F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote once that there are no second acts in American lives—which proves, perhaps, only that there are no second acts in American aphorisms. The line has been repeated so often that it has become drained of its implicit point, which was not that things stop in this country as soon as they start but that there is no room for the graceful intermediate development of themes before the catastrophe arrives. In classic theatre construction, as Fitzgerald knew, second acts are where the slow stuff happens.
Yet the misreading, as so often, says as much as the right reading could. It’s true that we frequently get one big fireworks display and then silence. Bix Beiderbecke makes sublime music and dies at twenty-eight; Stephen Crane writes one perfect book and evaporates; Orson Welles’s career in Hollywood begins and essentially ends with his first two movies. Fitzgerald himself, famous at twenty-four, dead and forgotten at forty-four, is a model of the type.
Second acts there may or may not be, but American epilogues go on forever. Scott and Zelda’s friends from the Jazz Age would doubtless have spit up into their morning coffee—or, more likely, into teacups filled with bathtub gin—to find the pair, almost a century after their meeting, not a poignant footnote to an ill-named time but an enduring legend of the West, a subject adaptable for movies and novels and probably paper dolls and ice shows. Already by the late fifties, the critic Edmund Wilson, who had known Fitzgerald since their Princeton years and had the exasperated affection mingled with disdain that we have for old friends who become famous, had marvelled that Fitzgerald in death had become a variant of the Adonis of Greek myth, taking on “the aspect of a martyr, a sacrificial victim, a semi-divine personage.” Wilson, who served Fitzgerald beautifully as a literary executor, thought it was absurd that his drunken, often silly college friend could become a dying-and-reviving god—which is surely how Dylan Thomas’s and Percy Shelley’s friends felt about a similar transformation in those afterlives, and doubtless how Adonis’ friends felt about him, too.
And here we are, in another season, with more new books that are in one way or another new treatments of the Fitzgerald myth: Zelda and Scott courting, Zelda and Scott in New York frolicking in the Plaza fountain, Zelda and Scott in the South of France taking lovers and the sun, and, finally, both of them bereft and alone, she in a sanatorium in North Carolina, he in the Garden of Allah hotel, in Hollywood. Even Fitzgerald’s old income-tax returns have been pored over like a politician’s, revealing that he made a lot of money for a writer in those days, or in these. In the twenties, he earned about twenty-four thousand dollars a year, the equivalent of about three hundred thousand now, though in those days, as in these, that did not feel like a lot of money to a writer trying to live among people who really did have a lot of money (as Fitzgerald demonstrated in his charming, much resented essay “How to Live on $36,000 a Year”).
Fitzgerald’s worldly success, and his good looks, haloed his literary reputation. One of the sharpest portraits of him remains Budd Schulberg’s fine, too often overlooked novel “The Disenchanted” (1950), a transparently fictionalized account of a doomed and drunken effort to write a screenplay for a college musical with the frail Hollywood Fitzgerald. Schulberg’s Fitzgerald, called Halliday, was a “wonder boy of the Twenties . . . less real than the most romantic of his heroes, the only writer who could win the approval of Mencken and Stein and make fifty thousand a year doing it and look like Wally Reid.” (That’s Wallace Reid, a now forgotten silent-movie star, who shared with Schulberg’s Fitzgerald the “face of the Twenties”: “the face of someone who has just stepped out of a Turkish bath miraculously recovered from the night before, the clean-cut face of the American sheik.”)
