The commonplace about Scott Fitzgerald is that he was “the laureate of the Jazz Age.” If this means anything, it means that he was a kind of eulogistic fictional historian of the half dozen years following the first World War when there was such a marked change in American manners. In fact, however, Fitzgerald never simply reported experience; every one of his books is an attempt to recreate experience imaginatively. It is true that the objects, the people, the events, and the convictions in terms of which his imagination functioned were profoundly American and of his time. Even in his worst book, as John O’Hara once remarked, “the people were right, the talk was right, the clothes, the cars were real.” The substance out of which Fitzgerald constructed his stories, that is to say, was American, perhaps more completely American than that of any other writer of his time. It is possible, therefore, to read his books simply for their sensitive record of his time; but there is a great deal more to them than this.
Fitzgerald’s great accomplishment is to have realized in completely American terms the developed romantic attitude, in the end at least in that most responsible form in which all the romantic’s sensuous and emotional responses are disciplined by his awareness of the goodness and evilness of human experience. He had a kind of instinct for the tragic view of life and remarked himself how even at the very beginning of his career, “all the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them—the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy’s peasants.” He had, moreover, with all its weakness and strength and in a time when the undivided understanding was very rare, an almost exclusively creative kind of intelligence, the kind that understands things, not abstractly, but only concretely, in terms of people and situations and events.
From the very beginning he showed facility and that minute awareness of the qualities of times and places and persons which is sharpened to a fine point in the romantic writer by his acute consciousness of the irrevocable passage of everything into the past. “He was haunted,” as Malcolm Cowley has said, “by time, as if he wrote in a room full of clocks and calendars.” A romantic writer of this kind is bound to take as his characteristic subject his own past, building out of the people and places of his time fables of his own inner experience, working his way into his material by identifying himself with others as Fitzgerald, in a characteristic case, made the doctor in “Family in the Wind” an image of what he saw in himself, a talented man who had achieved great early success and then gone to pieces. As a young man he identified himself imaginatively with his beautiful but less clever sister and practically lived her early social career; in middle age he entered so completely into his daughter’s career that, as one of his friends remarked, “Scott, not Scottie, went through Vassar.” Thus, always, Fitzgerald lived imaginatively the lives of those with whom, through family affection or some obscure similarity of attitude or experience, he was able to identify himself.
At its best the attitude Fitzgerald possessed produces an effect which is compounded of three clearly definable elements. Thereis in his mature work an almost historical objectivity, produced by his acute sense of the pastness of the past; there is also a Proustian minuteness of recollection of the feelings and attitudes which made up the experience as it was lived; and there is, finally, cast over both the historically apprehended event and the personal recollection embedded in it, a glow of pathos, the pathos of the irretrievableness of a part of oneself. “Taking things hard—” he wrote in his notebooks, “from—— to——: that’s [the] stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like braill[e].” The first of these references is to the first girl Fitzgerald was ever deeply in love with; he used his recollection of her over and over again (out of that recollection, for example, he made Josephine, who dominates a whole series of stories in Taps at Reveille). The second reference is to the producer who hacked to pieces his finest script. The remark thus covers the whole of Fitzgerald’s career.
What develops slowly in a writer of this kind is maturity of judgment, for it is not easy to control what is so powerfully felt initially and is never, even in recollection, tranquil. Fitzgerald was three-fifths of the way through his career as novelist, though only five years from its start, before he produced a book in which the purpose and the form it imposes are adequate to the evoked life. With The Great Gatsby the “smoldering hatred” of the imaginative obtuseness, the moral vulgarity, and the sheer brutality of the rich—with its tangled roots in Fitzgerald’s puritanical Catholic background, in his middle-class, middle-western upbringing, and in his early poverty—had emerged enough to serve as a dramatic balance for the wonderful freedom and beauty which the life of the rich had for him. “Let me tell you about the very rich” he began in one of his finest stories; and with the establishment of this dramatically balanced view of the rich in The Great Gatsby he had found his theme and its fable, for wealth was Fitzgerald’s central symbol; around it he eventually built a mythology which enabled him to take imaginative possession of American life.
