F. Scott Fitzgerald will be remembered primarily for his novels and stories, but during his twenty years as a professional writer, he also produced an important and revealing body of work in the form of articles and essays and correspondence. The very best of these—the autobiographical pieces written in the 1930s—command the lyrical magic and emotional power of his most lasting fiction. And even at their least meritorious, in the advertisements for himself Fitzgerald composed as a beginning author, these articles reveal a great deal about the way he wanted to present himself to his readers. Read chronologically, they trace the rise and fall of his career from the publication of This Side of Paradise in March 1920 to his final years in Hollywood.1
In accepting This Side of Paradise for publication, editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribners asked Fitzgerald for a photograph and some publicity material. “You have been in the advertising game long enough to know the sort of thing,”Perkins added (Dear Scott/Dear Max, 21). In fact, Fitzgerald had worked only four months for the Barron Collier agency in New York, from March to July 1919, but he did understand how promotion could help sell books and was eager to cooperate in the enterprise. In a letter presented at the American Booksellers’ Convention and included on a leaf added to several hundred copies of the novel, he began to establish a public personality designed at once to shock and attract his audience.
Fitzgerald had been struggling to complete This Side of Paradise for two years—longer, if one considers how much of the book is borrowed from his undergraduate writing at Princeton—and it had gone through two substantial revisions before Scribners accepted it. But to the booksellers, Fitzgerald acknowledged none of these difficulties: “to write it… took three months; to conceive it, three minutes; to collect all the data in it, all my life.” The idea for the novel had first come to him the previous July, he lied, and he regarded the process of composition as “a substitute form of dissipation.” As an author, he was writing “for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” In signing off, Fitzgerald reverted to the dissipation motif. “So, gentlemen, consider all the cocktails mentioned in this book drunk by me as a toast to the Booksellers’ Convention” (Letters, 477-8). Fitzgerald was so pleased with this letter that he retailed its best lines to the wider audience of the New York Tribune on May 7, 1920, in a feature article demonstrating that he did indeed know his way around in the world of publicity. The supposed occasion for the article was an interview with Fitzgerald conducted by Carleton R. Davies. But Davies was fictitious: both questions and answers were written by Fitzgerald himself. The idea for this mock interview came from him as well, in a proposal to the advertising manager at Scribners (Bruccoli and Bryer, In His Own Time, 162).
The image that emerges from Fitzgerald’s flippant remarks to the booksellers is that of a brash young genius who has tossed off a novel as cavalierly as the characters in his novel toss back a drink. His appeal is to a youthful audience who will presumably be delighted to join him in repudiating the outmoded mores of the past. Read the book, he seems to be saying, for our mutual profit. At the same time, the author wants more than immediate reward. One eye is cocked on the sales figures, the other looks for approval from the critics and even from posterity.
By any standard, the sales of This Side of Paradise were remarkable. Its portrayal of the younger generation, and particularly of the flapper and her liberated ways, made the twenty-three-year-old author famous overnight. Buoyed on the first wave of success, he reviewed his brief career in “Who’s Who—and Why,” in the Saturday Evening Post for September 18, 1920. “The history of my life,” Fitzgerald began, “is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.” The essay reviewed the various literary ventures of the author-in-the-making, from musical comedy to poetry to short stories and a novel. The tone throughout is lighthearted and confident, even when Fitzgerald is making fun of himself. According to his account, for instance, he produced the first draft of his novel while in infantry training at Fort Leavenworth, hurrying to the officers’ club every Saturday afternoon to work at breakneck speed through Sunday evening. Over the weekends of three months, Fitzgerald maintains, he set down a novel of 120,000 words. Only then could he allow himself to concentrate on Small Problems for Infantry and the rest of his military training: “I went to my regiment happy. I had written a novel. The war could go on” (AA, 84-5).
As in the letter to the booksellers and the mock interview, Fitzgerald characterized himself as a youth blessed with talent far beyond his years. The pose exasperated some commentators, who thought it hopelessly sophomoric. The journalist Heywood Broun labeled Fitzgerald a “Princeton Daisy Ashford,” comparing his novel (which was littered with “mistakes in spelling, grammar, chronology, and fact”) to The Young Visiters [sic], a mystery story by the nine-year-old Miss Ashford published the previous year, with its childish errors intentionally left intact for reasons of authenticity (TSOP, ed. West, xxxv-xxxvi, 105). Others were merely amused by the author’s presentation of himself as a youth afflicted with genius. His friend Ring Lardner effectively reduced the image to absurdity: “Mr. Fitzgerald sprang into fame with his novel This Side of Paradise when only three years old and wrote the entire book with only one hand” (quoted in Woodward, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Artist As Public Figure, 15).
In the early years of his career, handsome Scott Fitzgerald and his beautiful wife Zelda cooperated fully with the media effort to portray them as exemplars of flaming youth. During much of the time between 1920 to 1924 they lived in Connecticut and Long Island, suburban extensions of New York City, the publicity capital of the nation. For both of them, as Fitzgerald wrote in “My Lost City,” Manhattan “was inevitably linked up with Bacchic diversions, mild or fantastic” (Crack-Up, 29). Newspaper columnists eagerly recorded these diversions, from a table-side interview at a night club to their midnight dive into the Pulitzer fountain (Woodward, The Artist as Public Figure, 53). Even to his literary friends, Fitzgerald was dwindling into a celebrity instead of a writer, and as Robert Sklar put it, “not a celebrity to whom particular deference need be paid” (Sklar, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 121). In the public mind, he was indelibly associated with a younger generation determined to defy its elders. It did not help that he titled his first two collections of short stories Flappers and Philosophers (1920) and, over the objections of Perkins, Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). Flappers and sheiks drawn by John Held, Jr. danced frantically on the jacket of the second volume, and Fitzgerald contributed jaunty vignettes to introduce each of the stories. “‘The Camel’s Back’,” he revealed, “was written during one day in the city of New Orleans, with the express purpose of buying a platinum and diamond wrist watch which cost six hundred dollars. I began it at seven in the morning and finished it at two o’clock the same night.” Published originally in the Saturday Evening Post, this amusing yarn about a drunken evening at a Midwestern party was chosen as an O’Henry prize story for 1920. Despite this honor, Fitzgerald said he “liked it least” of all the stories in Tales of the Jazz Age.
These comments, and those that introduced other stories in the book, dramatized the author as someone who could turn out fiction with disarming ease and gain expensive rewards therefrom. Writing, for him, seemed a casual occupation that in no way inhibited the pursuit of a pleasurable and carefree life (Woodward, The Artist as Public Figure, 65). But if he refused to take himself seriously as an artist, he could hardly expect others to do so—a problem that came to the fore with the reception of his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, published in March 1922.
Written under the influence of H. L. Mencken, The Beautiful and Damned is a dark and serious novel that portrays the decline and fall of Anthony and Gloria Patch, a hedonistic young couple obviously modeled on the Fitzgeralds themselves. A number of critics, expecting less weighty fare, chose to ignore its pessimistic message. “With what gusto, what exuberance of youth, what vitality Fitzgerald writes,” one commented. “He has romance and imagination and gaiety,” observed another. “Perhaps when he is a little older he will be less larky and unsteady” (quoted in Woodward, The Artist as Public Figure, 90). Fitzgerald encouraged this larky, unsteady view of himself in a lighthearted piece on “How I Would Sell My Book If I Were a Bookseller” (January 1923). In a defensive opening, Fitzgerald claimed that he had not known This Side of Paradise was “a flapper book” until George Jean Nathan told him it was. His heroines were complicated and individual women, he insisted, not stereotypical and rather dull flappers. But, getting down to business, he admitted that the best way to sell The Beautiful and Damned would be to cash in on the public perception of his work. “This is a novel by Fitzgerald,” booksellers might say to customers, “the fella that started all that business about flappers. I understand that his new one is terribly sensational (the word ‘damn’ is in the title). Let me put you down for one” (Bruccoli and Bryer, In His Own Time, 167-8).
