Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review: Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, by Scott Donaldson (1999)

Paperback cover of Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, by Scott Donaldson, 1999.

Literary biographer Scott Donaldson.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are two of the most famous American authors of the 20th century. They had a contentious relationship that literary biographer Scott Donaldson chronicles in his 1999 book Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship. Donaldson has written biographies of both authors, so he is well-suited for the task of constructing a book about their interactions. (I reviewed Fool for Love, his biography of Fitzgerald, here.)

Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s friendship started out well enough. They first met in Paris in 1925. Donaldson shows how Hemingway, writing of this meeting decades later in A Moveable Feast, misled the reader in order to carry out his own vendetta against Fitzgerald’s posthumous resurgence. Fitzgerald, already a famous and well-established author, read Hemingway’s early stories and was bowled over by his talent. Fitzgerald worked hard behind the scenes to try and arrange for Hemingway to join him in publishing his books at Scribner’s, under the watchful eye of editor Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald was something of a one-man promotion team for Scribner’sHemingway was the fifth author he had recruited for the firm. Fitzgerald also helped Hemingway edit The Sun Also Rises. Specifically, Fitzgerald advised Hemingway that he should slice off a lengthy introduction that gave the reader background information about the characters. Hemingway took Fitzgerald’s advice about The Sun Also Rises and followed him to Scribner’s.

The Sun Also Rises became a huge success when it was published in 1926, and Ernest Hemingway became what Scott Fitzgerald had been a few years beforethe Next Big Thing. Hemingway and Fitzgerald would never again be so close. Something changed in the next couple of years. When Hemingway’s next novel, A Farewell to Arms, was being edited in 1929, Fitzgerald bombarded Hemingway with suggestions for edits, and even ideas about the ad copy that Scribner’s could use to sell the book. This time, Hemingway ignored most of Scott’s ideas. Hemingway also didn’t want Scott and Zelda to know where he was living in Paris, for fear that their drunken antics would cause him to be evicted.

During the 1930’s, their friendship drifted apart, and Fitzgerald never joined Hemingway for a fishing trip on his boat on Key West, despite Ernest’s suggestions. Fitzgerald wrote in his notebooks that he and Hemingway had meet “Four times in eleven years (1929-1940). Not really friends since ’26.” (p.162)

The 1930’s were a difficult time for Fitzgerald. His wife Zelda suffered a series of mental breakdowns, and spent most of the rest of her life in various hospitals and sanitariums. Scott and Zelda lived apart, but never divorced. Scott now had considerable expenses, as he had to pay for Zelda’s care, and also for private schools for their daughter Scottie. Scott was also deeply in debt to Scribner’s, as he was continually borrowing against the advance for his long-awaited fourth novel, Tender is the Night, which finally appeared in 1934 after a long and painful gestation. It was nine years after The Great Gatsby, which was an eternity in those days. Although correctly regarded as classics today, neither book was a sales sensation. Fitzgerald was regarded by many book critics as being a relic of the 1920’s Jazz Age that he had chronicled so well. A brief snippet into Fitzgerald’s misery during this time can be seen from his Ledger entry for September 1932, which read: “Drinking increased. Things go not so well.” (p.234)

Hemingway was also not terribly prolific at writing novels during the 1930’s, as he had an eight-year gap between A Farewell to Arms in 1929 and To Have and Have Not in 1937. But he filled the intermediate years with non-fiction about bullfighting and safaris, which further burnished his macho image in the public eye. Hemingway’s reputation was quickly headed towards legend, while Fitzgerald was forgotten and neglected.

In 1936 the final break in their relationship came, as Hemingway criticized Fitzgerald in print in his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Published in Esquire in August of 1936, Hemingway included a passage where his narrator ruminates about the rich:

“He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that read ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him as much as any other thing that wrecked him.”

Fitzgerald had never started a short story that way. The third paragraph of “The Rich Boy,” the story that Hemingway was referencing, begins:

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

Donaldson shows how the “yes, they have more money” line has become so twisted, with Fitzgerald supposedly offering his observation, and Hemingway then responding with the punch line. In fact, according to Maxwell Perkins, what actually happened was Hemingway had said that he was getting to know the rich, and the author Mary Colum responded with, “The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.” (p.198) For whatever reason, Hemingway then rewrote the incident to make the punchline at Fitzgerald’s expense.

