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An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

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 and his friends Gerald and Sara Murphy, among others—that one might feel that nothing further needs to be said about the writer’s life. As for the book itself, one could question, as Malcolm Cowley has already done, Mr. Turnbull’s arrangement—grouping the letters according to the person they are written to rather than running them chronologically and thus allowing them to tell their own story—but this is a small matter. The book remains a fascinating one.

From the very beginning there is a pervasive feeling of honesty in Fitzgerald’s letters, and though some of the earliest correspondence contains a touch of collegiate fakery, of the innocuous kind, there is very little posturing. Unlike the letters of those writers who have written with a sense of posterity mooning at their elbow (Thomas Wolfe is a good example), Fitzgerald’s were composed with a spontaneity that must have been one of the most fetching aspects of his charm as a person. In fact, a writer with less spontaneity and more guile would never have written words like these, in a letter of 1920, to his agent, Harold Ober: “Enclosed is a new version of ‘Barbara,’ called ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair,’ to distinguish it from Mary Rinehart’s ‘Bab’ stories in the Post. I think I’ve managed to inject a snappy climax into it.” Such an utterance I think helps explain why these early letters are the least satisfying and least interesting of the collection. For though to be sure this was the decade of the matchless Gatsby, and several of the finest stories—“Absolution,” “The Rich Boy,” “The Baby Party”—it was also the time of an astonishing amount of pure waste, when the hectic, frazzled, and above all expensive life the Fitzgeralds were leading resulted in the production of a great deal of sloppy and hastily written fiction. As a result, these early letters, strewn with such complaints as, “If I don’t in some way get $650.00 in the bank by Wednesday morning I’ll have to pawn the furniture,” are often tedious; we are not after all, witnessing the struggle of a desperate pauper, a Mozart or a Franz Schubert, but that of a spoiled young writer living far beyond his means, and much of Fitzgerald’s bellyaching is cause for legitimate exasperation. Even so, even when Fitzgerald has put us out of sorts with his clamorous preoccupation with his “standard of living,” when his silly conceit and his youthful pomposity about his not-very-good early work has begun to aggravate us the most, the artist in Fitzgerald, the conscientious and coolly disciplined craftsman, suddenly comes through, and we find him writing to Perkins in 1924 about the nearly finished Gatsby: “In my new novel I’m thrown directly on purely creative work—not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world. So I tread slowly and carefully and at times in considerable distress. This book will be a consciously artistic achievement…” Oppressively superficial as he may have appeared during the Twenties—and may have been in important respects—he never abandoned, even then, this stony, saving honesty and self-awareness.

In his biography of Fitzgerald published last year, Turnbull quotes Rebecca West as saying: “I knew Zelda was very clever but from the first moment I saw her I knew she was mad.” She was speaking of the year 1923, three years after Zelda married Fitzgerald. By 1930, when Zelda was a patient in a Swiss sanitarium, the “gay parade,” as Fitzgerald called the decade, was over, and the allegro vivace which had dominated the mood of his life dwindled and died, replaced by something at first only elusively somber, then steeped in an unutterable melancholy: it was a tone which from then on never disappeared. By 1932, living in Baltimore and slipping slowly into alcoholism (though still toiling away at Tender is the Night), Fitzgerald is writing to Perkins: “Five years have rolled away from me and I can’t decide exactly who I am, if anyone…” Throughout these letters of the early and mid-Thirties there are marvelous flashes of wit and warmth, his intense concern for books, for literature never flags—he seems to have read everything; no writer ever had such appreciative and generous interest in his contemporaries, such an acute, unjealous response to excellence, along with a fine nose for a fraud—but the sense of melancholy, of encroaching danger, shadows over these pages like a bleak, wintry afternoon. (Again to Perkins, 1934: “The mood of terrible depression and despair is not going to become a characteristic and I am ashamed and felt very yellow about it afterward. But to deny that such moods come increasingly would be futile.”) Since her apparent recovery in Switzerland, Zelda has had two breakdowns. Tender is the Night appears and is a critical and financial failure. Hemingway, whom he admires almost to the point of worship, turns on him, cruelly lampooning him in The Snows of Kilimanjaro with the famous episode about “the very rich,” calling him “poor Scott Fitzgerald.” (“Dear Ernest,” he replies in a letter, “please lay off me in print.” Then he adds: “It’s a fine story—one of your best.” Fitzgerald’s magnaminity was truly incalculable. Although much later, to Perkins, he writes bitterly of this betrayal, saying: “Once I believed in friendship, believed I could make people happy and it was more fun than anything. Now even that seems like a vaudevillian’s cheap dream of heaven, a vast minstrel show in which one is the perpetual Bones.”) And as Fitzgerald fights against his drinking, and frets and broods, the sense of oncoming doom grows and grows. One is reminded of the harrowing lines from Job: I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came

