The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald belongs first of all to the history of taste in our time. It is immensely difficult at the present moment to distinguish our responses to Fitzgerald’s achievement from our self-congratulatory feelings about certain recent changes in our own literary standards. We are likely to overestimate his books in excessive repentance of the critical errors of the ’thirties—for having preferred Steinbeck or James T. Farrell for reasons we would no longer defend. Fitzgerald has come to seem more and more poignantly the girl we left behind—dead, to boot, before we returned to the old homestead, and therefore particularly amenable to sentimental idealization.
And so a fictionist with a “second-rate sensitive mind” (the term is Tennyson’s description of himself, and evokes the tradition of late Romanticism in which Fitzgerald worked) and a weak gift for construction is pushed into the very first rank of American novelists, where it becomes hard to tell his failures from his successes. Who cares as long as the confetti flies and the bands keep playing! It is all to the good, of course, that hundreds of thousands of us require the reprinting of his books, actually read him again along with the recent Mizener biography. He had threatened for too long to remain a “case” about whom everyone merely talks. If we were only content with reclaiming an imperfect good writer, who achieved just once a complete artistic success, but who in every book at some point breaks through his own intolerable resolve to be charming above all and touches the truth!
But, Lord have mercy on us, we want a “great” writer. It is at once the comedy and tragedy of twentieth-century American letters that we simply cannot keep a full stock of contemporary “great novelists.” In the novel, unlike recent poetry in which certain reputations have grown slowly and steadily, we have had an erratic market: reputations fantastically overpriced are in an instant deflated, and new booms are launched. From moment to moment we have the feeling that certain claims, at least, are secure, but even as we name them they shudder and fall. Who now mentions James Branch Cabell? And who can think of Dos Passos and Steinbeck without a twinge of shame for dead enthusiasms? Dreiser and Farrell find a few surly defenders—but even their granted merits seem irrelevant to our current situation. Whom have we left? Faulkner and Hemingway, and even now the stock of the latter has begun to fall; a thousand imitators reveal the weaknesses we had not seen, and the younger critics begin, to the shrill screams of Hemingway’s contemporaries, the drastic revision. Into our depopulated pantheon, therefore, we impress Fitzgerald.
Who else? There are several reasons that impel the choice: we have reached the point from which the ’twenties, Fitzgerald’s ’twenties, can be regarded with the maximum nostalgia; we readopt the hairdos, the songs—and the authors. We see him now as one who refused to whore after strange Marxist gods, our lonely St. Anthony, faithful to literature in the sociological desert. The versions of Fitzgerald that these estimates imply are perhaps not quite true, but they are believed in and will do. And yet the essential appeal of Fitzgerald is elsewhere—astonishingly enough, in his failure.
Mr. Schulberg in his recent novel has remarked that in America nothing fails like success; but of course the obverse is also true: among us, nothing succeeds like failure. We are, behind a show of the grossest success-worship, a nation that dreams of failure as a fulfillment. The Christian paradox of the defeated as victor haunts our post-Christian world. None of us seems really to believe in the succeeding of success, though we do not know how to escape from its trap; and it has become one of the functions of our writers to supply us with vicarious failures for our second-hand redemption.
Edgar Allan Poe provides the prototype, of course: dope, whisky, the shadow of madness, poverty and early death—and Fitzgerald is the perfect modern avatar. It is the Fall not of a King, but of an Artist, the disaffected son of the middle class, of us all, that we demand to stir our pity and terror. For the great quasi-literate public, Fitzgerald is providing right now the tragic experience: creating, in the great amphitheater without walls of articles in Life, abridgments in the Atlantic Monthly, paragraphs in the papers, and 25-cent reprints, a debased equivalent of what the Athenian found in the Oedipus Rex. When any American writer refuses to live into the conventional public myth, the people remake him, as even Poe was retouched by Griswold, who invented in malice the American Writer, and as Stephen Crane was lied and vilified into the image necessary to us all.
