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Discovering Scott F. Fitzgerald through His Letters

Image of F. Scott FitzgeraldWe are flooded with communications and a splurge of media is overwhelming our lives. The Social media is ubiquitous, addictive and imperiously intrusive in modern lives. It has fooled us to believe that it is a mode of communication, replacing something as humble and thoughtful as a letter. Communication is two people talking to each other, which is not the case with Social media. It talks at you. The letters, those humble things which arrived with promises and hope in the envelopes carried a little bit of the soul of the writer in them. When the reader read them, ran his or her fingers over the writings with ink smudged due to bad nib, damp weather or tears, we touched the other person. The fact that writing letters took time and effort made it impossible for one not to leave something of oneself on those pages. The letters tell you a lot about the person who wrote them and therefore reading letters of historical figures is a re-discovery of the great minds and souls as thinking, breathing, feeling individuals, long after they are gone. Most letters are an act of vulnerability, a willingness to expose the self.
It is therefore, very interesting and charming to read letters of great writers. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald always attracted me, for the writing style is quite divergent for the most part from his literary writing style. But through the objectivity of his letters, makes Scott appear more human, more real to us than we could ever imagine. We take a look at how different aspects of the life of the great creator of masterpieces like The Great Gatsby, Other Side of Midnight, The Beautiful and The Damned, which is unfolded in a collection of epistolary writing, A Life In Letters,  edited and put out by Mathew J. Bruccoli. I landed up with this treasure through internet references of his famed letter to his daughter, Scotty, with fatherly advice to his growing daughter, something which Slate correspondent Amanda Hess says keeps on going viral every six months. Apart from the letter to ‘Dear Scotty’, there are several which makes us not only understand Scott Fitzgerald as a writer, but as a father, as a friend and as a husband. These letters fill colors into the persona of the writer, creates several dimensions to Scott Fitzgerald. Letters tell us of the writer’s real interpretation of the world around him and how it reflects into his own life. Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby  holds uncanny resemblance to Scott Fitzgerald, a poor struggling writer, observing the world of decadent prosperity with the objectivity of an outsider, awestruck and wistful, at once, at the lack of soul in the charming and glittering world. When we read Fitzgerald’s letters lamenting his pecuniary troubles, while living in pulsating fast life of Hollywood, we know how he would so artfully and honestly write about it. We understand the honesty of the writer, writing while writhing in enormous pain.

The collection of his letters constitutes for a significant part his communications with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, while the latter was working with Charles Scribner’s Sons.  Their relationship began with The Romantic Egotist, written during the war, which after initial rejection by Scribner in 1919, finally reached the people as This Side of Paradise on March 26, 1920. In the backdrop euphoric success of the novel, which Fitzgerald called as “a quest novel”, FSF quickly married Zelda, within a week. This started a strangely strained relation of love, which was doomed from the beginning but which eventually survived till the very end, one would believe, solely on unflinching romanticism of Fitzgerald. Zelda had one week before the success of the book rejected Scott on account of his poverty and the same seemed to have found its way in Gatsby’s “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys”. He loved Zelda nevertheless as these letters tell us, hopelessly, through her ambitions, her efforts to come out of the shadow of her brilliant husband and bouts of depression.

We discover Fitzgerald as a tired, broken man, and an immaculate writer. It is great to find how Perkin’s relationship with Hemingway did not eclipse his relationship with Fitzgerald even at the time when they were at the bitter ends after initial bouts of admiration.  In a world of shifting loyalties, Fitzgerald comes across as a man given to lasting relationship even in professional sphere. His relationships not only his editor, Max Perkins, but also with his Agent Harold Ober, lasted till the end of his short but astonishingly prolific and productive creative life.  