After the publication of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Fitzgerald wrote Hemingway a short letter that began: “Please lay off me in print.” He then asked Hemingway to cut his name when the story appeared in a book. After some back and forth with Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway finally agreed, changing the name to Julian. In 1939 Fitzgerald wrote Maxwell Perkins that Hemingway’s turn against him had a “pointless childish qualityso much so that I never really felt any resentment about it.” (p.203)

After Fitzgerald’s death from a heart attack in 1940, Hemingway rarely had a good word to say about his former friend. As Donaldson writes: “What becomes clear, in reading through Ernest’s correspondence…is that Hemingway repeatedly and systematically denigrated Fitzgerald during the two decades remaining to him, and that these attacks were occasioned or at least intensified by the posthumous revival of Fitzgerald’s reputation.” (p.253)

A sentence about Fitzgerald that Hemingway crossed out for A Moveable Feast read: “He needed professionals or normally educated people to make his writing legible and not illiterate.” (p.270) What a mean thing to write. Yes, Fitzgerald was a notoriously terrible speller, but Hemingway wasn’t much better. Fitzgerald was especially bad with proper names, often writing “Hemminway,” which no doubt rankled Ernest. There’s no generosity from Hemingway towards Fitzgerald, and I think it speaks to Hemingway’s personality that he was unwilling or unable to acknowledge Fitzgerald’s great talent. Hemingway’s mean-spirited comment about Fitzgerald being “illiterate” is one of the oldest critical attacks on himthat he was a natural talent, a sort of holy fool who magically put words together, but who had no idea how he did it. That’s untrue. Both men worked extremely hard to perfect their craft.

Donald Ogden Stewart, who knew both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, once said of Hemingway, “The minute he began to love you, or the minute he began to have some sort of obligation to you of love or friendship or something, then is when he had to kill you. Then you were too close to something he was protecting.” (p.315)

Fitzgerald and Hemingway were opposites in many ways. Where Fitzgerald wore his emotions on his sleeve, Hemingway was harder to pin down. Donaldson writes that Hemingway’s jilting by Agnes von Kurowsky, who was a Red Cross nurse who he met after being wounded in World War I, and his mother’s angry behavior towards him at around the same time “compelled him to sever ties before friend or lover could strike a blow to the heart.” (p.50) That certainly fit the pattern of his relationship with Fitzgerald. The thought occurred to me that maybe Hemingway’s deliberate distancing of himself from his own emotions influenced his writing style. Perhaps that’s one reason why his writing is so blunt, with so little outward emotion.

In one chapter, Donaldson chronicles the alcoholism of both writers. Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald waged lifelong battles with the bottle, with only limited success. Sober, Scott Fitzgerald was by all accounts a charming man. Drunk, he was impossible. While alcohol brought out in Zelda a tendency towards physical self-destructionshe once threw herself down a flight of stone steps when Scott was flirting too much with Isadora Duncan, and on another occasion dove thirty-five feet off a cliff into the oceanScott had a tendency towards social self-destruction. He would behave terribly to his friends, and the drunken antagonism of the evening inevitably led to the ashamed hung-over apology the morning after. Hemingway was a late blooming alcoholic compared to Fitzgerald, but by the time he was in his 50’s he was imbibing a massive amount of alcohol as part of his daily ritual.

The most bizarre letter between the two writers that Donaldson uncovered was one from Hemingway to Fitzgerald, written in December of 1935. In it, Hemingway tells Fitzgerald that if he is really, truly feeling depressed and despondent, he should take out a large life insurance policy and come down to Key West. There, Ernest could take Scott to Cuba on his boat and make sure that Scott got killed. Hemingway then went into great, satirical detail about making sure the Princeton Museum got Fitzgerald’s liver. The whole thing might have been a macabre joke, but there’s an underlying sadness, as the letter comes from someone whose family was plagued by suicides, and who would much later commit suicide himself. One wonders what Fitzgerald thought of the letter when he received it. (p.177-8)

One possible connection between the authors that Donaldson does not examine is “Shaggy’s Morning,” an odd Fitzgerald short story that ran in the May, 1935 issue of Esquire. “Shaggy’s Morning” was written from the point of view of a dog, and according to Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli, the story “may or may not have been intended as a parody of Hemingway.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.397) I think the story was Fitzgerald’s parody of Hemingway’s hard-bitten sentences and terse stoicism. Here’s a sample:

“In the front yard I howled. I don’t know why—then I went to look for the Brain. When I didn’t find her I began to figure that maybe something had happened to her, too, and she wouldn’t be back any more. I went up on the porch and waited, but she didn’t come, so I scratched on the screen and went in and howled a little at the Beard, who gave me a head scratch.”

To make Fitzgerald and Hemingway compete with each other seems superfluous. You don’t have to like only one and not the otherthey are not mutually exclusive. They were both brilliant and talented writers with many great works between them. I chronicled my own ambivalence towards Ernest Hemingway in an essay in April, and while I prefer Fitzgerald’s writing style, I enjoy Hemingway as well. These two men created some of the most vibrant prose of the 20th century.

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