F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoön
by Robert Sklar

Chapter eleven

As F. Scott Fitzgerald brought Tender Is the Night to a close in the fall and winter months of 1933, the novel became for him more than merely a work of art, more even than the means for recovering the lost ground of his literary reputation. Rather it served as a test of his own personal strength and will, a setting for his own self-affirmation. The Great Gatsby had been a kind of tour de force, he told John Peale Bishop; Tender Is the Night was “a confession of faith.” In his art he created the beauty and weakness of an outmoded style of life; for himself he proclaimed a new mode of behavior. “For me the test of human values is conformity to the strictest and most unflinching rationality,” he wrote Margaret Turnbull as he worked on the novel, “while in your case it is based on standards of conduct.” Between his values, and the conduct of the characters he had created in Tender Is the Night, a great gulf had opened up. “Work really was the best thing with which to fill a life,” he wrote in a Saturday Evening Post story late in 1932. With his daughter and her friends he took every opportunity to impress the new philosophy. “The only thing I ever told you definitely was that popularity is not worth a damn and respect is worth everything, and what do you care about happiness—and who does except the perpetual children of this world?” he wrote Andrew Turnbull; and in his first letter to his daughter, Frances, he said, “All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly.” Dick Diver was thirty-seven years old at the climax of Tender Is the Night, exactly Fitzgerald's age when he completed it; consciously Fitzgerald applied to himself the same standards of judgment as to his hero, and asserted to the world that he had passed where Diver failed. He had decided, as he told Maxwell Perkins, “to be a serious man.”

In completing Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald regained his self-esteem, proclaimed his own self-mastery. But it was too late now for him to wipe the old slate clean; the waste and sadness of the past possessed him still. Zelda Fitzgerald remained seriously ill. In January 1934, she suffered her third mental breakdown, and her illness absorbed Fitzgerald's energy and concentration at a critical moment in the revision of his manuscript. Moreover, he had fallen deeply in debt to his agent and his publishers, and to meet expenses he put aside the novel five times to write short stories for the Post. Only one, “More than Just a Home,” holds any lasting interest. Like Tender Is the Night it assesses the values of the genteel American past, symbolized in the story by an old Victorian house resembling the one Fitzgerald lived in at the time. At the end the house stands empty within and deteriorating outside. “Whatever its further history, the whole human effort of collaboration was done now. The purpose of the house was achieved—finished and folded—it was an effort toward some commonweal, an effort difficult to estimate, so closely does it press against us still.” If Fitzgerald meant to assert he had survived that vanished genteel past, with which his art and mind were bound so closely, two sentimental Post stories he published in the fall of 1933 belied him.

His entrapment by the past was complicated by the difficulties of preparing Tender Is the Night for publication. Once more, as with The Great Gatsby, he faced the dilemma of advertising a novel whose subject matter would not suggest the art and intelligence brought to bear on it. “Don't accentuate that it deals with Americans abroad—there's been too much trash under that banner,” he warned Perkins, and again: “Please do not use the phrase 'Riviera' or 'gay resorts.' Not only does it sound like the triviality of which I am so often accused, but also the Riviera has been so thoroughly exploited by E. Phillips Oppenheim and a whole generation of writers and its very mention invokes a feeling of unreality and insubstantiality.” For publicity and exposure, moreover, as well as for more money, Fitzgerald decided to publish the novel as a serial in Scribner's Magazine. He wanted to bring out the novel in April 1934, in advance of the European travel season, so it was split up into four magazine installments starting in January. Fitzgerald had serialized only one previous novel, The Beautiful and Damned, and had hardly changed it at all in shifting it from magazine to book. With his next novel. The Great Gatsby, he had decided against magazine publication because he wanted time to revise and improve the text. Now for Tender Is the Night he wanted both serial publication and time for revising the text. But serialization doubled his work and cut in half the time he had to do it. Then he gave away a full month of working time by going on a holiday to Bermuda just before Christmas.

Inevitably the result was haste and confusion, which contributed not only to the errors and repetitions that appeared in the novel, but to the more fundamental weaknesses in the novel's form. The first serial installment went to press with almost no revision. Later installments were revised so heavily in galley proof that type had to be completely re-set. “Please do not send me any book galley for the present,” he told Perkins in mid-January, “just hold it there. I am already confused by the multiplicity of irons I have in the fire and as far as possible would prefer to do the book galley in one or two long stretches.” But he found time to revise only the first section of the novel, the part he had failed to go over for the serial; the latter part went into print with little change from the serial version.

Fitzgerald's concern with form was conveyed in a revealing remark to Perkins early in February. In the serial version he wanted to preserve the scene where Mary North and Lady Caroline Sibley-Biers are arrested for picking up two French girls while dressed as sailors. “It is legitimate to ruin Dick but it is by no means legitimate to make him an ineffectual,” he insisted. “In the proof I am pointing up the fact that his intention dominated all this last part, but it is not enough, and the foreshortening without the use of this scene … does not contain enough of him for the reader to reconstruct his whole personality as viewed as a unit throughout—and the reason for this is my attempt to tell the last part entirely through Nicole's eyes. I was even going to have her in on the Cannes episode but decided against it because of the necessity of seeing Dick alone.” Fitzgerald was not unaware of the weak points in his novel, but in the early months of 1934 he lacked time and energy to correct them; or correction may no longer have been possible for him, or even important. “The thing is perhaps too crowded for story readers to search it through for the story,” he admitted to Perkins, “but it can't be helped, there are times when you have to get every edge of your fingernails on paper.” He had completed what he had set out to do, and he would commit it to the reviewers as it stood.

