FITZGERALD, F. Scott (September, 1896-December, 1940); American novelist and short-story writer

Bryant Mangum, “F. Scott Fitzgerald: American Novelist and Short Story Writer, Reader’s Guide to Literature in English, London: Fitzroy-Dearborn, 1995, pp. 293-296. Reprinted with permission of Fitzroy-Dearborn Publishers.

FITZGERALD, F. Scott (September, 1896-December, 1940); American novelist and short-story writer 

During his lifetime only a handful of serious critics conscientiously debated Fitzgerald’s artistic development, and though they were quick to point out weaknesses as well as strengths, their assessments now have the eerie feeling of prophesy in predicting the status of Fitzgerald’s posthumous literary reputation and the direction of the critical response that has established it during the five decades since his death.
Among these were Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, John Peale Bishop, Paul Rosenfeld, and T. S. Eliot, the latter of whom called The Great Gatsby “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.” As the poet laureate of the Jazz Age, the creator of the flapper in fiction, as author of more than one hundred fifty stories in slick magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and, with his wife Zelda, a visible public figure pictured on the cover of popular magazines and the top of taxicabs on Fifth Avenue in New York during the 1920’s, Fitzgerald became an easy target for superficial evaluations of his work during his lifetime. But he was also from the beginning of his career a serious literary artist who worked diligently to reconcile in his own life the central dilemma of professional authorship in America: how to create works of high literary merit while earning a living from his own writing. The fifty odd years of careful scrutiny of the body of Fitzgerald’s work have more than borne out the confidence of those few contemporary critics who, in his lifetime, saw for him a permanent place among the immortals of American literature. Since 1940 there have been hundreds of journal articles, a dozen biographical studies, and more than thirty critical volumes devoted to Fitzgerald and his work.

MILLER’s The Fictional Technique of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1957) is the first book-length critical study devoted exclusively to Fitzgerald’s work. There are two versions of this book: the 1957 edition, which traces the development of Fitzgerald’s fictional technique from This Side of Paradise (1920) through The Great Gatsby (1925); and the 1964 edition, F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Art and His Technique, which reprints the first edition and extends the thesis through to the end of Fitzgerald’s life, including discussions of Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon, not included in the first edition. Miller establishes a context for his theories about Fitzgerald’s artistic development by first clarifying his definition of the term “technique.” Rejecting narrow definitions of the term as concerned simply with point of view, Miller settles on Mark Shorer’s comprehensive definition: “Everything is technique which is not the lump of experience itself, and one cannot properly say that a writer has no technique or that he eschews technique, for, being a writer, he cannot do so.” Miller, therefore, examines Fitzgerald’s technique in broad terms of “the development of theme, point of view, and the manner of representing events.” At the core of Miller’s thesis is a belief that Fitzgerald’s development as a writer can be followed in relation to his belief in the novel of saturation or the novel of selected incident; in effect, in terms of Fitzgerald’s shifting position in the H.G. Wells-Henry James debate, which squarely confronts the positive and negative aspects of these theoretically different kinds of novels.

Miller convincingly argues that Fitzgerald moved steadily away from the novel of saturation, of which This Side of Paradise is a good example, toward the Jamesian and Conradian novel of selected incident. The pinnacle of Fitzgerald’s achievement, according to Miller, is The Great Gatsby, in which “[f]or the first time in his career [Fitzgerald] was able to disengage himself from his subject and treat his material from an artistic and impersonal perspective.” In the 1964 edition Miller carries his thesis beyond The Great Gatsby and shows that Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon are magnificent failures of sorts because Fitzgerald’s artistic standards were carefully considered during the time of composition of these works; he simply could not realize them as fully as he had done in The Great Gatsby. The earlier novel, The Beautiful and Damned, by contrast, failed because it grew out of a time of theoretical uncertainty and transition Fitzgerald’s life. Miller’s discussion of the technique of Fitzgerald’s first three novels and selected stories which cluster around them is based on detailed, sensitive analysis of the works, almost scene by scene. He also includes pertinent sections of letters and reviews by Fitzgerald which indicate beyond much doubt that Fitzgerald’s shift from the novel of saturation to the novel of selected incident was conscious and carefully reasoned. Some will argue that Miller’s choice for analysis of the Malcolm Cowley, “author’s-final-intention” edition of Tender Is the Night, which reestablishes the novel’s chronological sequence of events, is unfortunate in that this edition works against Miller’s thesis. But the issue of which Tender Is the Night is “best” has become one for critical examination in itself, and with or without his chapters on Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon, Miller’s study is seminal, situating Fitzgerald as it does in the mainstream of the development of literary theory and practice. In the process it clearly frames the major issues for extended critical debate of the body of Fitzgerald’s work.

