The central question about Fitzgerald’s work is probably a question about its maturity of perception. Though critics seldom argue this question at any length, their conclusions about it in fact differ widely. It is made more difficult to deal with than it otherwise might be by the tendency to confuse a judgment of Fitzgerald’s habitual conduct and opinions with a judgment of his work. Fitzgerald’s life and opinions cannot be wholly separated from his work and ought not to be; the connections are too intimate. The problem is how to separate our judgments of the two, because if we do not separate those judgments, we are all too likely to end by having our judgment of the former determine our judgment of the latter. The result is about as unfortunate if we admire Fitzgerald personally as it is if we dislike him.
Disentangling these two judgments is not made any easier by the deep ambiguity of modern feelings—perhaps particularly modern American feelings—about youthfulness. As Glenway Wescott pointed out, Fitzgerald was “our darling, our genius, our fool” in an age which had the courage of its conviction that nearly everything was well lost for youth-fulness: even in death, nothing about Fitzgerald appeared old except his hands. Since there are always people who believe—whether with delight or resentment—that as we were young and easy we were in the best state known to man, there are always critics who see Fitzgerald’s work as the life story of a prince of the apple towns. Many of those who do not nonetheless find it difficult to keep their judgment of what Fitzgerald wrote unaffected by their feelings about a man who always appeared, even at his worst, in a bright glow, like an actor on a stage. Without perhaps exactly believing in his greatness, they are moved by the meaning of what they take to be his life. This is what we ordinarily call the romantic attitude. It is represented at its best in Fitzgerald criticism by Lionel Trilling’s essay on Fitzgerald’s “heroic awareness” and his “exemplary role.” The dyspeptic version of this attitude is Westbrook Pegler’s reference to the “cult of juvenile crying-drunks” who dominated the age when Scott Fitzgerald’s “few were gnawing gin in silver slabs and sniffling about the sham and tinsel of it all.”
Judgment of Fitzgerald’s work is confused in another way by the critics who assume that a fiction embodies no more understanding than its author is able to formulate in expository language, as abstract theory about life or art. Fitzgerald himself knew well that the natural mode of expression for his understanding was a fiction and that he knew a great deal in his stories that he did not know any other way. Characteristically he expressed this knowledge as an observation of behavior rather than as a theory by noting his habit of “sometimes reading my own books for advice. How much I know sometimes—how little at others.” At their worst, critics who demand of a novel an argument are likely to demand an argument which conforms to some dogma of their own, as does the critic who says that Fitzgerald “was fatally attracted by what he took to be the true romance of great wealth” and was not so interested as the critic requires in “what life somewhat nearer the center of the American economy was all about.” At their best such critics notice that “The Last Tycoon is far and away the best novel we have about Hollywood.” Perhaps it is, but this kind of sociological understanding is at most a minor aspect of The Last Tycoon’s perception. A similar assumption underlies the description of Fitzgerald’s literary career as a gradual shift from the technique of the novel of saturation to the technique of the novel of selection. Fitzgerald was not the kind of writer—if there are any—for whom understanding consisted in the command of a technique. These judgments of Fitzgerald’s perception represent what we ordinarily call a neo-classic attitude: somewhere not very far back of them is a conviction that fiction is a theory to advantage dressed.
This confusion among the judgments of the maturity of perception in Fitzgerald’s work is not helped by the comparative—in some instances almost absolute—neglect of the work he did when his sensibility had fully matured. Much of that work was done after 1936 and the neglect of it is not altogether the critics’ fault: most of it is difficult to get hold of, and when a critic does find some of it his natural impulse is to see it in the context of Fitzgerald’s early work, with which he is familiar, rather than in the context of Fitzgerald’s late work, with which it belongs. It is particularly easy to do so because in one respect, in the perception of romantic sentiment, Fitzgerald’s sensibility matured quite early. The author who could precisely measure the difference between an original passion and that same passion deliberately renewed after a six months’ break, as the author of “’The Sensible Thing’” measured it, is not in that respect immature. “’The Sensible Thing’” was written in 1924, when Fitzgerald was twenty-eight years old.