Almost a decade had gone by since Fitzgerald last offered up a book to major newspaper and magazine reviewers, and an era had passed into history. But the review pages remained calm ports in the storm, sturdy relics of continuity in an age of flux. The New York Times Book Review under J. Donald Adams and the New York Herald Tribune's daily reviews by Lewis Gannett indeed had grown more conventional and conservative than they had been a decade before. Among those who reviewed Tender Is the Night in April 1934 were Henry Seidel Canby and Mary M. Colum, who had reviewed The Beautiful and Damned twelve years previously. Legend has it that left-wing critics were lying hostilely in wait to ambush Tender Is the Night; instead Fitzgerald placed his last and most mature novel about the postwar period into the hands of reviewers who looked back nostalgically on This Side of Paradise, and who regarded him as a fair-haired college boy gone wrong.

The conventional reviewers wrote a majority of the reviews in the first week after publication, and their tone was the same one genteel reviewers had taken toward Fitzgerald ever since he strayed from their fold. “His mental nutriment seems to have been a trifle too jazzy,” Miss Colum complained, “and lacking in some of those more solid vitamins which give a writer sympathy with the characters he is creating … he has never really mediated on life.” J. Donald Adams agreed. “One looked, too, for more deepening of tone, for a firmer grasp of life,” he said. “His new book is clever and brilliantly surfaced, but it is not the work of a wise and mature novelist.” John Chamberlain reviewed the novel intelligently and favorably in The New York Times. Horace Gregory handled the book intelligently but with less enthusiasm in the New York Herald Tribune Books supplement. In general, though, Tender Is the Night failed to meet the standards of the first reviewers, not as a work of art but as a work of philosophy; and not because it lacked radicalism in radical times, but because it was not conservative enough for the conventional genteel reviewers.

C. Hartley Grattan, reviewing the novel in July for the most radical periodical that gave it space, saw the situation exactly. Dick Diver's fate, he wrote in The Modern Monthly, “is so close to that of unstable personalities in any place and time that it has been perversely misread by those critics anxious to avoid the implications of the whole book.” More than any other reviewer Grattan caught the full implications of the novel; thus it was the most radical reviewer who saw how radical Fitzgerald's aims had been. Grattan quoted in full the passage describing how the world's economy toiled for Nicole. He grasped both the beauty and the corruption in the Divers' way of life, as Fitzgerald had intended it. He praised Fitzgerald as a novelist who “has grown steadily and now definitely promises to emerge as one of the really important interpreters of the upper middle class in our time.”

It was this promise, curiously, which a less radical but no less perceptive reviewer, William Troy in The Nation, found most disheartening. Troy related Dick Diver to Jay Gatsby, recognizing the common stereotype which underlay their characters. But “the repetition of the pattern,” he said, “turns out to be merely depressing. It is time now for Mr. Fitzgerald, with his remarkable technical mastery of his craft, to give us a character who is not the victim of adolescent confusion, who is strong enough to turn deaf ears to the jingling cymbals of the golden girl.”

By the time the reviews by Troy and Grattan appeared, the general reception and the sales possibilities of the novel had already been settled. This time Fitzgerald had not been so naïve as to expect the acclaim and financial success that he had hoped for Gatsby. He knew enough about professional reviewers by now so that any intelligent reading of his work might seem a bonus, and enough about his public to be aware that book sales would not make him rich. From an artistic point of view, he had as good reason to be satisfied with his accomplishments, and firm in his resolve, as at any other time in his career. Gilbert Seldes, the critic who had sensed his intentions and recognized his achievement more than any other in the past, said of Tender Is the Night, as Fitzgerald told a correspondent, “that I had done completely what I started out to do and that it was worth doing.” His old friends Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop, Christian Gauss, and H. L. Mencken gave him support and appreciation. But his old dilemma returned once more to haunt him.

Fitzgerald badly needed money, and yet he wished to be an artist, like Joyce or Stein, who stood above all mundane things. His hopes, it seems clear, rested on the possibility of selling Tender Is the Night to the movies; but neither the reviews nor the sales made the novel an attractive commercial prospect in the eyes of Hollywood. Without a movie sale he would have to go back to popular magazine fiction just to earn a living. “I would rather be an artist than a careerist,” he wrote H. L. Mencken a few days after Tender Is the Night was published. “I would rather impress my image (even though an image the size of a nickel) upon the soul of a people than be known except in so far as I have my natural obligation to my family—to provide for them. I would as soon be as anonymous as Rimbaud, if I could feel that I had accomplished that purpose—and that is no sentimental yapping about being disinterested. It is simply that, having once found the intensity of art, nothing else that can happen in life can ever again seem as important as the creative process.” Yet now he would have to descend once more to the trash he had come to despise. In the fall of 1933 he confessed to Maxwell Perkins, “What worries me is the possibility of being condemned to go back to The Saturday Evening Post grind at the exact moment when the book is finished. I suppose I could and probably will but I will need a damn good month's rest outdoors or traveling before I can even do that.” The victory he had gained over himself and his past was turning out to be no more than the first skirmish in a long and drawn-out war; now he should have to prove his new philosophy of virtue and work and duty, his claim to the title of “serious man,” all over again. But nearly all his energy and strength had been spent in the battle to finish Tender Is the Night.


Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald said, “completes my story of the boom years.” But instead of carrying his story up into the present, Fitzgerald turned next in his fiction to a setting more than a thousand years back in the past. In the month that Tender Is the Night was published, he wrote the first Philippe story for Redbook Magazine. Later in the fall he wrote three more episodes in the series about a young count in ninth-century France. “Am so fascinated with the medieval series,” he wrote Maxwell Perkins in November 1934, “that my problem is making them into proper butcher's cuts for monthly consumption. I have thought of the subject so long that an actual fertility of invention has become even a liability.” Fitzgerald's lifelong interest in history partly explains his desire to write a series of stories set in medieval France; but his treatment of the subject makes clear that other motives were at work as well. Like Mark Twain, whom he had emulated at another critical moment in his career, Fitzgerald retreated to the past more directly to confront the present. Mark Twain turned to a medieval setting in The Connecticut Yankee as a way of coping with the age of machines, and in “The Mysterious Stranger” to express his cosmic despair. Fitzgerald returned to ninth-century France, in the same way, as a means of handling in his art the political and social issues of the Great Depression.

Fitzgerald's Philippe de Villefranche lives in the late ninth century, two generations after Charlemagne. When Philippe was an infant his father had been killed and he and his mother carried off to Spain. Fitzgerald's story begins twenty years later as Philippe returns to wrest back his land from the invading Normans. His effort takes place in a setting of increasing disorder, the dissolution of institutions, a rapid decline into social chaos. The young and inexperienced Philippe struggles to gain control over his father's domain and to secure the allegiance of peasants who live on his land. For what he lacks in experience, Philippe makes up by toughness and resolution, by a naive daring tempered by sound political and strategic sense. Above all he can lead. He understands power and is capable of wielding it; in that harsh environment there is no other way to survive.

With his “Count of Darkness” Fitzgerald at last succeeded in creating a different type of hero from the genteel romantics who had dominated his fiction so long. Fitzgerald's ninth-century France bears no trace of the Victorian imagination; his Philippe is rude, and Philippe's men are cruder and crueler. Philippe and his entourage partake of a different form of romantic imagination. They resemble nothing so much as a band of lawless and yet somehow admirable gangsters, as the American imagination of the thirties envisioned such men in films like Public Enemy. They use contemporary American slang and gangster argot; Philippe commands the rough and biting wit of a Sam Spade. Philippe de Villefranche is one of the tough-guy heroes of the American thirties, a character one can bring to life by imagining Cagney or Bogart playing his role. Lacking the comic invention and fantasy of Mark Twain's medieval setting-aspects of Mark Twain's Victorian cast of mind that Fitzgerald now rejected—the Philippe stories became instead an incongruous mingling of historical and contemporary realism. Though Fitzgerald planned to write ten stories in the series and presumably to publish them quickly as a book, Redbook's editors had second thoughts after taking three. With only four completed Fitzgerald turned in disgust to other things; the fourth story, finally accepted by Redbook, was published only after his death.

After writing the first Philippe story in April 1934, Fitzgerald returned as he had forecast to the Post grind. He wrote three Post stories in the late spring and summer of 1934. In style and conception they rank among the weakest short stories Fitzgerald had written thus far in his career, but two make partial efforts to deal directly with the present. “No Flowers” compares three generations at their college proms, the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, the golden age just before 1917, and the “tin age” of the Great Depression. “New Types” even more directly carries on the effort begun in the Philippe series. Paula Tressinger is a new type: tough, ruthless, and determined. Leslie Dixon, back from long years in China, encounters this type he had not known in America before. “So with Paula now, facing her proud mask, he saw his country all over again. He felt, simultaneously, that awesome loneliness of that which had led them all here, and a pride in the fact that somehow they had done so many of the things they had promised to do in their hearts. The ambition of lonely farmers, perhaps—but the cloth of a great race cannot be made out of the frayed lint of tired princes…” The story ends sentimentally and happily.

Meanwhile, when Zelda Fitzgerald became ill once more, Fitzgerald polished up two of her short articles for Esquire, a new magazine that Arnold Gingrich had started in the autumn of 1933, and to which Ernest Hemingway was regularly contributing. “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number—” appeared in the May and June numbers, “Auction—Model 1934” in July, thus beginning the magazine connection that was to sustain Fitzgerald, if not financially at least as a publishing author, for the remainder of his life. In the fall of 1934 Fitzgerald wrote two short, mediocre stories for Esquire, “The Fiend” and “The Night Before Chancellorsville.” His total production, then, in the nine months from April to December 1934, showed no diminution of energy—nine stories, revising Zelda's articles and writing several of his own, and extensive but unsuccessful efforts to sell Tender Is the Night and another story to the movies. Certainly Fitzgerald was not shirking his work and duty; what virtue lay in such a miscellaneous and generally inferior output is another question. But it was only half the drain on Fitzgerald's energy during this period, and the other half contained the straws that broke the camel's back.