Encyclopedic though the literature seems, it often misses something essential. People tend to take other people at their own estimation: declare yourself a genius and acolytes will follow; call yourself a hero and soldiers will assemble; make anxiety a theme and people will assume you’re anxious. Fitzgerald, having conjured himself early on as a follower and even a bit of a fool, and then as a failure and a drunk, mostly got taken as such: a naïf who occasionally stumbled on beauty. In truth, though, his aphoristic intelligence was much keener, his eye much sharper, his judgment of others generally shrewder than that of most of his fellows, Wilson included. The thing that escapes Fitzgerald’s myth is precisely his intelligence, the kind of generalizing intelligence instantly apparent in his notebooks, where he writes, for instance, “The American capitol not being in New York was of enormous importance in our history. It had saved the Union from the mobs in sixty-three—but on the other hand, the intellectual drifted to the Metropolis and our politics were childish from lack of his criticism.” Another sharp mind typed as a moony mystic, J. D. Salinger, recognized this truth, saying once that he was drawn to Fitzgerald because of Fitzgerald’s “intellectual power.”
Fitzgerald is less a natural and more a “made” writer than he allowed himself to seem. He had a first rush of fame with “This Side of Paradise,” a bad book buoyed up by its time, and a probing and uncertain rise into mature artistry with two good, troubled books, “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender Is the Night.” Then, having fallen apart, he arrived at an articulate vision of what had gone wrong, and, with “The Crack-Up,” helped invent a genre: the addiction confession, which became a strong form of American writing in the second half of the twentieth century. “The Crack-Up” is hanging over the shoulder not just of the confessional poets but of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “A Fan’s Notes” and, for that matter, “Eat, Pray, Love.” He flourishes in fragments, in confessional bursts, in fable-minded stories, and in beautiful, isolated pages that pack in as much of the American scene as haiku do of the Japanese one.
The latest crop of Scott & Zelda writing has two forms. First, it aims at remaking Fitzgerald as a pop artist, salvaged from being taken too seriously and made overliterary. Second, it aims at vindicating his wife, Zelda Sayre, as an artist, cramped and driven into madness by the patriarchal brutalities of her time and her circle. While Scott is being made one with James M. Cain and Cole Porter, Zelda is brought together with Sylvia Plath as an American feminist of poetic gifts, afflicted by a large-egoed husband who squelched her even when pretending to serve her.
Therese Anne Fowler’s best-selling novel “Z.,” written in Zelda’s persona—though in nothing like her original, run-on rhapsodic literary voice, evident in her letters and one promising, if fragmentary, novel—is a recent installment in the story. It retells the tale: the courtship in Montgomery, Alabama, Fitzgerald’s disappointment when what became “This Side of Paradise” was rejected by Scribner’s and his elation at its eventual acceptance, all the way to Zelda’s frantic effort, in her late twenties, to become a dancer and her eventual breakdown. People recite events in tabloid fashion, announcing what would in their own day have been obvious background information: “We girls were trained up knowing there was only one goal to worry ourselves about, and that was marriage to the best sort of fella who would have us.” Or: “Gone were the simple cotton blouses and casual skirts that had been my everyday wear. Now I had finer cotton, and silk!”
The adaptation does an injustice to Zelda’s voice, which, reflected in the style of her novel, the autobiographical “Save Me the Waltz,” is often mannered but always in valiant pursuit of original metaphor. “Z.” works its way around to make the now familiar case—Tennessee Williams wrote a whole play with this view—that Zelda was deprived of a literary future by male jealousy, with the strong implication that Fitzgerald drew on her language and experience in his fiction without sufficiently crediting her, albeit this book makes the case with some sympathy for Poor Scott. Hemingway is now cast as the brutal woman-hating villain. (Poor Hemingway! Benefitting unreasonably from his macho image in his lifetime, he suffers from it almost unduly now, even though he was, for the most part, a bystander to the Fitzgeralds’ marriage.)
