F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Kenneth Eble

Chapter 9
The Crack-Up and After

Three essays—“The Crack-Up,” “Pasting It Together,” and “Handle with Care,” which appeared in Esquire in February, March, and April, 1935—have done much to sustain Fitzgerald's reputation even as they described his actual decline. Though such undisguised self-revelation displeased his literary friends, the essays are of a piece with the self-dramatization that was Fitzgerald's strength. Whether they are precisely true, whether they conceal or mask the real condition, is beside the point. Like his best fiction, the essays have a truth to the character created in them. The delicate handling of the narrator as both observer and observed, the movement from awareness to a precise kind of bitterness, and the elegance of the prose are aesthetic values of a high order. Although presented as autobiography, they have the air of highly wrought and intensely felt fiction. They are justifiably famous; taken together, they constitute one of the superb short stories in American literature.

These essays are part of a good deal of writing Fitzgerald was able to do even when he was near the bottom of his physical and emotional resources. In 1936, he published eleven stories and sketches in the Post, the American Magazine, McCall's, and Esquire. From this point on, there was a sharp decline in the amount of writing and some falling off in quality, though Fitzgerald was not grossly exaggerating when he said he was incapable of writing anything really bad. The years 1938 and 1939 are clearly his leanest, for “Financing Finnegan” was the only published story to appear between January, 1938, and November, 1939. Then, as if the writer he described in the last “Crack-Up” essay had really emerged, another flurry of work produced six stories, the seventeen stories in the Pat Hobby series, and The Last-Tycoon, written in the last two years of his life.

The material of these last five years can be related to threemoods reflected in the “Crack-Up” essays. In the first essay, Fitzgerald describes his crack-up and contrasts his present self with various images of the “successful” writer he once was. In the second, he focuses on specific early disappointments which foreshadowed his later disintegration. In the third, he resolves to abandon any attempt to be a “sentient adult” and to become a writer only.

The first of these moods discloses itself in the autobiographical pieces: “Early Success” (1937), and those published in Esquire in 1936—“An Author's Mother,” “Author's House,” and “Afternoon of an Author.” Not quite fiction but not clearly autobiography, they gain strength from the direct and implied contrasts between the greatly successful author of the 1920's and the man in the mirror ten years later: “The perfect neurotic. By-product of an idea, slag of a dream.” How well Fitzgerald can capture his two selves and the feeling toward the one as toward the other, is displayed at the conclusion of “Author's House.” The author takes his guest up to the cupola—“the turret, the watch-tower, whatever you want to call it.”

It is small up there and full of baked silent heat until the author opens two of the glass sides that surround it and the twilight wind blows through. As far as your eye can see there is a river winding between green lawns and trees and purple buildings and red slums blended in by a merciful dusk. Even as they stand there the wind increases until it is a gale whistling around the tower and blowing birds past them.

“I lived up here once,” the author said after a moment.

“Here? For a long time?”

“No. For just a little while when I was young.”

“It must have been rather cramped.”

“I didn't notice it.”

“Would you like to try it again?”

“No. And I couldn't if I wanted to.”

The second of these moods appears briefly in a number of stories and sketches of the mid-1930's. Two Esquire stories published later in 1936, “I Didn't Get Over” and “Send Me in, Coach,” promise to be explicit accounts of two such failures, but choose to treat the announced subjects by implication only. Thus, the first is not so much about Fitzgerald's disappointment in not getting overseas during the war as it is about the snubs he suffered or thought he suffered all his life. Similarly, the second does not concern the young Fitzgerald yearning to provehimself on the football field; the scene is a boy's camp and the action is restricted to the rehearsal of a play in which the principal line is “So, coach, you think we cannot win without Playfair.” The impact of the story comes from the news which arrives during the rehearsal that the father of one of the boys has just shot himself.