In “What I Think and Feel at Twenty-Five” (September 1922), Fitzgerald obliquely addressed the issue of his reputation. The article opens with an old family friend objecting to the gloominess of Fitzgerald’s new novel. He was young and healthy and successful and happily married: why did he have to write such unpleasant books? Next a newspaper interviewer comes to call. Was the rumor true that he and Mrs. Fitzgerald were going to commit suicide at thirty because they dreaded middle age? And would their suicide be “largely on account of past petting-parties?” Fitzgerald’s answer to them both was that as he grew older he did indeed feel more vulnerable. Once only he could be hurt, he pointed out, but now—at twenty-five—he could be wounded through his family. “Attack him through his wife!” “Kidnap his child!” “Tie a tin can to his dog’s tail!” Fitzgerald writes in humorous fashion, but the basic point was serious enough. In another article written eighteen months later, he cited “that ghastly moment once a week when you realize that it all depends on you—wife, babies, house, servant, yard and dog. That if it wasn’t for you, it’d all fall to pieces” (Bruccoli and Bryer, In His Own Time, 213-16, 184-6).
Fitzgerald was no longer so careless of consequences as he had been two years before. His image as a representative of the unbridled younger generation was proving difficult to get rid of. Sometimes it seemed that as a legendary figure associated with that generation he was to be held responsible for any and all of its excesses. In May 1922, for example, Burton Rascoe reported in his New York Tribune column that Fitzgerald, in the course of a conversation with Robert Bridges, the editor of Scribner’s Magazine, had leaned over and plucked six gray hairs from Bridges’s beard. The anecdote was entirely apocryphal, and Fitzgerald was obliged to write a letter of protest to Rascoe and one of apology to Bridges. It was time to shake off the role of the playboy genius and assume the responsibilities of the dedicated artist.
An unfortunate component of Fitzgerald’s public persona was his reputation as a spendthrift, and in this case the reputation was well earned. Fitzgerald careened around New York with large bills protruding from his pockets. He lectured his mother to the effect that all great men spent freely. He and Zelda certainly did so, whether they could afford to or not. Edmund Wilson focused on his precarious financial condition in “The Delegate from Great Neck,” his April 30, 1924, New Republic essay, in the form of an imaginary dialogue between Fitzgerald, as representative of the younger generation of writers, and the distinguished literary historian Van Wyck Brooks. In conversation, Fitzgerald laments that he cannot live at Great Neck (Long Island) for less than thirty-six thousand a year, and that to support himself he has “to write a lot of rotten stuff that bores me and makes me depressed.” Brooks gently chides the young author. His heavy expenses laid him open to exploitation by the popular magazines, and Fitzgerald himself seemed (I) to have descended to the language of advertising in expressing himself, and (2) to have fallen into the trap of regarding his writing more as a commercial than an artistic product (Wilson, “The Delegate from Great Neck,” 151).
Here Wilson was obviously hectoring his Princeton friend Fitzgerald, whom he considered his intellectual and moral inferior. The $36,000 figure was drawn directly from “How to Live on $36,000 a Year,” Fitzgerald’s piece for the Saturday Evening Post of April 5, 1924. In this article, Fitzgerald details his financial results for 1923. He and his wife had begun the year determined to save some money. Family living expenses they estimated at about $1,500 a month, and income from writing at $2,000: presto, an annual saving of $6,000. But expenses ran higher and income lower than anticipated, especially after Fitzgerald’s play The Vegetable bombed in out-of-town tryouts. As the year neared its end, he found that they had spent $36,000, or twice as much as they had budgeted, and were $5,000 in debt. There was only one solution.
“Over our garage,” he wrote, “is a large bare room whither I now retired with pencil, paper, and the oil stove, emerging the next afternoon at five o’clock with a 7,000-word story.” That averted the immediate crisis, but “[i]t took twelve hours a day for five weeks to rise from abject poverty back into the middle class.” This was not an exaggeration, or not much of one. Between November 1923 and April 1924 Fitzgerald produced eleven short stories, several magazine articles, and earned nearly $20,000. Such a lavish expenditure of energy could not go on indefinitely, Fitzgerald realized, and he was curious about where all the money had gone. To find out, he and Zelda assembled their account books and household records, and worked out the figures. With everything they could think of accounted for, their monthly expenditures came to only $2,000, or $1,000 less than they had actually spent. A thousand dollars had vanished each month, it seemed, without buying anything at all (AA, 87-99).
Fitzgerald’s bewilderment at this discovery had its comic side: “Good heavens! … We’ve just lost $12,000!” And he worked the same vein in “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year,” a September 20, 1924 sequel. This article told of the Fitzgeralds’ decision to escape “from extravagance and clamor” and “to find a new rhythm” for their lives in the Old World. In the spring of that year, they set out for the Riviera, armed with capital of $7,000 and a determination to live for the summer on “practically nothing.” But the change of location did not solve their financial problems. The Riviera was supposed to be a winter resort, and much cheaper in the summer, but the French saw them coming and immediately jacked up their prices. At the end of the summer, the seven thousand dollars was gone. And in the south of France as on Long Island, the Fitzgeralds were unable to figure out exactly where it had gone, except that they were sure that they had been victimized by the real estate agent, the maid and the cook, the butcher and the grocer (AA, 102, 113-15). The humor in these articles depended on reader willingness to identify with the plight of the Fitzgeralds as a newly rich bourgeous family unable to cope with their circumstances. In other articles of this period, like “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” (February-March-April 1924) and “My Old New England House on the Erie” (August 1925), Fitzgerald again played the role of the bumbling incompetent, easily hoodwinked by those who knew far more than he about houses and automobiles.
In actuality, of course, there was nothing particularly funny about Fitzgerald’s lifelong inability to make ends meet. No matter how much money he made, at every stage of his career he was in debt to his publisher and agent. His letters to Perkins and to Ober, reprinted in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, vividly tell the unhappy story. “I hoped that at last [!] being square with Scribners I could remain so,” he wrote Perkins in some desperation on December 31, 1920, with his career barely begun. But he was at his wits’ end, and so worried that he was “utterly unable to write.” Couldn’t Perkins send him the $1,600 he needed as an advance on his next novel, or as a loan at the same interest it cost them to borrow, or as a month’s loan with his “next ten books as security?” (Life in Letters, 44).
Perkins responded to this appeal, as he responded to almost all such appeals for the next decade and a half. So did Ober, who—to take one extreme example—during the three months between September and December 1927 was bombarded by no fewer than nine telegraphed requests from Fitzgerald for funds as an advance on a “two-part sophisticated football story” aimed at the Saturday Evening Post. “Can you deposit five hundred?” Fitzgerald’s first wire inquired, and the succeeding ones asked for 500, 500 more, 300, 100, 100, 400, 200, and 250, with repeated promises in these telegrams that the story was almost completed, and/or that he would be coming in to deliver it no later than “tomorrow morning” (Life in Letters, 150-3). In the mid-1930s, Fitzgerald signed over part of his life insurance to secure his debts to Perkins and Ober so that in the end the accounts were squared, but the fact was that Fitzgerald was forever engaged in a struggle to live within his income.
