Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1640
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 Carolina. There, sleeping in a one-dollar room and existing on potted meat, crackers, and apples, he sought to break his addiction to alcohol while he sorted through the rubble of his life. The following May, he learned that he had experienced a serious recurrence of tuberculosis. He was in and out of the hospital for the balance of 1935, too ill to write anything other than “The Crack-Up” articles. When Esquire published them early in the next year, they proved to be franker and more self-revealing than Fitzgerald had probably intended. After reading them, Ernest Hemingway likened Fitzgerald to a man taking his clothes off in public. Hemingway, a man noted for his denigration of former friends and benefactors (as is amply demonstrated in his posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast, 1964), suggested that Fitzgerald had progressed directly from adolescence to senility without passing through manhood.
These articles are quintessential Fitzgerald. He takes material that is potentially sentimental, even lachrymose, and elevates it through his craftsmanship. Some critics have scoffed at Fitzgerald’s juvenile regrets, stated in part 1 of “The Crack-Up,” at having been too small to play football at Princeton University and at not getting overseas during World War I. Nevertheless, he strikes a chord with every reader who has in his past blighted hopes, wasted opportunities, and abiding regrets—and that is probably every reader of Fitzgerald’s age. Also, some of Fitzgerald’s most evocative and poetic prose is to be found in these three articles.
In “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald writes of his loss of vitality: “You have [vitality] or you haven’t it, like health or brown eyes or honor or a baritone voice.” In “Handle with Care,” he responds to the age-old advice proffered to the depressed and self-pitying: Think of those worse off than you, those who really have cause to despair. His reply, as he perhaps remembers his sleepless nights in the North Carolina hotel room:This is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary day-time advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work—and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.
Fitzgerald extends the simile of the cracked plate. He can be serviceable in the future unless too much is asked of him, like warming on the stove or being shuffled among the other plates in the dishpan. It occurs to him that he has lost the “I” around which he once organized his self-respect. In “Pasting It Together,” he announces that he will require all of what little vitality he retains. He recalls discovering that “the conjuror’s hat was empty.” He has nothing left for other people. He concludes by drawing the parallels between his boom and bust and the nation’s.
“Early Success” immediately follows “The Crack-Up” articles and appeared first in the October, 1937, issue of American Cavalcade. Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), was a triumph, selling twenty thousand copies in its first week of publication. In this piece, Fitzgerald writes of the “manic depressive insanity” of those days “when life was literally a dream.” This representation of the Fitzgerald of 1920, full of romantic notions and of himself, in contrast with the shattered writer of 1936, makes an appropriate footnote to this first, and most important, section of the book.
Pages 91 through 347 are essentially filler, although interesting filler. Wilson has selected notes that are impressive in their clarity and precision. Fitzgerald was a copious note taker, and his notes were carefully crafted pieces of work, not mere jottings. He was an admirer and imitator of Samuel Butler’s The Note-books (1912). “The Notebooks” actually claim the bulk of the space in The Crack-Up.
Wilson includes more than thirty letters to friends, most of them to him and to Bishop, and a like number of letters to Frances Scott Fitzgerald. The letters to friends, dating from 1917 to 1940, are affectionate and personal, but almost all deal with some specifically literary matter, leading the reader to believe that they must have been chosen on that basis. A letter to Hemingway, dated November 8, 1940, congratulates him on the success of For Whom the Bell Tolls and magnanimously, if a bit extravagantly, compares him to Fyodor Dostoevski. Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter, whom he calls “Pie,” are warm and witty. They date from 1933 to 1940. Of particular interest are some of the later letters and fragments from undated ones. While at Vassar College, Pie decided to become a writer herself. His advice to her is practical and generally applicable. His efforts to direct her reading elicit his evaluations of contemporary literature and show him to be a perceptive literary critic. Wilson expressed the hope that Fitzgerald’s letters will eventually be collected and published, and less than twenty years later Andrew Turnbull did edit Letters (1963).
The last section of The Crack-Up contains the writing of others, including three 1925 letters from Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, and T. S. Eliot in praise of The Great Gatsby. There are, among other things, a 1936 letter from John Dos Passos and an undated commemorative essay by the same author. A lively (and long) letter from Thomas Wolfe, noted for his verbosity, is included. Dated July 26, 1937, it responds to a letter from California in which Fitzgerald had apparently damned Wolfe with faint praise and recommended the spare style of Gustave Flaubert as a model. Wolfe’s riposte is amusing:Don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners. . . . Flaubert me no Flauberts, Bovary me no Bovarys. Zola me no Zolas. And exuberance me no exuberances.
Still, the most valuable part of the book remains the first quarter, especially “The Crack-Up” articles, for the picture there presented of the Fitzgerald of that period following his golden decade and preceding his brief Hollywood tenure.