Book Essay - Spring 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Essays From the Edge

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The Jazz Age novelist’s chronicle of his mental collapse, much derided by his critics, anticipated the rise of autobiographical writing in America

By Patricia Hampl


 

The first readers to comment on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Crack-Up” essays made no pretense to literary criticism. They just wanted to dish—and diss. The dismay of old or former or soon-to-be-former friends came at Fitzgerald fast and furious, along with smack-downs from those critics who bothered to remark on the essays as they appeared in three successive issues of Esquire, in February, March, and April 1936.

John Dos Passos was particularly exercised. “Christ, man,” he wrote to Fitzgerald in October 1936. “How do you find time in the middle of the general conflagration to worry about all that stuff?” The “general conflagration,” presumably, was the Great Depression, but also National Socialism and fascism in Germany and Italy, and the Spanish Civil War, which had ignited in July. “We’re living in one of the damnedest tragic moments in history,” Dos Passos steams on. “If you want to go to pieces I think it’s absolutely OK but I think you ought to write a first-rate novel about it (and you probably will) instead of spilling it in little pieces for Arnold Gingrich,” the editor of Esquire, who had commissioned the essays.

By the standards of our own über-autobiographical age, with its appetite for revelation, its faith in the “redemptive” payoff of telling all, Fitzgerald’s essays seem decorously vague, cloaked in metaphor rather than disclosure. Though he describes his psychological and spiritual breakdown, his utter collapse, often in a wry, self-deprecating style, he doesn’t spill many autobiographical beans. We don’t learn of his despair over his wife’s mental illness. He doesn’t divulge his bouts with drinking, his imprudent affair with a married woman, his money worries, his literary woes. Mother, father, those stock figures of personal narrative—never mentioned. The master storyteller isn’t even very narrative, employing drifts of figurative language rather than episodes and scenes, feinting and lunging (mostly feinting) his way through his portrait of a breakdown that left him “cracked like an old plate.”

That Fitzgerald had published these personal essays in a glossy magazine seemed to vex his friends (Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Sara Murphy, the unsigned New Yorker “Talk of the Town” writer—the list goes on) as much as the sentiments themselves. Maxwell Perkins and Harold Ober, Fitzgerald’s loyal editor and literary agent, were still backing away from the essays as late as 1941, a year after the writer’s death, when Edmund Wilson was shopping around a posthumous collection of his old friend’s incidental nonfiction that included the “Crack-Up” pieces. Wilson admitted to Perkins that he, too, had “hated” the essays when he first read them in Esquire. But “if you read The Crack-Up through,” he argued, “you realize that it is not a discreditable confession but an account of a kind of crisis that many men of Scott’s generation have gone through, and that in the end he sees a way to live by application to his work.”

Perkins was unpersuaded. He declined Wilson’s proposal to Scribners, the publisher until then of all Fitzgerald’s books. In a sense, it was the third time Perkins had rejected the book. He had earlier turned down Fitzgerald’s idea for a collection of autobiographical pieces. Fitzgerald came back to him in March 1936. “I thought you might reconsider the subject,” he writes, pointing out that “the interest in this Esquire series has been so big” that such autobiographical pieces might well fetch a large readership. The suggestion was reasonable, even canny; despite the scoldings and derision from the literary sector, Fitzgerald had received an astonishing number of letters from readers captivated by his willingness to reveal his wounds—which were also their wounds, the same boom-to-bust deflation of the individual spirit that the Depression had brought to the national economy and psyche. Though his literary friends tended to butter their censure of the essays with reverence for the great gift of his talent (which he was wasting—their point), the “Crack-Up” pieces were welcomed by ordinary readers.

Perkins was having none of it. In a wonderfully prissy remark he says that in “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald committed an “indecent invasion of his own privacy.” He concurred with Ober that this sort of confessional writing (as it would later be called) was dangerous for Fitzgerald’s status as a serious writer. Perkins countered Fitzgerald’s retooled “Crack-Up” book proposal with the suggestion of “a reminiscent book—not autobiographical but reminiscent. … I would be very much for it.”

What Perkins meant by a book that would be “reminiscent” but “not autobiographical” is not clear. The distinction is itself dated perhaps, a division that marks the border between art and life that Perkins and Dos Passos were determined—even desperate—to defend.