Nonfiction articles provided one way of supporting himself, and a relatively important one, during the mid-1920s. The initial self-promoting pieces brought in nothing at all, but in 1922, when his highest story price was $1,000, he was paid $800 for his reflections on what he thought and felt at twenty-five. In i924, his two essays on how to live on a great deal of money and how to live on not much sold for $1,000 and $1,200, respectively (Ledger). In most of the articles from this period, Fitzgerald—and on occasion his wife—held forth as experts on such matters as courtship and marriage, child-rearing, the rich, and the war between the sexes. The magazines and newspaper syndicates that commissioned these pieces wanted the Fitzgerald byline, for he had been firmly established in the public mind as a spokesman for the younger generation. Who else knew more about what was happening to these rebellious young people? The very celebrity that undercut his artistic reputation made it possible for him to earn easy money as a putative expert, and he was no more able to resist this opportunity than he was to stop churning out formulaic stories for the popular magazines.
In an April 1922 example of his expertise on the younger generation, Fitzgerald was depicted as a debonair professor lecturing with the aid of a map of the United States. He was described as the “young St. Paul authority on the flapper,” and the subject under discussion was the difference between the girls of the South, the East, and the Midwest. In this competition, the Midwestern flapper—“unattractive, selfish, snobbish, egotistical, utterly graceless”—finished a distant third. Next came the rather sophisticated Eastern girl, with the Southern girl a clear winner for, among other things, “retain[ing] and develop[ing] her ability to entertain men.” Of course, Fitzgerald admitted, he was somewhat prejudiced on the subject, having married a Southern girl2 (Woodward, The Artist As Public Figure, 59-61).
Three separate articles in the spring of 1924 dealt with the difficulties young couples faced after marriage. The most interesting of these, “Why Blame It on the Poor Kiss if the Girl Veteran of Many Petting Parties Is Prone to Affairs after Marriage?” was syndicated by Metropolitan Newspaper Service to its subscribing papers under the alternate title of “Making Monogamy Work.” Making it work, Fitzgerald asserted, was not easy, for in his view monogamy was “not (not yet at least) the simple natural way of human life.” On balance he regarded marriage favorably, for it kept people out of messes and required less time and money than supporting a chorus girl. But opportunities to stray abounded, and were becoming more pervasive. As an example he cited the case of Harry and Georgianna (hypothetical clones of Scott and Zelda), “two highly strung and extremely attractive young people” who had married with the understanding that when the first flush was over, they were to be “free to ramble.” Four years later, living in the highly permissive atmosphere of New York City, they began to seek illicit companions, and straightaway drove each other mad with jealousy. The only sensible course, they decided, “was to remain always together. Harry never goes to see a woman alone nor does Georgianna ever receive a man when Harry is not there.” As a result, theirs was one of the extremely rare, truly happy marriages.
What of the girl who engaged in so many premarital petting parties? If anything, Fitzgerald suggests, those parties “tend[ed] to lessen a roving tendency.” A girl who discovered before she married that there was more than one man in the world was, he reasoned, “less liable to cruise” later on in order to find that out. In conclusion, Fitzgerald acknowledged that he could provide no sure solution to the problem of making monogamy work. On the constructive side, though, he believed in “early marriage, easy divorce and several children” (Woodward, The Artist As Public Figure, 128-9; Bruccoli and Bryer, In His Own Time, 179-84).
As it happened, he and Zelda were destined to have no more than one child—their daughter Scottie, born in October 1921. Despite his limited experience as one-time father, Fitzgerald wrote two magazine articles for the women’s magazines on how to bring up children. In “Imagination and a Few Mothers” (June 1923, Ladies’ Home Journal), he concocts two very different women. Mrs. Judkins is a hopeless worrier, whose every moment is tortured by fears that her joyously blooming daughter is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and that her vigorously active son is not getting enough rest. As a result she overprotects her children and denies them the right to full selfrealization. To contrast with Mrs. Judkins (who bears a family resemblance to Fitzgerald’s mother), he invents the enlightened Mrs. Paxton. Because she understands that “the inevitable growth of a healthy child is a drifting away from the home,” Mrs. Paxton stays out of her children’s way and lets them grow up on their own. Generalizing on the grounds of these manufactured cases, Fitzgerald deplores those mothers who abandon themselves to their children. Where influence on the child is the issue, “[a] woman happy with her husband is worth a dozen child-worshippers” (“Imagination,” 21, 80-1).
In “‘Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own!” for the July 1924 Woman’s Home Companion, Fitzgerald elaborates on this doctrine of permissiveness. The article is noteworthy for the initial appearance in print of Zelda’s (and Daisy Buchanan’s) childbirth remark that she hopes her baby daughter will be “a beautiful little fool.” But this is hardly the message Fitzgerald wants to convey. The previous generation, in his judgment a dull and worthless one, had attempted to guide its young according to outmoded values. This was a mistake, and he will force no standards on his children, Fitzgerald insists, for nothing that they are told will be of any value compared to what they find out for themselves. In a closing peroration, he advances his ideal child-rearing program. “We shall give” our children
a free start, not loading them up with our own ideas and experiences… We will not even inflict our cynicism on them as the sentimentality of our fathers was inflicted on us … We shall not ask much of them—love if it comes freely, a little politeness, that is all. They are free, they are little people already, and who are we to stand in their light? (Bruccoli and Bryer, In His Own Time, 193-4, 197, 201)
According to Fitzgerald, rich boys were especially likely to grow up without developing self-reliance. In “What Kind of Husbands Do ‘Jimmies’ Make?” (March 1924) Fitzgerald presents—irony intended—“that peerless aristocrat, that fine flower of American civilization, young Mr. Jimmy Worthington.” Jimmy learns early that his father’s money will pay for his sins, that “if he has the bad luck to run over someone when he’s drunk, his father will buy off the family and keep him out of jail.” Nor is Jimmy encouraged like the young English aristocrat to pursue a life of service by going into politics and running the government. Instead he joins the American leisure class—“the most shallow, most hollow, most pernicious leisure class in the world”—and lives a life of privilege without ever grasping the idea that privilege implies responsibility. In the United States, Fitzgerald maintains, the greatest Americans have “almost invariably come from the very poor class—Lincoln, Edison, Whitman, Ford, Mark Twain.” These men formed their character in the forge of experience, while the young rich boys of the 1920s—insulated from that fire—were shaped into complete parasites: healthy, good-looking, and perfectly useless (Bruccoli and Bryer, In His Own Time, 186-7, 191).
This analysis of the rich came from a writer who was himself unable to get along on the princely income of $36,000 a year. Characteristically, Fitzgerald situated himself both within and without the world of the wealthy. It was as if while dancing among the favored few inside the ballroom, he simultaneously was outside gazing through the window at the brilliant party within. This was very much the position of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, and of the narrator in “The Rich Boy,” to cite two stunning fictional accomplishments that put his reaction to the rich—which seemed basically pedestrian in his magazine articles—into lasting form.
