The notices in the press referring to Scott Fitzgerald’s untimely death produced in the reader the same strange feeling that you have when, after talking about some topic for an hour with a man, it suddenly comes over you that neither you nor he has understood a word of what the other was saying. The gentlemen who wrote these pieces obviously knew something about writing the English language, and it should follow that they knew how to read it. But shouldn’t the fact that they had set themselves up to make their livings as critics of the work of other men furnish some assurance that they recognized the existence of certain standards in the art of writing? If there are no permanent standards, there is no criticism possible.
It seems hardly necessary to point out that a well written book is a well written book whether it’s written under Louis XIII or Joe Stalin or on the wall of a tomb of an Egyptian Pharaoh. It’s the quality of detaching itself from its period while embodying its period that marks a piece of work as good. I would have no quarrel with any critic who examined Scott Fitzgerald’s work and declared that in his opinion it did not detach itself from its period. My answer would be that my opinion was different. The strange thing about the articles that came out about Fitzgerald’s death was that the writers seemed to feel that they didn’t need to read his books; all they needed for a license to shovel them into the ashcan was to label them as having been written in such and such a period now past. This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that these gentlemen had no other standards than the styles of window-dressing on Fifth Avenue. It means that when they wrote about literature all they were thinking of was the present rating of a book on the exchange, a matter which has almost nothing to do with its eventual value. For a man who was making his living as a critic to write about Scott Fitzgerald without mentioning The Great Gatsby just meant that he didn’t know his business. To write about the life of a man as important to American letters as the author of The Great Gatsby in terms of last summer’s styles in ladies’ hats, showed an incomprehension of what it was all about, that, to anyone who cared for the art of writing, was absolutely appalling. Fortunately there was enough of his last novel already written to still these silly yappings. The celebrity was dead. The novelist remained.
It is tragic that Scott Fitzgerald did not live to finish The Last Tycoon. Even as it stands I have an idea that it will turn out to be one of those literary fragments that from time to time appear in the stream of a culture and profoundly influence the course of future events. His unique achievement, in these beginnings of a great novel, is that here for the first time he has managed to establish that unshakable moral attitude towards the world we live in and towards its temporary standards that is the basic essential of any powerful work of the imagination. A firmly anchored ethical standard is something that American writing has been struggling towards for half a century.
During most of our history our writers have been distracted by various forms of the double standard of morals. Most of our great writers of the early nineteenth century were caught on the tarbaby of the decency complex of the period, so much more painful in provincial America than on Queen Grundy’s own isle. Since the successful revolt of the realists under Dreiser, the dilemma has been different, but just as acute. A young American proposing to write a book is faced by the world, the flesh and the devil on the one hand and on the other by the cramped schoolroom of the highbrows with its flyblown busts of the European great and its priggish sectarian attitudes. There’s popular fiction and fortune’s bright roulette wheel, and there are the erratic aspirations of the longhaired men and shorthaired women who, according to the folklore of the time, live on isms and Russian tea, and absinthe and small magazines of verse. Everybody who has put pen to paper during the last twenty years has been daily plagued by the difficulty of deciding whether he’s to do “good” writing that will satisfy his conscience or “cheap” writing that will satisfy his pocketbook. Since the standards of value have never been strongly established, it’s often been hard to tell which was which. As a result all but the most fervid disciples of the cloistered muse have tended to try to ride both horses at once, or at least alternately. That effort and the subsequent failure to make good either aim, has produced hideous paroxysms of moral and intellectual obfuscation. A great deal of Fitzgerald’s own life was made a hell by this sort of schizophrenia, that ends in paralysis of the will and of all the functions of body and mind. No durable piece of work, either addressed to the pulps or to the ages, has ever been accomplished by a double-minded man. To attain the invention of any sound thing, no matter how trivial, demands the integrated effort of somebody’s whole heart and whole intelligence. The agonized efforts of split personalities to assert themselves in writing has resulted, on the money side, in a limp pandering to every conceivable low popular taste and prejudice, and, on the angels’ side, in a sterile connoisseur viewpoint that has made “good” writing, like vintage wines and old colonial chairs, a coefficient of the leisure of the literate rich.
One reason for the persistence of this strange dualism and the resulting inefficiency of the men and women who have tried to create literature in this country is that few of us have really faced the problem of who was going to read what we wrote. Most of us started out with a dim notion of a parliament of our peers and our betters through the ages that would eventually screen out the vital grain. To this the Marxists added the heady picture of the onmarching avenging armies of the proletariat who would read your books round their campfires. But as the years ground on both the aristocratic republic of letters of the eighteenth century and the dreams of a universal first of May have receded further and further from the realities we have had to live among. Only the simple requirements of the editors of mass circulation magazines with income based on advertising have remained fairly stable, as have the demands of the public brothels of Hollywood, where retired writers, after relieving their consciences by a few sanctimonious remarks expressing what is known in those haunts as “integrity,” have earned huge incomes by setting their wits to work to play up to whatever tastes of the average man seemed easiest to cash in on at any given moment.
This state of things is based, not, as they try to make us believe, on the natural depravity of men with brains, but on the fact that for peace as well as for war industrial techniques have turned the old world upside down. Writers are up today against a new problem of illiteracy. Fifty years ago you either learned to read and write or you didn’t learn. The constant reading of the bible in hundreds of thousands of humble families kept a basic floor of literacy under literature as a whole, and under the English language. The variety of styles of writing so admirably represented, the relative complexity of many of the ideas involved and the range of ethical levels to be found in that great compendium of ancient Hebrew culture demanded, in its reading and in its exposition to the children, a certain mental activity, and provided for the poorer classes the same sort of cultural groundwork that the study of Greek and Latin provided for the sons of the rich. A mind accustomed to the Old and New Testaments could easily admit Shakespeare and the entire range of Victorian writing: poetry, novels, historic and scientific essays, up to the saturation point of that particular intelligence. Today the English-speaking peoples have no such common basic classical education. The bottom level is the visual and aural culture of the movies, not a literary level at all. Above that appear all sorts of gradations of illiteracy, from those who, though they may have learned to read in school, are now barely able to spell out the captions in the pictures, to those who can take in, with the help of the photographs, a few simple sentences out of the daily tabloids, right through to the several millions of actively literate people who can read right through The Saturday Evening Post or The Reader’s Digest and understand every word of it. This is the literal truth. Every statistical survey that has recently been made of literacy in this country has produced the most staggering results. We have to face the fact that the number of Americans capable of reading a page of anything not aimed at the mentality of a child of twelve is not only on the decrease but probably rapidly on the decrease. A confused intimation of this situation has, it seems to me, done a great deal to take the ground from under the feet of intelligent men who in the enthusiasm of youth decided to set themselves up to be writers. The old standards just don’t ring true to the quicker minds of this unstable century. Literature, who for? they ask themselves. It is natural that they should turn to the easy demands of the popular market, and to that fame which if it is admittedly not deathless is at least ladled out publicly and with a trowel.
Scott Fitzgerald was one of the inventors of that kind of fame. As a man he was tragically destroyed by his own invention. As a writer his triumph was that he managed in The Great Gatsby and to a greater degree in The Last Tycoon to weld together again the two divergent halves, to fuse the conscientious worker that no creative man can ever really kill with the moneyed celebrity who aimed his stories at the twelve-year-olds. In The Last Tycoon he was even able to invest with some human dignity the pimp and pander aspects of Hollywood. There he was writing, not for highbrows or for lowbrows, but for whoever had enough elementary knowledge of the English language to read through a page of a novel.
Stahr, the prime mover of a Hollywood picture studio who is the central figure, is described with a combination of intimacy and detachment that constitutes a real advance over the treatment of such characters in all the stories that have followed Dreiser and Frank Norris. There is no trace of envy or adulation in the picture. Fitzgerald writes about Stahr, not as a poor man writing about someone rich and powerful, nor as the impotent last upthrust of some established American stock sneering at a parvenu Jew; but coolly, as a man writing about an equal he knows and understands. Immediately a frame of reference is established that takes into the warm reasonable light of all-around comprehension the Hollywood magnate and the workers on the lot and the people in the dusty sunscorched bungalows of Los Angeles. In that frame of reference acts and gestures can be described on a broad and to a certain degree passionlessly impersonal terrain of common humanity.
This establishment of a frame of reference for common humanity has been the main achievement and the main utility of writing which in other times and places has come to be called great. It requires, as well as the necessary skill with the tools of the trade, secure standards of judgment that can only be called ethical. Hollywood, the subject of The Last Tycoon, is probably the most important and the most difficult subject for our time to deal with. Whether we like it or not it is in that great bargain sale of five and ten cent lusts and dreams that the new bottom level of our culture is being created. The fact that at the end of a life of brilliant worldly successes and crushing disasters Scott Fitzgerald was engaged so ably in a work of such importance proves him to have been the first-rate novelist his friends believed him to be. In The Last Tycoon he was managing to invent a set of people seen really in the round instead of lit by an envious spotlight from above or below. The Great Gatsby remains a perfect example of this sort of treatment at an earlier, more anecdotic, more bas relief stage, but in the fragments of The Last Tycoon, you can see the beginning of a real grand style. Even in their unfinished state these fragments, I believe, are of sufficient dimensions to raise the level of American fiction to follow in some such way as Marlowe’s blank verse line raised the whole level of Elizabethan verse.
It is a letter from John Dos Passos, dated February 01, 1936. Published in The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1945).