F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Kenneth Eble

Chapter 8
Tender Is the Night

Shortly after her second breakdown in 1932, Zelda Fitzgerald began writing an autobiographical novel. She submitted the manuscript directly to Maxwell Perkins of Scribner's; when Fitzgerald found out about it, he reacted somewhat as if his worst rival had just stolen his best idea. “My God,” he wrote, “my books made her a legend and her single intention in this somewhat thin portrait is to make me a non-entity.” When his anger subsided, he worked with Perkins to get the novel published; he felt, and probably correctly, that she needed the feel of success associated “with work done in a workmanlike manner for its own sake.” In the revised version, the attack on Fitzgerald is blunted (Amory Blaine is no longer the name of the central male character), and the published book offers a view of the Fitzgeralds' lives not unlike that seen in Fitzgerald's own fiction.

Save Me the Waltz, as the novel was called, covers in a febrile, impressionistic prose the whole span of Zelda Sayre's life, but it focuses on the years between Fitzgerald's courtship and the death of Judge Sayre in 1931. The central character is Alabama Beggs; the young officer who wins her is David Knight, not a writer but an artist. The events tally precisely with those of real life. After the wedding, she and David are sitting on the bed in a room in the Biltmore reading the papers. “ We're having people,' everybody said to everybody else, 'and we want you to join us.'” The “twilights after the war,” as Zelda called them, emerge from her prose much as they must have appeared to the Fitzgeralds at the time. Even more of the intensity, the shifting colors, and the clamor is in the chapters describing the years 1921-24 than in Fitzgerald's stories of the period.

The central part of the story is devoted to Alabama's dancing career, Zelda Fitzgerald's own obsession. The last part finds the Knights back in her parents' Southern town just before herfather dies. The very last scene finds their child playing at grandmother's house saying, “We shall be gone soon,” and the other replying, “You people never stay anywhere.” At the end, Alabama and David are sitting “in the pleasant gloom of late afternoon staring at each other through the remains of the party.”

The book is in its way as poignant as Tender Is the Night, although not so deeply affecting. Though written during her recovery from her second breakdown, it has more life and vigor (but a good deal less control) than Tender Is the Night. It is almost as if we see reflected in the two books both the warring and complementary characteristics of the two Fitzgeralds: two kinds of brilliance unable to outdazzle the other; two innocents living “by the infinite promise of American advertising”; two restless temperaments craving both excitement and repose. Each book embodies the powerful drive of its creator which was, often as not, antagonistic to the drive of the other. “A strange thing was,” Fitzgerald wrote to Laura Guthrie, “I could never convince her that I was a first-rate writer.” Or, as Zelda expressed Alabama's unwillingness to yield in the novel, “David David Knight Knight Knight, for instance, couldn't possibly make her put out her light till she got good and ready.”

Both Save Me the Waltz and Tender Is the Night are depressing books because only with difficulty can they be torn from the sad particulars of the Fitzgeralds' fate. If the 1920's described in both books sometimes seems like a prelude to disaster, the 1930's is disaster itself. From the time he returned permanently to America (1932) until his death, Fitzgerald was never more than momentarily free from the spectre of his wife's insanity, from his own alcoholism, and from the responsibility of keeping life going for himself, Zelda, and their daughter, now entering her teens.

“Our united front,” he wrote, referring to the quiet life he was forcing them to lead in 1932, “is less a romance than a categorical imperative.” And yet, the battle was only a holding action. After her second breakdown, there was a period—from the spring of 1932 to the end of 1933—when Zelda could be at La Paix. But this period was an uneasy one: “All through the year and a half we lived in the country, … there would be episodes of great gravity that seemed to have no 'build-up,' outbursts of temper, violence, rashness, etc. that could neither be foreseen or forestalled.” The best moments were those with the children which Andrew Turnbull has described so well in his recent book.

When a fire destroyed the upper floor of La Paix, the house was not repaired, and they lived on in that symbolic shell until December, 1933, when they moved to a smaller house at 1307 Park Avenue, Baltimore. During this time and in the years to follow, Fitzgerald spent an increasing amount of time in the hospital, sometimes for physical illness, at others for general recuperation from prolonged drinking. His drinking led to quarrels with both Hemingway and Edmund Wilson; these, like those with Zelda, left him tormented by a kind of feeling he described in another connection: “How strange to have failed as a social creature.” He continued, however, to see people. He visited T. S. Eliot when he gave the Turnbull lecture at Johns Hopkins in 1932. He became interested in communism and invited to La Paix a number of party spokesmen who ended up by boring him. He took trips, usually ending in drunkenness, to New York. He wrote a good deal, but most of the time in short bursts sustained by alcohol. His best efforts went into Tender Is the Night, and the small number of magazine articles and stories produced meant that his income dropped below his expenses once again. For a number of years, royalties from his previous books had dropped to less than fifty dollars. In 1929, he earned $31.77 from all his books.

