When F. Scott Fitzgerald clutched the mantlepiece and then fell over dead of a heart attack in 1941, he left behind an incomplete novel (The Love of the Last Tycoon) and an uncertain legacy. It's difficult to see now, with his shadow looming over twentieth-century American literature, that there was once a time when it seemed Fitzgerald's reputation might not endure beyond the end of the Jazz Age he so brilliantly chronicled. Countless newspapers and critics derided Fitzgerald, as John Dos Passos put it, by not considering his work's "eventual value." The New York Times' review of The Last Tycoon, for instance, (which, incidentally, was edited and completed by New Republic editor Edmund Wilson) ended with this piece of limited praise: "I think he will be remembered in his generation." Dos Passos in turn, felt moved to write the following.
To mark its 100th anniversary, The New Republic is republishing a collection of its most memorable articles. This week's theme: Correspondence.
This piece originally appeared in The New Republic on February 17, 1941.
The notices in the press referring to Scott Fitzgerald’s untimely death produce in the reader the same strange feeling that you have, when after talking about some topic for an hour with a man, it suddenly comes over you that neither you nor he has understood a word of what the other was saying. The gentlemen who wrote these pieces obviously know something about writing the English language, and it should follow that they know how to read it. But shouldn’t the fact that they have set themselves up to make their living as critics of the work of other men furnish some assurance that they recognize the existence of certain standards in the art of writing? If there are no permanent standards, there is no criticism possible. Don’t these gentlemen know that all this gabble about the Younger Generation, proletarian novelists and the twenties and the thirties is just advertising man’s bilge?
A well written book is a well written book whether it’s written under Louis XIII or Joe Stalin or on the wall of a tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. It’s the quality of detaching itself from its period while embodying its period that marks a piece of work as good. I would have no quarrel with any critic who examined Scott Fitzgerald’s work and declared that in his opinion it did not detach itself from its period. My answer would be that my opinion was different. The strange thing about these pieces that came out about Fitzgerald’s death is that the writers seem to feel that they don’t need to read his books; all they need for a license to shovel them into the ashcan is to label them as having been written in such and such a period now past. This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that these gentlemen have no other standards than the styles of window-dressing on Fifth Avenue. It means that when they write about literature all they are thinking of is the present rating of a book on the exchange, a matter which has almost nothing to do with its eventual value. For a man who is making his living as a critic to write about Scott Fitzgerald without mentioning The Great Gatsby just means that he doesn’t know his business. Many people consider The Great Gatsby one of the few classic American novels. I do myself. Obviously such a judgment is debatable. But to write about the life of a man as important to American letters as the author of The Great Gatsby in terms of last summer’s styles in ladies’ hats, shows an incomprehension of what it is all about, that, to anyone who cares for the art of writing, is absolutely appalling.