“Believe me, Bunny, it meant more to me than it could possibly have meant to you to see you that evening. It seemed to renew old times… .”—Fitzgerald to Wilson
Mencken, Lardner, and Hemingway left strong impressions on Fitzgerald's imagination during specific stages of his career. Yet their influence was passing. Wilson's endured. From the beginning he offered Fitzgerald guidance and encouragement, and he did much to infuse into the fledgling novelist a feeling of self-confidence and assurance. Later, he provided professional counsel that significantly affected the course of Fitzgerald's development. Finally, after Fitzgerald's death Wilson became unofficial custodian of his friend's reputation and defender of Fitzgerald's claim to posthumous recognition. Such, briefly stated, were Wilson's contributions to Scott Fitzgerald's literary achievement. That achievement would certainly have been different— and possibly of a lesser order-had it not been for theWilson-Fitzgerald companionship, which had its beginning on the tree-shaded campus of Princeton just before World War I.
Fitzgerald came to Princeton full of extracurricular and social ambitions. Christian Gauss, at the time professor of languages and literature and a keen observer of the undergraduates who drew his attention, recalled years later the young Fitzgerald's fascination with the “operatic pageantry” of prewar Princeton and his intense longing to be a Big Man on Campus. The most important part of Fitzgerald's program, it seems, was to become a popular figure, a football hero, and a member of the most prestigious eating club on Prospect Street. These are understandable aspirations in a seventeen-year-old boy from St. Paul, Minnesota. And Princeton, with its numerous extracurricular activities and opportunities for social enrichment, seemed admirably suited to the purpose. Years later, Edmund Wilson expressed regret for the emphasis on “country-house social prestige” that Princeton inspired in the minds of its undergraduates. He felt that Fitzgerald had to some extent fallen victim to the attraction of such nonacademic distinctions.
Yet Fitzgerald's experience as a college student was to be quite different from what he had hoped for—and far more rewarding. He found at Princeton an animated circle of young men absorbed in the study of modern literature and earnestly engaged in developing their talents as writers. Fitzgerald's interest in writing and his awareness of his own lack of sophistication drew him to this group. Although his own knowledge of literature was extremely limited, he had an abiding taste for undergraduate discussions of art and aesthetics, and he participated spiritedly in the sessions presided over by Gauss. The young Midwesterner apparently sensed his own inadequacies as a man of culture; and it wasthis feeling that first prompted him to seek the company of the more confident John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson.
Later on, Fitzgerald and his friends--T. K. Whipple, Wilson, Bishop, and John Biggs-did frequent duty, both as editors and contributors, for the Princeton undergraduate publications. They also wrote for the Triangle Club and acted in its productions. Aside from their parts in these activities, they took the same courses together, held numerous dormitory bull sessions, and before long attracted the attention of fellow students and faculty members alike, who recognized them as a gifted and energetic group, self sufficient, talented, and marked for distinction.
From the evidence of what they produced during those years, it is clear that they also gained valuable experience. Courses in creative writing were then unknown; Fitzgerald and his comrades learned by practice, and they constantly revived themselves at the fount of their own enthusiasm and mutual interest. At the same time, whatever they achieved on the campus had nothing to do with family connections or membership in one of the miniature Princeton country clubs. Instead, admission to this select fraternity was based on ability. “Exceptional talent must create its own public at Princeton,” Fitzgerald once commented, “as it must in life.” Fitzgerald and his college chums had been caught up in the spirit that heralded the intense vitality of the productive twenties. Princeton was only one among several Eastern campuses during this period that witnessed a quickening of literary activity, a revived buzz and hum of animation that predicted the extraordinary creativity of the approaching decade.
Wilson had been associated with the Nassau Lit from the time of his first year at Princeton (1912-1913). During the early months of Fitzgerald's sophomore year, Wilson, then a junior, urged his friend to submit manuscripts to themagazine. Shortly afterwards Fitzgerald showed Wilson “Shadow Laurels” (a play) and “The Ordeal” (a story). Wilson published both of these in the Lit for April and June of that year (1915). Before their appearance Wilson had corrected his friend's faulty spelling and punctuation and, in Wilson's term, “trimmed” his phrases. This encouragement and interest on Wilson's part had important results. Initial publication in Princeton's literary magazine was a decisive step in Fitzgerald's career as a writer, for it marked an important stage in his transition from amateur to professional.
This transition extended over a period of eight or nine years, starting in Fitzgerald's childhood in St. Paul and culminating in Scribner's decision to publish This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald, it is clear, had a strong literary inclination from an early age: he wrote scripts for a number of home-town theatricals and contributed stories to prep-school magazines, on one of which he served as associate editor. These facts immediately dispel the notion that Wilson—or anyone else—started Fitzgerald on his way toward becoming a writer. No such claim is made here. But Wilson did start his friend on a course that proved valuable and that would carry Fitzgerald (as the novelist later remarked) “full swing into my career.” For one thing, association with Wilson, both professional and social, gave Fitzgerald a sense of participation in an intellectual and literary milieu. A letter Fitzgerald wrote shortly after he left Princeton suggests his feeling of close affinity with the group of undergraduates who clustered around the Lit: “So the short, swift chain of the Princeton intellectuals, Brooke's [Fitzgerald's spelling is preserved in all quotations in this and subsequent chapters.]clothes, clean ears and withall, a lack of mental prigishness … Whipple,Wilson, Bishop, Fitzgerald … have passed along the path of the generation… .”
Secondly, Fitzgerald's publications in the college magazine, which continued after Wilson had left Princeton, attracted critical and popular attention of the kind usually accorded a professional writer. As early as 1917, Katherine Fullerton Brush and William Rose Benet wrote critical reviews in the Daily Princetonian praising Fitzgerald's work for the Lit. At the same time, editors who served on undergraduate publications in other Eastern colleges were mentioning Fitzgerald in their columns as a writer of talent and promise.[For this information I am indebted to an unpublished doctoral dissertation (University of Pennsylvania, 1950) by Henry Dan Piper, Scott Fitzgerald and the Origins of the Jazz Age.”]
