Schedule of Events signed by the participants
The thought of such a subject came to me several years ago when new biographies of three well-known authors appeared in a short span of time. These were a biography of Henry James, a biography of Charles Dickens, and a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. To read even just the reviews of the biographies of these three distinguished authors was to read accounts of the very sad turns their lives took before they were over.
I'd known about Fitzgerald, of course, about his drinking, his decline in reputation, and the mental problems of his wife, Zelda. And I was familiar with Dickens from an early biography-- with his compulsion to control, his passion for theatricals, his autocratic family life, and, toward the end, his driven need to perform publicly. But Henry James struck me with surprise, for I had not known much about him. And it was hard to believe that this figure who spoke with so much certitude on so many subjects over so many years could himself be vulnerable to spells of deep melancholy, to depression. If it happened to him, I thought, it could happen to anybody, to anybody who wrote creatively as a career, and it has happened to a very great many.
At about that same time, William Styron published his book about his own bout with depression, and Kurt Vonnegut, in a collection of nonfiction pieces, made reference to a similar experience. About then, John Cheever's diaries were published, posthumously, and I can't recall ever reading a sadder personal testament.
The more I thought, the more I was impressed by the fact that so many writers do have at least some very serious emotional trouble in their lives. Let me give you a roll call. So far as I know, it may be true that Shakespeare never suffered an unhappy moment in his life. But in the last century we had Edgar Allan Poe, a drinker and user of drugs. Hawthorne and Melville had their spells of melancholy. Coleridge also. Joseph Conrad had his nervous breakdown late in life. As a young man he had tried to kill himself once by shooting himself in the chest, and missed. Jack London was an alcoholic. He wrote a novel called The Dipsomaniac about this addiction. Malcolm Lowry in Under the Volcano writes about a character who is an unregenerate alcoholic, and he, too, was writing autobiography.
Moving into our own time, we can assemble a very long list. Among the heavy drinkers often disabling themselves we can find: Eugene O'Neill, Edmund Wilson, Sinclair Lewis, John O'Hara, William Faulkner (who died after a drunken fall, I believe), Theodore Dreiser, and . . . Joseph Heller? A regular drinker, as you may already have observed tonight, perhaps a borderline, but not yet so classified. And sadly, for this occasion, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I've left out many. Among the British, after Malcolm Lowry, there was Evelyn Waugh, as notorious as a drunk as for his bad nature, and Kingsley Amis, who died about a year ago from a fall down the stairs, probably while drunk. Truman Capote fits in for his drinking and for his "sedative medications." Tennessee Williams certainly fits in. Hemingway, we know, was a suicide, and a very heavy drinker, too.
Among my contemporaries were Jerzy Kosinski and Richard Brautigan, both recent suicides. Earlier was Ross Lockridge, author of the huge best-seller Raintree County, who then killed himself, and that same year, I think, Tom Heggen, author of the play Mr. Roberts, another huge success.
Among women, Emily Dickinson was a suspicious recluse; Virginia Woolf, we know, killed herself; Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, each a suicide. I fear if I wanted to delve into poets I would not know where I'd be able to stop.
Of course, the question to be answered is WHY? What is there about the literary occupation that causes, or is the concomitant of, so much wretchedness among so many people who are successful.
And the answer I give you tonight is: I don't know.
I'm aware, as I'm sure many of you are, that the implications of what I'm saying are not sound statistically. There is, for example, no control group, and it could be--it is theoretically possible--that all of us here tonight are suicidal drunkards and depressives. But, seriously, I cannot think readily of another occupational group that has so many of its major celebrities suffering the distresses I've mentioned.
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What are some of the factors that might cause or contribute to these predilections toward unhappiness? Well, in a general--a most general--way, I can try to guess:
Then add to these the Freudian discovery that the conflicts, feelings of loneliness, and disappointments we possessed that at the beginning led us toward fictionalizing are not entirely satisfied by success but instead remain. There has been no miraculous transformation, and in many ways the sensitive parts of us remain exactly the same.
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Let me throw in one more element, the factor that feelings of failure are almost certain to enter into the life of the published author, even with works that appear to be triumphs. Ernest Hemingway's most popular success was, I think, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and probably instead of rejoicing, he was enraged by those literary critics who found it deficient in quality. And what of Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby? The praise was generally high, but sales were disappointing, so what joy he experienced was diluted by that--and, of course, by his chronic, desperate need for money.
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With F. Scott Fitzgerald, it would seem to have been a combination of just about all I've touched on. In the portraits of the personality one finds in his biographies are elements with which I am personally familiar from childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, something which I'd wager all of the names I have mentioned have experienced to strong extent: principally, that desire, that need, to shine, to excel. And for a person to imagine himself doing that much is already evidence of a tendency to imagine--to fantasize--about one's own self involved with relationships, emotions, and situations that are the essence of fiction.
From childhood through adolescence through college, Fitzgerald did seek constantly to accomplish, to stand out. He tried football, in prep school and in college, but was too small. He tried theatricals, and if he could not excel in the theater, he wanted to succeed in the writing of fiction, and he persisted.
And at the age of twenty-three, he did succeed! As a young man of twenty-three he became a celebrated American novelist. He married the girl he wanted--one he had been in love with and had courted for several years. He had an income that for him and for others at that time--for most of us today--was a very extravagant income. And he reveled, gloried in his success, as he should, as I would, as any other newly successful author would. Perhaps he reveled in it too much. If his life had ended just there, we would have a romantic story with a very happy ending in the Horatio Alger mode. And it would not be of much interest.
But his life didn't end then. And in a little while he was also celebrated as a cut-up, as a drunkard. He was a subject of anecdotes, was often good company, and was often a severe trial to his friends, with rowdy antics that would make some of us wish to cringe and look away.
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One of the saddest entries in the notes he made in the latter part of his life is the one about himself relative to Ernest Hemingway, whose career he had generously helped start. It went something like this--I may not be quoting exactly: "I talk with the authority of failure--Ernest with the authority of success." It was not a man flushed with self-esteem who could frame such a depressing comment as that one.
But the reality is that for more than half his adult life, Fitzgerald had good reason to think of himself as a failure. He had not published a novel since Tender Is the Night, on which he had labored a longer time than ever before and which was not received as well as he hoped it would be. His marriage had turned into a tragedy of a kind other people suffer in other people's novels; that is, his wife, Zelda, was back in an asylum. He was anything but a success as a film writer. And he was, as almost always, in desperate need of money for himself, his wife, his daughter. And that was the state he was in when he died suddenly of his heart attack, and the state of his life for at least the preceding ten years.
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I remember another statement of his: "There are no second acts in American lives."