But Fitzgerald willed his role as a failure, for all his paeans to success. Long before his own actual crack-up, he dreamed it, prophesied it in his stories and novels; and if one cannot read his true desire in the fictional projections, Mr. Mizener’s account of the life more than confirms the intimations. Mr. Mizener’s greatest merit as a biographer is that he does not cut the fabric of Fitzgerald’s life to his own views, but by balancing a half-dozen partial readings of his career permits still others (including this one) that do not suggest themselves explicitly to him. Instinctively, Fitzgerald hoarded his defeats like his truest treasures: his rejection as a young man by Ginevra King, his expulsion from Princeton, the imagined attacks of tuberculosis and the real ones (a disease in which the will is all), the cutting to pieces of his prized movie script by Joe Mankiewicz— and above all, the drinking.
From the beginnings of Western literature, there has been a tradition of the flaw as essential to the writer, but at various times there have been various notions of the ideal charismatic weakness: blindness in the most ancient days, incest in the Byronic period, homosexuality in the fin de siecle. But in America the flaw has been pre-eminently drunkenness, from Griswold’s Poe dead in the gutters of Baltimore to Schulberg’s Halliday-Fitzgerald dying among the undergraduates at Dartmouth. It was quite another sort of culture hero, the battered John L. Sullivan, who said mournfully, “Booze done it!”; but the words make an appropriate epitaph for our typical writer.
Every writer in Fitzgerald makes his first staggering entrance loaded: McKiscoe in Tender Is the Night, “Four-eyes” in Gatsby, Wylie in The Last Tycoon; the profession is inseparable from the vice. It is, I suppose, because the “twenties were the time when drinking became quite simply the American Character, or at least its public face, that Fitzgerald was so much at home in that world, unalienated from the general binge. Mr. Mizener’s book makes quite clear the pathetic hollowness of Fitzgerald’s claim to be a spokesman for the ’twenties in the formal sense, a kind of higher John Held, Jr.; and a quick, embarrassed rereading of This Side of Paradise, with its queasy panegyrics of “kissing” and “petting,” reveals a writer far too naive and principled to speak for a time without principle. And yet Fitzgerald and his audience were, until the ’twenties died, at home with each other; the American citizen as lush and the American artist as lush cried into the same beer. It was not that only Americans, or American writers, drank (there was always James Joyce, as Hemingway reminded Fitzgerald between drinks), but that for Americans it so much mattered; and that in the United States, before drinking could become an overwhelming habit, it had first to be forbidden. It is surely no accident that the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s best book has, like his author, grown wealthy on Prohibition, the sensitive bootlegger as the last Romantic—the “great” Gatsby, for whom only the drunken writer turns out to mourn after his inevitable defeat.
The greatest drunken writer whom Fitzgerald created, however, appeared in none of his books—being, of course, Fitzgerald himself. A part of the apparent waste of Fitzgerald’s life stems from his having invested most of his energy in composing himself; and his Collected Works have not been finished until ten years after his death. One cannot claim to have read him without having read The Far Side of Paradise or the letters and reminiscences collected in The Crack-Up. It is the glory and the curse of the Romantic writer that his achievement cannot survive his legend without real loss. When the lives of Scott and Zelda are forgotten, or when they have become merely chronologies without the legendary distortions and pathos, his books will be less rewarding. Think of Byron, to whom his sins are as necessary as drunkenness and the madness of his wife are to Fitzgerald!
The obverse of the Romantic habit of living one’s life as if it were a work of art is that of writing one’s books as if they were autobiographies. Fitzgerald is wary in this respect, but his dodges are superficial and ineffective. In his later books, he resolutely refuses to use the writer or artist as protagonist or point-of-view character. Even in The Last Tycoon, where the writer Wylie is obviously the character through whom the story of Stahr must be told, Fitzgerald’s resolve to keep the writer as character peripheral quite ruins any possibility of a coherent organization; and in the end Fitzgerald smuggles himself into the skin of Stahr and of the young girl through whom the events are seen. Nothing is gained, and a good deal is lost—organization, certainly, and consistency of characterization.
