It is the general impression that F. Scott Fitzgerald was too much the literary playboy to read widely and thoughtfully hut one of his letters, written in 1925 to Maxwell Perkins, demonstrates a wide and ready familiarity with modern literature as well as thought upon the proper role of American fiction in his time.
The letter concerns the current novel of a younger novelist, Thomas Boyd, whom the Fitzgeralds had met in St. Paul in 1921, and whose first novel. Through the Wheat (1923). Fitzgerald had badgered Perkins into accepting for publication by Scribner’s. At the time of this letter Fitzgerald had published The Great Gatsby and was impatiently awaiting the critical verdict. Early in May of 1925 Perkins wrote that Boyd’s third novel, in process of publication, was excellent. Soon thereafter he described the novel in considerable detail and Fitzgerald’s long letter of June 1, 1925, contained his explosive reaction.
His letter is perhaps not so much a personal attack upon Boyd as it was a release of tensions over the fate of Gatsby; frustration and indignation with a reading public which buys romanticized, escapist novels about struggling farmers; and pique that Perkins, whose judgment and taste he respected, was susceptible also. Clearly, Fitzgerald had been thinking about the proper subject and role of the modern novel, and beyond doubt he felt it the duty of the novelist accurately to deal with immediate realities rather than with reworked, superannuated materials. The basic issue is whether the novel dealing with the past, the novel celebrating the earthy struggle between man and the soil, is any longer central to the America of the twenties. Fitzgerald’s answer is a definite and clear No, and he proceeds to document his position.
Before we turn to his views on the subject, it may be helpful to examine the nature of Samuel Drummond (1925), Boyd’s forgotten novel of farm life which triggered Fitzgerald’s assault. Drummond is the son of a substantial farmer in northwestern Ohio who grows to maturity just before the Civil War, marries, and settles down to a lifetime of hard work on his own farm near the family homestead. The father is a too-outspoken pacifist and his lack of enthusiasm for the northern cause brings on a visitation by enraged neighbors who, after brief fisticuffs, are persuaded to leave without further violence. As the war progresses, the son, Samuel, increasingly feels the pressure of local opinion and at last volunteers for military service. After Samuel’s war experiences, which Boyd does not narrate, there commences the long and never-successful effort to revive a run-down farm. Samuel borrows money, and the debts which he cannot surmount eventually force him to sell his farm and face the monotony of an inactive life in a nearby town.
The dreary events which constitute the novel and the unimaginative, colorless characters who people it never save the story from mediocrity: and Fitzgerald is right in sensing that the novel exists basically to sentimentalize the plight of the honest but mindless farmer—just as he is right that it has all been said before. From the moment of their marriage Samuel and his bride are plunged into the ceaseless routines of household and field, where each year is like the last and the passage of time told only by the growth of offspring. Fitzgerald is right, too, in spotting the stereotype of inarticulateness—the muscular man of toil with the big heart and the minuscule vocabulary. At Drummond’s wedding. Boyd notes. “Conversation was an art which was practiced with the greatest economy.” Such a glorification of mindlessness implied a “greater truth” to be had from the virtues of labor and closeness to soil, but the reader is never led to see it. Although there are a few books in the Drummond house—Plutarch, Robert Burns, one or two Waverley novels, and a Bible—no one has time for them. “In the evenings.” Boyd confesses, “they sat about the stove, talking little, waiting until it was time for them to go to bed.” The inarticulateness and the sentimentality are underscored by the entry of a hired man, Christy, into the Drummond routine. On the way back from town one day Drummond picks up and gives shelter to this wanderer, who stays on for years as hired help—a homeless vagrant with no past whose rare moments of self-expression consist of such declarations as “I’m dumned if I would” and such exclamations as ’’Well, I’ll be starched!“Christy, who is so artlessly injected into the novel, is as artlessly removed. One dark night, years later, he disappears and passes silently out of the Drummonds’ lives.
