An American Confession
by Alfred Kazin


The Crack-Up is a collection of personal essays, letters, notes and tributes to Fitzgerald by several leading writers, some of them his best friends. Its main feature is the account of his collapse in the middle thirties, which Fitzgerald reported in such a way, and planted in such a place, Esquire, that it would serve as a sensational confession and release, yet present the minimum of facts on what had happened to him.

If this seems a cold disparagement of a document that was written out of such intense personal suffering, do not put it down to a lack of fellow-feeling on my part, or to a disregard of the courage and moral firmness with which Fitzgerald sought to resolve his tragedy. The essay is a haunting footnote to the inner history of America and of American writing in our time; but it is important not for what it says but for what it reveals—and Fitzgerald, whether he knew it or not, sought to reveal as little as possible. As a personal document it has a vivid painfulness, made tolerable and even esthetically smart by that softening and diffusing glamour which Fitzgerald scattered like a fine gold dust over everything he wrote; it is not moving. Yet it describes so acute a sense of loss on the part of a marvelously talented writerat the height of his career that we may wonder why it does fail to move us—when so much that is casual, fragmentary and even fantastically blind in the personal literature of our time can move us deeply. The answer obviously does not lie in Fitzgerald‘s situation; it never does in the situation; but in the way he addressed himself to it, in the lack of some complete sincerity with which to describe it.

It was as urgent for Fitzgerald to report on his breakdown as it was for him to withhold some essential portion of its meaning from himself and from us. The confession itself, with all its defiance of the repressive and the death-dealing urbane in our culture, is rarely a way of leading us to the truth. On the contrary, it may be the best possible device for not revealing it. Fitzgerald‘s essay is not meditated autobiography, but belongs with those facile canny professions of guilt which are so rife in our personal conversation and our love affairs, in appeals to God or the psychoanalyst to restore our lost innocence, or in novels like Charles Jackson‘s The Lost Week-End. The other side of our professional American optimism is that well-known personal explosion and unconscious defiance, serving to make the self unavailable, which we so familiarly call the “breakdown"—a deeply pathetic but cumbersome form of evasion which is as common in our society as the slogans of irresistible material progress, and which proceeds directly from them, by a commonplace human reaction and exhaustion. Just as the alcoholic bouts in Jackson‘s book were a device by which to avoid exploring the initial loss of confidence which led to the hero‘s need of amnesia, so it is characteristic of us to charge ourselves with any guilt so long as it will put distance between us and the concrete reality it is easier to suffer than to understand. The sense of guilt is apparently more than the residue in our racial unconscious of some ancient defiance of parental and divine authority, Freud‘s theme in Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism. It also serves as the most immediate weapon by which the intelligence deceives that part of the self that can assess the elements of experience with candid objectivity or clear self-assertion. It is the inbred weapon, the little dagger of the soul, by which we make ourselves literally in-valid when we wish toremove ourselves from an intolerable situation. It is the device by which we suspend thought under the name of morality.

At the same time guilt, which is the excuse for the “breakdown,” relieves paralysis by serving to create a false eloquence. It is not only a form of evasion, but also a field of discourse. By “admitting” that we are guilty we often plan to shock, to reap the vibrant advantages of having gained some dramatic singularity. By our admission we suddenly command that authority which the unloved exercise by their suffering. The guilty take advantage of their “honesty” and the show of some awful social courage by dominating the situation. We are all of us so bred in false humility that we rarely permit ourselves to see that its counterpart, aggressive “guilt,” serves its unconscious purpose by leading us to break publicly through perplexity and sterile inner confusion.