But the ending of “’The Sensible Thing,’” in which Fitzgerald tries to place the story’s acute insight into George O’Kelly’s feelings, is comparatively ineffective, a sort of bluff such as Fitzgerald disarmingly asserted he resorted to in The Great Gatsby when he was unable to imagine the relations between Daisy and Gatsby from the time they were reunited at Nick’s tea party to the quarrel at the Plaza; “the lack,” he said, “is so astutely concealed by … blankets of excellent prose that no one has noticed it.” In much the same way, instead of placing the acute perception of George’s feelings in a similar perception of experience as a whole, Fitzgerald resorts at the end of “’The Sensible Thing’” to a seasonal metaphor which is exploited with a good deal of rhetorical charm but embodies only the vaguest sense of experience.
If, then, the perception embodied in “’The Sensible Thing’” is mature in one respect, and an important respect, it is nevertheless not fully mature. Its limitations are easy to see if we compare “’The Sensible Thing’” with even an early example of Fitzgerald’s late work like “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s,” written in 1928. “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s” begins with a wealthy man’s wife going into a cabinet-maker’s to buy a very special doll’s house for their daughter’s Christmas, leaving the man and the daughter waiting in the car. “Listen,” the man says to the little girl, “I love you.” “’I love you too,’ said the little girl smiling politely.” Then to keep the little girl entertained, the man begins to improvise a fairy tale around the commonplace events of the drab street—the apartment across the street, the casual pulling-down of a shade, the ordinary passers-by. The fairy story is kept commonplace, too. Behind the drawn shade the Princess is held prisoner; the King and Queen are imprisoned by an Ogre thousands of miles within the earth; the Prince is seeking the three stones which will set them all free. The little girl becomes so completely absorbed in this story that she even forgets her manners. When her father interrupts the story to say, “You’re my good fairy,” she says, “Yes. Look, Daddy! What is that man?”
When the mother returns, the little girl suddenly takes the story away from her father and gives it her own ending. As she does so, something that has been implicit all along emerges clearly. The father drops the story with the remark that he is sorry they cannot stay to see the rescue.
“But we did,” the child cried. “They had the rescue in the next street. And there’s the Ogre’s body in that yard there. The King and the Queen and the Prince were killed and now the Princess is Queen.”
He had liked his King and Queen and felt they had been too summarily disposed of.
“You had to have a heroine,” he said rather impatiently.
“She’ll marry somebody and make him Prince.”
“He had liked his King and Queen,” but in the interest of making the Princess the story’s heroic character, the little girl has killed them off without a qualm; and because she is the Princess who, in some dim future, will make a man Prince, she has killed off the Prince, too.
Rhetorically, “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s” never raises its voice; its details are very ordinary and domestic; and its child is no little Pearl. Yet it conveys a feeling of the pity and terror of experience which the author nonetheless accepts so quietly that those big Aristotelian words seem almost incongruous. The story’s ruthlessness is not bred of unlawful passion as little Pearl’s is; it is not really even the little girl’s. It is life’s, and everyday life’s at that. Moreover, despite the ruthlessness with which the little girl destroys the mother and father of the fairy story, she is her father’s good fairy. At the height of his story, as the little girl stares intently at the drawn blind of the Princess’s prison, “for a moment he closed his eyes and tried to see with her but he couldn’t see—those ragged blinds were drawn against him forever.” All he can do is to buy her the doll’s house which he cannot help knowing is only an expensive piece of cabinet-making and not a fairy castle, and make up for her fairy tales “whose luster and texture he could never see or touch any more himself.” He can see and touch only through her; at the same time he knows, without resentment, that this dependence gives him no right to her devotion. He is, half comically, annoyed by her summary disposal of the King and Queen, but he knows the story is really hers and that her ending is unavoidable. In the last sentence, Fitzgerald says that, as they drove away from the cabinet-maker’s in silence, “the man thought how he had nearly a million dollars”—to spend, as it were, on doll’s houses and fairy stories. It is not, I think, even irony, though possibly there is a certain amount of private irony about wealth and talent in this detail of a story so close in many other respects (but not in this one) to Fitzgerald’s own.
“Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s” is a story completely imagined and fully realized. Only a writer who understood that the valuable meaning of experience is in the familiar, even the homely, could have conceived it; only a writer who could remember what it felt like to see and was completely reconciled to blindness could have presented that little girl’s murderous innocence without romantic irony; only one whose knowledge consisted of observed experience could have kept these particulars at once so easy and so precise in meaning. “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s is not the work of a man bemused by the true romance of great wealth, though the people in it are wealthy and charming. Neither is it a fictionalized social analysis of Wilmington, where it takes place, or an exercise in allegorical fantasy. Its motive is an understanding—I think a lucid and subtle understanding—which exists as an action.
The kind of perception which is illustrated by “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s” is present in the best of Fitzgerald’s work from the late 1920’s. So too is the kind of technical skill its expression requires. Like this one, Fitzgerald’s technical achievements are almost always direct consequences of expressive needs. He could learn from others, but only when he had an immediate need for what they could teach him. When he had such a need, he could learn from almost anyone. If he refers to Conrad’s example in the letter to Kenneth Littauer about The Last Tycoon, he also refers, in his notes for the book, to H. G. Wells. He was even capable of learning from a movie magazine, as he did when he wrote “Author’s House,” in 1936, when he was well into the final period of his career. “Author’s House” begins with a wry assertion that the writer has read frequently in the movie magazines about the houses of Hollywood stars and seen photographs of them “explaining how on God’s earth to make a Hollywood souffle or open a can of soup without removing the appendix in the same motion,” but that he never hears about authors’ houses and that he plans to supply the deficiency. He ends with a fine extension of this ironic comparison when the visitor he is showing around the house says, “It’s really just like all houses, isn’t it?””The author nodded. ’I didn’t think it was when I built it, but in the end I suppose it’s just like other houses after all.’ “The best moment in “Author’s House” deals with young manhood. The author takes his visitor up to the glassed-in cupola and throws open a couple of windows, and “even as they stand there the wind increases until it is a gale whistling around the tower and blowing the 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.”
He shivered slightly and closed the windows.
We know something about what it was like to live up there, because Basil Duke Lee did so. At the end of the stories about Basil, when he finally accepts the loss of his fatal Cleopatra for whom he decides he would not gladly lose the world—that Cleopatra with the marvelous name of Minnie Bibble—Basil walks out on the veranda of the New Haven Lawn Club.
There was a flurry of premature snow in the air and the stars looked cold. Staring up at them he saw that they were his stars as always—symbols of ambition, struggle and glory. The wind blew through them, trumpeting that high white note for which he always listened, and the thin-blown clouds, stripped for battle, passed in review. The scene was of an unparalleled brightness and magnificence, and only the practiced eye of the commander saw that one star was no longer there.
Writing nearly a decade later, the author of “Author’s House” has not forgotten what it was like to live up there, convinced—as Fitzgerald put it in The Crack-Up about his own youth—that you could dominate life if you were any good. But he knows that he not only does not but cannot live up there now. This is the full acceptance of a loss that one completely understands, a clear perception that “if all time is eternally present, / All time is unredeemable.” It is the characteristic perception of Fitzgerald’s late work, a perception that must have been peculiarly difficult for Fitzgerald, for whom the past was always very intensely present. But it is of course the difficulty which gives the perception its value.
In the companion story to “Author’s House,” called “Afternoon of an Author,” Fitzgerald describes an afternoon’s visit to the barber’s by an author so worn out that the trip is for him a major adventure. He describes it almost gaily, certainly quite impersonally. At the end, when the author arrives back at his apartment,
He went through the dining room and turned into his study, struck blind for a moment with the glow of his two thousand books in the late sunshine. He was quite tired—he would lie down for ten minutes and then see if he could get started on an idea in the two hours before dinner.
