When Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 his work, outside a very small circle, was hardly known in this country. By now The Great Gatsby might perhaps be said to be slowly establishing a position for itself; but one that still remains infinitely short of that novel’s reputation in America, where it is looked upon almost as a classic: certainly a classic of its period, the early 1920s. Indeed, Fitzgerald’s habitual connotation in many people’s minds with the “jazz age” has sometimes obscured his merits. He is, it is true, a remarkable example of a writer of great gifts striking when the iron was hot—and failing to produce another masterpiece largely on account of the limitations of his time-bound point of view—but he stands apart from most of the American, or English, novelists, among contemporaries who might be considered in his class; and at his best he certainly rises far above recommendation merely as an interesting period piece.
The much simplified life-story, beloved of his countrymen, presents a picture of a talented, ambitious, attractive young man, whose early years were embittered by failure to play football for Princeton (where, like most undergraduates, he could also havedone with a larger allowance); and also by the signing of the Armistice after the First World War, an event that precluded military service overseas. Later, in spite of enormous popular success with his first novel, This Side of Paradise, there were struggles to earn a living: short stories for the commercial market: The Great Gatsby: more drink than was probably wise: and, finally, scenario-writing in Hollywood, where at the time of his death in the middle forties, he had begun to build up something of a new life. Such broad outlines may be gathered from The Crack-up (taking its name from the autobiographical piece describing his own nervous collapse), which contains a number of uncollected writings, including Fitzgerald’s note-books, selected correspondence, and appreciations of his work by various American writers.
His first two books attempted to impose on the American novel certain alien elements, notably in choice of hero. However, not all characters in novels can be exported without deterioration, and the particular type that Fitzgerald, in the first instance, adumbrated (although swallowed whole by the American public) was, it might be thought, quite inappropriate to the circumstances and traditions of American life. This Side of Paradise derives from many sources, the chief one Sinister Street: Amory Blaine being an American edition of the English dilettante, half-aristocrat, half-bohemian, lover, scholar, and man-of-the-world, nearing disintegration, after a good run for his money, even in England by 1914. This Side of Paradise cannot be called a good book; its successor, The Beautiful and Damned is scarcely, if at all, better; yet even in these shapeless, sentimental pieces of romanticized autobiography flashes of wit and vital force are easily perceptible. Clearly the author’s facility is great; and judging from these two novels—and short stories like “The Rich Boy” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”—it might have been supposed that Fitzgerald would turn into a prolific popular novelist, telling the same story over and over again, until all trace of promise had vanished from his pages. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
In The Great Gatsby (1925) worship of the golden calf and a strong tinge of narcissism, hitherto obtrusive, accept a reasonable place. A tendency to write untidily changes to a severe sense of form.The story, told economically in the first person, keeps the narrator, Nick Carraway, well in the background. He is a young bond-salesman, commuting from a cottage set between two large estates on Long Island, one of which is owned by the mysterious Gatsby, also young, who gives huge parties each week-end. A rich married couple, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, friends of Carraway, own another large house on the opposite side of the Sound. Tom Buchanan is engaged in a decidedly sordid liaison with the wife of a local garage proprietor; and Daisy’s life is unhappy.
It turns out that Gatsby, gangster and bootlegger, while a temporary officer in the American Army, had a love affair with Daisy before her marriage; and his one aim is to find her again. He achieves this meeting through Carraway. As a result Gatsby reopens his affair with Daisy. After an afternoon spent in New York, involving the Buchanans, Gatsby, Carraway, and a girl called Jordan Baker, the triangular situation between Gatsby and the Buchanans is brought into the open; and on the way home Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car, fortuitously runs down and kills her husband’s mistress. Buchanan arranges, indirectly, that the garage proprietor should murder Gatsby, supposing him, as the car-owner, responsible for the accident. The book ends in a ferment of ignoble behavior on the part of the Buchanans and Gatsby’s former guests and associates; so that finally Carraway is driven to the inevitable conclusion that the gangster, Gatsby, embodied something more genuine—and on the whole less depraved—than either the parasites he entertained or the Buchanans, who represented to him (and to themselves and their set) membership of a would-be aristocratic society.
