Writers in general are not known for their modesty. To a question by a New York Times interviewer in 1972 as to what was his position in the world of letters, Vladimir Nabokov delivered the merry reply, “Jolly good view from up here,” which, while typically smug, at least had the merit of being witty. At the weightier end of the scale there is the ever autobiographical Wallace Stevens and his stately assertion, in “Large Red Man Reading,” that “there were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,” the deathless phrases made by, as he has it in another poem, “the dauntless master,” who is of course Stevens himself. With Joyce we scale the very slopes of Mount Olympus, to behold the godlike artist standing aside from his creation, paring his fingernails. And shall we mention Whitman?
The writer’s egomania can, of course, be underpinned by, can indeed be founded on, acute personal insecurity. F. Scott Fitzgerald announced in 1924, “Well, I shall write a novel better than any novel ever written in America,” but in the matter of class, something about which he cared a great deal, he was driven by “a two-cylinder inferiority complex,” so that “if I were elected King of Scotland tomorrow after graduating from Eton, Magdalene to Guards, with an embryonic history which tied me to the Plantagenets, I would still be a parvenu.” And when it came to writing, too, although he could boast with the best, he was clear-eyed about his talent, especially toward the end; as he mused ruefully in 1940, the year of his premature death, “in a small way I was an original.”
Part of his problem, right up to the last, when he was broken in spirit and soused in spirits, was his good looks. Hemingway in his youth was handsome, but Fitzgerald was beautiful, in a way that neither he nor others could ignore. He was a troubled Narcissus, engrossed and bemused by his own physical loveliness. His helpless admiration of himself would not matter, except insofar as it mars his work, infecting it with a peculiar kind of low-level silliness that he seemed unaware of, and certainly made no effort to cure. Tender Is the Night, which he considered, and which many others still consider, his finest achievement, fairly throbs with self-regard in the portrait of its main character, Dick Diver, whom Fitzgerald closely modeled on himself. Here is Diver seen through the eyes of his future wife, Nicole Warren—modeled with equal closeness on Zelda Fitzgerald—who takes in “his somewhat proud carriage” and acknowledges, in the narrator’s words, that the
part of him which seemed to fit his reddish Irish coloring she knew least; she was afraid of it, yet more anxious to explore—this was his more masculine side: the other part, the trained part, the consideration in the polite eyes, she expropriated without question, as most women did.
This is very like the way in which middlebrow male novelists of the time—the book was published in 1934—wrote about women, with a mixture of faux Freudianism, sentimentality, and bathos.
It is perhaps unfair to dwell on what may seem a trivial aspect of a great writer’s work—and at his best Fitzgerald undoubtedly was great—for what is a little vanity, after all? Consider the Elizabethans, who were never embarrassed to discuss and celebrate male beauty, as Shakespeare’s sonnets amply testify. However, Narcissus lost in wonderment before his own reflected beauty is an unedifying spectacle, and Fitzgerald’s self-love has ramifications throughout his life and his work. It was, for instance, a large factor in the identification of him as the chronicler of the Jazz Age, by others and by himself—“I really believe,” he told Edmund Wilson, “that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation”—which prevented some critics, including Wilson, from taking him seriously as a writer until long after he was dead.
Many of his friends and acquaintances from early days were astonished by the flourishing of Fitzgerald’s posthumous fame. Wilson wrote of him in ambiguously elegiac tones:
I had to recognize that my gifted but all too human old friend had been cast…in the role of Attis-Adonis—the fair youth, untimely slain, who is ritually bewailed by women, then resuscitates, as Fitzgerald did, after perishing in the decline of his reputation, when his books were republished and more seriously read than they had usually been during his lifetime and when his legend became full-fledged and beyond his own power to shatter it.
One detects here the definite hint of a curled lip—“ritually bewailed by women”—but others were far more openly dismissive. Wilson describes the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, herself hardly a major figure, except in her own eyes, saying that “to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald is to think of a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond.”
