“… the stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like Braille.” —Fitzgerald: Notebooks—
When you go back now to the old records and reviews from the twenties—back to the yellowing newspaper gossip about Scott and Zelda jumping out of sheer exuberance into the fountain outside the Plaza; the condescending literary columns that once glittered with all the paste jewels of the period but are now as dim as the stone plaque in Carrier’s commemorating the visit of Queen Marie of Roumania; the deathless views of the Independent in 1925 that The Great Gatsby is another of Fitzgerald’s “sophisticated juveniles” or Mrs. Isabel Paterson’s historic pronouncement that “it is a book of the season only”—your first thought, actually, is how alive to his quality as a writer, how generous to his every achievement, Fitzgerald’s critics were then.
Of course they thought him a great big kid and recklessly wasteful of his talent. And inevitably, his personal legend interested them as much as his books did. With his uncannily representative good looks—“Scott really looks … as the undergraduate would like to look,” John C. Mosher noted about him in The New Yorker —his equally vivid wife, his instant success as “the voice of the postwar generation,” his violent delight in the “gorgeous” twenties, he could no more help arousing attention and endless gossip than did the Jay Gatsby in whose brain “a universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out…” Everything about him was on our mostpicturesque national scale; it was as if the growing self-confidence of American writers and the unashamed veneration of wealth had suddenly met in this son of genteel poverty from St. Paul. In those days Fitzgerald seemed to have come out of the Middle West, Princeton, the prom halls and football stadiums wrapped in all the rich colors of American wealth from McKinley to Harding, hungry for every privilege and daring every disaster, ready to satisfy the usual American craving for a novelist who would be one “of our own,” thoroughly in the national life, and responsive to all its popular idols.
The critics like to josh him. “I’m the only one [of the younger generation] that’s discouraged,” Edmund Wilson has him say in the imaginary dialogue with Van Wyck Brooks, “because I find that I can’t live down at Great Neck on anything under thirty-six thousand a year and I have to write a lot of rotten stuff that bores me and makes me depressed.” He was so much the professionally successful American author trying to beat the old masters, was so poisonously bright and yet so fluently and vulnerably self-absorbed, that he flattered every writer of his own generation into feeling old and wise. Sometimes, like his college friend Wilson, whom in his bitterest despair he was to salute as his “intellectual conscience,” the critics seemed to know him as a man altogether so well that they could not help sounding surprised by every fresh example of his talent—a natural fault in critics faced with a writer who seems to have nothing but talent. But these good critics were too full of their own work, and too happy in the promise of the period, to grudge him anything.
They were naturally generous and enthusiastic in a way serious critics of fiction are not today, for they felt themselves part of an exciting new movement in the American novel. It was even a joke on the copybook traditions of the past that Scott Fitzgerald should be so good; he spelled badly, he read little, his faking and his snobbery were awful. But he was American youth writing— with a freshness of feeling and a miraculously intact belief in romantic love that made the critics see through the college-lit. exhibitionism in This Side of Paradise. They recognized that Fitzgerald was better than he allowed himself to be. He was the shining boy, already the Chatterton of our literature, who even at college had known that he wanted to be “one of the greatest writers who have ever lived.” His very disharmonies were national, made Americans feel closer to him than they usually do to a writer; he thought literature could buy him a place like any movie star’s or debutante’s in the high world of American fashion. You sense the protectiveness in so warm a tribute to him before Gatsby as Paul Rosenfeld’s, and in the kindly New Yorker profile by John C. Mosher, written around the then unbelievable fact that Scott Fitzgerald was almost thirty. The critics were eager to note every improvement in style, every sign of developing maturity, from This Side of Paradise to The Beautiful and Damned, a book it is impossible to read now without feeling very remote from the early Fitzgerald—or is it only from 1922?
There was often regret, and continuing exasperation, that he spent so much of himself writing for the slicks. But by 1925, with The Great Gatsby, he had earned the full respect of those “writing friends” who, as Glenway Wescott was to say at the time of his death, “thought he had the best narrative gift of the century.” These “writing friends” were his nearest critics, his most loyal, and in many respects his best—the analogy to Marlowe with which John Dos Passos concludes his tribute to Fitzgerald here is one of the most hauntingly right things ever said about him. And how rich Fitzgerald was in those friends—from Wilson and John Peale Bishop at college to Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Lardner, Dos Passos, and others; how clearly he was their “darling,” their “genius,” just as he was only too soon to become their “fool.” When, in 1940, the smugly contemptuous reviews so infuriated his friends, and Westbrook Pegler explained him as one “of a queer bunch of undisciplined brats” who had needed “a kick in the pants and a clout over the scalp,” it was stirring to see what a company could rally to his defense in The New Republic. The curious coldness in those tributes toward Fitzgerald himself is something else again. The point here is that in the twenties those who really did most for good writing—like Gertrude Stein; whowere most conscientious in applying living standards, like Edmund Wilson; to say nothing of Hemingway, who directly learned from him—knew how good he was, encouraged him, and could assist him.
