Ross Macdonald’s Marked Copy of
The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald:
A Study of Influence

by Robert F. Moss

The Portable Fitzgerald: notes The Portable Fitzgerald: Title Page The Portable Fitzgerald:notes


    In his 1990 Twayne’s United States Authors Series monograph on Ross Macdonald (the pen name of detective novelist Kenneth Millar), Bernard A. Schopen writes of The Black Money (1966), “As nearly everyone has observed, the novel is the result of Macdonald’s long meditations on the themes and patterns of action in the book that he said he read annually, The Great Gatsby.”1 Schopen’s comment suggests that the connection between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kenneth Millar has been thoroughly explored. It has not. Several of Millar’s critics have briefly mentioned that he was influenced by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and they have noted the similarities between Jay Gatsby and Pedro Domingo, the Panamanian-born character in The Black Money who dreams of remaking himself and focuses his dreams on marrying a wealthy American girl. The analysis of Fitzgerald’s influence on Millar has not gone beyond this point.

    Millar referred to Fitzgerald as his “dream writer” and “our finest novelist.” Of Fitzgerald’s third novel he said, “Gatsby is in modern times the central artistic expression of the American experience. It’s about American idealism destroyed by American greed. It’s about the struggle for the soul of America by opposing forcesςidealism on one hand and money power on the otherςmisplaced idealism.” 2 Millar owned a copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald, which he underlined extensively and filled with marginal comments.3 The volume offers unique evidence of Fitzgerald’s influence and shows several of the ways in which Millar learned from the man he called “my master” and “one of the authors who taught me to write.”4

    Millar cited as his earliest influences Fyodor Dostoevski, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins, and Stephen Leacock, whom he claimed was “the one Canadian writer who was writing about life around him.” 5 His reading of Fitzgerald came later. Millar’s personality and world view was not so much shaped by Fitzgerald’s work as it was echoed in it. The two writers’ childhood experiences instilled in them an adult fascination with ambition, wealth, and the pastςconcerns they both explored in their fiction.6 Their treatments of these subjects are not identical, but analyzing their similarities and differences reveals much about each author’s temperament and why Millar was drawn to Fitzgerald in the first place.

* * *

    For both writers, the economic and social reality of their early lives determined how they responded to issues of money and class. Both Millar and Fitzgerald had fathers who were economic failures. Fitzgerald’s father, never an astute businessman, failed as a furniture manufacturer, then worked as a salesman for Procter & Gamble before being dismissed in 1908ςwhen Scott Fitzgerald was twelve years old. His father’s failure left the family in an ambiguous position. They moved back to St. Paul, Minnesota, and lived rather comfortably on the money Mollie Fitzgerald had inherited from her father, a wealthy grocery wholesaler. The Fitzgeralds lived in the Summit Avenue section, St. Paul’s most prestigious neighborhood, but they had far less money than Scott’s wealthy playmates. They moved almost annually and lived in rental houses and apartments.

    The young Scott Fitzgerald was involved in St. Paul society, but he always felt like he was an outsider. This sense of alienation was heightened when he enrolled in the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, a private academy that drew its students from the wealthiest Catholic families in the United States. Fitzgerald was always aware of his being the poorest boy at a rich boy’s school, and such feelings helped drive his relentless need for recognition and achievement. He fulfilled this need through writing.

    Kenneth Millar shared similar childhood circumstances, but to a much more severe degree. His father, John Macdonald Millar, was a newspaper editor and harbor pilot who neglected his work for romantically-inspired hobbies such as Japanese and Native American folklore.7 When Kenneth Millar was three years old, his father abandoned him and his mother. Annie Millar had no legacy to fall back upon, and her ill-health prevented her from being able to support her young son. She went as far as taking Kenneth to the gates of an orphanage before deciding she could not abandon the boy.8 Millar spent the rest of his childhood in Canada, often living with relatives. As an adult, looking back on his childhood, Millar recalled himself as a boy who by the age of sixteen “had lived in fifty rooms and committed the sin of poverty in each of them.” 9

    Millar was not unaware of wealth as a child. When he was twelve, his aunt Margaretςwhom Millar described as “wealthy”ςsent him for two years to St. John’s School, a semi-military academy. He later recalled that those years were,

the first time I got to know them [the rich] intimately. . . . I think I learned something about the Canadian class structure and I’m sure I also evolved a desire to rise in itςnot always be at the bottom. It stirs your ambitions to be taken out of one place and put in contact with something higher and better in the economic sense and also in the social sense.”10
It was at this time in his life that Millar first began writing seriously.