As for Hemingway, the disdain and mockery with which he spoke of his friend was deeply repellent, never more so than in his cunningly malicious Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast. Fitzgerald had generously aided and guided Hemingway when the latter was finding his feet, which, when he did find them, he employed in stamping all over his mentor’s reputation both as man and artist. Yet what Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, said of Edmund Wilson—he “would give his eyeteeth to have half the reputation as a novelist that Scott Fitzgerald has”—could be applied equally to numerous other of his detractors.
The fact is that during his lifetime Fitzgerald was regarded, with notable exceptions, as a lightweight, possessed of a nice little talent, but irredeemably dim, unserious, and flimsy. American literature, especially fiction, in those times—the endless party of the postwar years, followed by the deadening hangover of the Depression—was largely the domain of rugged he-men of the Hemingway type who delighted in kicking sand in the eyes of ninety-eight-pound weaklings such as Fitzgerald was considered to be. What was overlooked, or ignored, even by such a shrewd critic as Wilson, was that Fitzgerald in essence was a poet whose medium happened to be not verse but prose. It took a present-day critic, and probably not coincidentally a woman, Maureen Corrigan, to recognize that behind Fitzgerald’s midwestern brashness there beat “the secret soul of a poet.”
He had also the sensibility of a moralist and an acute historical observer whose “truest intellectual contemporaries,” according to David Brown, Fitzgerald’s latest biographer, “include the historian Henry Adams (1838–1918) and the German historian/philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880–1936).” Such a claim will no doubt cause many an eyebrow to arch, and even provoke some incredulous snorts. However, Brown, who is a professor of history at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, makes a good case, in his excellent book, for Fitzgerald as “a cultural historian, the annalist as novelist who recorded the wildly fluctuating fortunes of America in the boom twenties and bust thirties.” Paradise Lost, therefore, conjures up an entirely different portrait from the one painted by previous biographers such as Arthur Mizener, who, Brown writes, “accepts at face value Fitzgerald’s estimation of himself as a ‘feeler’ rather than a ‘thinker.’”
A thinker as much as a feeler Fitzgerald may have been, but Brown considers that his “historical awareness was at its core sentimental, nostalgic, and conservative.” All the same, that does not prevent the biographer from seeing his subject as a formidable social observer and recorder whose insights are as relevant today as they were in his own time:
To grasp Fitzgerald’s concern in The Great Gatsby, for example, that the romantic pioneer promise of America no longer inspired its people is to more broadly recognize his sharp reaction to the death of Victorian idealism that followed the Great War. In this respect, I see Fitzgerald less as a mere and familiar commentator on Gatsby’s Jazz Age Manhattan than as a national and even an international interpreter in the company of such contemporaries as Gertrude Stein, John Maynard Keynes, and Pablo Picasso.
As is evident from the startling introduction of this oddly assorted trio of exemplars, Brown is determined to place Fitzgerald as an “international interpreter” of the history of his time, and of the downward slope upon which he considered Western civilization to be set. He presents him also as what he saw himself to be, an “‘authentic’ aristocrat put out to pasture by the pocket-book power of wealthy arrivistes.” Fitzgerald, famously, despised the rich as much as he was fascinated and intimidated by them—“I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.” But as a friend said of him long after his death, “I believe he’d have lived a completely happy life and died a happy death as an Irish landed gentleman of the 17th century.”
Because of the things he wrote about and the way he wrote about them, we are inclined to think of him as exclusively a man of the coasts, east and west, forgetting that he was very much a midwesterner. Many first-time readers are delivered a jolt by what seems the sudden lurch in the closing pages of The Great Gatsby when the narrative turns away from the bright lights of Manhattan, and the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ pier on Long Island, and sets off on a yearningly poetic journey westward.