The same point could be made about Fitzgerald’s changing attitudes toward women. The spate of essays that he produced in 1924 to help pay off debts subsided, not to be resumed until the country turned the corner into the 1930s and he was inspired to trace his own rise and fall against the background of the nation’s economic debacle. But in his final venture into the genre of the expert, Fitzgerald announced the arrival of the independent woman. As the title “Girls Believe in Girls” (February 1930) suggested, this woman no longer believed that she had anything to learn from men. The era of the flapper had passed, and she was replaced by “the contemporary girl” who possessed beauty, charm, and courage, and radiated poise and self-confidence. She had also, in a somewhat frightening development, become sexually liberated. “[T]he identification of virtue with chastity no longer exists among girls over twenty,” Fitzgerald wrote, although his readers were welcome to pretend that it did if it gave them any comfort. He expected wonders from this independent girl. It was “the poor young man” he was worried about (Bruccoli and Bryer, In His Own Time, 210-11). Just as his mundane pronouncements about the rich were reinvigorated in fiction, so the confident New Woman of this article was to engage the young man he worried about in a dramatic fictional struggle between the sexes—and to emerge victorious, like Nicole Diver at the end of Tender is the Night.
The Fitzgeralds’ own history, as he was well aware, paralleled that of the nation. As the post-war boom began in 1920, Scott had his private triumph with the publication of This Side of Paradise and his marriage to Zelda. A decade later, the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, mirrored their declining fortunes and was closely followed by Zelda’s mental collapse in April 1930. The passing of the decade marked a watershed for the Fitzgeralds, and for his writing career. In his essays thereafter he dropped the pose of the expert, and was moved to reminisce about the not entirely golden past.
Drinking lay at the heart of Fitzgerald’s problems, as close readers of his fiction might have intuited. Yet however compulsively his characters may have consumed liquor, Fitzgerald was not ready in assessing his own life to draw the connection between excessive drinking and physical or emotional breakdown. He treats the issue with levity in “A Short Autobiography,” which appeared in the May 25, 1929 New Yorker. This fragmentary piece purports to tell the story of the author’s life in the form of diary entries about his liquor intake through the years. It begins with “1913: The four defiant Canadian Club whiskeys at the Susquehanna in Hackensack” and concludes, unapologetically, with “1929: A feeling that all liquor has been drunk and all it can do for one has been experienced, and yet—Garmon, un Chablis-Mouton 1902, et pour commencer, une petite carafe de vin rose. C’est ca—merci” (Bruccoli and Bryer, In His Own Time, 223-5).
In “My Lost City” (July 1932), Fitzgerald writes that in the latter years of the boom “[m]any people who were not alcoholics were lit up four days out of seven… and the hangover became a part of the day as well allowed-for as the Spanish siesta.” But he immediately distances himself from this pattern. “Most of my friends drank too much—the more they were in tune to the times the more they drank.” Only when he came to New York City to visit those friends—as in 1927, for example—was he caught up in a frenzy that “deposited” him a few days later “in a somewhat exhausted state on the train to Delaware.” In his view liquor was a symptom of what had gone wrong, and not a cause. More at fault were those who had made fortunes overnight and did not bother with manners. In the speakeasies, “there was nothing left of joviality but only a brutishness that corrupted the new day.” Everywhere, morals were looser (Crack-Up, 30-1).
In his articles about marriage and child-rearing of the mid-192os, Fitzgerald consistently criticized the social conventions of the time for limiting the experiences available to the young and thereby stunting their growth. By the 1930s, however, he looked back on a decade of recklessness and waste and decided that too much freedom was at fault. If anything, he observed in a September 1933 New York Times interview, the older generation had failed to pass along a proper sense of the “eternally necessary human values.” As a result, he commented, his contemporaries lacked “religious and moral convictions” and were rendered “incompetent to train their children” (Woodward, The Artist As Public Figure, 254-5, 264). In his notebooks, also, he regarded the permissive policies he had once advocated with a jaundiced eye. To think, he wrote in some wonderment, that “Imagination and a Few Mothers” may have “influenced Mrs. [Rita] Swann’s whole life” (Crack-Up, 179).
Fitzgerald announced the death of the Jazz Age in his November 1931 “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” a reminiscential article that is not overtly autobiographical. The age, he wrote, had lasted only ten years. It had been born about the time of the May Day riots in 1919 and had “leaped to a spectacular death in October, 1929,” much as one of his classmates tumbled “accidentally” from a skyscraper in Philadelphia and another purposely from a skyscraper in New York. The word “jazz” itself had progressed toward respectability: originally it meant sex, then dancing, then music. But the generation it spawned was the wildest ever—“a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure.” The most hedonistic migrated to the winter resorts at Palm Beach and Deauville, or alternatively to the summer Riviera where you “could get away with more.” Fitzgerald was ambivalent about those wasted years. Like Charlie Wales in his “Babylon Revisited” (February 1931), the boom years had taught him the true meaning of the word “‘dissipate’—to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something” (Short Stories, 620). But also like Wales, he could not entirely forget how “rosy and romantic” it had all seemed when he was young and could still feel everything with great intensity (Crack-Up, 13, 15-16, 19, 22).
In fact, the greatest loss Fitzgerald had suffered, it became clear in his several autobiographical essays of the mid-193os, was the capacity to feel as deeply as he once had. He had succumbed to “emotional bankruptcy,” in the phrase he used to title a story of August 1931, and so had very nearly lost all reason to write. In “One Hundred False Starts” (March 1933), he directly confronted this dilemma. His output as a professional writer was slacking off, for he could find so little that he really cared about to convert to fiction. There was no shortage of serviceable plots; he could find a thousand of them in criminal law libraries and the personal revelations of friends and acquaintances. But these would not work. As he observed in a much-quoted passage,
Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.
Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories—each time in a new disguise—maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.
The fanciful and fantastic would not serve. As a professional writer, he had to start out with an emotion—one that was close to him and that he could understand (AA, 132).
This essential part of his creed he underlined in a rather harsh commentary on a story that young Frances Turnbull sent him in November 1938. She had not invested enough of her own emotional capital in the story, Fitzgerald told her. He was afraid that “the price for doing professional work” was a good deal higher than she was prepared to pay: “You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly…” The only thing writers had to sell—especially young writers—was their emotions. This was as true of Dickens in Oliver Twist, he pointed out, as it was of Hemingway in In Our Time or of himself in This Side of Paradise, when he was writing about a love affair “still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile” (Life in Letters, 368).
The discouragement of many false starts, Fitzgerald observed in his essay, had made him almost ready to quit. But in his troubled state he went to an old Alabama Negro for advice.
“‘Uncle Bob, when things get so bad that there isn’t any way out, what do you do then?’
‘Mr. Fitzgerald,’ he said, ‘when things get that-away I wuks.’”
It was good advice, he decided, for work “was almost everything” (AA, 135). He insisted on this point time and again in letters from Hollywood to his daughter Scottie at Vassar. The strongest statement came in a July 7, 1938 letter that he implored Scottie to read twice, bitter though it might seem. The basic message was that Scottie’s mother had ruined her life because she was brought up spoiled. Zelda “realized too late that work was dignity, and the only dignity, and tried to atone for it by working herself, but it was too late and she broke and is broken forever” (Letters, 46-7). Never again, he added, did he want to see women raised to be idlers. This interpretation undoubtedly laid too much emphasis on Zelda’s highly permissive upbringing—she was the baby of the family—as the cause of her mental breakdown. In this letter, Fitzgerald obviously wanted to frighten Scottie into working hard at college. But he was also expressing his own convictions. When he called work “the only dignity,” he meant it.