Effects like this one require very delicate control. This is, if you will, a technical achievement of a high order. It is nothing so gross as symbolism; it is scarcely even a detectable emphasis of diction. The passage’s integrity is its precise representation of immediate experience: nothing the author sees beyond the immediate experience is allowed to stretch or distort that representation. Yet we are made to feel that it is an image of a whole way of life and, at least ultimately, of an aspect of all lives. This is only a moment, a very ordinary moment, experienced, we understand, as casually as we all experience ordinary moments, when we have the experience but miss the meaning. But the moment is, as it is realized here, quite truly “a new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been,” though without in any way ceasing to be what it originally was. I have been deliberately quoting Mr. Eliot because I think Fitzgerald’s late work shows us, in a homely and unostentatious way, even an amused way, what Mr. Eliot is describing in the Quartets, insofar as the Quartets are concerned with how we know the truth. It is typical of Fitzgerald’s late work that Cecilia should say of her experience, on the first page of The Last Tycoon, “It can be understood, too, but only dimly and in flashes.” “Ridiculous,” she might have added, “the waste sad time/Stretching before and after.”
This resemblance extends in part to the two writers’ conceptions of reality. About Fitzgerald’s author, who could be struck blind by the glow of even the afternoon sunshine but, because he was “quite tired,” would have to rest before taking up the struggle to realize this experience in words as his job in the world requires him to—about this man there is something pitiable. But the attitude of “Afternoon of an Author” is not pity. The essay moves almost as if its author were unconscious of the pitiableness of his character; or, rather, as if he were aware of it but had long since written it off as irrelevant. If “What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present,” then every end is like this one, this afternoon of an author, a new beginning.
One could trace this attitude and the skill with which it is realized in any number of Fitzgerald’s late stories, in “I Didn’t Get Over,” “The Long Way Out,” “Design in Plaster,” “The Lost Decade,” “News of Paris.” But the most interesting manifestation of them is his last novel, The Last Tycoon, which shows on a large scale both the attitude and the style of his late work, even though it is unfinished, even though, as Fitzgerald’s notes show, he intended to rewrite nearly all he had written.
We can say of The Last Tycoon that luck or accident had given Fitzgerald the nearly perfect image for his sense of experience, even if we have to say that this same luck or accident also prevented his finishing the book. The essential quality of experience for him—I think perhaps he thought it particularly a quality of American experience—was the queerness and, occasionally, the miracle of it, no less what they are for occurring always amidst commonplaceness, fakeness, sheer badness, and a good deal of evil—and, perhaps we should add, during a continuous earthquake. For this sense of experience, Hollywood provided him with an almost perfect instance, and Cecilia, with her odd upbringing to make her “[accept] Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house,” was the perfect narrator. Like every place else, Hollywood is commonplace and a little beat up with being lived in, but nonetheless haunted, and Fitzgerald’s story must be told by some one able to see that.
The relevance of what Hollywood is to what experience seemed to Fitzgerald is clearly illustrated by the important scene when Stahr first meets Kathleen. The scene begins in fact with an earthquake, during which, as Fitzgerald observes, “small hotels drifted out to sea” (small hotels only, of course) in the most ordinary way imaginable. This is no process shot; the earthquake is quite real and would do the same thing anywhere. What it could not literally do anywhere is what it does in the studio back lot. When Stahr and his assistants get there, they see “a huge head of the Goddess Siva … floating down the current of an impromptu river.” Incongruously, “two refugees had found sanctuary along a scroll of curls on its bald forehead.” The tone here—the ironic exaggeration of “refugees” and “sanctuary,” the grotesqueness of “impromptu” and “bald”—is deliberate and characteristic. We are not allowed to forget for an instant the ordinary and temporary—even fake —materials out of which this event is made; the point is driven home by Fitzgerald’s adding that the idol “meandered earnestly on its way, stopping sometimes to waddle and bump in the shallows,” like a frumpish old lady who means well but is badly muddled. Then Robbie, the cutter, says, “We ought to let ’em drift out to the waste pipe, but DeMille needs that head next week,” and shouts at the refugees, “Put that head back! You think it’s a souvenir?” And in the midst of all this, off that ludicrously waddling head of the goddess, steps the living image of Stahr’s dead wife. It is, incidentally, typical of the way Fitzgerald’s imagination warms to its work that he had originally thought of the floating object as “a property farmhouse”; the head of Siva, with all that it implies, was an invention of the moment of composition.
