Scott Fitzgerald conceived of the story which would become The Great Gatsby on Long Island, where man, in the person of a crew of Dutch sailors, was placed “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” That was in the spring of 1924. He wrote most of it, though, in a villa above St. Raphaël on the Riviera, with Roman and Romanesque aqueducts within sight, and beneath a skyline that reminded him of Shelley’s Eugenean Hills. There was a beach where he and Zelda swam daily, and came to know a group of young French naval aviators. Otherwise, he worked steadily at what he jokingly spoke of to friends as “a novel better than any novel written in America.” By late October the manuscript was ready to be mailed to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s.
He knew very well that the book in hand was far finer than anything he had attempted before. In April, on the eve of his departure for Europe, he told Perkins that “I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I am capable of in it or even as I feel sometimes, something better than I am capable of.” He would not be alone in that feeling; Perkins himself would say that the novel possessed the Fitzgerald glamour, but also “a kind of mystic atmosphere at times.” He may have been remembering Fitzgerald’s words in that April letter: “So 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.”
He had first, however—and this would become a recurring problem—to clear himself of debt. He was at the beginning of a decade in which he would be one of America’s best-paid writers of fiction, but money kept vanishing as though at the command of an evil sorcerer. Renting a mansion on Long Island Sound could not have helped, of course, nor could driving into Manhattan for parties and hotels, or living next door to his friend Ring Lardner, a notorious alcoholic. Or a staff that included a live-in couple, a nurse for the baby, and a laundress. When he had dug himself out of the hole, he wrote an insouciant account of the matter for The Saturday Evening Post, which he had come to think of as his guardian spirit. “Over our garage is a large bare room whither I now retired with pencil, paper and the oil stove, emerging the next afternoon at five o’clock with a 7,000 word story.”
By April, he had sold enough commercial fiction to clear himself of debt, and to take himself and Zelda to France, where he would be free to write the novel. “I really worked hard as hell last winter—but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart and my iron constitution.” But they were going to the “Old World to find a new rhythm for our lives, with a true conviction that we had left our old selves behind forever—and with a capital of just over seven thousand dollars.” Arthur Mizener, his second and perhaps most subtle biographer, after quoting this passage, suggests that, like Gatsby, he “wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving [Zelda]. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.”1 Mizener deliberately borrows Nick Carraway’s language to suggest similarities of circumstance between Gatsby and his creator.
The comparison was irresistible, if only because we keep looking for themes that connect Fitzgerald with his greatest work of fiction. Certainly Fitzgerald had reached a crossroads of sorts, but not one that had anything to do with Zelda. That, ironically, would be reached later that summer, when he was writing productively in France. It had much to do, however, with money and with “some idea of himself.”
The sensational public success of This Side of Paradise in 1920, when he was twenty-three, had established him as a figure on the literary scene, and he had gone on to secure that reputation with enough commercial short fiction to fill two volumes—Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age. Those stories, even the slenderest of them, display with careless grace his uncanny ability to evoke atmospheres, moods, energies, through his deployment of sounds, colors, lights, shadows. But a few stories written later, and he knew which ones—“Winter Dreams,” “Absolution,” “The Sensible Thing,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”—had more than inborn grace and developing skill. Later, these would be the stories singled out by critics as signaling the tentative stirring of The Great Gatsby within his imagination. This may or may not be the case, but they may have reminded him that it had been his plan to become something more than the chronicler of flappers and playboys.
Fitzgerald himself had given currency to neither of those words; very few of his short-story women are flappers in the John Held sense of the word, and certainly not the young ladies, however liberated, in his novels. He did later admit ruefully to some responsibility for that phrase “the Jazz Age,” and at one of Gatsby’s parties a “Jazz History of the World” would be performed. He had shaped the literary image of that world, and it had been decided, in those quarters where such things are decided, that he was not merely the prophet of a new, reckless generation, with new songs to sing, but its living embodiment, with the looks of a movie star and a gift for outrageous public behavior. “The other evening at a dancing club,” one of numberless journalists reported, “a young man in a gray suit, soft shirt, loosely tied scarf, shook his tousled yellow hair engagingly, introduced me to the beautiful lady with whom he was dancing and sat down.” Mizener offers the familiar verbal snapshots: “They rode down Fifth Avenue on the tops of taxis because it was hot or dove into the fountain at Union Square or tried to undress at the Scandals, or, in sheer delight at the splendor of New York, jumped, dead sober, into the Pulitzer fountain in front of the Plaza. Fitzgerald got in fights with waiters and Zelda danced on people’s dinner tables.” They were already drinking far too much, especially Fitzgerald.
