It’s a testament to the power of images over words that an aura of glamour continues to embellish the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The black and white photographs of that handsome and dandyish young couple, Scott and Zelda, seem if anything to grow more beguiling over the years, as time overlays a tender quaintness upon all of their dramatically posed renderings of the bold and the chic. When documented in print, however, at least in Jeffrey Meyers’s new Scott Fitzgerald, their lives are something else again. By and large, the intervals when they were together and the later, lengthy separations brought on by Zelda’s madness and institutionalization alike appear squandered and dreary—when they were not altogether nightmarish. Jointly and singly, they lived with alcoholism, paranoia, sexual dysfunction, attacks of scarring eczema, colitis, bankruptcy, jail, brawls, drug abuse, premature aging, malaria, repeated suicide attempts, near-fatal accidents, religious mania…
It’s no wonder if, seeking some respite from Meyers’s tally of woes, the reader chooses to linger yet again over the photographs. Scott’s military career, as Meyers reminds us, was a comical shambles—culminating in his nearly disastrous order, when directing a mortar company, to fire upon friendly troops—but there’s no gainsaying that he glows commandingly in his Brooks Brothers army uniform. Under the ravages of her illness, Zelda’s beauty may have vanished early, as Meyers recounts, but she still looks irresistible—a studied blend of the vulnerable and the audacious—as a young woman engulfed in an immense fur coat. The glamour they wished for themselves endures, as seems only just—so few of their wishes, even of the most moderate sort, being fulfilled in the end.
Meyers succeeds better at chronicling the slow, downspiraling trend of Scott’s life than at capturing, on the wing, those dartings of charm or brilliance which, as much in the prose as in the life, made him so charismatic. As biographers of much-profiled subjects are apparently compelled to do, Meyers offers an introduction explaining why the portrait he has compiled is more balanced and complete than any predecessor. In truth, although I can’t claim to have exhausted that ever-mushrooming micro-genre, Fitzgeraldiana, most of what he presents has an already-heard quality—a familiarity perhaps bred from my having previously encountered so many of these events and assessments in Fitzgerald’s fiction, which was often nakedly autobiographical. It’s one of the ironies of Fitzgerald’s posthumous fate that a writer who worked to make biographers extraneous would attract so many of them.
If Meyers advances little that is revelatory (a shortcoming tacitly acknowledged in the self-trumpeting with which he announces that he, unlike previous biographers, has successfully tracked down some remote ancestors of an Englishwoman with whom, two thirds of a century before, Fitzgerald had had a brief boozy affair), he does create, in a prose commendably free of both equivocation and jargon, an appealingly pitiful portrait. By the close of the volume, during Fitzgerald’s third, final, most pathetic stint in Hollywood, when—desperately broke—he was openly seeking to debase his talents and finding few takers, the reader feels less disillusionment than indignation and sympathy. We’re rooting for him.
Meyers will probably take some knocks for focusing so insistently on Fitzgerald’s dissipations—chiefly his gargantuan drinking, but also his wild hours, his sleeping pills, his smoking. But in this, Meyers’s instincts are sound. Fitzgerald’s ruinous life-style (what he himself called “raising hell generally”) was not something tangential or supplemental to his work. His two best-known creations, after all, are Jay Gatsby and Tender Is the Night’s Dick Diver—the former a bootlegger (among other crimes) and the latter an alcoholic.
Those who come to Meyers’s biography looking for other virtues may wind up feeling shortchanged. The book builds little ambience—with the result that Fitzgerald wanders in front of painted backdrops. The reader gains little information about Princeton during Fitzgerald’s sporadic, truncated tenure (admitted to the class of 1917, he never graduated); or of expatriate Paris and the Côte d’Azur in the Twenties; or of Hollywood in the Twenties and Thirties. (There’s no clear delineation, for example, of how the talkies revolutionized the film industry between Fitzgerald’s different sojourns.) More troubling still, Meyers doesn’t volunteer a single literary interpretation (of a novel, story, poem, or essay) that struck this reader, anyway, as notably fresh or penetrating. For those who covet such things, there’s an encyclopedic enumeration of the real-life counterparts that stood behind Fitzgerald’s creations. Indeed, the book became in my mind a sort of outsize key-ring (something a school janitor might wear on his belt) which was equipped to unlock each of the characters in Fitzgerald’s romans à clef. For the cultist, there may be something at once comforting and thrilling—a hint of initiation into an exclusive club—in being informed that the hero of an obscure Fitzgerald story, “I Didn’t Get Over,” bears a name, Hibbing, that “recalls the president of Princeton in Fitzgerald’s time, John Grier Hibben.” Most readers, though, may well say, “Who gives a damn?”