    Fitzgerald’s success as an author came early. His Triangle Club shows earned him recognition at Princeton, and his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920) made him a national celebrity at the age of twenty-three. Millar’s success was much slower in coming. His first novel, The Dark Tunnel, was published in 1944, and by the 1950s he was able to live off the income from his writing. It was not until the publication of The Underground Man (1970) that Millar achieved critical and commercial success. His childhood sense of alienation was stronger than Fitzgerald’s, and his success much longer in comingςtwo essential factors that shape the differences between his and Fitzgerald’s temperaments.    

    Both Millar and Fitzgerald were autobiographical writers: their best work relied upon their dealing with personal material and coming to terms with their past experiences. Writing about the past helped them understand it. As a result of their backgrounds, the two writers shared common materials and concerns in their fiction: ambition, the American Dream, and efforts to reshape oneself; the influence of the past; and, wealth and its effects on individuals. In dealing with these issues, both possessed a type of double-vision, simultaneously involved in and detached from the world about which they wrote. The double-vision interpretation of Fitzgerald’s sensibility was first proposed by Malcolm Cowley in his New Republic review of Tender Is the Night (1934), in which he wrote, “Part of him [Fitzgerald] had been a little boy peeping in through the window and being thrilled with the music and beautifully-dressed womenςa romantic but hardhearted little boy who stops every once in a while to wonder how much it all costs and where the money comes from.”11 This perspective was the result of Fitzgerald’s both being a part of St. Paul society and prep academy life and, because of his family’s limited means, being an outsider to the world of wealth. Millar felt a similar insider/outsider stance, though not because of money but because of his Canadian-American background. This experience gave him a mixed perspective on the social world of Southern California, where he lived most of his adult life. Millar called his perspective, “the fresh suspicious eye of a similar outsider who is fascinated but not completely taken in by the customs of the natives. 12

    One of the ways in which this double-vision manifested itself in Fitzgerald’s and Millar’s fiction was through their use of semi-detached narrators. Jay Gatsby is clearly the hero of The Great Gatsby, but Nick Carraway is the narrator and central figure, bringing to Long Island the fresh suspicious eye of a Midwesterner. 13 Lew Archer, Macdonald’s detective, tells the stories and, through his investigations, forces events to happen, but he is not the hero. Millar found that his detective’s ambiguous stance allowed him to incorporate into his novels painful material from his childhood. Millar knew he wanted to write about that material in The Galton Case, the most autobiographical of his novels. In three false startsςall of which were narrated by a character who shared Millar’s own Canadian-American backgroundςhe found himself unable to control the story. 14 Bringing Archer into the novel as the narrator allowed Millar to distance himself from the character who is the actual focus of the story: John Brown, Jr., who finds himself exiled from his American inheritance and returns to California to reclaim his rightful legacy. Only with the discovery of Archer’s power as a mediating character could Millar begin writing his most mature novels.

    Although Macdonald and Fitzgerald used a similar narrative stance in their fiction, the differences in their backgrounds resulted in dissimilar responses to their thematic material. As children, both writers indulged in fantasies that they were foundlings from royal families and were being raised by people who were not their real parents. As adults, both were fascinated by ambition, dreams, and the drive to remake oneselfςthe essential components of the American Dream. Characters aspiring to greatness appear repeatedly in Millar’s fiction, beginning with The Galton Case. John Brown, Jr., the impoverished son of an abusive father and a miserable mother, grows up in a tiny Canadian town, dreaming that he is a lost prince who will someday return to his rightful home in the king’s castle. Ex-con Pete Culligan offers him the chance to fulfill that dream by impersonating the lost heir to the wealthy Galton family in California, and Brown leaps at the opportunity, adopting the grandson’s identity and successfully claiming the birthright. 15

    The parallels to Jay Gatsby’s dream are even stronger in The Black Money. Pedro Domingo was born the son of a Panamanian prostitute, but he has fantasies of being a direct descendant of Sir Francis Drake and French nobility. He comes to the United States and falls in love with Ginny Fablon, a rich girl at the tennis club where he works as a pool boy. He vows to return to Montevista a wealthy man and to marry Ginny. When Domingo sees the opportunity to get Leo Spillman, a Las Vegas gangster, out of a jam, he seizes the chance. Spillman takes Domingo under his wing and sends him to school in Europe. Now wealthy and calling himself Francis Martel, Domingo returns to Montevista and marries Ginny Fablon.

    Though the nature of their characters’ aspirations are similar, Fitzgerald and Millar have different interpretations of the nature of ambition and dreams. Fitzgerald believed in the power and value of aspiration; it is the quality that gives Jay Gatsbyςotherwise a shallow, inconsequential characterςhis appeal. Nick Carraway condemns everyone he meets in the East, exempting only Gatsby,

who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life. . . . it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. Noςatsby turned out all right in the end. . . . (6)
Gatsby’s dream is not what destroys him; he is undone by a combination of his own naivetι and the cruelty of the society to which his dream carries him.

