F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoön
by Robert Sklar


Chapter eight

With The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald knew he had come into his own at last as an artist. In the midst of composition, from the French Riviera in August 1924, he wrote Maxwell Perkins, “I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written… It's been a fair summer. I've been unhappy but my work hasn't suffered from it. I am grown at last.” When it was almost done he proclaimed to Edmund Wilson, “My book is wonderful, so is the air and the sea.” The excess of bravado he put into these remarks was justified when Perkins responded generously and perceptively to the manuscript. “Thanks and thanks and thanks for your letters,” Fitzgerald wrote back. “I'd rather have you and Bunny [Edmund Wilson] like it than anyone I know. And I'd rather have you like it than Bunny. If it's as good as you say, when I finish with the proof it'll be perfect.” During the winter Fitzgerald polished the proofs in Rome and Capri, and indeed he came close to accomplishing what he had promised. He knew he had written an important novel and once again he began to rate himself against his competition. “Is Lewis' book any good?” he wrote John Peale Bishop in March. “I imagine that mine is infinitely better—.” Again to Bishop, calling up the moment nearly four years before when his classmate had slighted him in a review: “Do you still think Dos Passos is a genius? My faith in him is somehow weakened. There's so little time for faith these days.” He was puttingall his faith into himself. “The cheerfulest things in my life,” he told Bishop, “are, first, Zelda, and second, the hope that my book has something extraordinary about it. I want to be extravagantly admired again.” Now he hoped to reap the public rewards of his personal success.

As the date of publication approached, April 10, 1925, he was worried. There was the ever-present problem of money, of course. With his back debts taken care of by the stories he had written in the previous winter, he had lived while in Europe on advance royalties from Gatsby. Unless the novel was an extraordinary best-seller, he could expect to earn nothing more in royalties. Simply to meet current expenses he wrote a story for The Saturday Evening Post in November and another for Redbook in December, even before the revision of proofs was completed. “I've got a new novel to write,” he told Perkins from Rome before Christmas 1924, “—title and all— that'll take about a year. Meanwhile, I don't want to start it until this is out and meanwhile I'll do short stories for money (I now get $2000 a story but I hate worse than hell to do them), and there's the never-dying lure of another play.” What kind of success he was hoping for from The Great Gatsby was indicated later in the same letter: “If my book is a big success or a great failure (financial—no other sort can be imagined, I hope) I don't want to publish stories in the fall”—meaning a book of stories to follow the novel. “If it goes between 25,000 and 50,000, I have an excellent collection for you.” Great failure was under 25,000 copies, then, and big success was over 50,000. Elsewhere he predicted to Perkins sales of 80,000 copies. What he appeared to want was financial freedom, a position of security where, as he wrote John Peale Bishop, “I need write no more but only novels.” Yet this position had been his from the start if he had wanted it, and if he had squandered his chance before 1925, the movie and dramatic rights to The Great Gatsby brought him more than enough to write as he pleased. The deeper, more important worry on Fitzgerald's mind was about The Great Gatsby is critical reception.

For he had written a novel that resembled his earlier work in subject and theme, but in its quality and significance was like nothing he had done before it. “This time I don't want any signed blurbs on the jacket,” he told Perkins even before his editor had seen the novel,”—not Mencken's or Lewis' or Howard's or anyone's. I'm tired of being the author of This Side of Paradise and I want to start over.” This after all was a central theme of the novel, the idea of regeneration, the hope of beginning anew. But it was a difficult trick under any circumstances for a commercial writer, one whose steady readership was predicated on a continuity of expectations. Fitzgerald recognized this in a humorous way when he wrote to Edmund Wilson, “I will now give you the Fitz touch without which this letter would fail to conform to your conception of my character,” and began to talk about money. And though writers have successfully begun again with subjects and treatments completely new, how could Fitzgerald expect to succeed with a subject and theme so familiar? A fortnight before publication Fitzgerald heard how his uncle had responded to a preliminary announcement of the book. “He said: 'It sounded as if it were very much like his others.'” “I wondered,” he told Perkins, “if we could think of some way to advertise it so that people who are perhaps weary of assertive jazz and society novels might not dismiss it as 'just another book like his others.' I confess that today the problem baffles me—all I can think of is to say in general to avoid such phrases, 'a picture of New York life,' or 'modern society'—though, as that is exactly what the book is, it's hard to avoid them. The trouble is so much superficial trash has sailed under those banners.” A part of it, he knew, had been his own.

“I want to be extravagantly admired again,” he had told Bishop. If ever he had a sense of who his readers were and why they read him, it had slipped away during his year in France; or he had been simply too out of touch to catch the shifts in literary taste ominously exemplified by “The Gossip Shop's” slighting remarks about him in the August 1924 Bookman. If he expected critics to explain for readers the nature of his new artistry, as Mencken had done for Dreiser and Wilson for Joyce—as he long ago asserted to Maxwell Perkins, in the dubious context of The Beautiful and Damned, “My one hope is to be endorsed by the intellectually elite and thus be forced onto people as Conrad has”—his memory of the book reviewing trade had also failed him. The reception of The Great Gatsby marked one of those rare moments in American literary history when a novel later recognized as a masterpiece was given over to its contemporaries for judgment.

