There are novelists who find their material almost entirely outside themselves, and there are others who find it almost entirely within themselves. Scott Fitzgerald’s talent lay in an unusual combination of these two modes. The basis of his work was self-scrutiny, but the actual product was an eloquent comment on the world. He was that rare kind of writer, a genuine microcosm with a real gift of objectivity. The combination explains his success. It is the reason that the force of his best work always transcends its subject matter.
Mr. Wilson’s excellently edited collection of posthumous papers gives one an intimate view of the actual workings of this combination. The book contains a group of autobiographical sketches, a generous selection from the note-books, a number of letters to and from Fitzgerald, and three essays about him. The autobiographical sketches are the only finished pieces in the book, and of these The Crack-up is the most important. This cool analysis of a nervous breakdown and the emotional exhaustion which followed it is already a classic of literary self-revelation. It is impossible to think of another modern writer who could achieve quite the same casual eloquence which arises from thisexamination of the failure of a life’s illusion. “For two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess ...” “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” “My political conscience had scarcely existed for ten years save as an element of irony in my stuff.” “I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion.”
The Crack-up, like almost everything else Fitzgerald wrote, is excellent in the degree by which it transcends mere pathos. This comes in part from his writing itself, which is marked by a colloquial ease that persistently achieves genuine poetic effects. But these effects, in turn, depend on his capacity to hit upon details which invoke an atmosphere much larger than their own. “My recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over,” he wrote. It more than paralleled that despair; it positively expressed it. His life was an allegory of life between two world wars, and his gift lay in the ability to discover figures which could enact the allegory to the full.
His evaluations were not always satisfactory. Certain well-known and jejune predilections clung to him throughout life. When he imposed a political observation or a social prejudice on his material, his irony as often as not turned into a kind of snide charlatanism. An instinctive artistic tact kept these elements, in any explicit form, out of his finished work, but, of course, they circumscribed his subject matter, which was narrow. That is why evocation was an absolute necessity, and that is what he had most abundantly. How silly most writers would look if they attempted to write a sketch like “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number —,” which consists entirely of a catalogue of hotels in which the Fitzgeralds stayed. But Fitzgerald does not look in the least silly. “Many soldiers loitered outside the gardens and brothels listening to the nickelodeons. The nights, smelling of honeysuckle and army leather, staggered up the mountain side and settled upon Mrs. Edith Wharton’s garden.” “In the sad August of that year we made a trip to Mentone, ordering bouillabaisse in an aquarium-like pavilion by the sea across from the Hotel Victoria.The hills were silver-olive, and of the true shape of frontiers.” These are samples from one minor work of the kind of detail over which Fitzgerald had such mastery. It is the kind of detail which could turn the most tarnished culture into a poetic mystery that is of the essence of human tragedy.
The tragic sense was his. He provides, indeed, as good a definition of it as we have: “the wise and tragic sense of life,” he wrote to his daughter, “the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ’happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.” As a man, he was at last overwhelmed by the struggle, as who is not? But as a writer, he won it more often than the quality of our age has led us to hope men frequently can.
From Yale Review, 1945.