“The poor son of a bitch,” said Dorothy Parker, quoting The Great Gatsby, on seeing F. Scott Fitzgerald lying in state in 1940. He was 44 years old.
Another film adaptation is at the Cineplex. Baz Luhrmann’s movie with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role is the sixth version of the Fitzgerald novel. Baz brings grandiosity to the party book in American letters. The first version of The Great Gatsby was a silent film (1926) and the other two film versions appeared in 1949, 1974, and one made-for-television version in 2000. What would F. Scott Fitzgerald thought of film adaptations of his novel?
Few books have achieved iconic status as The Great Gatsby has. It consistently ranks as the great American novel. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye are its only rivals, so many find it hard to believe that it had sold poorly, less 25,000 copies, after its initial print-run in 1925. Fitzgerald fell into depression and into drink. Today, it is Scribner’s most lucrative title and the numbers would make Scott spin in his grave in Maryland: 500,000 copies sell annually; 185,000 digital versions alone sold in 2012; and 415,000 movie tie-in editions have sold as of April of 2013. The numbers would make Meyer Wolfsheim grin with envy. That Meyer has human molars for cufflinks years before the horrors of the Holocaust is chilling.
Fitzgerald died on the cusp renewal, believing that his next work, The Last Tycoon, would propel him back into the ranks, especially against his old rival, the ultra-competitive Ernest Hemingway. Alas, it would not happen. The Last Tycoon went unfinished, and Fitzgerald collapsed and died, finished off by a third heart attack. He had been sober and in love before the end. 1945 would mark the beginning of his enshrinement in the literary pantheon. Arthur Mizener’s 1960 essay on The Great Gatsby helped rehabilitate Fitzgerald’s tarnished star. Gatsby has enthralled and excited generations of readers.
I’ll play the contrarian and argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald, while he had great turns of phrase and lush language, was a limited writer, but not for the reasons that you or I might imagine, or he, for that matter, might have imagined himself. I think that there is a reason why Gatsby is taught in high schools and not often at universities. First, let’s be clear: Fitzgerald thought of himself as a great writer; and it is no coincidence that his first submission to Scribner was an unfinished novel entitled The Romantic Egotist. Fitzgerald had a tremendous ego. Written while at Princeton, The Romantic Egotist showed enough promise that Maxwell Perkins sought out Fitzgerald. The partnership became literary history, but even then Perkins had to restrain Fitzgerald. His Egotist was not that worthy of publication. Fitzgerald had hoped for bragging rights to impress a certain girl: Zelda Sayre. ‘Incomplete’ and ‘unfinished’ are adjectives that would plague Fitzgerald’s editorial process because his work ethic was less than stellar. He was also incredibly sensitive to criticism and Perkins had the dual role of cautious editor and psychoanalyst. The truth is simple: F. Scott Fitzgerald was a party boy, and, in a poignant last letter to his daughter, he admitted that he wished that he had worked harder at the writer’s desk.
Early success had damned Fitzgerald. That is the problem. This Side of Paradise (1920) put Fitzgerald on the map at the age of 24. Fitzgerald had already been hard at work since his teens at getting some of his stories published. At twenty-four he had arrived, but not before dropping out of Princeton, enlisting in the Army, and falling in love with Zelda Sayre, daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, only to experience her rejection in 1919, because he did not make enough money. He sulked and went on a holy bender. He wrote The Romantic Egotist and Perkins sent him back to the desk and what emerged was his first novel. She married him one week after the book sold and the cash had started rolling in. I think that is a telling fact about the character of both.
Fitzgerald’s novels would mirror the rise and decline of his career and marriage. He was also acutely aware of social class, from his childhood in Middle America Minnesota to prep school New Jersey to the ivy halls of Princeton University. Fitzgerald was related to Francis Scott Key, the composer, and Mary Surratt, the alleged and executed Lincoln conspirator. The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) chronicles a troubled relationship of the boy who does not measure up to the woman’s financial expectations. The real-life Scott and Zelda endured alcoholic binges, infidelity on the part of both, and numerous personal humiliations. Zelda mocked Fitzgerald’s endowment and she had thought that her husband and Hemingway were lovers. She would claim that this precipitated her mental decline; but I suspect that her mental instability was already incipient. Some say schizophrenia and others diagnose her as bipolar. Zelda disliked the “bogus” Hemingway. Tennessee Williams would recall her as an extremely unpleasant woman, vain and a virulent anti-Semite, which he said was typical for Southern women, but he saw Fitzgerald as an opportunistic parasite. Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980) was his play about the Scott and Zelda relationship (this link contains rare footage).
Zelda was not with her own healthy ego. She believed herself the more talented of the two of them. Controversy and discussions, particularly among feminist scholars, still continue around her own literary gifts, her contribution to his literary work, but she would write only one novel, “Save Me The Waltz” (1932), and a handful of short stories. Fitzgerald, upset that Zelda displayed their relationship in Waltz, apparently did not see his own hypocrisy when he rendered their relationship in several of his novels. By the time he wrote Tender is the Night (1934), Zelda was ensconced in a mental institution, where she would find herself in and out of over the years, until she died horribly in a fire in 1948, at the age of 47, trying to rescue her paintings. Like T.S Eliot, Fitzgerald was simultaneously relieved and tormented at institutionalizing his wife. He started The Last Tycoon in 1939, but it remained unfinished.