His Letters:

He is as witty, as honest and as amusing in his letters as he is in his writings. The dry sincerity appears so often in his letter and is so charming and holds truth even to this day. He is unsparing in his advises and admonishment, for instance, when he writes to his sister, Annabel  Fitzgerald in 1915- "No two people look alike in same thing…Shopkeepers make money on the fact that fat Mrs Jones will buy the hat that looked well on the thin Mrs. Smith." He takes intense interest in people around. He understands himself and the world around. He writes to his mother having enlisted in army having left Princeton, “to a profound pessimist about life, being in danger is not depressing. I have never been more cheerful.” 

Scott is a confident writer, having discovered his voice early in his writing life as he writes to Shane Leslie in 1917 “My novel isn’t a novel in verse- it merely shifts rapidly from verse to prose.” It clearly demonstrates the seriousness with which FSF approached his art even at the start of his literary career and he confidently writes to Scribners, “I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation..” and even proceeds to write to Shane Leslie “Did you ever notice that remarkable coincidence- Bernard Shaw is 61 yrs old, H. G. Wells is 51, GK Chesterton 41, you’re 31 and I’m 21- All the great authors of the world in arithmetical progression.” – Audaciously optimistic or prophetic?

He does falter in his judgment when he writes to his agent and friend for life, Ober in 1922 regarding his play “It is a wonder, I think, and should make a great deal of money.” Of course, the play was bust and did not make any money. His friendship with Max goes deeper as he begins sharing his moments of self-doubt which every writer does as he writes in March 1923, “I doubt if, after all, I’ll ever write anything again worth putting in print.” A self-observant writer, he laments in April 1923 that “I’ve-well, almost deteriorated in the last three years since I finished The Beautiful and The Damned” in letter to Max. He is sad, analytical, and unsparing when he writes further that had he written The Beautiful and The Damned at his current rate of 100 words a day, it would have taken him four years to write it, and sadly mentions “the moral effect the whole chasm” left on him.

He is a talented man spiraling towards his doom. That is the sad fate of every man of talent. He is too exposed and his constant struggle to contain his misery becomes so sad, his plight- too pathetic. He escaped to Paris. He writes The Great Gatsby, and writes to Max that it is “about the best American novel ever written”- an accurate premonition, only to come true much after his death. He meets Ernest Hemingway in 1924 and writes to Max about it (later Max would also become editor to Hemingway, while FSF’s relation with Hemingway will deteriorate as latter would look down at sensitive nature of Fitzgerald though the mutual literary admiration will remain). He expressed worries as he writes to Max that he is tired of being the writer of The Other Side of Paradise. He writes to H L Mencken in 1925 with an endearing honesty, “I want to be extravagantly admired again.

What brings him and keeps him close to Max is clear in his letter dated 20th of November, 1924, which is something of a critique of The Great Gatsby- A shared love for literature, two worshipers of words. Max explains wonderfully the eyes of Eckleberg, the personality description of Tom Buchanan and the deliberate vagueness in the character of Jay Gatsby. In February 15th, 1925, he respectfully makes amends and writes to him that he had “brought Gatsby to life and accounted for his money.” These conversations holds lessons for the due respect and seriousness with which each story and each character in the story ought to be treated. In another letter in 1934, written to Rosalind, Zelda’s sister, he sorrowfully writes about writers who are like, untrained doctors, who “walk into a John Hopkins this afternoon, asking for a scalpel and an appendicitis patient, on the basis that I had an uncle who was a doctor, and people told me in my youth that I would make a good surgeon.

Scott Fitzgerald, a great writer, always in financial difficulty, always in debt, something like the great Urdu Poet, Mirza Ghalib, comes out as a painfully honest man when he writes to Max seeking lower royalty for The Great Gatsby than the earlier book on the ground of compensating for the advances Max had given to him. To be fair to Max, he writes in to FSF, asking if there is some reason to lower royalty. It is this kind of honesty and fairness in professional relationship which forms the foundation of friendship. His fairness even in literary matters is quite evident in the letter written in April 1925 to Willa Carther, referring to the idea which he borrowed from her book A Lost Lady. It takes courage and commitment to honesty and surely trust in one’s own station in literary life which is quite visible here. He writes that he held similar idea for long time but gracefully concedes that his own idea was “neither so clear, nor so beautiful, nor so moving as your (Ms. Carther’s)”. It is such magnanimity of nature which makes Fitzgerald not only a great writer but a likeable man in spite of all his failings.

