Mirror of our Fickle State

F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda

Mirror of our Fickle State

Stoddard Martin “meets” Scott Fitzgerald

Paradise Lost: A Life of F Scott Fitzgerald, David S Brown, Harvard University Press, 2017, HB, pp 330

My maternal grandfather was fifteen years older than Scott Fitzgerald, my father nine years younger. Both were from the Midwest. The former became an alcoholic; the latter went east to college. The America they lived in was peopled by the Nick Carraways, Daisy Buchanans and Jay Gatsbys of a culture Fitzgerald hymned. My father married a Nicole Warren-ish deb who boasted of beaux from Hollywood of The Last Tycoon. The marriage had aspects of Zelda’s and Scott’s. The milieu I was born into – schools, dancing classes, country clubs, the Blue Book – was Scott Fitz to a t. America now is different. Donald Trump is no Jimmy Gatz, and Fitzgerald recedes into tradition as a successor to Hawthorne and Henry James.

No; hang on. Fitzgerald’s Princeton pal, the great critic Edmund Wilson, would balk at setting his rank so high. Somewhat above Booth Tarkington or Ring Lardner is more like it. As for Trump being no Gatz: what would the disdained lover of Daisy Buchanan have grown into had he lived; less blindly romantic, more resentful of the gilded high flyers who could never rate him as other than a ‘bridge-and-tunnel man’? As for the Social Register snobbery of my youth: scorn for the nouveau riche, non-Ivy League background of Drumf demonstrates how, though it could morph to accommodate the Clintons of Yale Law or Obama of Harvard, its comfort zone remains with Skull-and-Bones, Bush, Kerry and Whiffenpoofs.

Scott would have got this. It was his subject, as a prior version had been Edith Wharton’s. Does his treatment of it qualify him as the first-rate cultural critic David Brown claims him to be? Wilson’s doubt is seen as part envy from a novelist-manqué, part intellectual hauteur abetted by Scott, who never finished his degree and progressed by churning out stories for Saturday Evening Post while Wilson tripped blithely from academe to critical heights. But it was not only Wilson among friends who placed Scott in ‘the first rank of the second-rate’, to use a Somerset Maugham phrase. Hemingway saw him as frittering away his rare talent, a verdict Scott also abetted, hardly blinking at the ingratitude of a novelist whose career might have gone nowhere had Scott not pushed him on his editor at Scribner’s, Max Perkins.

After the success of a callow first novel, Scott was advised by Wilson: ‘Settle down and learn French and apply a little French leisure and measure to that restless and jumpy nervous system. It would be a service to American letters: your novels would never be the same after.’ Brown sees this as evidence of Wilson’s de haut en bas attitude and that he did not quite get, or perhaps deliberately overlooked, the nature of Scott’s genius. This Side of Paradise had captured the plaint of privileged American youth of the day, complete with faux English wit and a lengthy inclusion of a Wildean melodrama of manners. Its successor, The Beautiful and Damned moved the FSF style towards naturalism à la Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, but its topic remained Jazz Age superciliousness. Wilson’s wish was for Scott to grow serious and make his context larger, like that of Proust or La Comédie Humaine. Sage advice.

The Great Gatsby followed. Its milieu was New York, where Fitzgerald hardly ever lived. He wrote it in France, where he spent nearly three years. Its view of the American dream is higher, broader, more distant. Spare as a novella, its success lies in a poetic synthesizing of an essence. Its economy is like Eliot’s, its characters almost symbols, its reality as if transmuted via Maeterlinck. Wilson simultaneously was working on his fine critical study of French decadent poets, Axël’s Castle; Scott’s new pals, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were leading fêtes galantes on the Côte d’Azur; and like Wharton and James, the young writer seemed to be coming into his own on expatriate soil. Part of the highest-brow American dream was, after all, linked to what D. H. Lawrence contemporaneously called ‘the great heartthrob’ – Europe; its richesse of aesthetic tradition. Ezra Pound was drawn by it. Young Hemingway too.