With this view of his material he could at last give expression to his essentially tragic sense of human experience without forcingthat feeling on the material so that it ceased to he probable, as it does in The Beautiful and Damned where the characters drift without understanding into disaster and our conviction of their suffering is undermined by the inadequacy of its causes. Until he wrote The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald’s ability to evoke the nightmare terror of disaster was greater than his ability to motivate the disaster. It is different at the moment in The Great Gatsby when we are confronted with Daisy’s completely prepared betrayal, seeing her sitting with Tom at the kitchen table over a late supper with “an unmistakable air of natural intimacy,” and then find Gatsby watching the house from the driveway, imagining that he is guarding Daisy from Tom. “I walked away,” says Nick, “and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” Here Fitzgerald’s view of his material is completely adequate to his feeling about human experience in general, the life of the people he knows has become the fully rounded particular case for the expression of his whole understanding.
Both his admiration for the wonderful possibilities of the life of the rich and his distrust of it probably go back to Fitzgerald’s childhood. He was born in St. Paul on September 24, 1896. Very early in his life he began to weave fantasies around the Hill Mansion, only a few blocks but a good many million dollars away from his home on Summit Avenue; and it was certainly Fitzgerald at Newman as well as Basil Lee at St. Regis who “writhed with shame … that … he was one of the poorest boys in a rich boys’ school.” But he was proud, too, of his family, which was not rich, particularly of the Francis Scott Key connection, and included his family among what he once called “the few remnants of the old American aristocracy that’s managed to survive in communicable form.” The Basil Lee stories, with their wonderful recreation of the emotional tensions and social conflicts of middle-class American childhood and youth, give a reasonably accurate impression of the life he lived as a boy and for two years at Newman.
In the fall of 1913 he went to Princeton, full of an intensified but otherwise normal American boy’s ambition to succeed. There he plunged with characteristic energy and passion into the race for social prominence. But for all that he wore the right clothes,had the right manners, belonged to one of the best clubs, and was an important figure in the politically powerful Triangle Club, he neither was nor appeared to be a typical Princeton man. Of the highly competitive, socially subtle, ingrown life of Princeton he made for himself, with his gift for romance, an enormously significant world. The very imaginative intensity with which he took the normal preoccupations of a Princeton undergraduate distinguished him radically from his fellows. There was something unusual, almost flamboyant, even about his looks, which set him apart. Twenty-five years later that oddness of appearance was still before Edmund Wilson’s eyes when he remembered their first meeting:
I climbed, a quarter-century and more
Played out, the college steps, unlatched my door,
And, creature strange to college, found you there!
The pale skin, hard green eyes, and yellow hair.
You can still see something of “the glitter of the hard and emerald eyes” in his pictures and, perhaps too, feel in Fitzgerald’s personal history something of what Wilson meant by this figure.
Fitzgerald quickly discovered that Cottage Club was not quite the brilliant society he had dreamed of and presently turned to literature. “I want,” he said to Wilson at this time, “to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don’t you?” But all this extracurricular activity—in addition to his social career and his writing there were the Triangle Club and a debutante in Chicago—was too much for his health and his academic standing. In November of his junior year he was forced to retire to St. Paul. He returned in 1916 to repeat this year, but his senior year lasted only a couple of months, for he left Princeton in November to join the army.
Before he left he completed the first of three versions of This Side of Paradise. This version appears to have contained almost nothing of what is in the final version except the early scenes of Amory’s arrival at Princeton, and one of the few people who saw it has remarked that “it was actually flat, something Scott’s work almost never was.” One of the worst disappointments of his lifewas that he never got overseas but ended his military career as what he once called “the worst aide-de-camp in the army” to General A. J. Ryan at Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama. Here he met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, and here too, in the officers’ club in the evenings, he rewrote his novel and submitted it to a publisher under the title The Romantic Egotist. This is the subtitle of Book I of This Side of Paradise, which presumably covers about the same ground. The Romantic Egotist was rejected.
When he was discharged in February 1919, Fitzgerald came to New York to make his fortune so that he could marry Zelda. He sold one story to The Smart Set for $30; for the rest he collected rejection slips and began to realize that he was not going to make a fortune as a copy-writer at $90 a month. So did Zelda, and sometime late in the spring she decided that the whole thing had been a mistake. At this Fitzgerald threw up his job, got drunk, and went back to St. Paul to write his book once more. By the end of the summer it had become This Side of Paradise and in the fall Scribner’s accepted it. Fitzgerald hurried off to Montgomery and Zelda. The nightmare of unhappiness was over, but he never forgot it: “The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class—not the conviction of a revolutionary but the smoldering hatred of a peasant. In the years since then I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl.”
This Side of Paradise is in many ways a very bad book. Edmund Wilson’s judgment of it, made at the height of its fame, is perfectly just: “Amory Blaine is an uncertain quantity in a phantasmagoria of incident which has no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force. . . . For another thing, it is very immaturely imagined: it is always just verging on the ludicrous. And, finally, it is one of the most illiterate books of any merit everpublished … It is not only ornamented with bogus ideas and faked references but it is full of English words misused with the most reckless abandon.”
