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F. Scott Fitzgerald: on the Edge of An Abyss

ISSUE:  Summer 1982
Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. By Matthew J. Bruccoli, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $25.00.

It has been fashionable, in certain literary circles, to disparage F. Scott Fitzgerald. The writer who became an overnight success with the publication of his first novel at the age of 23, the personification of the “Jazz Age,” and a symbol of the Crash, whom Gertrude Stein deemed the most talented writer of his generation, really produced “very little,” Mr. Gore Vidal now tells us, of “great value.”

It is true, Fitzgerald has always divided his critics. When This Side of Paradise was published in 1920, H. L. Mencken pronounced it “the best novel” he had read “of late,” while Hey wood Broun ridiculed it for its pretentiousness and naïveté. Mencken later dismissed The Great Gatsby as “a glorified anecdote,” while T. S. Eliot read it three times and saw it as “the first step” American fiction had taken “since Henry James.” And if Hemingway was to accuse Fitzgerald of not writing “truly” in Tender is the Night, Thomas Wolfe would find it Fitzgerald’s “best work” so far.

But in spite of the differences in the critical opinion of Fitzgerald, and the commonly held belief that he died a “failure,” the fact remains that his books still sell and presumably people still read them. Fitzgerald’s works were not all out of print when he died of a heart attack in December 1940, as Arthur Mizener has claimed. Though his total royalties during the last year of his life were minimal for a writer who had earned, at his peak in 1931, $37,599, more than eight million copies of his books have been sold in the 40 years since his death, his works have been translated into 35 languages, and in America alone The Great Gatsby sells some 300,000 copies a year. Fitzgerald’s works have already passed the first test for an artist, according to Orwell— survival. We should now address ourselves to the larger question of why we still read F. Scott Fitzgerald, and what is it about him that still endures?

One would think that Matthew J. Bruccoli, who has spent much of his life researching and writing on Fitzgerald, would be ideally suited to answer such a question. He comes to the task of a biography of Fitzgerald in Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with a formidable amount of scholarship behind him. In the course of his career, Bruccoli, Jefferies Professor of English at the University of South Carolina and a partner in the publishing firm Bruccoli-Clark, has written, edited and co-edited some 15 book-length works on Fitzgerald, among them the standard descriptive bibliography of Fitzgerald, The Romantic Egoists: Scott and Ernest, The Notebooks of Scott Fitzgerald, Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, most recently, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Poems 1911—1940. Perhaps Professor Bruccoli himself has some sort of passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Clearly, he feels he has written the “definitive” biography. His work, after all, is subtitled “The Life,” not “A Life.”

Bruccoli’s concern with Fitzgerald began, he tells us, on March 27, 1949, when he first heard a radio dramatization of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” When later he read The Great Gatsby, he knew, he says, that his work “was determined.” What he brings to his biography of Fitzgerald, the third to appear in English following Arthur Mizener’s pioneering biography, The Far Side of Paradise (1949), and Andrew Turnbull’s memorable portrait in Scott Fitzgerald (1962), is the new evidence provided by research on Fitzgerald over the past 20 years, in which he has had no small part. “When asked what is new in this biography,” Bruccoli states flatly, like Dickens’ Gradgrind in Hard Times, “I reply, “More facts.”“

Since Bruecoli feels that the legend of F. Scott Fitzgerald has overshadowed his work, his primary aim is to set the record straight, to de-mythify the man in order to re-focus attention on his writings. It is an admirable aim and reminds us of T. S. Eliot’s dictum that “honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.” For it is difficult, in writing on Fitzgerald, to suspend judgment on the sensational life he led—on his egotism and emotional instability, his prodigality and squandered talent, his drunkenness and his tempestuous relationship with Zelda, and his “crack-up.” A writer whose private life has spilled onto the public record is always an easy mark, and Fitzgerald set himself up as one. It is always easier to find fault than to praise.

But Bruccoli’s “thesis” seems little more than a personal bias: that Fitzgerald’s life, as Fitzgerald himself once said of his own talent, had “some sort of epic grandeur.” If Bruccoli’s biography is to be judged successful by his own terms, he must first of all convince us of the “greatness” of Fitzgerald’s career. Then he must show us why, when all is said and done, F. Scott Fitzgerald deserves, as he concludes and as Fitzgerald had wished, a place among “the greatest writers who ever lived.”