It had been customary for Fitzgerald throughout his career to publish a collection of short stories after each novel. But never before had he faced a situation like the one that confronted him after Tender Is the Night. All the stories he had written since “The Rich Boy” were available—counting his new stories of 1934, more than fifty in all—but there were few he had not stripped of a character or a phrase or an incident for Tender Is the Night. By midsummer 1934, he was hard at work selecting and checking. “The slow thing is to look through Tender Is the Night and see what phrases I took out of the stories,” he explained to Maxwell Perkins. “This is confused by the fact that there were so many revisions of Tender that I don't know what I left in it and what I didn't leave in it finally.” Once again he was trapped in a dilemma of his own making. Many of the good stories had been stripped. Scenes from “Jacob's Ladder,” “The Bowl,” and “Basil and Cleopatra” became part of Dick's love affair with Rosemary. Scenes from “One Trip Abroad” and “Indecision” went into the Swiss setting of the novel. A portion of “The Rough Crossing” was used for Dick's Atlantic voyage. But many of the stories that were still available Fitzgerald refused to reprint without extensive revision. “There are certain other stories in the collection that I couldn't possibly think of letting go out in their current form,” he wrote angrily when Perkins suggested revisions would not be necessary. “I fully realize that this may be a very serious inconvenience to you but for me to undertake anything like that at this moment would just mean sudden death and nothing less than that.”

He planned to work on new material during the daytime and revise the old stories in the evenings, but this heavy burden of work soon began to wear him down. Tired and wrought up, he had trouble sleeping nights, and his work in the day became doubly difficult. He missed the deadline for publishing the story collection in the fall, but still he worked on, sleeping less, and now once again drinking more. Forced back into the past to revise the stories he had written four or six years before, he found himself, like Charlie Wales in “Babylon Revisited,” prisoner of a past he was powerless to rectify. Like Dick Diver, he could neither avoid the past nor throw it over. Slowly, then with growing awareness, he discovered he could no longer maintain his belief that he was a “serious man.” In the summer and fall of 1934 Scott Fitzgerald's crack-up began.


“Crack-up” was Fitzgerald's name for the crisis of self-confidence he passed through after the publication of Tender Is the Night. Outwardly he suffered poor health and insomnia. He drank more, spoke bitterly about his profession, and constantly moralized with his daughter and her friends. His physical ills of course exacerbated his sense of artistic and intellectual failure, perhaps even served as its primary cause. After all he had determined that Tender Is the Night should be his final word on the genteel romantic hero, should put the seal on his story of the boom. He had avoided identifying himself with the plight of his hero Doctor Diver, had even affirmed his own career and purpose by creating the genteel hero's decline in his art. Moreover, he had known not to expect popular and financial success from the novel. Yet in the months after April 1934, he suffered as hard a fall as if he had been more than ever freighted with illusions.

In the heat of his triumph in finally completing Tender Is the Night he did not take to heart what his artistic success and his intellectual self-mastery implied : he did not fully appreciate that with Tender Is the Night he was closing off a subject for his fiction and the phase of his career directed to exploiting that subject. At the moment he proclaimed himself a “serious man,” asserting that virtue and work and duty were all that mattered to him in life, Fitzgerald no longer possessed a subject to be serious and virtuous and dutiful about. When at last it came clear to him, pressed upon him by the weight of a decade's dull and lifeless magazine production, his new self-affirmation crashed down like a house of cards. Lacking a subject to write about, Fitzgerald began to doubt he could go on as a writer. It was this self-doubt, replacing so swiftly the resurgence of competence and power he had felt as he finished Tender Is the Night, that made Fitzgerald fear he had cracked up.

The reception of Tender Is the Night was the first harsh blow to his self-confidence. He thought he was prepared for the worst from the reviewers, but public criticism is difficult for the healthiest of writers to take, and in Fitzgerald's case the good face he put on only briefly concealed the rankling he felt underneath. How deeply he had been hurt he made clear a few months later in an introduction to The Modern Library reissue of The Great Gatsby. He used the introduction as an opportunity to reply to conventional critics who had overpraised his early books and failed to understand Gatsby or Tender Is the Night. “How anybody could take up the responsibility of being a novelist without a sharp and concise attitude about life is a puzzle to me,” he said, alluding to the complaints of reviewers like Mary Colum and J. Donald Adams that he lacked a firm “grasp of life.” Recalling the days before he wrote Gatsby, he made a similar rebuttal: “I had recently been kidded half haywire by critics who felt that my material was such as to preclude all dealing with mature persons in a mature world. But, my God! it was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.” Fitzgerald's tone of bitter and yet uncertain self-justification was far different from the quiet confidence of “How To Waste Material: A Note on My Generation,” written after the disappointing reception of The Great Gatsby, or the firm conviction of Frank Norris's “The True Reward of the Novelist,” which his own introduction faintly echoes. “Your pride is all you have,” Fitzgerald wrote, “and if you let it be tampered with by a man who has a dozen prides to tamper with before lunch, you are promising yourself a lot of disappointments that a hard-boiled professional has learned to spare himself.” But after fifteen years as a professional, Fitzgerald himself had not yet learned.