In his letter, after vigorously disposing of a current rumor that he is about to forsake Scribner’s for another publisher, Fitzgerald turns to the topic which occupies the larger part of his letter.(The letter dated “6/1/25. 14 Rue de Tilsitt. Paris. France, is in the files of Charles Scribner’s Sons, who have graciously provided me with a photocopy. I am grateful to Mrs. Frances S. F. Lanahan for permission to use this portion of the letter, the copyright of which is recorded in her name. I have left Fitzgerald’s misspellings uncorrected and unnoted, and have made an unimportant deletion in one sentence. The scholar will discover that Fitzgerald’s memory for dates is faulty, but correct dates can readily be ascertained.)
As you know despite my admiration for Through the Wheat. I haven’t an enormous faith in Tom Boyd either as a personality or an artist—as I have, say, in E. E. Cummings and Hemmingway. His ignorance, his presumptuous intolerance and his careless grossness which he cultivates for vitality as a man might nurse along a dandelion with the hope that it would turn out to be an onion, have always annoyed me. Like Rascoe he has never been known to refuse an invitation from his social superiors—or to fail to pan these with all the venom of a James-Oliver-Curwood-He-Man when no invitations were forthcoming.
All this is preparatory to saying that his new book sounds utterly lowsy—Shiela Kayo-Smith has used the stuff about the farmer having girls instead of boys and being broken up about it. The characters you mention have every one, become stock-props in the last ten years—”Christy, the quaint old hired man” after a season in such stuff as Owen Davis’ Ice Bound must be almost ready for the burlesque circuit.
History of the Simple Inarticulate Farmer and his Hired Man Christy (Both guaranteed to be utterly full of the Feel of the Soil)
1855—English Peasant discovered by Geo. Elliot in Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, ect.
1888—Given intellectual interpretation by Hardy in Jude and Tess
1890—Found in France by Zola in Germinal.
1900—Crowds of Scandanaivans, Hamsun, Bojer, ect. tear him bodily from the Russian, and after a peep at Hardy, Hamlin Garland finds him in the middle west.
Most of that, however, was literature. It was something pulled by the individual out of life and only partly with the aid of models in other literatures.
1914—Shiela Kaye-Smith frankly imitates Hardy, produces two good books and then begins to imitate herself
1915—Brett Young discovers him in the coal country
1916—Robert Frost discovers him in New England
1917—Sherwood Anderson discovers him in Ohio
1918—Willa Gather turns him Swede
1920—Eugene O’Niell puts him on the boards in Different and Beyond Horizon.
1922—Ruth Suckow gets in before the door closes.
These people were all good second raters (except Anderson). Each of them brought something to the business—but they exhausted the ground, the type was set. All was over.
The Cheapskates discover him—Bad critics and novelists, ect.
1923—Homer Croy writes West of the Water Tower
1924—Edna Ferber turns from her flip Jewish saleswoman (Emma McChesney, heroine of a series of short stories — Author) for a strong silent earthy carrot grower and the Great Soul of Charley Towne thrills to her passionately Real and Earthy Struggle
1924— Ice Bound by the author of Millie the Beautiful Cloak Model wins Pulitzer Prize
The Able McGloughlins [The Able McLaughlins, 1923, by Margaret Wilson] wins $10,000 prize and is forgotten the following wk.
1925— The Apple of the Eye (Glenway Wescott’s first novel) pronounced a masterpiece
1926—TOM, BOYD, WRITES, NOVEL, ABOUT. INARTICULATE, FARMER WHO, IS, CLOSE, TO SOIL. AND, HIS, HIRED, MAN CHRISTY!
“STRONG! VITAL! REAL!”
As a matter of fact the American peasant as “real” material scarcely exists. He is scarcely 10% of the population, isn’t bound to the soil at all as the English and Russian peasants were—and if has any sensitivity whatsoever (except a most sentimental conception of himself, which our writers persistently shut their eyes to, he is in the towns before he’s twenty. Either Lewis, Lardner and myself have been badly fooled, or else using him as typical American material is simply a stubborn seeking for the static, in a world that for almost a hundred years has simply not been static. Isn’t it a 4th rate imagination that can find only that old property farmer in all this amazing time and land? And anything that ten people a year can do well enough to pass muster has become so easy that it isn’t worth the doing.