It is not by pretending that one’s central character is a gangster or psychiatrist or producer that one avoids turning art into confession; it is a question of method and irony and detachment, the devices that made Stephen Hero into Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the devices that Fitzgerald never mastered.
Any one of Fitzgerald’s novels will illustrate the point; but perhaps Tender Is the Night will serve best of all. Almost all the main characters (Nicole Diver, the female lead, is of course based on Zelda), whatever their outsides, turn out to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dick Diver, the protagonist, who seems from a distance the assured aristocrat, the obverse of the author, reveals on the first close-up the Irish lilt, the drunkenness, the tortured sensibility that are Fitzgerald’s. The pretentious novelist (enter drunk, to be sure!), Albert McKiscoe, is Scott in caricature, his social insecurity, his pretenses, even the early success he feared and hated. Abe North, faintly disguised as a musician, is Ring Lardner; but Ring Lardner was Fitzgerald’s favorite alter ego, in whom he liked to see the image of his own doom (exit drunk, of course!). One could do a marvelous movie with all these parts played by the same actor—a different stance, different costuming, and as the camera moves close: the same face.
Even the young moving-picture actress, Rosemary Hoyt, turns out to be a version of the author. She is Irish (always a clue), full of embarrassment and guilty pride at a too-sudden success, and quite indeterminate in her sex. Indeed, the book is shot through with a thematic playing with the ambiguity of sex: Dick Diver makes his first entrance in a pair of black lace panties, and homosexuals, male and female, haunt the climaxes of the novel. “Economically,” Rosemary’s mother tells her at one point, “you’re a boy, not a girl.” Economically! One recalls the portrait of Fitzgerald as the most beautiful showgirl in the Triangle Show.
I had felt all this before reading in Mr. Mizener’s biography that in The World’s Fair, an abandoned book from whose fragments the first part of Tender Is the Night is made, Rosemary was indeed a boy, who was to kill his mother according to the original plot. It has been observed by Malcolm Cowley that Fitzgerald has always a double vision of himself, as outsider and insider at once, the man of the world and the bumpkin gawking at him; but it has not been remarked that at the end of his writing career the outsider had become defined as the Young Girl, a kind of anima figure, desiring hopelessly the older man who is also Fitzgerald, himself double: in the eyes of the girl all power and glamor, in his own view aging and corrupt or at the point of death.
In his last two novels, the same relationship appears, and the same sort of character as narrator, a portrait of the artist as a breathless young girl, still virgin though not without experience. Each time the affair ends in a deflowering without love and an eventual desertion, Diver-Fitzgerald abandoning Rosemary-Fitzgerald for Nicole-Zelda, and Stahr-Fitzgerald leaving Cecilia-Fitzgerald for Kathleen; the protagonists choosing both times that Other Woman by whom Fitzgerald symbolizes the lure of death and destruction which is stronger even than self-love.
This constant impulse to confuse himself with his characters destroys first of all the consistency of the people in his books; but, even worse, it leads Fitzgerald into an indulgence in self-pity, which is the grossest manifestation of his prevailing sentimentality. He is sentimental about everything—Princeton, the First World War, sex (egregiously!), Skull and Bones, Gold Star Mothers—but especially about his own plight. Everywhere in his work there is a failure of irony and detachment that amounts finally to a failure of intelligence, an indulgence of the “second-rate sensitive mind.”