Finally, Fitzgerald used much of the material written for the Lit in later magazine stories and in sections of This Side of Paradise. “The Ordeal,” originally accepted by Wilson, appeared in revised form as part of “Benediction,” a story published in The Smart Set and later included in Flappers and Philosophers. Later Lit stories and plays, written under the editorships of Bishop and John Biggs, underwent similar transmutation and progress. “The Debutante” and “Babes in the Woods,” done for the Lit in 1917, were reprinted in The Smart Set two years later. “Tarquin of Cheepside” [sic], which appeared in the college magazine in 1917, was revised for The Smart Set in 1921 and was included in the collection Tales of the Jazz Age in 1922. “The Spire and the Gargoyle,” Nassau Lit, 1917, was later incorporated into This Side of Paradise, as were “Babes in the Woods” and “The Debutante.”
As an undergraduate, then, Fitzgerald entered into a kind of literary activity that gradually developed into theearly stages of his career as a professional writer. Wilson's part in this crucial transition period should not be underestimated; it was Bishop who initiated Fitzgerald into the college writing community, but it was Wilson who confirmed his position as an active, contributing member.
Fitzgerald's creative efforts at Princeton were not confined to the Nassau Lit. In addition to his activities on the editorial staff of the Tiger—to which he had been elected in his junior year—he also contributed lyrics and some of the dialogue for two musicals produced by the Triangle Club. On one of these, The Evil Eye, he collaborated with Wilson. “I am sick of it myself,” Wilson wrote Fitzgerald during an early stage of its composition. “Perhaps you can infuse into it some of the fresh effervescence of youth for which you are so justly celebrated.”
Wilson wrote in another vein after Fitzgerald had received news (in 1916) of his academic failure. Together with Bishop, Wilson produced for the Lit a free-verse summary of Fitzgerald's years at college:
I was always clever enough
To make the clever upperclassmen notice me;
I could make one poem by Browning,
One play by Shaw,
And part of a novel by Meredith
Go further than most people
Could do with the reading of years;
And I could always be cynically amusing at the expense
Of those who were cleverer than I
And from whom I borrowed freely,
But whose cleverness
Was not the kind that is effective
In the February of sophomore year…
No doubt by senior year
I would have been on every committee in college,
But I made one slip:
I flunked out in the middle of junior year.
The Wilson-Bishop lampoon climaxed a year that was full of disappointments for Fitzgerald. His concentration on extracurricular activities had put him far behind in his studies; an attack of malaria confined him for long periods to a bed in the school infirmary. Late in the semester he left Princeton, partly because of poor health and partly because he rightly assumed that he was in danger of flunking out at the end of the term.
But the following September, Fitzgerald was back at Princeton to begin his junior year over again. Wilson, in the meantime, had been graduated the previous June and had set up bachelor quarters on Eighth Street in New York City. Here Fitzgerald visited him the next winter. “I was still an undergraduate at Princeton,” the novelist wrote fifteen years later, remembering his afternoon with Wilson, “while he had become a New Yorker.” To Fitzgerald, Wilson had become “the metropolitan spirit” incarnate—the cosmopolitan literary sophisticate in his natural habitat:
…that night, in Bunny's apartment, life was mellow and safe, a finer distillation of all that I had come to love at Princeton. The gentle playing of an oboe mingled with city noises from the street outside, which penetrated into the room with difficulty through great barricades of books… . I had found a third symbol of New York and I began wondering about the rent of such apartments and casting about for the appropriate friends to share one with me.
In such ways did Wilson fire Fitzgerald's imagination and stimulate his ambition to become a man of letters. He was a friend whose judgment Fitzgerald valued; he helped establish Fitzgerald firmly in the transitional phase of hiscareer; he edited and corrected Fitzgerald's manuscripts; he collaborated with Fitzgerald on a literary project; he gave Fitzgerald a taste of active membership in a community of practicing writers; he acted as self-appointed critic of Fitzgerald's attitudes and pretensions; and immediately after his graduation he became a representative figure: he epitomized all that was admirable in the cultured, self-assured gentleman-writer—an image that Fitzgerald, as we shall see presently, attempted to emulate. These are formative elements in the Wilson-Fitzgerald relationship that look forward to the mature association of later years, when Wilson played an important part in Fitzgerald's development as a disciplined craftsman and literary stylist.
It should be understood, however, that Wilson did not occupy a position of pre-eminence among the many friends Fitzgerald made at Princeton. The latter's admiration for men such as Father Fay, Shane Leslie, John Peale Bishop, and Henry Strater was as considerable; and their impact on This Side of Paradise was more immediate. From each of these companions Fitzgerald learned valuable lessons, though he never became a “disciple” of any one of them— including Wilson. There was nothing slavish or over-dependent in any of his friendships.
Still, Wilson remained an undeniable force in Fitzgerald's life. Shortly after leaving college, both men served in the Armed Forces—Fitzgerald as an infantry lieutenant stationed in various Army camps in the South and Midwest, and Wilson as a sergeant with the A.E.F. in France. Separated as they were, they exchanged frequent letters that contained news of their own current literary projects and those of close friends. Fitzgerald was devoting off-duty weekends to a novel he had begun before leaving Princeton. Early in 1918 he sent Wilson a description of this work in progress, including a tentative title page:
THE ROMANTIC EGOTIST
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
CHAS. SCRIBNER'S SONS (MAYBE!)
This is a reference to an early version of This Side of Paradise.