But it was in the heart of America, figuratively and actually, that Fitzgerald’s true preoccupations were grounded, in all senses of the word. When he wrote in a short story that “the best of America was the best of the world” one can assume that he is thinking not of New York flappers and playboys or the tawdry fantasies purveyed by Hollywood, but of a far older place, and a far finer people. He was born in Minnesota, with Dick Diver’s “reddish Irish coloring,” and inherited, on his father’s side, the blue, or at least blueish, blood of pre-Revolutionary Maryland grandees. He would have considered that a fine and richly mixed pedigree, though one from which he kept falling short. As Brown writes:
He wanted to be the “whole man” but knew that required a certain emotional sobriety beyond his ken. His, we know from countless reports, was a life of drama and self-destruction; high living and reckless spending, wounding marital battles, and the occasional brawls with bouncers and cabbies form a large part of the eternal Fitzgerald narrative.
When at the end of Tender Is the Night, then, he chronicled the professional and moral dissolution of Dick Diver—out of what depths, or shallows, of naiveté did he think to burden his doomed romantic hero with such a name?—he knew whereof he spoke, and knew it intimately, bitterly, tragically. He used the record of his own personal losses and failures as a template for delineating a general malaise, not only in America but in the world at large, a world stumbling dazedly out of the Great War and heading toward another that would be even more destructive, not only of lives but of the moral health of entire societies. Brown quotes with approval Malcolm Cowley’s observation that
Fitzgerald never lost a quality that very few writers are able to acquire: a sense of living in history. Manners and morals were changing all through his life and he set himself the task of recording the changes.
Despite his thinking of Tender Is the Night as the finer achievement, it could be claimed that The Great Gatsby is his one true masterpiece. In Gatsby he was able to maintain a poised and coolly balanced perspective that is lacking in the more ambitious Tender, flawed as it is by the author’s unflagging self-regard and self-pity. Brown holds that the latter work “captures Fitzgerald’s historical vision more completely than anything else he ever wrote,” but in the case of a novel, “historical vision” is not everything—is indeed a good deal less than everything.
Fitzgerald himself unwittingly made a significant critical distinction when he wrote:
The dramatic novel [Gatsby] has cannons quite different from the philosophical, now called psychological novel [Tender]. One is a kind of tour de force and the other a confession of faith. It would be like comparing a sonnet sequence with an epic.
Exactly. But the fact is that Fitzgerald was far greater as a lyric poet than as an epic dramatist. His true talent was for closeness of observation, for fineness of description, and, above all, for poetic intensity. Who, having read it, can forget the shimmering scene in the opening chapter of Gatsby when the narrator, Nick Carraway, first encounters Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker—“They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house”—or the ghastly afternoon drinks party in Prohibition Manhattan that Carraway attends with Tom Buchanan? American writing would have to wait on the coming of John Updike for a writer with a commensurate prose style and grasp of artistic form.
Brown devotes much thoughtful attention to Fitzgerald’s early novels and short stories, reading them as closely and seriously as perhaps only a professional historian could do, disregarding the poor literary quality of many of them but emphasizing their value as social and historical documents. In the process he makes a number of subtle observations, for example the difference he points to between the two apprentice novels, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922). The former, he writes, offers an “expressive portrait of youth,” while the latter, influenced by the political weightiness of social realists such as Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, “involved a fatalistic outcome determined by hereditary or social environment that left little room for human agency, let alone heroes,” and as such is “a denial of everything [Fitzgerald] really believed in, and frustrated what was perhaps his truest impulse—his sense of wonder at the inexhaustible possibilities of existence.”*
Paradise Lost may disconcert some readers by its paucity of biographical detail and literary judgment in favor of broader speculations on Fitzgerald’s sense of history and his characters’ place in it. Brown’s book, however, in its breadth of perspective and seriousness of intent, makes most biographies seem to consist mainly of tittle-tattle and random gossip. Yet the personal dimension is by no means entirely neglected. There is an interesting and significant chapter on Fitzgerald’s first, and perhaps enduring, great love. This was Ginevra King, “a Chicago debutante whose family was part of the Windy City’s turn-of-the-century banking and brokerage aristocracy.” With Ginevra, a lively, intelligent girl, Fitzgerald was, of course, out of his social and, more importantly, his financial depth, as someone at a society party reminded him, so he claimed, by observing witheringly that “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” In the circumstances, Fitzgerald did what novelists always do: he used the girl and his rejected love of her as material for his fiction. When the romance, such as it was, ended after two years, Ginevra asked him to destroy her letters to him, and he complied, but not before having them typed and bound, making a volume of more than two hundred pages that over the coming years he would mine as a resource “to recapture in his prose the color and texture of the youthful struggle for love and glory.”
Although he never forgot her, and perhaps never stopped loving her at some deep level, Ginevra King, the “golden girl,” was the precursor for the woman who was to brighten and blight the rest of Fitzgerald’s life. He met Zelda Sayre in 1918, during what Brown refers to as a “brief military interlude,” when he was based at an army camp near Montgomery, Alabama. Zelda was something of a southern aristocrat, with a Confederate general and politicians among her forebears. The ever class-conscious Fitzgerald not only took to Zelda but to the broader Sayre family, whose “direct ties to the old Confederacy perhaps brought to [his] mind the Maryland childhood of his father,” as Brown writes. Zelda was, obviously, the girl for him.
But was he the man for her? When he proposed marriage, she added a significant condition to her acceptance: he should go to New York and succeed in his writing to a level sufficient to prove that he could support her. Given her subsequent emotional and mental instability, she showed herself to be a hard-headed though obviously adventurous young southern belle. “Except for the sexual recklessness,” Fitzgerald wrote, “Zelda was cagey about throwing in her lot with me before I was a money-maker.” A year was to pass, during which he sold his first short story to the famously deep-pocketed Saturday Evening Post, before Zelda was satisfied that her prospective husband would indeed be able to keep her in the luxury to which she wished to become accustomed. In April 1920 they were married in New York, and thus were conjoined two bristling egos: “in worshiping Zelda,” as Brown observes, “Scott worshiped a part of himself.”
It was, from the start, a fraught union. One wonders if Fitzgerald had any inkling of what they had both let themselves in for when he wrote jauntily to a friend, “She’s very beautiful and very wise and very brave as you can imagine—but she’s a perfect baby and a more irresponsible pair than we’ll be will be hard to imagine.” Their life together was disorderly—“Fitzgerald’s friends commented on the chaos that reigned in their New York hotel rooms, collecting places for dirty clothes, crusted dishes, and overflowing ashtrays”—and would become increasingly so. Nor was the glamor and glitter of the image—already the stuff of legend—that they presented to the world quite as glamorous or as glittering as they imagined it to be. James Thurber saw through the veneer: “In even their more carefree moments and their most abandoned moods there was scarcely ever the casual ring of authentic gaiety…. [They] did not know how to invite gaiety. They twisted its arm, got it down, and sat on its chest.”
And yet, without Zelda, would The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night be the masterpieces of social observation and melancholy yearning that they are? It may be that Zelda encouraged his vanity and early hubris, and certainly she was never to be the steady rock in a turbulent sea that, for instance, Nora Barnacle was for James Joyce. If Zelda was Fitzgerald’s muse, there was also something of the Furies in her. Yet in judging her, if we even have the right to attempt a judgment, we must recall that her husband was no slacker in the business of the wasting of talent, and was every bit as destructive as she was in matters of the heart and of the soul. Yet she was the one who was genuinely damaged—less, it is true, by her union with Fitzgerald than by mental instability. Brown quotes a heartbreaking passage from a letter she wrote to her psychiatrist in 1930, ten years after her marriage:
Why do I have to go backwards when everybody else who can goes on? Why does my husband and other people find that what was so satisfactory for them is not the thing for me. And if you do cure me what’s going to happen to all the bitterness and unhappiness in my heart. It seems to me a sort of castration, but since I am powerless I suppose I will have to submit though I am neither young enough nor credulous enough to think that you can manufacture out of nothing something to replace the song I had.
How prescient was the title of that early novel of Fitzgerald’s: the beautiful and damned, indeed.