In “Ring” (October 1933), a memorial essay on Ring Lardner, Fitzgerald wrote about a friend and fellow writer who had failed to pour enough of himself into his craft. Lardner had been the most amiable of drinking companions during Fitzgerald’s time in Great Neck. “Many the night,” he reports, “we talked over a case of Canadian ale until bright dawn,” but no link is suggested between Lardner’s drinking and the “impenetrable despair” that dogged him for a dozen years before his death. The saddest part of the story, as Fitzgerald related it, was that Ring had not lived up to his promise as an artist. The causes were several. Lardner spent too much time helping others. He did not aim high enough. He adopted a cynical attitude toward his work. And above all, he did not express his innermost thoughts and feelings. Once Fitzgerald suggested to him that he should write something “deeply personal,” but Lardner refused: by his lights, “telling all” simply wasn’t done. “So one is haunted,” Fitzgerald observes in his elegy, “not only by a sense of personal loss but by a conviction that Ring got less percentage of himself on paper than any other American of the first flight” (Crack-Up, 35, 37-8).
Fitzgerald’s memorial essay reads very much like a cautionary tale directed at himself. Confession was good for art as well as the soul, and Lardner’s mistake served to warn him against concealing the contents of his own mind and heart. At the time, Fitzgerald was profoundly concerned with his own literary reputation. In the month of Lardner’s passing, he wrote Perkins suggesting an “advertising approach” for Tender is the Night. Scribners, he proposed, should put out a statement along these lines:
For several years the impression has prevailed that Scott Fitzgerald had abandoned the writing of novels and in the future would continue to write only popular short stories. His publishers knew different and they are very glad now to be able to present a book which is in line with his three other highly successful and highly esteemed novels, thus demonstrating that Scott Fitzgerald is anything but through as a serious novelist.
In retrospect, this copy seems almost pathetic. Its mixture of verb tenses, shaky grammar (“knew different”) and unfortunate repetitions (“Scott Fitzgerald,” “highly successful and highly esteemed”) make it sound as if Fitzgerald were trying to reassure himself that he was “anything but through” (Life in Letters, 241). The nine-year lapse between his two greatest novels shook his confidence, and he never stopped excoriating himself for letting it happen. As he wrote Scottie in June 1940, “I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: ‘I’ve found my line—from now on this comes first’” (Life in Letters, 451).
Fitzgerald’s “Sleeping and Waking” (December 1934) further revealed a man seriously at unease with himself. A victim of insomnia, he lay awake in the early hours beset by thoughts of “Horror and waste—Waste and horror—what I might have been and done that is lost, spent, gone, dissipated, unrecapturable” (Crack-Up, 67). He could neither relive the past nor summon the emotional intensity that had once brought his fiction to life. Desperately searching for material, he tried a series about a father and daughter, the Gwen stories, and another about the medieval Count of Darkness, but these ranked among the worst of his stories. His well was running dry. As he observed in his notebooks, there seemed less weather than in his youth, and “practically no men and women at all” (Crack-Up, 128).
So in November 1935 he tried something different. He holed up in the mountains of western North Carolina, at the Skylands Hotel in Hendersonville. Arnold Gingrich, editor of Esquire, armed him with a mantra to break his writer’s block. Fitzgerald was to repeat, “I can’t write stories of young love for the Saturday Evening Post because I can’t write stories of young love for the Saturday Evening Post because,” and so on. Strapped for funds and living on tinned meat and Uneeda biscuits, he wrote his Crack-Up articles instead—articles that in their exploration of his “dark night of the soul” amply demonstrated why “he couldn’t go on writing stories of young love for The Saturday Evening Post” (quoted in Potts, The Price of Paradise, 88-9).
The three Crack-Up articles ran in Esquire during February, March, and April 1936, and elicited an extraordinary reaction. “I get letters from all over,” Fitzgerald wrote Gingrich. Old friends counseled him to cheer up, and fans begged him to keep writing. But those in his immediate literary circle were, generally, appalled at Fitzgerald’s admission of emotional exhaustion and personal collapse. “Christ, man,” John Dos Passos objected, “how do you find time in the middle of the general conflagration to worry about all that stuff?” Fitzgerald had become the “Maxie Baer” of writers, Ernest Hemingway wrote Perkins, associating him with the heavyweight fighter Hemingway thought had been cowardly in his bout with Joe Louis. Perkins himself considered the essays an “indecent invasion of [Fitzgerald’s] privacy.” Ober feared that they would compromise his client’s chances of securing a contract in Hollywood (Donaldson, “The Crisis of Fitzgerald’s ‘Crack-Up’,” 171-3).
Subsequent critics have been divided as to the honesty of these essays. Glenway Wescott, in a memorial essay of 1941, called them “wonderful” for their “candor; verbal courage; simplicity,” and Sergio Perosa admired Fitzgerald for examining himself with detachment and without pity or sentimentality. Milton Hindus, on the other hand, thought the author had not presented “enough close-ups of actual experience,” and Alfred Kazin felt, on reading the essays, that “something is being persistently withheld, that the author is somehow offering us certain facts in exchange for the right to keep others to himself” (Crack-Up, 323-4; Potts, The Price of Paradise, 90; Donaldson, “The Crisis,” 178). In fact, important things are withheld. The essays do not even mention Zelda’s illness and its effects. In addition, they bring up drinking only in order to rule it out as a cause of Fitzgerald’s difficulties. This was not an intentional violation of the two rules he set for himself as an intellectual and a man of honor—“that I do not tell myself lies that will be of value to myself, and secondly, I do not lie to myself” (Crack-Up, 197). Fitzgerald was simply unable to admit to his alcoholism. Denial was part of the disease.
By the standards of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) and the flurry of confessional novels, poems, and memoirs that have followed that groundbreaking work, Fitzgerald’s account of his breakdown seems peculiarly reticent. A creative writing instructor of the 1990s, reading these essays in manuscript form, would be likely to scribble “More Specificity!” in the margins. There is surprisingly little detail, and even less of the scene-and-picture that enlivens Fitzgerald’s fiction. And there is really only one character involved: the distressingly enervated and somewhat cynical persona of F. Scott Fitzgerald, at the end of his rope. Other names, with the notable exception of Edmund Wilson, are conspicuously withheld.
Yet the Crack-Up articles clearly struck a nerve at the time of publication, and they continue to fascinate readers over sixty-five years later. Vague in the lack of concrete detail, the essays still generate emotional power. What are the sources of that power? Above all, and despite their evasions, one is never in doubt in reading them that they come from the heart, that they convey the very real depths of the author’s depression. In one sense, the “tension between concealment and revelation” (Dolan, Modern Lives, 142)—Fitzgerald’s obvious reluctance to tell too much—is symptomatic of his troubles. He cannot articulate what he cannot admit to himself. Besides, if important matters are withheld, that is in part a consequence of the brevity of these essays: they occupy only sixteen pages in book form. Fitzgerald undoubtedly kept them short to satisfy the requirements of Esquire magazine, but he understood too the authority of the thing left out.
The essays gain further intensity from the clear division between “the cool, detached observer” whose voice dominates the narration and the desperately suffering figure whose story he is relating (AA, 11). And of course it matters that the downfall under analysis involves one of the century’s most accomplished writers. Furthermore, the chronicle of Fitzgerald’s personal journey from boom to bust resonates in the wider culture as well. Particularly in “Handle with Care,” the last of the three essays, he is also lamenting what has gone wrong in American society, as of 1936: materialism running roughshod over love, friendship, honor—all the lovely abstractions he once believed in.