If we had a question period now--and I'm thankful there won't be--one of the questions you might logically ask is: "What about you?" The answer I can give you is: "Not yet." And not likely, because of my age--I've already passed those dangerous decades of the others--and not likely soon, because after this occasion tonight, I think I'm going to be in a very good mood for a good long time.
Fitzgerald would be in a good mood, too, if he could see how his reputation has risen to so extraordinary an extent for someone who was virtually ignored and forgotten by 1940 or so. From 300 copies of all his works sold then to 300,000 sold annually now.
And he'd be extremely pleased if he could be here tonight to watch and to hear: pleased, I think, but not surprised, because like all authors he had the tremendous vanity that is typical; and rather than feeling surprised, he'd feel justified, ratified, vindicated. Unfortunately, he isn't here tonight because, in his words, "There are no second acts in American lives."
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Professor Bruccoli's . . . happy combination of scholarship and publishing acumen brings us closer to the great documents of modern American writing. Thinking of Fitzgerald, and of Professor Bruccoli, and of this afternoon, I reread Fitzgerald's story "Jacob's Ladder" . . . [a]nd I was struck by how Fitzgerald, a master of literary control, wrote again and again about being swept away or, as he often puts it, borne away. That tension--the control in art and craft exerted upon language about control being lost--seems to me as good an emblem for Fitzgerald as I, anyway, require.
Just as those automobiles speeding between Manhattan and Long Island in Gatsby add up to destiny, which no one can adequately steer, here in the 1927 short story, Jacob and Jenny Delehanty jump not into bed but into a car they ride in to dinner in upstate New York, a car that rolls back into Manhattan with Jenny asleep on Jacob's shoulder, a car in which Jacob, later, "was borne along dark streets and light toward a future of his own which he could not foretell."
Jenny's future is discussed by Jacob in a taxi with a film director, her success is celebrated with a kiss in Jacob's car, his love is stated--"I won't marry you unless you love me," he says--in his car, driving from the movie studio; Jenny describes her anguish over an affair by telling Jacob how she got into a man's car and then, Jacob says for her, "It just--swept over you. . . ."
When he understands that he has lost Jenny, "the heavy tide of realization swept over him," and later, trying still to possess her while knowing that he never will, Jacob buys a movie ticket to her dazzling film and "found himself a place in the fast-throbbing darkness."
. . . That "fast-throbbing darkness" looks forward to Tender Is the Night, to Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, to Norman Mailer's The Deer Park, to Robert Stone's Children of Light, and to John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies, those explorations of the enfleshment on film of American dreaming. That throbbing darkness is about mental sex, at which Fitzgerald was brilliant. It is also Fitzgerald making love to the same mistress--her name here is Great Writing--as Hemingway. For we have to think of Jake Barnes in his cab in Madrid with Lady Brett, and Jacob in his cab with Jenny--each man confronting what to him is the harsh joke of love, each saying farewell for us to romantic ideas of love--as a salute from Fitzgerald to his cruel, disloyal brother in art whom Fitzgerald knows to have retained his voice and whose writing about Jake Barnes he recognized from the start as a level of art he might not again achieve: that "real thing" about which he wrote to Maxwell Perkins.
. . . young Matthew Bruccoli was struck by a speeding Fitzgerald in the Bruccoli family car. Hearing a radio treatment of "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" in 1949, he was changed forever; and so, in truth, was American scholarship. In partial and happy consequence, Fitzgerald's long, deep battle with talent is here for us to see, in its particularities, in the splendid collection of Arlyn and Matthew J. Bruccoli available to us in the Thomas Cooper Library of the University of South Carolina. Amid the thousands of items in this literary cornucopia, we can read, in Fitzgerald's proofs of Gatsby, about the force on which we are borne back ceaselessly into the past, and the grinding gears and scary speed of the cars that are fate's messengers.
. . . The Bruccoli Collection is tangible memory of the failed love, the failed art, the failed writer who is also, Professor Bruccoli has reminded us again and again, the man who kept his love alive as well as he could, who toiled at his art some long time after it had given signs of forgetting him, and who labored in the face of huge, dark, countervailing forces to remain an artist and a decent man. . . .
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I repeat: building this collection was mostly fun and laughter. Much of the laughter was generated by my friendship--a weak word for my enduring feelings about her--with Scottie Fitzgerald. I didn't know F. Scott Fitzgerald, but working with Scottie was just as good. Her father could have found the words for her generosity; I can't.
Part of the fun that Scottie and I had during our "Daddy projects" resulted from the circumstance that we both enjoyed running gags. One of her running gags was about Gatsby's car. Scottie couldn't tell a Model A from a Rolls, but she kept spotting old cars and telling me that "This was the car Daddy gave Gatsby." It would always be impossible, but the gag went on. Shortly after Scottie died, a crate arrived at my house with a stained-glass representation of a 1930s Mercedes convertible. Scottie had seen it on her last outing before she died and arranged for it to be sent to me after her death. The gag ended with Scottie having the last laugh.
The name of the collection--the Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection--is not a convention. It truly is--was--half Arlyn's. She was informed of every purchase and spent much of her marriage in bookstores. With utter honesty I can state that my Arlyn never objected to the price of anything. She did complain about the boxes of books on the floor. I am deeply grateful to Dean Terry and President Palms for working out the arrangement that got the books off the floor and here where the collection will continue to grow for the use of students and researchers. We have acquired smashing items since the collection came to Thomas Cooper Library. We are going to continue acquiring material to make this F. Scott Fitzgerald Collection the best working archive for an American author.
Again: No Arlyn, no collection.
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When Scott died, I was shocked, because that day, on the first of December--sitting there in bed, looking very pale but animated--his spirit was very, very alive. I had the feeling during that period that his mind, his intellectual energy, was high and that only his body was not up to what the rest of him was. First, I asked how his novel was coming. I didn't know exactly what the novel was about; he hadn't told me what the book was about. I told him that I was trying to write about Hollywood, and I had a sense that he was also, because over the last two years that I knew him he asked me so many questions about Hollywood--what it was like growing up there.
It was my hometown, and my father [B.P. Schulberg] had been running a big studio, Paramount Studio. It was the rival studio to M-G-M, which was run by Louis Mayer and Irving Thalberg. Mayer and my father in earlier days, the early pioneer days of the early Twenties, had been partners in a funky little studio called the Mayer-Schulberg Studio, where young, very young (he looked like a high-school boy) Irving Thalberg had first come to work for Mayer. And Scott was fascinated by the movies. He was almost obsessed by the movies and intensely curious about what the people were like, what my impressions were like. He asked me a lot about my father. My father and Irving Thalberg were considered the two intellectuals in the town, but I think my father was better read than Thalberg. He read all the classics and made a lot of movies based on the classics, Crime and Punishment and Jennie Gerhardt and An American Tragedy. . . . Irving was fastidious, except for smoking, and he was conscientious, hard-working, intense in his work. There was something almost princely about him. He was absolutely held in reverence by the whole Hollywood community, which was a very small world.