Fitzgerald was discharged from military service in February, 1919. Soon afterwards he established himself in New York; he was in earnest now about becoming a writer; he would try his hand in the literary capital. But instead of the immediate success he had envisioned, he encountered only frustration and disappointment. His ambition of the moment was to work for one of the metropolitan newspapers; he hoped to “trail murderers by day and write short stories by night.” But no newspaper would hire him, and his stories were rejected, one after another, by the magazines. He took a job with an advertising agency, writing slogans for obscure commercial enterprises in which he had no interest. And he decorated the walls of his room in upper Manhattan with one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips.
The impatience of Fitzgerald's fiancee, Zelda Sayre, gave his desire for success additional urgency; she had repeatedly expressed her reluctance to marry an advertising clerk who made ninety dollars a month. But although the prospect of losing Zelda added poignancy to his seeming failure that spring, Fitzgerald was equally depressed by the collapse of his dream of becoming a part of “the metropolitan spirit.” In an autobiographical essay written in 1932 he recalled the circumstances which interfered with his plan to become a literary gentleman in the style of Edmund Wilson:
When I got back to New York in 1919, I was so entangled in life that a period of mellow monasticism in WashingtonSquare was not to be dreamed of. The thing was to make enough money in the advertising business to rent a stuffy apartment for two in the Bronx. The girl concerned had never seen New York but she was wise enough to be rather reluctant. And in a haze of anxiety and unhappiness I passed the four most impressionable months of my life.
In his disillusioned frame of mind, Fitzgerald was particularly susceptible to the atmosphere of cynicism which consistently intruded upon his naive and optimistic expectations:
One by one my great dreams of New York became tainted. The remembered charm of Bunny's apartment faded with the rest when I interviewed a blowsy landlady in Greenwich Village. She told me I could bring girls to my room, and the idea filled me with dismay—why should I want to bring girls to my room?—I had a girl. … I was a failure-mediocre at advertising work and unable to get started as a writer. Hating the city, I got roaring, weeping drunk on my last penny and went home… .
From this account and others in similar vein, it is obvious that Fitzgerald looked on this period of his life as totally unprofitable. But there was a notable exception to his pattern of failure. Sometime during that spring of 1919 he was introduced to George Jean Nathan, then coeditor with H. L. Mencken of The Smart Set. The meeting resulted in Fitzgerald's first story sale to a magazine. In June of that year, before he left for St. Paul, Fitzgerald received thirty dollars from The Smart Set for “Babes in the Woods,” which had appeared in the Nassau Lit in 1917. The encounter with Nathan was a significant point in Fitzgerald's career for other reasons as well: it marked the beginning of his relationship with H. L. Mencken, who was to exert a considerable influence, as we shall see in a later chapter, on the fiction Fitzgerald produced during the early twenties.
Edmund Wilson had arranged the meeting with George Jean Nathan. Wilson and Fitzgerald, along with John Peale Bishop, visited the young editor in his hotel room. It is a scene worth picturing, Fitzgerald's initiation into the professional fellowship. Four young men, each destined for a particular form of distinction in the literary world—Wilson, serious, already self-assured; Bishop, somewhat the elegant dandy; Nathan, racy and cosmopolitan; and Fitzgerald, uncertain but enthusiastic: a plenitude of youth, ideas, and promise. Nathan produced food and wine; he explained that he needed new material; failure to submit plays and stories, he insisted, would be taken as a personal affront. Later, Wilson rewrote a short story under Nathan's direction; but the latter still found it unacceptable. Fitzgerald's “Babes in the Woods” was purchased and eventually published.[William Manchester, Disturber of the Peace (New York, 1951), pp. 133-134.]
But at the time neither the thirty dollars nor Nathan's interest could mitigate Fitzgerald's feeling of defeat. He returned to St. Paul and spent the summer reworking his novel. By August he was so deeply engrossed in completing the revision that he could not find time to comply with a request from Wilson, who was collaborating with Stanley Dell on an anthology of tales concerning “America's part in the war.” Wilson wanted Fitzgerald to contribute something about Army life in the United States. “Will start on story for you about 25 d'Aout (as the French say or do not say) (which is about 10 days off),” Fitzgerald wrote. But a month later he confessed: “Haven't had time to hit a story for you yet. Better not count on me as the w. of i. or the E. S. are rather dry.” This second letter contained the news that Scribner's had decided to publish This Side of Paradise.
Wilson had advised Fitzgerald on early drafts of thisnovel, which he had seen in manuscript. In November, two months after it had been accepted for publication, Fitzgerald sent Wilson a copy of the final version. Wilson responded with the same kind of friendly derision he had invoked to commemorate Fitzgerald's failure at Princeton:
I have just read your novel with more delight than I can well tell you. It ought to be a classic in a class with The Young Visiters. … Your hero is an unreal imitation of Michael Fane of Sinister Street who was himself unreal… . As an intellectual Amory is a fake of the first water and I read his views on art, politics, religion and society with more riotous mirth than I should care to have you know… . I was also very much shocked when poor old John Bishop's hair stands up on end at beholding the devil… .
But Wilson concluded with a word of praise and some serious advice:
I don't want to bludgeon you too brutally, however, for I think that some of the poems and descriptions are exceedingly good. It would all be better if you would tighten up your artistic conscience and pay a little more attention to form. … I feel called upon to give you this advice because I believe you might become a very popular trashy novelist without much difficulty.
After the book had been released and was enjoying a high degree of success, Wilson wrote an article for The Bookman in which he recorded further impressions:
[This Side of Paradise] has almost every fault and deficiency that a novel can possibly have. It is not only highly imitative but it imitates an inferior model… . The story itself, furthermore, is very immaturely imagined: it is always verging on the ludicrous. And, finally, This Side of Paradise is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published… . Not only is it ornamented with bogus ideas andfaked literary references, but it is full of literary words tossed about with the most reckless inaccuracy.
But once again Wilson qualified his view of the book's weakness:
I have said that This Side of Paradise commits almost every sin that a novel can possibly commit: but it does not commit the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live.