Overwhelmingly the reviews were favorable. The Great Gatsby was liked, it was praised, it was recommended. “An Admirable Novel,” The Saturday Review of Literature titled its review; “Fitzgerald on the March,” proclaimed The Nation. Yet there were disturbing signs that Fitzgerald had fallen further in esteem since Tales of the Jazz Age and The Vegetable than he possibly could have imagined. Most of the reviews were displayed less prominently than in the past; The New Republic ignored the book entirely. Implicitly many of the reviewers assumed that he had far to go to redeem his past, and The Great Gatsby was only a partial beginning. The Independent's completely hostile review, which by professing to like This Side of Paradise better demonstrated once more the conventional viewpoint that had largely established Fitzgerald's reputation in the beginning, conceded The Great Gatsby “may prove that he can still be effective—outside the field of sophisticated juveniles.” And this tentative sense of incomplete redemption was repeated at nearly every point along the spectrum of literary taste. The Bookman, which had always taken Fitzgerald too seriously as a philosopher, only to shake its head at his philosophy, fell back on the bromide it had used for five years, “a brilliant young man, immensely puzzled by life and disturbed by shifting values in his own scheme.” Even Fitzgerald's friend Carl Van Vechten, The Nations reviewer, proclaimed that Fitzgerald had come to resemble Booth Tarkington, and concluded equivocally with, “What Mr. Fitzgerald may do in the future, therefore, I am convinced, depends to an embarrassing extent on the nature of his own ambitions.” Many of the reviewers who wrote favorably of The Great Gatsby still seemed to have adopted an implicit point of view which John M. Kenny, Jr., in The Commonweal made explicit: “Taken alone, The Great Gatsby is a mediocre novel. In the light of his former books, it marks an important stepping-stone toward a literary excellence which Scott Fitzgerald ought some day to achieve.”

Even reviewers who unequivocally liked The Great Gatsby, with none of the future strings attached, were hard put to say exactly why. They confessed that the novel was far better than a simple summary of the plot would suggest, that there were patterns and mysteries they had not pierced at all. William Rose Benêt in The Saturday Review of Literature, after displaying his confusion for most of the review, had to point out to his readers at the end that his confusion did not imply a lessening of his admiration, that he really did recommend the book. Among the most favorable reviews there was as much evidence of hasty reading, failure of comprehension, and slipshod writing, as among the least favorable. Their paraphrases of the plot and themes were woefully inadequate; Thomas Caldecott Chubb, whose review in The Forum was the most perceptive about Fitzgerald's themes and intentions, referred to Tom and Daisy Buchanan as Dorothy and Ted. Mencken, whose review in the Baltimore Evening Sun was a significant tribute to Fitzgerald's artistry, was completely unsympathetic to Fitzgerald's themes and treatment. Curiously, from his primary interest in novels as social documents, he preferred This Side of Paradise quite as much as the conservative and conventional reviewers did.

As publication day passed for The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald was on his way from Capri to Paris, where his rented car had to be returned before a deadline. Ernest Hemingway, who took part in the last leg of the trip, has described it for us in A Moveable Feast with malicious glee; but part of Fitzgerald's behavior enroute to Paris may be explained by the news about Gatsby that reached him in Marseilles. Perkins' cable set the tone for Fitzgerald's first response to the reception of the novel. He had described the reviews as excellent and the sales picture as cloudy, and Fitzgerald's business-like reply was undoubtedly founded on the assumption that the novel was a critical success and a commercial failure. “Your telegram depressed me…,” he wrote from Marseilles. “If the book fails commercially it will be from one of two reasons or both. First, the title is only fair, rather bad than good. Second, and most important, the book contains no important woman character, and women control the fiction market at present. I don't think the unhappy ending matters particularly.” With the realization that The Great Gatsby would not be a best seller all his literary and financial hopes for the future vanished in a moment. Bitterly he pictured his circumstances. “In all events I have a book of good stories for the fall. Now I shall write some cheap ones until I've accumulated enough for my next novel. When that is finished and published I'll wait and see. If it will support me with no more intervals of trash, I'll go on as a novelist. If not, I'm going to quit, come home, go to Hollywood and learn the movie business. I can't reduce our scale of living and I can't stand this financial insecurity. Anyhow, there's no point in trying to be an artist if you can't do your best. I had my chance back in 1920 to start my life on a sensible scale and I lost it, and so I'll have to pay the penalty. Then perhaps at 40 I can start writing again without this constant worry and interruption.” The desperate tone of this declaration may in part be attributed to the first shock of financial disappointment; unfortunately there were further disappointments to come.

In Paris Fitzgerald saw the first reviews. Immediately he recognized what Perkins had not seen, or had preferred in his cable not to reveal. “Most of the reviewers floundered around in a piece of work that obviously they completely failed to understand,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins, “and tried to give it reviews that committed them neither pro nor con until someone of culture had spoken.” Letters of praise from H. L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson cheered him, but as the review picture filled out it only confirmed his first impressions—and there was a low blow to take from his old acquaintance Burton Rascoe, book editor of the New York Tribune, who compared Gatsby to the titillating novels of high society romance Robert W. Chambers wrote as entertainment for shopgirls. “I think all the reviews I've seen, except two, have been absolutely stupid and lousy,” he wrote again to Perkins. “Someday they'll eat grass, by God! This thing, both the effort and the result, have hardened me and I think now that I'm much better than any of the young Americans without exception.

But if Fitzgerald was hardened by his disappointment at the reviews and sales of The Great Gatsby, he was simply hardened into old and unchanged attitudes, as a remark in a letter to Edmund Wilson jokingly made clear: “There's no news except that Zelda and I think we're pretty good, as usual, only more so.” Mainly what had made him hard also made him bitter, bitter against traveling Americans in Paris—“If I had anything to do with creating the manners of the contemporary American girl,” he told Wilson, “I certainly made a botch of the job”; bitter at the “boob critics” and at writers like his old friend Thomas Boyd, who seemed to pander to their taste for naturalistic novels on American farm life; and bitter at himself. “I have all the money I need and was growing rather tired of being a popular author,” he wrote Mencken, who unfortunately could not have been prepared to appreciate Fitzgerald's irony. “My trash for the Post grows worse and worse as there is less and less heart in it. Strange to say, my whole heart was in my first trash. I thought that 'The Offshore Pirate' was quite as good as 'Benediction.' I never really 'wrote down' until after the failure of The Vegetable and that was to make this book possible. I would have written down long ago if it had been profitable—I tried it unsuccessfully for the movies. People don't seem to realize that for an intelligent man, writing down is about the hardest thing in the world.”