I always thought of Hollywood like a principality of its own. It was like a sort of a Luxembourg or a Liechtenstein. And the people who ran it really had that attitude. They weren't only running a studio, they were running a whole little world. Their power was absolutely enormous, and it wasn't only the power to make movies or to anoint someone or make someone a movie star or pick an unknown director and make him famous over night. They could cover up a murder. The district attorney, Buron Fitts, was completely in the pocket of the producers. You could literally have somebody killed, and it wouldn't be in the papers. They ran this place, and, as I said, Scott was very, very interested in all of this.
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Some of it is in The Last Tycoon; the producer's blood is in The Last Tycoon. Writers just can't help taking things like that from what is around them. That last morning, when Scott showed me the opening chapter of The Last Tycoon and I read the opening paragraph and scanned the first page, I have to confess that I was a little bit hurt. For a moment my feelings were hurt. The book had opened with--well, there was an odd feeling of reading my own words, as I had said to Scott that, being raised in Hollywood, there didn't seem to be anything glamorous about it. It was a town that turned out a product. Instead of automobiles or tires or steel, in our town we turned out cans of film. And we had to turn out so many a week to keep the wheels turning. I said we live in a company town, just as much a company town as any coal town in West Virginia. And it's about that glamorous. That was all there, and I thought, "Gee, I thought Scott really liked me, but I guess I was just something that came along that was very handy for him."
Scott saw the look on my face. He was one of the gentlest, kindest, most sympathetic and generous writers I've ever met. At the same time, of course, he couldn't stop lifting something somebody else said, because that's the profession he was in. He looked at me and said, "Yes, Budd, I guess in Cecilia" (the narrator of The Last Tycoon, a film magnate's daughter, who's gone off to Bennington, which is about as close to Dartmouth as one can get) "I did combine you with Scottie." At the same time my emotions were mixed because I had the feeling, reading a page or two, that Scott was really onto something. And frankly he was onto something beyond what I had perceived with all my Hollywood experience.
When he died, well-known writers in Hollywood--Dottie Parker and John O'Hara and Donald Ogden Stewart and Robert Benchley--were aghast at the obits. If you look back, you'll see that the obit writers of The Times and The Herald Tribune and many other newspapers confused Scott with the Jazz Age. He had been the poet of the Jazz Age; he had been in many ways the voice, the spirit of the Jazz Age, and in a way almost the creator of the Jazz Age. And he himself had for a while seen himself that way. But now in the Depression Years, those years of the Twenties--of the saxophones and the bathtub gin and the Charleston--were looked down on as a wasteful period, as a period when our country had really gone wrong, really gone off on a wild spree. And somehow they blamed him. Instead of seeing Scott as he was, as a remarkable interpreter of that time, they blamed him for it, as if the Twenties were all Scott's fault, and now that the Twenties were gone, it was a little like "good riddance" because that was Scott and he's gone and the times are gone and we're glad and goodbye. That was very much the tone of those obits.
So a bunch of us (I was sort of a tag-a-long; I was a kid along with them, although I knew them very well) approached The New Republic about doing a memorial issue, which came out in February 1941 and in which O'Hara and Edmund Wilson and many other of his supporters on both coasts wrote tributes to Scott's memory. Just a short piece of what I wrote was as follows: "When I was leaving for New York a few months ago I said goodbye to Scott and asked him how his novel was coming. It was the end of the day and he looked weary, for the writing didn't come so easy any more. It was a page a day now, but a good page, no matter what the fortunately anonymous Times and Tribune reporters and the unfortunately bylined Westbrook Pegler think. 'Oh slowly,' Scott said. 'But I'm having a good time with it. The first draft will be finished by the time you get back. You can read it then, if you like.'"
Anyway, a few weeks later I happened to be back in Hanover and I was in the Hanover Inn, and a professor . . . very casually said, "I'm so sorry to hear about Scott." And I hadn't. It was in the obits, I guess, that morning, and I hadn't seen it yet. And I said, "What?" And it was [a professor] who told me that Scott had died. And I felt a terrible sadness. I thought about the book. At that moment I didn't foresee what would happen to The Last Tycoon, and how it would find a published life of its own. . . . I just thought, "My god, what a loss that is. Why did that have to happen?"
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. . . Scott had great dreams about Hollywood. It was not just the money. Most of the writers I knew--Faulkner and the others--just wanted to get the money and get out. Scott was different. He believed in the movies. He thought it was a great medium, and he thought it was one that any writer had to know, to learn. He thought it was the story-telling of the future, and he admired the movie-maker, as you can see from the remarkable vigor he had in portraying Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon. . . .
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. . . I did know that Scott was going to write a novel; I didn't know what it was about. As it turned out, he was writing his and maybe the Hollywood novel. We stayed pretty close through that year. I would see him quite often. I would go out to Encino where he was living in this guest house of Edward Everett Horton, a very successful comedian of that time who'd made a lot of money in the movies, and Scott had the guest house. . . . I have memories of Scott finishing a Pat Hobby story and running down those outside steps and reading it out loud in that hopeful, eager way. There was something about Scott Fitzgerald that I am sure you would all feel: There was something about him that could make you cry, something about everything he had gone through, all the agony, all the pain. And yet he had this kind of youthful enthusiasm that was just so much a part of him that, no matter how life might batter him, it just couldn't beat it out of him. He was a wonderful friend that way.
When my daughter was born in May 1940 at Cedars of Lebanon, Scott saw me, asked me the name of the child, and I told him "Victoria." Scott said, "In Victoria's honor I'm going to change the name of the child in `Babylon Revisited.'" He was working at that time for Lester Cowan, writing a screenplay based on that wonderful short story. In the next draft, indeed, there was Victoria in place of Honoria. Also when Vicky was born, Scott went into a monologue about a father and a daughter, about this little tot and how she grows and how he enjoys her beauty, and then there comes a time when she moves on to another man, and so he went on with this story. And he was charming about it, he really was.
Scott's reputation started with a trickle first in 1941 with the Edmund Wilson Last Tycoon and then on to '45 with the O'Hara Portable and then in '51 the Mizener biography, The Far Side of Paradise. And my Disenchanted; it helped, also. People would stop me on the street, honest to god, and say, "I hear that book is about Scott Fitzgerald. I've never read him. I can't find any books by him. How do you find a book by Scott Fitzgerald?" That's the way it was, or seemed, in 1951. And then came all the contributions of the Sixties, the Seventies and on, . . . until now as we go into the twenty-first century, nobody has to champion Scott Fitzgerald. His reputation will only grow and grow and grow.