Perhaps it’s time to admit that for me Fitzgerald is a one-book writer, and a one-small-book writer at that. I don’t think anything else he ever wrote approaches the craft and intelligence and poignancy of The Great Gatsby.
Its nearest rival, Tender Is the Night, is an affecting and often beautifully written book, but we hardly need Meyers’s biography, with its scrupulous paralleling of Fitzgerald’s circumstances with Diver’s, to surmise that its plot reflects the ungainliness of life as it is lived rather than shaped by the promptings of some pure and self-driven artistic impetus. The reader recurrently senses—as Meyers’s book confirms—that events are presented because that’s what happened. It’s likely that one reason Fitzgerald had so much difficulty in organizing the book (a task never accomplished to his satisfaction; long after publication, he continued to envision a radical regrouping of its parts) was that the autobiographical underpinning upon which the novel was propped—his marriage to an intermittently demented woman—provided neither a fully coherent structure nor any logically foreseeable denouement other than a dreary, anticlimactic shuttling in and out of institutions. Art is always free to imitate life—but, in doing so, may well wind up waiting a long while for the world to tie up all the loose ends.
A further, systemic difficulty arises from the book’s variable outlook on its characters. Fitzgerald approaches Rosemary Hoyt, the teen-age movie actress with whom Diver becomes infatuated, from a captivatingly old-fashioned, near-omniscient perspective (“Her immature mind made no speculations upon the nature of their relation to each other, she was only concerned with their attitude toward herself”), and he strives, with less consistency, to regard Diver’s gorgeous mad wife, Nicole, with a kindred wisdom and detachment. But clearly he could not (for rather obvious psychological reasons, I suppose) achieve a similar sense of remove from Diver himself. Whether, in the early sections of the novel, Diver is embodying a fantasy of the ideally nimble and unflappable host (despite the legend, Fitzgerald was often mortifyingly maladroit in social situations), or whether, in the book’s conclusion, he alternatively embodies the fail-ure and anonymity that Fitzgerald dreaded for himself, the author has no distance on him. The ironic result is that a novel haunted by madness reflects, methodologically, a kind of schizophrenia.
As for Fitzgerald’s short stories, Jay McInerney recently made an intelligent and spirited case for them in these pages,* and since it’s hard not to wish Fitzgerald well, I hope many readers will concur with McInerney that the finest of these “are among the best written by an American.” Still, even if we trim this claim to include only the twentieth century, I can’t agree. It seems to me that whoever would place Fitzgerald’s “Rich Boy” or “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (two of the best, according to McInerney) beside, say, Hemingway’s “The Killers” or O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or Cheever’s “Torch Song” is like a man carrying a pot of geraniums into a horticultural fair. Fitzgerald consciously saved his prime work for his novels, which he deemed a “more important medium.” It showed.
Fitzgerald’s stubborn insecurity (what he called his “massive inferiority complex”) led him to respect the wisdom in his adverse reviews, even when they contradicted each other. But his letters suggest that he eventually came round to a confident belief in the “aesthetic soundness” and “lyric quality” of Gatsby—virtues he hoped to infuse into what would become his tantalizingly unfinished final novel, The Last Tycoon. Meanwhile Gatsby, after being picked up by the Modern Library, was dropped for lack of sales and went out of print. Near the end of his brief life (he died at forty-four, of a heart attack), Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins of a vision of absolute oblivion: “But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much. Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly bare [sic] my stamp—in a small way I was an original.”