Fitzgerald no doubt felt some slight resentment at Wilson's critical comments; in an essay written fifteen years later he remarked with a trace of annoyance not quite forgotten: “A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie—which it was not.” But on another occasion, Fitzgerald expressed a judgment of This Side of Paradise that parallels Wilson's very closely. “Looking it over,” he wrote Maxwell Perkins in 1938, “I think it is now one of the funniest books since 'Dorian Gray' in its utter spuriousness—and then, here and there, I find a page that is real and living.” And to his daughter Fitzgerald wrote a brief criticism of a novel by Thomas Wolfe, in which he concluded, using the same words Wilson had used twenty years earlier: “However, the book doesn't commit the cardinal sin: it doesn't fail to live.” Wilson's opinions concerning Fitzgerald's first novel, and others he expressed during the course of his friend's development, left a lasting impression.
Wilson's Bookman essay also contained an examination of The Beautiful and Damned, which had just been published. “In college,” Wilson wrote, “[Fitzgerald] had supposed that the thing to do was to write biographical novels with a burst of ideas toward the close; since his advent in the literary world, he has discovered that another genre has recently come into favor: the kind which makes much of the tragedy and what Mencken has called 'the meaninglessnessof life.' Fitzgerald had imagined, hitherto, that the thing to do in a novel was to bring out a meaning in life; but he now set about it to contrive a shattering tragedy that should be, also, a hundred-per-cent meaningless.” But in his conclusion Wilson added: “The Beautiful and Damned, imperfect though it is, marks an advance over This Side of Paradise: the style is more nearly mature and the subject more solidly unified, and there are scenes that are more convincing than any in his previous fiction.”
Fitzgerald had worked on The Beautiful and Damned during the fall of 1920 and the winter and spring of 1921. Early in 1921, Wilson had seen parts of the novel in manuscript and had strongly urged Fitzgerald to revise certain sections, particularly the “midnight symposium” scene in Book III. Fitzgerald later rewrote the passage and sent the revised version for Wilson's approval. That Wilson still did not think the “symposium” section—or The Beautiful and Damned as a whole—artistically satisfactory is clearly indicated in the review I have just quoted, in which Wilson singled out “the meaninglessness of life” theme as the book's principal weakness (the “symposium” chapter emphasizes this theme). Apparently, too, the heavy tone of irony Fitzgerald employed in the novel failed to please Wilson, though he had urged Fitzgerald earlier to view his material for fiction with “cosmic irony.”
But Wilson responded enthusiastically to Fitzgerald's next major project. The Vegetable, Wilson said in a letter dated May 26, 1922, was “one of the best things” Fitzgerald had written. “Go on writing plays,” Wilson recommended; and he added that The Vegetable was “the best American comedy ever written.” In the same letter Wilson suggested revisions, chiefly structural, which Fitzgerald adopted when he came to rewrite the play.
During the next few months Wilson acted as amateuragent for Fitzgerald, who was in St. Paul at the time; several letters from Wilson in June and July report progress on the reception of The Vegetable by the Theatre Guild and various actors and theatrical producers. Fitzgerald worked on the play all through the summer and well into the fall. The following spring Sam Harris agreed to produce it, and The Vegetable opened in Atlantic City in November, 1923. In his dedication to the Scribner's edition of the play Fitzgerald remembered the assistance provided by Wilson over a four- or five-year period:
To Katherine Tighe and Edmund Wilson, Jr.
Who Deleted Many Absurdities
From My First Two Novels I Recommend
The Absurdities Set Down Here
The Vegetable was a financial failure, and it seems to later readers a totally unsuccessful venture into dramatic art. Yet Wilson's praise is understandable. At the time, he was disturbed by Fitzgerald's apparent inability to present a theme or an extended dramatic action without digressions and irrelevant episodes. In this technical sense The Vegetable represents an improvement over This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, for it is more concise than either of the two novels and does not stray as frequently into peripheral or loosely related areas. Then, too, the theme of The Vegetable, which dramatizes the absurdity of American politics, might have seemed more vital to a contemporary than it would to most readers today. Forty years after the composition of The Vegetable it is clear that Fitzgerald's characters are uniformly uninteresting stereotypes and his treatment of American politics superficial even for the purposes of dramatic farce. But these deficiencies might have been overlooked by a perceptive critic who was preoccupied with problems of technique, and who was boundby close ties to the author and to the era he portrayed. If the passage of time and a more advantageous perspective of Fitzgerald's works have contradicted Wilson's opinion in this instance, they have vindicated him in every other judgment he expressed on the subject of his friend's achievement.
The general soundness of Wilson's critical views is evident, for example, in his reception of The Great Gatsby. Wilson not only approved Fitzgerald's third novel; he thought it his finest work up to that time. In 1926, a year after Gatsby appeared, Wilson commented in his essay “The All-Star Literary Vaudeville” that Fitzgerald seemed to be entering upon a new course of development; the “vividness” and “glamor” of Fitzgerald's early fiction, Wilson thought, was now being supplemented by the young novelist's “mastery of his material.” Two years later Wilson observed that Fitzgerald “had learned very fast as a writer; his ideals for his art had gone rapidly up. Each of his three novels, from the point of view of form and conception, had been a startling improvement on the one before.” In 1941, in his Introduction to the Scribner edition of The Last Tycoon, Wilson noted: “It is worth while to read The Great Gatsby in connection with The Last Tycoon because it shows the kind of thing that Fitzgerald was aiming to do in the latter. … He had recovered here the singleness of purpose, the sureness of craftsmanship, which appear in the earlier story.” In 1952, Wilson wrote a memorial essay on Christian Gauss in which he praised The Great Gatsby as an “organized impersonal” novel in which “every word, every cadence, every detail [performed] a definite function in producing an intense effect.” It should be added that although later critics have confirmed Wilson's views on the merits of The 'Great Gatsby, contemporary reviewers—among them H. L. Mencken—found the novel unsatisfactory; it was “soft,” “artificial,” of “negligible” value, some readers thought, and inferior to Fitzgerald's earlier works.