There are confessions and confessions, and undoubtedly none ever leads us to that real and absolute “truth” about ourselves which is the greatest of all the fictions our rationalism reads into the nature of life and experience. Psychology is always less true than art, and even the most acute clinical psychology is limited, by its concern with disorder, to a small branch of human physics. But there are confessions, like Dostoevsky‘s Notes from Underground, which at least seek to describe as much of human anxiety and realized unworthiness as is consonant with the duty of every being to defend and assert his particular existence. There are confessions, like Melville‘s letters to Hawthorne, which are parables of “the infinite task of the human heart,” and which are not concerned with what is “ugly,” but simply affirm that which is most true. And there are confessions, of the current and commonplace American kind, which are not instruments for a deeper search of reality, in us or life itself, but a subtle form of rebellion—the deepest motive of its rebellion being resistance to the actual solving of a problem, for that would call for a different order of thinking. Suffering is always proportionate to intelligence, and is often an escape from intelligence. Fitzgerald‘s is of this kind; and that is why it is not moving. One feels in reading it that something is being persistently withheld, that the author is somehowoffering us certain facts in exchange for the right to keep others to himself. It is as if he were playing with his own tragedy; which does not make the tragedy less deep. It is merely that The Crack-up is as careful as it is mournful, as shrewd as it is despairing, and as mechanically well-written as the experience it purports to describe was lawless and afraid.

Persistently withheld, but not deliberately. It was in the very nature of Fitzgerald‘s mind to sculpt the contours of experience in such a way that the light falling on them, from his own ready charm and vivid perceptions, would suggest some content they did not represent. He had learned early in his career—with This Side of Paradise, with his first intensive stories of the jazz age—that his talent was colorful rather than deep, immensely resourceful in suggestiveness and blending. Life, or at least the America and tourist France of the twenties, appeared as a succession of brightly lit scenes whose significance emerged not from the frank and frontal realization with which he could mold them—the idea-giving power—but from the prompter‘s quickness with which he under-scored the scenes. The emphasis was always on the immediate light irony of some human encounter, the placing of the characters to each other in such a way that they were silhouettes of a mood, quickly inserted into a scene and as quickly releasable from it. The living rhythm of the work was in the movement of the filmy curtain through which he saw it. Everything had to be faintly and deliciously supported on a lightly running river of little golden words. Just as the story of Tender Is the Night was heartbreaking without ever being definite, too thickly suffused, for all its delicacy and grace, in the unmistakable glare of the American Mediterranean, so in The Crack-up even the most awesome admission of personal bankruptcy and irremediable loneliness had to be subtly bent to sound good, to put a subtly diffusing eloquence between the emotion and the fact.

Yet what comes through, so far as one can break through the walls of an experience so coated and painted and glamourized, so heightened and modulated by the strategy of a mind that sought grace at any price, is a very American confession, an unrealized but agonized revolt against certain basic American patterns bywhich Fitzgerald knew himself to be imprisoned. Success was the grinning idiot‘s face that haunted him even when the boyish dream of power had gone away. He had begun so easily, so lightly, we thought; success had been the logic of good looks, good luck, the best of good schools in a social sense, good friends who admired him yet could be his “intellectual” conscience, like Wilson, if he needed one—he always felt intellectually inferior. But the success had a kind of subtle mockery about it; he could not tell anyone how deliberately he had to fight for it, how pressingly he needed it. The divinity that showers gifts always does so with some final reservation to remind us that life is a coil of many springs and never a straight road. For Scott Fitzgerald saw in his talent a weapon rather than a gift; it was to be a means to success rather than the content of some ultimate human success in itself. And the meaning of that success was always interpreted by others, by the high and glamorous Eastern world into which he had not been born. He did not want it so, but he could not read it otherwise. In the heady days when they were all just out of the army, he had the feeling whenever he joined his friends at the Biltmore bar that he was the hero of some social struggle—with a poor room in the Bronx—of which they knew nothing. The girl who dismissed him because of his poverty was the end even of his writing. “If I stopped working to finish the novel, I lost the girl.” He releases these facts by tacit admissions and fretful questionings, as much ashamed to discuss his social ambitions openly as he was occasionally ashamed of the ambitions themselves. From the first he was haunted by the feeling that he was always missing out on the real thing, at the Plaza or in the world of the novel. Yet it was the high world, of Princeton classmates and officers‘ training camps, the Plaza and the Ritz, the great city “0 glittering and white,” that was the real symbol for him. He was not what his threadbare fashionableness proclaimed or even what his good looks could persuade; not really Princeton, or really an “intellectual” either, like his good friends Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. He was Minnesota, and with a name and a need off the common Anglo-Saxon track; a young man laboring under the tyranny of genteel poverty who had had to stand apart evenfrom the Scandinavians at home whose blonde girls he secretly adored. He was not entirely up to Princeton or New York. Literature was a way of getting back, of getting in, just as he had to console himself at college for an illness that had kept him from the presidency of some club by “taking a beating on English poetry” and for not getting overseas during the war by making Amory Blaine a second Faust. Even in the worst period of his breakdown “the overseas cap that was never worn overseas” was a bitterly recurrent wound, and it is repeated in this confession by an important American writer threatened with spiritual death at forty.

