F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Kenneth Eble

Chapter 10
Final Assessment

By the measure of scholarly articles generated by American fiction writers of the twentieth century, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald are the big three. Faulkner is clearly the leader with 140 items in the 1974 Modern Language Association International Bibliography; Hemingway has 78, and Fitzgerald 47 (down from 59 in 1973). Faulkner, in fact, has passed Melville (111), Henry James (94), Hawthorne (88), and Mark Twain (61); and he leads all American writers in this kind of popularity. Among all twentieth-century American writers, poets and dramatists as well as novelists, T. S. Eliot (102), Frost (76), and Pound (66) were the leaders.

Fifty years after the publication of The Great Gatsby, this is select literary company for Fitzgerald to be in. By now, revival of interest in his life and work is too solidly established to be reversed. When Arthur Mizener's The Far Side of Paradise and Alfred Kazin's F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work were published in 1951, these works marked the first resurgence of interest in Fitzgerald after his death in 1940. The Fitzgerald Newsletter, begun as a mimeographed sheet in 1958, had developed into a hardcover Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual by 1969. Its editor, Matthew J. Bruccoli, and many of the young scholars published in the Newsletter mark a second phase of interest in Fitzgerald's work, one which carried through into the 1960's. Andrew Turnbull's biography in 1962 expanded the details of the Fitzgeralds' lives, as did his publication of Letters the following year.

With the 1970's, a broadening interest appeared in the increasing number of memoirs and articles devoted to Fitzgerald, to the figures around him, or to his work. The women's movement helped focus attention on Zelda, the subject of Nancy Milford's detailed biography in 1970; and many important details of both Zelda's and Scott's personalities, backgrounds, and relationships with others have emerged from recent books and articles. Nonetheless, the continuing attention devoted to the Fitzgeralds' lives has not changed the basic picture that emerged in the major biographical works published in the 1950's and 1960's. Fitzgerald's story contributes more than most to the classic story of a boy from the provinces whose talents brought him fame and temporary fortune. That the story in the harsh fates of both Zelda and Scott seems to also carry a stern moral adds to its impact.

As the 1920's become more distant from us, the Fitzgeralds' lives cannot escape being affected by that distance. There has always been something mythic about them, and Fitzgerald's works are now experiencing a careful examination by critics drawn to the mythic in literature. Such criticism may arrive at a more successful merging of life and works than previous criticism. The legend of Fitzgerald's romantic life answers a need for an American mythic artist hero. Beneath that myth and woven into many of Fitzgerald's works are those myths of youth and beauty and destroying time, of searching and striving, of conflict between forces of good and evil which were the staples of fiction long before Fitzgerald arrived to make his own distinguished contribution.

After the 1960's, there has been little waning of interest in Fitzgerald's life and works. For the general public, the movie version of The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford following Alan Ladd (1949) and Warner Baxter (1926) as Jay Gatsby, reached the widest audience. The television presentation, Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, followed a familiar pattern of covering the whole of Fitzgerald's career, though it ostensibly focused on his years in Hollywood. Previous television productions have included The Great Gatsby, The Last Tycoon, “The Last of the Belles,” “Winter Dreams,” and “The Rich Boy.” The movie, Tender Is the Night, can still be seen occasionally on television. The Last Tycoon is in production as this chapter is being written.

Fitzgerald's work has also continued to be published and republished. Among the most interesting publications of the 1970's are the Bodley Head Bits of Paradise which contains eleven uncollected stories by Scott Fitzgerald and all of Zelda Fitzgerald's short stories, edited by Scottie Fitzgerald Smith and Matthew J. Bruccoli in 1973; Jackson Bryer and John Kuehl have edited and published The Basil and Josephine Stories (1973) and F. Scott Fitzgerald: In His Own Time, a collection of previously uncollected miscellaneous material by and aboutFitzgerald. The most recent reprint of a Fitzgerald work is Scribner's edition of his play, The Vegetable, which had been out of print since its first publication in 1923. Scribner's has kept all of Fitzgerald's novels and collections of short stories in print in paperbound editions. (All the Sad Young Men and Tales of the Jazz Age provided selections for Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories.) According to Matthew Bruccoli, sales of all of Fitzgerald's works published by Scribner's have increased from seventy-two copies in 1940, the year of his death, to a steady half million copies a year since 1966.