These charges could be documented at length, and some of them were; F. P. A. devoted a number of columns to the misspellings, and the energy with which Francis Newman supported the further charge that the book was imitated in detail from Mackenzie’s Sinister Street stung Fitzgerald to reply. Nevertheless it is obviously true that the general idea and structure of This Side of Paradise were suggested by Sinister Street and that Fitzgerald had little realization of the importance for this episodic kind of book of unity of tone. The lack of unity of tone in the book is partly due to its being made up of stories written, over a considerable period of time, before the novel was contemplated. One of the reviewers called the novel “the collected works of Mr. Scott Fitzgerald” and Fitzgerald himself once remarked, speaking of his editorship of the Nassau Lit: “I wrote stories about current prom girls, stories that were later incorporated into a novel.”
The quality which Mr. Wilson ascribes to the book’s being immaturely imagined displays itself most in the latter part and especially in the accounts of Amory’s love affairs. Fitzgerald’s lovers conduct their affairs by making speeches at each other, full of sentiment from Swinburne and of sweeping generalizations about “Life”; as lovers they show all the hypnotized egocentricity and intellectual immaturity of college freshmen. There is a sentence in The Beautiful and Damned, where Fitzgerald is describing the novels of Richard Caramel, which is an unintentionally eloquent comment on his own resources at this time. “There was,” he says of Richard’s novels, “a measure of vitality and a sort of instinctive technic [sic] in all of them.”
Yet for all these faults the book is not essentially a bad one. There is in the writing something of the intensity of felt experience which is in the language of Fitzgerald’s mature books. This is especially true of the first part, for the experience of Princeton life on which this part of the book was based was far enough behind Fitzgerald to have been to some extent emotionally distanced and evaluated. But even in the latter part of the book, beneath allthe author’s naive earnestness about the romantic cynicism and “philosophizing” of Amory and Rosalind and Eleanor, you feel something of the real suffering of unhappiness. Fitzgerald’s judgment and technique are inadequate almost everywhere in the book, but the fundamental, almost instinctive attitude toward experience which emerges, even at times through the worst of the book’s surface, is serious and moving. Sixteen years later Fitzgerald himself, still remembering Edmund Wilson’s remark, said of it: “A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.”
This Side of Paradise was an enormous success, and Fitzgerald, in a way very characteristic of him, responded to success with a naive, pompous, and fundamentally good-humored vanity. He gave interviews in which he told what a great writer he was; he condoled with Heywood Broun over the latter’s lost youth (Broun was thirty) ; he condescended to his elders and betters. He and Zelda were married in April and plunged happily into the gay and strenuous life of New York. Fitzgerald rode down Fifth Avenue on top of a taxi, dove into the Plaza fountain, and in general displayed his exuberance in the ways which were fashionable in 1920. He also worked all night again and again to pay for the fun and “riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky … I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.”
For a brief period of three years following the publication of This Side of Paradise the Fitzgeralds were figures around New York and their house parties at Westport and Great Neck were famous. It was all very gay and light-hearted; the house guests at Great Neck were advised in a set of Rules for Guests at the Fitzgerald House that “Visitors are requested not to break down doors in search of liquor, even when authorized to do so by the host and hostess” and that “invitations to stay over Monday, issued by the host and hostess during the small hours of Sunday morning, must not be taken seriously.” There was a trip to Europe in the summer of 1921 and that winter they went to St. Paul for the birth of their only child. (“It was typical of our precarious position in New York,” Fitzgerald wrote later, “that when ourchild was to be born we played safe and went home to St. Paul.”) In 1922 there was another novel, The Beautiful and Damned, and a second volume of stories, and in 1923 a play, The Vegetable, written with the rosiest expectations of profits, for they were, as usual, out of money. But the play flopped dismally in Atlantic City, and there was no attempt to bring it to New York. In 1924, in order to live more cheaply, they went abroad.