EBLE’s book does what few introductory works in a series such as the Twayne Series are able to do: it provides a comprehensive overview of the canon; it breaks new ground, particularly in its stylistic analysis of major works; and it provides, as we can now see in retrospect, a blueprint for the direction of Fitzgerald studies in the three decades that follow it. Eble systematically examines the novels and the stories against the backdrop of Fitzgerald biography, finally drawing conclusions about the relative strengths of the works, particularly the novels, by new-critical standards. He typically proceeds in chronological order, though in the case of groups of stories like the Basil Duke Lee series, written in the late Twenties, his analysis comes early since these retrospective autobiographical works cast light on Fitzgerald’s life as an adolescent.

In the course of his analyses Eble makes observations, some of them original and some of them echoes of earlier appraisals, that are now the foundation of the conventional wisdom of Fitzgerald scholarship. Drawing heavily on Arthur Mizener’s 1951 Fitzgerald biography, The Far Side of Paradise, he demonstrates beyond any question that Fitzgerald’s fictional works typically come directly from his personal experience, scarcely a startling proposition for anyone mildly acquainted with Fitzgerald’s life and work. But what Eble manages to do with this observation is to demonstrate which kinds of life experiences and which kinds of narrative points of view seem to work best for Fitzgerald. Eble shows, for example, how much stronger dramatic episodes in the Basil stories are artistically than those based on similar episodes drawn from life in Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, a point which leads to the conclusion that Fitzgerald does better with experiences that have had time to cool. Eble also makes the point that Fitzgerald’s seemingly magical leap in ability from his first two novels, which have glaring faults, to The Great Gatsby, his masterpiece, published only three years after The Beautiful and Damned, is less startling when one considers the brilliance of such early stories as “The Ice Palace” and “May Day,” as well as isolated bursts of prose genius in even the weakest works.

Since the so-called Fitzgerald revival had been building momentum during the twenty-odd years between Fitzgerald’s death and Eble’s book, his study draws heavily, of course, on the accumulated wisdom of scores of journal articles devoted to Fitzgerald during this time as well as on Miller’s study. Eble, however, breaks new ground and the areas of his concern predict the directions of much of the scholarship that follows. He focuses on Fitzgerald’s revisions in the galley proofs of The Great Gatsby, for example, to demonstrate not only what a careful craftsman Fitzgerald could be but also to show how he was able with subtle changes and simple brush strokes to convey entire personalities and scenes. Textual scholars, most notably Matthew J. Bruccoli, have, since Eble, produced volumes of collations, textual editions, and commentary that painstakingly document Eble’s general point about Fitzgerald’s methods of composition and revision. Ebel also, in his final appraisal of Fitzgerald’s work, clearly articulates the reasons why Fitzgerald’s reputation has remained high, positioning him with other such great American writers as Melville, Hawthorne, and James: “The first is the hard core of morality…. Second, unlike a majority of modern American writers, he offers a fiction which is hard to imitate but from which much can be learned.” Here again, scores of articles and several volumes (among them Allen’s Candles and Carnival Lights discussed below) have pursued the point of Fitzgerald’s “hard core of morality” as well as the qualities of his style which make it “hard to imitate.” And finally, Eble pushes the limits of what had been considered work worthy of consideration by literary critics into the realm of lesser known and previously uncollected stories, a foreshadowing of the direction of much current Fitzgerald scholarship which is expanding the canon toward “the neglected works” (e.g., Bryer’s upcoming volume, The Neglected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, University of Missouri Press, 1995).

Counting Eble’s book and Miller’s 1964 revised volume, the decade of the 1960’s saw fifteen books devoted exclusively to Fitzgerald’s work published in the United States, more book-length critical studies on Fitzgerald than have been published in any other single decade. Two of these were introductory studies, seven (counting Eble, Miller, and a translation from Italian of an earlier study) were comprehensive studies of the Fitzgerald canon, one was a study of the composition of Tender Is the Night, and five were collections of critical essays. The comprehensive studies were characteristically aimed at affirming Fitzgerald’s position in the mainstream of American literary history and of deepening the reader’s understanding of the precise nature of his achievement relative to the tradition of which he was a part.