The final mood is clearly evident in the large number of sketches and stories which seem cut off from Fitzgerald's feelings but which still disclose his craft as a writer. The Pat Hobby stories comprise the largest number of these. Beginning in Esquire in January, 1940, with 'Tat Hobby's Christmas Wish,” seventeen such stories—one a month—were published. These stories are remarkable for their almost complete detachment from feeling and, therefore, from the affective impulse of most of Fitzgerald's previous fiction. We do not sympathize with or condemn Pat Hobby, and we are not expected to. Nor, despite the continuing satire of Hollywood people and manners, are we aroused to feel strongly about either the people or the place. The attention is concentrated on the craft with which Fitzgerald manipulates his stuffed men and woman on his puppet stage as he runs Pat Hobby, the has-been Hollywood script writer, through a variety of temporary successes, deceptions, and ultimate defeats.

In one story, Pat repays an actor's snub by disclosing that the terrifyingly real war scene which made him famous gained its power because the actor was scared stiff when the episode was filmed on the studio lot. In another, Pat is revealed for the drunkard he is by someone's bringing in a sack of empty bottles Pat has been trying to dispose of secretly. In another, he arranges to take a girl to a preview of “his” movie. Though at first he is barred from the theatre, he gets in when the playwright who worked with him on the script walks out, leaving full credit to Pat. The picture is so bad that the playwright refuses to have anything to do with it. All the stories turn on the attempts of Pat Hobby to work his way into some kind of writing job. The clumsiness of his deceptions and his real innocence despite his imagined shrewdness betray him more often than not. Nevertheless, he never really becomes bitter nor do the powers in Hollywood ever quite lose their affection for him. The recent complete collection of Pat Hobby stories (Scribner's, 1962) is likely to bring too many of them before the reader at one time. Read singly, the stories leave the impression of minor but distinctive achievements.

Since the majority of the stories of these years draw heavily upon Fitzgerald's present or past experiences, most of the details of his life between 1935 and 1940 can be found in one story or another. The broken collarbone he suffered in a diving accident in July, 1936 (he was showing off for a nurse), appears in an Esquire story, “Design in Plaster,” written in July, 1938. “Financing Finnegan” treats directly and ironically the difficulties he presented for his literary agent, Harold Ober. “Trouble” (Post, 1937) is a hospital story, a typical Fitzgerald romance between a trained nurse nicknamed “Trouble” and a proper young doctor. “An Alcoholic Case” (Esquire, 1937) describes, from the nurse's point of view, the difficulties of taking care of an alcoholic cartoonist. “The Lost Decade” (Esquire, 1939) is a short sketch about an alcoholic who has literally lost ten years. “The Long Way Out,” reprinted in the recent Scribner's collection, is a brief, terrifying account of a woman who, like Zelda, is confined to a sanitarium. The hat which figures so prominently in that story is like one she was wearing in 1936, when, as Arthur Mizener described it, “the friend found her at the station, exquisitely dressed, a thoroughly sophisticated woman, except that she was wearing a hat like a child's bonnet with the strings carefully knotted under her chin.”

In structure, the stories of these last years fall into two groups: the very short, sketch-like stories, and the long stories which attempt to control a large body of material. The turn to the sketch and the weaknesses in the longer stories point to a major decline in Fitzgerald's ability to control the many events with which his long stories often swarm. “Too much about all sorts of major and minor irrelevancies,” one magazine editor wrote in rejecting a long story. Fitzgerald's last three long stories are “The End of Hate,” “Discard,” and “The Last Kiss.” “The End of Hate,” rejected several times before Collier's printed it in 1940, is a romantic Civil War story in which Rebel boy eventually wins Union girl. The germ of the story probably came from stories of the War told to Fitzgerald by his father. The other two, both published after his death (Harpers Bazaar, January, 1948; Colliers, April 16, 1949), are about Hollywood.

There are few good stories from these last years. The worst are plot stories like “Strange Sanctuary” (Liberty, 1939), “The Intimate Strangers” (McCall's, 1935), or “In the Holidays” (Esquire, 1937). Aside from the autobiographical pieces, only four stories from mid-1935 to 1941 have been put into collections.