The Beautiful and Damned is an enormous improvement on This Side of Paradise, more than anything else because Fitzgerald, though he has not yet found out how to motivate disaster, has a much clearer sense of the precise feel of the disaster he senses in the life he knows. The book is also a great advance on its predecessor technically, much more unified, much less mixed in tone. The tendency to substitute lectures for dialogue is subdued, though as if to compensate for this restraint Fitzgerald lets himself go in a scene where Maury Noble produces an harangue which, as The Dial’s reviewer remarked, sounds “like a resume of The Education of Henry Adams filtered through a particularly thick page of The Smart Set.” The tone, too, is more evenly sustained, though Fitzgerald is still tempted by scenes in play form and once allows himself an embarrassing Shavian scene between Beauty and The Voice. There is still the curious shocked immaturity about sex. Fitzgerald obviously feels that Anthony’s prep-school philandering with Geraldine is daring, and his lovers, pushing about menus on which they have written “you know I do” and describing each other as “sort of blowy clean,” are childish.
Nevertheless, The Beautiful and Damned is much more successfully focused on a central purpose than This Side of Paradise, and much less often bathetic in its means. Of this central purpose Edmund Wilson wrote rather unsympathetically: “since his advent into the literary world [Fitzgerald] has discovered that there is another genre in favor: the kind which makes much of the tragedy and ’meaninglessness of life.’ Hitherto, he had supposed that the thing to do was to discover a meaning in life; but he now set bravely about to produce a sufficiently desolating tragedy which should be, also, 100 percent meaningless.” But the sense of tragedy is very real with Fitzgerald and his ability to realize the minutiaeof humiliation and suffering seldom fails him. His difficulty is in finding a cause for this suffering sufficient to justify the importance he asks us to give it and characters of sufficient dignity to make their suffering and defeat tragic rather than merely pathetic.
Nor is it quite true that Fitzgerald did not try to give the disaster a motive and meaning. There is a fairly consistent effort to make Anthony the sensitive and intelligent man who, driven into a difficult place by his refusal to compromise with a brutal and stupid world, finds his weaknesses too strong for him. He is tempted to cowardice and drifting by his own imagination and sensitiveness; he cannot blame and fight others because of “that old quality of understanding too well to blame—that quality which was the best of him and had worked swiftly and ceaselessly toward his ruin.” Over against him Fitzgerald sets Richard Caramel, too stupid to know he is compromising or that the success he has won by compromising is not worth having, and Maury Noble, cynical enough to surrender to compromise even though he knows the worthlessness of what he gets.
The trouble is that Anthony is not real as the sensitive and intelligent man; what is real is the Anthony who is weak, drifting, and full of self-pity. The Anthony who drifts into the affair with Dot under the momentary stimulus of his romantic imagination, knowing perfectly well that he does not believe in the thing; the Anthony who is continually drunk because only thus can he sustain “the old illusion that truth and beauty [are] in some way intertwined"; the partly intolerable, partly absurd, partly pathetic Anthony who seeks again and again to sustain his now fantastic vision of his own dignity and honor; this Anthony is marvelously realized. But the thing that would justify this pathos, the conviction that here is a man more sinned against than sinning, is wholly lacking. The Beautiful and Damned is full of precisely observed life and Fitzgerald is often able to make us feel the poignancy of his characters’ suffering, but he is able to provide neither an adequate cause for their suffering nor an adequate reason within their characters for their surrender. In the end you do not believe they ever were people who wanted the opportunities for fineness that the freedom of wealth provides; you believe themonly people who wanted luxury. They are pitiful, and their pathos is often brilliantly realized; but they are not tragic.
With occasional interruptions, the Fitzgeralds remained abroad from 1924 until the autumn of 1931, traveling a good deal and living in a great many hotels but usually returning for the summer to the Cap d’ Antibes. They came back to America in 1927, went to California for a while, and then rented a big old house on the Delaware “to bring us a judicious tranquility.” But they were soon back in Europe where they remained, except for a short trip in 1929, until their final return. Fitzgerald later described the period quite simply as “seven years of waste and tragedy,” but at the time their life, particularly the summers on the Riviera, seemed the life of freedom and culture and charm. The little group which made the summer Riviera its private style for a few years before everyone else began to come there was brilliant and varied. There were the rich and cultivated like the Gerald Murpheys, the writers like Charles MacArthur and Alexander Woollcott, and the musicians like Grace Moore. They led a busy, unconventional, and, as it seemed to them, somehow significant life; “whatever happened,” Fitzgerald wrote later, “seemed to have something to do with art.” They made private movies about such characters as “Princess Alluria, the wickedest woman in Europe,” writing the unprintable subtitles on the pink walls of Grace Moore’s villa and deliberately forgetting to erase them after they had been photographed; they kidnaped orchestras to play for them all night; they gave high-comedy dinners; and they drank a great deal.