The novel is extraordinarily successful in blending reflection and movement. We are made to feel the interplay of opposed moral values by a series of episodes that never swerve from naturalism in the number of writing. By only a few lines throughout the book the flirtation between Carraway and Jordan Baker is deftly suggested; while the mixture of friendship, dislike, and awe that Carraway feels for the coarse, domineering, athletic, affluent Tom Buchanan is, among many other characters and episodes, immensely well conceived. It has been said with some truth thatGatsby is a kind of apotheosis of the boy that was Huckleberry Finn; certainly he is miles away from Amory Blaine and Anthony Patch.
Fitzgerald said afterwards that, as the novel progressed, Gatsby took on much of the author himself; but one of the remarkable achievements of the story is that, while Carraway, Fitzgerald’s projection, has an undoubted life of his own, Gatsby’s personality is quite untainted by that air of being a literary person with which novelists are so often apt to endow their men of action or perpetrators of violence. Indeed Gatsby is an early and outstandingly successful example of the gangster-hero, to flourish so abundantly in the novels of a few years later. His egotism, his lies, and his silliness are contrasted with his munificence, his courage, and his deeply felt love for Daisy. He is no doubt romanticized, but not more than is reasonable, when we take into consideration that Gatsby is seen through the eyes of Carraway; and set against the background of America in the twenties, rich, restless, the slump still undreamed of: a world where anything might happen, anyone meet anyone. There is no reason why Carraway should look on life otherwise than he does. His thirtieth birthday takes place in the course of the narrative, and he feels, rather justly, that his world is a disordered one; but in this book nothing further in the way of judgment seems required. There is none of that sense of something lacking in the author’s own development that exists so strongly in the two novels that followed.
Tender Is the Night, Gatsby’s successor, ambitious in the manner in which it was planned, is really a step back, in its retreat from objectivity, and unwillingness to follow up the logical conclusions of the earlier novel. The book falls into three sections: first, the south of France, where Dick Diver, an American doctor, falls in with an eighteen-year-old film actress of great beauty and respectable antecedents: secondly, an earlier period when Diver is in Switzerland, treating a rich heiress, Nicole Warren, for madness: thirdly, the scene principally in France, Diver having married Nicole, who, her cure effected, decides that she no longer loves him. The marriage breaks up, and we are led to suppose thatDiver sinks into a world of casual love affairs and small-town doctoring.
Fitzgerald is attempting something on a larger scale and, in a sense, in a more serious manner; but this new seriousness seems to have betrayed him. In all his writing we are conscious of a desire, almost comparable to Kipling’s, for some form of life that may be held up to admiration. However, in Fitzgerald’s case, he never managed to objectify the things he held in respect sufficiently for them to carry the weight of his own admiration; and, while Kipling could, for example, depict the sordid side of Victorian army life and remain a passionate partisan of all the army stood for, Fitzgerald always expects the objects of his admiration to possess outward and visible trappings suitable to their inner enchantment. Thus in Tender Is the Night attention is concentrated on Diver’s skill as a doctor; but the author never seems to strike a happy balance between Diver, the physician, and Diver, the man.
The opening scenes in the south of France are, on the whole, handled satirically and well; and, so far as it goes, the Swiss clinic is convincing, if a trifle heavy going; but as Diver grows older, although we can sympathize with his troubles in handling the problem of his only partly cured wife, we cannot share the author’s attitude towards his hero’s general behavior, which is often ludicrous, if not inexcusable. When, for example, Diver, at the age of forty, before a party, stands on his hands “to limber himself up,” and his pince-nez fall out of his breast-pocket, we have an uneasy feeling that Fitzgerald does not think this incident so farcical as does the reader: and Diver’s brain-storms in Rome, resulting in brawls and arrest, are presented vividly but with little feeling for the preposterous behavior of the doctor himself.