Fitzgerald writes about his deepest feelings in the Crack-Up articles with the aid of almost no plot at all. Instead he adopts the indirection of poetry and seeks to communicate how he felt through metaphor. It is extraordinary how often Fitzgerald compares himself in these essays: to other human beings, to animals, to inanimate objects. These comparisons are crucial to the artistic success of the whole, for they tell his unhappy tale without undue pointing or breast-beating.
Aging is the basic theme of “The Crack-Up” (February 1936), the first of the three essays. “Of course,” it somberly begins, “all life is a process of breaking down.” But Fitzgerald immediately segues back to the optimism of his youth when he was capable of believing that “[l]ife was something you dominated if you were any good.” As Morris Dickstein has observed, “this project of mastering life was very much in the American grain” (“The Authority of Failure,” 559). For a long time, Fitzgerald had clung to that sunny prospect, only reluctantly reducing his two “juvenile regrets”—not playing football in college, not getting overseas during the war—into “childish waking dreams,” and still possessed of a romantic notion that with fame as the spur almost anything was possible. But after hearing “a grave sentence” from a “great doctor” (an exaggeration of his bouts of tuberculosis, probably) his outlook darkened. He stopped caring about others and went away to where he did not know many people. He found that he was “good-and-tired” and spent his time dozing or making lists. Suddenly he got better, and then “he cracked like an old plate,” in the homely simile that structures this essay and leads on to the next.
In the paragraph after the cracked plate metaphor, Fitzgerald introduces a financial one: “I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” This banking motif was to recur in the second Crack-Up essay, and he also used it in warning Scottie against reckless expenditure of her energy. “Our danger is imagining that we have resources—material and moral—which we haven’t got,” he wrote her on April 5, 1939. Every few years, he found himself “climbing uphill to recover from some bankruptcy.” Scottie should understand exactly what bankruptcy meant: “drawing on resources which one does not possess” (Letters, 70).
Then, in the paragraph after that in “The Crack-Up,” he reverted to the growing-up process with the comment that he “had weaned [my emphasis] [himself] from all the things [he] used to love” and was left with almost no fellow feeling for other people. He liked only doctors and girls short of puberty and boys eight and over and old men. There was a substantial category of those he could not stand the sight of: “Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general, all writers… and all the classes as classes and most of them as members of their class.” With a measure of cynicism, he puts a question to his readers: “All rather inhuman and undernourished, isn’t it? Well, that, children, is the true sign of cracking up.”
This first essay concludes with the only extended anecdote of the entire series. Fitzgerald recounts the attempt of an unnamed woman—Nora Flynn, almost certainly—to act as “Job’s comforter” in ameliorating his distress. “Suppose this wasn’t a crack in you,” she says, adopting his metaphor, “suppose it was a crack in the Grand Canyon.” She asks him, in effect, to stop feeling sorry for himself and start considering the wider world. And she tells him of her private woes, and how she had overcome them.
Fitzgerald felt the logic of what she said. He might even have fought free of his depression, if he had been able to muster the vitality she possessed in such abundance. But vitality was a natural force that could not be passed on, not even if he waited “for a thousand hours with the tin cup of self-pity.” There was no use in playing the beggar outside Nora’s door. All he could do was walk away, “holding himself very carefully like cracked crockery” (Crack-Up, 69-74).
“Pasting It Together” (March 1936), the second Crack-Up essay, picks up the cracked-plate and bankruptcy metaphors, and adds several new ones designed to communicate the violent nature of his collapse. To begin with, Fitzgerald elaborates on the condition of the plate which despite its crack still has to be kept in service. It will not be brought out for company, he acknowledges, but will do to “hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under left-overs.” But night brings on insomnia and sorrow and despair. At three o’clock in the morning, the hour of “the real dark night of the soul,” he feels like “an unwilling witness of an execution,” the disintegration or “shear[ing] away” of his own personality.
In his present crisis Fitzgerald is distressed by recollections of what he has twice lost in the past, and military images invade his thoughts. The first great crisis came at Princeton, where his departure in junior year (in Fitzgerald’s not entirely forthcoming version, for medical reasons alone and not because of failing grades) had cost him the “badges” and “medals” he had rightfully earned, and so ended his “career as a leader of men.” The second loss involved “one of those tragic loves doomed for lack of money.” The blow fell when “the girl” (Zelda) turned him down because of his dim financial prospects, and though eventually it came out all right, he never got over an animosity—“not the conviction of a revolutionist but the smoldering hatred of the peasant”—toward the leisure class. While trying to emulate the rich, his horse had been “shot out from under” him. That defeat, like the one at Princeton, had resulted from “over-extend[ing]” his flank.
This last martial expression is repeated as Fitzgerald summarizes the family resemblance among the three periods of darkness in his life. Each had been the result of “an over-extension of the flank, a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon physical resources that I did not command, like a man over-drawing at a bank”: the triplet of metaphors substituting for what he could not or would not state explicitly. His most recent crack-up was more violent than the others, but in all three cases he felt as if he were “standing at twilight on a deserted range, with an empty rifle in my hands and the targets down”—only apparently armed, and powerless to alter his fate.
The essay goes on to illustrate how Fitzgerald had been so unmanned. With the advent of motion pictures, he observes, the power of the written word had become subordinate to the “grosser power” of the image on the screen. The effect threatened to render him obsolescent, just as “the chain stores have crippled the small merchant, an exterior force, unbeatable,” an analogy that applies forcefully at the start of a new century. In part, though, Fitzgerald was complicit in the “disintegration” of his personality, since he had done so little to construct it himself. Instead he had borrowed his intellectual conscience from Edmund Wilson (the only contributor named in the essay), his sense of the good life from Sap Donahoe (a friend going back to his days at Newman School), his artistic conscience from Ernest Hemingway, his concept of how to conduct his relations with other people from Gerald Murphy, and his political conscience from a “man much younger than myself,” possibly V. F. Calverton. Because he was made up of parts of other people, there was no intrinsic self, no basis (as Fitzgerald put it) on which to organize his self-respect. In a closing comparison he reduced the soldier alone on the range at night to a still more pitiable figure: “It was strange to have no self-to be like a little boy left alone in a big house,” knowing that he could do anything he wanted to, but finding there was nothing that he wanted to do (Crack-Up, 75-80).
In the first two essays of the Crack-Up series, Fitzgerald appealed to his readers’ compassion by ending with sentimental glimpses of himself in extremity: a beggar with a tin cup, a little boy left alone. He adopts a far more aggressively cynical tone in the final essay, “Handle with Care” (April 1936). In this profoundly bitter article, he excoriates American society and repeatedly diminishes himself by comparison to the least admirable people and things around him. The cracked plate, fashioned to arouse at least a modicum of pity, stays in the cupboard this time. Instead Fitzgerald writes of floundering in a “morass,” of springing a “leak” through which his “enthusiasm and vitality” prematurely trickles away, of “self-immolation,” of slaying “the empty shell” he has let himself become.
In order to recover, Fitzgerald decides that there will be no more “giving of [him]self.” He is off “the dispensing end of the relief roll forever.” “The conjurer’s hat [is] empty.” In the foolishness of youth, as he wrote Scottie, he had imagined he was “a sort of magician with words” without any effort on his part. Later he came to realize that what seemed to be magic was really the result of unremitting effort (Epstein,“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Third Act,” 56). And there was only so much energy to go around. As with Dick Diver in Tender is the Night—a character who started out modeled on Gerald Murphy but later became closely identified with his creator—Fitzgerald found himself drained of almost all vitality. Diver’s charm, his compulsion to use his “fatal pleasingness,” had worn him down: it led directly to his downfall. So in 1936, the same year that Dale Carnegie’s immensely popular How to Win Friends and Influence People advocated success through glad-handing, Fitzgerald resolved to stop bestowing carnivals of affection on others and to save himself by becoming at last “a writer only” (Dickstein, “Fitzgerald’s Second Act,” 574).