    Millar does not share Fitzgerald’s admiration for ambition. In his novels, Millar repeatedly portrays dreams as being dangerous and delusive. When Stella CarlsonςTom Hillman’s girlfriend in The Far Side of the Dollarςis awakened from a nap, she says to Archer, “Don’t be cross with me. I was just dreaming something. I forget what, but it was depressing.” Archer adds, “Her eyes were still dark with the dream” (147). 16 The conflict in the novel is rooted in the decision by Carol Brown, Tom Hillman’s real mother, to leave Pocatello, Idaho and make a new life for herself in Los Angeles. She has an affair with a married naval officer, gives birth to a child and puts him up for adoption. The main action of the story is Tom Hillman’s search for the identity of his real parents. The value of Carol Brown’s aspirations is made clear when her mother says, “she wanted to get out of Pocatello. She hated Pocatello. She wanted to go out to the coast and break into the movies. I’m afraid my daughter had very childish dreams” (141).

    This negative portrayal of dreams is most clear in The Black Money. Nick Carraway praised Gatsby for his hope and romanticism. Archer’s assessment of Pedro Domingo is much more harsh: “I thought as I drove away that Martel was one of those dangerous dreamers who acted out his dreams, a liar who forced his lies to become true” (119). Later, a man who knew Pedro Domingo before his Martel charade, tells Archer, “Pedro went in rather heavily for fantasy.” Archer replies, “It’s dangerous . . . when you start to act it out” (175). This idea is embodied in the name Felix Cervantes, which Domingo chooses for his first alias, suggesting Don Quixote and the reckless pursuit of idealistic fantasies.

    The greatest difference between Fitzgerald’s and Millar’s attitude toward dreams can be seen in the outcome of Gatsby’s and Domingo’s pursuit of success. Gatsby’s defeat is caused by people who do not share his capacity for hope and wonderςpeople epitomized by the cruel and unimaginative Tom Buchanan, who not only prevents Gatsby from winning Daisy but also makes possible his murder by telling Wilson who owned the car that killed Myrtle. Pedro Domingo is murdered as well, but the killer is not a representative of a brutal, unidealistic society but rather a dangerous dreamer whose romantic fantasies are even greater than Domingo’s: Professor “Taps” Tappinger. Tappinger is struggling with a book on Stephen Crane that contains the following analysis:

Stephen Crane . . . lived like a god in the adamantine city of his own mind. Where did he find the prototype of that city? In Athens the marmoreal exemplar of the West, or in the supernal blueprint which Augustine bequeathed to us in his Civitas Dei? Perchance the luminous city of his mind was delved from the mud of Cora’s loins. (195)
Archer’s comment upon reading Tappinger’s work is simply, “It sounded like gibberish to me” (195). Tappinger’s vision of “the luminous city of the mind” leads him to seduce two of his studentsςincluding Ginny Fablonςand to murder both Ginny’s parents and Pedro Domingo when they get in the way of his romantic delusions.

    The reason for Fitzgerald’s and Millar’s opposing views of the value of dreams lies to some extent in the way the two writers viewed the past. The Great Gatsby begins with Nick’s contemplating his “younger and more vulnerable years” and ends with the lyrical statement, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 17 The concept of the past also underlies each of Millar’s mature novels. The crimes that Archer sets out to solve always lead him further and further back in time, uncovering an elaborate web of cause and effect. The seed of each case is planted decades before the actual narrative begins. The climactic point in each novel is when Archer realizes, as he phrases it in The Black Money, “past and present were coming together” (142). Millar’s and Fitzgerald’s conception of the past, nevertheless, are almost diametrically opposed to each other.

    Jay Gatsby does not understand that time is an unconquerable force. When Nick tells him, “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby’s naive response is: “Can’t repeat the past? . . . Why of course you can!” (116). The novel portrays the past as impossible to recapture, as nothing more than a “transitory enchanted moment” (189). This view is advanced in Nick’s final statement on Gatsby’s dream:

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. (189)
    Lew Archer makes no such statements. For Millar, the past is not transitory but inescapable. Repeatedly in his novels characters try to cover up what has happened years and even decades before: John Brown, Jr.’s mother attempts to hide from him the truth of his real father’s murderer; Taps Tappinger tries to hide the fact that he murdered Roy Fablon seven years before; Ralph Hillman attempts to cover up his fathering of an illegitimate child. These deeds cannot be hidden forever: they engender only more crimes and more cover-ups. Nick Carraway says, “You can’t repeat the past”; Lew Archer disagrees, describing “the queer feeling that time was repeating itself and would go on endlessly repeating itself, as it does in hell” (The Far Side of the Dollar 119). 18

    Another concern that Fitzgerald and Millar share is that of wealth and the nature of wealth. As with dreams and the past, their treatments of the subject differ significantly. Fitzgerald was both attracted to and suspicious of money, believing that it created unlimited possibilities for its possessors but had to be handled properly. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby’s undoing is not that he misjudges the power of money but rather that he does not understand how to use it and how it works in society. Daisy can indeedςas Gatsby believesςbe bought: Tom Buchanan in essence buys her with “a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars” (80). 19 But, all wealth is not the same. Gatsby’s mansion and his multi- colored shirts represent great expenditure, but they alone are not enough to buy Daisy’s love. Daisy’s price is measured not only in dollars but also in the education, taste, and class behind the dollars. When Buchanan exposes the quick, illegal source of Gatsby’s income and the fact that he is “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” Daisy’s resolve to leave her husband dissolves. Gatsby is defeated because he does not understand how money works.