Shortly after the reviews were in, Fitzgerald was jarred again by an unexpected blow from Ernest Hemingway. As far back as 1929, with A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway had emerged the winner in his personal competition with Fitzgerald for popularity and critical acclaim, so that Fitzgerald's continued caution in dealing with his friend seemed at times excessive almost to paranoia. But Fitzgerald's caution was justified: even twenty years after Fitzgerald's death Hemingway in A Moveable Feast still kept the battle going. Yet no form of caution could have prepared Fitzgerald for the cruel strike that Hemingway delivered in response to Tender Is the Night. Hemingway not only had reservations about the new novel; he expressed criticism of Fitzgerald's choice of a wife and deprecated The Great Gatsby. One need not be a partisan of either man to recognize that Hemingway no longer respected Fitzgerald, and that Fitzgerald, despite the even tone of his reply to Hemingway's “old charming frankness,” knew it.

Thereafter, blows came rapidly. Tender Is the Night failed to interest the movie studios, closing the door to a financial windfall that might have rescued the author from his debts and his indenture to the popular magazines. The Post meanwhile rejected a story, and Redbook vacillated over the medieval series. Growing physically weaker, drinking more, Fitzgerald was trapped in the fatiguing effort to put together a book from old and unsatisfactory stories. In the fall of 1934, a few installments of Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station appeared in The New Republic, and Fitzgerald wrote Wilson “to agree passionately with an idea that you put forth in a discussion of Michelet: that conditions irretrievably change men.” Only a few months before, Fitzgerald had reminded H. L. Mencken that he had decided to be an artist, rather than a careerist. By late 1934 it seemed unlikely he could manage to be either.

One of the curious ironies of Fitzgerald's crack-up period was the growing gap between the person and the legend, the way Fitzgerald thought and the way that others thought of him. In a time when scores of writers were turning left, it should hardly be necessary to insist that Fitzgerald turned, too. Yet Fitzgerald is rarely mentioned among the radical writers of the thirties : the incongruity with his reputation would be too great. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald for some time considered himself a communist. Early in the fall of 1934 he wrote his cousin, Mrs. Richard Taylor, that he had given up politics. “For two years I've gone half haywire trying to reconcile my double allegiance to the class I am part of, and the Great Change I believe in. … I have become disgusted with the party leadership and have only health left enough for my literary work, so I'm on the sidelines. It had become a strain making speeches at 'Leagues Against Imperialist War,' and their treatment of the Negro question finished me.” Fitzgerald had spoken on “How the War Came to Princeton” at a meeting of the Student Congress Against War in Baltimore. But more than a year later an anti-war drama he had written was played on a radio program called “World Peaceways”; Paul Robeson and Senator Gerald P. Nye also appeared on the show.

Yet in a realm far removed from pacifist politics and personal fate, a different Scott Fitzgerald ascended to a place of eminence he had hardly dared hope for. In the thirties no one had forgotten him; rather they rediscovered an earlier Fitzgerald. More precisely, they invented him. By the mid-thirties Fitzgerald already served as the symbol of the Flapper Age. All the complicated social changes of the postwar decade, the altered relationships between parents and children and the loosening of sexual mores, were simplified and condensed into one comprehensible image: the female heroine of F. Scott Fitzgerald's popular stories. Half a decade after their passage into history the twenties were recalled as “the F. Scott Fitzgerald era,” and the high-living, audacious young people who had vanished into a dull and serious maturity were remembered as “the F. Scott Fitzgerald generation.” For those who looked back with nostalgia and for those who looked back with derision Fitzgerald equally provided the symbols. To one his heroines were “golden girls,” to the other they were “flappers who treated their elders with fine high scorn.” As he passed through his crisis of self-confidence Fitzgerald meanwhile collected scores of magazine and newspaper clippings which recognized him as the creator or the spokesman for an age and a generation. Of course they gave him credit for much he had not done; inevitably the spokesman comes to stand for more than one person alone can encompass, and spokesman was a role that he had never shunned. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald was distressed to find himself called “the prophet of Flaming Youth and very little restraint.” He had been out of the country a decade earlier, and thus unaware, when conventional writers began to tar the moralist of the Flapper era with its amoralities.

In a newspaper interview he gave in 1935 Fitzgerald tried to restore some precision and subtlety to the legend of the generations. With his characteristic feeling for the nuances of social change he distinguished six different generations in the twenty years since the War. The prewar generation, the last generation in the Victorian tradition, he described as inhibited, and fundamentally moral in its ideas and actions. For the war generation, his own, Fitzgerald referred significantly to a novel: Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Between 1919 and 1929 Fitzgerald found two generations, neither of whom he admired. The postwar generation was essentially weak, he believed, without standards or vitality, and looked to the two earlier generations for guidance. Fitzgerald carefully dissociated himself from this generation, of whom he was thought to be the prophet. Rather he recalled the two controversial college novels of the mid-twenties, The Plastic Age and Flaming Youth, which had described the sex life of college youth with the lack of restraint of which Fitzgerald himself was accused. He carried his condemnation further toward the second generation of the twenties, the generation of the Boom, whom he called “brassy, metallic, and in their ethics unsympathetic.” Their best quality, he said, was a scorn of weakness, their worst, “a sort of inhumanity.” The generation of the Crash was similar to the War generation: the blow had given it dignity. Finally there came the generation of the Depression, the children of hard times. “The less the parents of today try to tell their children,” Fitzgerald cautioned, “the more effective they can be in making them believe in a few old truths. This generation should be held close to whatever elements of character we have been able to find and develop in ourselves.”

