Patricia Hampl on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Essays from the Edge

Hampl explores the lesser known autobiographical essays of the novelist @ The American Scholar.

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.

Image: Today in Literature

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