Complete candor in autobiography is very rare, for two reasons: because of the pride or inhibition or self-delusion of the man, or because of the dramatizing and myth-making faculty of the artist, even when dealing with himself. There is very little of the former in The Crack-Up, a remarkably interesting collection of the fragmentary autobiography of Scott Fitzgerald; there is some of the latter. There is also the discretion of the editor, whose concern for the living has turned a lot of the proper names into asterisks and evidently deleted a good deal more. Nevertheless the impression of a desperate effort at self-disclosure is one of the most striking things about this book. With the general wreck of his self-confidence, pride in his honesty with himself seems to have been the one concession Fitzgerald made to his vanity.
Many fascinating things emerge under this honorable scrutiny, and many of them have already been noticed by reviewers for the weeklies. What interests me most is the curious likeness uncovered between Fitzgerald and his fictional brethren—not necessarily in circumstances, but in a kind of basic underlying sensibility. The root of this lay, I should think, in a queer conflict in Fitzgerald himself: the conflict between Fitzgerald the snob and the worshiper of dazzle, and Fitzgerald the judge and the moralist.
Fitzgerald’s liking for rich company has often enough been noted; but the sense in which it is basic in him, the sense in which wealth and glitter and the arrogance of position are almost his only symbols for earthly beatitude has been put bluntly by only one critic I know about— by Charles Weir in an article called An Invite with Gilded Edges in the Virginia Quarterly. Certainly Fitzgerald put it bluntly enough himself: great animal magnetism and money, he says in one of his notes, are the top things. In practice those among his characters who have great animal magnetism also either have, or get, money. There is probably no writer of our time whose imagery of the desirable is more consistently in terms of wealth, of diamonds, of pure material glitter. “Her voice is full of money,” says Gatsby of Daisy, thereby defining more than the source of his own fascination.
How did a man so sensitive as Fitzgerald come by what is almost a worship of money? First of all, 1 suppose, because nobody taught him anything else, and he was not an original thinker. He remembered of his college life most specifically that he was too light to play college football and that an attack of tuberculosis had cost him the presidency of the Triangle Club. He seems never to have got over the pang of these early failures to qualify as “the man most likely to succeed.” Certainly he never learned in college that there was any form of success, even literary, not to be commercially or at least tangibly calculated.
But this, which is perfectly normal, does not quite explain the intensity of his feeling. The articles in The Crack-Up suggest the explanation: at twenty-two he endured the trauma of being poor—or at least genteel poor. After a “haughty career as the army’s worst aide-de-camp” he got in an advertising agency. Here he lived a life curiously suspended between the rich friendships of Princeton and the painful reality of his salary. Poverty meant to him no actual privation; what it meant was the realization that others were much richer than he, and that it mattered. His autobiographical articles come back again and again to the portrait of his double life at this time: walking in now and then from his cheap bleak flat to the big parties, the handsome mansions, “ghost-like in the Plaza Red Room of a Saturday afternoon”; walking quickly “from certain places—from the pawn shop where one left the field glasses, from prosperous friends whom one met when wearing the suit from before the war.” There was certainly a painful sense of insecurity and inferiority. Anyway, his New York adventure ended when the golden girl threw him over “on the basis of common sense.” He must have had a partial breakdown; at any rate he went back home to St. Paul, convinced that he was a failure—there to hit the jackpot with This Side of Paradise and incidentally win back the golden girl.
After that, according to Fitzgerald, he was never “able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl.” He describes himself as having a smouldering hatred for the leisure class, but its practical results seem to have been an envy and an admiration for the possibly not unattainable. The articles and notes in The Crack-Up are full of an acute sense of the gradations of class. He is always concerned as to whether he and Zelda were staying at the best, or the second best, or the bad hotel; with the relative fashion among relative groups of the watering places they frequented; with the social moving-up or moving down of the people he knew—and described. Even in the article the implicit snobbery has an almost sociological tone; in his creative work it is of course less blunt.
But all this is only the half of it, and it is the tension between this and the other half that makes, I think, the peculiar distinction of Fitzgerald both as stylist and as commentator. Behind the devotion to glitter is also the sense of the illusion of the felicity which it represents. “All the stories that came into my head,” he observed quite accurately, “had a touch of disaster in them—the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy’s peasants. In life these things hadn’t happened yet, but I was pretty sure living wasn’t the reckless, careless business these people thought.” He put it another way in a letter to his daughter. “Sometimes I wish I had gone along with that gang [Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart], but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart, and really want to preach to people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them.”
