F. Scott Fitzgerald and his Contemporaries
by William Goldhurst

Chapter VI

“I am more of a solitary than I have ever been…”—Fitzgerald to his daughter

Fitzgerald wrote in 1932 that he had once believed there were no second acts in American lives. Fitzgerald admirers have adopted this observation as a pet epigram and have made it part of the celebrated legend. But it is curiously inappropriate to the American life represented by Fitzgerald himself. There was of course the gaudy but appealing first act with its drama of youth and success. With the beautiful Zelda at his side Fitzgerald dominated the stage with an intensity which suggested, perhaps even to himself, that the episodes to follow would be inevitably anticlimactic. Yet the years of disillusion and decline, in the late twenties and early thirties, have a vivid interest of their own; and they were succeeded by what Malcolm Cowley has called a “third act and epilogue”—a period as important for an understanding of Scott Fitzgerald as anything that came before.

Most of this last period was spent in Hollywood during the years 1937-1940. Here Fitzgerald was occupied with a number of odd jobs writing for the studios and with the composition of approximately thirty short stories (most of which appeared in Esquire). He also engaged in a deeply felt, though erratic, love affair and suffered a series of lapses into alcoholism and ill-health. And near the end he applied himself to serious literary work on his Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. Underlying all this activity we may discern a consistent extension of the pattern I have traced throughout this study: the impulse on Fitzgerald's part toward finding a new source of influence and inspiration, the temperamental urge to discover someone to respect and emulate, someone who might impart new ideas and kindle the imagination to new creative efforts.

A brief review of Fitzgerald's professional development up to this point will help us establish the significance of the Hollywood years. A true development it was, unmistakably: each of Fitzgerald's four novels represented a change of approach to the materials of fiction and the treatment of those materials. His style underwent a transformation from novel to novel: the episodic, poetic, and dramatic This Side of Paradise was succeeded by the more consistently narrative Beautiful and Damned; The Great Gatsby exhibited skillful selection and organization; Tender Is the Night revealed increased powers of mature and realistic observation. Fitzgerald's ideas and themes, too, show a process of expansion and increasing depth over the years. His first novel—with its emphasis on the personality of the hero, its fabric of undergraduate days, young love, and exuberant, half-formulated theories of life and society—suggests the author's youth and intellectual naivete. The Beautiful and Damned reflects Fitzgerald's awareness of wider areas of American behavior and American society, while TheGreat Gatsby reveals the novelist in the act of judging (rather than simply exploring) the values of a particular social class. Tender Is the Night conveys Fitzgerald's mature impressions of the American leisure class and the disaster latent in the American Dream; it exhibits these themes on a broader canvas than Gatsby; it shows familiarity with a European setting; and it comprehends a larger and more diverse dramatis personae. In both style and content Fitzgerald's novels trace a course of continuous growth, a dynamic contour embracing variety, change, and increased understanding.

I have tried to show in earlier chapters how closely Fitzgerald's professional development was related to his personal associations with other writers. Here, too, there was a course of change and variety. In his most active and productive years Fitzgerald seemed to leap from enthusiasm to enthusiasm: “You are the best guide, the best judge of my work” is a consistent refrain from his days at Princeton to the publication of Tender Is the Night; and we recall that he applied this phrase (or words to the same effect) to Wilson, Mencken, and Hemingway successively. These personal enthusiasms, it seems clear, were reflected in the matter and manner of Fitzgerald's fiction. Edmund Wilson played a part in the composition of Fitzgerald's first three novels; Mencken influenced The Beautiful and Damned and The Vegetable; Lardner contributed important elements to The Great Gatsby; and Hemingway left an indelible impression on “The Rich Boy” and Tender Is the Night. Fitzgerald's casual admission, in 1920, that he was “a professed literary thief, hot after the best methods of every writer in my generation” [“An interview with F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Saturday Review, XLIII:45 (Nov. 5, 1960), 56. Originally written in 1920, but not published until 1960.] is a significant bit ofself-awareness; but his instinct for such pilfering was to develop into something more. He was to test his ideas against some of the best minds of his time, to absorb their impressions and deepen his own understanding of his craft, and to profit enormously from their insights and experience.

It might be presumptuous to claim that Fitzgerald was dependent—perhaps more so than was good for him personally—on the stimulation provided by other writers. Yet there are occasional passages in his works that support this notion. The Richard Caramel motif in The Beautiful and Damned is a revealing instance of Fitzgerald's thoughts on the subject: Caramel, the shallow but extremely successful writer who makes infrequent appearances in the novel, confesses at one point that he is writing faster, and thinking less, since his intellectual companions have ceased to provide him with conversation and stimulation. Years later Fitzgerald recorded in “The Crack-Up” series his own frightened realization that the years of dependency had resulted in disorientation and a fragmented personality:

For twenty years a certain man had been my intellectual conscience. That was Edmund Wilson… . Another man represented my sense of the “good life”. … A third contemporary had been an artistic conscience to me. … A fourth man had come to dictate my relations with other people. … So there was not an “I” any more—not a basis on which I could organize my self-respect. … It was strange to have no self—to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do—

In the same series of essays Fitzgerald listed all writers as among the people he found intolerable: “I avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can.”