Today, Gatsby seems so fixed in our cultural heritage—its scenes, its metaphors, even its phrases central to our literary landscape—that it’s difficult to conceive of an era when it would have been abandoned. (A few years ago, while teaching a fiction class in a small New England college, I tried to determine what novels everyone in a seminar of fifteen upperclassmen had read. Austen? Hawthorne? Dickens? Gatsby, it turned out, was the only object of overlap we could come up with.) It’s one thing when a classic on first publication sinks like a stone, waiting for a wiser posterity to haul it back up to the light (as was true of Billy Budd, and many others). But Gatsby was published to fanfare and scrutiny, was subsequently rereleased in Modern Library—a prestigious and seemingly durable form—and then quietly languished.
How could this have happened? If Fitzgerald was a one-book writer, nonetheless in this tale of counterfeit riches he created an authentic diamond. To my mind, The Great Gatsby, along with James’s Turn of the Screw, is one of the two short novels in American literature that are incomparables, that are nonpareils, that are no-one-word-designations-will-do-them-full-justice books—and ours is a literature that abounds in beautiful short novels. (Think of James’s many other wonderful novellas, of Wharton’s Summer, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Bellow’s Seize the Day, Updike’s Of the Farm.)
There’s a wonderful interconnectedness about The Great Gatsby, an intricacy and ingenuity of plot that makes the book as much a mechanical marvel as Gatsby’s fabulous, fatal motorcar. The book’s insatiable central quest—Gatsby’s doomed attempt to recapture the past—has an irresistible gravitational pull; in one way or another, every character gets drawn in. It’s this sense of “fit,” surely, that works to make even the book’s minor figures so memorable. I’ve always thought, for instance, that Daisy’s little girl, Pammy, was an especially vivid cameo—and was amazed to discover, on my recent rereading, that the child delivers all of three lines of dialogue. But of course we see the little girl through Daisy’s earlier theatrical cry of despair: “And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” The richness of surrounding circumstances gives the child a texture far more complex than what she herself displays.
But exquisite as the book’s construction is, more admirable still are those moments when there’s a little push, a small something extra to demonstrate just how thoroughly Fitzgerald allowed the book’s theme of obsession to obsess him—as when Gatsby, trying to reconcile himself to the notion that Daisy might once have loved her husband, remarks, “If she did, it was only personal,” or when Gatsby’s father exhumes the self-improvement “Schedule” his son had drawn up nearly twenty years before. And the few lines dealing with Gatsby’s double death—the afternoon when he loses both his dream and his life—are unforgettable:
No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock—until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.
These lines hint at a tragedy even greater than Gatsby’s. That the writer who so indelibly saw, in the collapse of a man’s dreams, just “what a grotesque thing a rose is” should in the last years of his life wind up working as a powerless Hollywood free-lancer, struggling with unproduced scripts for “Marie Antoinette” and “Madame Curie,” is heartbreaking. Talk about American tragedies!
Over time, Gatsby seems bound up ever more inextricably with the central themes of the standard American college syllabus. With each new semester, one can envision, on hundreds of campuses, briefcase-bearing professors shuffling forth to expatiate on the American Dream—and what text could possibly fit more neatly under that rubric than this compact tale of ambition and violence and murky ancestors and the tensions between rapid riches and established money and the “warm human magic” of idealistic and unquenchable passion?
Something similar has happened to Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass appears to conform almost designedly—programmatically—to the shifting curriculum’s concerns with multiculturalism (“Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,/Not merely of the New World but of Africa Europe or Asia”). But of course there is nothing, in this cynical sense, designed or programmatic about either book. They represent cases of the curriculum’s bending to the texts, rather than vice versa. When one contemplates the ever-growing army of books, post-Gatsby, that have resolutely marched forth to “expose the hollowness of the American dream,” or some such thing, one can only marvel anew at the ascendancy of inspiration over calculation, of instinct over blueprint.
