It’s too simple to say that America is cheap, America is vulgar, America is a land of will-o’-the-wisps. The dramatic sense of what lies beneath or behind such a simple statement is to be had most personally in the alembic of the imagination most susceptible to the tinsel and glitter of America, as Wilson, in the armor of his more strongly critical and disenchanted (probably never-enchanted) intelligence, was not. [P. 40.]
Apparently you can’t really mean that garbage is garbage unless you love the stuff. Maybe so; but just at this point the alchemy of poetic complexity becomes indistinguishable from plain verbal confusion.
Aaron Latham’s Crazy Sundays may well have been a respectable dissertation for the Princeton department of English before some editorial genius advised the author to hoke it up for the Fitzgerald trade. The scars of this operation are all too obvious: a scene of picturesque, semi-fictional detail is tacked onto the opening of each chapter, resulting in a good deal of repetition and even more chronological confusion. Mr. Latham’s gift for snappy chatter, on the other hand, seems to be authentically his own: “Zelda was teaching Scott lessons about tragedy that Aristotle had left out” (p. 83). Or: “In place of the Goethe-Byron-Shaw hero with his shoulder pads on and his combat fatigues too—ah, the nonsense of which dreams are made—he now strove to create a rougher beast: a screenwriter. He was quiet in the halls, but at his yellow writing pad he could still be loud” (p. 22).
What Mr. Latham discovered by hunting through the MGM morgue for old Fitzgerald scripts does have a certain potential literary interest, as it shows the novelist slowly and painfully adapting himself to the new medium. What Joe Mankiewicz did to the script of Three Comrades, while causing Fitzgerald’s deepest humiliation as a writer, evidently moved the film toward the center of that ignoble compromise which, as everyone knows, industrialized art forms are after. Three Comrades in its butchered condition was widely praised and made money; Fitzgerald got a largely unmerited credit. His own style was completely submerged; but he learned something from Joe Mankiewicz, and other crude practitioners, about telling a story with pictures. Mr. Latham makes a genuine point that in the unproduced script for “Infidelity,” and in the script called “Cosmopolitan” (it was based on “Babylon Revisited” and intended for Shirley Temple; it was later heavily dosed with sawdust and made into The Last Time I Saw Paris), he was doing truly imaginative work.
The careful discussion of these scripts is the natural center of Mr. Latham’s book, and is worth much more than another account of drunken quarrels with Sheilah Graham, the ghastly party at Irving Thalberg’s, and so forth and so on. What we get about the scripts is interesting and suggestive, and someone who isn’t so much an amateur of the cinema as Mr. Latham seems to be would probably have even more to say about them. But in order to say it, he needn’t feel impelled to write another biographical study of Scott Fitzgerald.
The last book in this not-very-proud collection is in some ways the most ominous. Under the heading F. Scott Fitzgerald in His Own Time, Matthew Bruccoli and Jackson Bryer have assembled a volume of 481 pages that not only cannibalizes previous publications but is intended itself to be cannibalized. What they have produced here is a scrapbook containing Fitzgerald lyrics from Triangle Club shows, contributions to college humor magazines, blurbs, public statements, interviews, and a section of material about Fitzgerald that appeared during his lifetime—reviews, essays and editorials, parodies, and, of course, obituaries.
The managers of this enterprise offer several explanations of the project: the first half of the book contains some “admittedly ephemeral” material, but this is useful because it explains Fitzgerald’s reputation as a merely commercial writer, and some other items “provide inside glimpses of Fitzgerald’s talent during its formative stages.” Both explanations are specious: Fitzgerald’s reputation as a commercial writer was based on his stories for The Saturday Evening Post, not on his contributions to “Fie, Fie, Fi-Fi!” or to the Princeton Tiger; and the formative stages of his talent would be better served in a concise article than by reprints of his blurbs and the leftovers of his juvenilia.
In the second part of the volume, we have indeed a number of contemporary reviews of Fitzgerald novels that haven’t been reprinted lately; but one reason that they haven’t been reprinted is that they’ve been so generously summarized by the biographers. So that what is presented as a subordinate purpose looks like a primary one: “With the ever-increasing amount of research being done on Fitzgerald, the availability of these early interviews, reviews, essays, and editorials should provide an important reference tool” (p. ix). How far down the editors are willing to reach for material can be estimated from the fact that they devote one full page of their volume to reproducing the card of a Parisian barber on which F. Scott Fitzgerald once scrawled a sentence of commendation.