Of these, the best single story is probably “Three Hours Between Planes” (Esquire, 1941), which makes the most of a small but pleasing idea, a comic variation on the theme of a man trying to regain a part of his past. The most intensely felt and the most brilliant writing is to be found in the autobiographical pieces, some of which may be regarded as fiction: “Author's House,” “Afternoon of an Author,” and “The Crack-Up” essays themselves.

I Fitzgerald's Last Years

Fitzgerald's life from 1935 on is one of continuing physical deterioration. Zelda's illness of the past five years had exhausted hope of her recovery. Now he had to face his own physical ills. The visit to the doctor described in “The Crack-Up” confronted him with evidence of active tuberculosis. His response was the retreat he so carefully described in that essay. The actual withdrawal was to Henderson, North Carolina, where he stayed a month, living very cheaply, as he wrote in his Ledger: “Today I am in comparative affluence, but Monday and Tuesday I had two tins of potted meat, three oranges and a box of Uneedas and two cans of beer.” He washed out his one shirt and two handkerchiefs in the washbowl at night. Debt hung over him. He wrote of being “not only thousands, nay tens of thousands in debt … less than forty cents cash in the world and probably a deficit at my bank.”

At Christmas time, 1935, he returned to Baltimore where he had been maintaining an apartment across from the Johns Hopkins campus. In April of the next year, Zelda Fitzgerald was placed in Highland Sanitarium near Asheville, North Carolina. Though she was able to visit outside the sanitarium and spent a considerable period with her mother in Montgomery, Alabama, after Fitzgerald's death, Highland was her permanent home until her death in the fire which destroyed the sanitarium in 1948. For most of 1936 and 1937, Fitzgerald lived in Asheville, trying to provide Zelda some respite from her confinement. He was still drinking heavily, still feeling a sense of disintegration; twice he tried to commit suicide.

In September, 1936, his mother died leaving him $42,000, a small part of which he already owed to the estate. Letters written to friends during this period reflect moods swinging between not giving a “good Goddam” and feeling freed for “other mischief such as work.” By June, 1937, he had made arrangements to go to M-G-M for six months at $1,000 a week. “The Garden of Allah,” Hollywood, became his temporary address.

Hollywood was probably more endurable for Fitzgerald at the end of his career than it had been earlier. Despite the fact that his work, early and late, attracted the attention of producers and directors, Fitzgerald never turned to Hollywood except for a quick assignment or, at the end, in desperation. His two earlier script assignments had been competently completed on his part, but neither picture was produced. Frustration of one kind or another marked his periods of Hollywood employment.

The Pat Hobby stories and even The Last Tycoon show a certain acceptance of Hollywood; Fitzgerald knows more about it but seems to care less. Almost all of the earlier stories about Hollywood are mildly or sharply satirical. “Zone of Accident” (Post, 1935) begins with the appearance of a Hollywood star in the emergency room of a Baltimore hospital, her back slashed from waist to shoulder. A central scene is a beauty contest seeking talent for Hollywood, which Fitzgerald describes in a sustained mood of great contempt. Though the story ends by bringing the young interne and the Hollywood star together, her decision to leave Hollywood, if she can find anything better, is probably not far from Fitzgerald's attitude over the years. The difficulty in 1937 was that there did not seem to be anything as good.

He worked on a good many scripts: Three Comrades, A Yank at Oxford, Infidelity, The Women, Madame Curie, and Gone with the Wind, but such work was piecemeal and frustrating to a writer who for so long had had complete responsibility for his work. The Pat Hobby stories and The Last Tycoon are the most important writings outside the work done for the movies. To the public, his sad trip to Dartmouth early in 1939 to make Winter Carnival and his love affair with Sheilah Graham are the notable events of these years. Each furnished the material for a best-selling book after Fitzgerald's death: The Disenchanted, by Budd Schulberg, and Beloved Infidel by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank. Neither book was worthy of its subject. To these aspects of his personal life should be added the relationship with his daughter; always a close one, it became even closer when Scotty became a Vassar student and interested in writing. The letters to her, in part collected in The Crack-Up, are not so much personal as literary ones—a putting of himself on record for himself, Scotty, and posterity.

