If God created whiskey so the Irish wouldn’t rule the world, He didn’t let drink prevent F. Scott Fitzgerald from attaining the very first rank of American writers. When Fitzgerald died, half a century ago, on December 21, 1940, at the age of 44, he was at work on The Last Tycoon, to which he had turned when his writing jobs with the movie studios dried up. It was a sober Fitzgerald who wrote the some 40,000 words which, though only in an early stage of completeness, have convinced many that this would have been his finest novel. But his heart, ravaged by alcohol, gave out, and he died before he could finish the book.
The body was waked in Hollywood, and it was there that Dorothy Parker solemnly said over their author the words Owl Eyes had said over Gatsby: The poor sonofabitch. The body was shipped east to Maryland for burial. Last fall I was the guest of Pat and Jude Dougherty; they took me to Mass at St. Mary’s in Rockville, and afterward Pat asked if I had ever visited Fitzgerald’s grave. Moments later we were gathered by it and I think it was the first time I prayed for the repose of Fitzgerald’s soul. I certainly felt no impulse to quote Owl Eyes. It was a nice thought that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a fellow Catholic.
He had long since stopped practicing his religion in 1940, but he had married in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and had his daughter baptized by a priest in St. Paul. What is inescapable is that Fitzgerald’s moral sense and imagination bore the indelible impression of his Catholicism. This is an oddly neglected side of him, with the notable exception of Joan M. Allen’s Candles and Carnival Lights and the magnificent biography of Matthew Bruccoli (to whom aficionados of Fitzgerald owe so much), Some Sort of Epic Grandeur.
The theory that Fitzgerald abandoned his religion under WASP pressure at Princeton, lest it interfere with his upward social and literary mobility, is easily disproved. The fiction and poetry (for example, “The Pope at Confession”) he wrote as a student contain some of his most open use of Catholic themes. He dedicated his first novel to a priest, Sigourney Fay—who was at once his spiritual and literary mentor—and his first collection of short stories to, among others, Shane Leslie, who had directed the fledgling author’s attention to Compton MacKenzie and Robert Hugh Benson. The influence of the former on This Side of Paradise seems clear.
We look at Fitzgerald’s life as a morality tale largely because he himself did. There was early literary success¬ he was 24 when his first novel was published—winning the hand of the golden southern belle Zelda Sayre, their reckless roaring marriage, parties on Long Island and at the Plaza, drink and jazz and profligacy from which they fled to Europe, where Zelda soon showed the first signs of mental illness. The good times were over very soon, within half-a-dozen years; Zelda institutionalized; Scott alcoholic. (“I lost my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.”) Dick Diver at the end of Tender is the Night is a version of a burnt-out Fitzgerald. This novel appeared ten years after the first; it was his fourth. There were also several collections of stories, many other stories that were not collected in his lifetime, a play. The recurring character in Fitzgerald’s fiction who lost a decade drinking cannot be identified with the author.
No one can ignore the diligence with which Fitzgerald learned his craft as a writer, the way he kept to his desk through good times and bad, the amazingly high quality of even the fiction he wrote in desperate need of money, the style he learned to adapt to lighter themes but which seemed peculiarly appropriate to the haunting stories of failure that are his trademark. However much he failed to meet his own moral standards in his life—not that we should think he was a libertine or hedonist: he was never that, despite the affairs, despite the drinking—his stories take place in a moral universe where the fleeting deeds of men and women are decisive for who they are.
The Great Gatsby might have provided Fitzgerald with an opportunity to reflect on himself as a lapsed Catholic if he had retained the story “Absolution” as its prologue, but it would be churlish to think of what the novel is not. From the first appearance it was recognized as a masterpiece, and there are few who do not retain at least some phrases from it. It ranges from the aphoristic (“I was that narrowest of specialists, the well-rounded man”) to the elegiac ending: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The past provides a moral touchstone, much as it does for Updike in Of the Farm. Once thought to be the publicist of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald is more easily seen now as its severest moral critic. But this is a judgment made aesthetically convincing within the fiction. Moreover, his moral judgments are self-referential, and that gives them authority. He tells us that while he was writing this novel, he reflected on the preface Conrad—another Catholic author—wrote to The Nigger of the Narcissus, one of the most moving expressions of the vocation of the writer.
