Scott Fitzgerald—the Authority of Failure
by William Troy


Of course, in any absolute sense, Scott Fitzgerald was not a failure at all; he has left one short novel, passages in several others, and a handful of short stories which stand as much chance of survival as anything of their kind produced in this country during the same period. If the tag is so often attached to his name, it has been largely his own fault. It is true that he was the victim, among a great number of other influences in American life, of that paralyzing high-pressure by which the conscientious American writer is hastened to premature extinction as artist or as man. Upon the appearance of The Crack-Up, a selection by Edmund Wilson of Fitzgerald’s letters, notebooks and fugitive pieces, it was notable that all the emptiest and most venal elements in New York journalism united to crow amiably about his literary corpse to this same tune of insufficient production. Actually their reproaches betrayed more of their own failure to estimate what was good and enduring in his writing than his acknowledgeable limitations as an artist. If Fitzgerald had turned out as much as X or Y or Z, he would have been a different kind of writer—undoubtedly more admirable from the standpoint of the quasi-moral American ethos of production at any cost, but possibly less worth talking about five years after his death. And it might be said that Fitzgerald never hovered so close to real failure as when he listened from time to time, with too willing an ear, to these same reproaches.

But Fitzgerald brought most of it on himself by daring to make failure the consistent theme of his work from first to last. (Similarly Virginia Woolf used to be accused by the reviewers of being a sterile writer because she made sterility her principal theme.) It is perhaps only adumbrated in This Side of Paradise; for the discovery of its hero Amory Blaine that the world is not altogether his oyster is hardly the stuff of high tragedy. The book is interesting today as a document of the early twenties; nobody who would know what it was like to be young and privileged and self-centered in that bizarre epoch can afford to neglect it. But it can also be read as a preliminary study in the kind of tortured narcissism that was to plague its author to the end of his days. (See the article called “Early Success” in the Wilson collection.) The Beautiful and Damned is a more frayed and pretentious museum-piece, and the muddiest in conception of all the longer books. It is not so much a study in failure as in the atmosphere of failure—that is to say, of a world in which no moral decisions can be made because there are no values in terms of which they may be measured. Hardly is it a world suited to the purposes of the novelist, and the characters float around in it as in some aquamarine region comfortably shot through with the soft colors of self-pity and romantic irony. Not until The Great Gatsby did Fitzgerald hit upon something like Mr. Eliot’s “objective correlative” for the intermingled feeling of personal insufficiency and disillusionment with the world out of which he had unsuccessfully tried to write a novel. Here is a remarkable instance of the manner in which adoption of a special form or technique can profoundly modify and define a writer’s whole attitude toward his world. In the earlier books author and hero tended to melt into one because there was no internal principle of differentiation by which they might be separated; they respired in the same climate, emotional and moral; they were tarred with the same brush. But in Gatsby is achieved a dissociation, by which Fitzgerald was able to isolate one part of himself, the spectatorial or aesthetic, and also the more intelligent and responsible, in the person of the ordinary but quite sensible narrator, from another part of himself, the dream-ridden romantic adolescent from St. Paul and Princeton, in the person of the legendary Jay Gatsby. It is this which makes the latter one of the few truly mythological creations in our recent literature—for what is mythology but this same process of projected wish-fulfillment carried out on a larger scale and by the whole consciousness of a race? Indeed, before we are quite through with him, Gatsby becomes much more than a mere exorcizing of whatever false elements of the American dream Fitzgerald felt within himself: he becomes a symbol of America itself, dedicated to “the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty.”

