Dealer in Diamonds and Rhinestones
J.F. Powers April 1, 2014 - 12:19pm
Mr. Pegler, on hearing about Scott Fitzgerald's death in 1941, said it "recalls memories of a queer bunch of undisciplined and self-indulgent brats who were determined not to pull their weight in the boat and wanted the world to drop everything and sit down and bawl with them." A lot of people of the type known as good felt that way about Fitzgerald, and Wescott, and Cummings, and Hemingway, and some more. Going over there to Europe just to hell around with foreigners had something to do with it.
The success of Fitzgerald's novels, especially The Great Gatsby, enabled him to stay out of this country during most of the twenties. In the thirties, he disappeared into darkest Hollywood and the old Fitzgerald prose was thereby believed to be forever extinct. Immediately, he and it enjoyed a series of requiems at the hands of their critics.
Fitzgerald's regular contributions to Esquire, which was then a magazine to be read, did little to alter the general idea that the artist in him had perished among the producers. Fitzgerald was dead. Then, five years later, at 44, he did die, for sure. Fitzgerald was dead again. And then The Last Tycoon was published and everybody found out what he had been trying to do in Hollywood, besides make money, that he had been living all the time and that this book, though unfinished, contained more of his best writing than anything he had ever done and Fitzgerald's best had always been the best there was.
Of Fitzgerald now it could be said that's all there is, there ain't no more. But Edmund Wilson and New Directions* have found and assembled more: at least one unpublished piece, "My Lost City," and a goodly selection of highly readable notes and letters. Also, correspondence from Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos. And essays and poems about Fitzgerald by Paul Rosenfeld, Glenway Wescott, Dos Passos, John Peale Bishop, and Wilson.
With the publication of This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald at 23 became the well-loved soul and conscience of the generation later to be lost. It was the peculiar quality of his criticism (a sinner among sinners gaily accusing himself and them) that it did not offend. Lewis, Dreiser and Mencken did offend. They called names and dished out stiff penances. Fitzgerald said, in effect, we're all in this together; only some of us have better bottle-openers.
As Fitzgerald matured—"It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won't save us any more than love did"—he discovered the prom room of his early dreams to be strangely empty of other people, a few only remaining and not to dance: his wife, his daughter, Wilson, Bishop and, sitting out on the verandah Hemingway, Dos Passos, Wolfe and others, the writing brethren. He says it all in "My Lost City," written in 1932, a last goodbye to his dear, dying New York, to the days when Wilson and he were Tom and Huck out of Princeton and Manhattan was their raft. The notebooks are full of nostalgia and looking backwards. The letters, which show the way he took from the past to the present, are dead serious, witty, and, from the days in St. Paul when he had time and youth enough to copy down a friend's latest poem until he was established in Hollywood with "not even time to be bitter," are touched with a wonderful kind of nonsense—the sort of thing he loved to make up about people, e.g., "Thomas Wolfe or 'Loup' ( Anthony Adverse, Time and the River, N. Y. Telephone Directory, 1935) is a newcomer to American Skulduggery. Born during a premium contest."
Reading "The Crack-up," with these letters, his notes, and the letters and essays of his friends and contemporaries about him, is like reading the log of a good ship gone down at sea and hearing also what all the passengers had to say about it.
From St. Paul, 1922: "I have written two wonderful stories & get letters of praise from six editors with the addenda that 'our readers, however, would be offended!... I am bored as hell out here. The baby is well—we dazzle her exquisite eyes with gold pieces in the hopes that she'll marry a millionaire." For all the disgust he grew to feel for money and those who had too much of it (though it was more a matter of taste than economics for Fitzgerald—vide Chapter 2 of "Gatsby" for Vulgarity Americana Laid Bare), he still did not go all the way.
He was speaking to this daughter of marriage when he wrote in 1940: "I have always hoped that life would throw you among lawyers or men who were going into politics or big time journalism. They lead rather larger lives." Earlier he wrote: "If I come up and find you gone Park Avenue, you will have to explain me away as a Georgia cracker or a Chicago killer. God help Park Avenue." It is a nice distinction, considering what Fitzgerald was after, to divorce Park Avenue from big time journalism, but that is what Fitzgerald was always doing and that is the measure of his confusion.