Undeterred, Wilson approached New Directions, a house founded by James Laughlin the same year Esquire had run the essays, and already the default publisher of avant-garde work. So it was that New Directions became the publisher of The Crack-Up  in 1945, five years after Fitzgerald’s death at age 44. The book is still available under that imprint.

At the time of his death, Fitzgerald was considered (and considered himself) a has-been, the unfortunate poster boy for the ruinous Roaring Twenties. But over time, the publication of The Crack-Up has come to be regarded as the trigger to Fitzgerald’s resurgence as an essential and enduring figure of 20th-century American literature. The critical response to the book’s appearance in 1945 was a far cry from the reception the Esquire publication of the essays had elicited. Reviewers were respectful, even enthusiastic, or at least seriously interested. Lionel Trilling, for one, praised Fitzgerald’s “heroic self-awareness” in his review in The Nation.

Along with the essays themselves, the volume contained notebook sketches, letters, and tribute essays, including a piece by Glenway Wescott, “The Moral of Scott Fitzgerald,” which had first appeared in The New Republic shortly after Fitzgerald’s death. “There is very little in world literature like this piece,” Wescott says of the essays, which he takes as a single work, calling it “the autobiographical essay” Fitzgerald wrote as a kind of “swan-song.” In a strenuous effort to find kindred works, he compares the essays, “in a way,” to Sir Walter Raleigh’s verse epistle before his beheading.

Though Wescott thinks Fitzgerald’s treatment of his misery is “cheap here and there … still it is fine prose and naturally his timeliest piece today: self-autopsy and funeral sermon.” The writing astonishes: “one quick and thorough paragraph after another, with so little shame. … [T]he first half is written without a fault: brief easy fiery phrases.” Fitzgerald’s subject, Wescott says with acuity, is “his lassitude of imagination; his nauseated spirit; that self-hypnotic state of not having any will-power; and nothing left of the intellect but inward observation and dislike.”


Hemingway lost no time trashing Fitzgerald to Perkins, their mutual editor (a connection that Fitzgerald, already a literary star, had arranged for the unknown and struggling Hemingway when they met in Paris in the 1920s). In a letter dated February 7, 1936—right after the first “Crack-Up” piece was published—Hemingway complains to Perkins that Fitzgerald “seems to almost take a pride in his shamelessness of defeat. The Esquire pieces seem to me to be so miserable. There is another one coming. I always knew he couldn’t think—he never could—but he had a marvelous talent and the thing is to use it—not whine in public.”

Hemingway wasn’t done. He went on to savage Fitzgerald in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a short story that also appeared in Esquire, in August 1936. He injects “poor Scott Fitzgerald” into the fiction, noting that Fitzgerald had been “wrecked” by his “romantic awe” of the rich. This short story also refers to an exchange in which Fitzgerald is supposed to have said, “The very rich are different from you and me,” thereby allowing Hemingway to write the arch reply, “Yes, they have more money.”

Except this exchange, much quoted ever since, never occurred. Even decent Max Perkins couldn’t manage to correct the inaccuracy, though he put the facts on record: he was present at a lunch in New York in 1936 when Hemingway said, “I am getting to know the rich.” To which the literary critic Mary Colum, the third person at the table, said, “The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.” Fitzgerald wasn’t at the lunch—or in the city at the time. No doubt Hemingway was glad to offload the exchange onto Fitzgerald and adopt for himself the memorable zinger.

Fitzgerald wrote to Beatrice Dance (who had been his lover that summer) to report that he had protested his old pal’s literary slam in “a somewhat indignant letter,” though Hemingway remained unrepentant. “Since I had chosen to expose my private life so ‘shamelessly,’ in Esquire,” Fitzgerald notes, “he felt that it was sort of an open season for me.”

Fitzgerald then wrote Hemingway “a hell of a letter,” which, on second thought, he decided not to send. “Too often,” he says to Beatrice Dance, “literary men allow themselves to get into internecine quarrels and finish about as victoriously as most of the nations at the end of the World War.” Hemingway, he says in a final remark, “is quite as nervously broken down as I am but it manifests itself in different ways. His inclination is toward megalomania and mine toward melancholy.” About as good a mutual character assessment as either of them ever got.