Since completing the first draft of The Great Gatsby he had already written down on three separate occasions—one of the stories, “Love in the Night,” had actually appeared in The Saturday Evening Post just before Gatsby was published, a coincidence that must have undercut any impression that Fitzgerald was making a fresh start. “Love in the Night” was Fitzgerald's first story set in Europe, though it was written in the familiar genteel romantic mode. In Cannes, during the summer of 1914, Val Rostoff, son of a Russian prince and a wealthy Chicago beauty, anonymously woos an American girl. The Russian Revolution turns Val into a Riviera cab driver, but the girl returns in the early twenties and finds her anonymous romancer. (Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!) She also happens to be wealthy, and they will no doubt live happily ever after. The next story, “The Adjuster,” is significant because it marks Fitzgerald's first explicit exorcising of his flapper creation, the genteel romantic heroine, the beautiful, young, willful girl. Luella Hemple's selfishness had caused her husband's breakdown and her child's death. A mysterious psychiatrist, Doctor Moon, tells her, “We make an agreement with children that they can sit in the audience without helping to make the play, but if they still sit in the audience after they're grown, somebody's got to work double time for them, so that they can enjoy the light and glitter of the world … It's your turn to be the centre, to give others what was given to you for so long.” The story ends with a glimpse of a happy future. In the third story, “Not in the Guidebook,” a lower-class wife is enabled to begin life over by an improbable coincidence. Milly Cooley is deserted by her unemployed husband, First World War hero Jim Cooley, as they arrive in France, ostensibly en route to a job. In Paris Milly is befriended by William Driscoll, an impresario-type who runs an amusing tour of the Paris sights. It turns out that Jim Cooley is nothing but a bum who stole the medals rightfully belonging to none other than Driscoll. With Driscoll, Milly finds her true love. By now Fitzgerald was earning two thousand dollars a story. If “writing down” was difficult, these stories show how well he had mastered the art.

These were the stories Fitzgerald wrote, paradoxically, while waiting for the reception of Gatsby to prove him an artist. Yet after his disappointment over The Great Gatsby he immediately began one of his finest works of fiction, the novella “The Rich Boy.” As time went on during the late spring and early summer of 1925, moreover, the support and encouragement he had hoped for from The Great Gatsby began to come through. By June he had received the remarkable letter of congratulation on The Great Gatsby from Gertrude Stein, and letters from Edith Wharton, James Branch Cabell, Van Wyck Brooks and others. If the “cheap reviewers” failed to appreciate the novel, his fellow artists recognized its merits without qualification. The Bookman, whose reviewer had equivocated in so agonized a way over The Great Gatsby in June, ran this comment from the novelist Louis Bromfield in August: “[F. Scott Fitzgerald], over whom there has been much head shaking among our more sober reviewers, emerges as a fine, objective novelist freed of the excesses of youth.” And by August Fitzgerald had found the critic capable of playing the Mencken to his Dreiser or the Wilson to his Joyce.

Gilbert Seldes reviewed The Great Gatsby in the August number of The Dial. As managing editor of The Dial three years earlier he had written—under the pseudonym Vivian Shaw—an attack on Fitzgerald from the viewpoint of the modern movement in literature and art. Later he resigned from The Dial to write a book on American popular culture, published in 1924 as The Seven Lively Arts. On the Riviera in 1924, before the completion of Gatsby, he and Fitzgerald became friends. Fitzgerald gave Seldes credit for writing the first intelligent reviews of Ring Lardner's work. His review in The Dial was, equally, the first intelligent criticism of Gatsby. What mattered most to Seldes was the novel's “artistic structure” and the evidence it gave of Fitzgerald's artistic vision; it was from the point of view of artistic standards that Seldes had attacked Fitzgerald's reputation back in 1922. Seldes saw the patterns of the novel, the concentration of style and the austere composition of the scenes, the justness of the detail and the structured movement of the whole. “The plot works out,” he wrote, “not like a puzzle with odd bits falling into place, but like a tragedy, with every part functioning in the completed organism.” And the meanings of the tragedy were also clear to him. “[Fitzgerald's] tactile apprehension remains so fine that his people and his settings are specifically of Long Island; but now he meditates upon their fate, and they become universal also. He has now something of extreme importance to say; and it is good fortune for us that he knows how to say it.” Seldes called The Great Gatsby one of the finest of contemporary novels. “Fitzgerald has more than matured,” he wrote, “he has mastered his talents and gone soaring in a beautiful flight, leaving behind him everything dubious and tricky in his earlier work, and leaving even farther behind all the men of his own generation and most of his elders.”

Seldes wrote another favorable appraisal of the novel—and Fitzgerald's whole career as well—in his “New York Chronicle” for T. S. Eliot's London quarterly, The New Criterion. “Fitzgerald … has certainly the best chance, at this moment, of becoming our finest artist in fiction,” Seldes wrote there, but he explained also that The Great Gatsby had not received a good press. “I am not concerned with Fitzgerald's royalties,” he concluded, “but he stands at this time desperately in need of critical encouragement.” Seldes had given him the most perceptive kind of encouragement twice over, and in the two periodicals which more than any others spoke to and for avant-garde writers in England and America. It is possible that Seldes's remarks in The New Criterion prompted T. S. Eliot's famous letter on The Great Gatsby. “It has interested and excited me more than any other new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years…,” Eliot wrote Fitzgerald. “In fact it seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James…” Fitzgerald prized Eliot's critical encouragement over any other he received.

Fitzgerald was concerned with his royalties. But as early as June 1925, he had word that dramatic rights to Gatsby would be sold, and that his immediate financial worries, at least the worries that forced him to write the trash he so abhorred, would soon be over. At the end of May he had received Gertrude Stein's letter on The Great Gatsby, in which she praised the way he wrote naturally in sentences and told him, “You are creating the contemporary world much as Thackeray did his in Pendennis and Vanity Fair and this isn't a bad compliment.” By midsummer of 1925, then, by the time Miss Stein's letter and one from Edith Wharton and the proofs of Seldes's Dial review were in his hands, Fitzgerald had every reason to be satisfied with what The Great Gatsby had accomplished. He was extravagantly admired again, admired by those who counted most, the important American writers and critics of his time. But it seems clear that this kind of admiration, alone, would not satisfy him.