I have felt in this celebration an enormous joy for Scott. I can't help thinking--it may be a bromide--but I can't help thinking, Oh, god, if Scott could only see this. If Scott could only see the adulation. If Scott could only see that he accomplished so much of what he was after. And I do think that Scott with all of his sense of failure and also his sense of immortality----. He did say to me, word-for-word, "I had a beautiful talent once, maybe, and I still think I have enough left for at least one more novel and maybe two."
I think the celebration that we've been experiencing in the last two days is a tremendous contribution. I think that this university has done so much to not only keep this flame alive, but to make it something that will remain lit into the twenty-first century. If I believed in an afterlife (I'm working on it), I know that Scott would be enjoying the fruits of all his good, hard labor and genius. And if it's only up to us, then we--we who read Scott, love Scott and his work, and who are about to run over into a new generation--we here, in this room and in the time to come, are Scott's immortality.
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On my left, Sydney Blair, novelist and short-story writer. Her novel Buffalo was published a couple of years ago to great and wonderful critical reviews and response. It's available in paper. She's just finished a new novel (which we're all looking forward to) with the promising working title of "Jan Gets a Dog." On my right----. This is probably the only time in your lives when you'll sit in a room face-to-face with identical twin American novelists, but here they are. On my immediate right, Richard Bausch (I think), the author of--prior to this fall--six novels and three collections of stories, all of them admired and well- received. And on this day he has received the thing that lots of people wait for lifetimes without getting, a roaring, rave review in the daily Times for his new novel, Good Evening, Mr. & Mrs. America and All the Ships at Sea. . . . Anyway, we're delighted and feel it's a good-luck omen for all of us. To his right is Robert Bausch, author of three novels--most recently, Almighty Me, which to the joy of his friends and others was purchased by the Disney people, and we keep hoping that they will go ahead and make the film. His most recent book is the one that was available yesterday in the bookstore, a very handsome and elegant collection of short stories called The White Rooster and Other Stories.
What else to say. I'll just say a few words myself, and then we'll come back and work across. Sydney has prepared a short piece, and the Bausch boys, acting as sort of a pair of stereophonic speakers, will wing it a little bit for you. They're good at that.
I wanted to say a couple of things that record my own experience of things. You would think, if you were familiar with my work at all, that I have little or nothing in common with the art of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Different world, different subjects, different ways and means of storytelling: It's all too true. But we do have some things roughly in common. Both of us went to Princeton, and it was basically the same kind of Princeton in those days, even though we were years apart. Both of us played freshman football. Fitzgerald was cut from the team, and I wasn't. I ended up hanging around the playing fields of Princeton long enough to be permanently injured, disabled really, in a modest way. Both of us spent our time in the U.S. Army-- Fitzgerald in Alabama, and myself in Trieste, Austria, and Germany. Both of us served a time or two--he perhaps more seriously--in Hollywood as scriptwriters. He was better at it-- pretty good, in fact. I had the fortune--or misfortune--of having most of my scripts produced. That's probably the worst thing that can happen to you. It's better if they're known to be wonderful scripts that no one can produce. One of [my scripts is] Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. It's the only award-winning film I've been associated with. It won a Golden Turkey Award as one of the hundred worst films of all times. Anyway, the Fitzgerald script for Gone With the Wind was impossible to do because of the limits of time and budget at the time Selznick proposed it, but Fitzgerald had a wonderful script. Then there's a personal element. I had an uncle who was a scriptwriter out there who knew him and an aunt who was engaged to somebody who shared an apartment with him before he was married. My next door neighbor was from the same entryway in the same class in college at Princeton and joined the service at the time. Jim Bettes, who joined the Marine Corps, not the Army, . . . told me that if you made it through your third year at Princeton at the time of the First World War, you could get your degree--you could actually get it or were authorized to get a degree--if you enlisted in the service. It was an inducement for people to join the service in World War I. Everybody in that entryway enlisted, figuring to save a whole year of college and have fun in the Army and Marine Corps. Most of them didn't get overseas, and I think that is the case with Fitzgerald.
The real connection from my point of view was discovering Fitzgerald, together with Faulkner (whose ninety-ninth birthday is today) and Hemingway, at Princeton. As a student in 1947 I read and reread his shining works, especially The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, over and over again. I was in Princeton the summer of 1948. It was a green and shady summer. It was the last year that Princeton ever had a summer school, and it was the first year that they ever taught anything in their English Department that was written since 1900. And this was a great, great thing for them. I have known many writers for whom Fitzgerald is not by any means the primary model or influence of their own work, but I have yet to meet any writer who does not take Fitzgerald as an undeniable influence and a vital example. His direct influence is then wider and deeper than it might seem. It is an influence that has been beneficial to a whole generation of American writers. You can always learn from the finest works of Fitzgerald. It is "awesome," as the younger generation says; it is also encouraging.
I'd like to tell you one other thing that we've going to do because it's in the spirit of celebration. When we've done all our little things and before we open up to questions, we're each going to read a short passage of something we really like--short and to the point. As it turns out, everybody picked Tender Is the Night and Gatsby. Sydney?
Sydney Blair: Here are my ten minutes worth of prepared remarks on F. Scott Fitzgerald, quite anecdotal, be forewarned. When I knew I was coming to the conference, I conducted an informal survey among my friends and acquaintances and the occasional stranger of their impressions of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The survey, although random and wildly unscientific, was nonetheless telling. I approached somebody explaining the purpose of this gathering and then asking what came to mind when they thought of Fitzgerald. Most of the people I talked to were readers, though not necessarily writers.
One, misunderstanding, said, "Wow, what are you going to wear?" He was under the impression that we were attending a week-long costume party or something. This person said I should wear a beret and dark glasses and have a cigarette dangling from my fingers and a long, sleek cigarette-holder. And I should look bored and every now and then should turn to someone and say, "You fool!" Which I thought was pretty funny. But these things do happen, and thus the man lives on. Recently I read about a Gatsbyesque lawn-party being thrown (George and I live in Charlottesville) in a nearby town, designed to suggest 1920s champagne and hors d'oeuvres in a Victorian garden followed by a Southern clambake. Eaters, not readers, I figured. But I like to believe that Fitzgerald would have been pleased and amused that he lives on in this way at that clambake in Orange, Virginia.
But to get back to the survey. My teenaged son surprised and impressed me by rattling off the names of the novels most of us in this room have read, and when I asked him how he knew all this, he said from the "Authors" card game that we have had lying around the house for years. You may remember the original game--a sort of literary "Go Fish" that had these beautiful, romantic renderings of famous writers like Mark Twain and William Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, etcetera. Louisa May Alcott, looking kind and homely, was the only woman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne was far and away the most handsome man, with flowing yellow hair and a light blue coat that matched his eyes. Playing with that deck of cards with everybody looking in the pink of health and good fortune was enough to make any child want to be a writer when he or she grew up. That's the deck that I knew.