What “trouble” was he thinking of? Snubs from Wilson? Bad reviews from Mencken? Quarrels with Hemingway? Or was it a more general trouble—a sense that he had given himself emotionally, and leaned on others intellectually, without a thought to conserving his inner resources or, finally, his identity? In any case, he was now a little boy in a big house with nothing to do—a feeling that must have been intensified by the fact that there was no Wilson or Mencken or Lardner or Hemingway on his horizon. Doubtless he was in no mood to initiate another such companionship, with its concomitant burden of admiration, study, and struggle for self-enrichment: his mounting debts, his wife's illness, his own poor health, and his professional inertia—the middle nineteen-thirties were Fitzgerald's years of disappointment and despair, his “dark night of the soul.” The effort required to summon the old enthusiasm was not to be thought of; and then, even if he had been willing, could anyone within his diminishing circle of acquaintances qualify as a new guide and judge? Fitzgerald's prospects at this time seemed desperately slim and unpromising.

Yet “The Crack-Up,” which recorded these depressing circumstances with ruthless cynicism, represented the first step on the road back. Arnold Gingrich remembers visiting Fitzgerald, late in 1935, to urge him to submit material to Esquire—from which magazine Fitzgerald had received a number of advances for work not yet received. Gingrich, hoping to rouse Fitzgerald from his gloom and inactivity, explained that the auditors of Esquire were becoming troublesome about the novelist's account in the ledger books: money advanced, no work forthcoming. Could Fitzgerald produce something to relieve Gingrich's embarrassment? “Write anything,” the editor advised: a manuscript of some kind—something to keep in the files—to placate the bookkeeping department.  Fitzgerald reflected a momentand then agreed to Gingrich's proposal: “I'll write about why I can't write any more,” he said. Soon afterward he sent Gingrich the manuscript of “The Crack-Up.” And in the following months Fitzgerald turned out semistories— “Afternoon of an Author” and “Author's House”—which represent a bridge between the autobiography of “The Crack-Up” and the fiction he would again produce as he emerged from his slump.

Not long afterward he settled in Hollywood, where he commenced his “third act and epilogue”—a period of three and a half years that was not, as Mark Schorer claims in his recent biography of Sinclair Lewis, a time of “final isolation and despair,” but rather a partially successful attempt to regain his old ability and self-confidence. There were still alcoholic outbursts, periods of debility and sickness, and other troubles; but he was producing again, and judging from his letters during this time he had recovered a large measure of his optimism and pride of craft. Budd Schulberg, who knew Fitzgerald during these years, confirms this impression: Fitzgerald was physically on the downgrade but creatively on the rise, Schulberg writes in a recent issue of Esquire. And he adds that Fitzgerald was as “ready” for the years to come—that is, emotionally and creatively eager to produce—as any writer Schulberg knew.

What happened to Fitzgerald in Hollywood seems clear enough. He had accepted a position with the studios because they offered him impressively high pay, which he could not hope to earn publishing fiction. His script-writing work left him little energy for more serious projects; but in 1939, by which time he had exhausted his supply of steady jobs at the studios, he turned again to fiction. “Never any luck with movies,” he had written in 1936. “Stick to your last, boy.” Fitzgerald had begun to emerge from his creative inertia; he was in earnest now; and he turned out a large number of short stories and made good progress on his Hollywood novel. Around this time he wrote to a friend that he was feeling a new “lust for life” again; “the gloom of all causes does not affect it—I feel a certain rebirth of kinetic impulses… .” Fitzgerald's “feeling of rebirth” signified his readiness for a new cycle of development.

But what did he produce during these last years? With only a few exceptions, Fitzgerald's short fiction in 1939-1940 is devoted to the Pat Hobby series (he wrote seventeen of these stories in all). Pat Hobby is a third- or fourth-string writer for the Hollywood studios—a character with a penchant for graceless behavior and bad luck. Fitzgerald's tone in these stories is half-ironic, half-tolerant, amused, and understanding. The details of studio life and the circumstances of Pat's down-and-not-quite-out existence are all there: the hero is a convincing creation, the setting is vividly and authoritatively presented. The Hobby stories are, in fact, extremely successful efforts—for what they are. But their effect is finally disappointing. Fitzgerald was not attempting anything significant in them, and significance is the one quality they surely lack. They are among the most trivial of Fitzgerald's works, and their triviality is the more conspicuous for their being the product of the novelist's mature years. Even the flimsiest of the early stories (see, for example, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”) conveys a more immediate sense of importance than these miniatures in the life of a Hollywood ne'er-do-well.