In the eyes of his friends, Fitzgerald may have broken decorum. But his essays kindled a narrative revolution that continues to simmer in American writing—in the rise of memoir and the appeal of personal essays in daily newspapers, to name only two obvious shape-shifters in publishing. And it is publishing, not only writing, that is at stake here. As John O’Hara wrote to Fitzgerald in a considerably more sanguine letter after reading the essays in Esquire, “I suppose you get comparatively little mail these days that does not dwell … on your Esquire pieces, and I guess few of the writers resist, as I am resisting, the temptation to go into their own troubles for purposes of contrast.”

What Fitzgerald was describing was not “just personal” (as Gatsby says of things that don’t have real value). His misery was native to his time and place. It was cultural. And he knew it: “My self-immolation was something sodden-dark. It was very distinctly not modern—yet I saw it in others, saw it in a dozen men of honor and industry since the war.”

Glenway Wescott may have found “little in world literature” like the “Crack-Up” essays, and early readers of the Esquire pieces also seemed to recognize their jarring novelty. But no cultural change happens in a vacuum. Something in the air links change to change, later making evident a pattern, a fundamental shift. One such kindred event: around the time Fitzgerald’s first “Crack-Up” essay was on national newsstands, the first formal Alcoholics Anonymous group was being organized in Akron, Ohio, making public the fellowship that Bill Wilson and Bob Smith had begun privately at Smith’s house.

The coincidence is worth noting, but not because there is any causal relation between Fitzgerald’s hyper-aware essays and the founding of that most American of religions, a secular faith without priests or hierarchy or even an agreed-upon notion of “God,” a populist, anti-intellectual spiritual methodology. Even stylistically, they couldn’t be more opposed. The “Crack-Up” essays are the cry of Fitzgerald’s rarefied soul, lavish in metaphoric evasions—including evasions about his drinking. By contrast, the scriptural text of AA, The Big Book, is a model of socialist-realist prose, relentlessly earnest, a kind of unliterature whose first chapter, “Bill’s Story,” inaugurates the autobiographical enterprise that remains the touchstone of AA. Yet these two cultural (or spiritual) occasions, which began their public lives at the same time, in the depths of the Great Depression, are linked in the way that history alone can make obvious, displaying a shared landscape, creating or simply recognizing coherence. From here—the here of our own autobiographical age—it is possible to see a link between Fitzgerald’s valiant attempts in his essays and the fledgling personal documentation (self-narrative without guiding psychotherapist) that is the root of AA and the secret of its enduring success.

But if what Fitzgerald was doing in the essays could be linked to something as unliterary as AA drunkalogs, then The Crack-Up was a blot on his “real work.” To throw away personal pain in essays—little pieces in a glossy—was to nick away at literature itself. “You ought to write a first-rate novel about it (and you probably will) …” The propriety Dos Passos is trying to safeguard here is the authority of the novel, the great architecture built of long generations, the literary habitation already threatened by the shocking immediacy of the movies. Who needed yet more splintering of the great, beloved form? Especially by those scrappy little pieces.


The publication of the “Crack-Up” essays looks now like a sharp pivot, marking a fundamental change in American consciousness and therefore in narrative voice, an evident moment when the center of authorial gravity shifted from the “omniscience” afforded by fiction’s third person to the presumption (accurate or not) of greater authenticity provided by the first-person voice with all its limitations.

Whitman had set American poetry on this road a few generations earlier: the voice of “Song of Myself” belongs to a lyric essayist, contending with himself and his time, using the personal self as the representative of the national type, fusing the individual to history. And the presence of faux memoirists as narrators in American fiction—including Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s own Nick Adams, and before that the narrators of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick—also betrays a preference for the first-person voice.

The “Crack-Up” essays are a similar poetic project. Fitzgerald’s strangled cry in them makes clear that a lyric impulse links the personal essay with poetry, even though essays are a prose form and seem to pose a chronic scourge (or companion) to their apparent kin—narrative fiction. In fact, the essay inhabits an intermediate territory between story and poem. That may be its fundamental appeal. Tell a story and then think about it—all in the same work.

