The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

From Hollywood in 1940, the year of his death, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, that hardly any American fiction published at that time failed to show his influence. For this reason he felt that he was in some manner an original. Two years earlier he had written to Perkins that he felt neglected, that his reputation was being allowed to vanish because all his books were out of print. When Arthur Mizener’s biography appeared, in 1951, the situation was little better. Now his books have been reissued and several collections of his letters are in print as the result of a reassessment enshrining him with the giants of the 1920’s: Hemingway, Faulkner, and Wolfe. Fitzgerald wrote prophetically when he said that an author ought to write for the young people of his generation, the forthcoming critics of the next, and the teachers of generations.

The years between 1925 and 1929 had a stunning effect upon American fiction with the publication of THE GREAT GATSBY, THE SUN ALSO RISES, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THE SOUND AND THE FURY, and LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL. Also in this decade appeared Eliot’s THE WASTE LAND; one may sense the influence of this thematically visionary poem in THE GREAT GATSBY. With Hemingway and Wolfe, Fitzgerald recognized an essential affinity: the attempt to grasp the same feel of an interval in time and place, shown in people. Our picture of this era becomes more intensely fascinating with every new biography and collection of letters about these three novelists and their editor, Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald wrote to him once saying that he must have a hard time trying to keep up with them, for Hemingway was in Spain, and Wolfe had reverted to an “artistic hillbilly.” In their works and in their legends these writers consciously expressed a dynamic poetic image of their time. Of his own contribution, Fitzgerald wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1918, while still at work on his first novel, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, and stated that no other person could have written a story of the young people of his generation in such depth; and to Perkins he said later that at twenty-seven he felt that he had used up more of his personal experience than anyone else.

Edited by Andrew Turnbull, whose biography of Fitzgerald appeared in 1962, these letters provide a many-faceted view of that “huge season” and of the man who led “the gay parade.” It was a time so bemused by itself that he later said the past was his for eternity. These letters show us the Fitzgerald of the St. Paul, Princeton, France, Baltimore, Asheville, and Hollywood years. As an insider who himself figures prominently in the letters he was a childhood friend of Fitzgerald and the playmate of the writer’s daughter Scottie Turnbull is well qualified to write about Fitzgerald and to edit his letters. Unfortunately, those to Fitzgerald’s father and to his good friend Ring Lardner are not obtainable, but of those which are available, Turnbull has published half.

The organization of the volume is ingenious and imaginative. After a brief personal introduction and an adequate chronology, Turnbull opens with a large group of letters to the callow, romantic Scottie, covering the years 1933-1940. He next presents a brief group to Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda (1939-1940). These letters provide an intimate view covering the dark years when Fitzgerald indentured himself to Hollywood to finance Scottie’s education and Zelda’s confinement in mental institutions. Of Zelda, he wrote to his daughter that the mentally disturbed are only visitors on earth, forever strangers carrying broken commandments they cannot understand. In a different mood he wrote to Zelda herself that he wanted peace and hoped for the right to save her, to allow her a chance. He endured in this same period the “dreary routine” and expense of his own illnesses. He felt that his reason for being in Hollywood was to make one last effort, even though he felt he had done better work. His debts to his agent, his publisher, and others were oppressive. He said that...

(The entire section is 1686 words.)