Fitzgerald talked often of character, but now with more confidence than ever, and in a review of Taps at Reveille, the new collection of stories, William Troy recognized that character had all along been Fitzgerald's principal theme. Taps at Reveille came out finally in the spring of 1935, and most reviewers treated it as an occasion either to pan or to shake their heads over Fitzgerald once more. But Troy took it as an opportunity to talk about Fitzgerald's career as a whole, and although he was critical he gave Fitzgerald a rare kind of intelligent and sympathetic review. “If Mr. Fitzgerald could enlarge his vision to correspond to his interest,” his interest, that is, in character, Troy wrote, “he would do much both for his own reputation and for the amelioration of current American fiction.”

By the time Taps at Reveille was published, the worst phase of the crack-up seemed over. Finishing the story collection and removing its burden from his shoulders helped boost Fitzgerald's spirits, and meanwhile he was trying hard to keep from drinking. Early in 1935 he wrote “The Intimate Strangers,” a sentimental popular story in the old manner, but which demonstrated at least his evocative romantic prose style, unimpaired, for the first time since Tender Is the Night. It showed that he could return to the familiar formula and do it just as well as ever, but he did not want to. The old manner and the old themes were dead, long live the new. But the new was yet to be born. “I've simply got to arrange something for this summer that will bring me to life again,” he wrote Perkins in April, “but what it should be is by no means apparent.” Searching his resources, he found nothing but Philippe. Two days later he wrote Perkins again with a plan for turning the medieval story into a novel, whatever Redbook thought of its parts. “That is my only plan,” he confessed. “I wish I had these great masses of manuscripts stored away like Wolfe and Hemingway but this goose is beginning to be pretty thoroughly plucked I am afraid.” He never carried the Philippe project further. Instead he slipped back into the conventional popular mode, but with far less success than before. The first story was fair of its type, the second mediocre. “It was easier” to write sentimental stories, he told Julian Street, who had praised one, “when I was young and believed in things and hoped that life might be a happy matter for some people. But as you learn that happiness is a prerogative of the perennial children of this world, and not too many of them, it becomes increasingly difficult.” In the summer of 1935 Scott Fitzgerald had recovered his health but not yet his hope: he was an archer who could find no more arrows in his quiver, a writer who apparently had nothing left to write.


Fitzgerald's art had always encompassed more than simply his life transformed into fiction: his best work possesses its beauty and its value because it was formed within literary traditions and social settings that transcend an artist's personality. Fitzgerald himself knew this, but he knew as well the limits of his inspiration. “Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that's the truth,” he wrote not long after he returned to genteel romantic heroism as the central theme for Tender Is the Night. “We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives … then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories—each time in a new disguise—maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.” His own two or three great and moving experiences took place in the realms of love and imagination: he wrote the best-seller and he won the girl. No doubt his personal success made possible the several score sentimental love stories he wrote. But he lost the girl, too—lost her momentarily to an adulterous act, and lost then, even more, the “golden girl” of his romantic imagination. This personal loss certainly must have provided some aspect of the emotional maturity and depth of understanding which shapes his best work, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Yet Fitzgerald was an artist, and no matter how often thereafter he founded his fiction in a sense of loss, he did so as an act of artistry and not as self-confession: the sense of loss was not specifically of his loss. His art was different from his life, and the greater his art the less it drew overtly on his life. So in fact he did possess one last, most personal of arrows for his bow, if only he cared to use it.

The summer of 1935 Fitzgerald lived at a resort hotel in Asheville, North Carolina. There he met a young married woman, and they engaged in a brief love affair. When it was past he wrote about it to the novelist James Boyd. “I have just emerged not totally unscathed, I'm afraid, from a short violent love affair …” he said. “I had done much better to let it alone because this was scarcely a time in my life for one more emotion. Still it's done now and tied up in cellophane and—and maybe some day I'll get a chapter out of it. God, what a hell of a profession to be a writer. One is one simply because one can't help it.” Whatever else the affair meant to him it seemed to release him from the burden of holding silently within himself the act of adultery which had caused his personal loss a decade before. Returning to Baltimore in early fall he wrote “Image on the Heart,” a short story quite clearly based on Zelda Fitzgerald's brief love affair with a French aviator in 1924.

A young American goes to meet his girl at a university town in southern France, where she has been studying. They are to be married there. But a week before his arrival a French aviator had come into town on leave, and the American girl had fallen in love with him. Nevertheless, the marriage goes on as planned, but it can never be the way it might have been. “When the stars were bright on the water,” the story ends, “he said: 'We'll build our love up and not down.' 'I won't have to build my love up,' she said loyally. 'It's up in the skies now.' They came to the end of France at midnight and looked at each other with infinite hope as they crossed the bridge over into Italy, into the new sweet warm darkness.” With “Image on the Heart” Fitzgerald at last completed the past—overcame the final and most personal aspect of his past, and turned it into art. In one conquering artistic gesture “Image on the Heart” marks an end to the past and also a new beginning. As soon as “Image on the Heart” was done he began the “Crack-Up” essays. The story belongs with them as the first part of his confession—the first act in his new effort explicitly to make Scott Fitzgerald's life the central subject of his art.