Whitman didn’t employ (or deploy) the first person to recount his life story or reveal his secrets: we need Whitman’s biographers to suss out his sex life, for example. Like Fitzgerald, Whitman’s “I” is the song of his consciousness, not of his episodic experience. Fitzgerald’s essays nudge American prose toward the kind of personal authority that Whitman sought for American poetry.

In fact Fitzgerald’s first essay opens not with the first-person voice, but the second:

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.

Fitzgerald feels squeamish about personal disclosure just as Hemingway and Dos Passos do. He too finds public confession morally repellent—as his nervous remark suggests about those “blows” you talk about “in moments of weakness.”

He hardly establishes his subject—the mysterious but decisive breakage of his sense of self—before he backs off to “make a general observation” in the second paragraph. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” he famously says, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

This “observation” is really a restatement of a concept formulated by Keats, Fitzgerald’s lifelong literary hero. In a letter to his brothers in 1817, Keats tries to describe the essential quality of “a Man of Achievement especially in literature. … That is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” He calls this quality Negative Capability. Psychologists (and AA) call it detachment.

The terms Negative Capability and detachment aren’t descriptions so much as proof of the inability to corral this essential but elusive quality—just as all spiritual qualities are impossible to define. For Fitzgerald, the idea has more of an American can-do quality than Keats’s Romantic readiness: “One should … be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” This muscular notion “fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the ‘impossible,’ come true.” Fitzgerald refers here to his phenomenal overnight stardom with the publication of This Side of Paradise at age 24, when he became not only a best-selling author, but a model for the man of his age—a condition he later called “the bitch goddess” of success.

The “Crack-Up” pieces are an attempt to review the devastating conundrum of spiritual collapse that came in the wake of such high flying. He ends the first essay with the harrowing question posed in the Gospel of Matthew: “Ye are the salt of the earth. But if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”

By the second essay he is smarting under the criticism he has received from his literary friends. “There are always those to whom all self-revelation is contemptible,” he writes in the opening paragraph, “unless it ends with a noble thanks to the gods for the Unconquerable Soul.” The sardonic capital letters signal his refusal to go quietly or to write (at least for the moment) “a first-rate novel” about his breakdown. “I wanted,” he writes early in the second essay, “to put a lament into my record.”

As he did at the end of the first essay, he adopts in the second the language of spirituality to describe the quality of his desolation and despair, doing a turn on St. John of the Cross: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”

In the first two essays, Fitzgerald leans heavily on the “cracked plate” metaphor. In the third, as he moves beyond description of his condition toward a solution, he retains the same figure of speech, but turns it inside out. In considering those who “survived” the “self-immolation” he has been describing, he realizes they “had made some sort of clean break.” He doesn’t seem to notice that he has reversed field with his metaphor. Or perhaps the realization that the solution to his “crack-up” is to make a “clean break” is so enchanting to him that he forges ahead with it. “A clean break,” he says, “is something you cannot come back from.” He will continue to be a writer because “that is my only way of life.” He won’t break with that. But he will no longer be “a person.” Things get muddy here—and self-dramatizing. He will no longer be “kind, just or generous.”

None of this sounds genuine. It is the recognizable infuriated (and impotent) frustration of someone who has felt his life overused by others—not just the killing demands of Zelda’s illness and the vagaries of publishing, but all those letters of recommendation, blurbs, and reviews, the middle management of being a successful writer. Still, the clean-the-slate determination in the essays does feel authentic: “I have now at last become a writer only.” He had not, of course—Zelda was still there to be kept in private hospitals, Scottie to be sent to good schools, and later he would fall in love again, with Sheilah Graham. And he was writing a “first-rate novel” when he died, the unfinished Last Tycoon. But in the “Crack-Up” essays he stopped in his personal and professional tracks, and described the dark night of his soul, against all advice and prudence. He wrote his lament.


As it happens, I live in Fitzgerald’s grandmother’s house in St. Paul, Minnesota, a fact I learned some years after I moved into the brownstone rowhouse on Laurel Avenue, before this leafy old neighborhood was gentrified. In the early years I could look out my second-floor window to see two cars come to a screeching halt at the intersection, a bag of white powder passed from one to the other, before each careened off again. It was one of those charming, down-on-its-luck urban places that artists and other odd ducks move to and tart up before the lawyers and doctors, the museum curators and psychotherapists arrive.

