The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1909-1917
The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait
Although nearly all critics, including those reviewed here, recognize today the quality and stature of Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, from time to time one still hears a violent dissenting opinion. The case against Fitzgerald was stated as succinctly as possible in a 1951 essay by Leslie Fiedler: “And so a fictionist with a ‘second-rate sensitive mind’…and a weak gift for construction is pushed into the very first rank of American novelists, where it becomes hard to tell his failures from his successes. Who cares as long as the confetti flies and the bands keep playing!” It is a little difficult in this context to know exactly what is meant by a second-rate mind. But a novelist who discovers and is obsessed by an important subject, one which is centrally significant in the experience of his country and time, and who gives that subject vivid expression, hardly deserves such an epithet, however interpreted. Mr. Fiedler knows perfectly well that Fitzgerald has a subject, but he doesn’t like it. As he tells us in his book on the American novel, published in 1960: “There is only one story that Fitzgerald knows how to tell…. The penniless knight…goes out to seek his fortune and unhappily finds it…. He finds in his bed not the white bride but the Dark Destroyer.” But this interpretation is likely to seem biased and partial to anyone who disagrees with Mr. Fiedler’s bright but falsifying description of Fitzgerald as the “laureate” of “the American institution of coitus interruptus.”
Fitzgerald’s discovery of his subject was a progressive one, and he moves into a fuller consciousness and control of it until the very end. Although Mr. Fiedler’s intention is not complimentary, he comes close to an exact formulation when he describes Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s most representative hero, as “the naif out of the West destined…to die of a love for which there is no worthy object.” In writers who are, in a sense, born with an inherent subject to write about, their early work can be peculiarly revealing, both as to subject matter and tone, and this is true of Fitzgerald.
In The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald Mr. John Kuehl has collected the early stories written between 1909 and 1917—the earliest written while he was at St. Paul Academy, three while he was at Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, and the remainder while he was an undergraduate at Princeton. While these stories are clearly “apprentice fiction,” several of them are remarkably good, and collectively they indicate that Fitzgerald had already found his subject, although there are few intimations that he was yet aware of the moral dimensions of it which he would exploit so wonderfully in The Great Gatsby and the later fiction.
Mr. Kuehl has provided a series of excellent critical commentaries on the stories, which relate them to Fitzgerald’s later development. Recognizing that nearly all of them deal with frustration or moral defeat, however disguised, he writes in his Introduction: “Inevitably, Scott Fitzgerald’s juvenile protagonist, though personal weakness or some external force or both, would become the homme manqué, a term Fitzgerald himself would use to describe Dick Diver.” And in a later comment on one of the Princeton stories he says: “All the plots he thought of ‘had a touch of disaster in them.’ He anticipated that lovely girls would go to ruin, that wealth would disintegrate, that millionaires would be ‘beautiful and damned.’ ”
A glance at his subjects will indicate how early the characteristic temper of his sensibility asserted itself. In “Shadow Laurels,” which is written in dialogue, an eminently successful man returns to his native city, seeking information about his father whom he had never known. He discovers not only that his father was a drunkard and a wastrel, but there are intimations to the eyes of the other characters that the successful man is very much the son of his father. In “The Spire and the Gargoyle,” part of which he incorporated in This Side of Paradise, an undergraduate flunks out of Princeton, and is haunted by a sense of frustration and nostalgia ever afterwards. In “The Ordeal,” a Jesuit novice about to take his vows is sorely tempted to refuse them. He overcomes the temptation, but in a way that disturbingly suggests the victory has been mechanical and external only. In what is perhaps the best of the stories. “The Pierian Springs and the Last Straw,” a writer who somewhat resembles the novelist Fitzgerald was to become, after many years marries the girl he had loved in his youth, and finds that it destroys his talent. In these stories it is not only subject matter and a propensity to disaster that anticipates the mature writer: their romantic alignment is particularly insistent.