At Christmas time in 1933 the Fitzgeralds went to Bermuda for a vacation. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald came down with pleurisy, Zelda was fighting off her third breakdown, and the trip must have seemed like those of the worst days in Europe. Shortly after they returned, she was forced to go back to the clinic at Johns Hopkins. Later in the year, after an attempted suicide, she was sent to another sanitarium in upstate New York. From there, she came back to Baltimore worse than before. In August, 1934, Fitzgerald wrote that he had spent an hour and a half with her and had found her much better than she had been previously that year. But such a period of hope only came with increasing periods of confinement. From 1934 until Fitzgerald's death—and for that matter until her own death—Zelda Fitzgerald was unable to maintain a normal existence in the world for long.

Through this vastly troubling period, Fitzgerald worked to bring Tender Is the Night into publishable form. The novel, unlike his other work, has a long history. It goes back to the novel he began work on soon after the publication of The Great Gatsby. In August, 1925, he had written to Maxwell Perkins about a new novel “about Zelda and me and the hysteria of last Junein Paris.” The plot, however, was based upon “an intellectual murder on the Leopold—Loeb idea.” He first called it “Our Type,” but at other times it was entitled The World's Fair,” The Melarky Case,” and The Boy Who Killed His Mother.” Pieces of it got into “The Drunkard's Holiday” and “Doctor Diver's Holiday,” the immediate predecessors of Tender Is the Night.

Malcolm Cowley, in his 1951 edition of the novel, has described the three separate versions of it. (Matthew Bruccoli, in a more recent study of the manuscripts, notes three versions and eighteen stages of composition.) In April, 1926, Fitzgerald said he had a fourth of the novel done and was planning to finish it that year. But work went badly and only four chapters of this first version are now extant. A good deal of this material was worked into the early parts of Tender Is the Night, but emphasis and plot and final intention were so changed as to make the original version a distant cousin to the final one.

The main differences and similarities can be seen in “The World's Fair” section of the manuscript, part four of which has been published in The Kenyon Review (Autumn, 1948) and in the appendix to Cowley's edition of the novel. The world's fair of this novel is seen through the eyes of young Francis Melarky, a technician from Hollywood, who is intended to be handsome and intelligent and to have the makings of a first-rate man. The novel was planned to show the forces working on Melarky to drive him into a love affair with Dinah Piper, to attempt to keep pace with the international set on the Riviera, and eventually to kill his mother in a fit of rage. The tone suggests something of a story, like Gatsby, with the haute monde making its assault on a provincial but highly developed sensibility.

How Fitzgerald worked sections of this material into Tender Is the Night can be illustrated by comparing portions of The World's Fair” with the same portions worked into the novel. One such scene is the Wanda Breasted episode, reprinted both in Cowley's edition and in The Kenyon Review. What provoked Fitzgerald to include this scene in Chapter 17, Book One, of Tender Is the Night must have been the arresting way he described a trio of women, “rather like long-stemmed flowers and rather like cobra's heads,” and the pieces of dialogue used to describe the Pipers (Divers): “I prefer people whose lives have more corrugated surfaces.” There is also the larger purpose in both versions of the novel of letting Francis Melarky in the earliest version (Rosemary Hoyt in the published one) see thePipers (Divers) through the kind of subterranean talk that is malicious but partly true.

The second version of the novel was probably written in 1929 after Fitzgerald had pretty much given up the design of the Melarky novel. In this version, Rosemary Hoyt and her mother meet the Divers (now called Lewellen and Nicole Kelly) on board a ship bound for the Riviera. Rosemary's introduction to the Riviera, with which the published version of Tender Is the Night begins, uses much of the material from Chapter I of the Melarky story which had Francis and his mother arriving under similar circumstances. In both episodes, the innocent outsider-Francis Melarky in one, Rosemary Hoyt in the other—is used as a means of disclosing that carnival world of which the Divers seem to be the center. The two stories—Rosemary Hoyt's and Dick Diver's—which seem to fit uneasily together in Tender Is the Night, fail to fuse because, over the long history of the novel's creation, Fitzgerald seems unable to decide which shall be central. The most obvious vestige of the Melarky story which still remains in Tender Is the Night is the attention given to Rosemary's mother, an attention vital to a novel in which the child is going to murder the mother but intrusive in one in which that child is not even going to be the principal character and the mother much less than that.