Yet, as Brown point outs, Fitzgerald was ‘more of a financial exile than a culture-seeking expat’. The franc vs the dollar was as weak following World War I as its equivalent vs the pound had been in the post-Waterloo era of Byron and Shelley. This changed in the ‘30s but it did not dissuade Scott from locating his next and sole other finished mature novel in an expat milieu. Tender is the Night moves in the stream of other American players on the Euro scene such as Edith Rockefeller McCormick, patron of Jung, or Peggy Guggenheim. By its completion Scott had moved back to Maryland, where he claimed ancestral connection, and Zelda was setting out on her long journey in and out of sanatoria. The ‘crack-up’ was in prospect and Scott’s last incarnation as a has-been and rummy trying to make a living as a screenwriter in L.A. No longer a tyro, the once ‘great American novelist’ had publicly gone to seed. His masterpiece Gatsby failed to sell 500 copies through the entire 1930s.

We may ask questions. What would have happened if Fitzgerald had ‘beaten out his exile’ and stayed on in Europe, like Eliot or James? What in him insured rootlessness yet prevented transplanting? What importance should be placed on his Irish Catholic identity? What might have arisen had he been able to stop drinking, dump Zelda when she was still ‘saleable’, as Hemingway put it, and live beyond a Wildean/Lawrentian/ Maupassant demise at age 44? Could he have transmuted his deft feel for an era into larger tableaux à la, say, Thomas Mann?(i)  Could the Death in Venice dimensions of Gatsby have preluded magna opera on the scale of The Magic Mountain or Joseph and his Brothers? Could the Faustian tendencies of Amory Blaine, Anthony Patch and Jay Gatz have ended in some searing retrospective on their Zeitgeist like Doktor Faustus? Moot questions. Or maybe not. Disillusion and beautiful losers were Fitzgerald’s meat from the start. The diet was unlikely to change.

Elements in it link him subtly to the Beats – Kerouac, for example, another writer who managed in his youth to catch the spirit of an age, yet couldn’t develop his gift, kick the bottle or evade death in his forties. He too had a tendency to cultural commentary in the slipstream of Thorsten Veblen, Frederick Jackson Turner or even Henry Adams(ii) such as Brown ascribes to Scott, though a Wilson of a later day might find this ludicrous – Gore Vidal, successor as New York waspish critic, surely did. Brown credits Fitzgerald for what appears mostly in novelistic asides or feuilleton sketches. ‘The Crack-Up’ is a striking piece of self-analysis, somewhat in descent to Jack London’s John Barleycorn. But extending the analogy to raise FSF’s critique of destructive forces in American capitalist materialism to on a par with London’s in The Iron Heel, let alone Upton Sinclair’s or Steinbeck’s early novels, is a push. The sharpness of Scott’s eye was never supported by a discipline to justify placing him with these Stakhanovite social consciences. Moreover, his complaint against a common antagonist stems mainly from a non-proletarian source – nostalgia for fading Whig or feudal gentility.

The naturalist could never overcome the romantic in Scott. This is key to his lasting charm as a writer and his ultimate ephemerality. I mentioned Somerset Maugham, another bankable storyteller with an ear tuned to the types of his time. He is a contemporary to whom FSF might be likened, better no doubt than his deflective ‘first rank of the second-rate’ quip, yet ever a matinee author for middle-brow audiences, easy to digest via the Readers’ Digest Condensed Books my mother devoured when I was a boy. One may admire Maugham: I once argued in print that he had a claim to be the greatest writer in English of the 20th century. That was a provocation, nor am I inclined to repeat it now, except to suggest that Fitzgerald attracts a similar sort of overrating. Brown has succumbed to it. His enthusiasm is as understandable as it is widespread; but when it comes to a canon, one should be cautious.

His book is in any case impressive. It sets out the life in detail and does not duck exploring the work, a failing in many trade literary biographies of recent decades. He even spends time on The Vegetable, a theatrical flop Scott spent eighteen months preparing in hopes of making a bomb; also the Basil and Josephine stories, which he planned to turn into a ‘light’ novel but dropped out of fear that critics might slate it. That the one preceded Gatsby and the other Tender is the Night is often overlooked; Brown finds in them germs of the success of those books, but Scott was wise enough to spot their infection with the trivia and wise-cracking that he knew marred his work. Self-criticism was one of his virtues. As Brown argues, it prompted him to the occasions of deferring to the Wilsons and Hemingways which were not merited. On the other hand, when his wife dared to take up the pen, Scott drew a sword.

