A famed nov­el­ist and his fa­tal hubris

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Martin Ru­bin

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. Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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