Fitzgerald is sometimes viewed as a patron saint of the alcoholic artist (a characterization he himself encouraged with remarks like, “My stories written when sober are stupid”). Actually, that’s an honor which might more suitably go to Malcolm Lowry, who not only managed, through one blinding drunk after another, to see his way clear to completing a magnificent big novel, Under the Volcano, but also made inebriation its theme and in many ways its method. No, Fitzgerald might happily stand in for a still rarer and more heartening feat: that of the second-rate thinker who somehow tosses off an absolutely first-rate piece of work. Saint Scott: patron spirit to all those hard-pressed novelists who, against the odds, persist in their faith in the absolutely marvelous book inside them. Somehow, Fitzgerald with this book seems to have achieved his full potential (and of how many good writers could this be claimed?). Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine his writing a better novel than Gatsby. The situation is otherwise for a number of his near-contemporaries.
As magnificent as is the oeuvre of Vladimir Nabokov (born three years after Fitzgerald), he was himself so erudite and varied and inventive that one can envision his having created masterworks far different from The Defense and Lolita and Pale Fire and the rest. Indeed, the shelf of great books that Nabokov never wrote looks as dizzying as that which he did. One can well imagine how with some slight alteration in his circumstances—a chance acquaintance on a train, a stray anecdote, a brief love affair—wholly different brilliancies might have sprung from him.
The lacks in Fitzgerald’s intellectual life are exposed unwittingly by Matthew J. Bruccoli in his F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. The subtitle is something of a misnomer, since various gaps and reticences in Fitzgerald’s correspondence ensure that any epistolary self-portrait can only be a partial one. Selected Letters would have been more accurate.
Whatever its title, the Fitzgerald correspondence contains very little hard thinking or elevated literary preoccupations. Edmund Wilson, whose exchanges with Fitzgerald dated back to Princeton days, and who regularly chided his friend for his breezy anti-intellectualism, offered a revealing anecdote. Soon after they’d left college, Fitzgerald remarked, “I want to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived, don’t you?” Wilson went on: “I had not myself quite entertained this fantasy because I had been reading Plato and Dante. Scott had been reading Booth Tarkington, Compton Mackenzie, H. G. Wells.” Fitzgerald in time came sorely to regret his lack of disciplined learning (“I am still the ignoramus that you and John Bishop wrote about at Princeton,” he lamented in a letter to Wilson in the last years of his life). With its ambitious and wide-ranging curriculum (which included Plutarch, Boccaccio, Marx, Tolstoy), the “College of One” he designed for the girlfriend of his last years in Hollywood, Sheila Graham, evinces an increasing seriousness of intellectual resolve. But his letters show him, too often and too closely, taking up with contemporaries like Ruth Suckow, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Joseph Hergesheimer, Anne Parrish, Lee J. Smits.
Although Fitzgerald spent a good deal of time in Europe, its cultural legacies often left him cold, and his letters contain very few references to painting, music, sculpture, opera, architecture. His politics—in an era which saw most of his contemporaries obsessing over political questions—were liberal but tepid, as he admitted in one of his confessional essays in The Crack-up: “my political conscience had scarcely existed for ten years save as an element of irony in my stuff.”
Much has been made of the spottiness of Fitzgerald’s learning—Glenway Wescott called him the “worst educated man in the world”—and even his defenders would have to concede that his range of interests was narrow and his pursuit of them sporadic and often undisciplined. And yet somehow he got his vital work done. The world is full of reviewers and professors who could, in their erudition, erect around Gatsby or Tender Is the Night complex critical edifices beyond anything Fitzgerald could have done—people who could do anything to Gatsby or Tender Is the Night except write them. Fitzgerald’s literary career is like that of an athlete who, flouting all the rules of training, at the end of the day carries off his share of ribbons. It’s no mystery that some of his friendships with other writers soured. Among his non-literary friends Fitzgerald inspired deep loyalties and solicitude, but other writers he was close to—particularly Hemingway—sometimes couldn’t resist sniping at him. Evidently, it wasn’t enough that his life was patently hellish: that his wife was institutionalized, his health was failing, his finances were crumbling. It seems he had to die before he could be fully forgiven his unlikely successes.
