Monday, May 1, 2017

Book Review: An F. Scott Fitzgerald Companion, published by Book-of-the-Month Club (2000)

Cover of An F. Scott Fitzgerald Companion, 2000, with some other Fitzgerald titles in the back. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896-1940.
An F. Scott Fitzgerald Companion, published by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 2000, is a slim little volume. Just 90 pages long, it includes some of the key writings about Fitzgerald. Excerpts are included from A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir about his life in Paris in the 1920’s, The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg’s 1950 novel featuring a character based on Fitzgerald, and Beloved Infidel, Sheliah Graham’s 1958 memoir about her romance with Fitzgerald in the last years of his life.

There are also two short pieces written by Frances Kroll Ring, who was Fitzgerald’s secretary in Hollywood for the last eighteen months of his life. Ring presents a sympathetic portrait of the great writer as he toiled on screenplays while trying to finish his novel The Last Tycoon, which he was hoping would return him to literary prominence. Ring sheds some light on Fitzgerald as a writer:

“He set very high standards for himself and fortunately he had the originality and creativity to achieve them. But his concern with minor corrections, once a story had gone out to a publication, indicates a certain unsureness of acceptance. Sometimes, the revisions were hardly more than a word or two on a given page which in no way affected the story, but seemed to relieve some desperate, perfectionist standard of his own.” (p.54)

I would perhaps quibble with Ring’s phrase “a certain unsureness of acceptance,” as I interpret Fitzgerald’s constant editing of his work as an effort to make his work as good as it could possibly be. At the very end of Arthur Mizener’s biography of Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise, Mizener presents the reader with three different versions of the same scene from The Last Tycoon, and we are able to read it the way Fitzgerald wrote it initially, and then two revisions of it. Each time, small details are changed that strengthen the mood of the short scene. As Ring wrote, sometimes it’s only a word or two that has been changed, but that can make all the difference.

I think it’s important to appreciate the work that went into Fitzgerald’s writing. As I mentioned in my review of his novel This Side of Paradise, there are some literary critics who assumed that Fitzgerald was a sort of stupid genius, someone who just happened to write brilliant sentences in the first draft, and then went off to an elegant cocktail party. If you take the time to read anything about Fitzgerald’s work, you will find out that simply wasn’t the case. He worked extremely hard at editing his writing, from the flimsiest short stories to the complicated structure of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night.

I would argue that part of the implication behind the idea that Fitzgerald was this freakish natural talent is the assumption that he wasted his talent, focusing too much on parties and the good life during the 1920’s, and then toiling on screenplays in Hollywood during the 1930’s. I’m not going to say that Fitzgerald made the best use out of every single hour of every single day of his all too short forty-four years on this planet, but if he had truly wasted his talent, he wouldn’t have been able to produce four novels, (with a fifth unfinished at his death) and more than 180 short stories, plus other assorted works like the “Crack-Up” essays.

An F. Scott Fitzgerald Companion also reprints some fascinating tidbits, like Fitzgerald’s 1940 obituary from The New York Times. The Times obituary makes for interesting reading, and it is very hard on Fitzgerald: “Roughly, his own career began and ended with the Nineteen Twenties.” (p.79) It goes on to say “The promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled.” (p.80) Ouch. But that was certainly how some people felt in 1940, before the Fitzgerald revival began in the second half of that decade, and he rightly took his place as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

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