Fitzgerald saw himself primarily as a novelist and looked down at short stories, seeing them as a form of slumming. In his journal entries and letters he resented having to resort to writing short fiction for fast money. He begged, borrowed, and whined. Fitzgerald’s short stories would appear in Collier’s Weekly, Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post until he finished Tender is the Night. Among the stories to appear in the Post were: “The Camel’s Back,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” and “The Last of the Belles.” He would write 170 short stories. A belated story, “A Full Life,” was discovered in 1988. The story that I think that points the most to Jimmy Gatz is “The Sensible Thing.” The short story appeared in Liberty on July 5, 1924.
The premise to “The Sensible Thing” is a simple echo of The Romantic Egotist. A young man falls in love with a girl. She rebuffs his proposal because he is a man of limited means. He does make good, returns, but it is too late. Her love for him has faded and the tale ends with his lingering hope of recapturing the past. For Jimmy Gatz the path to winning Daisy begins with a self-improvement plan ripped straight out of Benjamin Franklin’s advice to the self-made man, but for George O’Kelly, the engineer, it is not enough. The girl is gone. In Gatsby the girl gets Jay Gatsby killed.
The traditional interpretation of The Great Gatsby is that F. Scott Fitzgerald glamorizes and pillories the boozy, glamorous Twenties, as Nick Carraway narrates, with nostalgia, the tragic love story of what one man did for the love of one woman. The American Dream is on display, or is it? The Great Gatsby has seductive language, but that is it. The book is about appearances and seduction, the superficial. There is no plot. The famous shirt scene serves no narrative purpose. It’s an indulgence. As for love story: is Daisy worth it? She is married to Tom, a millionaire, a former footballer, and a proud philistine.
As for the American Dream on display or criticized? I think what is on display is Fitzgerald’s arrested adolescent development. I know that this is harsh, but the novel feels trapped in amber, the characters incapable of depth or growth. Simply put: can you imagine an older Gatsby, or a mature Daisy Buchanan, or a Jordan Baker with some depth? Is Gatsby social criticism? The argument would imply that Fitzgerald had the critical ability to see the wealthy as vacuous and vapid twits, but there is one problem with this position: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda wanted to be wealthy, too, live the careless lifestyle. There is no doubt that F. Scott Fitzgerald was conscious of class distinction. His courtship and marriage to Zelda was a painful reminder of class consciousness. As for Scott’s capacity for critical analysis, I read the oft-quoted remark between Hemingway and Fitzgerald not as a funny remark but an honest exchange. The quote is derived from Fitzgerald’s short story “Rich Boy” (1925) and it goes like this:
Fitzgerald: “The rich are different from you and me.”
Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”
In short, Scott and Zelda wanted to belong to one of the beautiful people and for a very brief time they did. The Great Gatsby is a mood piece, a drifting veil of mystery: Who is Jay Gatsby? That is the only semblance of a plot. The plot is not whether he will get the girl or not.
So what if F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda were snobs like those presented in The Great Gatsby? Writers do not have to be likeable and there are some who have thought highly of themselves. John O’ Hara, for instance, believed that he should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. What if this couple were not the serious artists or writers they claimed to be, dedicated to craft, but two poseurs wanting the high life, the money, and the rock star lifestyle? They lived fast and left behind beautiful corpses.
The creative result is a juvenile cast of characters with a limited range of emotions who are not very happy people, forever stuck in the past, like those who condemn themselves to ‘remember the good old days’ while the present passes them by. If and when Fitzgerald complained of failure in his letters or journal entries, he meant it in commercial terms. He never did recapture the monetary success or the critical praise (while he was alive) that he had had from his first novel. He perceived himself as a failure. He died believing that he had failed and wasted what talent he had. If The Great Gatsby was intended as a satire on nostalgia or a cautionary romantic rags-to-riches story, then why are all his characters the same? Why did he feel compelled to draw material from his own life? Was his imagination that limited? The difference between good musicians and great musicians is that good musicians play what they know while great musicians play what they don’t. The same applies to writers.
1945 marked renewed interest in Fitzgerald. The date is significant. World War Two ended. The Great Gatsby appeared as a distant and defiant answer to the sobriety (pun intended) of the Victorian age. It was light, festive, and fun. The Great Depression that followed the publication of the novel and Fitzgerald’s subsequent works — recasting the same story, with the same type of people, but mental disintegration replacing the car wreck that killed Myrtle Wilson – all seemed to be in poor taste. A nation in the depths of economic despair wanted happy endings, escapist fantasy, and found little to sympathize with in Dick and Nicole Diver and the troubled Rosemary Hoyt in the south of France.
The Irony of Ironies is that Fitzgerald and Hemingway repeated the same themes over and over again in their works, but it was Hemingway who grew the most, dared to change, although readers would not know it about Hemingway until the posthumous publication of The Garden.
The green light across the way is the color of money and the lure of the flapper’s siren call.