While much of this publishing has been in response to the general popularity of Fitzgerald and his work, Fitzgerald's reputation among scholars and critics is as strongly evidenced by a continuing flow of scholarly publications. Articles of substance written since the first edition of this book have been added to the selected bibliography at the end of this volume. In addition, Matthew Bruccoli's definitive bibliography, facsimile editions of the manuscript of The Great Gatsby and of The Ledger, and Scribner's handsomely produced edition of the Scrapbooks and Notebooks greatly extend the possibilities for examining Fitzgerald's practices and development as a writer.

Although Fitzgerald's life has long had a fascination not precisely tied to his literary standing, the number and quality of published biographical materials are of a kind accorded to only a few modern American authors. In addition to major biographies and critical studies, Fitzgerald's letters have been available in Turnbull's edition since 1963. Since that date, separate volumes have been published that bring together Fitzgerald's correspondence with his editor, his agent, and his daughter. The memoirs that continue to appear are of a mixed character; for, fairly considered, they satisfy curiosity more than they contribute to an assessment of his literary standing. Some, like Tony Buttitta's After the Good Gay Times (1974), make too much of a brief personal acquaintance. Others, like Sheilah Graham's The Real Scott Fitzgerald (1976), repeat some of what already is known but still contribute to our knowledge of Fitzgerald as a person and as a writer.

Even now, as in his lifetime, Fitzgerald appears as both a serious writer and a notable American figure identified with the popular fiction he wrote. His work continues to enjoy great favor, perhaps because he is less mannered than Hemingway, less demanding than Faulkner, and less ponderous than a dozennovelists in the Naturalistic tradition. He, Hemingway, and Faulkner are likely to remain the most interesting and rewarding of American fiction writers between the two World Wars.

I A Review of Fitzgerald Criticism

Fitzgerald's present status should be set against his varying fortunes from the publication of his first book to the present. Alfred Kazin's collection of criticism, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Man and His Work (World, 1951), provides a good many of the documents for that study. [The collection, however, is somewhat misleading in dating the essays by the date of their inclusion in book form rather than by the date of their first appearance. It is important to a close study of Fitzgerald's development as a writer and personality to know that Edmund Wilson's The Delegate from Great Neck appeared April 30, 1924 (New Republic), not 1926, and that Wilson's Spotlight in The Bookman appeared in 1922, not 1925.] The rest are to be found in the newspapers and magazines which reviewed Fitzgerald's works.

This Side of Paradise is such a part of the Fitzgerald legend that its success in 1920 is often exaggerated. Certainly it did well for a first novel, but its successful run was not a long one. Though it reached fourth place on the Publishers' Weekly bestseller list in July, 1920, it had dropped to eighth by September; by the next month, it had disappeared. Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, published the same year, was a top seller for sixteen months between 1920 and 1923. The attention given This Side of Paradise was the kind accorded to any number of novels and novelists in any year of publishing. In 1925, for example, the New York Times Book Review pointed out that by actual count among the better reviewers, there were 137 best novels of the year. What made This Side of Paradise stand out was Fitzgerald's simultaneous development as a writer of popular magazine fiction who was apparently living the very life he described.

By the time of the publication of The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald's notoriety had increased greatly. Though the novel was reviewed more harshly, the harshness was usually tempered with mention of promising talent waiting to fulfill itself. Through almost all the reviews, the comments about the book were fewer than those about F. Scott Fitzgerald, the interpreter of the younger generation. The one notable exception was Edmund Wilson's essay in The Bookman, March, 1922.

This review is so much to the point about Fitzgerald the writer that it might have been written from the perspective of seeing his entire career. “He has been given imagination without intellectual control of it …” Wilson's bluntest paragraph of criticism begins. Later in the essay, he emphasizes the salient points about Fitzgerald's work that all later critics needed to recognize: his feeling for the Middle West; the duality in his Irish temperament; the presence of gaiety and style in his work. Certainly, Fitzgerald paid attention throughout his career to what Wilson said and would continue to say.