If one recalls Van Wyck Brooks's Ordeal of Mark Twain, Fitzgerald was in the position of a Mark Twain who had succeeded where Brooks's Mark Twain had failed. He had brought out the latent artistry that was in him, and he had created a work of art that explored as deeply as he knew how the values of his own society. No William Dean Howells or Mrs. Clemens had held him back. But Fitzgerald had never been so opposed to the values of Mrs. Clemens or Howells as Brooks was, nor so opposed as he had appeared when he attacked the American bourgeois mentality in language borrowed from H. L. Mencken. At the start of his career he had immediately become both a popular writer and a spokesman for his generation. These were roles from the beginning of his literary awareness he had wished for, and when they came he had embraced them without reserve. To learn suddenly that his best novel, his extraordinary achievement, was neither popular nor representative was a shock the depths of which his new supporters could hardly fathom. Miss Stein and Mrs. Wharton, Seldes, Hemingway, and the others had formed their artistic values apart from public standards and public taste. Whether by accident or design Fitzgerald's literary values had always been entwined with the values of the reading public. Now his main pillar of support—for the work that mattered—had been knocked out from under him, and his instincts hesitated between two poles of safety open to him, “pure” artistry on the one hand and the most popular of art forms—the movies—on the other. In one mood he could boast to Perkins, “the happiest thought I have is of my new novel—it is something really NEW in form, idea, structure—the model for the age that Joyce and Stein are searching for, that Conrad didn't find”; in another he could pessimistically inform Seldes, in the letter thanking him for the Dial review, “My new novel may be my last for ten years or so—that is, if it sells no better than Gatsby (which has only gone a little over 20,000 copies), for I may go to Hollywood and try to learn the moving picture business from the bottom up.”

He was outsprinting Joyce and Stein at one moment, quitting the field in the next. This hestitation and indecision between two sets of values is an important facet of Fitzgerald's behavior in the months and years after The Great Gatsby. One can hardly explain Fitzgerald's personal life on the basis of his literary frustrations, to be sure. The most traumatic of his drunken exploits occurred in Rome in the winter of 1924-25, at the very time when he was polishing The Great Gatsby's proofs to such perfection; in an argument over a taxi fare he hit a policeman, and then he was beaten up and thrown in jail. Fitzgerald's drinking escapades were to continue at a high pace through all of 1925 and 1926, until he returned to the United States in December of that year. His biographers have fully described them, and one may guess as one chooses whether they were caused by his wife, his companions, the flaws in his own character, or some other source. What concerns this study of his mind and art is the relation of his intellectual and imaginative life to the personal affairs which shaped the course of his career. And it does seem certain that the lack of focus in Fitzgerald's literary self-awareness did play a part in his personal behavior.

For he was living in the center of the American expatriate colony of writers. “I have met most of the American literary world here (the crowd that centers about Pound),” he told Mencken, “and find them mostly junk-dealers; except for a few like Hemingway who are doing rather more thinking and working than the young men around New York.” Perhaps the intellectual and imaginative center of Fitzgerald's problems comes down, after all, to Hemingway. The intensity of feeling between Fitzgerald and Hemingway has recently been brought to life in Morley Callaghan's and Hemingway's own memoirs; an intensity that lives for us because it was still alive for Callaghan and Hemingway nearly forty years after the events. Fitzgerald first mentions Hemingway in a letter to Perkins in October 1924, one of his characteristically generous  gestures to help other writers he admired; he tried as well to make Perkins take an interest in the work of Gertrude Stein. In 1925 the friendship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway grew close. Both men were intensely competitive. Hemingway no doubt recognized, after The Great Gatsby, that Fitzgerald was the man he had to beat; Fitzgerald had had the popular success and financial rewards that Hemingway wanted, though he was in a position openly to disdain them. To Fitzgerald, Hemingway was what he had never been and had often wished to be—the artist of complete integrity, the artist who was also a man of action; and there was no way Fitzgerald could put a mask of disdain on that. He must have felt himself inferior to Hemingway almost from the start, a feeling that Hemingway must also have exploited as soon as it was clear to him. Perhaps it was Hemingway's presence that made it impossible for the extraordinary praise Fitzgerald received for Gatsby really to take hold. Fitzgerald had outdistanced all his known competitors, only to feel beaten by a dark horse, younger than he, who had hardly published a word. When Fitzgerald wrote self-deprecatingly to Gertrude Stein, in answer to her congratulatory letter, “You see, I am content to let you, and the one or two like you who are acutely sensitive, think or fail to think for me and my kind artistically … much as the man of 1901, say, would let Nietzsche … think for him intellectually. I am a very second-rate person compared to first-rate people,” he was rating himself the loser.

The nature of Fitzgerald's patronage of Hemingway is rendered in its amusing and curious light by an incident recorded neither by Callaghan nor by Hemingway, but by the writer who had served so often as a symbol and analogue in Fitzgerald's career, Booth Tarkington. When Tarkington was in Paris in 1925 Fitzgerald brought Hemingway around to meet him. “My impression” of Hemingway, Tarkington later recalled, “was of a Kansas University football beef; but I rather liked him. Fitzgerald [a fellow Princetonian] brought him up and was a little tight—took him away because Hemingway was to have a fight that afternoon at three o'clock, though I gathered they'd both been up all night.” Fitzgerald's chief service to Hemingway, of course, lay in the aid he rendered in Hemingway's shift away from the publishers Boni & Liveright to Scribner's. And the most public of his efforts in Hemingway's behalf was the important article he wrote for the May 1926 number of The Bookman, “How To Waste Material: A Note on My Generation.”