In fact, he was Gatsby. It was for him, not for that ambiguous ghost impeded by a German immigrant name and a gangster‘s prestige, that the green light burned at the end of the dock—that symbol in the book of the true success, the ultimate home. It was he who wanted Daisy, “glowing like silver, safe and proud among the hot struggles of the poor,” Daisy whose voice so fascinated Jay Gatsby because it had “money” in it. Since he was Gatsby, and could never really admit the fact into the course of the novel, he made a bargain with himself. He would make Gatsby an object of rich historical pathos, but a kind of anonymous figure, and easy to patronize, to whom the cool amused narrator of the book (Fitzgerald himself, as we were led to think) would not seem related. He could create Gatsby only at the price of never admitting that he was Gatsby, just as he could develop as a writer only by disguising the fact that he thirsted for immediate goals, for that impalpable social world where people derived their self-importance by battening on each other, and in which a writer could be accepted—for what came after he had done his writing.

The Great Gatsby concludes with a murder; and the true murderer of Gatsby is not the crazed garage owner whose wife was Tom Buchanan‘s mistress, but Buchanan himself, the stupid and vicious stockbroker. It was as if Fitzgerald was describing the subtle death of the will that he felt threatened by, in the form of the ultimate violence and disrespect leveled by the very rich against the truly poor. He hated the rich, for they had fascinated him too well—"they are not as we are,” as he said to Hemingway.Dick Diver complains to Mary North in Tender Is the Night: "You‘re all so dull,” and Mary rhapsodically flies back: “But we‘re all there is! ... All people want is to have a good time, and if you make them unhappy you cut yourselves off from nourishment.” And Fitzgerald obviously believed that too, which is why he hated them even more. His delight in society, after all, was not much less than Cholly Knickerbocker‘s. When he read the first chapters on Michelet from Wilson‘s To the Finland Station he expressed appreciation of everything but Michelet‘s revolutionary heart. And when his daughter complained of some school jealousy or exclusion which humiliated her—as he could never forget how often at college he had lived on the verge of humiliation—he advised her to read the chapter on The Working Day in Das Kapital. "The terrible chapter . . . and see if you are ever quite the same.”

Yet because the rich “were all there is,” he came at last to identify them with evil. It was the revenge he played on them for having thought them life‘s romance. Tom Buchanan kills Gatsby; Daisy becomes as essentially vulgar and inhuman as her husband; the tennis champion whom the narrator of The Great Gatsby would like to love is revealed as a pathological liar; Nicole and her sister in Tender Is the Night fashion Dick Diver‘s ruin. Nicole herself rounds out the ultimate portrait of her class. She escapes madness only by parasitically marrying the psychiatrist hero, but she gives him nothing except the subtle moral bribery of her wealth. When his own decline begins, she almost absent-mindedly deserts him, after a gay little taste of adultery with a wealthy athlete, and the story concludes with Dick robbed of his home and children, his work and his dream of love. Standing on their beach one last hour before he leaves, Dick renders Nicole and her set a last ironic homage by making the sign of the cross over them, as Ahab said: “In the name of the devil!” The rich “are all there is,” the diabolic life-force, and Dick could at least acknowledge it before he departed broken from them.

“Books are like brothers,” Fitzgerald wrote in one of his notebooks. “I am an only child. Gatsby my imaginary eldest brother, Amory my younger, Anthony my worry, Dick my comparativelygood brother, but all of them far from home. When I have the courage to put the old white light on the home of my heart, then. . . .” He never did put “the old white light on the home of his heart"; he was an only child and his heroes were not quite himself, only subtle and glamourized disguises. The conflict that tore him, however, appeared in the romance of goodness struggling against evil in Tender Is the Night. Dick Diver, Dickie Dare: the boyish American pilgrim, the old childhood hero, who went out to see the world and had many adventures. In our childhood he dared; in the true life of maturity he had to dive under, to encounter the face of evil at the bottom of the sea-floor, the other continent. And when he came home, it was a broken victim; evil had done its worst, paralyzing him into dependence; the good die very young, before their actual deaths. Dick Diver‘s failure is not the failure of a man, but of an idea.