But it was the newer game that my son was referring to--the updated American version--which, as with most sequels, falls far short of the original. It depicts, among others, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser (I don't mean falls short in terms of the writers, but in terms of the execution of the cards themselves), Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, the only woman in this batch, looking perplexed, and the handsome F. Scott Fitzgerald. But in this deck the writers look sketchy and cartoonish and gaze out at you in dark-edged, bleak-eyed despair. There's little chance that a young card player would yearn to follow in their footsteps. And if the pictures aren't enough to scare you off, the bio blurbs--not present in the older version-- will do the trick. They have these little lines at the bottom of the card. Fitzgerald's concludes by noting that he lived expensively with large debts, drank heavily, was self-destructive, and died in Hollywood in 1940 bankrupt, sick, and alone.
Whether these statements are factually true doesn't much matter, I suppose, to youngsters playing the game. The pictures are what matter; winning the most books matters. We here know that the truth lies somewhere between these two games. And though nobody I know has yet become a writer as a result of playing "Authors," it's possible that once my son encounters those fluid, lyrical lines of Fitzgerald's, once he's exposed to his keen mind and expansive heart, he might, in a weak moment, want nothing more than to experience the magic of stories by taking a stab at writing one himself.
My mother's response to the survey: An avid reader, she was born the same year as Scottie, which would make her seventy-five. She said things like, "He went to Princeton, didn't he? Did he ever graduate? And wasn't he in the Army for a while, but that didn't go very well?" By now I'm sensing a tone of mild disapproval. "He ended up in Hollywood, didn't he, but without Zelda." Then she said that the Fitzgeralds always reminded her of her own parents--pranksters, always laughing and drinking and smoking and carrying on, too clever by half. She said she'd read the books but couldn't remember much about them, except that they were sad, and she wasn't particularly partial to sad books.
A high-schooler recalled her English teacher, because they were reading The Great Gatsby, surprising them all by coming to class dressed as a flapper and proceeding to play a lot of old music and demonstrating the Charleston. This girl loved the book and thought her teacher was a bit odd.
Another friend remembered, as a midshipman at the Naval Academy in the Sixties, that when his class was reading Fitzgerald his English professor herded the tiny literature class over to the library, called Mahan Hall, where a grand piano sat in one of the marble-floored alcoves outside the stacks. The professor sat down and played tunes from the Twenties to the young men who were strewn around on the floor in their uniforms listening, surrounded by flags of captured enemy frigates. The friend said they all thought it was great, a nice change from fluid dynamics. When he finished playing, the professor told them he couldn't look at the moon in the same way anymore, knowing it was littered with space junk.
Other reactions. From friends who drink too much: "Didn't he drink too much?" From poet friends: "Didn't he drink too much?" Actually from all writer friends. And, then with admiration, from a poet friend: "His novels have that elegiac tone to them, melancholic, mourning the loss of youth and romance." From friends suffering from writer's block (whatever that may be): "Don't you think he wasted his talent on those stories? He should have saved himself for the important work." From friends struggling to keep the faith while their best work sits languishing on some editor's desk: "He wrote those great novels, and then he wrote hundreds of commercial stories to support the novel-writing habit. He was a real writer, living and dying by the pen."
And a few final short responses: "Natty dresser" (I don't think that person had read anything), and "Rich people, they're not like us," and "I loved The Crack-Up. The Crack-Up was me." So, something for everyone, and everyone has something to say. He strikes a variety of chords in a variety of people. He's an inclusive writer. He invites us all in.
Nobody talked much about the books' gorgeous, silky prose, and the way Fitzgerald manages to combine a sharp attention to physical detail with a penetrating probe of the human heart and mind, to produce passages and descriptions and insights as luscious as a basket of peaches, to paraphrase another friend. He has a poet's ear for the rhythm and dance of language, a painter's eye for rich visual detail, and he can move from that dazzling detail to significant introspective musing in a heartbeat, rendering, in a way that seems effortless, some of the most wonderfully exquisite prose around. That's what I remember when I first encountered him in the haze of the turn of the decade from the Sixties to the Seventies--that and, what the people in my survey were also drawn to, the stories themselves, the complications and mysteries enveloping those romantic, racy, wandering, often unhappy people. The jams they got themselves into through willfulness or foolishness or dreams, and whether they'd be able to extricate themselves from them by book's end. Most, of course, at least in the novels, didn't escape unscathed. Some ended up dead, all the more deliciously tragic.
Fitzgerald described in his earlier novels the Jazz Age in a way that made you want be there. As Ken Kesey said, "You're either on the bus or off the bus." And when you read Fitzgerald-- at least when you're young, which is probably the best time to read him for the first time anyhow--you're definitely on the bus. He embodied, as the card said, the Jazz Age; he was the Jazz Age. A spokesman for the so-called "Lost Generation" of the Twenties, whose youth spanned the generation between the two world wars, he wrote about what it was like to be carefree and young and irresponsible and without answers, and later he wrote about what it was to lose all that glittery light and to struggle through the darkness that inevitably, in his case anyhow, follows. He celebrated youth in a way young writers up to then had not.
The young were to be seen and not heard: that was the prevailing notion at the turn of the century. Too much fun was bad for your health. We have an old children's book lying around the house, along with the cards, that was my grandmother's, not the one "too clever by half" (she probably would have burned this book and made paper airplanes of it), but the other one: the one born a year before Scott. The book is called Slovenly Peter; or, Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures. But take my word for it, it's about as cheerful as a guillotine, as it relates in verse (which seems to make it even worse) what happens to children who get their clothes dirty or don't clean their plates at supper or can't stop eating or play hookey from school or have a sweet tooth or suffer from pride or fidget, etcetera, etcetera. Children, something tells me, like Scott and Zelda, children like all children. The stories are accompanied by the most terrifying illustrations that make the spook children in Village of the Damned look like Tinkerbell, not a bit cheerful and nowhere near funny.
But if such books (which were common fare in Victorian households) served as moral guides for children as independent as Scott and Zelda were, for example, then I can see how once out of the house, the only way to go would have been up, over, and out. Rebel and revel in it; you had little to lose. And I can imagine the world--golden and gleaming and present as never before at the close of World War I, promising everything and nothing to those eager young men and women.