Other critics and writers, of course, had high praise for The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald received letters of commendation from Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, and T. S. Eliot. For these opinions, and for Wilson's, Fitzgerald had great respect. No doubt he was influenced by them when, toward the end of his life, he wrote his daughter: “What little I've accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and 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. This is my immediate duty— without this I am nothing.'”
There is no evidence that Wilson advised Fitzgerald during the composition of Gatsby (Bishop certainly did). But Wilson had recommended the novels of Henry James, which Fitzgerald adopted as guides to style while he was working on Gatsby; and Wilson had consistently stressed the idea that Fitzgerald's writing would profit greatly from increased discipline and more careful control of material. Wilson's influence, though indirect, was not insignificant.
Edmund Wilson had an underlying respect for Fitzgerald's endeavors; even his most unfavorable critical comments are tempered by a note of encouragement and approval. And for Fitzgerald's best efforts—or for what Wilson took to be Fitzgerald's best efforts—Wilson had unqualified praise. But on occasion Wilson did not hesitate to adopt the role of a stern tutor with little patience for the tomfoolery of his exuberant student. Certain minor episodes in the course of their relationship bring out this aspect of Wilson's attitude.
In 1924, for example, Fitzgerald supplied the title for acollection of stories by Ring Lardner. This volume, which contained some of Lardner's most serious work, included a flippant introduction in which Lardner offered the book to the public as a guide to story writing. How To Write Short Stories was a great success both critically and financially. The trade publication Printer's Ink commended Scribner's on the title and the presentation; it was, said the editors of the magazine, “a new way of putting out a product so as to distinguish it.” Others were equally enthusiastic, as Lardner reported to Fitzgerald shortly after the book was published: “Michael Arlen, who is here to watch the staging of The Green Hat, said he thought How To Write Short Stories was a great title for my book and when I told him it was your title, he said he had heard a great deal about you and was sorry to miss you.”
Wilson, writing a review for The Dial, commented:
Mr. Ring Lardner is a popular journalist who writes for the New York American and who also provides the text for a syndicated comic strip. It has therefore been thought appropriate to present his new collection of short stories as if it were a volume of popular humor. There are a preface in the vein of Bill Nye and a jocose introduction to every story, and the title page is brightened by a humorous cut that is evidently by John Held. The book itself, from its burlesque preface, is called How To Write Short Stories, instead of, as it ought to be, Champion and Other Stories.
Is all this an idea of the publishers, who do not want to forfeit the prestige of Mr. Lardner's reputation as a humorist, or is it due to Mr. Lardner, who is timid about coming forward in the role of serious writer? The fact is that this new book of his, instead of belonging to the gruesome department of, say, Irvin Cobb's Speaking of Operations, contains some of the most interesting work that Ring Lardner has yet produced. These stories, he observes in his preface, “will illustrate in a half-hearted way what I am trying to get at.” But the stories are not half-hearted: it is the jokes that he intrudes among them.
Wilson knew very well whose idea the title was; one of Fitzgerald's letters, in which the novelist hesitantly tries to assert himself, suggests as much: “you are wrong about Ring's book. My title was the best possible. You are always wrong—but always with the most correct possible reasons. (This statement is merely acrocrytical, hypothetical, diabolical, metaphorical.)”
Nine years later, Fitzgerald received a letter from Bruce Bliven, who was then editor of The New Republic: “Edmund Wilson tells me that you know a great deal about Ring Lardner, and that you might be willing to write something about him for us. … On the chance that you may not have seen the daily papers, perhaps I ought to say that my telegram and this letter are caused by the fact that Lardner died yesterday.”
Fitzgerald did write something: his prose elegy, “Ring,” is at once a personal reminiscence, a critical estimate of Lardner's works, and an affectionate tribute to a friend. Fitzgerald's memorial concludes with the passage: “A great and good American is dead. Let us not obscure him by the flowers, but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all abraded by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to many millions he gave release and delight.”
Wilson's reaction to Fitzgerald's essay on Lardner is another illustration of his attitude toward his friend. Other of Fitzgerald's acquaintances were extremely impressed with “Ring.” Preserved in Fitzgerald's correspondence files are a number of letters the novelist received soon after “Ring” appeared in The New Republic. Dorothy Parker wrote that it was the finest and most moving thing she had ever read. Franklin Adams called it “a loving piece,” and confessed that it had made him cry. Maxwell Perkins commented that it was a “very fine piece.” Sherwood Anderson wrote, “That was a swell piece you wrote about Ring Lardner.” Most lavish in its appreciation was a letter from John O'Hara, who said that if Fitzgerald had never written another line, “Ring” would have been writing career enough for anyone. Only Wilson dissented. “I thought the phrase 'great and good American' sounded like a political speech,” he wrote Fitzgerald. “Lardner wasn't great anyway, was he? … his chief claim to distinction was a gift for Swiftian satire based on hate.”
This undercurrent seems to have flowed steadily through the Wilson-Fitzgerald relationship; Wilson had rapped Fitzgerald's knuckles on other occasions, such as those mentioned earlier in the section on Fitzgerald's years at Princeton. Parts of Wilson's letters to Fitzgerald concerning the defects of his first two novels also seem rather harsh, sounding as they do a note of contempt for the novelist's early efforts. From the beginning, perhaps, Wilson's attitude was tinged with a trace of malice or even, in the case of the Lardner memorial, jealousy. Or is it more accurate to accuse Edmund Wilson of occasional stuffiness? A recent parody in Punch, entitled “To the Comfort Station,” exhibits Wilson in the act of advising William Shakespeare on “the difference between good and bad art” (Shakespeare has stopped overnight at Princeton to ask Wilson's opinion on his next play, King Lear):
That week had already been a hard one for me [the parody continues], teaching Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway how to write, and explaining to them about T. S. Eliot and Henry James, so I may have spoken abruptly whenMr. Shakespeare did not seem to get my meaning at once… .