A reviewer is always depressed when, out of a group of books, he can’t find one or two to hold up as better than the others; it is a way of conveying some sense of the scale he has in mind. Mr. Tomkins’s book is perhaps too unambitious to serve this purpose. For scale, one has to say that Mr. Mizener’s is really a fine literary biography and Miss Milford’s Zelda a moving and compassionate one. Mr. Sklar’s study of the fiction is both suggestive and discriminating, and there is some splendid stuff in the five collections of critical essays about Fitzgerald and his two major novels which are currently in circulation.
What fascinates people so about Fitzgerald? For one thing, it seems important that his writing can’t be separated from his life; so seen, his novels aren’t impenetrable facades, to be viewed from in front and below, but labyrinths to be explored. Like Proust and Joyce, he left a rich documentation of his life, viewing himself from a bewildering variety of angles and describing his own fantasies and preoccupations under many different guises. He created for himself, and for those who follow in his trail, not simply a personality but a society, a fictive world.
I also think it is important to Fitzgerald’s contemporary reputation that he flashed briefly and fell abjectly, throwing his fragile, invented character against social circumstance like a pair of dice. Like Gatsby, he was a gambler, and a big gambler, against the odds; it’s being held against Hemingway, and perhaps against Eliot too these days, that they were a little too prudent. Fitzgerald is a vulnerable hero for the new romantics, a man like Dylan Thomas who really wins only when he loses big and hard.
On another plane, the complexities and duplicities of his relation with Zelda have a strong contemporary interest. It was easily taken for granted for so long that she destroyed him: the picture takes on new depth when we become aware of the probability that he also (between jealousy and agonized devotion) had a share in destroying her. It is a horrible, fascinating story, without any heroes, heroines, or villains; we read such stories, I think, like Rorschach blots, to see what they tell us about ourselves, our instinctive sympathies and limitations of sympathy.
Fitzgerald was one of the first men who tried to make a profession out of being young; that was part of his desperate, absurd gamble. Somehow connected with this was a broad streak of the callous and cruel in his notions of “fun.” Whether he was pretending to saw a waiter in two, or boiling partygoers’ purses in tomato soup, or kicking an old lady’s little stock of seeds and nuts out of her hand as she tried to sell them on the Roman streets, Fitzgerald really represented an aspect of the modern hero, who is often more real as he is more ugly. Yet Fitzgerald’s feeling for conventional values also ran deep; his sense of honor and yearning for distinction make him one of the most eloquent poets of shame in our literature. His craving for cleanliness of spirit jostled uneasily against his feelings about money, the medium in which he and his chosen people had to live.
Today it is considered a strong point in Fitzgerald’s favor that he was a relatively uneducated and poorly read writer; the current style is to distrust all that paraphernalia and armor plate in favor of one’s instant instincts. If it weren’t too cynical and disapproving, I’d suggest that some of the young people who read This Side of Paradise in the expensive new Scribner paperback really take the achieved Amory Blaine for a philosopher of power and originality. The impulses that make vogues aren’t always corrupt, but they are apt to be undiscriminating; I think there is a lot of neo-innocence in the current atmosphere that helps Fitzgerald’s vogue along.
After we have discounted these sentimental identifications, it must be said that Fitzgerald at his finished best was one of the cleanest, hardest prose writers of his generation. He was a fine natural storyteller, if never a very assured constructor of novels; writing itself was his trade, and his great achievements are defined by scenes, not by structures. Like Poe and other romantics, he was better at short, intense flights than at sustained ones, but capable of perfectly stunning effects. At its best the prose is polished, supple, stripped; studies of his revisions show how hard he labored to get it that way. In his understanding of people, he might have been limited by a tendency to repeat himself and Zelda in varying guises; but he transformed them both into paradigms in whom readers could find significant aspects of themselves.
In the old days, the fact that Fitzgerald never produced a splendid array of perfectly formed novels would have counted against him. (He himself once wanted his books to be produced in uniform format, like those of Shaw and Galsworthy—in his mind’s eye, he saw the opera omnia of F. Scott Fitzgerald standing in ranks on the shelf, a gleaming regiment.) Now, it’s the quality of what he could do at his best that is the measure of his mind; the flawed performances are simply evidence that he was human, vulnerable, and genuine.
Even if we don’t take that sentimentalism too seriously, he was clearly one of the mythmakers of our time, creator of the legend of his own erratic, brilliant, and corrupted self. That isn’t necessarily the final accolade. More often than not, one generation’s myth becomes the next generation’s bore, and nothing produces that revulsion quicker than oversell. But to have struck so deeply into the contemporary consciousness is already an extraordinary achievement. Posterity will strike its own balances; for the moment, it seems possible that Fitzgerald will survive even the excesses of the Fitzgerald cult and be remembered as a fine American writer when he’s been used up as a vegetation god.