    Millar has a less-complicated view of money: wealth does not offer possibilities but rather is an unquestionably stultifying, corrupting influence. Money cuts its possessors off from reality and the possibilities of life. Mrs. Galton, the wealthy matriarch in The Galton Case, lives in Arroyo Park, a city Archer describes as,

an economic battleground where managers and people matched wits and income. The people of Mrs. Galton’s street didn’t know there had been a war. Their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had won it for them; death and taxes were all they had to cope with.(10) 20
Later in the novel, Archer remarks, “With her money, and her asthma, and her heart, Mrs. Galton was living at several removes from reality” (18). Anthony Galton, Mrs. Galton’s son, felt this distancing effect caused by money and decided to leave: “He did feel that having money cut him off from life. . . . He often said he wanted to live it like ordinary people, lose himself in the mass” (24). Anthony’s decision to drop out of privileged societyςgoing so far as to adopt the name John Brownςbegins the long chain of events that Archer must unravel.

    The wealthy members of the Montevista Tennis Club in The Black Money suffer a similar fate. Peter Jamieson, who hires Archer to discover the background of the mysterious Frenchman who has stolen his fiancιe, is described as looking, “like money about three generations removed from its source” (1). 21 The rich characters in Macdonald’s novels do not enjoy their wealth; it eats at them until it deprives them of all vitality. Archer makes this point clear in his description of a dance at the tennis club:

The orchestra was playing again and through the archway I could see people dancing in the adjoining room. Most of the tunes, and most of the dancers, had been new in the twenties and thirties. Together they gave the impression of a party that had been going on too long, till the music and the dancers had worn as thin as the husks of insects after spiders had eaten them. (58)
    Archer’s overall judgment of wealth can be seen in his response to the Galton mansion:
I got some sense of the guarded peace that walled estates like this had provided. In the modern world the walls were more like prison walls or the wire fence around a nursing home garden. When it came right down to it, I preferred the service entrance. The people in the kitchen usually had more fun. (140)
Kenneth Millar shared Archer’s view.

    The wealthy in Fitzgerald’s novels enjoy their riches no more than those in Millar’s, but the cause of this condition is not the nature of money but rather the decisions of the people who have it. Tom Buchanan has little to show for his life except a stable of polo ponies and a string of mistresses. This failing, though, is because of his essential stupidity and lack of ambition. Daisy Buchanan, similarly, is “pretty cynical about everything” and confesses to Nick, “I think everything’s terrible . . . . I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything” (21-22). Daisy does virtually nothing except be attractive to men and lounge around her house. Nick’s first dinner at the Buchanan house amounts to little more than tedious, superficial conversation. The unhappiness is not the result of money but of failings within the characters.

    Ross Macdonald paints the scene differently: for him money is the essential cause of unhappiness. In The Galton Case, John Brown, Jr. succeeds in claiming his birthright as Anthony Galton’s heir and in fulfilling his childhood fantasies of being the lost son of royalty. Within a matter of days, though, despite his dreams and ambitions, he, too, begins to be corrupted. “The Galton household,” Archer observes, “had hot and cold running money piped in from an inexhaustible reservoir. But money was never free. Like any other commodity, it had to be paid for” (104). Not long after Archer reunites him with his grandmother, Brown sends Archer a note thanking him for his efforts. He adds to his note, “For what it’s worth, I did persuade Grandmother to send you an additional check in token of appreciation.” Archer observes, “It seemed to be pure gratitude undiluted by commercialism until I reflected that he was taking credit for the check Sable [the family lawyer] had sent me” (121). John Brown, Jr., a wealthy man for only a few days, is already adopting his grandmother’s values. When Archer thanks Mrs. Galton for the check, she responds, “the laborer is worthy of his hire” (141). Her grandson’s note is the first step toward this attitude.