But all the time Fitzgerald’s almost animal sensitivity to potential disaster was at work: “By 1927 a wide-spread neurosis began to be evident, faintly signalled like a nervous beating of the feet, by the popularity of cross-word puzzles. I remember a fellow expatriate opening a letter from a mutual friend of ours, urging him to come home and be revitalized by the hardy, bracing qualities of the native soil. It was a strong letter and it affected us both deeply, until we noticed that it was headed from a nerve sanitorium in Pennsylvania.” Looking back at the period afterwards he could see its weaknesses clearly without forgetting itscharm. “It was borrowed time anyhow—the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand ducs and the casualness of chorus girls. But moralizing is easy now and it was pleasant to be in one’s twenties in such a certain and unworried time.”
It was a period during which Fitzgerald produced very little serious work. The Great Gatsby was written during the fall and winter of 1924 and he published no other novel until Tender Is the Night, ten years later. This was not, however, wholly the fault of the kind of life he and Zelda were living, even indirectly; it was partly the result of the extremely ambitious plans Fitzgerald laid for himself after The Great Gatsby’s critical success.
The Great Gatsby was another leap forward for Fitzgerald. He had found a situation which would allow him to exploit without loss of probability much more of his feeling about his material, and he had arrived at the point where he understood the advantage of realizing his subject dramatically. He had been reading Conrad and as a result adopted the modified first-person form ! which suited his purpose so well. For Fitzgerald needed a form which would at once allow him to color the scene with the feelings of an observer and yet hold the feelings within some determined limits. In earlier stories he had splashed whatever colors he wished over the scene without much regard for the structure as a whole or for the disruptive effect on the dramatic representation of the constant interference of the author’s own person. But here, as later in The Last Tycoon, he selected a narrator sufficiently near the center of things to know all he needed to know, tied into the action by the affair with Jordan Baker which is, though muted, carefully made parallel to the affair between Gatsby and Daisy. By means of this narrator he was able to focus his story, the story of a poor boy from the Middle West who, in the social confusion of the first World War, met and fell in love with a rich girl. Daisy marries while he is in France, but he never ceases to dream of making enough money to be “worthy” of her, taking her from her husband, Tom Buchanan, and starting their lifeagain exactly where it had stopped when he had gone to France. He therefore devotes himself to making money in whatever way he can, not because he wants money, but because he wants his dream of a life with Daisy.
Nick Carraway, the narrator, is equally carefully placed so far as his attitude is concerned. He has come East to be an Easterner and rich, but his moral roots remain in the West. In the most delicate way Fitzgerald builds up these grounds for his final judgment of the story and its people. In the book’s first scene, Nick’s humorous awareness of the greater sophistication of these people is marked: “ ’You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy,’ I confessed… ’Can’t you talk about crops or something?’ “ But only a moment later, when Daisy has confessed her unhappiness with Tom, he has an uneasy sense of what is really involved: “The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. … I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.”
Nick’s father has told him that “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.” Nick does not forget; when, at the end of the book, he meets Tom, “I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. … I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child. Then he went into the jewelry store to buy a pearl necklace—or perhaps only a pair of cuff buttons—rid of my provincial squeamishness forever.”
Nick goes back to the West, to the country he remembered from the Christmas vacations of his childhood, to “the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feeling of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway’s house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family name.” The East remainsfor him “a night scene from El Greco” in which “in the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house— the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.”
Thus, though Fitzgerald would be the last to have reasoned it out in such terms, The Great Gatsby becomes a kind of tragic pastoral, with the East the exemplar of urban sophistication and culture and corruption, and the West, “the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio,” the exemplar of simple virtue. This contrast is summed up in the book’s title. In so far as Gatsby represents the simple virtue which Fitzgerald associates with the West, he is really a great man; in so far as he achieves the kind of notoriety which the East accords success of his kind, he is great about as Barnum was. Out of Gatsby’s ignorance of his real greatness and his misunderstanding of his notoriety, Fitzgerald gets much of the book’s irony. These terms, then, provided the occasions for all Fitzgerald’s feelings, so that he was able to say everything he had to say within the terms of a single figure and to give his book the kind of focus and freedom which comes only from successful formal order.
His hero, Gatsby, is frankly romantic, a romantic, like Fitzgerald, from the West, who has missed the girl on whom he has focused all his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” because he had no money. He gets it, by all sorts of corrupt means, and comes back five years later to find Daisy and to fulfill “his incorruptible dream.” “I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” Nick says to him once, “you can’t repeat the past.” “ ’Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ’Why of course you can!’ “ But he could not repeat the past with Daisy, changed by her momentary passion for Tom at the time of their marriage and corrupted all her life by her dependence on the protection of wealth and the conventions of the wealthy life which have preserved and heightened her beauty, until in the end she lets Gatsby die for the murder she has committed. He dies waiting for a telephone message from Daisy,and Nick observes: “I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at … a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.”