In his ledger Fitzgerald put down the “Crack-Up” essays as “biography.” Even if this were a slip of his pen, it conveys an essential truth: the Scott Fitzgerald who was his subject was not, or at least was no longer, himself. The “Crack-Up” essays were self-confession but they were equally self-creation, a means of drawing the line between future and past, a ritual gesture to separate a new life from the old. The old Scott Fitzgerald had withered away late in 1934, his purpose in life completed; a new Scott Fitzgerald, risen in his place, through his art would give the former self a decent eulogy. The essays form a drama in three acts. Act One, “The Crack-Up,” describes the destruction of the old Scott Fitzgerald, “cracked like an old plate.” Act Two, “Pasting It Together,” clears away the debris. Act Three, “Handle With Care,” reconstructs a new Fitzgerald. What makes the drama seem more real than staged is the sense that self-creation moves hand in hand with creation of the prose: the making of art and the making of biography—or autobiography—comprise in fact the very same gesture. Until he formed his story through his art, Fitzgerald did not know who he would become.

“The Crack-Up” describes Fitzgerald's loss of vitality, his feeling that life had lost its savor. “I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt. What was the small gift of life given back in comparison to that?—when there had once been a pride of direction and a confidence in enduring independence.” What was to be done, he could only say with a wry effort at humor, “Will have to rest in what used to be called the 'womb of time' ” (72). In “Pasting It Together” Fitzgerald gives “a cracked plate's further history” (75)—a picture of how the pieces looked when they broke apart. “A man does not recover from such jolts,” Fitzgerald said, recalling the traumatic moment when he had to drop out of Princeton and thus forfeit the presidency of the Triangle Club, “—he becomes a different person and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about” (76). Writing This Side of Paradise and belatedly winning the girl turned him into yet another person, one with “an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class.” This was Scott Fitzgerald the famous writer, “distrusting the rich, yet working for money with which to share their mobility and the grace that some of them brought into their lives” (77), born in 1920 and passed away by 1935. Curiously, though Fitzgerald described the core of his crack-up as a loss of physical strength and spiritual vitality, “a call upon physical resources that I did not command, like a man over-drawing at his bank” (77), his most concrete statement of what it was like came as an outburst against the movies—an expression of pique because he had lost the race for popularity.

“So there was not an 'I' any more—not a basis on which I could organize my self-respect—save my limitless capacity for toil that it seemed I possessed no more. It was strange to have no self—to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do—” (79). In the third essay, “Handle With Care,” Fitzgerald proclaims his new self. His break with the past was clean. “The old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch, a sort of combination of J. P. Morgan, Topham Beauclerk and St. Francis of Assisi, has been relegated to the junk heap” (84). No longer would he try to lead the life of the genteel romantic hero. “There was to be no more giving of myself” (82). It was a desperate kind of self-assertion, aggressive and a little petty, but finally there was nothing future or conditional about it: “I have now at last become a writer only” (83). So a new Scott Fitzgerald at last emerged; but the most severe of all his jolts lay just ahead.


The kind of writer Fitzgerald became after the “Crack-Up” essays was the sort “Image on the Heart” and the essays had prophesied— one who writes openly and candidly about himself. He started pleasantly enough by writing an amusing story, “Too Cute for Words,” about a widower with a thirteen-year-old daughter like his own. The Post took the story, and Fitzgerald hoped to launch Bryan Bowers and his daughter Gwen into a series like the Basil or the Josephine stories, promising both steady subjects and steady money. But the second story was much inferior to the first, and the series was soon abandoned.

For Esquire Fitzgerald followed the “Crack-Up” essays with a series of personal sketches which served almost as footnotes to the essays, or as experimental trials of his resolution, “I have now at last become a writer only,” as if to test its strength. The first, “Three Acts of Music,” is fiction, but a story less about people than about popular music. Back in his Triangle Club days at Princeton Fitzgerald had thought about becoming a song writer, and the possibility had never been forgotten over the years. Now it was as if in his story he were asking what it might have been like to give people a few lyrics to sing, instead of the “golden girl,” the legend of the flapper. “We've had all that anyhow, haven't we?” a woman says in the story. “All those people—that Youmans, that Berlin, that Kern. They must have been through hell to be able to write like that. And we sort of listened to them, didn't we.”

Thereafter he wrote two sketches called “Author's House” and “Afternoon of an Author.” The house in “Author's House” is the author's creative mind, the storehouse of experience and events that make him a writer, and the kind of writer he is. As the author and his guest move from room to room the author describes the building of his consciousness, his house of fiction. At last they reach the top, the tower from which the author had once, briefly, surveyed the entire landscape. Coming down the visitor says, “It's really just like all houses, isn't it?” The author agrees. “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 next piece, “Afternoon of an Author,” is less symbolic and more directly autobiographical, but no less an effort to review and reconsider his whole artistic life. The author goes out to the barber one afternoon for a shampoo, and as he moves through the day his mind ruminates on himself and his career.

The shampoo ended. When he came out into the hall an orchestra had started to play in the cocktail room across the way and he stood for a moment in the door listening. So long since he had danced, perhaps two evenings in five years, yet a review of his last book had mentioned him as being fond of night clubs; the same review had also spoken of him as being indefatigible. Something in the sound of the word in his mind broke him momentarily and feeling tears of weakness behind his eyes he turned away. It was like in the beginning fifteen years ago when they said he had “fatal facility,” and he labored like a slave over every sentence so as not to be like that. “I'm getting bitter again,” he said to himself. “That's no good, no good—I've got to go home.”

