F. Scott Fitzgerald died in Hollywood at the age of forty, seemingly a spent genius turned hack writer. With his best work behind him, not even the film studios would pay him for turning out mediocre, commercial story lines. An alcoholic who got his drinking under control only in the last year of his life, Fitzgerald has often been portrayed as a pathetic figure, exemplifying his own famous remark that there are no second acts in American literature.
Yet almost from the moment of his death, Fitzgerald was resurrected—first by his friend the critic Edmund Wilson and then by a legion of biographers, who pointed out that Fitzgerald’s last, incomplete novel, The Last Tycoon (1941), was as good as, if not better than, anything he had written before, and that his Esquire essays on his “crackup” broke new ground for writers who wanted to use personal experience in their novels, plays, and poems. The Last Tycoon and his belated recovery from alcoholism made his life end on a tragic, not a pathetic, note. During his lifetime, he seemed to have been surpassed by Ernest Hemingway as the premier American novelist, but Hemingway’s deterioration as a writer, beginning at about the time of Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, has—with an irony Fitzgerald himself would have wryly appreciated—boosted Fitzgerald’s stock.
The rediscovery of Fitzgerald, then, has been in progress now for more than forty years. Two of his novels, The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934) are part of the canon of American literature. Several of his short stories are regarded as classics. He has been the subject of hundreds of academic articles and more than twenty books of reminiscence and biography. Essays and books on him continue unabated. Is there really a need for a new biography?
Jeffrey Meyers makes a good case for one while acknowledging the valuable work of his predecessors. He points out that readers have not been satisfied with extant biographies, because the whole man and his essence have not emerged from the wealth of scholarship and new facts about him. This complaint is often made about biographies of major figures. Inevitably, readers will find fault if they have studied the subject and formulated their own convictions. This is why biographies of major figures need to be rewritten each generation—not merely to accommodate new evidence but also to ask questions about the subject that new readers and different epochs pose.
Meyers presents some new material on Fitzgerald’s private life and love affairs, tracking down, for example, the facts about Bijou O’Conor (the writer’s English mistress), but more important, he recasts the narrative of Fitzgerald’s life with an economy and grace that have distinguished Meyers’ best biographies. Familiar stories are told with a deft touch and subtle awareness of how much emphasis to put on them. Meyers understands the intricate adjustments constantly made in the understanding of great writers.
Meyers comes with great authority to the writing of Fitzgerald’s life. The author of biographies of Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and Joseph Conrad, Meyers skillfully shows how those writers influenced Fitzgerald’s life and work. Poe’s example suggested to Fitzgerald that his struggle with a mentally unstable wife, Zelda, and his proclivity to drink might well be part of the unavoidable dynamic of a writer who sought and suffered experiences intense enough to be made into great literature. At the same time, Fitzgerald lionized Hemingway, because he saw in his bigger and physically robust contemporary a discipline and engagement with contemporary affairs that Fitzgerald, an inept football player and soldier, lacked.
Like Poe, Fitzgerald was a curious mixture of the naïve and the sophisticated. To some extent, he realized that Hemingway’s masculine self-assurance was a sham—a charge that Zelda also leveled at Hemingway. Beneath his gruff exterior, Hemingway had a nervous, unstable component, a vulnerability he masked with physical exploits and braggadocio. Yet Fitzgerald wanted some of that masculinity and even hero-worshiped it. It might seem foolish to venerate a false idol, but Hemingway’s example kept Fitzgerald honest, so to speak. Hemingway at his best, Fitzgerald believed, was worth admiring. Although Fitzgerald realized that he had great talent, he was extraordinarily open to the criticism of both Wilson and Hemingway, admitting faults and failures that neither of his critics was man enough (to use their masculinist psychology) to acknowledge in his own work.
Like Conrad, Meyers tends to emphasize the technical matters of telling a story. The biographer rightly insists that the narrator in The Great Gatsby owes much to...
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