The Last Tycoon, of course, is another matter. Into his last novel Fitzgerald projected more than his perceptive awareness of life in Hollywood; even in its unfinished state, the work suggests that Fitzgerald invested in its composition the fullest extent of his talent, intelligence, and experience. The hero's intense love affair, his struggle to maintain his empire against intrigue, unscrupulous competition, and a violently changing system of values and political attitudes—these aspects of content lend substance and seriousness to Fitzgerald's final effort. And although The Last Tycoon suggests no development on Fitzgerald's part, no new discoveries in the art of novel-making, the completed sections are informed by the spontaneous and inspired quality of his best fiction. It is obvious, then, that Fitzgerald was capable of distinguished work without the benefit of the stimulus provided in earlier years by Wilson, Mencken, Lardner, or Hemingway.

Yet there are strong indications that The Last Tycoon was the product of some such stimulation. If in the insignificant Pat Hobby stories Fitzgerald was drawing an exaggerated and cynical portrait of himself, in the more serious Last Tycoon he was portraying, at least in part, the Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg, a man for whom he felt profound respect. Fitzgerald's old habit of admiration apparently fixed itself on this young motion-picture genius, about whom he wrote in The Last Tycoon:

He had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, when he was young. And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously—and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth.

To a large extent, of course, this is self-portraiture. In illustration we might compare the similar imagery Fitzgerald applied to himself in the story-essay “Author's House.” The narrator of “Author's House” conducts his visitor to the turret, or watchtower of his residence and wistfully confesses: “I lived up here once… . For just alittle while when I was young.” For further confirmation we have Budd Schulberg's word that Monroe Stahr was Thalberg “ingeniously combined with and romantically filtered through the nature of Scott himself.” We cannot say what proportion of the admixture was Fitzgerald; but it is clear that a large part of the characterization stemmed from the novelist's fascination with the brilliant young producer. In addition, it seems that Schulberg himself was responsible for some of the material Fitzgerald incorporated into his last novel: Fitzgerald used several of the younger writer's anecdotes about Hollywood life, and when Schulberg later read the novel he found that Fitzgerald had occasionally quoted him verbatim. Obviously the imagination of the novelist was being stimulated in the old way: he was fashioning his material after impressions received from men whom he admired and with whom he had enjoyed a personal-professional association.

At the same time, the fact that The Last Tycoon approximates the earlier style of The Great Gatsby (A fact that Fitzgerald himself recognized in his “Notes” to The Last Tycoon: “If one book could ever be 'like' another, I should say it is more 'like' The Great Gatsby than any other of my books.”),suggests that Fitzgerald failed to encounter a writer during this period who might have inspired him to attempt a new manner or mode of presenting his materials. Indeed, the Hollywood writers Fitzgerald did encounter (with a few exceptions) seemed to evoke a strong unfavorable reaction. To Gerald Murphy, Fitzgerald wrote in 1940 that he had found no interesting groups in Hollywood, that even after brief acquaintance one recognized that everywhere there was corruption or indifference, and that the heroes of the community were the great corruptionists or the supremely indifferent—by whom he meant, Fitzgerald explained, the spoiled writers of Hollywood. It is also evident that whileSchulberg and Thalberg provided some of the inspiration for The Last Tycoon, neither one represented the kind of influence that might have effected a reorientation of Fitzgerald's approach to his art.

Mention of Schulberg suggests another interesting aspect of Fitzgerald's life at this time, one that is closely related to the novelist's susceptibility to influence. If at the age of twenty or twenty-four or even thirty Fitzgerald had adopted the role of novice at the feet of the master, he must have found something incongruous about assuming the same position at the age of forty-two or -three. When he came to Hollywood he was not exactly an “established author”—he felt too poignantly the neglect and indifference of his public—but he was something of an old hand; and he had, among a small company of American readers, his devotees. It is difficult to escape the feeling that it was now the turn of the pupil to be the mentor, the time for the man who had been guided and influenced to become a guide and influence to others. It should be stated that Fitzgerald not only adopted this mature role willingly, but that he performed it with generosity and grace. There might have been some ambivalence to his performance, as when he accepted Schulberg's homage at the same time that he was picking his brain for Hollywood local color; but to novice writers like Charles Warren or the more accomplished Nathanael West, Fitzgerald offered assistance, when called upon, unreservedly.