The page that is headed “Also by Matthew J. Bruccoli” in the front of this collection of letters appears to indicate that, as editor or author, Bruccoli has delivered to the world some thirty-nine volumes by or about Fitzgerald. The mind naturally reels, but when the dizziness subsides it seems reasonable to conclude that this sort of monomania may account for a glaring deficiency in the present volume: its inability to recognize, in its explanatory notes, what the reader might plausibly need and not need to have clarified. Could it be Bruccoli is simply too enmeshed in this material to ascertain where the general audience stands? On the one hand, I can’t imagine most readers will need to be informed that Eton is a “prestigious English school” or that Knut Hamsun was a “Norwegian novelist.” On the other, since it’s the nature of a volume like this to present only one side of a story, readers do require various addenda if they’re not to be left perpetually wondering how Fitzgerald’s various pleas, requests, fears, hopes resolved themselves. For anyone interested in tracing the lineaments of Fitzgerald’s life, this book would certainly be the wrong place to begin.
We’re informed that Fitzgerald “couldn’t write badly,” but in this respect, anyway, Bruccoli underestimates his idol. Fitzgerald demonstrates in these letters that he not only could but sometimes did write as badly as the rest of us. “I must admit however that This Side of Paradise does over accentuate the gaiety and country club atmosphere of Princeton,” he observed in a rambling letter of apology to the president of the college—someone he dearly wanted to impress. And when he added, “For the sake of the readers interest that part was much over stressed, and of course the hero not being average reacted rather unhealthily I suppose to many perfectly normal phenomena,” one can only suppose that President Hibben concluded that this young novelist had flunked out five years before for good reason.
Of course it makes no ultimate difference that Fitzgerald could, in slapdash moments, write badly. That he could write beautifully, however, is a truth of enduring moment. Fitzgerald’s dogged feelings of inadequacy (which find perhaps their most pitiful form in a letter to Thornton Wilder: “Ernest has made all my writing unnecessary”) lend a sweet appeal to the occasional patches of boasting in his correspondence, and in a cute, elliptical note addressed to his daughter Scottie, he instructed her in the “power of the verb in description” with an example drawn from his own work: “He lit Daisy’s cigarette from a trembling match, and sat down with her on a couch far across the room, where there was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.”
Fitzgerald’s verbs are wonderful: “…the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor,” “The lawn started at the beach and ran towards the front door, jumping over sundials and brick walks…” But so are his nouns: “You could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved.” And his adjectives: “his eyes leaking isolated and unpunctual tears.” And—trickier still—his adverbs: “a tin of large, hard dog biscuits—one of which decomposed apathetically in the saucer of milk all afternoon.” To say nothing of his similes: “at intervals she appeared suddenly at his side like an angry diamond, and hissed, ‘You promised!’ into his ear”; “he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star”; “a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life.”
All these examples are lifted from Gatsby. (An equally dazzling collection could have been drawn from Tender Is the Night.) Given components of this quality, it’s hardly surprising that the unified product is a prose that has the tough delicacy of a garnet. Even so, it is a little surprising just how many of Gatsby’s passages can stand as autonomous set pieces, as exemplars of descriptive prowess: the playful depiction of “the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound,” or the macabre valley of ashes presided over by the eyes on a billboard, or the nostalgic evocation of “coming back west” from college at Christmas time on the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Saint Paul railroad, or the mournful, expansive reconstruction of what it was like for the original Dutch sailors to come upon the shores of New York and a “world commensurate with their capacity to wonder.”
The delights of the prose—its lyricism, its humor, its deft quickness with portraiture—doubtless are what ultimately impart to an extraordinarily grim story (one encapsulating murder, romantic betrayal, corruption, dismemberment, and suicide) a durable charm and loveliness. You step away from its blood and mayhem sighing, “How beautiful…” I suppose you might say that as its prose stands to Gatsby, so does Gatsby stand to Fitzgerald himself: it’s the gleam on a wave of overriding darkness.
August 11, 1994