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Sunday, May 15, 2016
SUNDAY REVIEW / A FEW WORDS ABOUT F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
The Literary Andronygy of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scott Donaldson, author of the biography Fool For Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald,
explores the obscuring nature of his legend and the role that women played in
his life and work.This essay appears
courtesy of The Public Domain Review, a project of the Open Knowledge
With Fitzgerald as with no one else in
American literature save Poe, the biography gets in the way. Never mind that F.
Scott Fitzgerald is the author of one exquisite short novel as perfect as
anything in our literature and of another longer, more chaotic novel of
tremendous emotional power.
that he has written a couple of dozen stories that by any standard deserve the
designation of “masterful.” Ignoring those legacies, much of the general public
still tends to think of him in connection with the legends of his disordered
and difficult life, and to classify him under one convenient stereotype or
diminished in stature, Fitzgerald becomes the Chronicler of the Jazz Age, or
the Artist in Spite of Himself, or – most prevalent stereotype of all – the
Writer as Burnt-Out Case: a man whose tragic course functions as a cautionary
tale for more commonsensical aftercomers.
offers an almost irresistible temptation to sermonizers, overt or concealed. It
is not right to ride on top of taxicabs or disport oneself in the Plaza hotel’s
fountain, not right to drink to excess or abuse a “lovely golden wasted
talent.” Go thou and do otherwise.
usually remains implicit, of course. It is not the homily but the tale of
star-crossed lovers that commands attention – handsome brilliant erratic Scott
married for good or ill to beautiful willful unstable Zelda.
There is an
arresting poignancy in the way the two of them – Scott more than Zelda, perhaps
– considered the alternatives and chose the sweet poison. Somehow, in the
repeated retellings of this tale, the Fitzgeralds have come to stand for a kind
of generic nonspecific glamour, now sadly departed.
In 1980 the
opening party for an exhibit of Fitzgeraldiana at the National Portrait Gallery
drew an enormous crowd determined to celebrate a vanished past. The band played
Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman numbers from the 1940s, the decade following
Fitzgerald’s death. A few women attempted flapper costumes, but for the most
part the clothes were as anachronistic as the music. One chap, aiming for
colonial elegance, danced in a pith helmet. The details that mattered so much
to Fitzgerald, a man precisely in tune with his times, mattered very little to
those come to the party to memorialize his legend.
Scott, Scott and Zelda – they are fixed so securely in the collective mind as
lovable reckless youths for whom it all went disastrously wrong that it has
been difficult to set that image aside and concentrate on the work that established
him as one of the major literary artists of the twentieth century.
himself a biographer as well as a novelist, understood that the entire truth
about anyone could never be told. “We can only take what groups together,” he
said. What most grouped together in Fitzgerald’s work and life, I came to
realize over several decades in the classroom and five years of intensive
research, was an overweening compulsion to please.
He wanted to
please other men, but did a poor job of it. His Princeton classmates considered
him over-inquisitive and frivolous. Zelda’s father thought him unreliable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Donaldson has published many
articles on American literature and culture and edited a number of books, among
them Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"
(1984), Conversations with John Cheever (1987), New Essays on "A Farewell
to Arms" (1990), the Cambridge Companion to Hemingway (1996), and Robinson:
Poems (2007) , in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.
Hemingway, the closest of friends in the mid-1920s, eventually came to regard
him with something like scorn. Fitzgerald was far more successful in pleasing
women. Readers of his fiction might expect as much, for he is one of our more
androgynous writers, with a rare capacity to put himself in the place of
characters of either sex.
characters are Scott Fitzgeralds,” he acknowledged. “Even my female characters
are feminine Scott Fitzgeralds.” The set of instructions Fitzgerald drew up, at
18, for his younger sister Annabel provides convincing evidence along these
lines. In this remarkable document he coached his sister in the finer points of
attracting boys: how to groom herself, how to dance, what to talk about, how to
androgyny is everywhere evident in the stories and novels, too, which is
probably why most female college students are attracted to his fiction.
Left: Image of Zelda published in
Metropolitan Magazine in June 1922, accompanying her piece "Eulogy of a
Flapper". Right: A study of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Gordon Bryant,
published in Shadowland magazine in 1921.
with this sensitivity, Fitzgerald played the game of courtship well. As a youth
he was a notoriously successful flirt. “I’ve got an adjective that just fits
you,” he would tell a dancing partner early in the evening, and then withhold
the laudatory word to build up her expectations. He was good-looking, and at
ease in the company of girls. He listened to them as few other boys did, and
made it clear that he cared tremendously what they thought of him.
Later, as a
married man, he continued to woo women. He couldn’t help it. He needed their
approval, which is to say their love and adoration. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald may
have been the most important woman in his life, but she was not and could not
be the only one.
suffered a tremendous setback when Ginevra King of Lake Forest, north of
Chicago – one of the wealthiest and most beautiful debutantes of her day –
spurned him in order to marry a young man of her own class.
rejection devastated Fitzgerald, even as it supplied him with the basic subject
matter of much of his fiction. There are probably more characters in his
stories and novels modeled on Ginevra than on Zelda Sayre, who caught him on
the rebound. By altering the circumstances of the plot, Fitzgerald played
variations on the age-old theme of the battle of the sexes.
Left: Fitzgerald reading alone in
1920. Right: Fitzgerald reading aloud to his friends in 1917, left to right,
Helen Floan, Sidney Strong, Grace Warner, and Lucius P. Ordway, Jr. (Source:
Minnesota Historical Society)
unusual about Fitzgerald’s treatment of this theme is its escalation – in the
work as in the life — from the courting game of his adolescence to the fierce
battle of his young manhood to the outright war of his maturity.
are inclined to think, Amory Blaine will not suffer unduly from his jilting by
Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise
(1920), Fitzgerald’s first novel. But Gatsby dies for Daisy in his 1925
masterpiece, and Dick Diver is stripped of his vitality and tossed aside by
Nicole and her family in 1934’s Tender is
Fitzgerald’s fictional treatment of the war between the sexes, it is almost
always the man who ends up defeated. By repeatedly depicting the downfall of
his male figures, Fitzgerald was imagining what might well have happened (had
not Zelda been afflicted with schizophrenia) and also – it seems to me –
excoriating himself for his weaknesses.
particular, is a novel about the enervating effects of charm. Compelled to
please everyone around him (and particularly women), Diver dissipates away his
life’s work and his usefulness as a human being. The real Fitzgerald, like his
invented protagonist, came to despise himself for this “fatal pleasingness,” a
self-disgust that characteristically emerged under the influence of alcohol. Drinking
runs like an inner malaise through Fitzgerald’s life and that of many of his
male characters. His triumph came in the last years of his life, when –
supposedly down and out in Hollywood – he cast aside this obsession, quit
drinking, and went back to being what he called “a writer only.”