This is all part of a larger effort to recruit as a feminist heroine this otherwise forgotten writer of great personal pathos and limited accomplishment. No one who reads her prose can doubt her natural talent. (It was Zelda, not Scott, who originally wrote of “the silhouette of retrospective good times when we still believed in summer hotels and the philosophies of popular songs.”) Nor can anyone doubt that she was not encouraged by her husband, or by her milieu, to make as much of the talent as she might have. But the claim that his work depended on hers is true only in the sense that anyone’s work depends on the people closest to her: although Scott and Zelda occasionally signed a magazine piece together, there’s no evidence that she added a semicolon to “The Great Gatsby,” much less to “The Last Tycoon.” To see her as a victim of other people’s cruelties is also to take an old-fashioned and romantic attitude toward the mental illness from which she suffered, even if the treatments for it in her day strike us as uncivilized and ignorant (as ours will in the future). Like Virginia Woolf, she had the signs of the kind of bipolar disorder perhaps best captured by the old French name of folie circulaire, meaning a madness that rises and recedes—and these horrible disorders afflict, haphazardly, the smart and the simple, and men as well as women. Tragic figures, including writers, can, like Woolf, still be tragic figures, even with the best luck and the most supportive spouses and the warmest encouragement and the wisest of friends. It’s the inability of all those other things to keep them sane that makes them tragic.
The Zelda cult, intended to right an injustice done to a remarkable woman, can end by doing an injustice to less theatrically glamorous women writers of her time—Dawn Powell and Anita Loos, in the same social circle and milieu, come to mind—who did get their work done and their selves expressed in even more resistant circumstances. At a time when Powell’s journals have struggled to find an American library to hold them, and Loos’s Hollywood serial, “The Better Things of Life,” which Wilson praised as the Hollywood fiction “with most teeth in it,” has vanished from view, it would seem more urgent to press on readers actual books written by women who achieved and sustained their formidable talent against the formidable odds.
Getting Fitzgerald’s own writing right-sized is hard. Two new books show how easy it is to make him either too big, too grandiose and epic, or too small, an easy-to-take pop artist, in a way that erases his commitment to literary seriousness of the most earnest, modernist kind. This doubleness is in part built into the economics of his career, which made him both chase conventional commercial success and hate it. His essential economic engine was not Hollywood or the American novel—there were many more successful novelists at the time—but the Saturday Evening Post, which paid well and illustrated richly, though its demands for a light touch and a soft landing made Fitzgerald feel, from time to time, ashamed. The Post is the Ozymandias of American magazines—once mightiest of all, it now exists merely as a stump in the sands—but Fitzgerald was as much, and as proudly, a Post writer as P. G. Wodehouse was, at a time when George Horace Lorimer, the editor of the Post, was as much a legend as Harold Ross, of this magazine, was later. The Post’s touch suited Wodehouse’s art perfectly, as the Riviera suited Matisse, but Fitzgerald’s social conscience, implanted in him like a pacemaker by Edmund Wilson, at Princeton, sporadically bugged him and made him eager not to be seen as a Post writer.
John T. Irwin’s “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Fiction” (Johns Hopkins) is a brave attempt to redeem that Scott, to give Fitzgerald the kind of resolutely non-fan-magazine scrutiny that Irwin has previously given to Hart Crane and Poe. He says some smart things about Fitzgerald’s imagery—about, for instance, how ambiguous the idea of light is in his writing, so that the green light at the end of the dock is a portent of the shining illusory screen of the movies, standing for persistent illusion as much as for romantic aspiration. Irwin makes the provocative argument, too, that the seemingly throwaway Pat Hobby stories, tales of a rapscallion screenwriter, dramatize the “authority of failure”—Fitzgerald’s phrase for what his personal defeats had earned him; Hemingway, he thought, wrote with the “authority of success”—and let Fitzgerald see beyond the ideologies of his time. The struggling Pat Hobbys know what reality looks like.
Yet Irwin needs Fitzgerald to be not just good but big, and he ends his book with a long, portentous paean to Fitzgerald’s imagination in terms of Plato’s allegory of the cave:
If Plato’s cave of shadow images is evoked as a figurative telluric womb and if that cave and the underworld of shades were for the classical world cognate formations, based, no doubt, on the notion of a body’s personal survival after death being thought of as analogous to the persistence of a person’s mental image in the minds of those who knew and loved her, then we can see that The Last Tycoon’s scenario of image projection . . . and of a consequent resurrection served as Fitzgerald’s fictive expression of a narcissistic desire to correct two previous incarnations of his muse by symbolically bringing back the images of two women, one dead, one among the living dead in an asylum, so as to have another chance at creating an ideal form that would combine the figures of mother and spouse.
You can see his point—Kathleen, the English outsider in “Tycoon,” is an attempt, based on a real person, Fitzgerald’s last lover, Sheilah Graham, to come up with a female character who is both dream girl and wise woman—but does so plain a point need so elaborate a philosophical apparatus?
On the other hand, Maureen Corrigan, the “Fresh Air” book critic, seems eager to downsize Fitzgerald to contemporary tastes. In “So We Read On: How ‘The Great Gatsby’ Came to Be and Why It Endures” (Little, Brown), she has an infectious sense of excitement about the novel, the furthest thing from academic deadness imaginable. She can be shrewd and clear-eyed—rightly pointing out that Daisy, for all Gatsby’s idealization of her, is intended to be an empty shell, not a dream girl, a zero in whom Gatsby has overinvested. Corrigan has also done some terrific reporting; Sylvia Plath, she surprises us, was a Fitzgerald fan, densely annotating her copy of “Gatsby.”
Yet, though she loves the book, she seems reluctant to take it on its own terms, rather than on some other terms, easier to take now. She devotes an entire chapter, called “Rhapsody in Noir,” to the notion that “Gatsby” is a herald and variant of the kind of hardboiled pulp fiction that was then coming into favor. Fitzgerald had an affection for pop fiction, including bad historical novels and detective stories, but there’s little evidence in his letters that he really emulated or learned much from such things as The Black Mask, the detective-story monthly that, Corrigan notes, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan sponsored as a money-making alternative to their taste-making The Smart Set. The stylishly distinctive noir novels of Cain and Dashiell Hammett came out long after “Gatsby” was published and Fitzgerald’s style was fully formed. She even reverse-engineers the connection from the noirish forties Alan Ladd movie version of the novel, which the studio tried to make look like a fashionable thriller of that later period. (At another moment, she repeats the idea that the long dash on the last page of “Gatsby” is a deliberate attempt to evoke Gatsby’s dock, thereby marking “one of the first graphic novel moments in American literature.”)
In truth, Fitzgerald’s tastes and his ambitions for his writing, and for “Gatsby” in particular—as well documented as any writer’s have ever been—were resolutely high-minded and literary. His masters were the Edwardian novelists John Galsworthy, Compton Mackenzie, and Joseph Conrad—the first two mentioned nowhere in Corrigan’s book, while Conrad gets a sentence. Galsworthy and Mackenzie are out of fashion now, but they, with Conrad, account for nine-tenths of the foundation of Fitzgerald’s style, and without that style there is no “Gatsby.” It was Mackenzie’s Oxford novel “Sinister Street” (1914), with its sinuous, slightly overripe autumnal chiaroscuro, at once elegantly mysterious in its atmosphere and innocently romantic in its aspirations, that gave Fitzgerald the model for the self-consciously lyrical sections of Gatsby, while Galsworthy’s disabused take on middle-class manners is the tannins in the wine, and helped give Fitzgerald the courage to write the adultery sections with such blunt realism.
Above all, Conrad’s short fiction gave Fitzgerald the sense that a big, melodramatic story might be told in a compressed, epigrammatic form. “Gatsby” is a deeply Conradian novella, in its fable-like tone; in the play of dark and light between the ash heap and the parties, between the heightened, unreal action and the cool, mordantly ironic tone of the narration. A book about where “The Great Gatsby” came from that does not give Conrad at least equal time alongside The Black Mask and “Sunset Boulevard” is about something other than where “The Great Gatsby” came from.
In any case, the noirish tone of disabused realism isn’t Fitzgerald’s tone by a mile. “Gatsby” is a book about a tabloid murder that works by being resolutely anti-tabloid in style; that’s its point. The noir novelists properly so called, Cain and Hammett, later on saw real virtues in the stripped-down style of the popular newspaper account; Fitzgerald, a much more self-consciously poetic writer, working in a distinctly earlier moment, did not. “Romantic readiness” is the last thing a writer like James M. Cain valued. The point of everything that Cain wrote is that a green light on the end of the dock is a sick joke that the rich play on the poor; the whole point of “Gatsby” is that the sick jokes that the rich play on the poor can nonetheless be turned into a green light on the end of the dock, forever radiant to the willing mind.
People never tired of lecturing Scott Fitzgerald, telling him to pull up his socks and stop being so “effeminate,” the way they never tired of telling Philip Roth not to be so funny or Updike not to write so well. Roth’s comedy could be taken to be problematic, because it contended with his sense of serious form—nobody ever derided Bruce Jay Friedman or Neil Simon for being too funny. Fitzgerald invited criticism by making his theme, again and again, his weakness, his materialism, his love of money and nice clothes and fame; he appeared to trivialize himself by making his values open to the charge of being trivial. This blaming an author for being himself reached a climax for Fitzgerald when, in 1936, he published in Esquirethe series of confessional pieces titled “The Crack-Up.”
Their publication—for three hundred dollars apiece—is the moment when Fitzgerald became Poor Scott, forever to be pitied. (Hemingway called him so in a short story a few months later.) A reliable rule of literary reputations is that whatever your own time jeers is the one thing that will prove most lasting in your work. Boswell was ridiculed for inserting so much undignified detail into his accounts of life with Dr. Johnson—didn’t he know he was embarrassing himself by telling how he clung to Johnson? Of course, we read him for the undignified details, alive as they are with truth. There is always in the literary world an odd marriage of malice and squeamishness, a hatred of emotional revelation disguised as a mistrust of mawkishness, and Fitzgerald got hit by a lot of it.
Read today, “The Crack-Up” is a surprisingly cautious, abstract kind of confession; Fitzgerald is reluctant to admit to being the drunk he really had been. But one of its great, honest virtues is to position a story of success and failure in the context of American entertainments, inasmuch as he insists that we can understand success and failure in America only through the metaphors of show business. The novel, he explains, has failed in the face of the movies, and this failure is the type and pattern of his own: “A passionate belief in order, a disregard of motives or consequences in favor of guess work and prophecy, a feeling that craft and industry would have a place in any world—one by one, these and other convictions were swept away. I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art . . . capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.” What was happening to Fitzgerald’s nervous system was happening to the novel, too: the crack-up is externalized, and a sure sign that someone really is cracking up.
Patricia Hampl, in a fine essay not long ago in The American Scholar, outlined the ways in which “The Crack-Up” was a “sharp pivot, marking a fundamental change in American consciousness” (and how badly misunderstood the essay was in its time). One can also, perhaps, itemize some of the significant ways in which it breaks with almost all earlier confessional writing, of the kind we find in English with De Quincey and Hazlitt, in French with Stendhal.
First, the class aspect of the fall is much muted. It is essential in the earlier kinds that the narrator end in bad company: whores, gamblers, and lower-class types. In Fitzgerald, this aspect is much less pronounced: the suffering is done in common with others of the same sort. The confessor has not fallen from grace in the world’s eyes as much as in his own. The man in his parents’ basement is more shamed than the man in the gutter. There are exceptions, but mostly, as in John Berryman’s rehab novel “Recovery,” the suffering is a failure in one’s own eyes, not a descent in the world’s.
Second, the sin of which one is guilty is against the cult of success—I was intended for success, I tasted it, but some flaw in me made me unworthy to keep it. “The Crack-Up” is not a critique of the Church of Success and its “bitch goddess” for having failed the writer. It is an apology to the Church of Success for having failed it. In Henry Adams, the fatal flaw, discovered just in time, is pursuing success at all. In “The Crack-Up,” it is failing through bad budgeting of every kind—money, sex, booze—to remain in possession of a form of worldly success whose value is taken for granted. Images of the more conventional kind of success glow brighter or seem ever more baffling. As in “A Fan’s Notes,” every Fred Exley has his Frank Gifford.
Third, substance abuse, booze or, later, heroin, is accepted from the first as a need or a compulsion more than a pleasure. Even in Pete Hamill’s “A Drinking Life,” the tone is of rueful necessity more than of recalled hilarity. The jolly literature of drunkenness in England doesn’t transplant here—take the play “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell,” an account of an unrepentant alcoholic that was huge in London but would be baffling here. “It was fun; now it’s over” is the theme of the British drying-out book. “It was never really fun, and it’s never really over” is the theme of the American one, after Fitzgerald.
The oddest irony of “The Crack-Up” is that Fitzgerald, burned in his life by a failure to measure up in masculinity, according to the wretched custom of his time—the moment when Hemingway measures Scott’s member in “A Moveable Feast” is still notorious, if of dubious truth—did his best work in the most “feminine” mode he tried. “The Crack-Up” provoked indignation in part because Fitzgerald was a masculine writer who was doing a womanly thing: he whined and whinged and wept right there on the page. What was seen as weak was exactly his strength. Romanticism under stress always becomes expressionism—what happened to Poe is also what happened to Fitzgerald. When a lyric writer cracks, there’s a new kind of dissonant music in the breaking. The best passages in Fitzgerald’s novels always worked better as fable and fairy tale than as realistic fiction. The most fantastical of his stories, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” haunt us more than the neatly journalistic, mirror-of-their-time stories, like “May Day” and “The Rich Boy.” Fitzgerald himself knew that the real weakness of his best novel was that we could not imagine Gatsby and Daisy reunited—that, in plain English, he could not evoke them rutting because he could not credibly imagine it. Neither really has a body or an appetite, only an envelope of clothes, and an aspiration.
Fitzgerald was a maker of American fables and literary fragments that lodge like splinters in the brain. “The Last Tycoon” might not have been more memorable for having been finished. All he had to do was get his stars cut out to make his constellations shine. The most beautiful things he ever did may be the separate sentences that fill a hundred and fifty or so pages at the back of Wilson’s posthumous collection of Fitzgeraldiana that took its title from “The Crack-Up,” sentences that are presented in their complete form in the volume of notebooks that appeared some twenty-odd years later. Wilson, in editing “The Crack-Up,” was a little unclear about the source of these sentences—some of them are stand-alone lines, others are literally cut and pasted from those “commercial” stories, supposedly saved from the furnace for another, higher cause.
But they are kept alive by their perfection. The small cause was the high one. Some are reflective and aphoristic: “It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won’t save us any more than love did.” “The combination of a desire for glory and an inability to endure the monotony it entails puts many people in the asylum.” Others are quietly observational, as in this sequence on national types: “Like all self-controlled people, the French talk to themselves”; “Voices: American doubtful—‘Well, I don’t know’; English saying ‘Extraordinary,’ refusing to think; French saying, ‘Well, there you are’ ”; “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter—it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men. . . . It was a willingness of the heart.” That sentence is better than the story it climaxes. Best of all are the ones that seem to announce whole stories in a phrase: “He paused speculatively to vault the high hydrant in front of the Van Schellinger house, wondering if one did such things in long trousers and if he would ever do it again.” (The first two-thirds of the sentence could have been written by Tarkington; the last third by Fitzgerald alone.) Or simply, “Sending orchestra second rate champagne—never, never do it again.”
There is very little second-rate champagne in Fitzgerald. He lives in his sentences, which is where writing lives, in sentences and human sympathy. Everything else is just journalism and punditry. The reason we have fair-minded civilizations is to hear from artists who choose not to be conventionally fair-minded, who build up their heroes and heroines unreasonably, and then crack up and break down. The Adonis myth may be too narrow, but it is not entirely false. Writers are sentenced to their sentences, which sometimes set them free. ♦