The Zelda vs Scott battle is the saddest part of his tale, most wasteful and least instructive, except perhaps as a caution. In his favour one can say that Scott was more nobly loyal than Eliot with an unstable wife at a similar juncture. There was no return to religion in FSF’s case, but a chivalric streak was strong, derived in part from his father’s Southern roots – it even led him to pen a series of crusader-in-shining-armour tales, bemusing editors who hoped for more flapper romance. This vanished in the era of Zelda’s decline and Scott’s drift into his labours in La-la-land, and the muse morphed into supportive younger women resembling Lois Moran and Sheilah Graham. As Rosemary edges out Nicole in Tender is the Night, so a thoughtful Dick Diver supplants flamboyant Gatsby as protagonist. In Monroe Stahr, Scott’s last hero in the unfinished Tycoon, these two male personae may be seen to merge.

The Los Angeles finis involved a liaison with Graham – an Anglo-Jewish gossip columnist who had massaged her name. Having begun with WASP debs, Fitzgerald ends in company that he might once have disparaged – it does not take a politically correct ear to catch echoes of an era’s misogyny, racism or anti-Semitism in some of his early caricatures. That he was on occasion a wife-beater seems likely, also that Zelda gave as good as she got. It is entirely apt to see their marriage as a massive folie à deux and at the same time that its end spelt an end to FSF’s characteristic, best work. The unfinished Last Tycoon may seem promising to some, yet how much that is due to Wilson’s editing is a matter of debate. Certainly Scott’s career as screenwriter was, as he knew, no great shakes. The new gotham of the West Coast failed to enthral him. He was ill; spent. It was up to Raymond Chandler to glamorize it.

David Brown has done Fitzgerald proud. Nor is this undeserved for a novelist who could write ‘like an angel’ and delivered to posterity a sweet melancholy in prose as unsurpassed as that of his beloved Keats in poetry. Brown’s effort to turn FSF into a cultural historian of the first rank exaggerates the case, but he is honest enough to admit that Scott probably never read many of the theorists to whom he is linked – Spengler, for one. What Scott knew of such thinkers probably came from abridgements or discussions in magazines which published his work. Best of these was The Smart Set, edited by his early mentor and later friend H. L. Mencken. For the spirit of an age one can do no better than return to the stinging journalism of that fellow non-WASP from Maryland. For its soul there is small doubt that the best of Fitzgerald may be read by generations to come. Paradise Lost will encourage it.

F Scott Fitzgerald


(i) This is not a wholly random speculation. After exiting Hitler’s Germany, Mann gravitated to L.A. where he and Fitzgerald crossed paths. ‘At one affair,’ Brown reports, ‘[Scott] spoke quite knowledgably about the work of Thomas Mann, with Mann in the room.’
(ii) Brown does not mention Henry Adams’ brother Brooks, who is no longer regarded highly owing to perceived racism in his historiography. Brooks’ Law of Civilization and Decay (1895) seems a more likely source for some of the attitudes Brown ascribes to Fitzgerald than Henry’s Mont San Michele [sic] and Chartres Cathedral (1904), which Brown cites. Widely read in the period, it bears some resemblance to a Spenglerian tome on decline that Tom Buchanan cites in the first chapter of Gatsby when voicing noxious views. That work is ascribed to ‘this man Goddard’. In Chapter 3 a guest at one of Gatsby’s parties excitedly finds a ‘bona fide piece of printed matter’ in the library: ‘Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures”’. John L. Stoddard, another old Yankee historian and expat in Europe of the Adams’ era, is noted among other things for advocating the return of Jews to Palestine, coining the phrase ‘You are a people without a country; there is a country without a people’. He settled in the South Tyrol, close to the castle where Ezra Pound’s family lives. Stoddard’s son Lothrop, a contemporary of Fitzgerald’s, was a well-known anti-Semite and wrote The Rising Tide of Color: the Threat against White World-Supremacy (1920), a title close to that of Buchanan’s reading matter, ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’. These Stoddards were distant cousins of three of my grandparents.

 Dr Stoddard Martin is an author and publisher

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