The notion of Fitzgerald as a moralist is at first sight sufficiently astonishing. Certainly he was not an articulate moralist, with any conscious thought-out morality. He was not, as I said before, a thinker. In one of his later articles he confesses, a little pathetically, that other men were his intellectual, ethical and artistic consciences, and that “my political conscience had scarcely existed save as an element of irony in my stuff.” He was, in short, a moralist by feeling and intuition; he had what I once heard described as a sense of smell. One of his values, he wrote in The Crack-Up, had been “a disregard of motives or consequences in favor of guess-work and prophecy.”
As applied to the life of the rich, the sense of smell may have germinated in the smouldering resentment against the leisure class which he described and in the feeling of insecurity which dependence upon money had given him. But it made him, in any case, a fatalist as well as a moralist. One part of his nature told him that only the rich could be happy and gracious; but he knew by observation, experience and his peculiar intuition that even the rich were not. At the end of his life he wrote to his daughter, in about as explicit a moral concept as he ever expressed, the formulation he finally arrived at: the wise and tragic sense of life sees 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.” But that was long after the time of his first novels. In the twenties it is easier to recognize in his characters the attitude of Maury Noble, who wondered “at the unreality of ideas and at the fading radiance of existence.” Thinking of the tragic sense of life, Fitzgerald wrote in the account of his crack-up that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in his mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” But this is also, not accidentally, a definition of irony: the sense of something simultaneously affirmed and denied woven into the web of the style. With Fitzgerald the mark of his style is more specifically a nostalgic irony, and this is as much as anything the expression of the need to hold in the mind at once the two deeply ingrained but opposed ideas I have been describing. His style keeps reminding you, particularly in his earlier stuff, of his sense of the enormous beauty of which life, suitably ornamented, is capable; and at the same time of his judgment as to the worthlessness of the ornament and the corruptibility of the beauty. This irony of regret lies deep in the individual con-tour of phrase and assortment of words; if the felicity of its expression is no doubt not to be explained, it is still, it seems to me, the key to the consistency of the peculiar Fitzgerald tone.
You see it continually in the notebooks printed in this collection, where it emerges with the sharpness given to the focus of fragments. But the notebooks as a whole are a little disappointing; if the wise-cracks seen sometimes pretty thin and the descriptions have often the wilfulness and brittleness of visible tricks, it is probably because the irony is not sustained by a context, by the consistent congruity of an attitude. They remind you, in short, of how much the style in the novels interprets the essential subject matter.
The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s best novel because here the congruity of story and style and attitude is closest and most meaningful. Here he had a story whose central character not only symbolized his own conflicts and confusions, but made a moving commentary on a period and a country as well. The grandeur and pathos of Gatsby are that his enormous vitality, ambition and power of creation are all lavished on a “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” unworthy of the emotion that cannot discover a worthier ideal. It is notable that the auditors clearly and even Gatsby dimly, are aware of the corruption “concealing his incorruptible dream.” The clearsightedness is Fitzgerald’s commentary on himself: he wrote to John Peale Bishop at the time that Gatsby “started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself.” Hence, I suspect, both the warmth and the compassion of the portrait of Gatsby. But if the feeling of the novel owes a good deal to its author’s identity with his subject, its impact owes a lot too to its range; to the fact that Gatsby is not merely a disguise for Fitzgerald. Not only Gatsby and Fitzgerald have dreams nobler and finer than any tangible forms that are given them, or that they can find for them; more charged with emotion than the tangible forms justify. The tragedy of Gatsby was a fable for his America; it is not, I should say, by any means dead yet.
The price of writing within a generally realistic convention, particularly of the more personal sort, is that the writer’s art must live on his own experiences and emotions while the business of writing interferes with his acquiring any more. Hence the reveries over childhood and youth so common in modern fiction. Reading over both The Crack-Up and the output it footnotes, one is struck again and again by how hard Fitzgerald worked whatever lodes were to be found in what was, after all, not a very varied upper middle-class life. It is not only in the recurrence of the ambiguous delight and disillusion. There are the milieux, for instance: how thoroughly and carefully he used every physical background with which he was familiar: the Middle West of St. Paul, Prince-ion, New York, Long Island, Zelda’s South, the bars and the beaches of the rich in two continents. Of the limitations these imposed on him, Fitzgerald was thoroughly aware: “So many writers, Conrad for instance,” he wrote to his daughter, “have been aided by being brought up in a metier utterly unrelated to literature. It gives an abundance of material and, more important, an attitude from which to view the world. So much writing nowadays suffers both from lack of an attitude and from sheer lack of any material, save what is accumulated in a purely social life. The world, as a rule, does not live on beaches and in country clubs.”
