essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Poor Francis Scott Fitzgerald! He seems to have somehow sneaked into literary history by the back door, through living a profligate life. A lot of people who write about him seem to go “tsk! tsk!” reprovingly. He’s studied by students at college as a great writer, but if they know anything of his life, it’s that he was a lush.
The exposé treatment
A recent biography by Jeffrey Meyers (Harper NY 2013) seems to me to fall into this category. Despite being the most extensively researched of Fitzgerald biographies, its content is a long list of scandalous tidbits and censorious remarks from any one who knew Fitzgerald, and sometimes it seems from anyone who was in town at the same time he was. Although Meyers has a final summing up in which he notes Fitzgerald’s good points, his kindness and generosity, his empathy, his courage, and his dedication to his writing, he has performed an effective character assassination long before then. He accepts all the scandalous statements about Fitzgerald at face value, rarely suggesting any petty motives or prejudice. He adds information on every one night stand Fitzgerald engaged in, so he appears sexually profligate as well as a barfly. Then Meyers throws in some amateur psychology about Fitzgerald’s sexual incapacity and its origins in his latent homosexuality. The final evaluation of Fitzgerald as a writer seems an anti-climax.
For all its scope and extensive research, Meyers, intentionally or not, has written in an unfortunate genre, the muckraking biography of a celebrity. This is usually of a film star, as Irving Schulman’s awful smear of Jean Harlow. I felt when I put Meyer’s book down that Fitzgerald deserved better than that. Granted that a book of sustained literary analysis belongs in academia, and is not for the general reader, yet a sensational biography is at the other extreme, and labels Fitzgerald as a stereotypical figure whom we need not evaluate in more depth. These kind of books sell, by appealing to our prurient interest in celebrity excess, but don’t really serve any more useful purpose.
The trouble seems to be that Fitzgerald lived a life that stimulated the censorious reactions of the bigot and the puritan, and his excesses seemed to outshine his achievements.
Look at how Fitzgerald has been labelled. “voice of the Jazz Age”, “inventor of the Lost Generation”, “sellout”, “wasted talent”, “alcoholic”, “classic of American literature”, so it goes on. We love putting things in boxes. Most of these tags just serve to sell books and should not be taken seriously. But they are.
The essentials about Fitzgerald
I think there are some things we should forget about F Scott Fitzgerald.
1. The movies. Don’t see a movie based on a Scott Fitzgerald novel or story and think you’re getting anything but popcorn.
2. Zelda. As a person Zelda was wasteful, capricious, unbalanced, and destructive. She deserves a study of her own, and not to be part of Fitzgerald’s story.
3. His short stories. I know some of them are good. Most are not. They are typical magazine love stories, written for the money.
4. His alcoholism. Fitzgerald was an ill man, and was not diagnosed and treated as he should have been. But this had no bad effect on his writing at all.
What’s left is five novels, and Fitzgerald’s attitude to them. This is what a novelist’s life and times should be about. These are the essential things about Fitzgerald to look at.
This Side of Paradise (1920, written when Fitzgerald was 24)
A Saturday Evening Post type of story worked up to novel length. It is autobiographical, and was the first novel to depict middle class college educated young people of the post war generation, and the ‘new’ woman, the flapper. It has Fitzgerald’s easy charm, superficiality and sentimentality. It was a best seller for two months, but earned little money.
The Beautiful and Damned (1922, written when Fitzgerald was 26)
Another cannibalistic work, based on what was happening to Fitzgerald and his wife, as he lived an extravagant lifestyle, refused to face up to his problems, and Zelda started to show the instability that resulted eventually in madness. It explains convincingly what drew him to Zelda, but fails to explain, and couldn’t, how they would survive. Sales were disappointing.
The Great Gatsby (1925, written when Fitzgerald was 29)
Fitzgerald achieved enough distance from his subject to write a fable bordering on a myth, a myth about the flaws in American hopes and achievements, both limited by materialism. Despite the power of the writing, it remains a melodrama without a psychological centre. Originally called Trimalchio at West Egg, it is a study of excess that avoids the incestuous self analysis of the first two books. It sold less than half the number of copies of these two. Fitzgerald earned less than $5,000 for each of the three.