The truth is that Fitzgerald has slipped back into subjective autobiography. All the things that happened to Diver did not, of course, happen literally to Fitzgerald; but the breakdown in the conviction that the novel carries is due to some essential lack of appreciation on the author’s part of the manner in which normal professional life is lived. He is prepared to romanticize Dr. Diver’swork; even to take pains in recording its correct detail; but in the last resort he fails to grasp any reality but that of his own tortured nerves as a writer. The unfolding of Tender Is the Night, from the point of view of different characters, adds technically to the handicaps under which the novel labours; but in spite of undoubted failings it remains a somewhat magnificent failure, and a book that should certainly be read by those interested in the American novel.
Tender Is the Night represents the final important piece of work before the “crack-up”: The Last Tycoon, the only serious fragment that took shape during the period between that crisis and Fitzgerald’s death. To call the latter work a “fragment” is perhaps to insist too much on its unfinished state; because the essential core is there, and although completion might possibly have brought with it many minor good things, tone and general action would have remained the same. It is hard to agree with the many critics who have said that The Last Tycoon would have crowned Fitzgerald’s achievement. The flaws suggested in Tender Is the Night are here more than ever apparent; and although the novel has a kind of distinction that clung to Fitzgerald’s writing, even in the depths of his least engaging journalism, there is nothing in this final book to compare with The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald had indeed set himself a hard task: nothing less than to glorify as a romantic figure a powerful Hollywood film executive; and Monroe Stahr, “the last tycoon,” at thirty-five the outstanding figure on the production side of the moving-picture industry, has aspects that remind us of Dr. Diver and Gatsby, and even recall Amory Blaine and Anthony Patch. Stahr is a Jew, with next to no education, suffering from a disease of the heart; his wife, Minna, is dead and—in the same manner that Gatsby dreamed of reunion with Daisy—Stahr dreams that he will find another Minna. The story is mostly told by Cecilia Brady, daughter of Stahr’s chief business partner; and the difficulties of presenting matters through the eyes of a girl of eighteen are never satisfactorily overcome. When Cecilia is coy about men, a sense of embarrassment is almost unavoidable: when she sees events with mature eyes we remain unconvinced by her sophistication. By thistime Fitzgerald had been to some extent caught up in the prevailing interest in politics, so that at moments Stahr seems about to turn into that hero of our time, the man who is very rich and very “Left.” And the notes on the unfinished portion of the novel indicate that he was to play a part—and a violent part—in Hollywood politics.
However, the portion of The Last Tycoon that exists, treats chiefly of Stahr’s love affair with the girl Katherine, of Irish origin, whose father had been shot by Black-and-Tans, and “the day her stepmother presented her at Court they had one shilling to eat with so as not to feel faint.” Katherine had been engaged to “a king” in London and, when she mentioned his name, “Stahr visualized the face out of old newsreels.” In fairness to Fitzgerald, who was at his least happy with British subjects (Boxley, the English author in Hollywood, admirable target for satire, is a complete failure), it should be remembered that he might have cut out some of this rubbish in the final draft. It seems more probable that Hollywood, magazine stories and his own daydreams had been too much for him, and that the final version of The Last Tycoon would have been readable but thoroughly second-rate.
For the moment, anyway, American novelists have set their faces against the Fitzgerald tradition. They burn incense at other altars: Dreiser’s Teutonic mountains of words: Mr. Ernest Hemingway’s self-conscious violence: the inward-looking romanticisms and eclectic verbiage of the Deep South: the minutiae of political opinion. If a time should come when they turn again to a more English tradition, Scott Fitzgerald would provide a rock on which to build. He deserves better treatment than that accorded to him in this edition, in which the verse by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers (one of the characters in This Side of Paradise) is omitted from the title page of The Great Gatsby, also marred by a piece of misplaced dialogue on page 27 making nonsense of several lines. The quotation from Keats has been removed from the beginning of Tender Is the Night; and Fitzgerald’s death is variously described, in the introduction to The Last Tycoon, as taking place in 1940, and on all the dust-wrappers as in 1941.
Published in The Times Literary Supplement newspaper (London, 1950).