This tradition of acknowledging and thereby honoring the self-conscious recklessness and glorious foolishness and irresponsibility and vitality of America's youth (upper- and middle-class youth, I should probably say) has been carried on by other writers in the decades since. I remember reading J. D. Salinger's famous novels and stories, as well as Kerouac's, whose restless young hitchhikers fled convention in the East in the Fifties and Sixties and headed for whatever spiritual experiences they might be lucky enough to stumble across. For sheer unbridled exuberance Kerouac was hard to beat. Then, when I focus on my own reading here, it was Ann Beattie's wry, laconic characters who, from the mid Seventies on, seemed to have the edge on the rest of the world. In the late Eighties Jay McInerney and company's literary brat-packers dominated the scene with their hip talk and cocaine habits and lively sex and with up-scale jobs so necessary in support of those habits. Though Beattie's cool, precise prose owes more, technically speaking, to the spare lines of Hemingway than to Fitzgerald's rich prose and though, especially in her early books, her characters have more of a tendency to mourn the passage of the carefree Sixties from the comfort of their taupe couches than to actually get up and do something about it, she was as intimately connected to the vague yearnings of America's youth as Fitzgerald was in his time. And McInerney's characters aptly convey their particular brand of self-centeredness, where everybody suffers from ennui or is either too laid-back or too driven or too zonked to be bothered with trying to figure out why they feel so bad.
We can speculate on who will stand the test of time and be read in the year 2050, say. It's been over seventy years since The Great Gatsby was published, over sixty since Tender Is the Night, if that's any help. So it's a fairly safe bet that Fitzgerald will still be around.
Compared to the later work and to his contemporary Hemingway, who was covering some of the same territory, Fitzgerald's work seems at times tenderly "old-fashioned," in the best sense of the word--not only in its elegant prose but also in the passion and drive of the characters themselves. These people acquire through the pages a certain breathless and giddy weightlessness, but they also carry heavily the strengths of their convictions, never quite escaping the snags and blurred complexities of duty and honor and integrity and love. These characters are not so much resigned to their respective fates as unable to escape them. And most of the time they seem to be trying, however shakily and however myopically, to do the right thing, as did Fitzgerald himself, if his Notebooks and essays and letters are any indication.
It is this restless, spirited quality of his characters and the fine writing that brings them to vibrant and complicated life that enthralled me upon first reading him and which enthralls me still as I continue to read him. He been called a "born writer," the words flowing easily and effortlessly, but we also know he was a tireless re-writer, holding himself in his best work to standards of the highest order when it came to art and craft and truth.
He was also a wickedly funny writer whose wit arises here and there in the talk and deeds of his people. In Tender Is the Night, Dick Diver is killing time with the boring Collis Clay, and he's talking about his preference for living in--read, being "entertained by"--France rather than Italy, which is where they are when Collis insists, "I like Rome. Why won't you try the races?" And Dick says, "I don't like the races." "But all the women turn out." "I know I wouldn't like anything here," says Dick. "I like France where everybody thinks he's Napoleon. Down here everybody thinks he's Christ." Almost as irreverent as John Lennon's remark about the popularity of the Beatles, and probably too clever by half. But wonderful, and you wouldn't have missed it for anything. Thank you.
Richard Bausch: I know you all have this [holds up a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald: 24 September 1896-21 December 1940], but I want to say this aloud. I'm going to read what I have written here and then speak very briefly about my experiences with Fitzgerald.
I reread Fitzgerald perhaps more often than any other writer, and one of the saddest things I know of is the letter to Perkins, where he speaks of himself in the past tense: 'In my own way I was an original.' My God, that always makes me hurt. How much he would have reveled in the history of his work, though, and Gatsby stands right up there with the best of everything. This slender volume that manages to be inclusive, and to express the peculiarly cruel effects of our oddly materialistic brand of optimism, better than so many tomes, so many roundhouse attempts to be as big as the country. I hope there is a writers' heaven, and that he's sitting on a bar stool there, toasting, as he would be, everybody who sold him short.
The first time I ever heard Fitzgerald's name I was twenty years old, and there was a song--I was thinking I was going to be a song-writer and learning how to play guitar--and there was a song of Bob Dylan's called "The Ballad of the Thin Man," in which he has this verse: "You've been with the professors, and they've all liked your looks / With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks / You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books / You're very well read, it's well known." And for about two years, I resisted reading F. Scott Fitzgerald because there seemed something vaguely damning about having read F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I was reading Hemingway, and I was reading Faulkner, and I finally picked up a copy of "Babylon Revisited." That was the very first Fitzgerald I read. And what I found, of course, was what everyone finds--fresh life, every single time anyone picks it up. And I went from there, of course, to all the others.
My favorite remains The Great Gatsby. It's the book I admire most by about anybody who's ever written a book. But I reread both Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, and I reread the stories. I love teaching the stories. There are some stories that are neglected, you know, that don't get taught very often that are amazing--amazing portraits of being young. And the felt life in them--the sense of being alive in 1925, of being in a street in a city in 1925, the way it sounds and feels--is astonishing, no matter what the story's subject matter.
There's a story called "First Blood," for instance, that I've always loved, where a young woman, spoiled and romantic in the worst sense of the word at her age, convinces herself that she is in love with a man who's engaged or married (it's been about seven or eight years since I've looked at it). What she does is reduce him to the point of confessing his love to her while she's lying ill in a room, and he says, "I'm going to see what I can do. I've fallen in love. I love you." And he leaves the room. And Fitzgerald has her turn slightly and look at the door and say, "Gosh." You have this horrifying revelation of what this poor man is in for. And there are moments like that in all of the stories that are dazzling in their brilliance. So I read him for nourishment.
You read as a writer slightly differently from someone reading just for pleasure. You're always reading for pleasure-- it's always pleasure because that's how you got started--but you're also trying to mine it, you're also plundering it, in a way. You read it, you look for ways of incorporating the best parts of it, to somehow infuse your own work with this kind of life. I think it's a very healthy thing for writers to do. But I never read Fitzgerald without learning something new every single time, which to me is the mark of a work that is literature and that will last. I have no worries about whether or not it's going to last, because I see students every day who are half my age and who are just as passionate about it as I was, and am, and who love it as much. It's in their eyes when they talk about it. So that's how I feel about it.
I did have a student come to me--a young woman--who said----. I'd asked them to write what they read. "What are you reading?" so that we'll have some common ground as we share some of the stuff. And this young woman raised her hand and said, "I couldn't begin to list all the books. I'm an avid reader. I mean I just read loads of books." And I said, "Well, just then talk about writers that you're reading." The first sentence of the piece she gave me said that her favorite writer was Epscott Fitzgerald--E-p- s-c-o-t-t Fitzgerald. Which was clear evidence that she'd never picked up a book in her life but that she'd heard the name and thought that she heard it one way and, of course, it was not what she should have heard.