This kind of particularized and precisely controlled realization of the miracle—the often absurd miracle—at the heart of the ordinary, even fake, is the essential achievement of Fitzgerald’s late fiction, and Hollywood made it possible for him to convey that perception without forcing his materials in the slightest. How strictly he held himself accountable for the actuality of his material is evident from the frequency with which people repeat Edmund Wilson’s praise of The Last Tycoon as a picture of Hollywood. But this verisimilitude, though vital to the novel’s success, is only a part, and the less significant part, of its achievement, just as the brilliant account of Long Island society in The Great Gatsby is a vital but relatively minor part of its achievement. The particularized world of The Last Tycoon is an image of experience.
The queerness of experience is everywhere in the novel, inherent in the crass and ordinary life of Hollywood. With some irony but more seriousness, Fitzgerald had made the mad priest of “Absolution” say of the amusement park that was his image of the ideal life, “but don’t get up close because if you do you’ll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.” But the late Fitzgerald does not share Father Schwartz’s sentimental regret for the enchanted, distant prospect of the world’s fair or his conviction that actual life consists wholly of unendurable heat and sweat. He has got up close and found that it is, if thoroughly sweaty, also wonderfully strange and even funny. When Martha Dodd, the faded star of silent pictures, remembers her days of fame, she says with a wistfulness all the more moving for its incongruous expression: “I had a beautiful place in 1928—thirty acres, with a miniature golf course and a pool and a gorgeous view. All spring I was up to my ass in daisies.” When Cecilia, hearing some one moaning in the closet of her father’s office, rushes over and opens the door, her father’s secretary, with the wonderful name of Birdy Peters, “tumble[s] out stark naked—just like a corpse in the movies”—except that she is faint and covered with sweat from the heat of the closet.
This sense of the queerness of commonplace existence spreads through the book’s vision of life beyond Hollywood. When the pilot in Nashville tells “the awful-looking yet discernibly attractive” drunk that they will not take him on the next flight, he says earnestly, “Only going up in ee air.” “Not this time, old man,” the pilot says. And Cecilia observes, “In his disappointment the drunk fell off the bench—and above the phonograph, the loudspeaker summoned us respectable people outside.” When Kathleen, who has constantly disconcerted Stahr by her European, her almost peasant inclination to calculate what there is for her in their relation, finally tells Stahr her story, it turns out, in the most plausible way in the world, that she has spent a large part of her adult life as the mistress of a king.
But perhaps the most beautiful image of the book’s sustained sense of the everyday queerness of experience is the scene of the consummation of Stahr and Kathleen’s love. The scene makes clear another element of Fitzgerald’s perception, the element that dictated the earthquake at the beginning of their love, that earthquake which set everything visibly afloat and moving. Indeed, everything in the novel is afloat and moving, in an earnest and fumbling way which is at the same time a rapid drift toward the waste pipe. Nothing stands still and no one can afford to wait for things to be just right. Even while Stahr decides to wait a day before proposing to Kathleen, for instance, Kathleen’s fiance is unexpectedly on his way to marry her, and the next thing Stahr knows he is looking at a telegram that says: “I was married at noon today. Goodbye; and”— Fitzgerald’s sense of the everyday absurdity of things notes—“on a sticker attached, Send your answer by Western Union Telegram.”
Stahr and Kathleen had consummated their love on a visit to a house Stahr was building at Malibu. Characteristically, it was only half finished, surrounded by concrete mixers, yellow wood, and builders’ rubble. But Stahr had given “a premature luncheon” the week before and had “had some props brought out—some grass and things.” Kathleen laughed and said, “Isn’t that real grass?” “Oh, yes,” Stahr said, “—it’s grass.” Just before they leave this half-finished house with its quite real but of course temporary lawn and furnishings, Kathleen reminds Stahr that perhaps he only thinks he loves her because she looks like his dead wife; he says simply, “You look more like she actually looked than how she was on the screen,” and Kathleen gets up, goes over to a closet, and comes back wearing an apron.