Tender Is the Night (1934, written when Fitzgerald was 38)
All of Fitzgerald’s strengths, and all his weaknesses, are crammed into this too long novel which he wrote three times, and overwrote. Again marred by sentimentality, it fails to convince that the relationships portrayed are real: but the writing is superb. Another tale of Scott and Zelda, but so much was going wrong at the time of composition Fitzgerald had to recast it to absorb new disasters that had occurred in his life. It was a poor seller and earned him little money.
The Last Tycoon (1941, written when Fitzgerald was 44)
Hardly the truth about Hollywood Fitzgerald may have intended, this is truer to life and consequently more profound than anything else Fitzgerald ever wrote. Fitzgerald, always a disciplined writer because he knew himself to be a facile one, created his most complex characters and filled them with feeling and meaning as never before. If it wasn’t to be the GAN when he finished it (it is only half completed), the next one surely would have been.
There’s the heartbreak of this writer’s life. After 20 years of trying, with incredible effort, to be a good writer, cursed with a facile pen and a need for self examination that diverted him from his real purpose, Fitzgerald was almost at his goal. Recognition as the greatest living novelist. It would have assuaged his self doubt somewhat to have achieved this standing. But he died just before he could make it. We call him a major writer. He’s perhaps a better thing. Almost a major writer. Anyone who loves good writing and literature will love the man and his books. For all his faults Fitzgerald led a dedicated life, to values often observed in the breach. His five novels are all worth reading and rereading.
Throwing out the rubbish
Some of the leftover bits of Fitzgerald’s life need to be evaluated and then forgotten about, as suggested above. They have been elevated from fact to stereotype.
In his lifetime Fitzgerald experienced the extremes of good and bad fortune; fame and wealth at times, at others obscurity and poverty; the esteem of friends and the public, and contempt and friendlessness; personal tragedy in relationships; and a lifelong drive of self destruction. His novels give the impression of drafts for what was to be the Great American Novel, but he never managed to write it, or perhaps only partly did so.
Instead he created a legend about himself. A story of a man who earned too much and threw it away through extravagant living, and by drinking too much. A tragic relationship with a mad wife. This stuff is for the Hollywood movies. When looked at more closely, with no intention to shock, it melts away.
Was Fitzgerald an alcoholic?
Many people saw him drunk. When drunk he made a fool of himself, as people do. Fitzgerald himself was repentant of his behaviour, apologised gracefully for it, and analysed it, as he tended to do. Was it true? Many of the people who were embarrassed by Fitzgerald’s drunkenness made an additional comment, not often repeated. They said he became drunk after one glass (usually of gin). Despite the massive amount of alcohol Fitzgerald seemed to consume, and paid for at inflated rates, he himself drank only one glass, and his guests and friends, and Zelda, drank the rest.
Meyers explains this ‘drunkenness’ as the result of hypoglycemia, abnormally low levels of glucose in the blood, which leads to ataxia, lack of co-ordination of muscle movements. Visible effects are slurred speech, trembling and inability to stand without staggering. These conditions are associated with chronic alcohol abuse. That is, alcohol abuse can lead to hypoglycemia, and that state can mimic the effects of drunkenness. When Fitzgerald made a fool of himself, as he did on one occasion, by getting down under the dinner table and barking like a dog, he may have been trying to disguise a frightening inability to stand upright. (Meyers, typically, gives 400 pages of scandalised comment on Fitzgerald’s drinking, and adds this comment on hypoglycemia in his final chapter).
There was plenty of alcohol bought, and consumed, for the parties that Zelda craved. There was plenty of alcohol consumed as Fitzgerald tried to keep up with heavy drinkers like Hemingway. But Fitzgerald himself didn’t consume it.
Meyers has an interesting aside comparing Fitzgerald with Hemingway and Faulkner. The three were all heavy drinkers (alleged, in Fitzgerald’s case), the last two were alcoholics. Interesting to see that Faulkner’s and Hemingway’s work declined as they got older, while Fitzgerald’s improved. His work, despite his alleged alcoholism, was pursued with painstaking dedication, and got better and better.
When you analyse the criticism of Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, it turns out to be mainly about his inability to hold liquor. A real man can hold his liquor, and drink the rest of you under the table. Not Fitzgerald. He was under the table after one glass. So Hemingway despised him. But Hemingway’s values were not real. He was a pathetic poseur who couldn’t face reality and shot himself. So we really shouldn’t take this kind of criticism seriously.
What we should realise is that Fitzgerald was in need of medical attention from the age of 20, never received it, his hypoglycemia undiagnosed, and his doctors treating instead his alcoholism by ‘drying out’. That’s why he died aged 44.