Not mythology, however, but a technical device which had been brought to high development by James and Conrad before him, made this dissociation possible for Fitzgerald. The device of the intelligent but sympathetic observer situated at the center of the tale, as James never ceases to demonstrate in the Prefaces, makes for some of the most priceless values in fiction—economy, suspense, intensity. And these values The Great Gatsby possesses to a rare degree. But the same device imposes on the novelist the necessity of tracing through in the observer or narrator himself some sort of growth in general moral perception, which will constitute in effect his story. Here, for example, insofar as the book is Gatsby’s story it is a story of failure—the prolongation of the adolescent incapacity to distinguish between dream and reality, between the terms demanded of life and the terms offered. But insofar as it is the narrator’s story it is a successful transcendence of a particularly bitter and harrowing set of experiences, localized in the sinister, distorted, El Greco-like Long Island atmosphere of the later twenties, into a world of restored sanity and calm, symbolized by the bracing winter nights of the Middle Western prairies. “Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes,” he writes, “but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When 1 came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart ever recurring.” [The “ever recurring” of this sentence is not in The Great Gatsby. [A.M.]] By reason of its enforced perspective the book takes on the pattern and the meaning of a Grail-romance—or of the initiation ritual on which it is based. Perhaps this will seem a farfetched suggestion to make about a work so obviously modern in every respect; and it is unlikely that Fitzgerald had any such model in mind. But like Billy Budd, The Red Badge of Courage, or A Lost Lady—to mention only a few American stories of similar length with which it may be compared —it is a record of the strenuous passage from deluded youth to maturity.

Never again was Fitzgerald to repeat the performance. Tender Is the Night promises much in the way of scope but it soon turns out to be a backsliding into the old ambiguities. Love and money, fame and youth, youth and money—however one shuffles the antitheses they have a habit of melting into each other like the blue Mediterranean sky and sea of the opening background. To Dick Diver, with a mere change of pronoun, may be applied Flaubert’s analysis of Emma Bovary: “Elle confondait, dans son desir, les sensualites du luxe avec les joies du coeur, I’elegance des habitudes et les delicatesses du sentiment.” And it is this Bovaryism on the part of the hero, who as a psychiatrist should conceivably know more about himself, which in rendering his character so suspect prevents his meticulously graded deterioration from assuming any real significance. Moreover, there is an ambiguous treatment of the problem of guilt. We are never certain whether Diver’s predicament is the result of his own weak judgment or of the behavior of his neurotic wife. At the end we are strangely unmoved by his downfall because it has been less a tragedy of will than of circumstance.

Of The Last Tycoon we have only the unrevised hundred and thirty-three pages, supported by a loose collection of notes and synopses. In an unguarded admission Fitzgerald describes the book as “an escape into a lavish, romantic past that perhaps will not come again into our time.” Its hero, suggested by a well-known Hollywood prodigy of a few years ago, is another one of those poor boys betrayed by “a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” When we first meet him he is already a sick and disillusioned man, clutching for survival at what is advertised in the notes as “an immediate, dynamic, unusual, physical love affair.” This is nothing less than “the meat of the book.” But as much of it as is rendered includes some of the most unfortunate writing which Fitzgerald has left; he had never been at his best in the approach to the physical. Nor is it clear in what way the affair is related to the other last febrile gesture of Stahr—his championship of the Hollywood underdog in a struggle with the racketeers and big producers. Fortuitously the sense of social guilt of the mid-thirties creeps into the fugue, although in truth this had been a strong undertone in early short stories like “May Day” and “The Rich Boy.” It is evident that Stahr is supposed to be some kind of symbol—but of what it would be hard to determine. From the synopses he is more like a receptacle for all the more familiar contradictions of his author’s own sensibility—his arrogance and generosity, his fondness for money and his need for integrity, his attraction toward the fabulous in American life and his repulsion by its waste and terror. “Stahr is miserable and embittered toward the end,” Fitzgerald writes, in one of his own last notes for the book. “Before death, thoughts from Crack-Up.” Apparently it was all to end in a flare-up of sensational and not too meaningful irony: Stahr, on his way to New York to call off a murder which he had ordered for the best of motives, is himself killed in an airplane crash, and his possessions are rifled by a group of schoolchildren on a mountain. If there is anything symbolic in this situation, could it be the image of the modern Icarus soaring to disaster in that “universe of ineffable gaudiness” which was Fitzgerald’s vision of the America of his time?