He did not take my advice and a printed copy of the play now lies before me. … I had told him clearly how the flaws in his psychology could be put right. He seems to have done little or nothing to justify my hopes that he would extend his reading. I am beginning to suspect that some writers are not worth helping, or at least that a stopover in Princeton is not enough for them to absorb all I have to tell them.
There is a third alternative which must be mentioned in these speculations about Wilson's feelings toward Fitzgerald: perhaps Wilson the critic valued honesty above sentiment.
Whatever the underlying emotions, the master-pupil aspect was dominant, and it sometimes produced strain and personal friction. Wilson was aware of this fact when he visited Fitzgerald in 1928. The two friends had seen little of each other during the intervening four years when Fitzgerald had been on extended sojourns in Europe. Now settled, at least temporarily, in an impressive mansion (called “Ellerslie”) in Delaware, Fitzgerald sent Wilson an aggressively jolly note of invitation to spend a weekend, along with several other guests, at Ellerslie. Wilson accepted the invitation, but he thought he detected a faint hostility in Fitzgerald's letter, and he had some misgivings about going at all. Wilson believed the relationship had suffered “a certain chill.” At the time Fitzgerald was worried about his failure to complete a novel he had already worked on for several years (this eventually became Tender Is the Night). The novelist felt touchy about his creative slump, and particularly so when he had to admit it to Wilson, to whom he felt somehow accountable. “It was his own artistic conscience that accused him,” Wilson later remarked, “butthis was beginning to make our meetings uncomfortable, for any inquiry about his work was likely to bring a sharp retort.”
A few years later Fitzgerald visited Wilson in New York —with unhappy results. The novelist was weighed down by an all but crushing volume of professional and personal difficulties: his wife was in a mental institution, he himself was struggling against alcoholism and poor health, and the long anticipated novel was still unfinished. In a mood of “desperate impotence”—the words are Fitzgerald's—he spent an afternoon with Wilson in an atmosphere, as we may well imagine, that was far from agreeable for either party. Afterwards, Fitzgerald sent a note of apology assuming “full responsibility for all unpleasantness.”
“What I object to,” Wilson replied some months later, “is precisely the 'scholar and vulgarian,' 'you helped me more than I helped you' business. I know that this isn't a role you've foisted on me; I've partly created it myself.” The period of dissension, however, ended permanently not long after this exchange. “It was good seeing you again,” Fitzgerald wrote early in 1934, “and good to think that our squabble, or whatever it was, is ironed out.”
Fitzgerald's “squabble” with Wilson took place around the time of the completion of Tender Is the Night, a book that bears little, if any, of Wilson's mark. The causes of this partial eclipse of Wilson's influence are complex: Fitzgerald had lived abroad during much of the time spent writing Tender Is the Night; his meetings with Wilson were infrequent, even after he returned to America. He had developed a sensitivity, already noted, to his role as “vulgarian” at the feet of the “scholar.” And finally, he was strongly under the influence of Ernest Hemingway when Tender Is the Night was in progress.
Yet even here Wilson played a part, though it was indirect. It was he who introduced Fitzgerald to Hemingway's works and urged him to “look up” the obscure young author of Three Stories and Ten Poems when Fitzgerald departed for Europe in 1924. Thus Wilson was responsible for inaugurating another important cycle of influence in Fitzgerald's life.
Wilson read Tender Is the Night when it appeared in serial form in Scribner's Magazine during the early months of 1934. This novel, which had undergone numerous revisions and reconstructions over a nine-year period, Wilson found partially unsatisfactory. In conversation with Fitzgerald he criticized the characterizations in the book; and years later he made the comment: “His conception of his subject in Tender Is the Night had shifted in the course of his writing it so that the parts of that fascinating novel do not always quite hang together… .”
It was not until after Fitzgerald's death that Wilson again publicly expressed unreserved approval of his friend's abilities as a novelist. In The Last Tycoon Wilson saw the unity of structure, the concentration on a single, undeviating line of dramatic development, and the concise forcefulness of phrase which had distinguished The Great Gatsby. Wilson had admired “Crazy Sunday,” a short story based on Fitzgerald's experiences in the motion-picture capital in 1931. He thought he detected in the Hollywood setting a source of material for an important novel. In a letter written in 1932 (shortly after the appearance of “Crazy Sunday”), Wilson advised: “You should do something more about Hollywood, which anybody who knows anything about is either scared or bribed not to tell about or have convinced themselves is all right.”
Several years later Wilson expressed his confidence in Fitzgerald's ability to treat the subject honestly: “I hope [your novel] is about Hollywood-I've read practically allthe novels ever written on the subject, and none of them really do much with it.” The Last Tycoon is evidence of Fitzgerald's intention to portray Hollywood accurately, without false glamor—and a justification of Wilson's confidence. In a letter written to Wilson in November, 1940, Fitzgerald assured his friend, “I think my novel is good, I've written it with difficulty. It is completely upstream in mood and will get a certain amount of abuse but it is first hand and I am trying a little harder than I ever have to be exact and honest emotionally. I honestly hoped somebody else would write it but nobody seems to be going to.” A month after he wrote this letter Scott Fitzgerald was dead, and The Last Tycoon was interrupted at midpoint in its composition.
Soon afterward Wilson began to exert himself on his friend's behalf, adopting for a time the role of custodian of Fitzgerald's reputation. The obituary notices that appeared in newspapers and magazines indicate that Fitzgerald was considered, at the time of his death, an insignificant minor writer whose works had not survived their period of composition. It is unlikely that this attitude would have prevailed, with or without Edmund Wilson's efforts to correct it. But it is certain that Wilson was to a great extent responsible for the resurgence of interest in Fitzgerald as an important American novelist.