“Handle with Care” also delivers a satirical attack on the materialism rampant in American culture. This attack becomes most vivid in Fitzgerald’s sardonic description of how he plans to conduct himself in the future. He will no longer expend any of his time and energy on other people—unless he stands to profit by doing so. In order to get through unavoidable human encounters he will cultivate a false smile and develop a new voice. The practiced smile, Fitzgerald writes, will “combine the best qualities of a hotel manager, an experienced old social weasel, a headmaster on visitors’ day,” and so on through a catalogue of artificial smilers finishing with “all those from Washington to Beverly Hills [again, how up-to-date Fitzgerald’s satire seems] who must exist by virtue of the contorted pan.” A lawyer is working with him on the voice, which will be designed to elicit the word “yes” from some but toward others will be notable for its “polite acerbity that makes [them] feel that far from being welcome they are not even tolerated.”
The Crack-Up essays end with a series of demeaning self-characterizations expressed in similes or metaphors. In his youth Fitzgerald had aspired to be “an entire man”—athlete, scholar, artist, warrior, man of affairs, man of the world. Now, however, he has “cut… loose” that idealistic goal “with as little compulsion as a Negro lady cuts loose a rival on Saturday night.” That ambition has been relegated to “the junk heap of the shoulder pads worn for one day on the Princeton freshman football field and the overseas cap never worn overseas.” The most degrading metaphor comes at the very end. He no longer will allow himself to like anyone, Fitzgerald admits, and he has hung a sign, Cave Canem, above his door. “I will try to be a correct animal though, and if you throw me a bone with enough meat on it I may even lick your hand.”
In his extremity, Fitzgerald compares himself to a dog who will alternately snarl or fawn, depending on how he is treated. It is not much of a role for a forty-year-old man to play, but he suggests that it is the only way he can adapt to a society populated by “grasping, amoral, beady-eyed, smooth articles” (Grenberg, “Fitzgerald’s ‘Figured Curtain’,” 18). His mood of dejection, as he points out in the penultimate paragraph of “Handle with Care,” parallels “the wave of despair” that swept the nation in the aftermath of the boom. In the days before boom turned to bust, Fitzgerald had been capable of a happiness so intense that he had to go off by himself to walk the ecstasy away. But that apparent happiness, he reflects, may have been no more than “a talent for self-delusion.” Certainly it was an exception to what he has come to believe: “that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness” (Crack-Up, 80-4).
What chiefly makes Fitzgerald’s writing last, Joseph Epstein has suggested, is his great theme of loss (“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Third Act,” 57). The worst loss of all, in his stories and novels, is the loss of illusion that overcomes Dexter Green at the end of “Winter Dreams” and that Jay Gatsby struggles against on the last day of his life. The Crack-Up essays, like nothing else he wrote, testify that Fitzgerald had cast his private illusions aside, and must soldier on deprived of their emotional support. Gone, too, was most of the fund of energy that drove him to accomplish so much in the first fifteen years of his career, and that he still desperately needed for his work. “Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over,” as he reminded himself in his notebooks (Crack-Up, 126). The theme of loss, in short, is pervasive throughout these essays that, despite their silences and evasions, take us to the core of a man in the throes of despondency.
Fitzgerald continued to work an autobiographical vein in the pieces for Esquire—some fact, some fiction, but in either case drawn from experience—that followed the account of his crack-up. In the summer of 1936, for example, he composed an “author” trilogy for the magazine: “Author’s House,” “Afternoon of an Author,” and “An Author’s Mother.” Despite using the camouflage of fiction more than the Crack-Up essays had, this group of three cuts close to the bone in revealing intimate details of Fitzgerald’s life.
“Author’s House” (July 1936) takes the form of a tour of the writer’s home, from the damp unfinished cellar to the isolated cupola on top. One dark corner of the cellar, Fitzgerald as guide tells a visitor, conceals the crucial moment—three months before he was born—when his mother lost her other two children. “I think I started then to be a writer,” he observes. Beneath a mound of dirt in another corner is buried his childhood self-love that enabled him to think that he “wasn’t the son of [his] parents but a son of a king… who ruled the whole world.” Outside the living room the two men see a group of children playing football. Fitzgerald is taken back in memory to the time in prep school when he was accused of shying away from a tackle because of physical cowardice. It was not that way at all, he maintains, in a probable distortion of the facts. Another fiction develops as they progress upstairs. Fitzgerald invents a correspondence in which he has played a cruel hoax on an illiterate woman whose brother is in jail. The tale prompts him to regret that in his own writing he has necessarily meddled with other people’s emotions, done “things he can never repair.” The attic, pleasant enough for a short visit, is full of the school books and ballet programs and old magazines and maps that comprise “the library of a life.” Finally they mount to the cupola as the wind whistles past. He had lived there once in his youth, Fitzgerald says, probably referring to the summer of 1919, when he shut himself in the topmost room of his parents’ row house in St. Paul to finish This Side of Paradise. But he could not do it again even if he wanted to (AA, 183-9).
The “emotional exhaustion” Fitzgerald refers to in the Crack-Up essays is poignantly demonstrated in “Afternoon of an Author” (August 1936). Unlike his previous autobiographical essays, Fitzgerald uses the third person here, but if anything the article gains authority through such distancing. The essay purports to describe an actual day in the author’s life. He wakes in his Baltimore apartment feeling better than he has in weeks, yet after breakfast lies down for fifteen minutes before starting work on a story that has “become so thin in the middle that it was about to blow away.” He gives up this project, and after shaving rests for five minutes “as a precaution” before getting dressed. He’d like to get away for a while, but lacks the time and energy to drive down the Shenandoah valley or ride the boat to Norfolk. Instead he goes downtown on the bus to see his barber. In the business section he suddenly sees “brightly dressed girls, all very beautiful,” and the sight restores his spirits so that “he love[s] life terribly for a minute, not wanting to give it up at all.”
After alighting from the bus, however, he must hold “carefully to all the railings” as he walks the block to the hotel barbershop. After his haircut and shampoo, he hears an orchestra playing across the way, and is reminded of the review of his last book that declared that he was fond of night clubs and that he was “indefatigable.” The mere word brings tears to his eyes. It was like the early days of his career, when despite laboring hard over every sentence Fitzgerald had been accused of a “fatal facility.” At any rate, on this afternoon he is as easily fatigued as a man twice his forty years. He has some trouble mounting the steps of the bus that takes him home, then is revived by the sight of a couple of high school kids perched atop the Lafayette statue. As for himself, he “needed reforestation and… hoped the soil would stand one more growth.” Back in his apartment, he drinks a glass of milk, and decides to lie down for ten minutes before trying to get started on an idea for a new story (AA, 177-82).