“How To Waste Material” was far more than a boost to Hemingway. It was Fitzgerald's critical and intellectual rendering of his perceptions about American literature that had emerged in the wake of The Great Gatsby's popular failure. It states in a generalized and ordered way the viewpoint of the half-anguished, half-satiric outbursts in his earlier letters to Perkins; and as such it belongs among the most important documents on American literature in the twenties. “How To Waste Material” marks, in a sense, Fitzgerald's formal severance from the “schools” of criticism and fiction that inflated his reputation, only to let out the air at his moment of artistic self-mastery. He had discovered that they had all along demanded a kind of subject matter and treatment marked, in their writers and their products, “by the insincere compulsion to write 'significantly' about America”—“insincere because it is not a compulsion found in themselves.” To represent these separate “schools” he wisely singled out their strongest figures, respectively, H. L. Mencken and Sherwood Anderson. Mencken's idea, he wrote, “had always been ethical rather than aesthetic”—an insight proved, if proof were needed, by Mencken's review of The Great Gatsby. Anderson, of whom reviewers spoke “as an inarticulate, fumbling man, bursting with ideas,” was, on the contrary, Fitzgerald said, “the possessor of a brilliant and almost inimitable prose style, and of scarcely any ideas at all.” Though their own pioneering work was exempt from Fitzgerald's criticism—Mencken “has yet done more for American letters than any man alive,” he wrote—he saw them as the instigators of doctrines and forms that their followers and imitators had debased. Out of the mass of fiction produced in “what was to have been a golden age,” Fitzgerald wrote, only one book survived—The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings. “Some of the late brilliant boys are on lecture tours (a circular informs me that most of them are to speak upon 'the literary revolution!'), some are writing pot boilers, a few have definitely abandoned the literary life—they were never sufficiently aware that material, however closely observed, is as elusive as the moment in which it has its existence unless it is purified by an incorruptible style and by the catharsis of a passionate emotion.” This was the nature of art as Fitzgerald had learned it, as every page of The Great Gatsby demonstrated it; but for his object lesson Fitzgerald chose not his own novel, but the stories of Ernest Hemingway.

How seriously Fitzgerald adhered to his standards for the art of fiction was demonstrated by “The Rich Boy,” the long story he started as the first disappointing reviews of The Great Gatsby were coming in. “Begin with an individual,” the story opens, “and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing.” As “The Adjuster” had been written as if to exorcise the genteel romantic “flapper” heroine, “The Rich Boy” was an effort to repudiate the whole structure of genteel romantic formulas as Fitzgerald had inherited them from the nineteenth century. “If I wrote about his brothers,” the narrative voice goes on, “I should have to begin by attacking all the lies that the poor have told about the rich and the rich have told about themselves—such a wild structure they have erected that when we pick up a book about the rich, some instinct prepares us for unreality. Even the intelligent and impassioned reporters of life have made the country of the rich as unreal as fairy-land” (152). One may suspect that Fitzgerald in revulsion at the lack of understanding for his novel was rejecting The Great Gatsby's mood and setting out of hand; rather his target was more precisely the old-fashioned genteel romantic hero—the upper-class young man of will and playful imagination, the twentieth-century Tom Sawyer, who had formed part of the foundation for Gatsby's character, but was seen most clearly in Fitzgerald's conventional slick magazine stories. Far from turning his back on The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald in “The Rich Boy” was building on the novel—building, specifically, on the novel's insight into the American plutocracy, and its responsibility to protect the forms and values of American society as a whole. Anson Hunter of “The Rich Boy” is a decent and likeable version of Tom Buchanan, a Tom Buchanan dispassionately observed through the lens of a cleansed and simple style.

Anson Hunter lacks neither will nor playful imagination; what he lacks is will and playful imagination as expressions of a young man's aspirations, whether in conventional or creative form, for there was nothing beyond him unexplored and unattained to excite his will and imagination. “His aspirations were conventional enough—they included even the irreproachable shadow he would some day marry, but they differed from the aspirations of the majority of young men in that there was no mist over them, none of the quality which is variously known as 'idealism' or 'illusion.' Anson accepted without reservation the world of high finance and high extravagance, of divorce and dissipation, of snobbery and of privilege. Most of our lives end as a compromise—it was as a compromise that his life began” (154). Anson Hunter grows out of Tom Buchanan, but he also marks an interesting return to the old concept of the “personage” that played so important a part in Fitzgerald's early fiction. Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise was the product of Fitzgerald's new self-creative, socially reconstructive definition of a “personage.” Anson resembles the old definition that Amory reinterpreted, the definition expressed in the novel by Monsignor Darcy: “He is never thought of apart from what he's done. He's a bar on which a thousand things have been hung—glittering things sometimes, as ours are, but he uses those things with a cold mentality back of them.”

Anson Hunter of “The Rich Boy” is the man on whom glittering things are hung. He gives others the feeling that they are “preeminently safe and taken care of” (156), and he took “pleasure in helping people and arranging their affairs… He had an instinctive and rather charitable knowledge of the weaknesses of men and women, and, like a priest, it made him the more concerned for the maintenance of outward forms… His day was never too full nor his mind too weary to give any sort of aid to any one who asked it. What had been done at first through pride and superiority had become a habit and a passion” (161, 164, 172). His only passion. For ironically Anson Hunter, the man who began life having everything, could expend his will and imagination with the firmest sense of social right, the sense—similar to the sense Lambert Strether expresses at the end of Henry James's novel The Ambassadors—of getting nothing for himself. Anson can succeed in breaking up his Aunt Edna's extramarital affair by the power of “his main weapon, which was his own true emotion” (175), the desire to maintain the forms. But in the end his old friends drift away from him, occupied with emotions more subjective and less lofty than his own. Anson is left at the end the cold and impotent observer of the simple domestic pleasures enjoyed by the only girl he ever loved, whom he lost by the powerlessness of his will to take her for himself; his repeated “yes” to her demands for affirmations to her happiness conveys so much of his weakness and his bitter strengths (185-6). “The Rich Boy,” in the purity of its style and conception, is one of Fitzgerald's finest stories, marred only by an occasional lapse into sentimentality or into the melodramatic realism of his past, as in the suicide of Edna's lover. But the spare, dry nature of Fitzgerald's tone and treatment recalls not so much This Side of Paradise as the prose style of Ernest Hemingway. And before he was able to finish “The Rich Boy,” Fitzgerald had to take time out to write a shorter story; it was “A Penny Spent,” one of his weakest, written in the old conventional genteel romantic way. There seemed no escape from his dilemma, not from either of its horns.