Against Nick’s gradual understanding of the incorruptibility at the heart of Gatsby’s corruption, Fitzgerald sets his gradual penetration of the charm and grace of Tom and Daisy’s world. What he penetrates to is corruption, grossness, and cowardice. In contrast to the charm and grace of this world, Gatsby’s fantastic mansion, his absurd pink suits, “his elaborate formality of speech [which] just missed being absurd” appear ludicrous; against the corruption which underlies this grace, Gatsby’s essential moral incorruptibility is heroic. To the representation of this double contrast Fitzgerald brings all his now mature powers of observation, of invention, of creating for the scenes and persons the quality and tone the story requires. Because of the formal perfection of The Great Gatsby, this eloquence is given a concentration and intensity Fitzgerald never achieved again. The art of the book, in the narrow sense, is nearly perfect. Its limitation is the limitation of Fitzgerald’s nearly complete commitment to Gatsby’s romanticism. This commitment is partly concealed by Gatsby’s superficial social insufficiency, and our awareness of this insufficiency is strengthened as much as Fitzgerald dares strengthen it by Nick’s constant, ironic observation of it: Gatsby is, as a cultured “Oggsford man,” after all a fake. But this is a romantic irony which touches only the surface; it does not cut to the heart of the matter, to the possibility that there may be some fundamental moral inadequacy in Gatsby’s attitude. The world of Daisy and Tom which is set over against Gatsby’s dream of a world is beautiful and appealing but in no sense justified: Tom’s muddled attempts to offer a reasoned defense for it are only a proof that it is indefensible. Fitzgerald’s book is a Troilus and Cressida with an Ajax but no Ulysses.
After The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald set himself a task which, as Edmund Wilson once remarked, would have given Dostoevski pause. It was to be a story of matricide, and though an immense amount of work was done on it, he was never able to complete a novel on this subject. As if to mock his failure, and perhaps too his deep concern for the subject, Fitzgerald wrote a comic ballad about matricide which he used to perform with great effect as a parlor trick.
In 1930 Zelda, who had been working for several years with all her energy to become a ballet dancer, broke down, and late in 1931 the Fitzgeralds returned to America and settled in a rambling old brown house at Rodgers Forge, between Baltimore and Towson. Here they remained until Fitzgerald went to Hollywood in 1937. Meanwhile Fitzgerald had been struggling with Tender Is the Night; he managed, by a furious effort in the latter part of 1933, to get it into shape for publication in Scribner’s in 1934; he revised it considerably again before book publication, and there is in existence a copy of the book with further revisions in which Fitzgerald has written: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.”
Much of this revision appears to have been the result of his having felt his theme everywhere in his material without always seeing a way to draw these various aspects of it together in a single whole. The war, the ducal perversion and ingrown virginity of the Chicago aristocracy which the Warrens represent—stronger and so more terrible than the corruption of the English Campions and Lady Sibley-Bierses; the hardness and lack of moral imagination of the rich in general, the anarchic nihilism represented by Tommy Barban, the self-indulgence of Abe North, destroyed, beyond even an awareness of his own destruction, as Dick will be destroyed; all these forces are beautifully realized. But, though their general bearing on the situation is clear enough, their exact incidence and precise relation to each other sometimes is not.
The result is that Tender Is the Night, though the most profoundly moving of all Fitzgerald’s novels, is a structurally imperfect book. To this difficulty must be added the fact that its central theme is not an easy one. We believe overwhelmingly in the collapse of Dick Diver’s morale because we are made to see and hear, in the most minute and subtly shaded detail, the process of that collapse. It is very like the collapse of Fitzgerald’s own morale as he describes it in “The Crack-Up.” But it is not easy to say in either case what, in the immediate and practical sense, happens to cause the collapse. As do many romantics with their horror of time and age, Fitzgerald tended to think of spiritual resources— of courage and generosity and kindness—as he thought of physical resources, as a sum in the bank against which a man draws. When, in his own life, he realized “with finality that in some regard [he would] never be as good a man again”; when he began to feel that “every act of life from the morning tooth-brush to the friend at dinner had become an effort . . . that my casual relations—with an editor, a tobacco seller, the child of a friend, were only what I remembered I should do, from other days”; then he knew the sum in the bank was nearly exhausted and that there was nothing to do but to reduce his scale of living accordingly. “In a really dark night of the soul,” he wrote in “The Crack-Up,” “it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day”; and though the dazzling Mediterranean sun blazes everywhere in Tender Is the Night, the passage Fitzgerald chose to quote along with the title line from Keats’ poem is:
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
As always, however, Fitzgerald began not with a theme but with a body of material. Describing the life portrayed in Tender Is the Night in an earlier essay, he had written: “Charm, notoriety, good manners, weighed more than money as a social asset. This was rather splendid, but things were getting thinner and thinner as the eternal necessary human values tried to spread over all that expanse.” With this world in all its variety of corruption, hardness, sterility, and despair Fitzgerald confronts his hero and the fundamentally simple “necessary human values” which his father hadgiven him—” ’good instincts,’ honor, courtesy, and courage.” At the very beginning Dick Diver has to choose between becoming a great psychologist and a fully human being when Nicole, beautiful and schizophrenic, falls in love with him.