It is possible, too, that he not only enjoyed the role of literary mentor, but that he felt, perhaps unconsciously, an urgent need to acquit himself well in it. Certainly Fitzgerald's relationship with Sheilah Graham—or one facet of it—may be interpreted in this light: he set her to a systematic reading of English and American classics, and he gave her instructions about keeping a notebook for futureliterary endeavors of her own. [See Sheilah Graham, Beloved Infidel (New York, 1958), pp. 262-263, 284-285, 315]. At the same time his letters to his daughter (then a teen-age student at Vassar), with their repeated passages of advice on the art of reading and writing, display something of the same impulse. What he felt during those last years, apparently, was the onus of responsibility to serve and benefit others as he had been served and benefited all his life. His depiction of Monroe Stahr, finally, might be a reflection of this same temperamental need: Stahr is, above all, the man upon whom others depend professionally for guidance and judgment. We might profitably avail ourselves, once more, of Budd Schulberg's store of recollections: Fitzgerald was fascinated, Schulberg remembers, by Irving Thalberg's role as creative and intellectual prime minister of his mythical kingdom. Exactly so: the fascination was a part of the novelist's new self-image, and it found expression in the character of Stahr-Thalberg-Fitzgerald.

But perhaps, in conclusion, what really matters is that we see The Last Tycoon at some distance, as a literary and personal achievement wrought in defiance of time and difficulty. The years of loss had led to a recovery that was in its own way inspired; for within Fitzgerald were the still functioning powers upon which he had built an early and lasting glory. Upon that foundation he had fashioned a method typical of an epoch when American writers had forged vivid and memorable works of art; now he returned naturally to the method and spirit of that time. Had he lived he would have brought it off brilliantly in the end-as James Thurber remarked in his review of the unfinished Last Tycoon. But he would have “brought off” something more than a brilliant novel; there is always the suggestion, elusive  but  persistent,  that  Fitzgerald by  his  presencewould have illuminated a later period with the genius of a decade that for him was still a potent and living reality.

And what of the epilogue? Did he foresee that twenty years after his death students of American literature, both casual and serious, would render him homage and appreciation such as few of our writers have received? Perhaps he did; undoubtedly he hoped for it and aimed for it in his works. Fitzgerald accomplished more than a chronicle of Jazz Age belles and playboys, with whom he has been consistently   associated.   His   repeated   emphasis   on   the theme of corruptive wealth—present even in the notes for the unfinished parts of The Last Tycoon—and his depiction of the melancholy implications in the dream of the social aspirer—these represent the core of his commentary on our experience. His contribution was twofold: he distilled in beautiful prose the spirit of an age, and he urged a penetrating criticism of the values that formed its foundation. Fitzgerald saw clearly the optimism and materialism of democracy in America, forces which have characterized our history since its inception, and which continue to affect our attitudes and our conduct. These tendencies in our past and present find a focal point of argument in such works as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, rendered concretely and exquisitely by the fabulist of our mores, Scott Fitzgerald.

His debt to other writers was considerable, but another aspect of his endeavors must not be underestimated. Few writers as accomplished as Fitzgerald have performed in a vacuum—without the encouragement, stimulation, and inspiration of other authors. But none have achieved as much as he without solitary and independent effort. No doubt a great deal of what he wrote, and the way he wrote it, was the product of his association with men like Wilson, Mencken, Lardner, and Hemingway. But the essence of itwas accomplished—as Fitzgerald's daughter has written— by “sweat,” “heart-breaking effort,” and “painful hours of work under the most adverse circumstances.” No one “made” Scott Fitzgerald but himself.

Yet a record of his personal and professional relations with other writers illuminates his time, his life, and his art. That record might also serve as a representative example of literary sensibility and practice, at least in the sense that moved Henry James to observe:

The best things come, as a general thing, from the talents that are members of a group; every man works better when he has companions working in the same line, and yielding the stimulus of suggestion, comparison, emulation. Great things of course have been done by solitary workers; but they have usually been done with double the pains they would have cost if they had been produced in more genial circumstances. The solitary worker loses the profit of example and discussion; he is apt to make awkward experiments; he is in the nature of the case more or less of an empiric… .

The best things come from the talents that are members of a group: assuredly, as the experience of Fitzgerald and his contemporaries proves. As an artist whose considerable talents flourished and prospered under the stimulus of “suggestion, comparison, emulation,” Scott Fitzgerald will endure.

Bibliography for Chapter VI

Graham, Sheilah and Gerold Frank. Beloved Infidel: The Education of a Woman. New York: Henry Holt and Co., Inc., 1958.

James, Henry. “Hawthorne,” The Shock of Recognition. Edited by Edmund Wilson. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1943.

Schulberg, Budd. The Disenchanted. New York: Random House, 1950.

Schulberg, Budd. “Old Scott: The Mask, the Myth, and the Man,” Esquire, LV: 1 (January, 1961), 96-101.

Next: Appendix