“It is an escape into a lavish, romantic past that perhaps will not come again into our time.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald on The Last Tycoon
“Fitzgerald’s work has always deeply moved me,” writes John T. Irwin, author of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Fiction: An Almost Theatrical Innocence (2014). Irwin intersperses together biographical details and sharp essays about his literary idol’s most celebrated stories, evoking a young Scott who deserted Princeton and his mature version: the disillusioned screenwriter living in Hollywood two decades later. This is a thoroughly researched study, in a more academic tone as opposed to previous scrutinies Fool For Love (2012) by Scott Donaldson and Fitzgerald’s salacious biography by Jeffrey Meyers (2013).
The book is divided into six highly engaging chapters pointing out several thematic categories: “Compensating Visions in The Great Gatsby,” “Fitzgerald as a Southern Writer,” “The Importance of Repose,” “An Almost Theatrical Innocence,” “Fitzgerald and the Mythical Method,” and “On the Son’s Own Terms.” Throughout these episodes, Irwin emphasizes Fitzgerald’s theatrical performance as writer vs. his real-life character and the conflict originated by his self-creations, resulting in a meritorius analysis of the range of his prose—far more varied and complex than many critics who pigeonholed him as the ephemeral Jazz Age’s chronicler could ever presume.
In Romantic Revisions in Novels from the Americas (2013) Lauren Rule Maxwell had explored the influence of John Keats (Fitzgerald’s favorite poet), highlighting the shirts passage of The Great Gatsby, tracing it back to Keats’s long poem The Eve of St. Agnes (1820). Irwin utilizes the same type of invocation relating to possible influences from popular noir writers as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler on Fitzgeraldian story-telling techniques.
In 1915, Scott had written in his ledger: “If I couldn’t be perfect, I wouldn’t be anything” -which can be linked to his fragment from The Great Gatsby: “Jay Gatsby of West Egg sprung from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s editor and ‘intellectual conscience’, completed the unfinished novel The Last Tycoon (1941) using Fitzgerald’s personal notes and drafts, and reckoned his Princeton friend as “a martyr, a sacrificial victim, a semi-divine personage” after his premature death (aged 44).
Irwin uses Sartre’s notion of ‘the Other’ to interpret Gatsby’s journey across two New York suburbs. He finds Gatsby constantly reinventing a persona to be admired by others, remodeling his past in order to fit in the wealthy milieu. Irwin argues that St. Paul’s genius wordsmith also sort of recomposed his own life by adapting it into new social circles, like New York’s 1920s modernity, French Riviera’s bohemia, or Hollywood’s commissary. In all of these disparate environments, Fitzgerald is capable of stripping their deceptive façades; in one of his Catholic stories, Absolution, an amusement park is a symbol of the false world of material obscenity confronted with an imperishable God.
Irwin states in Chapter II: “Scott Fitzgerald understood that in the twentieth century, when America would become the richest and most powerful nation in the world, the struggle between money and breeding, between the arrogance of wealth and the reticence of good instincts, between greed and human values, would become the deepest, most serious theme of the American novel.” The narrator of The Great Gatsby, Nick, muses: “He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy.”
Likewise, in So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (2014), Maureen Corrigan draws parallels between Fitzgerald’s scenarios with frequent allusions to his era’s pop culture tropes. In her chapter “Rhapsody in Noir,” she stretches the notion that Gatsby is a herald of the hardboiled pulp fiction, as is reflected in James Gatz/Jay Gatsby’s underworld activities.
J. D. Salinger once said he was drawn to Fitzgerald because of his “intellectual power,” since he was one of the rare visionaries who would anticipate the fall (or death) of the American Dream, the advent of our present rootless U.S.A. “Of course the past can be repeated,” Gatsby assures to Nick Carraway. The eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s advertisement seem to signal the collapse of America’s self-image. “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” Gatsby determines without remotely suspecting his betraying fate.
In the essay Fitzgerald’s Brave New World (1952), Edwin Fussell mentions the uniqueness of the American experience exemplified by expressions as “ragged edge of the universe,” or “damp gleam of hope” through The Great Gastby: “After exploring his materials to their limits, Fitzgerald knew that he had discovered a universal pattern of belief and that in it was compounded the imaginative history of modern, especially American, civilization.” Roger Lewis, in his essay Money, Love, and Aspiration in The Great Gatsby (2002) proposes: “The last sentence of the novel, ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,’ points out that all of our great dreams are grounded in impossibility.”
Fitzgerald’s wife and muse Zelda Sayre had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1930, and their relationship hit hard times; however, their granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan affirmed: “their marriage was one of the great love stories of all time, the tragedies were there, but love survived.” In 1933, in the Fitzgeralds rented Victorian cottage La Paix, under psychiatrist Thomas Rennie’s supervision, Zelda and Scott had a heated argument when he reminded her of the terrible cost of becoming a writer and “endless trying to dig out the essential truth, the essential justice.” In 1938, in a letter to Frances Turnbull, Fitzgerald warned her that as a writer, “you have to sell your heart, your strongest reactions.” In another letter, Fitzgerald would write of Zelda’s illness almost pridefully: “I cherish her most extravagant hallucinations.”