But it was bitterness and self-reproach above all that marked these reminiscences. The assertion that was to mark Fitzgerald's emergence from the crack-up, “I have now at last become a writer only,” was never farther from the truth.

“Never any luck with the movies,” the author in “Afternoon of an Author” warned himself. “Stick to your last, boy.” But the last no longer produced durable goods, and the temptation of the movies was growing harder and harder to resist. Once song writing had truly been appealing, but back in 1919 popular music was a tried and tested, stereotyped form, while fiction offered new and open opportunities. Yet looking at postwar American literature in 1935, the excitement and success of fiction writing in the early twenties might have seemed a completion rather than a new beginning. Mencken's creative leadership in criticism once appeared far more stimulating than the motion picture work of D. W. Griffith, and who in the movies could compare with Lewis and Anderson, Conrad and Joyce, Stein and Dos Passos? But in 1935 the positions were reversed.

“I saw that the novel,” Fitzgerald wrote in “Pasting It Together,” “which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinated to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures … there was a rankling indignity, that to me had become almost an obsession, in seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power…” (78). But now that his own written words seemed to have completely lost then-power, Fitzgerald was ready to stifle his indignation and cast his lot with the alluring new medium; after all, the desire to reach an audience had always been as strong in him as the desire to practice a pure art form, and now that his prose artistry seemed to have deserted him what else held him back? As early as December 1935, the same month he wrote the last two “Crack-Up” essays, Fitzgerald talked with his agent about signing on in Hollywood as a screenwriter. His resolution, “I have now at last become a writer only,” stood then primarily in reference to his social life, and was open all along to the possibility of different tasks and different forms. By June 1936, when he wrote the last story of his career for The Saturday Evening Post, Hollywood was only a matter of time.

In July, diving at a hotel pool in Asheville, Fitzgerald broke his shoulder. He was laid up in bed following this accident when the August 1936 Esquire arrived, containing his own sketch, “Afternoon of an Author,” and Hemingway's story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Reading Hemingway's story, he came across the passage, “The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, 'The very rich are different from you and me.' And how someone had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren't it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.” Fitzgerald was furious and deeply hurt. The casual reader of the August Esquire might have thought that Hemingway had said nothing more damaging about Fitzgerald than what Fitzgerald, in “Afternoon of an Author,” had said about himself. But one man's self-reproach is different from another's cutting condemnation; and Fitzgerald had never mentioned Hemingway's name in print except to praise him. With so ugly a gesture to bear from the man he had only recently called his “artistic conscience,” Fitzgerald a few weeks later was visited by a journalist for the New York Post, who went back and wrote an article exposing Fitzgerald in all his physical weakness and loss of pride. If that were not unhappy enough, Time picked up the story and gave it national exposure. All those who had wondered whatever happened to Scott Fitzgerald could now know that he had crashed as completely as the era to which the press was so fond of giving his name.

Whatever depths Fitzgerald reached in the wake of Hemingway's gibe and the newspaper exposé, on the surface he was less despairing than he had been in the months after publication of Tender Is the Night. In the earlier period, the one he described in the “Crack-Up” essays, he had felt himself slipping, and feared the unknown abyss that suddenly lay open before him. By late 1936 he was more familiar with misfortune, and knew the contours of the chasm where he fell. Hemingway's insult he managed within a short time to shake off. “He is quite as nervously broken down as I am,” he wrote of Hemingway to a friend, “but it manifests itself in different ways. His inclination is toward megalomania and mine toward melancholy.” Melancholy became Fitzgerald's word for his condition. Rather than the anguish he had suffered in the crack-up days, he settled into a persistent state of gloom. “This general eclipse of ambition and determination and fortitude,” he told Perkins, “all of the very qualities on which I have prided myself, is ridiculous, and, I must admit, somewhat obscene.” His attention shifted toward the future. He did not know what he would do, but he was able to look forward to some next step, whatever it might be. He was waiting.

Fitzgerald was writing, too, but as a writer of prose fiction he had slipped more disastrously than in any other way. Between the summers of 1936 and 1937 he wrote eight short stories for Esquire. The best of them, “An Alcoholic Case” and “Financing Finnegan,” are of interest only because they are so clearly autobiographical. Several of the others are as crudely conceived as the stories Fitzgerald wrote when he was in his teens. In a reminiscence Fitzgerald wrote early in 1937 his mind drifted back over the days of his early success, when This Side of Paradise was a best-seller and he wrote “The Camel's Back” in one sitting and “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” raised a storm among readers of The Saturday Evening Post. He re-created his own early self as a romantic hero like the romantic heroes of so many of his stories, and he allowed his readers to sense the young man's fate only by implication. “And there are still times when I creep up on him,” the article ends, “surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina, when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county. But never again as during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment—when life was literally a dream.” In the final passage of “Early Success” Fitzgerald revived his romantic sensibility with the same poignancy and suggestiveness as in the last pages of The Great Gatsby. For part of him was like Gatsby now, the old romantic part, while part of him was Nick Carraway, surviving the magical creative figure, and judging him. The wheel of Fitzgerald's life had turned full circle, and at last he was ready to start life anew. In June 1937, a screenwriter's contract came through for him. Relieved, and once more excited, Fitzgerald left at once for Hollywood.

Next: Chapter 12.

Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon by Robert Sklar (New York: Oxford Up, 1967).