She stared around critically.
“Of course we’ve just moved in,” she said, “—and there’s a sort of echo.”
Within this queer, half-finished, floating world with its ghostly echoes, which constitutes the unavoidable condition for everyone, Stahr works to build something. As a young man, Fitzgerald had thought that if you are any good you dominate life; Stahr, who began life leading a street gang in the Bronx, does dominate it for a while, by the exercise of imagination and will. Fitzgerald calls him “the last of the princes” and Stahr calls himself “chief clerk.” Both are right. Stahr is a genuine aristocrat, in contrast to phonies like Brady who keeps a painting of Will Rogers in his office to suggest his “essential kinship with Hollywood’s St. Francis,” and the Cafe-Society aristocracy of Hollywood—“from Wall Street, Grand Street, Loudoun County, Virginia, and Odessa, Russia.” “[Stahr] had a long time ago run ahead through trackless wastes of perception into fields where very few men were able to follow him.” He knows as few men do what has to be done, and knows too the unavoidable conditions in which it has to be done. When Boxley, the British novelist Stahr has hired as a script-writer, says complainingly, “It’s this mass production,” Stahr says, “That’s the condition. There’s always some lousey condition.” To using the complex technique of the movies and the muddle of Hollywood to make something under his condition, Stahr devotes all his energy, as the fine scenes of one of his working days show.
But this is not the only condition, for Stahr has also to dominate an economic organization. On one side, he is under attack from people like Brady who do not want to create something but only to make something for themselves. “I want,” Fitzgerald said in one of his notes for the book, “to contrast [Stahr’s attitude] sharply with the feeling of those who have merely gypped another person’s empire away from them like the four great railroad kings of the coast.” On the other side, Stahr is under attack from organized labor and the Communists. In part these two attacking groups work together: Brady’s plot to murder Stahr involves Wylie White of the Writers’ Guild and Robinson, the cutter. But Brimmer, the Communist organizer, can understand Stahr and even feel sympathy with him. “I never thought that I had more brains than a writer has,” Stahr tells him. “But I always thought that his brains belonged to me—because I knew how to use them… Do you see? I don’t say it’s right. But it’s the way I’ve always felt—since I was a boy.” And Brimmer says, “You understand yourself very well, Mr. Stahr.” When Stahr says to him, “You don’t really think you’re going to overthrow the government,” Brimmer says, “No, Mr. Stahr. But we think perhaps you are.” And Stahr, remembering all the Bradys of his world, the American business world, cannot be sure Brimmer is wrong.
Stahr is a tycoon, a great Prince, because he is not just a tycoon in Time magazine’s sense but the image of genuine authority in a democratic society. The particular form authority has taken in him is necessarily the form required for authority by the comparatively old-fashioned capitalism in which he grew up. That was the condition, and he may well be the last tycoon of that kind there will be. But the essential qualities of the great Prince which he possesses will be needed by any society if it is to be any good. Brimmer knows that; it is the source of his sympathy with Stahr. On the other hand, the contrast between Stahr and Brady represents a contrast which Fitzgerald plainly felt runs, not only through modern American business society, but through the whole of American history. His imagination was haunted by the difficulty of recreating, over and over again, the tradition of responsibility that Stahr instinctively represents. The tradition is there, but the people who are capable of realizing it cannot see it: the fluidity of American society keeps them unaware of it, so that they are forced, against the odds, to recreate it from scratch each generation. There is, then, great irony in calling Stahr a tycoon. He is, in all essentials, truly a great Prince, but these are the last terms in which he could conceive of himself because he is a great Prince, not as the real tycoons were, with the support of a whole society and its dominant tradition, but in spite of them.
This aspect of Fitzgerald’s understanding is stressed at regular intervals. The book opens with an example of what this ignorance can mean. A producer named Manny Schwartz, who has been defeated in Hollywood, arrives by pure accident on the steps of The Hermitage at the moment he has decided in despair to commit suicide. He too was once a prince, if a minor one. “I have decided,” he says to Wylie White when he stays on at The Hermitage. “Once I used to be a regular man of decision—you’d be surprised.” And then Fitzgerald says:
He had come a long way from some Ghetto to present himself at that raw shrine. Manny Schwartz and Andrew Jackson—it was hard to say them in the same sentence. It was doubtful if he knew who Andrew Jackson was as he wandered around, but perhaps he figured that if people had preserved his house Andrew Jackson must have been someone who was large and merciful, able to understand.