Fitzgerald was a hack writer who wasted his talent
All those stories for Scribner’s and the Saturday Evening Post are often invoked by critics of Fitzgerald to explain why he didn’t work more seriously. The long struggle with Tender is the Night, the half finished state of The Last Tycoon, can be explained, by these people, as the result of time wasting hack work and boozing. The assumption seems to be that all Fitzgerald had to do was starve in a garret, forget about his ill wife, and about bringing up his daughter, and above all stop drinking, and inspiration would have flowed. But he was a naughty boy, and was punished accordingly. Do these facile, sanctimonious critics think writing a book is as simple as that? They haven’t written one that’s for sure. The expectation seems to be that Fitzgerald only need have applied himself, and a dozen or two Nobel Prize winning great novels would have poured out, his reward for being good.
Fitzgerald’s Notebooks should be mandatory reading for this kind of criticism. It shows his painstaking refinement of his craft, his meticulousness, his using of every scrap of experience and transmuting it into good fiction. He could write, from childhood. But he needed to learn to have something to say. Unlike Hemingway, for instance, who hammered out an exact, impressive and influential style, but never had anything of importance to say (except to himself).
Fitzgerald earned his living from lucratively paid magazine stories, then as a highly paid Hollywood screen writer. None of his novels sold appreciably till after his death. Too much time is wasted on talking about how these stories destroyed Fitzgerald’s talent. They didn’t. His talent improved with age, and was still improving when he suddenly died. The stories gave him an income and a lifestyle that was harmful, and gave Zelda scope for wasting the money, and destroying his writing career. She didn’t, because Fitzgerald was too disciplined an artist.
Fitzgerald was a social failure
By the age of five Fitzgerald had experienced the trauma, or series of traumas, that was to render him full of self doubt, give him a marked inferiority complex, and prone to expect the worst to happen. He identified with his refined father and disliked his eccentric mother, yet she was the stronger parent. A look at Fitzgerald shows he followed his mother’s psychic pattern, not his father’s, developing ‘feminine’ sensibility to nuances of colours and of moods, empathy to others, and combined this with self doubt and mistrust of his own reactions. He looked to others as role models all his life, and humbly accepted their criticism. He inevitably attracted bullies who preyed on these dependencies.
Under-confidence made him dependent friendships with those willing to abuse that lack of confidence to fulfill their own needs. It also propelled him into an obsessive relationship with Zelda. It made him hesitant about his writing, which veered from facile to overwritten. He was judged by scandal mongers and friends alike in a censorious manner about his alcoholism, in which his self doubt made him concur. But Puritan American standards are not the only ones, and here hypocritical. Meyers’ book is full of Fitzgerald’s social disasters. It is a sensationalist misreading of his social life.
More relevant was the charge that Fitzgerald could not handle money. He, or rather Zelda, squandered his earnings early in his career. Then he incurred large debts caring for his wife and daughter. His screen writing barely paid for this, and he died in poverty. His life an examination of living by gross material values, and his fiction a subtle condemnation of this.
His wife was important to Fitzgerald, for all the wrong reasons. She gave him someone to care for, and this boosted his confidence in himself. She ruined his life, a neurologically unstable woman who became unable to care for herself. She was mentally unbalanced when he met her and became more so as she got older. Her story is a sad one. The agony she put Fitzgerald through as her illness worsened was terrible. But he was a writer. He used her for material, and his fiction is richer for the relationship. Fitzgerald has always been taken to task for faults that were really Zelda’s, and rather than reprove him, we should acknowledge his loyalty to her.
Fitzgerald was a man of immense charm, physically compelling because of his green eyes and blond hair, immensely intelligent and obviously talented. He was slightly built, 5 ft 8 in, 140 lb, and was ill for much of his adult life, but rarely showed it. It was his lack of self confidence that often made him earn the contempt of others, that, and jealousy of his attainments. Behind all the judgements made on Fitzgerald are two. Not the amount of alcohol, but inability to carry it, is really being censured. And all condemn his inability to become and stay wealthy. These two judgements are spurious ones.
Fitzgerald’s was a life dedicated almost entirely to transforming his facility in writing into an ability to write meaningful fiction. He succeeded in this aim, and deserved to achieve more. Fitzgerald also showed loyalty to a wife and friends who abused him, forced him to misuse his talent, and undermined what confidence he had in himself to do so. That was his real tragedy.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.