Like most American writers, Fitzgerald had to work without an accepted tradition to sustain him or received standards against which to measure himself. All his life, he moved uncertainly between the demands of his own erratic sensibility and a desire to please a great, undefined audience—to be loved by everybody. Like one of his own epicene coquettes, he postured and flirted with all comers, trying to cling meanwhile to a virginity which became more and more a technicality. To be wanted and admired, he was willing to seem to say less than he meant, to appear merely chic; so that it is still possible to read even his best books with no understanding and much pleasure. How could he ever find time to learn how to put a novel together with skill! All his life, point-of-view baffled him, and he was forced to make his transitions with such awkward links as: “To resume Rosemary’s point of view, it should be said…” or “This is Cecilia taking up the story…”
And yet… there is always the style of the details, the glow and motion of the close of Gatsby or the opening of Tender Is the Night, those wonderful approaches and fadeouts. There is always the naive honesty of reminiscence, the embarrassing rightness of his adolescents. And there is the supreme negative virtue: Fitzgerald’s refusal to swap his own lived sentimentalities for the mass sentimentalities of social protest that swamp the later Hemingway. Even the compulsive theme of the femme fatale, the Ail-American banality of woman as destroyer, is capable of subtleties forever beyond the “proletarian novel.” When Fitzgerald treats social themes he is absurd; surely there appears in the overrated fragment, The Last Tycoon, the least convincing Communist in American fiction. But he resisted the temptation to end Tender Is the Night with Dick Diver sending his kids off to the Soviet Union, a close that might well have won him the plaudits he so needed in 1934.
But, beyond all this, one feels in his work a great theme, however elusive and imperfectly realized. It is not love, though love is superficially everywhere in his writing; nor is it Europe, though he lived there and set one book and many stories in the expatriate background. Though he was educated in Catholic schools, it is not religion. His books have no religious insights, only religious decor—the obsessive metaphor of the “ruined priest,” a theatrical making of the cross to close a book, a belated Aubrey-Beardsley-ish priest. The sensibility of the Catholic in America becomes, like everything else, puritan: the devil, self-consciously introduced in This Side of Paradise, shrinks to an evil aura around a tart’s head. There is in Fitzgerald no profound sense of evil or sin, only of guilt; and no gods except the Rich.
The Rich—there is the proper subject matter of Fitzgerald, as everyone has perceived: their difference from the rest of us, and the meanings of that difference. That “other woman” who is death is also wealth; the girl, like Daisy, with gold in her voice. Of course, the wealthy in Fitzgerald are not real, but that is precisely the point. Whether in declared fantasy like “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” or in nominally realistic novels, they resemble veritable millionaires as little as Natty Bumppo resembles an actual frontiersman. But they are, at least—like that Cooper character and unlike the nasty rich in proletarian novels—myths rather than platitudes, viable to the imagination.
It is not just snobbishness that drew Fitzgerald to the rich, the boy from St. Paul dreaming his life long of an imagined Princeton. In all his writing, one senses Fitzgerald in search of an American equivalent to les grands, the aristocracy to whom the French writers were able to turn in their reversion from the grubby bourgeois world. Was there anywhere, in America or among Americans abroad, a native aristocracy to whom “style” was a goal and a dream? It is not money getters, but spenders, to whom Fitzgerald turned in his search for allies, out of a sense that the squandering of unearned money was an art, like writing, that squandering of an unearned talent; and that among the very rich there might be a perpetual area of freedom, like that in which the artist momentarily feels himself in the instant of creative outpouring.
The world where a penny saved is a penny earned is the world of anti-art. The lower middle class in particular, Fitzgerald felt, were the enemies of style. He wanted a class that knows how to use writers, or at least desires a kind of life in which the imagination would have a chance to live. It was a hopeless dream, and in the end Fitzgerald learned two things: first, that the rich, whatever the quality of their living, regard the artist not as an ally but as a somewhat amusing arriviste; and, second, that to live the life of high style is to remain a moral child, who destroys whatever does not suit his whim. To be “rich,” in the sense he dreamed, is to refuse responsibility, to deny fate, to try (as in the terrible scene toward the close of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”) to bribe God. There is implicit in such a life a doom as absolute as its splendor, and in this sense alone the career of the very rich is like that of the artist.
It is a vision atrocious and beautiful enough to be true, and it survives in Fitzgerald’s work, despite the incoherence and sentimentality, with the force of truth. It is fitting that our chronicler of the rich be our prophet of failure. To those who plead that Fitzgerald could not face up to life and success, it can be said that at least he kept faith with death and defeat.
Leslie Fiedler is a professor at Montana State University and the author of Love and Death in the American Novel. The essay on Fitzgerald in this book comes from his collection called An End to Innocence.
Published in An End to Innocence by Leslie Fiedler (Boston: Beacon Press. 1955).