They were a well-known couple, Fitzgerald and his “barbarian princess from the South,” creating a rotogravure legend which still exists, wavering, in our cultural memory, decorated with anachronistic stills of Astaire and Rogers dancing against a montage of top hats and champagne bottles. If they went broke every couple of years, there were always those fountains of eternal replenishment, The Saturday Evening Post and Red Book, and Liberty and Woman’s Home Companion. But that isn’t how he had planned it. He had planned to become the best novelist of his generation, somehow or other.
This Side of Paradise had had a success which was almost freakish, capturing the aspirations of a generation and especially of those within that generation who, like its author, aspired to be great writers. Reading it today, one blanches at its emotional and rhetorical excesses, and yet, as Matthew Bruccoli says, it was received as “an iconoclastic social document—even as a testament of revolt. Surprisingly, it was regarded as an experimental or innovative narrative because of the mixture of styles and the inclusion of plays and verse.” It was the autobiographical first novel of a very young writer who took himself very seriously, and who had not provided for his hero those escape hatches of irony which Joyce had built into A Portrait of the Artist. But it was not, by any stretch, the work of a man who planned a career as a writer of commercial fiction.
H.L. Mencken, who turns out, rather surprisingly, to have been the most perceptive of Fitzgerald’s early critics, was the gentlest of them when writing of Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, when it appeared in 1922. For Edmund Wilson, the Princeton friend whom he would one day call his “literary conscience,” Fitzgerald “has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.” Wilson unkindly quoted Edna Millay as saying that he resembled “a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond.” But Mencken, who could wield a heavy saber when he wished, wrote differently. After the first novel, he wrote, Fitzgerald’s future seemed uncertain and the “shabby stuff” collected in Flappers and Philosophers changed uncertainty into something worse, but the new novel has “a hundred signs in it of serious purpose and unquestionable skill. Even in its defects there is proof of hard striving.”
Perhaps Mencken had been too easily impressed by the novel’s pretentious chat about Spengler (who had not yet been translated), and perhaps Wilson had not placed proper value upon his friend’s uncanny ability to evoke atmospheres, moods, emotional energies. Fitzgerald would never be an intellectual in the sense that Wilson already was, but he was beginning to learn that one uniquely novelistic gift which Wilson never quite mastered, the ability to translate ideas into art. It is at work, if falteringly and at times embarrassingly, in The Beautiful and Damned.
The sudden leap forward into the exquisite mastery of The Great Gatsby is likely to remain one of art’s abiding mysteries, but readers of Fitzgerald may be forgiven their speculations. The story called “Absolution,” which Mencken published in the American Mercury in June of 1924, just as Gatsby was being finished, is a case in point. In a letter to a fan, he tells us that the character of Gatsby
was perhaps created on the image of some forgotten farm type of Minnesota that I have known and forgotten, and associated at the same moment with some sense of romance. It might interest you to know that a story of mine, called “Absolution,” in my book All the Sad Young Men was intended to be a picture of his early life, but that I cut it because I preferred to preserve the sense of mystery.
This surely cannot have been literally the case—there seems little connection between Jimmy Gatz, who, as we learn in the novel’s final pages, had grown up a Lutheran, and Rudolph Miller, a Catholic boy who makes a boastful confession to a half-mad priest. There is, to be sure, a thematic connection: both boys live, dangerously, within the imagination, with the priest providing a creepy warning. As Fitzgerald explained to another reader, “The priest gives the boy a form of Absolution (not of course sacramental) by showing him that he (the priest) is in an even worse state of horror and despair.”
Arthur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Houghton Mifflin, 1951).↩
Arthur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Houghton Mifflin, 1951).↩