A famed novelist and his fatal hubris
You’ve really got to respect a novelist’s biographer who begins his book with a quote like this from its subject: “Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, ‘There never was a good biography of a novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he is any good.’ ”
David S. Brown, a professor at Elizabethtown College, goes on to note that “Despite this peremptory warning, several important Fitzgerald biographies have appeared over the years. Most have emphasized some particular aspect of the man, be it his personality, writings, relationships with women, or battles with the bottle.”
It is to Mr. Brown’s credit that he has produced a rounded, holistic life of a complicated man and writer, whose very complexities have led so many to become bogged down in particular aspects of his life and art.
With a becoming modesty, Mr. Brown says that his “own training as a historian has shaped how I read Fitzgerald and offers, I trust, a few fresh insights into a muchdiscussed life.” In fact, there are more than a few fresh apercus about Fitzgerald in the pages of this biography and they are as much fed by its author’s psychological acuity and understanding as by his formidable skills as a social historian:
“Within a larger life and work narrative, I treat Fitzgerald as a cultural historian, the annalist as novelist who recorded the wildly fluctuating fortunes of America in the boom Twenties and bust Thirties. Equal parts author, observer, and participant, he supposed himself uniquely capable of probing below the surface of his society. ‘I really believe,’ he once put the matter to the literary critic Edmund Wilson, his old Princeton classmate and an important influence, ‘that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation.’ ”
So at the very outset of this deeply probing, insightful study, Mr. Brown goes right to the heart of Fitzgerald’s importance as a writer and the fatal hubris which was so corrosive to his enduring relevance to future generations. In embodying a particular era — becoming quite literally its poster child in that iconic photograph of Fitzgerald, his tragic wife Zelda, and their only child Scottie kicking up their heels; and in novels that mirrored and refracted their times, as much creating our idea of them as reflecting them — he was riding a tiger which would inevitably consume him and his art.
What made his books such important cultural artifacts as soon as they rolled hot off the press was exactly what made them so dated so quickly, leaving him with almost nonexistent sales in the last years before he died in December 1940, an almost forgotten has-been at 44.
People continue to see enduring archetypes of the American Dream and the myriad nightmares that doom it in his greatest novels, “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender is the Night,” but to me they are too encased, too walled off, in their particular Zeitgeist to have the force they would have if they had managed to break through that glass ceiling into true universality.
And that is why when Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, who also burst into the American literary and cultural scene in the ’20s, but taking on — and really engaging with — much bigger issues and topics, and larger and more indelible characters, were still relevant in the next decade and remain so today, Fitzgerald seemed detached from the evolving reality. Which is why he was so soon forgotten and unread even in his sadly short lifetime.
I’ll never forget my disappointment reading “This Side of Paradise,” Fitzgerald’s archetypal Ivy League College novel, on the train taking me to matriculate at Yale as a freshman half a century after he had ridden one to do so at Princeton. Despite the similarities of our situation, it seemed hopelessly outdated in a way that Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” with which I had much less to connect to my life experience, did not when I read it right after.
This had a lot to do with Fitzgerald’s aloofness from his subjects: Sinclair Lewis penetrated to the deepest recesses of Babbitt’s and Dodsworth’s hearts and souls — their very essence — in a way that Fitzgerald didn’t succeed in doing even with Gatsby. Too much of an observer, he never engaged with life the way Hemingway did: not for him the blood and sweat of being in the arena, as Theodore Roosevelt so memorably advocated. That hubris, a feeling of being above the fray, impoverished his work and is, I believe, key to its inability to speak to succeeding generations, as his contemporaries’ does.
But we must be grateful for Mr. Brown’s high opinion of Fitzgerald and his art for his refusal to descend into the fatal cesspit of what Joyce Carol Oates indelibly termed “pathography.” To demean an important artist, whatever his genre, by wallowing in the unseemly details of his pathological behavior, as so many have been tempted to do with Fitzgerald, ends up being as unworthy of the biographer as of his subject.
Respect for Fitzgerald as an artist and a man, with an appropriate admixture of empathy, are the hallmarks of this fine book, which I admire, even if I cannot share its high estimation of its subject.