what Hotch planned to write about him, he would have taken him far out into the Gulf Stream and chucked him overboard for the sharks to feed on.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald led fascinating and complicated and in the end tragically unhappy lives, and the outpouring of biographical material has kept them both in the public eye. So, too, has the substantial posthumous publication of the novels, stories, letters, and other documents they left behind. In the case of Fitzgerald, there have been several collections of stories, two books of autobiographical essays and fiction, five books of letters, books reprinting his juvenile stories and plays, a book assembling miscellaneous writings by and about him from college days on, his “Notebooks” in book form, his “Ledger” in book form, and so on.
Hemingway's mountain of unpublished and/or uncollected documents rose even higher, and has been quarried for half a dozen full-sized books, including most recently True at First Light, about the African safari in 1953 and 1954 and published at his centenary on July 21,1999. The mining of this material has been so extensive as to arouse a certain amount of controversy among writers and critics. In the November 9, 1998, New Yorker, Joan Didion denounced the practice of printing work that Hemingway had not signed off on, with particular attention to the African book. In this case, Ernest left behind some 850 manuscript pages, which were reduced to half that length in the volume as edited by his son Patrick. In The Garden of Eden (1987), which has had a tremendous influence on Hemingway's reputation, only about one-third of an amorphous script found its way into book publication. Hemingway set down in his will a specific prohibition against publication of his letters, a clause that was countermanded by the 1981 appearance of an extensive selection from them. But at least those letters were finished, signed, stamped, and mailed. For Didion, as for other writers who have echoed her objections, to publish rough and incomplete matter like The Garden of Eden or The Dangerous Summer (1985), about bullfighting in Spain, summer of 1959, or True at First Light as the work of “Ernest Hemingway” represented a deeper betrayal of confidence. This was work he had not finished, and as an artist he would hardly have wanted to leave it to aftercomers to do the job for him. Except for removing obscenities, no one at Scribner's was allowed to touch his copy. “It is damned hard on Scott to publish anything unfinished any way you look at it,” he wrote Max Perkins when he heard about plans to bring out The Last Tycoon, “but I suppose the worms won't mind.”
And yet for those of us who are eager to read everything available of Fitzgerald or Hemingway or any number of other major writers, such books offer an unexpected opportunity to savor their work anew—or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. They are both highly marketable authors, the necessary victims—or beneficiaries—of their fame. In a culture which increasingly markets writers as it does other consumer goods, it was to be expected that their names should be appropriated to sell not only their books but products that have nothing to do with literature.
By 1974, in the wake of the motion picture version of The Great Gatsby featuring Robert Redford, the commercialization of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his works began in earnest. Bars and restaurants called Gatsby's sprang up everywhere. Host Favorite sugar packets of the late 1970s, available in coffee shops, featured various symbols of the Roaring Twenties, including Babe Ruth, Al Capone, raccoon coats, flagpole sitting, and in tribute to his role as historian “F. Scott Fitzgerald—This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night. The spirit of the Jazz Age comes alive in the novels of this great writer. Nowhere else does one find a more vivid picture of the 1920's.”
By the late 1990s, both Hemingway and Fitzgerald were being marketed as brand names in far more sophisticated ways. According to Maria A. Metzner, president of Fashion Licensing of America, thirteen separate manufacturers have opted to use Hemingway's name and image in connection with their products. Most notable among these is the “Ernest Hemingway Collection” from Thomasville Furniture Industries: “96 pieces of living, dining, and bedroom furniture and accessories” in four themes—Kenya, Key West, Havana, and Ketchum. Among the other items scheduled for marketing, as of May 1999, were Hemingway pillows, picture frames, desk sets, and African masks. A similar campaign was just getting under way for Fitzgerald, with two companies strongly interested, Metzner added. “We're going back to the great icons of the century, as heroic brands.” To borrow a phrase from Hemingway, he and Fitzgerald were as dead as they would ever be. What harm could come from conjuring up his name and slapping it on a dining room suite?
In the halls of academe, Hemingway's work has customarily generated much more criticism than that of Fitzgerald. According to Susan Beegel's research, the amount of critical attention to Hemingway has been steadily growing since his death, with the number of books and articles published each year doubling between 1961 and 1991. The annual chapter on the two authors in American Literary Scholarship normally runs at least twice as long for Hemingway as for Fitzgerald. One reason for this disparity, as Andrew Hook has pointed out, is that most of Fitzgerald's writing “has been victimized critically by the success of The Great Gatsby.” In the 1998 Modern Library poll of the best books of fiction in English of the twentieth century, Gatsby finished second, behind only James Joyce's Ulysses and far in advance of anything of Hemingway's. The great preponderance of Fitzgerald criticism has focused on that one book, to the relative neglect of his three and a half other novels and nearly two hundred stories. “Because his other novels are not Gatsby,”Hook sums up the situation, “they are failures.”
The very word “failure” summons up another reason for the relative inattention to Fitzgerald's fiction. His characters repeatedly fail, and he seemed to covet his own failure, as in his declaration that unlike Hemingway he could speak with “the authority of failure.” Many have been inclined to take him at his word, but as Hook demonstrates there is a paradox here. At the same time that critics recognize Fitzgerald as a major American writer, they tend to ignore or denigrate much of his work as having somehow failed. The cause, in good part, has been the lingering sense of Fitzgerald as a popular magazine writer of lightweight stories, and as an immature artist: the fool with a jewel of Edmund Wilson's 1922 formulation. Hook poses a rhetorical question to illustrate the point. “Has there ever been an author more patronized, more put down, more condescended to, by an established critical orthodoxy than Scott Fitzgerald?” The answer, patently, is no.
“It is characteristic of operations on the literary exchange that critics usually praise an author by disparaging others. They know, but keep forgetting, that true authors can seldom he compared in any real sense, each being unique,” observed Malcolm Cowley, in his 1957 book The Literary Situation. Given impetus by the competitive drive in the culture, the process of invidious comparisons has continued, though as Cowley commented, no single measuring stick could accurately judge the achievement of any two writers accomplished enough to have found their own individual voice. Certainly that apple vs. orange distinction is true of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. As Matthew J. Bruccoli concluded in Scott and Ernest, “their work was utterly dissimilar in style, themes, material, and technique.” Style, most of all.
When she was twelve or thirteen, Didion fell in love with the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed for the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
She fancied that if she studied hard enough she might one day be able to arrange 126 words herself that captured the premonitory power of that paragraph written in a vocabulary stripped of modifiers and of much specific detail. The tension in the writing, she later decided, came from the information that was deliberatelywithheld. The speaker, who is Hemingway's protagonist Frederic Henry, does not use many words. He holds things back, and he has reasons.
It's a prose poem, that beginning, and in its simplicity of language at an opposite pole from the poetic incandescence Fitzgerald was capable of creating. In college, he had fallen in love with Keats, from whom he borrowed the title of Tender Is the Night and the technique of the unexpected verb conveying emotion. Gatsby and Daisy are together after five years apart, and Gatsby is showing her his mansion.
In the music room Gatsby turned on a solitary lamp beside the piano. He lit Daisy's cigarette from a trembling match and sat down with her on a couch far across the room where there was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.
This is description too, like the first paragraph of Farewell, but what a difference! Gatsby's excitement comes alive in the match (not the hand) that is trembling and in the light (not his heart) that bounced on the gleaming floor. Fitzgerald was proud of this passage, as he should have been, and in one of his letters to his daughter directed her to compare it with the lines in “Ode to a Nightingale” that provided its inspiration.
Joseph Epstein offered another example of Fitzgerald's magically evocative gift in description, this one from Tender. “They drank the bottle of wine while a faint wind rocked the pine-needles and the sensuous heat of early afternoon made blinding freckles on the checkered luncheon cloth.” In a single short sentence, he called up the French Riviera.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald were different, not better. Each was great in his own way. In that league, no one had to lose for both of them to be winners.
Lynn, Dream, 248. Lingeman, “Mencken and Dreiser,” 1. EH to Breit, July 8, 1950, SL, 701. Hall, Glittering, 9. Baker, Life Story, 461, 495, 503, 526, 532. SD, By Force of Will, 252-253. EH, “The Art of the Short Story,” 96-97.
