Sometimes when a historian turns to a literary figure the results are refreshing. Think of David Donald writing about Thomas Wolfe and now David S. Brown on Fitzgerald. I doubt that a literary critic could have written Brown’s account of a masterpiece, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”: “Scott’s critical account of the colonizing of the American West anticipates a school of historiography that would begin to gain influence in the 1970s and 1980s.” Brown calls the story a “powerful condemnation of greed, a direct rebuke to the speculative orgy that was already then coming to grip the 1920s.” The story was too much for The Saturday Evening Post, which regularly paid Fitzgerald $1,500 per story, and he had to accept $300 for its appearance in Smart Set, H. L. Mencken’s bolder magazine unconcerned about ruffling Americans’ good feelings about prosperity. The story is set on the Montana ranch and homestead of Percy Washington, a direct descendant of the president. It is also the home of that diamond, the size of a small mountain, or of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The “Washington compound,” as Brown calls it, is “distinguished by a grotesque luxury of jeweled, ivoried, and furred elegance; a small army of slaves sees to every need.” This “state within a state,” built on killing and kidnapping, is ultimately no more than a redoubt that is destroyed when the secret shenanigans are exposed and the secluded empire is bombed into ruins even as Braddock Washington, Percy’s father, attempts to lift the diamond heavenward to appease God. “Playing off various episodes in American history, Fitzgerald presents in ‘Diamond’ a nation in danger of losing its soul,” Brown concludes.
Fitzgerald made himself into a symbol as suggestive as any character he created.
And so it is with F. Scott Fitzgerald in Brown’s tragic biography, in which his subject is forever in danger of losing his soul, corrupted by the easy money proffered for his short stories, and all too prone to lavish his earnings on the luxurious lifestyle he came to regard as symptomatic of the country’s lapse from its promising beginnings. The empire of liberty becomes the empire of wealth. An earlier generation of historians, led by Frederick Jackson Turner, who equated the settling of the West with the forging of liberty, is reproached in Fitzgerald’s prose, which questions “the very idea of the American frontier as a source of democratic vitality.” As Brown concludes, the “diamond rejected by God symbolizes the mining culture that placed ruthless extraction at the center of its enterprise.”
In Brown’s narrative, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life––all his successes, his excesses, his drinking, his fraught marriage to Zelda, his hatred of Hollywood, which was also his refuge––makes him an epic figure, one whose life and work seem destined to be told again and again because so much of him is the nation writ small but also large because he left his work unfinished and his life on the verge of repair. Fitzgerald, in short, made himself into a symbol as suggestive as any character he created, and his life a plot worthy of a great novel, as Budd Schulberg, one of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood collaborators, attempted in The Disenchanted (1950).
What sets this biography apart from the others is its emphasis on Fitzgerald’s “historical sensibility.” For all his reputation as a trendsetter and chronicler of the 1920s, living it up with Zelda in New York and Paris, Fitzgerald, Brown insists, “leaned towards the aristocratic, the premodern, and the romantic,” embodied in his courtly if ineffectual father. Like Faulkner, Fitzgerald “never lost his boyish enthusiasm for the valor of Civil War generals.” Fitzgerald made his alarm over the rise of corporations and labor unions the crux of the unfinished The Last Tycoon, featuring Monroe Stahr as a throwback to the founding generation of Americans who, Fitzgerald believed, were not so esurient as his contemporaries. Stahr believes in creating great art in motion pictures even if it means losing money. He says art is what the studio owes its audience while pocketing profits from formulaic pictures. Stahr, in other words, like Fitzgerald himself, sought some kind of modus vivendi between making money and masterpieces. Fitzgerald came to Hollywood to earn enough to settle his enormous debts, but he also came to redeem the industry by writing great films. His failure to make his mark as a screenwriter surely informs his portrait of the tragic Monroe Stahr battling the bankers, studio executives, and radicals.
The Fitzgerald–Faulkner comparison is not one that Brown makes but a student of their work is drawn to the parallels apparent in Brown’s narrative: their conservative modernism, alcoholism, obsession with Southern belles and the gentlemanly code––no matter how many times their belles let them down and they behaved in ungentlemanly fashion––and their creation of two defining works of the American imagination and history: The Great Gatsby and Absalom, Absalom! Both novels are dominated by great innocents: Jay Gatsby and Thomas Sutpen, who re-invent themselves into facsimiles of the governing class while also exposing that class’s moral bankruptcy. Curiously, Faulkner never seems to have acknowledged Fitzgerald’s work, and Fitzgerald had hardly more to say about Faulkner. And yet their sense of “living in history,” as Brown puts it, seems nearly the same, even though their subject matter is so dissimilar.
Faulkner would never have deemed Hollywood a serious enough subject for a novel, which is a pity because, like Fitzgerald, Faulkner’s time there––in the 1930s––is not only a crucial part of his biography but also the moment when the vectors of history converge, when the corporations and unions are fighting it out while European refugee writers and filmmakers arrive, making the biographies of these two American novelists even more significant as the world heads toward war. If Brown misses any opportunities, it might be his parochial view of Fitzgerald as an American first, rather than as, again like Faulkner, a writer inspired by Keats and Swinburne––influences Brown acknowledges but does not trace deeply enough, perhaps, in Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.
Even friends like Edmund Wilson never quite understood Fitzgerald, branding him as unintellectual.
As for the rest: Brown is in line with recent biographies that show how Fitzgerald diminished Zelda, although he also supported her, paying for her institutionalizations and honoring their early, happy, and productive days of married life. Brown’s coda, explaining what happened to Zelda after Scott’s death (she perished in a fire while under treatment for one of her periodic mental lapses), suggests that she remained loyal to her only husband and to his mission to become a great writer.
Brown shows how even friends like Edmund Wilson never quite understood Fitzgerald, branding him as unintellectual, when, in fact, Fitzgerald’s analytical powers accord well with the work of Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, and other important American historians and sociologists. Many writers deplored Fitzgerald’s self-revealing Crack-up essays about his struggles with his health and career which, arguably, are forerunners of the confessional nonfiction and poetry touched off by the work of Norman Mailer in the late 1950s and Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath in the 1960s, although Brown does not dwell on these connections.
Brown knows no better way to end his biography than with Fitzgerald’s last lines in The Great Gatsby, still as magnificent as anything ever written by an American: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 2, on page 75
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