The dilemma was posed by his own adherence to high standards for the art of fiction. One horn of the dilemma was that he took the standards too seriously, the other that he did not take them seriously enough. Though these seem opposing points of view, they are not necessarily contradictory. In the background lay the depressing fact that The Great Gatsby had not attained a reputation commensurate with its qualities. To meet his own standards—and also to vindicate his reputation—he should have to write a work of art greater even than The Great Gatsby. But he felt himself inferior as an artist to writers like Gertrude Stein and especially Hemingway, and that feeling made him question his ability to write anything good at all. He wanted all, it seemed, wanted to write a work of incomparable artistry—or he wanted nothing. This is not a full explanation of his behavior in the nine years from the publication of The Great Gatsby to the publication of Tender Is the Night in 1934, but it is the main explanation that emerges from a consideration of Fitzgerald's mind and art.

Fitzgerald's new novel—the novel that was to provide “the model for the age that Joyce and Stein are searching for, that Conrad didn't find”—was begun late in 1925. He worked on it through 1926, until in December of that year—still held fast by the two horns of his dilemma—he returned to the United States to try a stint as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He was offered $3500 in advance to write a screenplay for the actress Constance Talmadge. If his story was accepted he would receive over twelve thousand dollars in all. The Fitzgeralds stayed in Hollywood two months, conducting their lives on the same plane as they had in Paris and on the Riviera. Before they left, his completed screenplay, a “flapper” romance in a college setting, was rejected. In the absence of concrete evidence one may yet assume that the dilemma of his career he had left Europe to escape had pursued him even to Hollywood. Perhaps his sense of his own capacities as a writer of prose fiction inhibited him from adhering fully to the standards of motion-picture writing. Perhaps it was a question of technical competence; he had made himself a professional writer by close attention to the needs and techniques of the slick magazine market, a form of attention he could not possibly have given screenwriting in the circumstances of his visit. One suspects he saw too many possibilities in his material, was personally too close to it—or even that he was simply too much an artist—ruthlessly to shape his story to movie stereotypes. What he lacked most of all was a sense of purpose, or a need. He did not need the money that much, he did not want that much to put himself in a position where he could not go on with the new novel. For all the talk of Fitzgerald's modeling his characters on himself, this was a case where he seemed to model himself on one of his characters: Anthony Patch from The Beautiful and Damned, the man who would not limit himself, who considered his possibilities so great he could bring himself to strive for no one thing at all. In the literary world Fitzgerald was blocked by a vision of a perfection he could not reach, in the film world by the cold facts of a perfection he had not trained himself to reach. From the present perspective, no matter how living an alternative screenwriting had seemed for him, it appears that he never had a chance to succeed. Fitzgerald rented “Ellerslie,” a house in Edge-moor, Delaware, outside Wilmington, and went back to work on his novel.

What matters for the present discussion is not what Tender Is the Night was about, but that he had so many difficulties with it, difficulties which made a great impact on his own self-awareness as a writer. During 1925 and 1926 he had completed no more than two or three chapters, though he sold the serial rights to Liberty magazine and even while in Hollywood promised to deliver the manuscript in June. Eighteen months later he had made almost no progress. In 1929 he did some work on a new version of the novel, and in 1930 he made one more attempt to salvage something out of his original conception. For all that went into Tender Is the Night from these five years of intermittent writing, the published book is essentially a new novel in form and conception, begun in 1932 while Fitzgerald was living at La Paix, outside Baltimore, and completed there in March of 1934. The nine-year gap between The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night has often been considered a costly lapse and an ignominious failure, yet in the history of American literature great writers have not uncommonly taken nearly a decade between novels. Dreiser published no novel between The “Genius” in 1916 and An American Tragedy in 1925, Hemingway none between A Farewell to Arms in 1929 and To Have and Have Not in 1937. The important question is not why he failed to complete a novel more rapidly between 1925 and 1934, but how it affected his self-regard and his reputation as a writer.

In 1926 Fitzgerald's reputation was higher than it had ever been before, higher than it was ever to be again within his lifetime. The Great Gatsby had already brought him praise and admiration from the important writers and critics of his era; and when his third collection of stories was published early in 1926 the newspaper and magazine reviewers belatedly joined them. Fitzgerald had preferred not to bring out a book of stories if The Great Gatsby had been a popular success. But when Gatsby's commercial failure forced him to put together All the Sad Young Men the reviewers ironically had a chance to give Fitzgerald the acclaim they had earlier withheld from the novel. “With The Great Gatsby, it is generally agreed, Mr. Fitzgerald came into his full maturity as a novelist,” William Rose Benêt stated in The Saturday Review of Literature, although he had not really joined this consensus in his favorable but equivocating review of the novel. “It becomes apparent that he is head and shoulders better than any other writer of his generation,” The Bookman at last proclaimed—a proclamation given a special kind of irony for the fact that it appeared in the same number with “How To Waste Material,” Fitzgerald's introduction of Hemingway to The Bookman's readers. Other reviewers, if not so obviously making up for their failure to appreciate The Great Gatsby, were almost as favorable to the book of stories. All the Sad Young Men contained four of the eleven stories Fitzgerald wrote in the winter of 1923-24 to clear himself from debt; three earlier stories, including “Absolution”; and “The Adjuster” and “The Rich Boy” from his recent work. Out of this somewhat uneven collection each reviewer found one or two stories he especially liked, and each of the nine stories was picked by one or another reviewer as a favorite. In The Dial “The Baby Party” and “Hot and Cold Blood” were singled out for “sureness and insight,” a judgment—made without tongue in cheek—almost indistinguishable from The Outlook's, at the opposite end of the literary spectrum. The reader who looked for artistry could find it in All the Sad Young Men, and so could the reader who wanted morality; there was realism in it as well as romance, sentiment as well as irony. Once more Fitzgerald was all things to all people, as he had been when This Side of Paradise started his career so successfully. For a brief time he was universally admired again.