More is known about F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bruecoli tells us in his introduction to The Notebooks, “than about any other American writer of this century.” Not only did Fitzgerald pour his whole life into his writings, he kept copious notes, outlines, and charts, along with scrapbooks which he filled with press clippings and reviews, correspondence, and memorabilia. He became an obsessive list-maker. By 14 he had already plotted an “Outline Chart” of his life and begun the “Thoughtbook of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald,” which chronicled his various adventures and pursuits. When Fitzgerald began writing professionally, he also kept a Ledger, still intact, which states his yearly earnings from 1919 through 1936. From it, we can follow his writing career piece by piece and dollar by dollar.

Bruccoli pays close attention to Fitzgerald’s Ledger, which he includes as an appendix to the book, and it is useful to see Fitzgerald’s career from a financial point of view, in relation to the work he produced, its quality, his style of living, and his general state of mind. Though not as best-selling a novelist as Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald was, for a time, a real commercial success. He earned from his writings an average of $21,466 a year when the dollar’s buying power was at least five or six times what it is now. Money, he realized early, brought prestige and power; it was the sign of success and signified that the man who had it, had “made it.”

But with Fitzgerald’s craving for admiration and his expensive taste, money seemed to disappear down empty pockets. In 1924 he complained that he couldn’t live on $36,000 a year when two-thirds of the American people earned under $1,500. It was the “Jazz Age,” as Fitzgerald described the decade between the May Day riots in 1919 and the crash of ‘29, when America was on “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” Money flowed freely, for those who had it, and emotions ran high. It seemed even dreams could be bought. “If you didn’t want it to snow,” Fitzgerald wrote, “you just paid some money.” Money made the world go round, but demand exceeded supply.

To raise quick cash, and to underwrite his novels, Fitzgerald counted on magazine work. He became one of the highest paid magazine writers of his time. In 1929 The Saturday Evening Post paid him his top price of $4,000 per story. But as his drinking increased and his problems with Zelda grew worse, it became harder and harder for him to produce quality material. Besides, he was now used to being paid for virtually anything he wrote. His stories became hackneyed and forced, revolving around threadbare plots with unconvincing characters and stale dialogue. His commercial value would go down.

In 1932 the Post cut his payments from $4,000 down to $2,500 per story, complaining to Fitzgerald’s agent, Harold Ober, that his stories that year, like “Family in the Wind,”

“What a Handsome Pair!” and “The Rubber Check,” weren’t up to the Fitzgerald standard. Fitzgerald’s pieces came to be rejected; some were never placed. Personal difficulties were reinforced by a sense of professional failure. Fitzgerald began borrowing—from his mother, from Harold Ober, from Scribner’s and his editor there, Max Perkins, and others. By 1936 he was more than $40,000 in debt. Physically and spiritually he had sold himself short.

Fitzgerald thought of the emotions, of course, in terms of capital. Emotions, he believed, like dollars, were fixed sums and easily expendable. If one didn’t invest them wisely or hold some in reserve, the well ran dry; one risked “emotional bankruptcy,” and Fitzgerald had spent to excess. “The compensation of a very early success,” he wrote looking back, “is a conviction that life is a romantic matter,” and the “romantic,” as he distinguished him from the “sentimentalist” in This Side of Paradise, had a “desperate confidence” that things wouldn’t last. All at once, everything Fitzgerald had seemed to collapse around him. But the cracks had been forming all along.

In April 1930 Zelda broke down and was institutionalized at the Malmaison clinic outside Paris. In June Oscar Forel was called in to see her and diagnosed her case as schizophrenia. On June 5th Zelda entered Forel’s clinic, Les Rives de Prangins, near Geneva, for treatment. In a letter to Zelda that Fitzgerald wrote at the time, but which may never have been sent, he concluded: “I wish The Beautiful and Damned had been a maturely written book because it was all true. We ruined ourselves—I have never honestly thought that we ruined each other.”

Bruccoli documents at length Zelda’s various breakdowns and Fitzgerald’s precarious health through his “crack-up” in ‘35. He has access to material not even mentioned by Mizener or Turnbull, like a 42-page letter Zelda wrote Fitzgerald from Prangins in July 1930 when she was suffering from severe eczema, anxiety, and hallucinations, now part of the Princeton University Library collection and included in Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps the most fascinating and revealing new document, however, is the transcript of a joint session Scott and Zelda had with Zelda’s psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Rennie, at “La Paix,” their house on the Turnbull estate outside of Baltimore in the spring of 1933

It is a “key document,” as Andrew Turnbull realized. Nancy Milford quotes from it briefly in her summary of the session in Zelda, but its full impact is lost in her presentation. Bruccoli reprints a lengthy extract. It shows Fitzgerald at his downright worst, fiercely competitive with Zelda (who had recently published Save Me the Waltz), demeaning, demanding, and possessive. He dismisses her as a third-rate writer and dancer and then accuses her of stealing his material. He blames his failure to write a novel in the eight years since Gatsby on her and tries to prohibit her from writing on psychiatry, a subject he wished to claim as his alone while working on Tender is the Night. Incensed, Zelda blames Fitzgerald’s “failure” on his drinking, which had haunted her in her delirium. She also implies that he had been an unsatisfactory lover. They have hit “rock bottom,” as Fitzgerald himself admits, and the passage is made all the more poignant by Zelda’s recollection, during a momentary peace, that they were “awfully good showmen.” Fitzgerald can’t deny it. “We were awfully happy,” he adds. They part on the thought of divorce.

Yet Bruccoli can only say that the crux of the matter seemed to be “Fitzgerald’s insistence on the authority to veto Zelda’s writing,” although the transcript also showed “how resentment and dependence were compounded in their relationship.” He makes no mention of Fitzgerald’s almost paranoid response, his extreme insecurity compensated for by feelings of grandeur and his authoritative demands, nor does he allude to Zelda’s charge of sexual incompatibility. Here, as elsewhere, Bruccoli assumes that his “facts” speak for themselves, that there is no need for him to comment. This tendency is most marked in the abrupt transitions he makes between paragraphs which often seem joined by little more than a compulsion to stick to chronological order. . Bruccoli forms no analyses and suspends critical judgment as if he were afraid to put his own conviction of Fitzgerald’s “greatness” on trial.

The effect, ironically, is that though Bruccoli deluges us with factual information about the life and work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, we get little sense of Fitzgerald as a person. In spite of his long association with Fitzgerald, Bruccoli seems strangely aloof from his subject, unwilling to tell us what he really feels, as if his initial response to Fitzgerald had been buried under reams of research. He doesn’t seem to have gotten sufficiently “inside” Fitzgerald’s character fully to comprehend him or bring him back to life. He lacks both the personal understanding of Turnbull and the critical insight of Mizener. “We cannot understand a human being,” André Maurois wrote in “Aspects of Biography,” “by an exhaustive compilation of detail” alone.

More importantly, Bruccoli seems unable to substantiate his claim for Fitzgerald’s “greatness,” a claim he assumes we all tacitly accept. It is not a safe assumption. For there is much about Fitzgerald’s life that is in no way “great”—his immaturity and arrogance, his foolish pranks and recklessness, his inability to see, before it was too late, that he was ruining his own life in spite of his own talent.

And there is much in Fitzgerald’s writing that is far from “great” too. The Beautiful and Damned, for instance, suffers not only from mixed intentions on Fitzgerald’s part and a confused point of view. It is structurally flawed, contains weak characters, and is riddled with passages of purple prose, mixed metaphors, and unconvincing dialogue.

Moreover, because Bruccoli is so reserved in judging the quality of Fitzgerald’s work, we get little feeling for what distinguishes “good” Fitzgerald from “bad” Fitzgerald, or, for that matter, from what could even be “great” Fitzgerald. For Fitzgerald was a great writer, in parts. He was a writer whose “parts,” as Orwell wrote of Dickens, were greater than his “wholes.” But he would never make it to that pantheon of “the greatest writers who have ever lived,” as he had wished. Only in Gatsby did he create a fully integrated structure, and sustain a distinct, yet consistent narrative voice. Only in Gatsby was Fitzgerald sufficiently removed from his material to envision it as a whole and not be distracted by his own presence. Gatsby endures because of its inner dynamics, whereby one part, one relationship, like that of Tom Buchanan and his wife Daisy, depends on another part, or parts, in this case the relationship between Myrtle Wilson and her husband, and that between Gatsby and Daisy. Gatsby is “a constructed novel,” as Fitzgerald himself thought of it, in which everything contributes to “the dramatic movement.” Each choice, each action affects the well-being of the whole. It is a paradigm of society and serves as a warning to all of us.

But Fitzgerald would never again achieve such structural coherence. Though The Last Tycoon is manifestly his most mature work, which Edmund Wilson saw as our best Hollywood novel, Fitzgerald died suddenly in the middle of it. In form and intent it most closely resembles Gatsby, and in its unfinished state, it has the outline of a moral tale. Fitzgerald was, as he had admitted before, “a moralist at heart.” He came to believe, as he once told his daughter, Scottie, in “the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not doing your duty, which are doubly costly.”

