One day about a year before he died Scott Fitzgerald invited my wife and me to lunch at the place where he was staying, the guest-house on a movie actor’s ranch in the San Fernando Valley. He wanted that lunch to be something a little special because a few weeks before he had disappointed us at the very last minute by telling us at 8 P.M. that he simply could not appear at a dinner party which we had built around him and some New York friends of his. He simply could not face that many-thirteen-people. That left thirteen at table and an extra girl, and I was pretty sore. But as always happened, with me and with everyone else who had the same admiration and affection for Scott, I got over it. After the initial invitation to lunch he called us several times again; he said he was thinking of asking L., a beautiful movie actress. Did we know her? Like her? Well, we knew her, and didn’t like her, but we didn’t say so. Next day he called and said he had decided not to ask L. and was asking N., also a beautiful movie actress. Actually he never invited either charmer, but he was glamorizing our lunch in advance. He wanted it to be something special, and it was.
When we rang the doorbell the door suddenly swung open and there was a little man in a rather startling Halloween mask, muttering Gullah or double-talk. We took it big and Scott enjoyed that. We sat down to lunch very late because we did a lot of talking, or at least Scott did. At that precise second in history both he and I were on the wagon, but I guess both of us were showing off before my wife and we were talking about writing. After lunch he went upstairs and got some books (a life of Caesar and something of Thackeray’s) for me, and a Glen plaid tie for my wife, which exactly matched her suit. Then we were back at writing-talk, and as I say, this day was something special because Scott brought out his notebooks containing the kind of random, fugitive memoranda that many writers keep, and then he made me comfortable with cushions, cigarettes, cokes, and asked me to read what he had written on “The Last Tycoon.” I had no way of knowing that the stuff Scott was showing me that afternoon was to provide at least a part-time career for one of our most distinguished critics, but of course I have no way of looking into the future, and you never can tell about critics.
The critic in this case is Edmund Wilson, who already has shall we say sponsored the unfinished “The Last Tycoon,” and who now appears with a book which bears the title “The Crack-Up,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by Edmund Wilson.” It also has on the title page these words: “With Other Uncollected Pieces, Note-Books and Unpublished Letters-Together with Letters to Fitzgerald from Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos-And Essays and Poems by Paul Rosenfeld, Glenway Wescott, John Dos Passos, John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson.”
Fitzgerald at least once called Mr. Wilson his “intellectual conscience” and because of that I find myself wondering where was Wilson’s own intellectual conscience when he “did” this book, for I regard its publication as an unfriendly act. Let us examine the contents of the book in the order of their appearance:
Item: a piece called “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” This came out in, I believe, the old Scribner’s in 1931. It was a fast and accurate report and restatement of the period to which America gave Fitzgerald’s name. Item: “My Lost City,” a kind of sequel to the other, which Fitzgerald handed to his agent in July, 1932. Item: “Ring,” which was Fitzgerald’s contribution to the stockpile of Lardner obituaries, and the best of that lot. It contains the sentence: “He had agreed with himself to speak only a small portion of his mind.” This one appeared in 1933, and in the twelve succeeding years and in all the years preceding Lardner’s death no one has spoken wiser literary words about Ring. Item: a piece called “Show Mr. And Mrs. F. to Number--.” Hotels he had stopped at. Item: “Auction-Model 1934.” Junk he had bought. Item: “Sleeping and Waking.” Sleeping and waking. Item: “The Crack-Up.” The orgy of self-pity which, characteristically, the magazine Esquire and the critic Edmund Wilson thought was good, but which should have been suppressed at the mail-box. “…And if you throw me a bone with enough meat on it I may even lick your hand.” Item: “Early Success.” What every young writer should-and does-know.
Those items, even when they are bad, are the only legitimate excuses for the trouble. If any, Scott Fitzgerald’s Intellectual Conscience went to… At least they are Scott Fitzgerald, signed by him and therefore by him approved for publication. That’s the chance you take when you put a piece in the mail; you take the chance of its being published, forever somewhere in print to be exhumed by a candidate for a Master’s Degree at Hardin-Simmons College or by a critic who was your friend and is your literary executor.
Then on, relentlessly, to the notebooks and to the letters from Fitzgerald to (naturally) Edmund Wilson and others, including Fitzgerald’s daughter, and to Fitzgerald, mostly from established writers to whom Scott had sent what must have been extravagantly inscribed copies of his books. The To-Fitzgerald letters we can pass up without further comment, but the notebooks and the From-Fitzgerald letters, or their publication, demand our beligerent if brief attention.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was the author of “This Side of Paradise,” “The Beautiful and Damned,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender Is the Night,” among other books. Each, of course, was good, and they were all different, but any man (or woman) with the slightest feeling for fine, truly fine writing must see that all of Scott’s writings had this one thing in common: they were the work of a most conscientious craftsman. That isn’t good enough, really. He was a tortured, experimenting, honest artist. The stuff read so easily that perhaps you had to have some feeling for writing and perhaps the tiniest curiosity about it to be aware of the conscientiousness of it, the sweat and tears and, literally, in Scott’s case, the blood. I once said to Dorothy Parker, “Scott can’t write a bad piece.”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “He can write a bad piece, but he can’t writing badly.:
And ,of course, as usual she was right. But we were speaking of “Tender Is the Night,” which we had just read in page-proof. We were speaking of a work that had been completed and approved, which had taken five years and more in the doing. We were not speaking of notebooks and letter which never had bee intended for publication.
Great writers’ letters (and, I suppose, their notebooks) often are interesting. They have an attraction for the busy body in all of us, and to my way of thinking a small case can be made out for their private publication. It is possible that this book may easily achieve the status of private publication, but I doubt that that was Wilson’s intention, and unless it was his intention he has done Fitzgerald a disservice in throwing together this collection of odds and ends. You don’t do that to a painstaking artist. Or maybe you do, if you are a critic.
There is a good deal of cop’s blood in an individual who makes a career of being a critic, and while the policeman’s lit is said not to be a happy one, my sympathies are understandably and always with the poor slob who gets it with a nightstick.
On Aug. 15, 1920, in a letter to Wilson Scott Fitzgerald said: “For God’s sake Bunny write a novel and don’t waste your time editing collections. It’ll get to be a habit.”
That’s all, brother.
Published in The New York Times newspaper (July 8, 1945).