I allow myself to think Fitzgerald may have stayed here as a boy, at least briefly, after his father lost his Procter & Gamble job in Buffalo and Scott was sent back to St. Paul before the rest of the family returned. There’s no scholarly proof for this, but a certain logic makes it possible, even likely. And a certain desire. Before I knew the house was connected with Fitzgerald, I called the place Heartbreak Hotel because it seemed that its vacant apartments were routinely rented by people divorcing or divorced, sad sacks trudging up the dark staircases of the Victorian brownstone with heads down. A very crack-up kind of place.

But truth be told, in St. Paul there’s no distinction to living in “a Fitzgerald house.” Scott and Zelda, and his parents before him, hopscotched around this old neighborhood, switching apartments with dismaying frequency, as if they were all on the lam. Enough “Fitzgerald houses” remain to make up a slim guidebook, which you can find in most local bookstores. For all this moving around, neither Scott and Zelda nor the senior Fitzgeralds ever owned a house here or anywhere else. They were eternal tenants, flitting from location to location, always clinging to the general vicinity of St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, “our show street,” as Fitzgerald calls “Crest Avenue” in one of the sketches that Edmund Wilson included in The Crack-Up.

In a sense, in St. Paul Fitzgerald is everywhere. He was born in another apartment three blocks farther up on Laurel. On our walks, my dog often chooses to make her pause in front of the rowhouse on Summit where Fitzgerald came home to stay with his parents that decisive summer of 1920. He holed up on the third floor to rewrite This Side of Paradise after a first version had been rejected by Maxwell Perkins. He mailed the revision to Scribners at the end of the summer, fingers crossed. A few weeks later, just before his 24th birthday, he dashed out of the house, stopping cars on Summit, waving the acceptance letter from Perkins.

In the essays that so appalled his friends, paradoxically Fitzgerald notes of his bleak despair that it felt “strange to have no self—to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do …”

He was exhausted. That’s what comes through—not “self-immolation” but sheer exhaustion. He drank, he caroused his way through his success, but how he had worked—“my limitless capacity for toil,” he says with astonishment as he looks back at his years of literary labor from the vantage of his collapse.

Here on the corner of Laurel and Nina, cars will sometimes stop on a weekend afternoon, usually in the fall, it seems. Four or five teenagers will tumble out, at least one with a notebook. Often there’s a woman at the wheel, someone’s mother no doubt, paused in the no-parking zone in front of the building while the kids run around, pointing to the turret, one of them reading from a guidebook. They have already been to “the birth house” up the street, and to the rowhouse on Summit where the good news from Scribners came in 1920.

Now they’re finishing up the class assignment, looking at the grandmother’s dour brownstone with a Dickensian debtor’s prison aspect, but which, they know from their teacher’s handout, is Scott’s (we all call him Scott, as if he were a neighbor we haven’t seen around for a while). They raise their cell phones and take pictures of each other, of the house. Sometimes one of them reads something aloud—usually from Gatsby, once in a while from that sublime St. Paul short story “Winter Dreams.” Nobody, in my memory, has ever been carrying The Crack-Up. But it’s not a book for the buoyant. It’s for the burnt out.

“This is what I think now,” Fitzgerald writes at the end of the third essay: “that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.” Yet his loyalty remains fastened to happiness, to youth—even if only the memory of its shimmer. He was, after all, an elegist at heart. “My own happiness in the past,” he writes in the essay’s final valediction, “often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distil into little lines in books.”

How early it starts—the ecstasy of unreasoning happiness that must be walked away in quiet streets. And how quiet these St. Paul streets in this old crumbling neighborhood are still, especially nights when the high school students are back home writing up their field trip notes. How valiant the effort to distill the fragments, against all caution, into little lines that perfect strangers will read and recognize as their own.

Patricia Hampl is Regents Professor of English at the University of Minnesota and the author of several books, including I Could Tell You Stories, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. This essay is heavily indebted to the research and analysis of Scott Donaldson in his essay “The Crisis of Fitzgerald’s ‘Crack-Up.’ ”


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