Still, there is something about Fitzgerald that endures on a smaller scale than the underlying structure of The Great Gatsby or the moral sensibility implied by The Last Tycoon or the distinct, self-conscious voice he introduced in This Side of Paradise, reminiscent of the dry, ironic humor of Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams. Perhaps Gertrude Stein hit upon it when she praised Fitzgerald for being able to “write naturally in sentences.” “That too is a comfort,” she said. “You write naturally in sentences and one can read all of them and that among other things is a comfort.” For it is in individual sentences, a phrase here or a fragment there, that we see how Fitzgerald could get the most out of so little, how one line, one word could create a mood or evoke a place, describe a feeling or a person’s face.

Concentration, the Imagists held, was the essence of poetry, and Fitzgerald’s prose, at its best, was poetic. “A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek,” he described Daisy on her way to meeting Gatsby, whom she hadn’t seen for nearly five years. The effect here depends not so much on the simile “like a dash of paint,” as on the specific word, “blue.” It creates an almost art-deco image— frozen, static, coolly yet deeply colored—which is then brought to life by the second half of the sentence: “and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car.”

So in Fitzgerald’s vision of Manhattan’s 57th Street skyline—”my lost city, wrapped cool in its mystery and promise”—the evocative power of the phrase is packed into one word, “cool,” suggesting something sophisticated, refined, that which never wearies or falters, but goes on smoothly, soundlessly from dawn to dusk, like the nonstop rhythm of a big city.

Fitzgerald’s ability to “concentrate” or condense can be seen best at work in his casual yet concise remarks recorded in The Notebooks— in anecdotes and epigrams, descriptions and characterizations, thoughts and literary ideas. He dares, for example, to sum up the experience of Shakespeare in just a few words: “Shakespeare—whetting, frustrating, surprising and gratifying.” Yet having read Shakespeare, we nod with the pleasure of assent: “Yes, it’s true,” we think, “How else could one put Shakespeare into just four words?” Whole tomes are contained in them.

Fitzgerald’s greatness as a writer was fragmentary, but the pieces remain just the same. For in those pieces, even in his seemingly superficial observations—on Southern belles and “sad young men,” on “flappers and philosophers,” on bobbed hair and the latest “line” down to “the radius” of a girl’s perfume—he has recreated a picture of society. He has followed its habits, partaken of its taste, shown us its “manners,” as Lionel Trilling used the term, those shades of meaning implied by small actions, like one’s dress or one’s voice, a glance or gesticulation, which together come to define one aspect of a culture. It is a limited vision, it is true, restricted by class, education, and social milieu; but Fitzgerald has recorded faithfully what he has felt and described what he has seen, and in piecing together such fragments of reality he has more than a glimpse into our dreams. In tune with his times, we would not understand the “Jazz Age” or Hollywood, the early Ernest Hemingway or the late Ring Lardner, in quite the same way without him. He was, as Malcolm Cowley has suggested, the “atypical” spokesman for his generation.

It is through the fragmentary nature of Fitzgerald’s life that we also sense its greatness. Fitzgerald was a man who lived through extremes, from the height of his success in the 1920’s when the future seemed bright and held unlimited promise, to the depths of his despair and his “crack-up” in the ‘30’s. By nature he seemed to feel and react intensely; as a professed “romantic” it was almost part of his calling. He lived on the edge, tempting his own fate, seeing how far he could go without falling. But the darkness about him consumed him. “The horror has come now like a storm,” he wrote in “Sleeping and Waking,” a year before “The Crack-Up,” “what if this night prefigured the night after death—what if all thereafter was an eternal quivering on the edge of an abyss, with everything base and vicious in oneself urging one forward and the baseness and viciousness of the world just ahead.” He would fall, but he would piece himself together again, and for Fitzgerald, the first step toward recovery was writing about his experience truly.

In the end, the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald assumes not so much “epic grandeur,” as Fitzgerald remarked (though he apologized later for consoling himself with such “delusions”), and as Bruccoli would like us to believe, as a kind of tragic greatness. It moves, in its own way, to the steps of tragedy, from ignorance to knowledge, from happiness to misery, from one extreme to another. The cause of Fitzgerald’s misfortunes, we feel, lies not in depravity, but in some error of judgment or a series of miscalculations, an overestimation on his part. And the effect of the whole, when pasted together, is to arouse pity—pity touched by fear yet with admiration for Fitzgerald’s heroic attempt to recover, in a new way, in a new form, that which had been lost.


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