As an initial move in this direction Wilson published a short study of contemporary novelists who at one time or another had used California as a setting for their fiction. This brief survey, which appeared a few months after Fitzgerald's death, concluded with some comments on The Last Tycoon:
Scott Fitzgerald, an accomplished artist, had written a considerable part of what promised to be by all odds the best novel ever devoted to Hollywood. There you are shown thesociety and the business of the movies, no longer through the eyes of the visitor to whom everything is glamorous or ridiculous, but from the point of view of people who have grown up or lived with the industry and to whom its values and laws are their natural habit of life. These are criticized by higher standards and in the knowledge of wider horizons, but the criticism is implicit in the story; and in the meantime, Scott Fitzgerald, by putting us inside their group and making us take things for granted, is able to excite an interest in the mixed destiny of his Jewish producer of a kind that lifts the novel quite out of the class of this specialized Hollywood fiction and relates it to the story of man in all times and in all places.
At the time this essay appeared, Wilson was preparing The Last Tycoon for publication. He edited the manuscript, collected, arranged, and interpreted Fitzgerald's notes for the unfinished portions of the novel, and wrote an introduction for the volume, which in its final form assumed the proportions of a Fitzgerald “omnibus” (in addition to The Last Tycoon, it contained The Great Gatsby, “May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” 'The Rich Boy,” “Absolution,” and “Crazy Sunday”). Wilson apparently hoped to dispel public apathy by exhibiting, in one volume, almost all of Fitzgerald's best work. In his introduction Wilson wrote:
The Last Tycoon is … Fitzgerald's most mature piece of work… . The moving-picture business in America has been observed at close range, studied with a careful attention and dramatized with a sharp wit such as are not to be found in combination in any of the other novels on the subject. The Last Tycoon is far and away the best novel we have had about Hollywood, and it is the only one which takes us inside. … In going through the immense pile of drafts and notes that the author had made for this novel, one is confirmed and reinforced in one's impression thatFitzgerald will be found to stand out as one of the first-rate figures in the American writing of his period.
American critics and fictionists gave The Last Tycoon a memorable reception. John Dos Passos thought Fitzgerald's fragment represented “the beginnings of a great novel.” Dos Passos believed Fitzgerald's last effort established the novelist as an artist of the first rank. He also observed, somewhat extravagantly, that the prose of The Last Tycoon was of sufficient grandeur and importance to raise the level of subsequent American fiction, much as Marlowe's blank verse had elevated Elizabethan dramatic poetry. James Thurber, writing in The New Republic, remarked that The Last Tycoon had provoked more discussion among writers and critics than any other book of recent years. Thurber thought Fitzgerald's last work was drawn upon “the largest canvas of his life” and that Fitzgerald would have brought it off “brilliantly,” as he had done earlier with Gatsby. Stephen Vincent Benet was also impressed: he praised The Last Tycoon for its “wit, observation, sure craftsmanship, and verbal felicity.” Benet concluded by prophesying that Fitzgerald's reputation would be one of the most enduring of our time.
In the years that followed the publication of The Last Tycoon, Wilson made repeated references in his essays to Fitzgerald and his achievement as a writer. This was in no sense a deliberate “campaign”; all allusions to Fitzgerald are integral parts of whatever subject Wilson happened to be discussing. Yet even in the absence of any contriving or calculation, Wilson frequently managed between 1942 and 1945 to lend his own substantial support to the perpetuation of his friend's name.[See, for example, Wilson's essay collection Classics and Commercials (New York, 1950), pp. 70, 105, 110, 140, 170.]
In 1945, Wilson published The Crack-Up. This volumecontains a large sampling of Fitzgerald's correspondence, a number of his autobiographical essays, selections from his notebooks, letters from well-known literary figures, and poems and critical essays about Fitzgerald written by friends and fellow authors. The time and care Wilson devoted to preparing this collection are evident in its scrupulous editing of personal documents and its artful selection and arrangement of material.
The Crack-Up aroused a great deal of interest and excitement among literary commentators. One after another they published essays which praised the volume as a unique record of a writer's personality as well as an intimate revelation of his professional struggles. But many reviewers did not stop there; they used The Crack-Up as a point of departure for surveying Fitzgerald's life and works, and for evaluating his contribution to American fiction. These writers and critics, of course, disagreed on certain particulars. But they were unanimous in their judgment that Fitzgerald deserved critical and popular attention.[See F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work (New York, 1951), essays by Malcolm Cowley, Andrews Wanning, Mark Schorer, Alfred Kazin, J. F. Powers, and William Troy, pp. 146-193. Other friends of Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and John O'Hara, edited The Viking Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald the same year The Crack-Up appeared.] Wilson was thus responsible for another surge of interest in Scott Fitzgerald, the man and the author.
The publication of The Crack-Up marked the highest point of Fitzgerald's reputation since his early popularity in the twenties. After The Crack-Up, influential critics like Lionel Trilling contributed forcefully to the recognition Fitzgerald was to receive in the nineteen-fifties. Arthur, Mizener's biography further impressed the novelist's importance upon thousands of readers, especially on university campuses. The late fifties and early sixties have witnessed a sustained interest in Fitzgerald's life and works, and dramatically high sales of his books. Wilson's contribution to all this is difficult to assess; but the part he played in recall-ing Fitzgerald to public and critical attention was obviously significant.
The foregoing is an attempt to reconstruct the literary companionship Fitzgerald enjoyed with Edmund Wilson. Wilson, himself a novelist, playwright, and versatile critic with far-ranging interests, was, as the particulars indicate, Scott Fitzgerald's friend and adviser from the beginning of the novelist's career to its end. “For twenty years,” Fitzgerald wrote in 1936, “a certain man had been my intellectual conscience. That was Edmund Wilson.” What this history suggests is that Fitzgerald, if not altogether happy in the association, was at least fortunate in the effect it had on his understanding and his work. He might have derived more gratification, in a superficial sense, from someone who was quicker to accept and to praise. But from the beginning Fitzgerald had profound respect for Wilson's opinion, and ultimately he came to value the discipline and the striving for perfection that Wilson demanded. “The thing that lies behind all great careers,” he confided to his daughter not long before he died, “is the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not 'happiness and pleasure,' but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”
Throughout, Wilson's influence was general rather than particular, indirect rather than immediate. He remained unobtrusively in the background, something of a symbol in Fitzgerald's imagination, representative of artistic integrity and intellectual mastery of the materials of Me. Even so, Wilson did more to shape Fitzgerald's career than any of the other writers with whom the novelist enjoyed close association.
