Exiles from Paradise: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald
Dear Scott/Dear Max: the Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence
Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood
“Where the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered”: the swarms of books about F. Scott Fitzgerald that have been darkening the sky since his death just over thirty years ago are so striking that it has become trite even to remark upon them. More curious than the simple numbers involved is that so many of them seem to be groping for a format, and overlapping or cannibalizing one another for lack of it. Professor Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise (1951, revised 1965) was a straightforward literary biography which focused accurately, and with understanding and appreciation, on Fitzgerald’s actual literary accomplishments. But Andrew Turnbull’s redoing of the biography (1962), in addition to being worse written, duplicated an enormous amount of the same material and showed much less interest in Fitzgerald’s fiction than in his “personality.” It made only minimal reference to its predecessor; and, while elaborately documented, could easily, if reduced to its own ingredients, have been cut to the size of a modest reminiscence and portrait.
Most of the books under review stand in a similar ghostly relation to their predecessors. Miss Mayfield’s Exiles from Paradise breathes down the neck of Miss Milford’s recent biography of Zelda. Mr. Latham’s Crazy Sundays, though it goes well beyond Sheilah Graham’s Beloved Infidel, treads repeatedly in its predecessor’s footprints, eking itself out with paraphrases from Fitzgerald’s own fiction.
Meanwhile, the collection of Fitzgerald’s correspondence with Maxwell Perkins, assembled by Messrs. Kuehl and Bryer, includes a preponderance of letters already reproduced in Mr. Turnbull’s edition of the correspondence (1963). Mr. Stern’s book on four of the novels had the bad luck to appear after Mr. Sklar’s The Last Laocoon (1967); Stern is frank in admitting the overlap (his book, he says darkly, will “parallel Sklar’s by talking about the national rather than the literary development of Fitzgerald’s talent”), but he evidently didn’t feel that was a reason to cut down his 462 pages.
Books are being made about Fitzgerald in the very wheel ruts of previous books; one finds the same anecdotes, the same statistics, the same quotations being used over and over again to make identical points. (My favorite statistic is the estate left by Fitzgerald’s grandfather McQuillan: it amounted to $266,289.49—and those forlorn forty-nine cents, dragged through volume after volume, take on the look of a tattered flag.) It is easy to ridicule the phenomenon, and indeed most of the books don’t deserve better. But what they are all trying to get at, though elusive, could be genuine and important.
The most depressing of the current set of Fitzgerald studies is Sara Mayfield’s re-biography of the two Fitzgeralds. Miss Mayfield’s qualifications are her childhood acquaintance with Zelda and intermittent, not-very-friendly contact with both Fitzgeralds during the Twenties and Thirties. Her writing taps a vein of pure, cloying cliché, deviating frequently into slur and innuendo. She hasn’t the slightest interest in Fitzgerald as a writer or in the processes that produced his writing. Zelda is the heroine of her story and Hemingway the villain. Fitzgerald himself is more fool than knave but, under the influence of drunken and vicious companions, he cold-bloodedly forces his wretched wife (of whose superior abilities he is simply jealous) into an insane asylum.
In reciting this gothic tale, Miss Mayfield doesn’t hesitate to make those judgments so characteristic of small-town gossip about who was “really” to blame in that divorce case down the street. Yet she also displays small-town prudence: after making appalling insinuations she covers herself by allowing she really doesn’t know very much about the matter. Her book is no better than a Movie-Parade view of the Fitzgeralds, and to have read it at all leaves one feeling faintly unclean.
When they first appeared (1963), it was a major point against the Andrew Turnbull edition of the letters of Fitzgerald that Turnbull divided them according to the correspondents to whom they were addressed—a section to his daughter, one to his wife, one to Maxwell Perkins, one to Hemingway, and so forth. Thus letters written on the same day and reflecting the same moods and preoccupations were separated by hundreds of pages. Especially when a correspondence is intermittent, there isn’t any development in the relationship to compensate for loss of the reinforcement that one letter could give another. But precisely that awkward arrangement of the original edition would seem to militate against the need for Dear Scott/Dear Max, containing the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins.
I haven’t checked exact statistics, but I estimate that between 80 percent and 90 percent of the Fitzgerald letters in the new collection are also in the old one, in just about the same order.* What is new is Perkins’s side of the exchange; and this, like Fitzgerald’s own contribution, is rather a mixed bag. When he was in the right mood, Fitzgerald was a delightful correspondent, fanciful and funny. But he was also capable of whining and complaining at inordinate length; his letters to Perkins contain as much of this material as anyone would want, in addition to the predictable business details about marketing, percentages, dust jackets, advertising, advances, arrears, and the competition.
Perkins’s replies are the more impressive when one recalls that he had a lot of other writers to deal with, some of them in just as much need of tender loving care as Fitzgerald. Perkins was a patient, judicious man of conservative tastes, with a good business head on his shoulders—as anyone could learn by reading his Collected Letters (1950), which include a smattering of those to Fitzgerald. The “Dear Scott” letters confirm these qualities and add a few details to the picture (they have, of course, been mined by all the biographers to date), but they don’t alter its major outlines in any way. As they have themselves been cut (how radically is hard to guess), the way is still open for a complete Perkins-Fitzgerald correspondence, including all the material that Kuehl and Bryer excised on the score of dullness.