It was once said by the late Peter Monro Jack, who thought Fitzgerald might have been the Proust of his generation, that his misfortunes were due to a lack of constructive and helpful criticism. Of course no writer ever gets enough of this—perhaps not even a Maupassant working directly under Flaubert, or an Eliot revising and cutting The Waste Land under the tutelage of Ezra Pound. And certainly much of the criticism written about Fitzgerald during the twenties was admiring but frivolous; probably no other writer, except Whitman, has been made the occasion for so many banalities on the tendency of life in the United States. Yet it was in the very nature of Fitzgerald’s work, and of his delirious early success, that the relationship of his critics to him should be more intimate than profound, and after his death, alien to him even when it was deeply reflective. Besides, pleasing as it is to the vanity of critics to think that writers can learn from them, many novelists are impervious to criticism, and some should be. (If William Faulkner had taken seriously half the things written about him in this country between 1925 and 1945, he would never have moved an inch.) There are no general laws in these matters, any more than there are “lessons of craft” for a serious novelist today in all the long overdue praise that is now being rendered up to the shade of Henry James. Everything depends on the specific needs and intelligence of the writer himself. It was usually Fitzgerald who taught his more durable contemporaries. His ability to learn for himself, and to discipline himself, was amazing. In less than five years, despite his pranks and his continual waste of himself, he moved from the juvenility in This Side of Paradise to the compressed, deeply moving poet’s economy of The Great Gatsby. Even when he was sick and desperate, he worked his way through the open anxieties of Tender Is the Night to the biting authenticity of The Last Tycoon, some of whose pages have the eerie clarity of a man writing from hell.
I wonder what Fitzgerald would have done with more “constructive” criticism. For surely it was not the lack of artistic insight that ailed him, but his spiritual condition; not “discipline” as such (which no writer can arbitrarily impose on his work) that he needed, but some inner purification and resoluteness, the courage “to put the old white light on the home of my heart.” He knew what the trouble was; writers always do, though a writer like Fitzgerald is usually less capable of doing anything about it than others are, for he digs dangerously into himself for every story, and writing becomes a constant drain on his emotional capital. One of the most naturally sentient novelists we have ever had, he had to think like a salesman—what Mark Schorer here calls his “snide charlatanism”—to show that he was on to every smart perception that was a condition for survival in the world he loved. He said it all in a letter to his daughter written a few months before his death: “…I wish now 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 this1 I’m nothing.’” To be a Proust you have, at the very least, to give up the world and give in to the “tyrant” of your intelligence, even if it threatens to devour you. Far from giving up his world—and where would he have been without it? he was about as metaphysical in his tastes as Franklin D. Roosevelt—he could never make up his mind (until it was made up for him, by the nearness of death) whether he was Jay Gatsby trying to win back the love of his life from the rich, or Dick Diver bestowing his “trick of the heart” on the shallow fashionables along the Riviera, or Monroe Stahr trying to do an honest inside job in Hollywood. And it is to be noticed that richer and subtler as the novels become, the heroes grow progressively more alone, because more aware—Fitzgerald’s synonym for a state near to death.
That fear of awareness and aloneness is in our culture; Fitzgerald’s critics could not have helped him there. For as they emphasize here over and again, he wanted two different things equally well—and though his art found its “tensile balance” in this conflict, it certainly exhausted him as a man. There was a headlong fatality about him which, in the long silence between The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, the critics could only watch in amazement, some in derision.
It was then, in the thirties, when he cracked like a “plate” and Tender Is the Night was generally reviewed as if the critics were trying to blame on Fitzgerald the sins they wished they had committed in the twenties, that he could have used some constructive and helpful criticism. And even this he could still get from a “writing friend” like Hemingway, who told him, very rightly, that “you are twice as good now as at the time you think you were so marvellous.” But by his fatal ability to synchronize his most private fortunes and misfortunes with the pattern of each decade he wrote in, Fitzgerald’s collapse served the critics of the thirties only too well. It was a time when many who sat in judgment over him showed that they actually feared fresh individual writing. Only a few reviewers, notably John Chamberlain and C. Hartley Grattan, publicly recognized the emotional depth and active social intelligence of Tender Is the Night as well as its more obvious neuroticism. Some of the things written about Fitzgerald in the thirties —especially the never-to-be-forgotten “interview” with him featured on the front page of the New York Evening Post, September 25, 1936, which portrayed him as a hopeless drunk crying he would never write again—were in the tone usually reserved by tabloid sports reporters for broken-down fighters. Still, it must be admitted that if it was the fashion then to say that he was finished as a creative writer, Fitzgerald himself often seemed to be leading the chorus.
After his death in 1940—specifically, with the publication of The Last Tycoon in 1941 and, in 1945, the personal documents Edmund Wilson assembled in The Crack-up along with the title essay—critics began again to do him justice on a wide scale. But as late as 1944, Charles Weir, Jr., had still to say that “interest in Fitzgerald dies hard.” And it has been noticed that some of the first tributes, originally published in reply to the newspaper articles—“LOST GENERATION LOSES ITS PROPHET,” ran the head on one obituary, “NOVELIST VICTIM OF DESPAIR HE DEPICTED”—tend to brood brilliantly over Fitzgerald’s tragedy without betraying any great affection for him; John O’Hara opened up with “It is granted that Scott Fitzgerald was not a lovable man.” I am sure he was not. But you cannot in one decade think of a writer as the height of American good fortune, and in another see him with fluent self-pity accepting his scapegoat role, without at last, simply enough, wearying of the man who has filled out so many stereotypes for you.
There is ill-concealed exasperation even in some of the more affirmative essays written after The Last Tycoon and The Crack-up. One reason for this is Fitzgerald’s “romanticism.” This term has always been meaningless when applied to our literary history, but it has a special sting now both in our hardboiled culture (Time, for example, once disposed of Fitzgerald as “the last U.S. Romantic”) and in our academic literary culture, where it conveys a distrust of personal expressiveness. Another reason for the continuing impatience with Fitzgerald is that there is not always as much to say about his work as critics would like. Serious criticism of fiction in America today has no sense of assisting a creative movement; it footnotes the old masters. It insists on explanations of the creative achievement in fiction even when there may be none easily forthcoming, and tends to distrust, just a little, a writer who constantly crossed and recrossed the border line between highbrow and popular literature in this country, and who actually wrote some of his best stories for the smooth-paper magazines. But Fitzgerald is one of those novelists whom it is easier to appreciate than to explain, and whom it is possible, and even fascinating, to read over and over—it has often been remarked that Tender Is the Night grows better on each re-reading—without always being able to account for the sources of your pleasure.
At first glance there may seem to be a certain duplication in these late essays, for many of them were written around The Crack-up and necessarily go over the same ground, though certainly not from the same point of view. Fitzgerald did not leave a great body of work; his range was narrow and the highlights are obvious. There are not many hidden details in his work to uncover —though critics will try to find more in, say, his Catholicism thanhe ever put into it—or subtle connections between the books to be traced, as is the case with Faulkner. And unlike Faulkner, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and even Dashiell Hammett, Fitzgerald has never interested many Europeans.
Probably because his work enters into specifically American veins of feeling, and is not symbolic enough “about” America—one of its incidental virtues. Moreover, he is too elegant a writer to satisfy the usual European demand that an American writer be broad as the prairies, and too shallow, as compared with Faulkner, to satisfy the new European demand, in the age of Hitler and Stalin, that he reveal those primitive faculties that have burst through the thin crust of nineteenth-century humanism. In these matters one must always remember that if Andre Gide prefers reading Dashiell Hammett to eulogizing Henry James, it is because Hammett gives him the shock he expects from all things American, James’s practice of the novel is nothing Gide did not venerate before. There seemed to me no reason for reprinting more than usually trite generalizations about Fitzgerald and the jazz age simply because they had been written first in exquisite French.
The English, who approach everything American these days with distrust, but at least try to read our writers on their merits, have recently come to see how much Fitzgerald is in their particular tradition. His main literary food was the English romantic poets and the twentieth-century English novelists who were particularly influential here just before the First World War—Conrad, Wells, Compton Mackenzie. I am very happy to be able to include in a book so predominantly American the characteristically thoughtful essay on Fitzgerald from the Times Literary Supplement, as well as D. W. Harding’s almost uncomfortably penetrating review of Tender Is the Night.
So these last essays are largely a commemorative offering to Fitzgerald, across the generations, by American critics who are anywhere from ten to twenty-five years younger than he, who generally admire his sensibility, and who feel that now, with all the late returns in, they can address themselves to the deepest sources of his life. And in this, quite apart from their host of independent insights, lies the fascination of these essays, even of their seeming duplication. For they return again and again to the fact that in a land of promise, “failure” will always be a classic theme. And that the modern American artist’s struggle for integrity against the foes in his own household shows its richest meaning in a writer like Fitzgerald, who found those foes in his own heart. These late essays round out an historical cycle—not simply from war to war, or from success to neglect to revival, as it is now the fashion to do, we are so hungry for real writers—but from American to American, from self to self.
From F.Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and his Work, ed. by A. Kazin (1951).