In the weeks since the death of Scott Fitzgerald I have read or reread each of the nine books he published. It has been on the whole a depressing experience—partly because one must agree with the glib epitaph assigned to him in the newspaper obituaries: a man of talent who did not fulfill his early promise; and partly for other reasons. To reread Fitzgerald’s early books is to be plunged back into the attitudes and ferment of the early twenties; and to feel a little duped. For one is brought up sharply against the fact that in the perspective of 1941, the “disillusion” of the twenties, on which we wasted so much gin and eloquence, seems poignantly youthful, romantic, affirmative—allied with the age of innocence which preceded it rather than with the age of guilt which it prefigured. The gusto with which This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned were written was certainly affirmative, though the theme was disintegration; and we have only to remember the joy with which the “lost generation” battered down the standards and taboos of its ancestors, immediate and remote, to recognize that not believing was a driving faith. The “lost generation” gave itself that sentimental and exuberant title because it didn’t really believe it was lost—like the small boy whodidn’t really think there was anything wrong with the watch until he had taken it to pieces. Fitzgerald’s rich boys and girls might be going to the dogs but the postwar intellectuals, even Scott Fitzgerald himself, were destroying the past to make way for the future. The outlines of that future were obscured by the blazing light of the October Revolution, but its portent was certainly socialism, freedom, the good life, art, music, love; and it was not far off.
Fitzgerald published his only enduring novel, The Great Gatsby, in 1925, on the crest of that first wave of disillusion which was a form of belief. This book and a few short stories—I am thinking particularly of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” and “May Day” —will continue to be relevant because they caught and crystallized the underlying “values” of a period. But the novels and stories which preceded The Great Gatsby are for the most part dated by their fatal preoccupation with the sensational surfaces of contemporary life. They seem as quaint, and in the same way, as the evening dresses of 1921. As usual the Saturday Evening Post, with its fabulous prices and its fabulous circulation, exploited his weakness, not his strength. Fitzgerald’s very facility for transferring to print the excrescences of contemporary life—combined with the importunities of editors who do not care what they sell as long as it sells—betrayed him into spending far too much of his energy and skill on short stories about glamorous and, today, boring girls, and boys who are not even glamorous.
After 1925, when The Great Gatsby was published, Fitzgerald wrote very little. In 1934 he published his fourth and last novel, Tender Is the Night, a confused exercise in self-pity. In 1935 came a book of stories, Taps at Reveille. Its title and much of its contents are nostalgic and static.
If I seem brutal in my judgment of Scott Fitzgerald, it is perhaps because my first impulse on laying aside his last book was to set him down as the talented victim of a social generation, between wars, which might also be summed up in the epitaph: A man of talent who did not fulfill his early promise. It is a neat and appealing idea and a case can be made for it. I remember the bitterness and defeat of that moment when we became disillusionedwith disillusion as a way of life; when we discovered that the future had been delayed and that the October Revolution was nothing but a heap of Stalinist cinders; when self-pity became the only solution for the insoluble. The external events of twenty years may certainly be cited in extenuation of the failure of Scott Fitzgerald to “fulfill his early promise.” But that explanation will not explain to posterity why a Joyce, half-blind and beset by personal tragedy, and not a Fitzgerald could overcome the hazards thrown up by an old world disintegrating into a new; why, even in twice-chaotic America, talents lesser than Joyce but stubborn have survived.
For this fundamental weakness Fitzgerald cannot be blamed. And it must be said for his integrity and his common sense that he did not accept, so far as I know, any of the substitutes for order which have become current in the past decade. It is reported that he was making a new beginning at serious writing just before he died, so perhaps my judgment, like his death, is premature. But I think it is easy to overrate Fitzgerald’s powers. He was so touted in his heyday, and there are so many unfortunate circumstances to explain his failure, that he has become a romantic figure, one of the “sad young men” of his own fictions. Yet one cannot read his books, one after the other, without feeling that his was a fair-weather talent which was not adequate to the stormy age into which it happened, ironically, to emerge.
Published in The Nation magazine (1941).