“As you think best, Professor Dohmler,” Dick conceded. “It’s certainly a situation.”
Professor Dohmler raised himself like a legless man mounting a pair of crutches.
“But it is a professional situation,” he cried quietly.
But for Dick it is a human situation; “wanting above all to be brave and kind, he … wanted, even more, to be loved.” So he accepted the responsibility of being loved by Nicole and, gradually, of being loved by all the others whom his life drew around him. To them he gave lavishly of his strength, of his ability to translate into their terms the necessary human values and so remind them of their best selves. “My politeness,” as he says, “is a trick of the heart.” But the people he worked this trick for had no energy of their own, and gradually he exhausted his supply, spun out all his strength for other people until he had none left: “If you spend your life sparing other people’s feelings and feeding their vanity, you get so you can’t distinguish what should be respected in them.”
Because he is proud and sensitive, Dick deliberately breaks Nicole’s psychological dependence on him, aware that Nicole’s love for him is bound up with her dependence and will cease with it, has already declined with the decline of her need for him; knowing that he has exhausted even his own power to love her in the process of making her psychologically whole again. By a terrible irony it comes about that what he had refused to treat as a merely professional situation is just that. “Dick waited until she was out of sight. Then he leaned his head forward on the parapet. The case was finished. Doctor Diver was at liberty again.”
“That,” says Baby Warren, speaking for them all, even for Nicole, “is what he was educated for.”
Whether one accepts Fitzgerald’s conception of the cause of thisspiritual death or not, Tender Is the Night remains his most brilliant book. All his powers, the microscopic observation of the life he describes, the sense of the significance and relations of every detail of it, the infallible ear, and the gift of expression, all these things are here in greater abundance than ever before. And as never before they are used for the concrete, dramatic presentation of the inner significance of human experience, so that all the people of his book lead lives of “continual allegory” and its world is a microcosm of the great world. Its scope is such as to make The Great Gatsby seem small and simple, for all its neatness and perfection, and its dramatic realization so complete that Fitzgerald need not ever say what is happening: we always see.
In 1935 Fitzgerald had a recurrence of the tuberculosis which had first attacked him when he was an undergraduate and he was never entirely free from it again. In August 1937 he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and settled down in Hollywood to write for them. He worked on a number of important scripts, including Three Comrades, Gone with the Wind, and Madame Curie; he produced a large number of short stories, mostly for Esquire; and he began to work on a novel, The Last Tycoon. He said himself that he had been thinking about the subject almost from the time of his arrival in Hollywood; he certainly had a great deal of work done on it by late 1939 when he apparently began the actual writing. About half the story was written when he died, though none of it in the final form he had visualized for it.
Thanks to Edmund Wilson’s brilliant unraveling of Fitzgerald’s notes, it is possible to see pretty clearly what his plans for The Last Tycoon were, how rich its theme was to be, and how tight its structure. Of what he planned to make of the book he said: “Unlike Tender Is the Night, it is not a story of deterioration. . . . If one book could ever be ’like’ another, I should say it is more ’like’ The Great Gatsby. But I hope it will be entirely different—I hope it will be something new, arouse new emotions, perhaps even a new way of looking at certain phenomena.”