The only other review of distinction written about Fitzgerald before The Great Gatsby was an essay by Paul Rosenfeld in 1924. Rosenfeld was, with Edmund Wilson, Mencken, and John Peale Bishop, a reviewer whom Fitzgerald respected. His review of Fitzgerald's stories and novels through Tales of the Jazz Age centers on the charge that “too oftentimes his good material eludes him.” But, as if asking for what he was to get in The Great Gatsby, Rosenfeld concludes: “He has seen his material from its own point of view, and he has seen it completely from without. But he has never done what the artist does: seen it simultaneously from within and without; and loved it and judged it, too.” One conjectures that the essay might have been in Fitzgerald's mind when he wrote Edmund Wilson about The Great Gatsby: “I wonder what Rosenfeld thought of it?”

Considering the almost uniform praise it has received in the past decade, The Great Gatsby fared badly at the time of its publication. Fitzgerald was not merely being peevish when he wrote to John Peale Bishop, “Thank you for your most pleasant, full, discerning and helpful letter about The Great Gatsby. It is about the only criticism that the book has had which has been intelligible.” What may have been more discouraging than the reviews was the rapidity with which the book disappeared as a novel of unusual merit. Rebecca West, writing in The Bookman in 1928, was almost the only writer to turn back to The Great Gatsby in full appreciation of it between its publication and its inclusion in The Modern Library in 1934. Obviously, The Great Gatsby did not succeed in establishing Fitzgerald as an important writer in the ten years after its publication.

The miscellaneous work of 1925 to 1934 added little to Fitzgerald's reputation. It is not surprising that Tender Is the Night was reviewed either as a pathetic attempt to breathe life into material Fitzgerald had exhausted in the 1920's, or as a book which marked the reappearance of a writer long regarded as finished. The reviews were generally more unfavorable than the reviews of any other Fitzgerald novel. Even the favorable reviews were disappointed that the novel was not better. The longer reviews, as could be expected, expended as many words in looking back upon Fitzgerald's career as in examining the novel at hand. But neither Tender Is the Night nor Taps at Reveille provoked the kind of lengthy and serious examination of Fitzgerald's work which has become a commonplace since World War II.

Fitzgerald's death in 1940 and the publication of The Last Tycoon the next year stimulated a number of short but discerning observations about his work. Sentiment accounts for the almost entirely favorable reaction to The Last Tycoon, but the essays in The New Republic in 1941 by Malcolm Cowley and Glenway Wescott began to build the solid ground on which Fitzgerald's present reputation rests. The sales of The Crack-Up in 1945 caused Publishers' Weekly to hint at a Fitzgerald revival. Sometime between the beginning of World War II and its close, Fitzgerald began to return to popularity and to receive more critical attention.

The first serious articles to appear in a literary quarterly were the two in the Virginia Quarterly Review: “The Missing All,” by John Peale Bishop (Winter, 1937), and “Invite with Gilded Edges,” by Charles Weir, Jr. (Winter, 1944). It is indicative of Fitzgerald's state at the time of this article and after that he regarded it as an attack upon him: “a nice return for ten years of trying to set him up in a literary way,” he wrote in 1940. In 1945, Viking Press included Fitzgerald's work among their Portables, and that same year saw articles in Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Commonweal, Accent, and The Yale Review. The publication of The Crack-Up provided the occasion, but the essays were lengthier, more penetrating, and more affectionate than called for by the ordinary review. From that time on, the Fitzgerald revival moved briskly along, the “revival” itself becoming the specific subject for articles in The Kenyon Review (Summer, 1951), The Freeman (November 5, 1951), South Atlantic Quarterly (January, 1955), and The Australian Quarterly (June, 1957).