All the Sad Young Men sold over fourteen thousand copies, a far larger sale than Fitzgerald had expected, and it pulled Fitzgerald clear of his debt to Scribner's for the first time in four years. When the news of the first critical and commercial response came through, Fitzgerald was obviously delighted. “In fact, with the play [the dramatization of Gatsby] going well and my new novel growing absorbing,” he wrote Maxwell Perkins, “and with our being back in a nice villa on my beloved Riviera (between Cannes and Nice), I'm happier than I've been for years. It's one of the strange, precious, and all too transitory moments when everything in one's life seems to be going well.” At that happy moment, out of debt at last, and with over thirty thousand dollars coming in from the dramatic and film rights to Gatsby, Fitzgerald gave up the short-story writing that had become so distasteful to him. After February 1926 he was to write no stories for the next fifteen months.

The four stories he wrote in the fall and winter of 1925-26, after completing “The Rich Boy,” demonstrate his impatience with the form. Having to put his matured art and intellectual perception into the requirements of slick magazine stories was as if he were an adolescent boy forced to wear short pants. You couldn't do or say what you wanted; it was all a little foolish and uncomfortable. “Presumption” was a sentimental rewrite of Gatsby, with all the mystery left out and all the mechanics of wealth—respectable wealth, this time—put in. A “poor young man” seems to have ended up a failure in his struggle for romance “against a snobbish, purse-proud world.” “It was all a preposterous joke on him, played by those to whom the business of life had been such jokes from the beginning. He realized now that fundamentally they were all akin … affirming the prerogative of the rich to marry always within their class, to erect artificial barriers and standards against those who could presume upon a summer's philandering. The scales fell from his eyes and he saw his year and a half struggle and effort not as progress toward a goal but only as a little race he had run by himself, outside, with no one to beat except himself—no one who cared.” Yet after this tragic insight the young man learns in the last sentence that he has won the girl.

“The Adolescent Marriage” is told partly from the point of view of a sixty-eight-year-old architect and partly from the point of view of a young architect in his employ. The young man has eloped with a rich young girl. But his poverty quickly destroys their marriage. The girl's parents have it annulled and the girl is protectively absorbed back into the social life of the rich. “'So that's that,' [the young man] said finally in a new hard voice. 'I realize now that from beginning to end I was the only one who had any conscience in this affair after all.'” He devotes himself to architecture, brilliantly designs a suburban cottage that wins a prize. A career of devotion to his art opens up before him, he passionately embraces it. But when he enters his newly constructed prize cottage he finds the rich young girl waiting for him inside. She loved him all the time. Anyway, she is pregnant by him. Sentiment and realism march hand in hand to the altar.

For “The Dance” Fitzgerald used as his narrator a young New York girl, who speaks in Conradian tones of “the unknown depths, the incalculable ebb and flow, the secret shapes of things that drift through opaque darkness under the surface of the sea.” She is referring to the atmosphere of violence and passion compressed beneath the quiet life of a small Southern town, where the story takes place. But “The Dance” does not succeed in uniting the tragic melodrama of one plot with the sentimental romance of the other. The last of the four stories, “Your Way and Mine,” possesses an even more obviously broken back. It contains two business plots, one that abruptly stops in the middle without finishing, the other that abruptly stops at the end without finishing. “This is one of the lousiest stories I've ever written,” Fitzgerald told his agent Harold Ober. “Just terrible … It hasn't one redeeming touch of my usual spirit in it.” He asked Ober not to send it either to the Post or to Redbook, but promised for the future “two of the best stories I've ever done in my life.” This last was a falsehood to mitigate “Your Way and Mine.” Early in 1926 Fitzgerald had come to a dead end as a short-story writer.

Yet for the next eight years Fitzgerald was known to the reading public chiefly as a writer of popular stories. With his inability to progress during 1926 on the novel, and the failure of his experiment as a screenwriter, he was forced to turn back to short stories. Writing stories was his way, at first, of keeping up an extravagant social life at Ellerslie and in France. Then, after April 1930, it became his way of providing the expensive psychiatric care for his wife. Though the novel was interrupted by drinking, by travel, by family tensions, then finally completely dropped after Zelda's mental breakdown, Fitzgerald wrote his stories anytime, anywhere, like the professional writer he was. He turned out five in the last half of 1927, seven in 1928, seven in 1929, eight in 1930, nine in 1931, four more in the first five months of 1932, until he began seriously to work on Tender Is the Night—forty stories in all over a period of almost exactly five years. With his rate per story climbing to a high of four thousand dollars, Fitzgerald earned over one hundred thousand dollars—almost exclusively from The Saturday Evening Post—in the three years 1929-31. In “How To Waste Material” he had described the ways some writers of his generation had given up or lost their artistry. As if by self-fulfilling prophecy he had become his own best, or worst, example. No one else seemed to be wasting material so prodigally as he.

The strains of his life as an artist and an intellectual over the years from 1926 to 1932—to say nothing of his personal and social life-were exceptionally intense. His aims were unrealistically high. He had undertaken to write a novel better than Conrad, better than Joyce, better than Stein—better, more appropriately, than The Great Gatsby. But he was caught in a cross-fire of conflicting intentions. He had no real conception of what such a novel would be like, only feelings of how it ought to be. At the same time he had conceived a plot but he had not brought to it that “passionate emotion” that made The Great Gatsby so memorable. Thus his beautiful prose passages never quite lived up to the conception he had not clearly formulated; and none of his ideas took on quite the tone of feeling he wanted them to have. Fitzgerald had wanted to begin anew—to repeat the past as Gatsby had wanted to—and he succeeded and failed in quite the same manner as Gatsby. It was as if he had gone back to where he was just after writing This Side of Paradise. He was plunging ahead on as ambitiously projected and as artistically and intellectually flawed a novel as The Beautiful and Damned had been. But you can't repeat the past; he was now far too mature an artist and intellectual ever to bring another Beautiful and Damned to completion. Meanwhile there were his ever-present insecurities. In the back of his mind he believed that “the critics” were still hostile to him, were hoping that he would really prove to be a wash-out; and there was the star of Ernest Hemingway, rising in popularity, with A Farewell to Arms in 1929, to heights Fitzgerald had never reached.