An index to Fitzgerald's indebtedness to Wilson may be seen in a summary of his progress as a novelist, which in large measure was guided by Wilson's suggestion. After the publication of This Side of Paradise Wilson correctly assumed that Fitzgerald had taken his hero too seriously. “Cultivate a universal irony,” Wilson advised. Two years later Fitzgerald brought out The Beautiful and Damned, which begins: “Irony was the final polish of the shoe, the ultimate dab of the clothes brush, a sort of intellectual 'There!'” The book concludes: “That exquisite heavenly irony which has tabulated the demise of many generations of sparrows… .” Wilson also recommended that Fitzgerald broaden his limited acquaintance with the work of other writers: “Do read something other than contemporary British novelists.” The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby demonstrate that Fitzgerald heeded Wilson's counsel.
Although Wilson thought Fitzgerald's second novel an improvement over This Side of Paradise, he still found cause for dissatisfaction with his friend's work up to that point. “His restless imagination may yet produce something durable,” Wilson wrote in his article for The Bookman in 1922. “For the present, however, this imagination is certainly not seen to the best advantage: it suffers badly from lack of discipline and poverty of aesthetic ideas. Fitzgerald is a dazzling extemporizer, but his stories have a way of petering out: he seems never to have planned them completely or to have thought out his themes from the beginning.”
The Great Gatsby, written two years later, reveals a rich awareness of what Wilson called “aesthetic ideas,” by which he meant, as I understand it, the controlling principles which dictate the artistic treatment of material. And the discipline of Fitzgerald's imagination in The Great Gatsbyis apparent: a later critic has called Gatsby “the most perfect example of a planned novel in our modern tradition— planned in [the] mathematical sense of a Bach concerto.” [Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincials (New York, 1959), p. 315.] It is as if Fitzgerald had taken to heart each of Wilson's strictures in 1922 and had labored to satisfy his friend's most rigid requirements for achievement in the art of the novel.
The Great Gatsby was probably the finest product of Wilson's influence on Fitzgerald. As we have seen, Tender Is the Night was written during a period when the strong personal attachment between the two men had suffered some attenuation. But the fact that Wilson offered repeated encouragement to Fitzgerald during the composition of The Last Tycoon indicates that the relationship continued, if somewhat diminished in its force, up to the time of Fitzgerald's death. And Wilson's crucial services to Fitzgerald's posthumous recognition suggest the extent of the critic's devoted interest. The judgment of the nineteen-fifties and early sixties confirms Wilson's endorsements. More than that: it marks the triumph of Wilson's personal endeavors on behalf of his friend.
In 1922, Edmund Wilson remarked that Scott Fitzgerald had not learned to adapt his talents to their best uses: Fitzgerald was a young man, Wilson wrote, who “had been left with a rare jewel which he doesn't know quite what to do with.” Twenty years later in his dedicatory verses for The Crack-Up, Wilson returned to the jewel image as a metaphorical means of evaluating Fitzgerald's fiction: he envisioned his friend's literary works as “jewels, in a handful, lying loose.” The short stories were seen as
Flawed amethysts; the moonstone's milky blues;
Chill blues of pale transparent tourmaline;
Opals of shifty yellow, chartreuse green,
Wherein a vein vermilion flees and flickers—
Tight phials of the spirit's light mixed liquors;
Some tinsel zircons, common turquoise…
And Fitzgerald's most perfectly realized works—The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon—were given special prominence by the appraiser of literary gems:
Two emeralds, green and lucid, one half-cut,
One cut consummately—both take their place
In Letters' most expensive Cartier case.
The concluding lines of Wilson's poem suggest the depth of his personal loss:
… [I] dread to know
Those eyes struck dark, dissolving in a wrecked
And darkened world, that gleam of intellect
That spilled into the spectrum of tune, taste,
Scent, color, living speech, is gone, is lost.
Thus Wilson, friend and critic, recapitulates in his brief elegy the two aspects of his relationship which, taken together, form its essence.
Fitzgerald's attitude is revealed in a letter to Wilson written in 1939, as he was about to enter the last year of his life:
Believe me, Bunny, it meant more to me than it could possibly have meant to you to see you that evening. It seemed to renew old times learning about Franz Kafka and latter things that are going on in the world of poetry, because I am still the ignoramus that you and John Bishop wrote about at Princeton.
With these words Fitzgerald sounded the keynote which prevailed, for him, from beginning to end. There is ample evidence to show that his humility was rewarded—in the enduring excellence of his art.
Aldridge, John W. After the Lost Generation. New York: The Noonday Press, 1958.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work. Edited by Alfred Kazin. New York: The World Publishing Co., 1951.
Gauss, Christian. “Edmund Wilson: The Campus and the Nassau 'Lit,'” Princeton University Library Chronicle, V:2 (February, 1944), 41-50.
Gauss, Christian. The Papers of Christian Gauss. Edited by Katherine Gauss Jackson and Hiram Haydn. New York: Random House, 1957.
Piper, Henry Dan. “F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Check List,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, XII: 4 (Summer, 1951), 201-202.
Piper, Henry Dan. “Scott Fitzgerald and the Origins of the Jazz Age.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1950.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, Inc., 1951.
Wilson, Edmund. The Shores of Light. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, Inc., 1952.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Contemporaries by William Goldhurst (Cleveland: World, 1963).