From Capri, 1925, and drunk again: "I will now have two copies of Wescott's 'Apple' as in despair I ordered one—a regular orchard. I shall give one to Brooks whom I like. Do you know Brooks? He's just a fellow here ... Excuse the delay. I have been working on the envelope .... That was a caller. His name was Musselini [sic], I think, and he says he is in politics here." Which is about the way Fitzgerald felt about people in politics, including the comrades in California, except that later he was not so indifferent to the new order of things, writing in 1940: "You can neither cut through, nor challenge nor beat the fact that there is an organized movement over the world before which you and I as individuals are less than dust." From Delaware, 1928: "All is prepared for February 25th. The stomach pumps are polished and set out in rows .... Please don't say you can't come the 25th but would like to come the 29th We never receive people the 29th. It is the anniversary of the 2nd Council of Nicaea."
When Fitzgerald discovered the Jazz Age with his novels, he did not so much people them with characters as with aspects of himself. With the money ($30) he received for his first published story he bought-for her, a magenta feather fan; for him, white flannels. A few years later, when he was getting $2,000 a story, he bought more of the same, plus scenery. For almost as long as he wrote he was one of his early subjects with at least half of himself. Between him and them an involuntary osmosis persisted that had nothing at all to do with art, with the writer becoming one with his characters for the sake of really knowing about them.
Fitzgerald was too often helpless before the world. Sometimes he knew it. Sometimes, he didn't care. At the last it was his greatest regret. "What little I've accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now I'd never relaxed or looked back but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: "I've found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing." In this context, it is terribly clear why he was so fascinated by the line from a Shakespeare sonnet: "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds." It was a sermon he was always reading to himself. Hence, his sympathy for Ring Lardner, whose dilemma was roughly the same, but who got much less of himself on paper.
Fitzgerald's Catholicism, which in 1920 he wrote "was scarcely more than a memory," must have been the congenital dandelion and hollyhock variety which abounds in the, better neighborhoods. One story* he wrote on a conceivably Catholic subject, "Absolution," is good enough. Its priest could be as authentic as any one of a hundred different kinds of priest, but it is significant that this particular one had quite a feeling for blonde girls (vide many pleasant references to same in Fitzgerald's notebooks and other writing) and had a ceaseless hankering for the other life, meaning popcorn and peanuts and Ferris wheels, which for a priest in the Dakotas, trust Fitzgerald, comes to about the same thing as the author getting his in New York and Paris.
Fitzgerald, as writer, wanted above all, he said, to achieve a wise and tragic sense of life. There are places enough in his books where he seems to do this beautifully and so it does not sound funny or whimsical when he jots down: "My sometimes reading my own books for advice. How much I know sometimes—how little at others." But the conclusion which forces itself out is that he was finally less wise than tragic. It is probably not possible for a writer to, be as wise as he was tragic. Only saints come that size.
It was his boast or gibe ("The Crack-up") that he had "learned to detect where the milk is watered, and the sugar sanded, the rhinestone passed for diamond and the stucco for stone" and that he had developed a voice and a smile to go with this sad knowledge and could say:
"I have now at last become a writer only ... It is not a matter of levity. If you are young and you should write asking to see me and learn how to be a somber literary man writing pieces upon the state of emotional exhaustion that often overtakes writers in their prime—if you should be so young and fatuous as to do this, I would not do so much as acknowledge your letter, unless you were related to someone very rich and important indeed. And if you were dying of starvation outside my window, I would go out quickly and give you the smile and the voice (if no longer the hand) and stick around till somebody raised a nickel to phone for the ambulance, that is if I thought there would be any copy in it for me." There is no evidence that he was ever able to practice any of this and there is the case of the youth from afar who came to his door at three in the morning and was let in for the conversation he thirsted for. But it is true that for this question, which he asked himself, there was for Scott Fitzgerald, as for all the sad young men he created, no real answer—
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?
*The Crack-up. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Edited by Edmund Wilson. New Directions. $3.50.
*The only one, I believe.
[For more from our 1940s archive, click here]
About the Author
J.F. Powers is author of numerous short stories, several of which have been honored by inclusion in various anthologies.