And so it comes. In Turnbull’s biography there is a terrible chapter describing those months that must have been the abyss of Fitzgerald’s career. The time is 1936 and the place is Ashville, where Fitzgerald, now nearly broke and in debt, ill of tuberculosis, a frail alcoholic masochist smothering in the warm love of his own failure—has set up residence in order to be near the sanitarium to which Zelda has been committed. Zelda is at this point desperately off; she has taken to carrying a Bible, and occasionally, garbed in the superannuated flapper’s clothing of the twenties, she kneels in public to pray. When the haggard couple arrives one evening to call on neighbors, Zelda is bearing with her a bunch of water lilies she has gathered on the way, and she reminds one guest of Ophelia; later, on the terrace, Fitzgerald leads her to a stone wall and proclaims, “You’re the fairy princess and I’m the prince,” and for several minutes they ring changes on this sentiment—Zelda wide-eyed, still lovely, and utterly mad. Fitzgerald gazing at her transfigured with sorrow. The entire desolating passage—perhaps because of its semi-public nature (to the very end, the Fitzgeralds were always being observed)—reads like nothing so much as a travesty, a reverse image of one of those elaborate gay pranks of a decade or so before, when they would go to a party in a taxi, he on the roof, she on the hood, or when at the theater they would sit together silent during the funny parts and then laugh uproariously when the house was still. Yet sad as this vignette is, an incident soon occurs which drives Fitzgerald even further away from himself and reality—to the black edge of death and madness. Ever generous and trusting, he also possesses the true writer’s immense vanity, and mistakenly grants an interview to the New York Post, whose editor sees in Fitzgerald’s fortieth birthday an opportunity to make hay with the myth of the Twenties and its most distinguished surviving symbol, and dispatches to Asheville an expertly ingratiating reporter named, rather aptly, Michael Mok. Taken off-guard, Fitzgerald is polite and as garrulous as his combination of illnesses will allow, and Mok’s front-page article—certainly as grimy a claim to immortality as ever fell to any newspaperman—begins as follows: “The poet-prophet of the post-war neurotics observed his fortieth birthday yesterday in his bedroom in the Grove Park Inn here. He spent the day as he spends all his days—trying to come back from the other side of Paradise, the hell of despondency in which he has writhed for the last couple of years. Physically he was suffering the aftermath of an accident eight weeks ago when he broke his right shoulder in a dive from a fifteen-foot springboard. But whatever pain the fracture might still cause him, it did not account for his jittery jumping off and onto his bed, his restless pacing, his trembling hands, his twitching face with its pitiful expression of a cruelly beaten child. Nor could it be held responsible for his frequent trips to a highboy, in a drawer of which lay a bottle. Each time he poured a drink into the measuring glass behind his table, he would look appealingly at the nurse and ask, ‘Just one ounce?’…”

