An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald

edited by Andrew Turnbull
Scribner, 615 pp., $10.00

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald; drawing by David Levine

It is perhaps inevitable that nearly all very good writers seem to be able to inspire the most vehement personal reactions. They might be quite dead but their spirits remain somehow immortally fleshed, and we are capable of talking about them as we talk about devoted friends, or about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot. In certain cases it amounts to a type of bewitchment. Thus I heard only a short time ago a conservative, poetasting lawyer say that as much as he admired the work of Dylan Thomas, he would never allow the philandering rascal in his house.

Of course, the passions such writers arouse are especially strong when the writer—unlike, say, William Faulkner who sedulously cultivated the private life—is F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose life has fallen so under the dominion of the legend that this occasionally tends to obscure the fact that he possessed, at his best, an original and beautiful talent. Nonetheless, it is the mythic aspects of a writer’s life that generate all the gossip, the ugly resentment along with the tender sentiments, and Fitzgerald has by now had a disproportionate share of both. Here, for instance, is Katherine Anne Porter, in a recent Paris Review interview: “Even now when I think of the twenties and the legend that has grown up about them, I think it was a horrible time: shallow and trivial…The remarkable thing is that anybody survived in such an atmosphere—in the place where they could call F. Scott Fitzgerald a great writer!… I couldn’t read him then and I can’t read him now… Not only didn’t I like his writing, but I didn’t like the people he wrote about. I thought they weren’t worth thinking about…” One senses a sort of gratuitous outrage here which has less to do with Fitzgerald’s talent than with the Fitzgerald myth. It is hard to believe that Miss Porter, who is such an estimable writer herself, is really so down on Fitzgerald’s “writing”; one feels rather that she simply doesn’t want him in her house. But if the Fitzgerald myth can elicit calumny it can also inspire quivering obeisance, such as this from Professor Arthur Mizener, a professional Fitzgeraldian, who is reduced to a kind of stammer: “Fitzgerald’s greatest value for us is his almost eponymous character, the way his life and his work taken together represent what in the very depths of our nature, we are—we Americans, anyhow, and—with some variations—perhaps most men of the western world.” Spoken like a born undertaker.

Yet, since in Fitzgerald’s case the myth and the work are indissolubly mingled, what is so fascinating about this large collection of letters, edited by Andrew Turnbull, is that in a sense it allows the writer to explicate his own legend. So revealing are these letters—to Zelda and his daughter Scottie, to Edmund Wilson and Hemingway and Maxwell Perkins…

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