There's a story--I think it's apocryphal, but I love to tell it--of Fitzgerald coming back from Paris. There are two stories about Fitzgerald I love to tell. And I use Fitzgerald as an example for writers dealing with the sense of writers celebrating other writers. Fitzgerald gave a story by this unknown neophyte named Hemingway to Morley Callaghan and wanted Callaghan to be as impressed with the story as Fitzgerald was. Here's a writer who is world- famous at the time that this happens. This is a writer who everyone knows his name: he has the dream of every young writer, and he's still young, very young. He gets this story that he's very enthusiastic about from another writer, unknown, completely unknown. Morley Callaghan is unimpressed with the story. And Fitzgerald stands on his head in the living room of this place. "Does this impress you, Morley? Does this impress you?" I always have loved that story for the astonishing generosity that's in it--that this writer could be so passionate about the work of a contemporary that no one knew.
I love to tell that story, and I love to tell the story because this is the way we live our lives as writers. And Fitzgerald coming back just after publishing Tender Is the Night, and he's in a cab talking to the cabdriver. The reviews had been slow in coming and disappointing in general, because we had entered the Thirties and everybody had to be writing about communism, or else there was no sense in writing anything at all. And here was this book about these people who had a lot of money and were wasting away on the Riviera. Fitzgerald's talking about this to the cabdriver, and finally he looks at him and says, "You've never read anything I've written, have you?" And the cabdriver says, "Not unless you wrote Black Beauty." I say I don't know if this happened; it's probably apocryphal. But I've always loved the story because it has to do with the writer's life in America.
I will end with a story that I know to be true. It happened to a writer named Jon Hassler. He was working in his cabin in Minnesota and developed trouble with the toilet, the bathroom. It stopped up--the septic tank. It really exploded, and there was shit all over the walls. And he called the plumber who came to work, and the plumber was up to his ankles in this stuff, washing it off the walls, and looked over his shoulder at Hassler and said, "You're that writer guy from Minneapolis, right?" Hassler said, "Yeah." And the plumber shook his head with real consternation and said, "I don't know how you can do that kind of work."
Robert Bausch: Whenever I talk about the influence of a writer, especially a writer I admire so much, I always come at it from two points of view. One is, as Dick was saying, as a writer. I'm a writer, and my first impression of Fitzgerald really was from his life, not his work. I had this image in my mind of what I wanted to be as a writer, and the two writers who most impressed me were Sherwood Anderson, for the way he dressed, and Fitzgerald, for the way he lived. Anderson with the flannel shirt: It seemed like he always had the Levis on and the long underwear sticking out under his sleeve. And Fitzgerald: As a young man I sort of incorporated the picture in my mind of the writer as the hard- living, hard-drinking fellow. So I took it first from the image of Fitzgerald, and later from the work.
But I also come at Fitzgerald as a teacher. I rarely teach books I love because I'm afraid my enthusiasm will ruin my skill as a teacher. But I am lately more and more terrified (I think "terrified" might be an accurate word) at what is happening in this culture in terms of the language and the art of writing. I'm afraid that our students in colleges and universities across this country are being lied to every day about what's going to be demanded of them in life. And I don't mean about their work. I mean in life. They are not learning how to be the best they can be when life rots in the beam and puts us in extremities of grief and pain. They don't learn that because they're not reading the right books. They're not being given the right books to read, and when they are given them to read, a lot of them don't do the reading as seriously or as consciously as they should.
I have students whom I admire. I don't like to be one of those teachers who sounds like he has contempt for his students. I don't. In fact, I have affection for them, real affection. And I want them to be exposed to the best works. So I find myself in the last few years teaching Gatsby to all my students. My creative-writing students have to read it, and I also want my composition students to read it, and I also have my American- literature students read it. These students come to me when I tell them they're going to read Gatsby, and of course the composition students want to know why. And I explain that Fitzgerald's work is so purely unquirky. I once did parodies of the various writers I teach for my students. I wrote parodies of Sherwood Anderson, the easiest thing to do; Hemingway was very easy; Faulkner was fun and easy. And I took months trying to write a parody of Fitzgerald. I couldn't do it. I ended up writing an imitation of some of those sentences in Gatsby, because I couldn't write a parody of him.
I realized that the reason I couldn't was because this was the real article. There's nothing quirky about this work. So I tell my students that. If you want the language used to its best uses, then this is what I want you to read. You want to learn to write better? This is what I want you to read. I don't talk about Latinate phrases or the King's English or anything like that; I just say, "If you want to learn how to write, I want you to read this book." And frequently I have students who have read the book in high school--have been asked to read the book in high school--and who then roll their eyes and say, "Ah, I'm not going to read that book again."
As a teacher you're always a researcher, you're always engaging in research. The best teachers are always stirring things up in their students and trying to find out what's in their minds and learning from that. So I'm always asking, "Why do you have that reaction to this book?" And my first impulse is--and this is one that I obviously can't act on--is that I want to slap them with the book. But I also want to know why they're rolling their eyes. And I find out that frequently they roll their eyes because they've been given the litany about this book in high school. People are teaching this book as if it were about the American Dream. It is. But it's not just about the American Dream. That's why it's a great book. The book is about the Human Dream. It's about the desire of all human beings to have in the future what they don't have now and to be somehow an engine in that, to be able to bring that about. And that's why it has survived and, I think, will survive for generations. It's not just about the American Dream; it's not just about the 1920s.
Something that I think Matthew Bruccoli said in one of his essays--I may be quoting somebody else, but I think I'm quoting Matthew--he talked about how the future is always brighter, that the past is used up. It's a golden past that we remember and cherish and the future is bright before us and the present is always----. I think the phrase he used was "empty milk cartons and fruit rinds" and so on.
This is what we're living in now. If you could look closely at that future, it's really a kind of past that's the future we long for--and I remember how important it was in the 1960s to know this. I knew it from reading Gatsby, not from teaching it. In the Sixties when everybody was saying we had to get back to the garden, I was saying, "You ought to read The Great Gatsby. It's sort of about that."
But finally I force my students to read the book because I think it's great writing obviously, but I force them to read the book because I want to stir them, I want them to be thinking about literature and what it offers, I want them to back away a little bit from the screen and the keyboard and be again a human being holding a book that has the truth in it. I want to have them discover the truth there, not in a classroom and not with lecturers and not with anything I might say or anyone else might say. And so I find myself for the first time in my life forcing my students to read a book I love. And I'm enjoying it. Thank you.
George Garrett: Now, since this is a celebration of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, we thought we'd read a paragraph or two of some favorite thing. Dick?