After reading this article, Turnbull tells us, Fitzgerald tried to kill himself, swallowing the contents of a vial of morphine, which was a sufficient overdose to make him vomit and save his life. But, “gradually anger and despair gave way to shame. He had touched bottom. The article rallied his self-respect and laid the foundation for a comeback of sorts.” That “comeback” comprised the last four years of Fitzgerald’s life which were, of course, largely the Hollywood years, the time of feverish sickness and near-destitution, of eleven-dollar bank balances and speedy apartments, of humiliating hack work for the movies, and the excruciating effort to wrest from his talent (“a delicate thing—mine is so scarred and buffeted that I am amazed that at times it still runs clear”) one last good book which might resurrect him from the oblivion into which he had been cast. Reading about these appalling, ugly, and very courageous years, one, is again struck by that sense of ironic transposition which dominates the Fitzgerald legend. It all seems like a romantic movie based on the Artist’s Life yet run off at a frantic clip backwards: the glittering success, the money, and the fame all coming at the beginning, until, finally, contrary to romantic conventions, we observe the hero terminating his career quite as bleakly as a hopeful yet unpublished poet begins his own—and in the chill and hideous garret of Hollywood. One somehow looks for self-pity: it would be expected in a man who had fallen so far and so hard. And to be sure, there is the natural lament of a writer who feels that both his work and his memory have been banished forever from the public mind. “My God I am a forgetten man,” he cries, and his concern for Gatsby, then out of print, is the well-founded anxiety of any writer over the mortality of an offspring. “To die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much!” he protests to Perkins, and adds in that wonderfully characteristic tone of Fitzgerald’s, a tone of mingled modesty and pride: “Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly bear my stamp—in a small way I was an original.” But although the quality of these last letters is often elegiac, rueful, and sometimes tinged with bitterness, there is very little self-pity. That this is so is part of their great dignity, and considering the mean and woeful circumstances, something of a marvel. Even the lousy films he worked on caused him anguish. A letter to Joseph Mankiewicz, for instance—wheedling, imploring, cajoling—attempting to persuade the producer to restore Fitzgerald’s original touches to the script of a movie, is almost insupportable in its degradation. “Oh Joe, can’t producers ever be wrong?” he demands, and the sense of futility is suddenly like a howl in a closet: “I’m a good writer—honest.”

But throughout this bedraggled finale of his life, he was sustained by his intense concern for his daughter Scottie, then at Vassar, and by his enduring devotion to Zelda: the letters included here to his wife and daughter are the best in the book, and those to Scottie, taken together, form a small masterpiece. It is hard to imagine that more winning letters from a father to a child have been written by an American. They are hortatory to a degree—Fitzgerald’s solicitude for her welfare, doubtless because of Zelda’s continuing illness and his doubled responsibility, can only be described as ferocious—but they are also tender, allusive, witty, stern, playful, and, finally, informed by wisdom. One cannot read them without feeling a vast respect for this man who—sick and poor, feeling himself forgotten—could retain the splendid equanimity, the compassion and humor, the love that sounds through these pages like a heartbeat. Nor is it possible to scorn someone who in the midst of penury and raging sick fevers and neglect still had the boldness of spirit to try for “a big book.” He survives what he believed to be his failure triumphantly, a loving and courageous man.

Fitzgerald was not above pettiness, and his most destructive fault was perhaps his lack of self-esteem. But a quality of abiding charity was at the root of his character, and if a collection of letters has the power to illuminate the myth by suffusing it with the sense of a dominant virtue, then this collection succeeds, for it is everywhere filled with Fitzgerald’s charity. In 1937, Fitzgerald’s close friends of the Riviera days, Gerald and Sara Murphy, had suffered the death within the space of two years of two of their three young children. The letter which Fitzgerald wrote them upon the death of their second child seems appropriate to quote in its entirety, if only for the reason that it may be one of the most beautiful letters of its kind that we have:

Dearest Gerald and Sara:

The telegram came today and the whole afternoon was so sad with thoughts of you and the happy times we had once. Another link binding you to life is broken and with such insensate cruelty that it is hard to say which of the two blows was conceived with more malice. I can see the silence in which you hover now after this seven years of struggle and it would take words like Lincoln’s in his letter to the mother who had lost four sons in the war to write you anything fitting at the moment. The sympathy you will get will be what you have had from each other already and for a long, long time you will be inconsolable.

But I can see another generation growing up around Honoria and an eventual peace somewhere, an occasional port of call as we all sail deathward. Fate can’t have any more arrows in its quiver for you that will wound like these. Who was it said that it was astounding how deepest griefs can change in time to a sort of joy? The golden bowl is broken indeed but it was golden; nothing can ever take those boys away from you now.

Scott

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