    The corrupting influence of wealth is present in The Black Money as well. In Archer’s initial interview with Peter Jamieson, who comes from a wealthy family, Archer is immediately aware that “he was in the habit of buying things and people” (6). This trait is not restricted to those born and raised in a privileged climate. Pedro Domingo’s character is damaged by his wealth. Gatsby moves to Long Island and throws open his house for extravagant partiesςadmittedly with the self-interested motive of luring Daisy to him, but an open gesture nonetheless. When Domingo/Martel returns with money in Montevista, he immediately puts up a veil of secrecy and seclusion. When Harry Hendricks, a bumbling operator who is seeking to discover Martel’s identity, takes a snapshot of him, Domingo’s first response is to try to buy the camera and film. When this tactic fails, he snatches the camera and crushes it beneath his heel. The cruelty increases when Domingo again catches Hendricks spying: he beats him to death. Pedro Domingo is motivated by a dream every bit as idealistic as Jay Gatsby’s, but his exposure to wealth hardens him and instills in him the same corruption that is associated with the possessors of old money. Fitzgerald’s and Millar’s childhoods made them both preoccupied with wealth; the differences in the conditions of their upbringings colored how they perceived the nature of money. 22

* * *

    The connections between Millar’s and Fitzgerald’s writing extend far beyond the material and themes about which they wrote. Kenneth Millar studied Fitzgerald’s works closely and attempted to learn from them. The best documentary evidence of this effort appears in Millar’s personal copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald, which he annotated extensively. Handwritten notes cover three full endpapers in the volume, and Millar underlined passages and made marginal comments on virtually every page of The Great Gatsby and many pages of Tender Is the Night. 23 Some of Millar’s annotations are nothing more than the kind of comments a careful, intelligent reader would make. He indicated with a question mark passages he found confusing or ambiguous, such as Nick’s saying of Jordan Baker, “I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body” (54). He questioned as well certain details he suspected of being erroneous. When Nick reports that Gatsby, “was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car,” Millar queries, “running board?” (58). 24 Similarly, Millar wrote, “how?” next to a passage saying that Gatsby was “a captain before he went to the front” during World War I (139). Other annotations identify themes and motifs and indicate passages that Millar considered autobiographical.

    That he was reading closely and thinking about what he read is not surprising: Millar held a Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan. Other marks in the volume, though, show that Millar was doing far more than perusing and interpreting. He was studying and analyzing Fitzgerald’s technique. The most intriguing passage in Millar’s copy appears on pages two and three of The Great Gatsby, where he underlined and subdivided each sentence, apparently in an effort to analyze the way in which Fitzgerald structured his sentences. Millar used parentheses to set off subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases, circled all relative pronouns, and underlined selected wordsςusually verbsςin each sentence. The most striking feature of Fitzgerald’s syntaxςas illuminated by Millar’s markingsςis his reliance on relative clauses, particularly those beginning with ‘that’ and ‘who’. Millar, in fact, penciled in relative pronouns where Fitzgerald had only implied them in his sentence:

     Instead of being the warm center of the world, the Middle West now 
     seemed (like the ragged edge of the universe)ς(so) I decided to go 
                                                 (that) 
     East and learn the bond business.   Everybody ^ I knew) was (in 
                                     (that)     
     the bond business,) so I supposed ^ (it could support one more
     single man.)25
Fitzgerald’s relative clauses serve to refine his proseςclarifying and enriching the details in each sentenceςand to give it a rhythmic, periodic feel. A good example of this function appears earlier in the passage Millar was studying:
     ... the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, 
     |(who) came here in fifty-one, | sent a substitute to the Civil War, 
     and started the wholesale hardware business | (that) my father 
     carries on today.|
    What Millar may have learned from this analysis is unclear. He made no marginal annotations to identify any patterns he may have found. Marking a Ross Macdonald passage in a similar manner reveals that he, too, made frequent use of subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases, but so does an analysis of the prose of detective novelist Raymond Chandler, who was another of Millar’s primary influences. Such constructions are a standard part of a writer’s repertoire. Most likely, Millar abandoned the effort after only two pages because the experiment did little to unlock the secrets of Fitzgerald’s prose. Such markings appear in no other passage in Millar’s volume.

    Other Millar annotations give more concrete evidence of Fitzgerald’s influence. As he matured as a writer, Millar became increasingly aware of plot and overall structure and the ways in which they could contribute to the novel as a whole. He was, in fact, moving away from his earlier influencesςparticularly Raymond Chandlerςand seems to have used Fitzgerald as a means of furthering this transition. In a 1965 essay entitled “The Writer as Detective Hero,” Millar laid out what he considered to be the essential differences between his writing and Chandler’s:

Chandler described a good plot as one that made for good scenes, as if the parts were greater than the whole. I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say true things about it. The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure. Which means that structure must be single, and intended. 26
Millar seems to have studied The Great Gatsby to help further his technique of plot construction.