The relationship between Fitzgerald and his daughter, as between Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham, brings out an important aspect of Fitzgerald's character. His legendary self conceals the fact that he was a bom teacher, a would-be scholar. “The fine quiet of the scholar,” he wrote in Tender Is the Night, “which is nearest of all things to heavenly peace.” We conjecture that his attraction to Sheilah Graham was in part the challenge of educating her. The reading lists he compiled for her, the books he provided, are a curious part of that romance. Similarly, the letters to Scotty are Fitzgerald's kind of pedantry brilliantly expressed:

Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you—like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist—or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore, around which pedants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations. The Grecian Urn is unbearably beautiful, with every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or it's just something you don't understand. It is what it is because an extraordinary genius paused at that point in history and touched it. I suppose I've read it a hundred times. About the tenth time I began to know what it was about, and caught the chime in it and the exquisite inner mechanics… For awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.

Through his first long stint in Hollywood—from June, 1937, to January, 1939—Fitzgerald was paying a fixed amount of his income toward retirement of a debt estimated at $40,000 in 1937. The period spent in Doctor's Hospital, New York, recounted by Schulberg in The Disenchanted, was followed by a longer one upon his returning to New York from a vacation in Cuba with Zelda in 1939. He broke off his long relationship with Harold Ober in summer partly as a result of a quarrel about an advance but also because of general difficulty in maintaining close personal relationships. By the end of September, 1939, he began to work on a novel, The Last Tycoon, which he left unfinished at his death. Colliers was talking of paying $25,000 or $30,000 for the serial rights, but neither Collier's nor the Post would commit themselves on the basis of the six thousand words he was able to show at that time. With debts pressing upon him and with no movie contract through 1939 and early 1940, he took time to write “The Last Kiss,” his last story. In April, 1940, he had a chance to work on the script of “Babylon Revisited,” which he had sold to the movies not long before. The movie was never produced, nor has the script, “The Cosmopolitan,” been published, although it is a very interesting revision of the original story.

A measure of Fitzgerald's difficulties in writing for the movies is disclosed in this note which prefaced “The Cosmopolitan” script: “This is an attempt to tell a story from a child's point of view without sentimentality. Any attempt to heighten the sentiment of the early scenes by putting mawkish speeches into the mouth of characters—in short by doing what is locally known as 'milking it,' will damage the force of the piece. … So whoever deals with this script is implored to remember that it is a dramatic piece—not a homey family story. Above all things, Victoria is a child—not Daddy's little helper who knows all the answers.”

II The Last Tycoon

The Last Tycoon, the novel Fitzgerald left unfinished at his death, was edited by Edmund Wilson and published by Scribner's the year after his death. It is an extensive fragment of about sixty thousand words shaped into six consecutive chapters and with extensive notes, outlines, and partially written sections filling out the design. Its publication was accompanied by a good many reviews hinting that only its incompleteness prevented it from being Fitzgerald's masterpiece.

As early as 1945, however, more judicious considerations of Fitzgerald's work modified such praise. In one critic's words, “its promise has been extravagantly overestimated for the most generous reasons by bis friends.” The Times Literary Supplement admitted that the novel had “a kind of distinction that clung to Fitzgerald's writing,” but its reviewer concluded that the “final version of The Last Tycoon would have been readable but thoroughly second-rate.” It is hard not to agree with the Times verdict. Perhaps the most that can be said is that Fitzgerald would probably have improved upon the completed chapters of the novel and enhanced the rather barren outline in finishing it.

The novel is, in some ways, a departure from Fitzgerald's previous work. It is set on a larger stage, and brings into the story a world affected by politics, labor strife, and ideology. Its examination of an industry—Hollywood's movie industry-promises to be more accurate and complete than that given topsychiatry in Tender Is the Night or to Long Island life of the 1920's in The Great Gatsby. The plot leans more heavily upon the intrigues, the economic struggles, and the contests for power than upon the personal struggles of a central character. The larger political issues which almost got into Tender Is the Night enter The Last Tycoon with the appearance of Brimmer, a member of the Communist party, who represents the militant demands of the union against the benevolent paternalism of Monroe Stahr.