All during Fitzgerald’s life, Keats was his favorite poet. “For awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming,” he wrote to his daughter; and he has several times remarked on his frequent reading of Keats while he was very young. In the year of his death he wrote that he still could not read “Ode to a Nightingale” “without tears in my eyes.” Keats’s strong verbal influence in the more poetic passages of Fitzgerald’s prose is obvious—perhaps in The Great Gatsby most of all. But one guesses that essentially it was Keats’s attitude to experience that seized and dominated his imagination, and became influential in moulding his subject matter.
Throughout Keats’s poetry there is a sense of transience and loss, at times an almost unbearably poignant sense of passage and dissolution. The origin of this is understandable in terms of Keats’s biography: but there is a somewhat similar sense of transience in Fitzgerald’s writing. In the latter case it is difficult to guess its cause, but it is pervasive. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, has many passages like these:
Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay. And just as any period decays in our minds, the things of that period should decay too, and in that way they’re preserved for awhile in the few hearts like mine that react to them.
There’s no beauty without poignancy, and there’s no poignancy without the feeling that it’s going, men, names, books, houses—bound for dust—mortal—
This sense of loss soon grew sharper and more bitter. It is the essence of Gatsby’s ordeal that he believed the past could be repeated, almost as Keats had written to Benjamin Bailey “…we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.” But Fitzgerald is not to be identified with Gatsby. He understands, as his heroes do not, the element of irrevocable, tragic loss in which his vision is grounded. Most of his best short stories come to focus in statements like this one, which concludes “Winter Dreams,” and which provides its own comment on Gatsby’s private dream:
“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”
Fitzgerald never managed to triumph over this theme of loss and defeat in his fiction as Keats does in his poetry. In Fitzgerald’s case it moves from the elegiac to the tragic but never to victory, as it does, for example, in the great speech from “Hyperion” in which the vanquished Titan accepts the infinite loss entailed in a fall from divinity:
As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs;
And as we show beyond that Heav- en and Earth
In form and shape compact and beautiful,
In will, in action free, companion- ship
And thousand other signs of purer life;
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel as, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness.
In this superb vision of an endless evolution into beauty and perfection, forever cancelling out the stages past, the redemptive factor for Keats is of course the power of his genius and splendor of his poetry. But although Fitzgerald’s sense of loss is in many ways strangely Keatsian, a resolution similar to Keats’s is beyond him—and not merely because he has not Keats’s astounding genius. Fitzgerald’s ultimate subject is the character of the American Dream in which, in their respective ways, his principal heroes are all trapped. If the American Dream seems delusively to carry a suggestion of infinite possibilities, it tolerates no fresh perfections beyond its own material boundaries. If it engenders heroic desires in the hearts of its advocates, it can only offer unheroic fulfillments. For this reason, Fitzgerald’s novels, and Gatsby above all, are tragedies. The heart of the tragedy is that these heroes must die of a love for which there is no worthy object. Mr. Fiedler was quite right about that, but hopelessly wrong in seeing this theme as trivial. An abiding faith in the paradox that infinite satisfactions can be had in the devout pursuit of success, money, and romantic love has always been the corrupting factor in American society. To have invented a series of fables dramatizing this central truth and its tragic consequences for America is not indicative of a second-rate mind.
In Mr. Kuehl’s well-edited collection of Fitzgerald’s apprentice fiction we encounter this kind of hero in whom the seeds of defeat and tragedy are suggested, even in the flush of success, in perhaps a majority of the stories. Not until The Great Gatsby would Fitzgerald achieve full control of the subject, and transform it into an effective instrument for probing the nature of the American experience, but for this very reason these early attempts are unusually illuminating. The Romantic tone, the tragic bias, the critical irony, have all already been established.