The tradition is there in American society, but for the people who need it most it is very difficult to know.
About a quarter of the way through the book, a Danish prince who is visiting the studio sees an extra dressed as Lincoln in the studio commissary. “This, then, he thought, was what they all meant to be.” Then, with Fitzgerald’s acute sense of the queer way the miracle lives in the commonplace in American society, he adds: “Lincoln suddenly raised a triangle of pie and jammed it in his mouth, and, a little frightened, Prince Agge hurried to join Stahr.” “Stahr,” as Boxley thinks later, “was an artist only, as Mr. Lincoln was a general, perforce and as a layman.” Such has always been the character of American life.
About halfway through the book, Stahr was to have visited Washington, but he has an attack of grippe there and moves around the city in a high fever, so that he never gets acquainted with it and its meaning as he wanted to, just as Schwartz never found out who Andrew Jackson was. This parallel between the moral and economic conflict in Hollywood and the conflicting moral and economic traditions of American society, and this reiteration of a fluid society’s a-historical blindness make Fitzgerald’s novel an image of American experience, not only in our time, but through the country’s history.
We cannot tell, of course, what the exact emphasis of the novel’s conclusion would have been, but Stahr is a dying man all through it and is killed in the crash of a transcontinental plane at the end, after having been defeated—though he does not stop fighting—in his battle for control of the studio. In any event, Stahr is the last tycoon. Fitzgerald shows us all his limitations, the bad side of his paternalism, the laissez-faire attitude which forces him to connive at building a company union. The novel pretty clearly implies that the forms within which Stahr, as a man of his time, has learned to work are doomed. In this sense Stahr is the last tycoon, the last of the typical rulers of a doomed and on the whole unregretted social order. But from Brimmer the Communist and Wylie White the intelligent rascal to Jim, the young boy of the epilogue, those who can understand know how vital to any kind of society Stahr’s real gifts are. In this sense, though Stahr is the last prince of this particular dynasty, he is only the latest ruler of a great tradition that runs back through Lincoln and Andrew Jackson and will produce in the future people who, in another style, become Princes, as Lincoln became a general, perforce and as laymen. For this, as Prince Agge saw, was what the best of them all meant to be. Perhaps, then, we may guess at the effect Fitzgerald would have aimed at in his treatment of Stahr’s end from the effect he produced at the end of “Afternoon of an Author.”
Fitzgerald too had been through some trackless wastes of perception. It seems to me difficult to deny that The Last Tycoon is an extended exercise of a perception of great distinction in marvelously close contact with actual life. The notes Fitzgerald wrote to himself about the novel formulate this perception only in the crudest general way, as does the note about the railroad kings “who gypped another person’s empire away from them.” This is expository shorthand, similar in character to Dr. Johnson’s queer habit of writing a poem in his head and then jotting down only the first part of each line; the important part was the poetry in his mind—“some unfinished/Chaos in your head,” as Fitzgerald called it. It was when Fitzgerald created an action, a fiction, that his full perception was realized. If we look at the perception realized in The Last Tycoon without allowing ourselves to be influenced by our judgment of Fitzgerald’s personal life or of his opinions, what we see is a remarkable awareness of the actual, in all its ordinariness and all its strangeness, together with an acceptance of what we are so complete and unqualified by romantic irony that it can take even heroism like Stahr’s, with mild amusement, as a kind of vice. There is certainly nothing juvenile about such a perception, and even less that suggests Fitzgerald’s novels are illustrated ideas. This is, in fact, the kind of perception that the mature imagination achieves.
Arthur Mizener is a professor at Cornell. He is the author of a biography of Fitzgerald.
Published in The Sewanee Review magazine LXVII (Autumn 1959), pp. 658-675. Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection Of Critical Essays ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963).