By 1925, Scott Fitzgerald was a drowning man, gasping for his breath, quite contrary to rich, shiny and confident characters he wrote about. He writes to Ober in March, 1925, “I don’t know what the matter with me is. I can’t seem to keep out of debt.” The frustration over the ground shifting swiftly from under his feet appears here. He was a writer of the 20s and demise of 20s saw his own life going down, Zelda goes the hospital for the first time. His sadness comes through when he writes to Zelda Fitzgerald in 1930 that “there seemed to be nothing left of happiness in the world anywhere I looked.” The same decadent lifestyle which he wrote about in his story, slipped into Fitzgerald household as Zelda complains in a letter, “I couldn't go into the stores to buy clothes and my emotions became blindly involved.

His letters to Ms. Fraces Scott Fitzgerald, his beloved daughter Scotty, in those gray days in August, 1933, as she was twelve years old. A loving father, he gives great advices to Scotty, telling her not to worry about popular opinion, or dolls or past or future. There is friendly, very charming father-daughter banter when Scott Fitzgerald threatens naming her Egg in return of her calling him Pappy. His affection for Scottie is profound, where he deliberates deeply on the future for her in the letter to Rosalind referred above. By 1935, he was trying to get over his infamous alcoholism, struggling with ever-failing health of Zelda. He tries hard to be a stern, disciplinarian father, in the throes of desperation, knowing that life was failing him. He loves her, adores her but still wants to keep her in discipline and tells her, “you are an only child, but that doesn’t give you any right to impose on that fact”; advises her to inculcate a scientific bend of mind, study calculus and geometry. His love for her is most profound when he writes to CO Kalman about Scottie that “I want to bring Scottie …and seeing her, you will see how much I still have to live for, in spite of a year in a slough of despond.” He advises her many thing, parenting in absentia, many things which even today makes sense, for instance, to keep her scholastic head above the extra-curricular activities, or not very surprising advise on writing, telling her, ”A good style simply doesn't form unless you absorb half a dozen top flight authors every year."  

His love for life, his undying optimism is almost similar to that of Jay Gatsby. He is a man in absolutely sad state, failing health, dwindling finances and a heavy sense of duty as he writes to Max, “Scottie must be educated and Zelda can’t starve.” He wrote to Scottie in 1938, with a sad sign when he mentions that he will not be able to continue writing to her for many years, he mentions that “my chief desires in life was to keep you from being that kind of person, one who brings ruin to themselves and others…It is a different story if you have spent two years doing no useful work at all, improving neither your body nor your mind, but only writing reams and reams of dreary letters to dreary people…” he declares that “I am no longer interested in your promissory notes but only in what I see.

He is in the throes of sadness, but like Gatsby, he still feels it is possible to keep love alive when everything else is morbid and dying around you. He writes to Zelda, in 1938, “Oh Zelda, this was to have been such a cold letter, but I don’t feel that way about you. Once we were one person and always it will be little that way.”  He hoped still. I wonder if he whispered to himself in the solitary nights as he wrote his last and unfinished “The Love of Last Tycoon” those immortal words of Gatsby, “..the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but then that’s no matter, to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further..and one fine morning..”.  One cannot but feel the loss at the death of such a great writer at the early age of 44 and one cannot look at the great body of art that the skillful writer produced in such short span. 

(Scott F Fitzgerald was borne on 24th of September 1896 and wrote great novels like The Other Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and The Damned,  and numerous stories within a span of 44 years, when he died by a sudden heart attack while working on The Last Tycoon. I have, as a writer been always in awe of the great style and profundity of his work and of course, I get carried away (so I learned through the rejection of this piece). But a tribute need not be stylistically correct, it needs to be heartfelt. ) 

My review of The Great Gatsby

Further readings and References:


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