In Tender Is the Night, the characters through which the innocent learns of a richer, larger life have become the main characters in the story. Instead of the Divers illuminating the life of Francis Melarky or Rosemary Hoyt, the latter bring us into understanding of the Divers. For this version, Fitzgerald wrote a long outline in which the story of Dick Diver is so clearly in mind that it is unnecessary to mention Rosemary in describing the plot:

The novel should do this. Show a man who is a natural idealist, a spoiled priest, giving in for various causes to the ideas of the haute Burgeoise, and in his rise to the top of the social world, losing his idealism, his talent and turning to drink and dissipation. Background one in which the leisure class is at their truly most brilliant and glamorous such as Murphys.

The hero born in 1891 is a man like myself brought up in a family sunk from haute burgeoisie to petit burgeoisie, yet expensively educated. He has all the gifts, and goes through Yale almost succeeding but not quite…

Most of the writing of Tender Is the Night from the point of this outline on was done at La Paix in 1932 and 1933. Fitzgerald was thinking of forty-one thousand additional words in January and was also hoping to get it done by staying sober from February to April. Despite Zelda's second breakdown, he was apparently well enough along by spring, 1932, to hope for publication the following year. By early fall, he could envision getting the first installment for serialization to Scribner's by October. It was not until a year later, however, that the manuscript could be sent for final editing. Serialization began in the January, 1934, issue of Scribner's and ran in four issues. It was published in book form in April, 1934.

I Criticism of Tender Is the Night

Tender Is the Night, the hardest of Fitzgerald's books to judge, is understandably the one about which competent critics have expressed the widest range of opinions. Its weaknesses have been suggested in recounting its creation. Chiefly they have to do with the structure of the book and its characterizations.

The uneasiness Fitzgerald felt toward the structure of the book caused him to change the order of the chapters in a reconsideration of the novel in 1938. “Its great fault,” he wrote, “is that the true beginning—the young psychiatrist in Switzerland —is tucked away in the middle of the book.” Malcolm Cowley has edited the novel in the order Fitzgerald's marked copy suggests. The principal change is to make Book Two, the story of Dick Diver, the beginning of the novel and to have the Rosemary material, with which the novel began, the second book. The course of the novel and the conclusion remain the same.

There is no question that the novel in this revised form is a more straightforward story. Dick Diver, an extremely promising young psychiatrist, falls in love with Nicole, a rich mental patient, marries her, and for various reasons declines into obscurity while she grows capable of facing the world without him. The affair with Rosemary Hoyt is a brief and necessary break away from the regimen that his marriage to Nicole has imposed upon him and dramatizes the selfless character of his devotion to his wife. The life on the Riviera is no longer presented as “la dolce vita,” but as a life forced upon the Divers by Nicole's condition. Such a story can hardly escape banality unless the reader feelsthe intensity of Dick's love for Nicole, which causes him to sacrifice himself that she may regain her health.

To readers coming to the story directly, without being distracted by the Rosemary story, Dick Diver and Nicole may be sufficiently distinctive (and their lives sufficiently symbolic of many disordered lives) to carry the weight of seriousness expected of them. With its emphasis upon psychiatry, the novel offers a case history of a rational man being destroyed by the forces of irrationality. Even so, there is much that is merely pathetic in Dick's giving up at thirty-eight, much that is contrived in Baby Warren's using of Dick, and much that is unconvincing in the “transference” that cures Nicole initially and hands her on to Tommy Barban at the end. Worst of all, the two central characters are flat, perhaps because Fitzgerald had worked too often with them under various guises in the past to be able to present them freshly and vividly.

Part of Dick Diver's lack of substance can be blamed upon Fitzgerald's tendency to shirk the full creation of his ideal characters—to create a shimmering surface and pass it off as having genuine substance. What would do for short fiction, what staggers a bit in The Beautiful and Damned, cannot bear the weight assigned to it in Tender Is the Night. In many respects, Dick Diver in the Rosemary episodes—whether that section comes first or second—is not the Dick Diver, medical student and psychiatrist, of the rest of the book. With Rosemary he is all surface, not because he has changed from his early days at Zurich, but because he is a simulacrum cut from any of dozens of stories projecting one aspect or another of Fitzgerald's romantic hero. There is a similar disconnection between Nicole as the wife of Dr. Diver and Nicole as the psychiatric patient who has been raped by her father. Fitzgerald was trying for something very hard to achieve. He was placing a deliberately glossy surface upon the Divers' life to create a sense of both mystery and worth. He had succeeded with Gatsby partly because Gatsby's very character required that he be left shadowy. He does not succeed in Tender Is the Night, where the necessary specification of character turns the novel into a somewhat chic story of the analyst who falls in love with his patient and the troubles to which that leads.

