“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:
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.
January 27, 1972
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. ↩