A Farewell to Arms marked a turning point for Fitzgerald's self-respect. When he had begun his new novel back in 1925 it was easy to believe, as he had written Perkins then, that he was the best American novelist, that the new work would remove all remaining doubts and hesitations. By 1929 it was impossible to believe so confidently in himself any longer. Since 1926 Hemingway had produced an impressive book of short stories and an immensely successful novel; Fitzgerald had produced nothing permanent at all. Hemingway's manner toward Fitzgerald changed, in keeping with his conviction that he had proved himself far superior as a man and as a writer. He ridiculed Fitzgerald's claim to work eight hours a day on his writing; even Zelda Fitzgerald, whose habits had often hindered her husband's writing in the past, revolted against their waste and dissipation. She became obsessed with the need to work, to accomplish something. Surrounded in his professional and family life by persons apparently far more serious and dedicated than he, Fitzgerald was thrown on the defensive. He began to excuse himself. He became more and more touchy.

“Your analysis of my inability to get my serious work done is too kind,” he wrote Hemingway in September 1929, “in that it leaves out the dissipation, but amongst acts of God it is possible that the five years between my leaving the Army and finishing Gatsby (1919-1924) which included 3 novels, about 50 popular stories and a play and numerous articles and movies may have taken all I had to say too early, adding that all the time we were living at top speed in the gayest worlds we could find.” To an admiring correspondent he explained, “About five years ago I became, unfortunately, interested in the insoluble problems of personal charm and have spent the intervening time on a novel that's going to interest nobody… Unfortunately my sense of material is much superior to my mind or my talent and if I ever survive this damned thing I shall devote my life to musical comedy librettos or become swimming instructor to the young Mikadesses of Japan.” When his agent Ober prodded him on the novel exactly at the moment of Zelda's breakdown, Fitzgerald exploded: “I know you're losing faith in me, and Max too, but God knows one has to rely in the end on one's own judgment. I could have published four lousy, half-baked books in the last five years and people would have thought I was at least a worthy young man not drinking myself to pieces in the South Seas—but I'd be dead as Michael Arlen, Bromfield, Tom Boyd, Callaghan and the others who think they can trick the world with the hurried and the second-rate.” On the same day he wrote almost the same words to Perkins. “I wrote young and I wrote a lot and the pot takes longer to fill up now, but the novel, my novel, is a different matter than if I'd hurriedly finished it up a year and a half ago… I know what I'm doing—honestly, Max… 'He's through' is an easy cry to raise but it's safer for the critics to raise it at the evidence in print than at a long silence.”

Throughout his life Fitzgerald retained a bit of pseudo-scientific folk wisdom he had picked up in his youth, the “fact” that the body's cells completely renew themselves every seven years. Technically, so his version went, after seven years an entirely new person comes into being; he used this idea as a gimmick in a 1932 Post story, “On Schedule.” You can't repeat the past; yet with the exception that Fitzgerald did not publish a novel as confused and hurried as was The Beautiful and Damned, the years 1929-31 in his career bear an uncanny resemblance to the years 1922-24. Seven years after that early nadir in his career he was acting it out, almost step by step, all over again. There were the same angry and self-despairing letters, the same excessive drinking, the same sense of falling behind his competitors—even the same curious revival of critical comment at the lowest point of his depression. Just as Edmund Wilson, Paul Rosenfeld, and Ernest Boyd had revived interest in Fitzgerald in 1924, so Gorham Munson and Lawrence Leighton brought him new consideration in 1931 and 1932. Both Munson and Leighton—like the three literary journalists seven years before them—were critical of the novelists of the twenties. In his survey of “Our Post-War Novel” for The Bookman Munson found Fitzgerald the only significant novelist whose work was not marred by naturalism. “Mr. Fitzgerald seems to me more radiant with promise than any other younger novelist we have,” Munson wrote. “Fired by Mr. Fitzgerald's example, young American writers might have broken free of the canons of naturalistic and realistic fiction (canons that in reality are stultifying to art) and the course of our post-war novel might have been from documentary fiction toward poetic fiction… This was not to be. Mr. Fitzgerald has not published a novel since 1925 and his vogue has been succeeded by the vogue of Mr. Ernest Hemingway.” Writing in Harvard's journal of the new criticism, Hound & Horn, Leighton found Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos, his three American subjects, all inferior writers, though of the three he called Fitzgerald the best.

Yet the minor similarities between the two stages of Fitzgerald's career become merely coincidence beside their larger connection. During both periods Fitzgerald's difficulties masked the fact that he was struggling to work out a new conception of his material, that he was going through a painful process of growth. For all the pride and egotism that made him want to outdo The Great Gatsby in his new novel, to outdo Joyce and Conrad and Stein as well, there was a sounder principle behind his ambition, too. He wanted not merely to succeed more greatly, but also to do better. He did not want his mind and art to rest. The qualities of mind that had enabled him— had forced him—to grow beyond This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned now pushed him to grow beyond The Great Gatsby. “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being,” Fitzgerald had written of Amory Blaine so long ago. The personal sadness and the professional frustrations of Fitzgerald's life between 1926 and 1932 ought not to obscure the process of becoming that he was meanwhile working through; for as difficulties now were permanent characteristics of his personal life, so too were new possibilities now a permanent characteristic of his mind and art.


Next: Chapter 9

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