Whether the published edition or Fitzgerald's revised version is the better structure is a moot point. Neither one nor the other endows the central characters with magnitude or makes thecentral situation other than pathetic. Though the novel gains in directness and focus by placing the Diver story first, it loses much of the atmosphere and mystery brilliantly created in the Rosemary section. In both versions, the evidence of material written at different times in different moods and at different levels of inspiration is too often apparent.

There is simply too much hinted at, too little fulfilled. A novel about moral innocence coming into worldly awareness seems never to have completely left Fitzgerald's mind. It appears openly in the Rosemary section; it is often at the edge of Dick Diver's relationship with the Warrens and with Abe North; it appears in a comic way in the character of McKisco. Another novel, one like Thackeray's Vanity Fair but drawing seriously upon the confrontation of capitalism and communism, also runs through the material. The young man ruined by money, the young girl debauched by money, and the world debased by money are hinted at repeatedly. In the opposition of Dick Diver, the clergyman's son, to the Warrens, the Chicago exploiters, Fitzgerald has the makings of a novel which would use its characters to dramatize a larger conflict within American society. Still another novel is the introspective one which seems to assert its power when Fitzgerald becomes most intensely involved in the relationship between Dick and Nicole. Suggesting these possibilities helps explain why many critics regard Tender Is the Night as the richest of Fitzgerald's novels.

The reviews of Tender Is the Night were more favorable than unfavorable, but the book did not do well, either in restoring a measure of Fitzgerald's reputation or at the bookstores. It sold thirteen thousand copies, the least of any of Fitzgerald's novels.

II After Tender Is the Night

Disappointing as the reviews and the sales were, they were not unexpected. Fitzgerald's fees as a magazine writer had been dropping because of the Depression and because he was going somewhat out of fashion. The struggle to get a novel written had apparently not been so much one to reach the highest goals as to get the task done in a respectable fashion. “If I had one more crack at it cold sober,” he wrote, “I believe it might have made a great difference.”

But Fitzgerald was too much of a professional to be crushed by any response other than complete rejection. He began workalmost immediately on a historical novel about medieval life, The Count of Darkness, published in four installments in Red Book in 1934, 1935, and 1941. He also finished three stories and two articles and completed the compiling and proofing of Taps at Reveille for publication in March, 1935.

Most of the stories in Taps at Reveille have already been discussed—the Basil Duke Lee stories in Chapter I, the others in Chapter VII. The volume is the largest of Fitzgerald's collections and selects from a much larger group of stories. It is an important collection because it is the only one published in his lifetime which reveals his range. Of all Fitzgerald's books, however, Taps at Reveille received the least attention and sold most poorly. It deserved better, but a review by William Troy in The Nation was almost the only one to see its merits. Even that review said less about the stories than about Fitzgerald as a writer, and it ended by sententiously calling Fitzgerald's “moral vision” vague and immature. Troy was, however, sensitive to the quality of Fitzgerald's short fiction which still gives it distinction:

The problem of character, which is first and last the moral problem, is not popular with many writers of current fiction… What used to be called character has dissolved in the confused welter of uncoordinated actions, sensations, impressions, and physico-chemical reactions which currently passes for the art of fiction.

Mr. Fitzgerald, in his persistent concentration on “those fine moral decisions that people make in books” is fundamentally, therefore, an old-fashioned sort of story-teller. He has more in common, let us say, with George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad than with any of the more prominent members of his own generation.

Debt, cirrhosis of the liver, the fight to stay sober, and an attack of tuberculosis forced Fitzgerald closer to the wall in 1935 than he had ever been. He wrote of his crack-up in a dispassionate, precise style as brilliant as had appeared in any of his previous fiction. But from 1935 on, his fiction took a turn away from his earlier work, though at the very last he was working on The Last Tycoon as a novel which would make full use of what he had learned in writing both The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

Next: Chapter 9 The Crack-Up and After.

Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald (Twayne’s United States Authors Series #36) by Kenneth Eble (revised edition 1977, first edition 1963).