Was sheer lack of material the reason for the falling-off in simple volume of output in the last fifteen years of Fitzgerald’s life? It may have contributed. At any rate it is suggestive that between 1920 and 1925 he published three novels in which he used (or used up?) the backgrounds of his youth; that much later, in 1934, he drew on the international background of bars, beaches and asylums for Tender Is the Night; and that, ironically, the pot-boiling excursion to Hollywood gave him new material for his last serious work, the unfinished Last Tycoon.
But perhaps the drain on his emotions was even more serious. “I have asked a lot of my emotions,” says one of the notes, “one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something—not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.” Certainly there are signs of an emotional exhaustion in the later books. As others have noticed, there is never any really satisfactory reason given for Dick Diver’s break-up in Tender Is the Night. But Fitzgerald’s clearest implication is that Doctor Diver breaks up because he has cured Nicole by an almost physical transference of his own balance and will. Did Fitzgerald see Nicole as Diver’s work of creation, did he transfer to him a feeling of the exhaustion of achievement? At any rate the reason seems to make better sense for Fitzgerald than it does for Doctor Diver.
As for The Last Tycoon, its promise, it seems to me, has been extravagantly over-estimated for the most generous reasons by his friends. It is true that it is about the only novel yet attempted to take Hollywood seriously; it is also true that Fitzgerald was certainly trying for what Dos Passos has called a wider “frame of reference for common humanity” than he had managed before. But it doesn’t seem to come out right. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald had started with personal dilemmas and a sort of self-examination and ended by creating a fable that had indeed Dos Passos’ wider frame. In The Last Tycoon he apparently began with the frame and ended with the personal dilemmas and the self-protection willy-nilly dragging their way in. On any other basis the projected pat-tern is baffling. The serious theme of the novel, as evidenced first of all by the title, appears to be the modern conflict between the original craftsman of the whole and the mass-production assembly line. Why then did Fitzgerald choose to undercut his whole drama by letting us know that Stahr is a dying man? Why did he attach an apparently unrelated love affair which he regarded as “the meat of the book”? The love affair, no doubt, illuminates the last feverish gasping for life of a man with a “definite urge toward total exhaustion.” But why have a hero so defeated in advance if you mean to deal evenly with a general theme? Unless Fitzgerald was again unwittingly projecting himself, I do not know the answer.
What seems particularly to have worried Fitzgerald about the book was the loss of the old emotion and sparkle; where the radiance and disillusion had balanced before, now the radiance was fading. “Where will the warmth come from in this?” he wrote of one of the scenes between Stahr and Kathleen. “My girls were all so warm and full of promise.” The self-criticism was accurate; perhaps that is why after three years, even three years filled with sickness and pot-boiling, the novel was still only half-finished. It must have cost him an heroic effort to accomplish as much as he did. That effort was one of the two things that give to his last years a great dignity, if not the epic grandeur which he himself spoke of as a delusion. The other was his absorbing interest in his daughter. The Crack-Up reprints some of his wise and moving letters to her, particularly moving in the dedicated earnestness with which he strove by exposing his own failures to spare her his miseries.
It was, in any case, a sad life after the excitement of the first glory. Whether the outcome would have been any different if Fitzgerald had been working within a tradition less exacting of personal experience—one, for instance, where you could get along with a little reading for material provided you had human insight and imagination—can only be a matter of speculation. There were plenty of personal tensions in Fitzgerald’s life beside those imposed by his writing. Still, it is worth remarking that other contemporaries have resorted to new participations in order to get at something other than “a purely social life.” Dos Passos has been a periodic reporter between novels; and Hemingway the adventurer and political poseur may well be necessary to Hemingway the artist. Both, it may also be noted, have developed away from the novel of strictly individual dilemmas to some variety of the novel of social involvement.
My tentative point is that it is hard for a realistic writer to stay in business if he does not. All writing is of course to some extent a battening on one’s self; and for all writers there must be a fear of repetition. But the demand that one make literature out of what one has actually lived is more exhausting than others; and modern American fiction, from Stephen Crane on (a perhaps ambiguous case), has had more than its share of abortive careers. “Books are like brothers,” wrote Fitzgerald in his Note-Books. “I am an only child. Gatsby my imaginary eldest brother, Amory my younger, Anthony my worry, Dick my comparatively good brother, but all of them far from home. When I have the courage to put the old white light on the home of my heart, then…” The Crack-Up makes the white light seem nearer home than Fitzgerald admitted; perhaps it would have been better for him if some of the brothers had been acquaintances or at least cousins. The old white light on the heart, it seems safe to say, is a particular focus with a higher price than most in human vitality and personality.
Andrews Wanning is a professor at Bard College and a specialist in contemporary literature.
Published in Partisan Review magazine (Fall 1945).