In 1931, Margaret Egloff had felt Ernest Hemingway was being ungrateful to Fitzgerald (who had helped and promoted Hemingway selflessly), but Fitzgerald accepted the “sense of the fight to the death between men for supremacy. Shy and deeply introverted… Fitzgerald was a man divided. He was analytical, with a mania for artistic perfection. He had markings of fame and fortune, but also a temperament which doomed him to see himself as a failure. He might be called a natural schizo,” opines Tommy Buttita in The Lost Summer: A Personal Memoir of F. Scott Fitzgerald (2003).
Fitzgerald’s duality is exposed in his own remark: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” In the Chapter 4 (An Almost Theatrical Innocence), Irwin stresses: “Fitzgerald’s sense of persevering through humiliations and struggles is part of what he pours into the Pat Hobby character, the other part being a wry humor at Hobby’s expense meant to cauterize any hint of self-pity… also served perhaps as a defense mechanism, an imaginative exorcism of any fear that he himself could ever sink that low.”
Caught in a claustophobic Hollywood in his last years (“Isn’t Hollywood a dump… A hideous town, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement”), Fitzgerald suffered from insomnia, continually craving Coca-Cola and fudge to combat his hypoglycemia. He felt displaced and out of touch, relegated now to a position as freelance screenwriter. Despite his harsh criticism towards the Factory of Dreams, “he wasn’t a film snob, he was fascinated by films. He had a gift for dialogue,” according to Budd Schulberg, with whom he’d collaborated during the Winter Carnival fiasco in 1939. On the bright side, the Tinseltown atmosphere allowed Fitzgerald to develop crushes on actresses, like Lois Moran (his romantic affair in 1927), Maureen O’Sullivan (who requested him to rewrite her role for A Yank at Oxford), or Loretta Young (whom he described as ‘his type’).
During his sleepless nights, Fitzgerald annotated many painful thoughts that would be included in his Crack-Up essay “Sleeping and Waking” : “I need not have broken myself trying to break what was unbreakable… what if all, after death, 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. No choice, no road, no hope — I am a ghost now as the clock strikes four.”
In 1945 Edmund Wilson had edited The Crack-Up (a collection of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical essays originally published in Esquire magazine in 1936), reviewed by Lionel Trilling as a proof of his “heroic awareness”: “The root of Fitzgerald’s heroism is to be found, as it sometimes is in tragic heroes, in his power of love.” In one of his revelations from The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald confessed to having forgotten “the complicated dark mixture of my youth and infancy that made me a fiction writer instead of a fireman or a soldier,” and how he had “buried my first childish love of myself.” Irwin adduces: “Significantly, this description of the death of his childish self-love and his belief that he would never die is immediately preceded by the author’s pointing out another ‘dark corner’ in the cellar.”
Working with producer Lester Cowan on Babylon Revisited (a short story inspired by the 1929 stock market crash), Fitzgerald saw as a small triumph being able to bring Cowan to tears by enacting one of his sorrowful vignettes on the phone. “At last I’ve made a son-of-a-bitch producer cry,” he consoled himself. Fitzgerald’s screenplay wouldn’t materialize and although he had participated in a handful of film projects (A Yank at Oxford, Marie Antoinette, Gone With the Wind, The Women, Madame Curie), he received only one screen credit in 1938 for Three Comrades.
Sheilah Graham (a Hollywood gossip columnist) maintained a three-year sentimental relationship with Fitzgerald and helped him focus on his final novel The Last Tycoon. Monroe Stahr (a composite character of Fitzgerald and produced Irving Thalberg) is torn between his duty at the studios and a romance with Kathleen Moore (inspired by Graham), while the corrupt cliqués are revealed to the reader with frankness and melancholic irony.
On 21 December 1940, Fitzgerald collapsed on the floor at Sheilah Graham’s apartment after suffering a fatidic massive heart attack. His nurse and secretary Frances Kroll Ring discovered an envelope put aside containing $700, enough to receive the cheapest funeral at hand (mourned by only thirty attendants, Zelda and Sheilah not among them). “It was devastating,” said Ms Kroll, as she rememorated Scott’s gentlemanly demeanor: “He was a kind man but he converted that kindness into weakness.”
Ernest Hemingway (long-time estranged from his former mentor), referred to Fitzgerald as “the great tragedy of talent in our bloody generation”. Alice Toklas (Gertrude Stein’s muse) called him: “the most sensitive, the most distinguished, the most gifted and intelligent of all his contemporaries. And the most lovable – he is one of those great tragic American figures.”
“I look out at it, and I think it is the most beautiful history in the world. It is the history of all aspiration, not just the American Dream but the human dream. And if I came at the end of it, that too is a place in the line of the pioneers.” -Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald