When Scott Fitzgerald died, a good many of the obituaries showed a curious note of self-righteousness. They didn’t review his work, they merely reviewed the Jazz Age and said that it was closed. Because he had made a spectacular youthful success at one kind of thing, they assumed that that one kind of thing was all he could ever do. In other words, they assumed that because he died in his forties, he had shot his bolt. And they were just one hundred percent wrong, as The Last Tycoon shows.
Fitzgerald was a writer, and a born writer, and a writer who strove against considerable odds to widen his range, to improve and sharpen his great technical gifts, and to write a kind of novel that no one else of his generation was able to write. How far he had come along the road to mastery may be seen in this unfinished draft of his last novel. We have had a good many books about Hollywood, including the interesting and staccato What Makes Sammy Run? But the difference between even the best of them and The Last Tycoon is not merely a difference of degree but a difference in kind. The Last Tycoon shows what a really first-class writer can do with material—how he gets under the skin. It doesn’t depend for success on sets or atmosphere, local color or inside stuff; it doesn’t even depend for effect on the necessary exaggerations of the life that it describes. All that is there—the Martian life of the studios, brilliantly shown. But it is character that dominates the book, the complex yet consistent character of Monroe Stahr, the producer, hitched to the wheels of his own preposterous chariot, at once dominating and dominated, as much a part of his business as the film that runs through the cameras, and yet a living man. Had Fitzgerald been permitted to finish the book, I think there is no doubt that it would have added a major character and a major novel to American fiction. As it is, The Last Tycoon is a great deal more than a fragment. It shows the full powers of its author, at their height and at their best.
The book begins with a brilliant description of a flight in a transcontinental plane. It breaks off after an equally brilliant drunken scene between Stahr, the producer, and Brimmer, the communist—breaks off with perhaps half its story told. In between, we get to know Stahr and we get to know Hollywood. But, chiefly, we get to know Stahr, the “last tycoon,” the individualist, the man who has to make the decisions, who has to be right, or the whole machine will break down, yet the man who feels personally responsible to all the men who work for him. It is an extraordinary portrait, for you no more question Stahr’s curious creative drive than you do his limitations. And the tragedy of the book is implicit in Stahr himself, in his strength as well as in his weaknesses. The machine and the life he had helped to create are bound to destroy him in the end. But—at least as Fitzgerald had planned it—he goes down whole.
Wit, observation, sure craftsmanship, the verbal felicity that Fitzgerald could always summon—all these are in The Last Tycoon. But with them, there is a richness of texture, a maturity of point of view that shows us what we all lost in his early death. And, included in this volume, besides a synopsis of the incompleted portion of the novel and a number of Fitzgerald’s notes for it, are The Great Gatsby and some of the short stories, among them “The Rich Boy,” “Absolution,” and “May Day.” I could have wished for more—for a couple of the earlier ones with theireasy, floating grace instead of the rather labored “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” But the ones here are enough for evidence— and the evidence is in. You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation—and, seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.
Published in The Saturday Review of Literature magazine (1941).