In its intentions, at least, it may have been the most conscientious and informed novel to be written about Hollywood. But even that intent raises the question of whether a great novel is likely to result from a documentary study, and particularly from one of such a limited and artificial world as Hollywood. Despite all the care Fitzgerald took to make The Last Tycoon authentic, the novel seldom communicates the sense and feel of Hollywood in the way that such a partial, impressionistic novel as Nathanael West's Day of the Locust does.

In other respects, the novel can be compared with both The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. The choice of narrator, Cecilia Brady, is a return to the technique used in The Great Gatsby, but the character is imperfectly realized and simply shoved off the scene when it suits the author. There seems little evidence that, given her character and the situation in the novel, she could have given to the novel the unity of tone, the point of view, and the reflective moral center which so tightly creates The Great Gatsby.

The melodrama, which the general excellence of The Great Gatsby tends to minimize, seems destined to be an obvious and more important part of The Last Tycoon. What may be called Fitzgerald's “murderous fancies” make the whole last half of the novel revolve around Stahr's hiring of an assassin to kill his partner, Brady. It would have been difficult to bring off such extreme action in relation to the rest of the story—more difficult even than glossing over the contrivance in the accidental death of Myrtle Wilson.

Finally, the love story of The Last Tycoon is the Gatsby story once again. Here it is Stahr's memory of his deceased wife, Minna, that draws him to Kathleen. Unfortunately, Kathleen is visible, detailed, and specific; hers is not the shadowy reality given to Daisy. Considering that she must make the high passion of Stahr credible, she is, as created in the completed part of thenovel, fatally inadequate. “Where will the warmth come from,” Fitzgerald wrote in his notes. “My girls were all so warm and full of promise. What can I do to make it honest and different?”

The resemblances of The Last Tycoon to Tender Is the Night are to be found in the explicitness of detail. Though Fitzgerald imagined the finished novel as having about sixty thousand words, he had written seventy thousand words into less than the first half. As in Tender Is the Night, the canvas is larger, the cast of characters larger, and the purposes multiple rather than single. Though rewriting would undoubtedly have tightened it, it could hardly have resulted in the compactness of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald's writing seems to have undergone an irreversible change toward inclusion, specification, and elaboration; it was as if he no longer could rely on the magical evocative power of style that made The Great Gatsby do so much in so few words. The structure of The Last Tycoon, like that of Tender Is the Night, tends toward the creation of two insufficiently related stories, Stahr's love and Stahr's struggles in Hollywood. Finally, Monroe Stahr, like Dick Diver, suffers as a fictional character from being constantly urged into a greatness which the details of his past and his present actions fail to support. Since the author urges so much, the reader can hardly fail to be disappointed when the character succeeds in being only fitfully pathetic, never tragic, and at times something of a bore.

Of The Last Tycoon, we are forced to admit as true what Fitzgerald said of it: “It is an escape into a lavish, romantic past that perhaps will not come again in our time.” It is curious that this admission came at the end of a long summary of the story in which he claimed it would be more like The Great Gatsby than Tender Is the Night. He seems to have passed over the fact that Gatsby is not an escape into a romantic past, but an intense examination of the attractiveness and yet the impossibility of that escape. What Fitzgerald proposes in The Last Tycoon is to give substance to the visions of The Great Gatsby and to try to make them solid, true, and interesting.

It is too much to ask that F. Scott Fitzgerald cap the successes of his youth and compensate for the failure of his last years with his greatest work. It would be too much like a second-rate Fitzgerald story. Yet, it is entirely right that Fitzgerald was working so hard and so seriously at his craft when he died. There is more than mere vanity in his letter to his daughter six months before his death: “I am not a great man but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur.” All the pathos of his career is found in another letter of the same period: “I wish I was in print.”

Next: Chapter 10 Final Assessment.

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