    The main lessons Millar learned were not how to construct a plot on the macroscopic level but rather how to manipulate the plot in the middle of a narrative. In his personal copy, Millar repeatedly marked passages “PREP,” indicating that Fitzgerald was using them to prepare for later incidents in the story. In Chapter VII, when Tom, Daisy, Gatsby and Nick make their expedition to New York City, Tom insists on driving Gatsby’s car. Millar noted next to the passage, “1st shift of cars, prep. for later” (111). 27 Similarly, he notes that the description of an incident that occurs at the end of one of Gatsby’s partiesςin which a new coupe leaving the party runs into a ditchςis anticipating the later, more significant confusion over who is driving Gatsby’s car when Myrtle Wilson is killed. Millar wrote “PREP” beside the passage in which Owl Eyes is falsely accused of drunkenly wrecking the car: “‘You don’t understand,’ explained the criminal. ‘I wasn’t driving. There’s another man in the car’” (51). Millar was concerned not only with the way in which Fitzgerald laid the groundwork for plot development in the novel but also with the way in which he used parallel episodes to foreshadow future events.

    Millar also focused on the means by which Fitzgerald manipulated time in The Great Gatsby. He was particularly interested in how Fitzgerald managed to jump smoothly over a large amount of time with a single sentence. Millar noted the passage at the beginning of Chapter VII, in which Nick learns that, after the long-awaited reunion with Daisy, Gatsby has stopped giving parties and has replaced all his servants. Fitzgerald then jumps ahead to Gatsby’s inviting Nick to a luncheon at Daisy’s house: “Next day Gatsby called me on the phone” (104). Next to this line Millar wrote, “technique.” He made a similar note of the way in which Fitzgerald moved from Nick’s meeting with Meyer Wolfshiem after Gatsby’s death to Nick’s conversation with Mr. Gatz, who had come East for his son’s funeral. The bridge was again accomplished in a single sentence: “When I left his [Wolfshiem’s] office the sky had turned dark and I got back to West Egg in a drizzle” (159). Millar commented, in the margin, “trans.” (159). What seems to have struck him about these passages is that Fitzgerald keeps his narrative moving through time without resorting to extended accounts of what his narrator was doing nor making use of devices such as line breaks or new chapters.

    This method of transition between scenes was employed successfully by Millar in the Lew Archer novels. In The Black Money, the majority of scene shifts are accomplished by starting a new chapter. In certain instances, though, Millar moves his narrative ahead without elaborating on what occurred during the undiscussed interim. He bridges Archer’s description of his early-morning routine to his visit to Captain Perlberg with a single sentence: “On my way to my office on Sunset Boulevard I took a long detour to the Hall of Justice” (152). Millar effects a similar transition when he moves from the crime scene where Ginny Fablon’s new husband is murdered to Archer’s questioning her on the drive back home: “Later, as we drove through the endless suburbs to Montevista, I asked Ginny if she knew who her husband was” (133). These types of transition certainly are not unique to Fitzgerald and Millar, but Millar’s copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald shows that he was specifically studying how Fitzgerald used them.

    Millar’s biggest debt to Fitzgerald is a matter of language. As he had with his attitude toward plot and structure, Millar made clear that his use of language differed from Chandler’s:

I’ve slightly purified the style. It’s the vernacular, yes, but it’s a purified vernacular. I don’t think it’s going to decay, as most vernacular stories do, for that reason. It’s written with one ear to what people say and the other to the Oxford English Dictionary and the old English classics and American classics.
In his discussion of how he uses language, Millar refers explicitly to Fitzgerald:
A writer should try to handle the language so it sounds exactly the way people think or talk, so it won’t date. That means you have to have a very deep sense of what constitutes purity of diction. I think purity of diction is my main strength as a writer, using the vernacular style as possibly a pure style. It’s pretty much the same style as Fitzgerald used. He was my master. He writes what appears to be a vernacular style, and influenced by poetry. . . . My intention has always been to write dramatic poetry in a new form. 28
These intentions are manifested in the Lew Archer novels.

    Millar’s comments about his language sounding “exactly the way people talk” can be misleading. Perhaps as a result of his advanced education or because he was raised in Canada, Millar’s dialogue tends to be far more formal than actual American speech. In the opening scene of The Galton Case, for instance, Archer enters Gordon Sable’s law offices and has a discussion with Sable’s secretary. She is cool to him at first, but quickly relaxes “her formal manner.” Her dialogue, though, is anything but informal: “I’m Mrs. Haines. Mr. Sable didn’t come into the office today, but he asked me to give you a message when you got here. Would you mind going out to his house?” (3). Average Americans simply don’t speak this way in casual conversation.