Bejeweled by Bunny Wilson
SD, “Death,” 106. Woodward, Public Figure, 77, 51, 295. Epstein, “Third Act,” 52-54. EW to FSF, November 21, 1919, Letters on Literature and Politics, 45-47. Meyers, “Fitzgerald and Wilson,” 375, 377-378, 382. Cohen, “Regret,” 64-75. Elias, “Composition and Revision,” 253-256. EW, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Shores of Light, 27-33. FSF to EW, January 1922, Letters, 330. Rascoe quoted in Woodward, Public Figure, 102. EW and FSF, “Dog,” Bruccoli, Grandeur, 136. EW to Mencken, May 12,1922, Letters on Literature and Politics, 82. EW, “The Delegate from Great Neck,” Shores of Light, 141-142, 151-155. FSF, Crack-Up, 79. FSF to EW, May 16,1939, Letters, 348. SD, “Remaking of Reputation,” 5-6. FSF to MP, before December 12, 1921, Utters, 151. EW to Basso, May 9, 1929, and EW to MP, October 18, 1938, quoted in Cohen, “Regret,” 71. Dolan, Modern Lives, 148, 126-127, 119-120. Eliot to FSF, December 31, 1925, Crack-Up, 310. Rosenfeld, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Crack-Up, 317-318. Wescott, “The Moral of Scott Fitzgerald,” Crack-Up, 327-329,334-337. Dos Passos, “A Note on Fitzgerald,” Crack-Up, 338-339. Bishop, “The Hours,” Crack-Up, 344-345. EW, “Dedication,” Crack-Up, 7-9. Goldhurst, Contemporaries, 62-63. MP to EH, June 21,1941 and January 7,1929, Only Thing, 326,84. Way, Social Fiction, 146-148. Hook, “Cases for Reconsideration,” Promises of Life, ed. Lee, 20. FSF, Gatsby (New York: Modern Library, 1934), vii. Clark, “The Love Song of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Commonweal 56 (25 April 1952), 72. Baker, “Curses! Robbed Again!” New York Times (30 December 1971), 25.
The Writer as Celebrity
SD, “Hemingway and Fame,” Companion, 1, 4, 6-7, 9, 10-11. SD, By Force of Will, 2. Reynolds, 1930s, 14-15, 105. Baker, Life Story, 518-522. EW, “Emergence of Ernest Hemingway,” Shores of Light, 115-124. EW to EH, January 7, 1927, May 4, 1927, and May 18, 1927, Letters on Literature and Politics, 140-141. EW, “The Sportsman's Tragedy,” Shores of Light, 339-344. EH, “Valentine,” Little Review 12 (May 1929), 42. EH to MP, August 12, 1930, December 1, 1930, and December 8, 1930 (telegram), Only Thing, 145, 150-151, 152. EW to FSF, March 26, 1933, Letters on Literature and Politics, 229. EW, “Letter to the Russians about Hemingway,” Shores of Light, 618-622. Stephens, Nonfiction, 22. EW to Cowley, October 20, 1938, Letters on Literature and Politics, 310. EW, “Hemingway and the Wars,” Nation 147 (December 10, 1938), 630. EH to EW, ca. December 10, 1938, JFK. Raeburn, Fame, 55. EW, “Return of Ernest Hemingway,” New Republic 103 (October 28, 1940), 591-592. EW, “Hemingway: Gauge of Morale,” Atlantic 164 (July 1939), 36-46. EW to Florine Katz, March 7, 1941, and EW to MP, June 9,1941 and July 3,1941, Letters on Literature and Politics, 387-388. EH to Mizener, May 12, 1950, SL, 694-695. EW to Stein, April 17, 1942, and EW to Alfred Kazin, July 8, 1961, Letters on Literature and Politics, 346, 602. EW, Sixties, 47. EW, “That Summer in Paris,” Bit, 525. Mary Hemingway, “Department of Amplification,” New Yorker 39 (March 16, 1963), 160, 162-163. SD, interview of Mary Hemingway, September 1975.
Commercializing the Product
Didion, “Last Words,” 79-80, 77, 74. EH to MP, April 29, 1941, SL, 523. SD, interview of Maria A. Metzner, May 5,1999. Beegel, “The Critical Reception,” Companion, ed. SD, 278. “Modern Library's Classics,” F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Newsletter 8 (December 1998), 17. Hook, “Cases for Reconsideration,” Promises of Life, ed. Lee, 18-20. Cowley, Literary Situation, 127. Bruccoli, Scott and Ernest, 159. FSF to Scottie Fitzgerald, spring 1938, Letters, 29. Epstein, “Third Act,” 56.