There was nothing more Catholic about Fitzgerald than the confessional pieces he wrote when he became convinced that he had squandered his gift in the irresponsible living that characterized the first years of his marriage. Perhaps the fact that the national economy had crashed explains why these meditations on personal failure found their way into print. “My Lost City” evokes the New York of the 1920s; “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number ” is a litany of hotels at which Scott and Zelda stayed; “Auction—Model 1934” is an inventory of his life; “Sleeping and Waking” the fruit of insomnia; and then “The Crack-Up,” which exhibits an almost unnerving moral clarity about himself “Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” he begins, and it is clear he is speaking of the moral life. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the best proof that money, fame, and pleasure cannot make us happy is derived from having them. Fitzgerald wrote out of the authority of that knowledge.
There are all kinds of telltale Catholic phrases in his work, for example, “the dark night of the soul,” but I am struck by his quotation, in “Sleeping and Waking,” of Psalm 90:5 in Latin! Scuto circumdabit to veritas eius: non timebus a timore nocturno, a sagitta volante in die, a negotio perambulante in tenebris (“His truth shall compass thee with a shield: thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night”). He stops there, not going on to the noonday devil, but then insomnia is his subject. This was written in 1934. Did he look it up? Where? And what would have prompted him to do so? The psalm was recited every Sunday at Compline, and it figured in the Holy Saturday liturgy as well. Did he remember it from St. Paul, or from the Newman School? Fitzgerald had been an altar boy, he had thought seriously of the priesthood, he had a cousin who was a Jesuit (see the story “Benediction”), there was the influence of Father Fay. Surely this text is an extraordinary one for Fitzgerald to have called up, however appropriate to his subject. He says somewhere that it is a commonplace that one’s sensibility is formed before the age of 12. The writer’s capital of which he often spoke—what is expended over the course of a career—seems in his case to have been in large part the depositum fidei.
When Pat Dougherty led me to Fitzgerald’s grave at St. Mary’s, I was puzzled because I had read that Catholic burial had been refused him and his body buried in unconsecrated ground, despite his wish to lie where he had buried his father in 1931. That occasion prompted thoughts to be found in the story “On Your Own”: “The flowers scattered on the brown unsettled earth. She had no more ties here now and she did not know whether she would come back any more. She knelt down. All these dead, she knew them all, their weather-beaten faces with hard blue flashing eyes, their spare violent bodies, their souls made of new earth in the long forest-heavy darkness of the seventeenth century.” (Such a passage almost scans, so musical is it, yet it does not call attention to itself, and this was a story meant for the slick magazines, though rejected by them.) Fitzgerald was proud of his southern connections and his forebear Francis Scott Key. How had he finally ended up in St. Mary’s, with his ancestors, with his father, with Zelda, to be joined eventually by his daughter too?
He was reburied in 1975, at the request of his daughter Scottie, so apparently he had passed on to her the faith he seems to have lost himself. Permission was given by Cardinal Baum and his statement at the time seems just right:
F. Scott Fitzgerald came out of the Maryland Catholic tradition. He was a man touched by the faith of the Catholic Church. There can be perceived in his work a Catholic consciousness of reality. He found in this faith an understanding of the human heart caught in the struggle between grace and death. His characters are involved in this great drama, seeking God and seeking love. As an artist he was able with lucidity and poetic imagination to portray this struggle. He also experienced in his own life the mystery of suffering and, we hope, the power of God’s grace.
The next time you’re in Rockville, visit St. Mary’s cemetery and breathe an Ave there for F. Scott Fitzgerald.