SKLAR’s F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon, the last of the 1960’s volumes, is built on the metaphor (first constructed in relation to Fitzgerald by Malcolm Lowry) of Apollo’s priest, Laocoon, who, in Virgil’s Aeneid, pierced the wooden horse with his spear to warn his countrymen against the trickery of the Greeks. His Trojan countrymen paid him no attention, and Athena called serpents from the sea to destroy Laocoon and his sons. Sklar, taking Lowry’s cue, suggests that Fitzgerald warned the American people against the enemy that would destroy them–the loss of “chivalry and decency”–but he, like Laocoon, was ignored and finally killed for delivering his message. Early in Sklar’s study is this observation and question: “Fitzgerald’s fiction, set free from the frustrations and weaknesses of his life, rose in critical and public regard to rank with the work of the greatest and most exemplary American writers; with Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James, whose fiction portrays, among whatever else, the bravest and strongest and most gracious values in the nation’s life. But how can Fitzgerald be so praised [in the glowing critical assessments since his death] without obsequiousness?” An inescapable conclusion is that Fitzgerald’s message has not been heeded, or–and this is more to Sklar’s point–that those who have, in the quarter of a century since his death, boosted his reputation in American letters to such a high point have not fully understood the significance of what Fitzgerald said through the body of his work.

Sklar does not dwell on the earlier interpretations of Fitzgerald’s work, many of which he, no doubt, would see as missing the mark; but instead, he constructs a coherent theory that takes into account virtually every Fitzgerald novel and story as well as the known facts about Fitzgerald’s life and painstakingly documents his own interpretation. Sklar sees Fitzgerald, on the one hand, as taking seriously his legacy of the genteel tradition, which involves such qualities as decency and chivalry; on the other hand, he believes that Fitzgerald devoted his life artistically to the search for a way to modify this legacy to make it morally defensible in a modern world that presents so many rational challenges to the genteel tradition, a world in which all gods are dead, all wars fought, and all faiths in man shaken. To Sklar, any study of Fitzgerald’s work must take into account the seriousness with which Fitzgerald pursued his artistic goal of creating a believable modern hero who also retained whatever was salvageable from the genteel hero. As Sklar phrases it, “It is difficult to see how an uncritical portrait of the genteel hero could be possible in a serious work of fiction; and that makes it even more important to recognize how deeply the heroes of Fitzgerald’s mature novels–Jay Gatsby…Dick Diver…and Monroe Stahr–have the roots of their characters implanted in the nature of the genteel hero, the creator of romantic dreams.”

While Sklar does not discount the importance of examining the evolution of Fitzgerald’s art and technique–he seems to concede that Fitzgerald did move toward the novel of selected incident, for example–he believes that it is of greatest importance to follow what might be seen as the development of Fitzgerald’s moral sense, his pursuit of a morally and intellectually tenable position in the modern world. And for this it is essential to follow the influences on Fitzgerald’s thinking–from, among many others, Wells, Shane Leslie, and Monsignor Sigourney Fay (This Side of Paradise) to Mencken and Frank Norris (The Beautiful and Damned), to Joseph Conrad (The Great Gatsby), to Oswald Spengler and Carl Jung (Tender Is the Night) to his own original, whole vision (The Last Tycoon). Sklar’s study is a step-by-step working through of each major Fitzgerald hero, showing how each tries a new solution, informed by Fitzgerald’s reading, reflection, and soul searching, that ultimately is not acceptable to Fitzgerald himself. In chronicling Fitzgerald’s efforts, Sklar generalizes about the process in this way: “With The Great Gatsby he re-created the genteel hero as a grand and tragic figure, and wished then to turn to something else. But he had not said his last about the genteel hero, and in Tender Is the Night he extended his themes in a different way. Again he felt he was done with genteel heroism as a subject, and then again he changed his mind.” According to Sklar, Fitzgerald never “rested content with his accomplished artistry, but struggled always in his novels toward a firmer understanding of the moral qualities and values he dramatized in conflict, toward a finer control over his art.”

The decade of the 1970’s was a transition period in Fitzgerald studies during which numerous primary documents such as scrapbooks, notebooks, and letter collections, with material previously unavailable except through special collections in various libraries and private collections, were made available in book form. Also bibliographical studies and volumes containing previously uncollected Fitzgerald short stories published during this decade provided an Aladdin’s cave of material for Fitzgerald scholars. There were fewer book-length critical studies in this period than in the 1960’s, and those that were published typically, as one might expect, moved in one of two general directions: toward making mid-course corrections in what had become mainstream critical opinion on Fitzgerald, using the earlier studies as a platform; or toward filling what were perceived as gaps in the body of criticism.

Typical of this first group is STERN’s The Golden Moment: The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which he suggests that many previous critical studies, like Miller’s, had seemed to miss what he perceived to be the point of Fitzgerald’s work. In the case of others, like Sklar’s, he felt that “Fitzgerald criticism was finally coming to the important center of what I felt within my own self had been the Fitzgerald self.” What was missing, and what Stern’s study attempts to provide, is a unified study “that would parallel Sklar’s by talking about the national rather than the literary development of Fitzgerald’s talent.” Stern’s book examines the four complete Fitzgerald novels, those best known to the general American reading public through what he characterizes as “Fitzgerald’s personality.”

Illustrative of the second group is ALLEN’s Candles and Carnival Lights: The Catholic Sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald. While not challenging the validity of earlier appraisals, Allen believes that the influences of Fitzgerald’s early Roman Catholic upbringing on his art have been neglected. Her study examines sections relevant to her thesis of Fitzgerald’s major novels and stories with the purpose of showing “that his Roman Catholic early education and family experiences, the complexities of Catholic upbringing in an atmosphere of inadequate paternity and oppressive maternity and ambivalence about money, formed his moral consciousness.”

If the revival of critical interest in Fitzgerald’s work which began shortly after his death reached a high point during the 1960’s; and if the transition period of the 1970’s which saw the publication of previously unavailable primary and bibliographical material is a kind of second wave of the Fitzgerald Revival, what might be characterized as a strong third wave has been in progress since the early 1980’s, a decade launched by Bruccoli’s definitive biography, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1981), and shows little sign of weakening in the mid-1990’s. In the early part of the period were book-length reappraisals–and such studies will continue to appear from time to time–which, with rather traditional critical methods applied to a selected number of Fitzgerald works, attempt to alter or augment the record of existing scholarship. WAY’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Art of Social Fiction, which contains an excellent chapter on the short stories, is such a study. Way grants that Fitzgerald has always been seen as a social historian who chronicled the Jazz Age and alerted readers to the failure of the American Dream, but he maintains that most earlier studies have failed “to appreciate Fitzgerald’s own complexity of attitude, his capacity to be fascinated with the collective adventure of Jazz Age America and at the same time highly critical of it.”

The third wave of the Fitzgerald Revival, however, has more characteristically followed the lines of the changing face of literary criticism itself over the past two decades. Fitzgerald criticism has moved toward an explosion of the Fitzgerald canon, on the one hand, expanding more deeply into the 178 stories, the majority of which have received very little critical attention; on the other hand, it has also moved in the direction of gender-based and reader response theory. Though seeds of this movement can be found in the many of the studies of the 1960’s and 1970’s, perhaps the most influential volume in moving Fitzgerald studies in this direction is BRYER’s The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Approaches to Criticism. For this volume Bryer commissioned twenty-two essays from outstanding Fitzgerald scholars as well as literary critics whose work has not been focussed on Fitzgerald. The intention was to “present a volume of varied and suggestive approaches which would present a variety of critical perspectives through which the stories can be viewed.”

The book itself contains a valuable summary by Bryer of the areas of greatest neglect in Fitzgerald studies and, at the end, a comprehensive bibliography, which, aside from its usefulness, indicates how little in-depth criticism there has been of the short stories. The essays in collection are divided into “Overviews” and “Individual Stories”; in both sections the most distinct qualities of the essays are their originality of approach and their movement into previously uncharted territory. In the first section, an essay by Eble, for example, addresses for the first time the subjects of alcoholism and mental illness strictly in terms of Fitzgerald’s fictional treatment of them, not in terms of biographical connections to the Fitzgeralds’ lives. Ruth Prigozy examines a cluster of seldom discussed stories from the early 1930’s to cast light on the connection between the crises of Fitzgerald’s middle years and the evolution of what was to become in the late 1930’s his “new” style. Joseph Mancini, Jr. provides a Jungian analysis of the Basil Duke Lee stories, using an approach that has rarely been applied to Fitzgerald’s works, oddly so since Fitzgerald was influenced by Jung during the composition of Tender Is the Night. Alan Margolies takes the often-noted fact that many of Fitzgerald’s early Post stories suffered because they were written to satisfy biases of Postreaders, and adds a fascinating new dimension: that the weakness of some of these stories were compounded by the fact that Fitzgerald wrote them with a Hollywood market also in mind.

The essays in the “Individual Stories” section particularly are characterized by close attention to the texts of stories that have previously received only passing comment in the criticism: “The Bridal Party,” “Financing Finnegan,” “The Swimmers,” “Rags Martin-Jones and the Pr-nce of W-les,” and “The Adjuster,” for example. One excellent illustration of the kinds of insights provided in these analyses is found in Christiane Johnson’s study of “The Adjuster.” Johnson takes the shadowy figure of Dr. Moon in the story and challenges earlier suggestions–granted these are almost offhand suggestions–in the criticism that he is meant to be a psychoanalyst. By arguing that he is instead intended to represent Time, Johnson is able finally to identify the subject of passing time as a central theme, one tied clearly to the idea that time itself is “the adjuster” in this story. As Bryer notes in the introduction, as of 1979, only seventy-five articles or book chapters had been devoted to Fitzgerald’s stories, and only twenty-two of the 178 stories that Fitzgerald wrote had been dealt with in chapters or full essays. This volume not only begins to remedy the neglect; it also points in the direction of expanding the boundaries of critical debate into the entire body of Fitzgerald’s stories as well as into critical approaches that have not yet been brought to bear on the body of Fitzgerald’s work. It is noteworthy that before Bryer’s book, only one volume had been devoted exclusively to the short stories; in the early 1990’s three books, each devoted exclusively to the study of Fitzgerald’s short fiction, have been published.

Of the critical studies which draw on new approaches and multi-disciplinary perspectives, FRYER’s Fitzgerald’s New Women: Harbingers of Change, grounded solidly in Fitzgerald studies and feminist theory, is perhaps the finest example. Fryer draws on numerous historical studies to establish the plight of women and a definition of the “New Women” of the postwar decade in America, finally making this assertion in her introduction: “They are a curious blend of confidence and uncertainty, for they live on the threshold of a new era and still feel the influence of the old order, which stubbornly insists on subordinating them to men….[T]hey try very hard to accept themselves for who they are and to enjoy their lives to the fullest as they proudly–even defiantly–struggle to develop and preserve their integrity.” In Fryer’s opinion Fitzgerald’s women conform to this true picture, but there has been little attempt to understand them except in terms established by critics and biographers, mostly male, of their character flaws: “poor housekeeping skills, vanity, material acquisitiveness, stubbornness, restlessness, purposelessness, boredom, [and] attention getting antics….” Granted, however, that “Fitzgerald himself was confused in his expectations for women,” Fryer sees him, first, as being accurate as a social historian in portraying women in the 1920’s, and second, as demonstrating sensitivity toward the plight of women in his time. His novels, she maintains, “chart the progression of the social and sexual revolution of the 1920’s.” Fryer supports these assertions with careful analyses of the major Fitzgerald heroines–Rosalind Connage, Gloria Gilbert, Daisy Buchanan, Nicole Diver, Kathleen Moore–whom she sees finally in varying degrees as believable, three-dimensional characters. Countering the charge by some critics that Fitzgerald’s women are superficial, Fryer notes that “Fitzgerald has drawn female characters who struggle with conflicts common to many twentieth-century women who are brought up to marry, not work.” Again in varying degrees, these characters are victims, less of Fitzgerald’s conception of them than they are of a patriarchal society which has taught them that they are to be taken care of. Fryer sees Fitzgerald’s women as often struggling valiantly to establish autonomy. In her analysis of Nicole Diver, for example, Fryer demonstrates, first, the obvious ways in which Nicole is exploited, and finally the subtle ways in which she asserts her freedom and establishes her dignity. “It is a tribute to the artistry of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” she maintains, “that he could so accurately record these New Women’s voices–and that he could listen to them so well in the first place.”

Concerning the general state of Fitzgerald criticism in the mid-1990’s, a half century into the revival of critical interest in his work, one is inclined to agree with the appraisal of Fitzgerald’s contemporary, Stephen Vincent Benet, writing in a review of The Last Tycoon during the year following Fitzgerald’s death: “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation–and, seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.”

Bryant Mangum
Virginia Commonwealth University

Allen, Joan, Candles and Carnival Lights: The Catholic Sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York: New York University Press, 1978
Bryer, Jackson R. (editor), The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Approaches to Criticism, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982
Eble, Kenneth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York: Twayne, 1963
Fryer, Sarah Beebe, Fitzgerald’s New Women: Harbingers of Change, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988
Miller, James E. Jr., F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Art and His Technique, New York: New York University Press, 1964
Sklar, Robert, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967
Stern, Milton R., The Golden Moment: The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970
Way, Brian, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Art of Social Fiction, London: Edward Arnold, 1980