I can not disassociate a man from his work.—That this Wescott and Tom Boyd and Burton Rascoe are going to tell us mere superficial “craftsmen” like Hergeshiemer, Wharton, Tarkington and me about the Great Beautiful Appreciation they have of the Great Beautiful life of the Manure Wielder—rather turns my stomach. The real people like Gertrude Stein (with whom I’ve talked) and Conrad (see his essay on James) have a respect for people whose materials may not touch theirs at a single point. But the fourth rate & highly derivative people like Tom are loud in their outcry against any subject matter that doesn’t come out of the old, old bag which their betters have used and thrown away.
For example there is an impression among the thoughtless (including Tom) that Sherwood Anderson is a man of profound ideas who is “handicapped by his inarticulateness.” As a matter of fact Anderson is a man of practically no ideas- but he is one of the very best and finest writers in the English language today. God, he can write! Tom could never get such rhythms in his life as there are on the pages of Winesburg, Ohio—Simple! The words on the lips of critics makes me hilarious. Andersen’s style is about as simple as an engine room full of dynamoes. But Tom flatters himself that he can sit down for five months and by dressing up a few heart throbs in overalls produce literature.
It amazes me, Max, to see you with your discernment and your fine intelligence fall for that whole complicated fake. Your chief critical flaw is to confuse mere earnestness with artistic sincerity. On two of Ring’s jackets have been statements that he never wrote a dishonest word (maybe it’s one jacket). But Ring and many of the very greatest artists have written thousands of words in plays, poems and novels which weren’t even faintly sincere or earnest and were yet artisticly sincere. The latter term is not a synonym for plodding ernestness. Zola did not say the last word about literature, nor the first.
I append all the data on my fall book, and in closing I apologize for seeming impassioned about Tom and his work when neither the man or what he writes has ever been personally inimical to me. He is simply the scapegoat for the mood Rascoe has put me in and, tho I mean every word of it. I probably wouldn’t have wasted all this paper on a book that won’t sell & will be dead in a month & an imitating school that will be dead by its own weight in a year or so, if the news about Liveright hadn’t come on top of the Rascoe review (It is difficult to say what review Fitzgerald had in mind. It is possible that he is referring to the review of The Great Gatsby in the April 19. 1925. issue of The New York Herald and Tribune Books, where the novel was called “a book of the season only”—but Rascoe hud resigned as literary editor of the newspaper the previous year.) and ruined my disposition.
It is at once apparent that Fitzgerald has loaded his argument and has indiscriminately mingled mature use of the rural (Frost and Cather, for example) with the shallow and sentimental use of it (Ferber and Boyd, for example), but he was drawing upon memory and general knowledge and writing in heat and haste. Yet, Fitzgerald perceives the anomaly in the fact that the farm novel has particularly flourished at the peak of American urbanization and industrialization, and that it has been presented repeatedly in sentimental, not in realistic, terms.(For a scholar’s view of this matter, see John T. Flanagan. “The Middle Western Farm Novel,” Minnesota History. XXIII (June. 1942), 113-125)
The one recent novel of the type which Fitzgerald selects for emphasis is a superb example, for Edna Ferber’s So Big was both true to the type and immensely popular. Selina, a school teacher, marries a man of the soil. The farmer-husband, who appears so fleetingly in the novel, is an inarticulate, near-illiterate but handsome giant of a man who stirs Selina to such raptures as “The dear thing! The great helpless big thing!” Once widowed. Selina assumes her husband’s tasks, triumphs over the inevitable odds against her, and senses her noble service to humanity by providing wholesome food for the great city of Chicago, food that “keeps people’s bodies clean and clear and flexible and strong!” Fitzgerald had seen the rave review by Charles Hanson Towne, who in the April 1924, Literary Digest International Book Review had called Miss Ferber “the biggest novelist we have in this country” and had affirmed that “there is not a sentence that is not literature.”
Basically Fitzgerald’s critical instincts were right. Time has indeed upheld Cummings and “Hemminway,” and has rather roughly handled such novels as West of the Water Tower and such creations as Samuel Drummond’s hired man, Christy.
Reprinted from Modern Fiction Studies, VII (Winter 1961-1962). 365-369. by permission. (c) 1961, by Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Indiana.