So in Fitzgerald‘s own life the conflict sharpened as his art developed and grew in graceful concentric loops around it. What he had wanted so long no longer had any real value for him when he could get it, but nothing in his life or work had prepared him to be superior to those instinctive goals. When the conflict reached its most acute stage, in “breakdown,” he really wanted to get away from it altogether; to be relieved by a psychic suicide. But it was impossible to get away altogether, it never is while we live; and he found he could survive by a kind of bitter parody of art for his sake, of the noble if deficient Jamesian device of making life nothing, of giving “all” to discrimination and art. To James, who had survived his own kind of conflict through a more compulsive and learned talent, a talent that gained immense authority and structural harmony by actual expatriation and by escape, through family tradition and wealth, from the success-mongering of his time, the task was lonely but not impossible, narrowing but not paralyzing. Fitzgerald, whose actual intelligence was never equal to his talent, and whose talent was always greater than his experience, went another way—frantically, spitefully determined not to give in, to condemn the class he had always most deeply admired in short spasms of distaste. The revolt, ironically, was against experience, the cumulative tasks of living,himself. He who had never given himself freely to art now said: “I must continue to be a writer because that was my only way of life, but I would cease any attempts to be a person—to be kind, just or generous.” So the last, boastfully mournful: “I have now at last become a writer only.”

These years in which he was brought to the final and intolerable stage of his conflict were also his Hollywood period, a period when he either could not write or would not sell; when he made a living from the smooth-paper magazines and from film scripts. He did not despise either medium, on the contrary; he was merely impatient because they would not come up to him, to serve him as he still needed to be served or reclaimed as an artist. There is a note in one of the letters about his campaign to interest a producer in “Babylon Revisited,” with Shirley Temple as the daughter. There are notes on producers, who always emerge before us as fundamentally more decent and more likable than the professional writers who had “gone left.” We feel in reading these letters of his last period that he had really found an unexpected connection of identity in Hollywood. The passing humiliations, of another kind than the ones he had suffered as a young man—for they pointed up his social inferiority, and Hollywood pinched his pride as a craftsman—must have occasionally been awful enough; but it will not do to imagine Fitzgerald wearing his heart out in conflict with Hollywood. In a sense, he had been writing movies all his life, and their facile prismatic genius was of not too different an order from his own. With other writers he tended to be preternaturally humble, as before Hemingway—"Ernest talks with the authority of success, I with the authority of failure"; Ernest along his “solid gold bar"—or inattentive. In Hollywood he could dip his little golden brush into waters of whose depth he was never afraid.

Most of all, in Hollywood he found Monroe Stahr—the sad, skilled, burned-out genius of manipulation who was as much the refracted image of himself at forty as Gatsby had been at twenty-five. Stahr is unquestionably the greatest of Fitzgerald‘s achievements; even in the half-pages of the unfinished The Last Tycoon he has a depth, a variety of human knowledge, that were missingfrom the young dancers of the twenties, the nostalgia of Gatsby, or the arbitrary breakdown of Dick Diver. Stahr was a man whose true life was all inside; who was a success in the worldly sense and yet above success; an artist of gravity and importance and immense responsibility, but one who did his work casually and quietly; he was preoccupied with a tragedy. It was important to Fitzgerald to create Stahr; it was even more important for us to have him. For no very good American writer had ever taken the movies seriously enough before. Dos Passos in The Big Money caricatured and mauled Josef Von Sternberg, and the caricature remains a caricature. Fitzgerald did something deeper and more enduring. Out of the very heart of the American dream, at the topmost pinnacle of American success, he plucked an alien, a “mere” producer, and gave him back to us as one who might have been with White-Jacket and Huck Finn, Lambert Strether and Sister Carrie. And if the success did not bring home “the old white light” of the heart; if Monroe Stahr stood among tinsel miracles; what would? What had brought it home? Fitzgerald had found “mon semblable, mon frere"; he gave him everything he knew; and suddenly he died.


From Quarterly Review of Literature (1946).


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