The growth of literary scholarship both in America and abroad is a phenomenon of the 1960's, and scholarly attention to Fitzgerald probably owes as much to the general growth of academic publishing as to specific rising interest in Fitzgerald. Kazin's collection of critical articles in 1951 was followed by Arthur Mizener's F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays (1963) and by my own F. Scott Fitzgerald: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973). The Great Gatsby itself occasioned a collection of critical articles edited by Ernest Lockridge (1968) and two research anthologies. It seems fair to say that criticism of Fitzgerald through the 1960's was uncommonly interesting. Fitzgerald's work seems to provoke other writers into responding to it, and good critics continue to be attractedto his work out of respect for his prose style and storyteller's art. As more and more criticism has accumulated (over 1500 articles have been published about him and his work since 1941), it is not surprising to find that many recent articles are concerned with small matters and that more substantial efforts may consist of subjecting a Fitzgerald work to some currently fashionable critical technique or bias. As we have noted, the women's movement has justifiably revived an interest in Zelda and her work (Save Me the Waltz is once more easily available), just as an attention to myth has provoked articles which see Fitzgerald's works from a particularly illuminating perspective. The Great Gatsby continues to draw the greatest amount of critical attention. That novel's stature has steadily increased since the 1950's, and its continuing sales have been phenomenal— 3,500,000 copies in Scribner's editions alone. Among foreign critics, Fitzgerald has aroused less interest than has either Hemingway or Faulkner; but his reputation is nevertheless international. The Great Gatsby again leads the list of his translated works, having been translated into thirty-three languages. Although Sergio Perosa's L'Arte di F. Scott Fitzgerald (1960; translated 1965) is the only non-English critical book of which I am aware, Fitzgerald's novels and stories have been translated into most of the world's major languages, and a body of critical work is beginning to appear in Japan, India, and the European countries in which there is a strong interest in American literature.

II Final Appraisal

By now, the solid claim upon which Fitzgerald's reputation is based have been made by dozens of critics who have also recognized his weaknesses. Almost from the beginning of serious interest in Fitzgerald, he was praised as a social historian of his time and of the upper middle class. He has, moreover, been accorded more respect in recent years for the breadth and depth of his view. Few critics fail to recognize that his attempt to define “the rich” was a legitimate and peculiarly appropriate subject for an American writer. Nor is it often urged now that he was unable to see the subject clearly because the sight of money distorted his vision. Money and American manners are inextricably linked. The literary respectability of the novel of manners has increased since the 1930's, and Fitzgerald has beenplaced with Edith Wharton and Henry James as a very shrewd observer of American society.

Second, Fitzgerald's subconscious awareness of American values has been increasingly emphasized in recent criticism. The Great Gatsby has been separated from the specifics of Jazz Age life on Long Island and has become a profound commentary upon modern America as a descendant of a romantic, frontier past in which idealism is as strong a component as materialism. In Gatsby, in Anthony Patch, in Dick Diver, Fitzgerald has questioned the adequacy of present America to sustain its heroic past. More than that, in his “fable of East and West,” Fitzgerald has opposed the American past and present in terms of the creation of a contemporary ethic in the pastoral West and the debasement of that ethic in the industrial East.

Third, Fitzgerald's moral awareness has enhanced his claim to be taken seriously as a novelist. The Great Gatsby is the central novel of the 1920's to assert a staunch moral point of view based on a sense of “fundamental decencies” against a morality based solely on power and position. Despite the pessimism and determinism which run through his work, Fitzgerald still sees man as capable not only of choice but of a vision superior to what he himself may be. Few readers can escape the effect of the “ordering” of his novels which comes from his strong moral sense. There is little of the naturalist in Fitzgerald's treatment of character, and his reputation probably profits from his disconnection from literary naturalism and his hewing to the moral line which runs through the best American writing.

Fourth, the immediacy of Fitzgerald's writing has not vanished with the passing of time. Though many of his popular stories have gained favor by the nostalgia they now create for the most colorful period of the recent past, they have also gained because he re-created the past with extraordinary clarity. Whether a reader responds with the instinctive passion for that which can be seen, felt, and heard, or is impressed with the way Fitzgerald's particulars evoke a larger reality, he arrives at a respect for Fitzgerald's ability to make a time, a place, a person, “live.”