Richard Bausch: I guess another thing about Fitzgerald that is important--and I think it's true of every really great writer--is that you read a passage and it changes the way you see something the rest of your life. I never get on a train without thinking about this, and I rode many trains when I was in the Air Force. The way I like to travel is by train. I've traveled in the Midwest by train, and I never get on a train without thinking of this:
One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That's and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matchings of invitations: "Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?" and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
That's my middle-west--not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all--Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
Robert Bausch: It occurs to me that in some ways Fitzgerald is like Gatsby and we're all gathered at this huge, incoherent house, and after we're done, we're going to pull away from the driveway. But I love this section of the book. Frequently when I want to sell my students on this book, when I finally give in and tell them, "Goddamn it, it's good!" I read this section:
Gatsby's house was still empty when I left--the grass on his lawn had grown as long as mine. One of the taxi drivers in the village never took a fare past the entrance gate without stopping for a minute and pointing inside; perhaps it was he who drove Daisy and Gatsby over to East Egg the night of the accident and perhaps he had made a story about it all his own. I didn't want to hear it and I avoided him when I got off the train.
I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter faint and incessant from his garden and the cars going up and down his drive. One night I did hear a material car there and saw its lights stop at his front steps. But I didn't investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn't know that the party was over.
On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at the huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
Sydney Blair: I could listen to them read Fitzgerald all day long.
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
George Garrett: I'm going to read two paragraphs--the first two paragraphs--of Tender Is the Night, which were the first two paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald that I ever read. The purpose there, as he knew very well--and, thank goodness, we got away from that revised Malcolm Cowley edition, which ruined this--the purpose is to hypnotize the reader, and a whole series of things work hypnotically to do that: Some of the same things that you heard in Dick's reading about the trains in the Midwest, where a series of sensory-affective details bring this to life in a certain tone and exactness. There's one great moment in the second paragraph. Many of you have heard readings by Jim Dickey, and some of you remember how when a good line was coming up he'd warn you in advance: "It's comin'! It's comin'! Here it is! Wow, we'll be wreckage forever!" This passage has one, and I will print it out in neon when we get there, because it's just remarkable--it's that moment of genius in the middle of an otherwise spellbinding performance.
On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went North in April. Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausse's Hôtel des Étrangers and Cannes, five miles away.
The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one. In the early morning the distant image of Cannes, the pink and cream of old fortifications, the purple alp that bounded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quavering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea-plants through the clear shallows. [Here comes the moment----.] Before eight a man came down to the beach in a blue bathrobe and with much preliminary application to his person of the chilly water, and much grunting and loud breathing, floundered a minute in the sea. When he had gone, beach and bay were quiet for an hour. Merchantmen crawled westward on the horizon; bus boys shouted in the hotel court; the dew dried upon the pines. In another hour the horns of motors began to blow down from the winding road along the low range of the Maures, which separates the littoral from true Provençal France.
I love that man coming out; I don't think anybody else would have thought of it--to suddenly humanize the scene. And then, if you were doing it in shots--which is one way he thought; he really was a very visual writer; no wonder he liked working with film-- moving out to a big, panoramic view with boats in the distance. But in order to do that, he set that little man in the blue bathrobe; it's just wonderful.
Richard Bausch: Just the words themselves: "with much preliminary application to his person," "floundered a minute in the sea." That's such an amazing line.
George Garrett: So, now that we've been brilliant for an hour, you all are probably getting restless. Somebody might have some questions to ask one of the writers.
Questioner: Do any of you use Fitzgerald as a direct model for your writing?
Richard Bausch: I imitate his style every time I write. One of the proudest things in my life is that I was once introduced by somebody at Georgetown University at a writers' conference. He said, "How do I introduce Richard Bausch? How do I describe Richard Bausch? Imagine that F. Scott Fitzgerald had been raised by the Snopes clan." And I'm very proud of that.
Robert Bausch: As I said, I tried to imitate Fitzgerald for my students, tried to do a parody of his work, and found it impossible. I ended up imitating that passage I read in The Great Gatsby, basically. Not very successfully. And I always took Fitzgerald's advice. Fitzgerald wrote about writing, too. I took his advice. He always said that you should never read only one writer while you're writing. You should always read five or six different authors at once. I'm not sure where he wrote that, but I remember----
Richard Bausch: It's in a letter to Scottie. He said you should absorb six good authors a year. And we just found out, to our horror, while looking at the exhibition, that Scottie never seriously read the letters. She felt that they were a bombardment of parental intrusion on her life, these great letters.
Robert Bausch: Well, it's great advice. Because if you're reading six or seven different authors at once, you really end up sounding like yourself, which is what every writer wants to do. You don't end up sounding like the writer you're reading. I went through phases when I was a kid just starting. I wrote my first novel when I was in the eighth grade, and it sounded a whole lot like Edwin O'Connor because that's who I was reading then. Every writer I was reading I ended up sounding like. Some writers I was reading I didn't want to sound like, enough so that I stopped reading them. Henry James just completely ruined me; I just couldn't read him without sounding prissy when I wrote. But I don't think I could sound like Fitzgerald, because, as I said, I don't think his style is quirky. It's almost as if it were composed by the arbiter of the English language--whoever it was who said that this is how it should be spoken.
Sydney Blair: That's true. I mean, how hard it is to reproduce his style. But I do find that if I read writers that are as wonderful prose stylists as he is--just the writing alone-- sometimes in an occasional wonderful moment it will seep through into what I'm doing, which I'm always grateful for.
George Garrett: There's one other aspect that has to do with the different kinds of influences we're talking about, influence or examples. Those of us--and there were several who came to Princeton right after World War II in the post-war years, an overlap of a decade for people who had started Princeton and their lives had been interrupted by World War II--those in the late Forties. From that group came any number of writers, lots of poets, and some novelists. Probably the most famous one while we were there--who really was extraordinarily famous, perhaps in some way that even Fitzgerald had never been in his lifetime--was Frederick Buechner. We saw him wandering around carrying an attache case and going places and mysterious ways. He's a novelist that I've come to admire greatly.
But I think that one of the things Fitzgerald did for those of us who were there at that place and shared that experience (with some differences) with him, one of those things was to help us to look to do other things. He did what he did--and I don't think it's applied more generally, but we're looking for an excuse to go in different directions anyway--he did what he did so well that it liberated writers coming along behind him. It was a model of excellence, and yet not a model to be imitated. He opened up the possibility of other doors, of other ways of telling stories. The only one of the writers I can think of was Edmund Keeley, who's better known as a translator of contemporary Greek poetry. But he's a very good novelist and wrote a very Fitzgeraldian novel called (the title comes from the Scott Fitzgerald epigraph) The Gold-Hatted Lover, a very good book. He is the only one I know who followed in the footsteps.
It was Fitzgerald's excellence that helped define our difference. I don't know if that makes any sense to anybody, but it sometimes works that way, too, and, I think, in a different way for southern writers. Faulkner helped to do the same thing--to define what's different. There's no purpose in imitating his work; as in the case of Fitzgerald, it inspires. It's there, as something not to be imitated, but as a superior example for a writer and therefore very encouraging. It is not dismaying, no matter how despairing it might be. It's not dismaying at all; it's encouraging.
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This page updated 12 November 1997.
Copyright 1997, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.