On the evidence of what he had actually written there is everyreason for supposing that, had he lived, he would have fulfilled these hopes. The material and the people he is dealing with are entirely new, yet his command of the tangled social, industrial, and creative life of Hollywood is so complete that there is no moment in what he has written which is not utterly convincing, at the same time that it exists, not for itself alone, but for what Fitzgerald wanted to say, about Hollywood, about American life, about human experience as a whole. The writing, even though none of it is final, is as subtle and flexible as anything he ever did, and so unremittingly disciplined by the book’s central intention that it takes on a kind of lyric intensity, glowing with the life of Fitzgerald’s feelings for everything he was trying to say. This intensity is a remarkable achievement for a man who thought— and at least on physical grounds had some reason for thinking —a year before he started to write The Last Tycoon that he had only enough talent left “to stretch out over two more novels” (and “I may have to stretch it a little thin"). Most remarkable of all, though less final, is the evidence that he was succeeding, as he never had before with so much to say, in holding everything within the focusing form to which he had committed his story in the beginning.
Around December 1, 1940, Fitzgerald had a serious heart attack. He went on working on his novel, however, with such persistence that on December 20 he put off a visit from his doctor in order to finish a draft of the first episode of Chapter VI. The next day he had another, fatal, heart attack. In some sense Fitzgerald’s wonderful natural talent was always haunted by the exigencies of his life. This final exigency aborted what promised to be his best novel, so that it is possible to say, of it only what can be said of his work as a whole, that it is very fine and that, with a little more—or a little less—help from circumstances, it might, such was his talent, have been far finer. As John Peale Bishop said in his elegy for Fitzgerald, when we think of his death we
think of all you did
And all you might have done, before undone
By death, but for the undoing of despair.
Mr. T. S. Eliot once remarked that “art never improves, but the material of art is never quite the same.” But this is a dangerous way for a writer to look at the matter, however useful it may be to the critic, because it tends to separate in his mind the material from the form and meaning; and whenever the meaning is not something that grows out of the particular circumstances which are the occasion for writing, meaning tends to become abstract, to develop independently of the circumstances, and in some sense to violate their integrity. The safest attitude for the writer seems to be a single-minded desire to realize his material, so that the meaning of the circumstances, the permanent values which emerge for the critic from the representation, are for the writer merely such a further penetration of the particular circumstances as will allow him to realize them more completely. Fitzgerald’s difficulty was always of course that his characters and their circumstances were likely to be too much individuals and local habitations, too little what Dr. Johnson approvingly referred to as “general nature.” But what general nature there is in Fitzgerald’s books—and there is always some and sometimes a great deal—is there because he had found it a part of his knowledge of his world. Such an undistorted imaginative penetration of the particular American world Fitzgerald knew had hardly been made before. Like James, Fitzgerald saw that one of the central moral problems of American life was raised in an acute form among the rich, in the conflict between the possibilities of their life and—to give it no worse name—their insensitivity. So long, therefore, as one realizes that Mr. Eliot is not comparing the two men in stature, it is not too much to say of Fitzgerald’s best work what Mr. Eliot wrote him about The Great Gatsby: “In fact it seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”
After The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald produced only two books in fifteen years, one technically less perfect than The Great Gatsby and one unfinished. He did, of course, produce a large number of short stories, some of them as good as anything heever wrote, but a considerable number of them only more or less skillful hackwork. All his life he worried about the hackwork and repeated over and over again a remark he made in 1924: “I now get 2,000 a story and they grow worse and worse and my ambition is to get where I need write no more but only novels.” It is easy to condemn him for not having realized this ambition; there was much extravagance in his life and, at the end, debts and unavoidable expenses. But the ambition was there to the end and, in 1939, sick, tired, and under the ceaseless pressure of tragedy, he was writing an editor to whom he proposed to sell The Last Tycoon: “I would infinitely rather do it, now that I am well again, than take hack jobs out here.” The wonder really is, given his temperament and upbringing, the social pressures of his times and the tragic elements in his personal life, that Fitzgerald did not give in entirely to hackwork, as so many of his contemporaries did, but returned again and again, to the end of his life, to the self-imposed task of writing seriously. For all its manifest faults and mistakes, it was in some ways an heroic life. But it was a life of which Fitzgerald himself, writing to an old friend, a lawyer, could only say rather sadly: “I hope you’ll be a better judge than I’ve been a man of letters.”
It is not easy at this close range to separate our opinion of the man from our opinion of the writer, particularly since circumstances combined to make the man a legendary, eponymous figure. But as the accidents of the man’s life—and the lies about it—gradually fade, we may well come to feel about the writer, with his purity of imagination and his imperviousness to the abstract theories and intellectual fads which have hag-ridden our times, as Stephen Vincent Benet did when he remarked after Fitzgerald’s death: “You can take off your hats, now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation—and, seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.”
From Lives of Eighteen from Princeton edited by Willard Thorp (1946).