Fitzgerald’s reputation to the present has undergone two distinct phases. His early reception for the most part was popular and relatively uncomprehending in nature, as he himself was aware. An interlude of neglect was followed, five years after his death in 1940, with the republication of The Crack-Up, and an accelerating reclamation of his reputation from literary oblivion. This second phase, which has seen him established as an assured twentieth-century American classic writer, is not popular but critical in character, and is the product of a far more intelligent understanding of his creative motives. This shift in perspective has been the result of a vast amount of critical activity over the past twenty years. Except perhaps to the professional academic, there is little more depressing than the vast and growing critical bibliographies that have attached themselves to every writer of importance. But trivial or repetitious as much of this work inevitably is, the collective effort of evaluation, analysis, and definition it represents is important towards shaping the contours of literary tradition for which there are few other caretakers today than the professional critic.
In The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald Sergio Perosa has written a valuable consolidation of much earlier work on Fitzgerald. A consolidation is not a summary, but a reorganization and strengthening of an existing fabric in the light of a selective vision. As such, a consolidation can be a highly original critical act in itself, and Mr. Perosa’s book is not only studded with fresh insights, but by its judicious survey of Fitzgerald’s whole career, and of the progressive understanding that has been brought to his fiction by earlier critics, it brings something like authoritative definition to his achievement and reputation.
On one point in particular the book is valuable. Mr. Fiedler argued that Fitzgerald had “a weak gift for construction.” If one concentrates on the first two novels, no doubt a case can be made out for this statement, but The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece of literary form, perhaps not surpassed technically by any other novel in American literature. Mr. Perosa’s detailed analysis of the structure of Gatsby is the most intelligent and satisfying treatment of that subject I am acquainted with. Moreover, in the preceding chapter a fine analysis of the dilemmas that faced him in constructing The Beautiful and Damned leads into a deeper appreciation of the formal triumph he achieved in Gatsby, in which he was able to resolve those dilemmas triumphantly. As a master of formal construction Fitzgerald, as T. S. Eliot recognized, was in the direct tradition of Henry James; and if one is disposed to cavil at the episodic, sprawling character of his first novel, one should bear in mind that he was only twenty-nine when his third novel, The Great Gatsby, was published. Henry James was already thirty-two when Roderick Hudson, the first novel he was willing to acknowledge, appeared serially in the Atlantic. At an age comparable to Fitzgerald’s while writing Gatsby, James was engaged on “Gabrielle de Bergerac,” “Travelling Companions,” “A Passionate Pilgrim,” and “Master Eustace,” none of which give intimations of James’s future mastery of structure. Of the structure of Fitzgerald’s last two novels, it is more difficult to speak with certainty. Tender Is the Night is a peculiar case because, fine as it is in itself, it was never structurally revised as Fitzgerald wished, though Malcolm Cowley in his edition of the novel tried to follow Fitzgerald’s plans for revision. And of course The Last Tycoon is only a fragment, but with enough promise to bring the image of Keats to mind in another connection. It is squarely on this subject of structure that Mr. Perosa seems to me to make his most valuable and original contribution, for the sentiment expressed by Mr. Fiedler still has currency.
This volume has been translated from the Italian. It was first published in Italy in 1961, and so has considerable priority over a similar but somewhat less satisfactory book, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait, by Henry Dan Piper. As much of Mr. Piper’s material has been published earlier in critical and scholarly periodicals, this rather wasteful duplication of effort must be attributed to that nemesis which is likely to attend overproduction in any field, and which is likely to be more and more with us as the population explosion grows more critical and the publication requirements of academic communities more insistent.
Mr. Piper’s general approach to Fitzgerald is impeccable, and he includes a good deal of information Mr. Perosa hasn’t bothered with. Perhaps this is the trouble, for biographical trivia concerning Fitzgerald’s relations with his literary editors and agents only obscure the main lines of the critical argument. Neither does it deepen one’s understanding of Gatsby to have some six or eight pages devoted to a discussion of the “Fuller-McGee” case (researched from the files of The New York Times) on which Fitzgerald is supposed to have depended for his account of Gatsby’s shady business dealings. Although a competent enough critic, Mr. Piper’s judgments lack the clarity, precision, and perspective that we find in the earlier book, and which make it a genuinely useful study.