Inquiry into what was the real basis of Fitzgerald’s long preoccupation with failure will not be helped too much by the autobiographical sketches in The Crack-Up. The reasons there offered are at once too simple and too complicated. No psychologist is likely to take very seriously the two early frustrations described—inability to make a Princeton football team and to go overseas in the last war. In the etiology of the Fitzgerald case, as the psychologists would say, the roots run much deeper, and nobody cares to disturb them at this early date. His unconscionable good looks were indeed a public phenomenon, and their effect on his total personality was something which he himself would not decline to admit. The imago of the physical self had a way of eclipsing at times the more important imago of the artist. But even this is a delicate enough matter. Besides, there were at work elements of a quite different order—racial and religious. For some reason he could never accept the large and positive influence of his Celtic inheritance, especially in his feeling for language, and his hearkening back to the South has a little too nostalgic a ring to be convincing. Closely related to this was the never resolved attitude toward money and social position in relation to individual worth. But least explored of all by his critics were the permanent effects of his early exposure to Catholicism, which are no less potent because rarely on the surface of his work. (The great exception is “Absolution,” perhaps the finest of the short stories.) Indeed, it may have been the old habit of the confession which drove him, pathetically, at the end, to the public examen de conscience in the garish pages of Esquire magazine.

To add to his sense of failure there was also his awareness of distinct intellectual limitations, which he shared with the majority of American novelists of his time. “I had done very little thinking,” he admits, “save within the problems of my craft.” Whatever he received at Princeton was scarcely to be called an education; in later years he read little, shrank from abstract ideas, and was hardly conscious of the historical events that were shaping up around him. Perhaps it is not well for the novelist to encumber himself with loo much knowledge, although one cannot help recalling the vast cultural apparatus of a Tolstoi or a Joyce, or the dialectical intrepidity of a Dostoievski or a Mann. And recalling these Europeans, none of whom foundered on the way, one wonders whether a certain coyness toward the things of the mind is not one reason for the lack of development in most American writers. Art is not intellect alone; but without intellect art is not likely to emerge beyond the plane of perpetual immaturity.

Lastly, there was Fitzgerald’s exasperation with the multiplicity of modern human existence—especially in his own country. “It’s under you, over you, and all around you,” he protested, in the hearing of the present writer, to a young woman who had connived at the slow progress of his work. “And the problem is to get hold of it somehow.” It was exasperating because for the writer, whose business is to extract the unique quality of his time, what Baudelaire calls the quality of modernite, there was too much to be sensed, to be discarded, to be reconciled into some kind of order. Yet for the writer this was the first of obligations, without it he was nothing—“Our passion is our task, and our task is our passion.” What was the common problem of the American novelist was intensified for him by his unusually high sense of vocation.

In the last analysis, if Fitzgerald failed, it was because the only standard which he could recognize, like the Platonic conception of himself forged by young Jay Gatsby in the shabby bedroom in North Dakota, was too much for him to realize. His failure was the defect of his virtues. And this is perhaps the greatest meaning of his career to the younger generation of writers.

“I talk with the authority of failure,” he writes in the notebooks, “Ernest with the authority of success. We could never sit across the same table again.” It is a great phrase. And the statement as a whole is one neither of abject self-abasement nor of false humility. What Fitzgerald implies is that the stakes for which he played were of a kind more difficult and more unattainable than “Ernest” or any of his contemporaries could even have imagined. And his only strength is in the consciousness of this fact.


“Scott Fitzgerald—the Authority of Failure,” by William Troy. From Accent (Autumn 1945). Copyright 1945 by the Estate of William Troy; Leonie A. Troy, Administratrix. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of William Troy; Leonie A. Troy, Administratrix.


William Troy, the critic, taught at Bennington from 1935-1944. His essay on Fitzgerald appeared in Accent.

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