    Millar’s remarks on purity of diction and balancing spoken language with the OED are more accurate assessments of how his style works. In this respect he certainly has much in common with Fitzgerald. Neither writer employs particularly obscure diction, but neither depends upon slang or jargon to add color to his prose. A comparison with the style of Raymond Chandler is instructive. Chandler self-consciously incorporated into his novels as much “tough talk” and street slang as he could. In his notebooks he compiled lists of “Railroad Slang,” “Slang and Hard Talk,” “Hollywood Slang,” “Narcotics Slang”, “San Quentin Prison Slang,” and “Pickpocket Lingo.” 29 These lists were compiled from newspaper articles and other printed sources and included terms such as “lip” for a lawyer, “baggage-smasher” for a clumsy person, and “cannon” for a pickpocket. Although Chandler adopted the pose of being conversant in hard talk, 30 the language of his fiction is an artificial construction, crafted to give the illusion of verisimilitude. It does, nevertheless, give a distinctive tone and color to his novelsςthe tone and color readers now associate with hard-boiled fiction in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

    In the search for his “purity of language,” Millar consciously avoided using Chandler’s type of ephemeral or uncommon slang expressions, but his prose is anything but colorless. Millar’s copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald shows some of the ways in which he drew on Fitzgerald in his efforts to create “dramatic poetry in a new form.” Throughout The Great Gatsby, Millar marked passages with a caret-like symbol, indicating phrases and sentences Millar admired, such as,

the intense vitality (28)
young Englishmen dotted about (38)
Philadelphia wants you on the phone, sir. (49)
In the ditch beside the road, right side up, but violently shorn of one wheel, rested a new coupe which had left Gatsby’s drive not two minutes before. (50)
I’m going to make a big request of you today. (61)
I keep it [my house] always full of interesting people, night and day. (83)
Perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common. (103)
    All of these selections are characterized not by unusual individual words but rather by striking combinations of words (“violently shorn”) or unusual means of expressing an idea (“Philadelphia wants you on the phone,” a metonymy). Millar also noted one of the most remarkable sentences in The Great Gatsby, which occurs in the description of Gatsby’s party: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher” (44). Millar underlined the sentence and drew rectangles around the two most important words: the striking verb “lurches” and the adjective “yellow,” which forms a synaesthesia with “cocktail music.” Millar was referring to examples such as these when he described Fitzgerald’s pure and poetic language; Millar aspired to such an ability himself.

    The Lew Archer novels are filled with sentences and constructions that echo Fitzgerald’s style. The Galton Case, for example, opens with a paragraph of lyrical description:

The law offices of Wellesley and Sable were over a savings bank on the main street of Santa Teresa. Their private elevator lifted you from a bare little lobby into an atmosphere of elegant simplicity. It created the impression that after years of struggle you were rising effortlessly to your natural level, one of the chosen. (3)
The phrases “elevator lifted you” and “elegant simplicity” are examples of Millar’s word combinations’ enriching his prose. A similar use of language appears in the opening of The Black Money, where Archer describes the layout of the Montevista Tennis Club: “Its courts and bungalows, its swimming pools and cabanas and pavilions, were disposed around a cove of the Pacific, a few miles south of the Los Angeles County border” (1). “Stood around,” “were scattered around,” or “lay around” would be obvious ways to describe the club’s design; “disposed around” is a richer phrase, carrying with it not only the literal meaning of arranged or ordered but also the connotations of selling and of waste. Similarly, in The Galton Case, Archer repeats that he “parked behind a Chevrolet coupe displaying a doctor’s caduceus” (10). The word “display” conveys Millar’s literal meaning, but it also suggests exhibiting ostentatiously or flaunting. All of these examples use common or vernacular words, but they use them in a way that is both lyrical and symbolic. Each helps create the thematic content of Millar’s novels: social stratification, movement between classes, wealth and the use of wealth. 31 He consciously used language the same way as he used plot and structure: as vehicles of meaning.

    Millar’s marked copy of the Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald offers two important lessons, the first about Kenneth Millar and the second about Fitzgerald. The standard approach to Millar’s writing has been to view him as the successor of Raymond Chandler in the tradition of the hard-boiled novel. Such an approach is accurate to a degree: Millar learned much from Chandler and repeatedly acknowledged his debt to him. As he moved toward becoming a mature novelist, however, Millar consciously tried to distance himself from his predecessor. In doing so, he drew heavily on the work of F. Scott Fitzgeraldςa writer scarcely mentioned in the same breath as “detective story.” The mystery genre is not a self-contained world; it is a part of the larger fabric of American literary history. The Portable volume, furthermore, gives concrete evidence of the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald on American literature. He was a writer’s writerςan author admired, studied, and imitated by the writers who followed him. The work of Kenneth Millar is part of the Fitzgerald legacy.