Calvin Tomkins’s account of the Murphy family—Gerald; Sara, and the three children, plus a wandering cloud of visitors and friends—appeared first in The New Yorker, and is supplemented in hard cover by a family album of photographs and an account of Gerald Murphy’s ten paintings. The book itself has a fine, faded fragrance, a savor of that unobtrusive good taste which so fascinated Fitzgerald and which formed so large a component in the character of Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. Like the Murphys themselves, Mr. Tomkins’s book is muted and tasteful, passing over most of the hackneyed anecdotes on the highly civilized assumption that they needn’t be spun out again at full length.
And yet, attractive as they appear in this little sketch, the Murphys hardly say, do, or think a memorable thing. Though Gerald’s paintings are indeed good paintings, the best thing connected with them is his remark when he stopped painting—that the world had enough second-rate art. Then there is a suggestive remark on the value of artifice against the cruelty of life, which is attributed, in an odd blur, both to Gerald Murphy and then, by him, to Fitzgerald’s novel—as if the two men had become somehow identified, or served as mirror images of each other.
There was an edge of violence to both the Fitzgeralds, a streak of blindness and self-destruction, that pulled the families apart. One can’t read of the Murphys without a sense of how much life Fitzgerald passed through without seeing or relishing it, how driven he was. And yet in the flashes of his vitality, in his extraordinary gift for sensing, not what other people were feeling but what he would feel in their place, he had a vividness that leaves their urbanity looking thin.
Mr. Tomkins writes with care and grace and his book is a pleasure to read. What devil stepped in and jogged his elbow three lines from the end of the book, causing him to write of a “sufficiently adequate” revenge? What he meant, I suppose, was a sufficiently adequate enough revenge.
The Golden Moment by Milton Stern is an idiosyncratic book, around rather than about Fitzgerald; its author describes it as “personal.” Essentially, Mr. Stern takes F. Scott Fitzgerald as a metaphor for America, and reads four of the novels (omitting the shorter fiction and The Last Tycoon) on this basis. In many instances the procedure amounts to paraphrasing Fitzgerald’s prose while exaggerating its implications to bring out meanings which Mr. Stern considers to be latent. A reader will frequently be puzzled to know where Fitzgerald stops and Stern begins. Most of the themes discussed seem to concern some ancient American dilemmas of self-identification. Sklar called this sort of thing the genteel romantic tradition in American literature, and proposed that Fitzgerald at his best saw through it. As Stern doesn’t want to see very far through it himself, he has considerable difficulty imagining that Fitzgerald did. The obscurantist quality of the writing, with its hazy pronouns, verbless sentences, reptilian subordinate clauses, and percussive adjectives, is effective in limiting insight.
It is hard to say whether Mr. Stern’s book is good or bad; it contains material from which, with patience and discrimination, one could construct some admirable theses about the US and its mystique, F. Scott Fitzgerald, modern fiction, and contemporary civilization. It also contains a great deal of loose and even empty writing, which collapses under analysis: A relatively simple parenthesis on page 166 says: “Like Fitzgerald, I think that the real history of America, written so far in the literature rather than the history books, is the history of its expectations.” It’s not indicated where Fitzgerald said anything of the sort, or whether he just implied it. American ideals and expectations have been abundantly documented in history books; but they are no more and no less real than the American political, social, economic, and military record. The history of America is the history of her “expectations,” of her specific achievements and failures, and of the relation between them—being, in this respect, exactly like the history of every other country on the globe. Reduced to its natural dimensions, the weighty pronouncement is a truth of M. de la Palisse.
Collapsing commonplaces are succeeded by flat contradictions. We find our author falling foul of Edmund Wilson on page 40 for saying This Side of Paradise contained silly and meretricious elements, then conceding three pages later that the book is repeatedly affected, pretentious, and ridiculous. There is a mildly useful question here—to what extent did young Fitzgerald see through the poses of Amory Blaine?—and there seems no reason to modify the standard answer given till now: “Not very far.” But Mr. Stern, by both claiming and disclaiming an ironic vision for Fitzgerald, leaves this question, like so many others, in a muddle. There is another simple and conventional way to phrase it (though Fitzgerald didn’t see the callowness of his hero when he was young, he did later on); but the idea that he simply abandoned naïve ideas as he grew into mature ones is much too direct for Mr. Stern:
There is good precedent—alas—for this business of making new Fitzgerald books out of pieces of old ones. Turnbull himself did a separate volume of Fitzgerald's letters to his daughter (1965), and Matthew Bruccoli has done one, to be published by Lippincott in March, of Fitzgerald's correspondence with his agent, Harold Ober.↩
There is good precedent—alas—for this business of making new Fitzgerald books out of pieces of old ones. Turnbull himself did a separate volume of Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter (1965), and Matthew Bruccoli has done one, to be published by Lippincott in March, of Fitzgerald’s correspondence with his agent, Harold Ober.↩