The tone of The Crack-Up is often nostalgic, bordering upon self-pity. Fitzgerald’s unblinking analysis of his shattered dreams and life strikes those who admire his work as candid and moving. Those who view him as an overrated writer find the pieces to be further evidence of his stunted emotional development, his perpetual adolescence. Few, however, can fault the stylistic grace of the articles. Fitzgerald was always a fine wordsmith, one whose metaphors and similes were rich but seldom purple. A memorable example is his extended comparison of the broken writer to a cracked plate.
The book’s motif of loss and bittersweet longing is established in the opening paragraph of the first piece. When “Echoes of the Jazz Age” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in November, 1931, Fitzgerald was only thirty-five years old, but he was already looking backward rather than forward. He introduces the word “nostalgia” in the seventh line of the article and closes by bemoaning the fact that those of his generation will never feel so intensely again as they did during the 1920’s. He acknowledges that some readers will diagnose his condition as “premature arteriosclerosis.” “My Lost City” was bought by Cosmopolitan magazine in July, 1932, but never published. This article, as its title announces, continues to develop the theme of a time and place which are irretrievable. The city is New York, and Fitzgerald chronicles his impressions from his first sight of it, at age ten, from a ferryboat leaving the New Jersey shore at dawn, to his return from France two years after the stock market crash. He finds a New York chastened and finally aware of its limitations. He concludes by crying out to the white and glittering city of memory.
“Ring” appeared originally in The New Republic in October, 1933. It is an affectionate and laudatory memoir of Ring Lardner, occasioned by the writer’s death. Its inclusion in The Crack-Up is appropriate, however, because it emphasizes the differences between the Lardner Fitzgerald first met in 1921 and the Lardner, already a dying man, he last saw in 1931. He cites Lardner’s alteration from a man who is vital and engaged to a man dogged by despair, who has lost all faith and interest in his talent. It is another tale of decline, from that bright decade of the 1920’s to the dreary one of the 1930’s.
” ‘Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number-—-’ ” first appeared in the May-June, 1934, issue of Esquire. Zelda Fitzgerald shares the byline with her husband. The piece is a kind of journal cataloging and describing the dozens of hotels, great and small, in which the Fitzgeralds stayed between 1920 and 1933. It suggests the glamour and the essential rootlessness of their frenetic travels during those years. “Auction—Model 1934,” published in the July, 1934, Esquire, is a companion piece. Again, Zelda shares the byline. The Fitzgeralds have bought a home, are settling down. At an imaginary auction, they are offering for sale, in fifteen lots, the detritus of their fourteen years of marriage. This jumbled accumulation of possessions serves as a device for the Fitzgeralds’ study of their peripatetic married life. The last of the introductory essays is “Sleeping and Waking,” also first published in Esquire (December, 1934). It is a minor treatise on the insomnia that plagued Fitzgerald from his late thirties onward.
Only the first of the three 1936 articles is entitled “The Crack-Up,” but usage soon turned this into an umbrella title for the series. The pieces had their genesis exactly one year earlier. Taps at Reveille (1935), a volume of short stories, had just appeared, meeting with a very poor reception from the critics. Zelda’s mental condition, from which she was destined never to recover, was worsening. Fitzgerald was physically ill and dispirited. He spent the month of February, 1935, in a cheap hotel in Hendersonville, North...
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Few writers have been so closely associated with an era as was F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was twenty-three years old as the 1920’s began and, as he put it, he marched along slightly ahead of the decade. His novel of rebellious youth, This Side of Paradise, was published toward the end of March, 1920, and he awoke to find himself famous. On April 3, 1920, he married Zelda Sayre, a beautiful and headstrong Southern belle, and they began to live the tumultuous life of the Roaring Twenties. Fitzgerald’s literary earnings went from $800 in 1919 to $18,000 in 1920, his story price from $30 to $1,000. He became the Jazz Age laureate, the best-paid magazine writer of the day. His crowning achievement of the decade, The Great Gatsby, appeared as he was approaching the end of his own twenties. Ten years later, the United States was mired in the Great Depression which had followed the stock market crash of 1929, and Fitzgerald’s personal life was mirroring the woes of the nation.
In 1936, Fitzgerald had only four more years to live. In The Crack-Up, he was attempting to cope with his disastrous loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. He was the embodiment of the American Dream gone wrong, eerily reminiscent of his creation Jay Gatsby. In 1937, Fitzgerald would sign a contract as a scenarist and turn from reality to Hollywood, as the rest of the nation was doing. Because The Crack-Up contains some of Fitzgerald’s finest writing, it would be an important book in a purely literary context. Because Fitzerald was such a uniquely representative figure, however, it is an important document of cultural history as well.