NOTES

  1. Schopen, Ross Macdonald (Boston: Twayne, 1990), p. 102. Return to text.
  2. Jerry Tutunjian, “A Conversation with Ross Macdonald,” Tamarack Review, 62 (1974), 76. Return to text.
  3. Millar’s copy of the Portable is owned by Matthew J. Bruccoli, Columbia, SC. Return to text.
  4. Kenneth Millar to Matthew J. Bruccoli, 25 May 1972, 2 pp. ALS. Bruccoli Collection, Columbia, SC. Return to text.
  5. Tutunjian, p. 74. Return to text.
  6. These themes run throughout the work of both writers, but I will limit my discussion primarily to The Great Gatsby (1925), the Fitzgerald novel that most influenced Millar; The Galton Case (1959), the first novel in which Millar made use of his childhood experiences; The Far Side of the Dollar (1964), which Millar considered his best novel; and, The Black Money (1966), the book that bears the most obvious debt to Fitzgerald. Return to text.
  7. Matthew J. Bruccoli, Ross Macdonald (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 3. Return to text.
  8. Bruccoli, p. 3. This detail was eventually written into The Galton Case (1959). Return to text.
  9. Ross Macdonald, “A Preface to The Galton Case,” Afterwards: Novelists on their Novels, ed. Thomas McCormack (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 151. Return to text.
  10. Tutunjian, p. 69. Return to text.
  11. Jackson R. Bryer, ed., F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Critical Reception (New York: Burt Franklin, 1978), p. 323. Return to text.
  12. Foreword to Archer in Hollywood (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. viii. Return to text.
  13. A similar role is played by Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is the Night (1934) and Cecelia Brady in The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941). Return to text.
  14. Bruccoli, Ross Macdonald, p. 62. Return to text.
  15. John Brown, Jr., through a rather gimmicky plot twist, turns out to be the real lost heir, but he had no firm knowledge of this fact. Return to text.
  16. The Far Side of the Dollar (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965). Return to text.
  17. Millar incorporated this line into the title of his collection of autobiographical essays, Self Portrait: Ceaselessly Into the Past (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1981). Return to text.
  18. Millar’s view of the past is connected to his interest in Freudian psychology, Oedipal myths, and the biblical notion that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sonsςa preoccupation that clearly distinguishes him from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Return to text.
  19. Page references for The Great Gatsby are to the authorized text established by Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribners, 1992). Return to text.
  20. Page references for The Galton Case are to the collection Archer at Large (New York: Knopf, 1970). Return to text.
  21. Page references for The Black Money are to the 1967 Bantam paperback edition. Return to text.
  22. Fitzgerald’s and Millar’s respective views of wealth were borne out in their lifestyles after they achieved financial success. Fitzgerald’s expenditures are legendary: he spent recklessly, almost showing contempt for money. He over tipped and held lavish parties and consumed far more than he could afford from his writing income. Millar’s response was the exact opposite, as if feeling guilty and unworthy of his income. Millar spent frugally; he refused to eat in any restaurant more expensive than a cafeteria. In a 1969 interview, Millar commented on purchasing his home at Hope Ranch, Santa Barbara, “I felt bad about it. I kept wondering what am I doing in a place like this and what will a place like this do to me?” (John Leonard, “Ross Macdonald, His Lew Archer and Other Secret Selves,” New York Times Book Review, 1 June 1969, 3). The poverty of Millar’s childhood and the years it took for him to succeed as an author prevented his enjoying the money that came in at the end of his career. Return to text.
  23. The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York: Viking, 1951) was edited by Dorothy Parker and contained the full texts of Gatsby and Tender along with a selection of short stories and an introduction by John O’Hara. Page references are to Millar’s copy of this book. Return to text.
  24. Fitzgerald was, in fact, correct on the detail. Return to text.
  25. Millar’s marks include all under linings and everything in bold type, such as carets and parentheses. Return to text.
  26. Ross Macdonald, “The Writer as Detective Hero,” The Mystery Writer’s Art, ed. Francis M. Nevins, Jr. (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1970), p. 303. Return to text.
  27. Millar is referring to the fact that this switch in cars is eventually responsible for Myrtle Wilson’s death. On the trip into the city, Tom stops at Wilson’s garage and Myrtle sees him in the big yellow car. On the return trip, Daisy and Gatsby are in the car. Myrtle sees it approaching the garage and, thinking Tom is inside, runs out into the road. Daisy runs her down and kills her. Return to text.
  28. Tutunjian, pp. 81-82. Return to text.
  29. See The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, ed. Frank MacShane (New York: Echo, 1976), pp. 53-63. Return to text.
  30. See, for example, Chandler to Hamish Hamilton, 18 May 1950, Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Ed. Frank MacShane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), pp. 217-18. Return to text.
  31. Fitzgerald used his language in much the same way. In a draft of a scene in The Love of the Last Tycoon, he described “the skeleton of Stahr’s house,” which was still under construction. Fitzgerald changed the description to read “the fuselage of Stahr’s house,” connecting the house with the images of flight that surround Stahr throughout the novel and reflecting the theme of soaring ambition. Return to text.

Fitzgerald Centenary Comments

This page updated December 4, 2003.
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