End Notes: The Man From Minnesota

September marks the centenary of the birth of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The thought of the writer who became all but identified with flaming youth and the roaring ’20s as a hundred years old rattles the imagination. When he died in 1940, at the age of 44, Fitzgerald seemed to have outlived his material and to have been reduced to the role of hack writer on the fringes of the Hollywood establishment. Not even his friends would have imagined that he would emerge as the most important American writer of his generation.

Of course it would be Hemingwayesque to rank the writers of the ’20s and ’30s as if they were contenders for the heavyweight championship. One need not disparage Faulkner and Hemingway and dos Passos and Lather in order to notice that Fitzgerald seems to have transcended the limitations of his times more surely than they.

Fitzgerald became what the Australians call a retired Catholic. He and Zelda Sayer married in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s and their daughter was baptized in St. Paul, but there is not much evidence of anything like an ordinary Catholic life on his part.

I have sometimes thought that Fitzgerald was a “Kennedy Catholic” before the time. Although he went to a now-defunct Catholic prep school it was the Princeton from which he never graduated that conferred on him his surface scale of values. The influence of Edmund Wilson, ever jealous, often malignant, prompted Fitzgerald to mock his own origins. Under the influence of Shane Leslie and the priest to whom he dedicated his first novel there was an effort to acquire a Catholic sensibility. But Princeton prevailed. Yet somehow he was Catholic to the soles of his feet and it comes out again and again in the writing.

The most striking thing about Fitzgerald as a moralist was his ability to gain imaginative distance from the forces that drove his own life. He had a mad American appetite for money and fun and social ascendancy, and all of these are coldly analyzed and condemned in his work. “The victor belongs to the spoils,” in the mordant motto of The Beautiful and the Damned. His very style exhibits this duality, combining even in the same sentence lyricism and matter-of-factness. Pervading it all was the continuing hunger for that which the singular objects of appetite cannot give. He associates this with the past of the country and doubtless with his own past, too: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I have often wondered why, when his life smashed and his wife went mad and his drinking got out of control, he did not go back to Minnesota and get reoriented. It is not because, as his great contemporary said, you can’t go home again. Very likely we can’t go anywhere else, finally. But there is a Minnesota of the mind and that accompanied Fitzgerald to his premature death in the apartment of his mistress just before Christmas in 1940.

The debt that lovers of American literature owe Matthew Bruccoli is enormous, and this is especially true because of his long devotion to Fitzgerald. A definitive edition of the works of Fitzgerald is appearing from Cambridge University Press, thanks to Bruccoli. And it is thanks to him that we have the best biography, a facsimile edition of the ledger, and all the previously uncollected stories. We must marvel at the sheer industry and output of this allegedly flighty author.

I have recently reread the Pat Hobby stories, written for Esquire for a fraction of his usual fee. Hobby is a failed screenwriter, a con man in the kingdom of con (I will resist saying Condom), improvident, mistrusted, triumphant in his failures. Did Fitzgerald fear that this is what he himself might become? The mastery exhibited in these slight, extremely funny stories was the best exorcism of that fear.

At his death he was engaged in writing what we must now call The Love of the Last Tycoon, A Western. This unfinished book, like Tender is the Night, falls short of his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, but it is infinitely preferable to shelves of finished novels. And Bruccoli presents us, as he did in his first book on the composition of Tender is the Night, the author at work constructing his story, revising his text, pondering its implications.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, one hundred years old! It boggles the mind. May his literary reputation know many centuries more. And as for him, may he rest in peace.

By

Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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