The slightest of the three “author” essays is “An Author’s Mother” (September 1936). Presented in the guise of fiction, it chronicles the last day in the life of “Mrs. Johnston,” a halting old lady who is patently modeled on Fitzgerald’s mother. The piece was written after Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald had fallen fatally ill, and appeared in print shortly before her death on September 2, 1936. Mrs. Johnston, her fictional counterpart, is not particularly pleased that her son Hamilton has become an author. She had wanted him to become an army officer or go into business. Authors were regarded as “freak[s]” in the Midwestern city (St. Paul) she came from, and she thought the profession was “risky and eccentric.” It would have been different if he were a popular author along the lines of Longfellow or Alice and Phoebe Cary, nineteenth-century sentimental poets she admires. Mrs. Johnston suffers a fall as she is leaving a bookstore where she has been unable to purchase a copy of the Carys’ poems. Taken to a hospital, she rouses herself and in her delirium “announce[s] astonishingly” that her son Hamilton was the author of “The Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary.” As an obituary for Fitzgerald’s own mother, this brief story is touching in its gentle account of her weakness and confusion. Yet there is more than a trace of resentment, too, in her lack of respect for her son as a serious man of letters (“An Author’s Mother,” 36).
In a number of stories published in Esquire during the next two years, Fitzgerald introduced material from his own life that he had ignored or barely touched on in the Crack-Up essays. “‘I Didn’t Get Over’” (October 1936), for example, combines his regret at not getting overseas in the war with his persistent sense of social insecurity. Fitzgerald used to keep lists of those who had snubbed him, as he mentions in “The Crack-Up” (Crack-Up, 72). Like his admirer John O’Hara (who has been characterized as master of the imagined slight), he was tremendously sensitive to real or apparent putdowns. The story itself, rather convoluted in form and dependent on a surprise ending, illustrates the sometimes deadly consequences of one such social snub (AA, 169-76). “An Alcoholic Case” (February 1937) is based on the bouts of alcoholism that on several occasions placed Fitzgerald under the care of a trained nurse, and so comes to grips with the disease he had explicitly denied in “The Crack-Up” (70-1). The nurse in the story is taking care of a cartoonist whose indomitable will to die defeats her every attempt to make him better. She hates the idea of handling alcoholic cases. “It’s just that you can’t really help them and it’s so discouraging”(Short Stories, 436-42).
“The Long Way Out” (September 1937) plays a variation on Zelda Fitzgerald’s mental illness and hospitalization. The schizophrenic woman in the story has been promised a five-day trip with her husband away from the clinic. She joyfully prepares herself on the morning of their scheduled departure, and is happily waiting when word comes to the doctors that her husband has been killed in an automobile accident. No one dares tell her what has happened; her husband has been delayed, they say, and will pick her up tomorrow. So she goes on each day for years, readying herself each morning for her holiday. After waiting so long, as she daily reassures herself, one more day hardly matters. Perhaps this story derives in part from Fitzgerald’s feelings of guilt. Zelda often implored him in her letters to take her on trips away from the hospital. Occasionally he did so, as on a four-day journey to Charleston and Myrtle Beach in the same month that this story appeared in print. Almost always these trips had disastrous consequences for both of them3 (Short Stories, 443-7).
“Financing Finnegan” (January 1938), a fourth story dealing with what was left out of the Crack-Up essays, addresses the subject of Fitzgerald’s financial unreliability. The story is written with wry self-deprecating humor. The tone is implicit in the very name of the protagonist, which is more suggestive of the stereotypical barroom Irishman than the distinguished-sounding “Fitzgerald.” Like Fitzgerald, Finnegan borrows repeatedly from his agent and editor against the promise of work as yet undone. Like Fitzgerald, he signs over his life insurance to them. Like Fitzgerald, he has recently broken his shoulder during a dive from the high board. With so much invested in his cause, agent and editor become cheerleaders for Finnegan. The book he has promised may not have materialized, they acknowledge, but when it does it is bound to be wonderful. Yet after having dispensed so much to Finnegan, even they become desperate for funds. At the end of the story, the editor is reduced to putting the touch on another of his authors (Short Stories, 448-55).
Fitzgerald returns to the beginning of his literary career in the autobiographical article “Early Success” (October 1937). Here he recalls the “first wild wind of success” that had sprung up with the letter from Scribners accepting This Side of Paradise in the fall of 1919. “[T]hat week,” he writes, “the postman rang and rang, and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning with a world of ineffable toploftiness and promise.” That early realized dream created the illusion that the gods were on his side, that life was a romantic matter. Yet from the beginning Fitzgerald understood that his time of ecstasy, like the “great gaudy spree” the nation was about to embark upon, could not last. All the stories that came into his head “had a touch of disaster in them.” By 1937, he has taken on a protective shell to harden himself against the disappointments of his personal and professional life. But he will not dismiss from memory the intense excitement that had once enraptured him. There are still times, he concludes, when he can go back into the mind of the youth who had walked the streets with cardboard soles—“times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county” (Crack-Up, 85-90).
In the prose of this poetically evocative essay, the last important piece of nonfiction writing Fitzgerald published, he takes us back into the realm of what has been sadly, irretrievably lost. The early success of his youth had made him foolishly over-confident, even arrogant, and in that mood he had capered and gamboled for the sheer pleasure of taunting his sober elders. In one sense, Fitzgerald must have rued that heedless exuberance, for it stamped him in the public mind as “larky” and unserious. Yet he will not and cannot repudiate that brief wonderful time when the young man with cardboard soles and the professional author in the making “were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment—when life was literally a dream”(Crack-Up, 90). At the conclusion of “Early Success,” Fitzgerald summoned all of his lyrical power in a statement of overpowering regret for what was forever lost to him—as it has been or will be to those of us who read his prose and are unaccountably moved by it.
1 For his invaluable research in the newspapers and magazines of the time, I am indebted to the doctoral dissertation (University of Pennsylvania, 1992) of Jeffrey Harris Woodward, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Artist as Public Figure, 1920-1940.
2 Here as elsewhere, I am following Fitzgerald’s customary usage of “girl” for “young woman.”
3 It is curious that the woman in the story is called “Mrs. King” and the principal doctor “Dr. Pirie.” Ginevra King, the love of Fitzgerald’s young life, was eventually to marry John Pirie, but at the time this story was published, she had recently been divorced from William H. Mitchell III. She and Fitzgerald saw each other in Santa Barbara in the fall of 1937, following publication of this story.
AA Afternoon of An Author
ATSYM All the Sad Young Men
B&D The Beautiful and Damned
B&J The Basil and Josephine Stories
F&P Flappers and Philosophers
GG The Great Gatsby
LT The Last Tycoon
LOTLT Love of the Last Tycoon
PH The Pat Hobby Stories
TJA Tales of the Jazz Age
TITN Tender is the Night
TSOP This Side of Paradise
Apprentice Fiction The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Kuehl)
As Ever, Scott Fitz As Ever, Scott Fitz: Letters Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Literary Agent, Harold Ober 1919-1940 (ed. Bruccoli and McCabe Atkinson)
Bits Bits of Paradise
Correspondence The Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli and Duggan)
Crack-Up The Crack-Up (ed. Wilson)
Dear Scott/Dear Max Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence (ed. Kuehl and Bryer)
Ledger F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger (ed. Bruccoli)
Letters The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Turnbull)
Life in Letters F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (ed. Bruccoli)
Notebooks The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli)
Price The Price Was High: The Last Uncollected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli)
Short Stories The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection (ed. Bruccoli)
Stories The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scott Donaldson is a biographer and Louise G. T. Cooley Professor of English, Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary. He has written several books and articles about Fitzgerald, including Hemingway vs Fitzgerald (1999) and Fool for Love, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1983). In addition, he edited Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1984) and The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway (1996).
Published in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Ruth Prigozy (Cambridge University Press 2002).