Fifth, and related to the above, Fitzgerald's style impresses any reader with more than a passing interest in writing. One of the contributions of recent scholarship is to make widely available manuscript materials which show the care with which Fitzgerald fashioned phrase and sentence and paragraph. TheGreat Gatsby manuscript and “The Note-Books,” published in Edmund Wilson's The Crack-Up, shed much light about how Fitzgerald worked. The movement and clarity of his sentences, the aptness of his phrases, and the poetic quality of his prose are marks of his style. Even his poor stories are often partially redeemed by sentences or paragraphs of excellent writing. Sustained throughout a novel, as in The Great Gatsby, or in a section, as in the Rosemary section of Tender Is the Night,, Fitzgerald's style reaches that excellence few prose writers and not many more poets ever reach. Moreover, the style is in the mainstream of English literary development; it impresses, not because it is intensely original or eccentric, but because it is a graceful, lucid, and highly evocative prose almost as easily connected with Dryden as with Joseph Conrad.

Finally, and no small virtue, Fitzgerald is a good storyteller, though not in the same sense that Sherwood Anderson is a good teller of tales. Rather, Fitzgerald is a storyteller concerned not only with the story as “life” or “truth” but the story as “art.” This fact is easily lost sight of in the hundred or so stories turned out for the popular magazines and in the numerous retellings of the same basic stories. But, despite both of these detractions, Fitzgerald's fiction is replete with stories interesting in themselves and artfully put down. If he narrates or is concerned with only one story—Fitzgerald claimed writers really have only one-it is a story turned around and around to see it from this side and that so that one listens again and again. Though he liked to think of himself as a novelist (perhaps for somewhat the same reasons as his dream of himself as a rich man), his novels are often weaker in total effect than the stories of which they are made. The short story was obviously congenial to his temperament as a writer, and it may well be that his short stories will be the supporting evidence—The Great Gatsby is Exhibit A—of his lasting claim to attention.

It is worth adding that there is joy in Fitzgerald's work that should not be ignored when dwelling upon profundities, complexities, and tragic implications. Edmund Wilson early described this joyous characteristic as a “quality exceedingly rare among even the young American writers of the day: he is almost the only one among them who has any real lighthearted gaiety.” Recognizing that quality and acknowledging its worth may draw attention to the variety to be found in a writer who is commonly charged with having had a narrow range. It alsoadds to the dimensions of The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, those novels that do most to maintain Fitzgerald's reputation as a serious writer. Not only theme and technique distinguish these novels, but flashes of brilliance, comic as well as tragic, illuminate individual scenes.

His weaknesses are obvious. His range is narrow; his works of great excellence also few. The tragic view often results in the merely pathetic effect. Sentimentality mars his poor work and threatens his best work. The surface is often so shimmering that it conceals the depths—and the lack of depth—beneath. His style is admirable; but, though Fitzgerald claimed to see a stamp set upon all he wrote, it lacks the distinctive qualities which make Hemingway's style an influential one and which make Faulkner's capable of such powerful effects. At its worst, Fitzgerald's style shades off into fine writing; when practiced casually, into competent but undistinguished prose. He is too lucid in unimportant matters and too divided when writing most seriously to achieve a high, serious art. “Waste” is the pejorative term which defines his life and work—waste of talent, and waste of situations, characters, and feelings on writing done to make possible the wasted hours of his life. Finally his work is uninformed by any philosophy other than that residing in a youthful romanticism he could never abandon.

These strictures are not sufficient to disallow Fitzgerald's claim to a distinguished place in modern American writing. Above all, he has the strong alliance of the amateur reader and the professional literary man—student, scholar, and writer—to keep his reputation secure. For he seldom failed to live up to that sole obligation which Henry James said we should require of the novel—that it be interesting. And he never failed to be aware of his own observation about his contemporaries: “that material, however closely observed, is as elusive as the moment in which it has its existence unless it is purified by an incorruptible style and by the catharsis of a passionate emotion.”

The End.

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