As a born peruser, I have a thing for lists, and a penchant for ranking my favorites in the subjects that interest me: my favorite Beatles bootlegs, Islay whiskies, birds, ghost stories. I rank my favorite books, too, and my favorite works by individual authors, but with books in particular, people tend to go with the same old-same old. Many favorite-book lists—like the ones I see on social media—are regularly comprised of 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and, very often, The Great Gatsby. Now, maybe Harper Lee really only wrote one really good book (we may not hear the end of that for a while) and maybe that goes for J.D. Salinger, too. But that’s not even close to describing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary trajectory.
Sometimes I’ve had occasion to ask a professed Great Gatsby lover or three which other works by Fitzgerald they liked. Not infrequently, the answer reveals that they have never read anything else. I’d get replies like, “Nothing. Does he have any other novels?” or “When you’ve read Gatsby you don’t need to read anything else by the man. It’s that perfect.” I find this odd. If there was a record album you loved so much, say by Ella Fitzgerald, you’d naturally want to check out something else by her, maybe track down the entire discography. If that’s true for a singer named Fitzgerald, why not also a writer?
Now, I love Gatsby, a novel that’s as much a very long short story—at 47,000 words—as anything. As Fitzgerald did with Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” a poem he could never read without weeping, I’ve committed large stretches of The Great Gatsby to memory, such that I can be strolling about my day and basically press play in my mind and listen to it. But Gatsby is not even close to Fitzgerald’s best work, and it is the one that has damned the rest of his output to oblivion in some ways. It had the right energy, the right length, the right accessibility, and it came from the right time period. It also had, from one point of view, the great luck to come back from the dead like it did, and acquire its informal title of the Great American Novel. Gatsby has its status, as does the man himself, but all of the Fitzgerald-based focus has gone to it, and away from everything else.
Fitzgerald died 75 years ago, on December 21, 1940, and spent the bulk of the final year of his life writing a series of extended fictional vignettes for Esquire known as the Pat Hobby stories, and a novel—which was to have been his fifth—he never completed called The Love of the Last Tycoon.
Fitzgerald was 43 years old, trying to make a go of it in Hollywood as a screenwriter and script-repairer, though the place never suited him, nor he it. In fact, for all of his time there, he nabbed but one screen credit, for 1938’s Three Comrades. He channeled his setbacks into Pat Hobby, a 49-year old scriptman whose heyday was the silent-film era, and who tumbles from one humiliation to another. Esquire ran the stories at a rate of one a month, with Fitzgerald pleading for more cash from time to time—the pieces earned him a relative pittance compared to his fiction rate during his glory run—as his peers basically shook their heads and pitied him.
The Hobby stories are under-read, but they’re not top-drawer Fitzgerald. But Tycoon is, and may well offer, even in its truncated form as edited for publication by Edmund Wilson, as much as Gatsby. The latter had the brilliant framing device of narration that was technically first-person, but also fairly omniscient without really seeming to be, something so unlikely and ingenious that when Fitzgerald hit upon that idea, that voice, that perspective, he must have known he was pretty much all done, even if he didn’t have a full chapter completed. Because that device was the car, the vehicle for the story: All he had to do, at that point, was get in and do what he most naturally did, which is to say, fashion page after page of perfect prose that could easily double as poetry, whilst illuminating all of the back corridors of human yearning, with a touch of humor when needed, and an understanding of how tragedy functions, at the level of the quotidian, that few writers have ever possessed.
Tycoon is the finest book this country has ever produced on Hollywood and movie-making, and on what it’s like to be a genius. The genius of Tycoon is motion-picture producer Monroe Stahr, whom Fitzgerald thought of, at first, as his version of Irving Thalberg, the so-called boy-genius producer who died young, as Stahr does, and as Fitzgerald soon would.
The first-person-as-omniscient-narrator bit doesn’t come off quite as smoothly, but the emotion is more bracing, the wisdom more lived in; Fitzgerald, by the time he was writing Tycoon, had gone spelunking down his share of abysses, always coming out more broken, with fewer prospects and less hope. But he was also a better artist, a better writer, a guy who could beat the snot out of you with just how much better he could write a sentence than you ever could on your best day of best days.
I’ve never believed, save in one case, that you have to live something or experience it to write about it well, to write about it as though you lived it a thousand times over. Prior to composing The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane had never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Later on, he came East, walked out to the middle of one, and said, in effect, “Yep, got it,” and walked off again. Genius is different, though. To write about the burdens of being one, as Fitzgerald does with his Monroe Stahr, I think you do have to be one. And Fitzgerald writes Stahr from the inside out. This isn’t Fitzgerald transposing his own life—he didn’t do that nearly as often as the summaries of his work suggest—but rather sidling up to a fellow genius, and saying, effect, “I get it, and the cross is heavy, but we need to create, as I have created you.”
In his late correspondence, Fitzgerald would make asides about how little he had left to give, how his reputation was probably forever lost, mixed with plans to help it bounce back; but there would also be more clearheaded, plainly declarative statements that he had gotten to a new level. There had been that metaphysical click that the genius waits for, that he knows is coming, when everything slows down and freezes in place. Then it’s a matter of walking around at one’s leisure, and simply recording what hovers before the eye.
The Love of the Last Tycoon—and the working notes that accompany it—is one of my mainstay book recommendations, and it rarely lets anyone down. So check out Tycoon! If you truly love The Great Gatsby, you’re pretty much screwing yourself over if you’re not reading the other Fitzgerald works that, when you do come upon them, will have you saying, “It’s not Gatsby but this is better, maybe the best one; no, wait, this other one here is even better than that last,” and so on and on. Let’s take a look at three to get started.
“Winter Dreams” (1922)
You sometimes see the term “perfect” qualified—as in, this is so-and-so’s most perfect film—which isn’t technically correct, but it’s hard for me to read this story and not think it’s the most perfect one Fitzgerald ever wrote. Sentences, depending upon where they fall, the rhythm of the one that precedes them, the timbre of the one that follows, are tasked with different responsibilities. Fitzgerald was a master of understanding these dispensations, and “Winter Dreams”—a story about a young man whose tragedy is that he has lost the ability to feel loss, save for the ability to feel that one very specific form of loss—begins with a bravura long sentence that doesn’t feel long at all:
Some of the caddies were poor as sin and lived in one room houses with a neurasthenic cow in the front yard, but Dexter Green’s father owned the second best grocery-store in Black Bear—the best one was “The Hub,” patronized by the wealthy people from Sherry Island—and Dexter caddied only for pocket-money.
The sentence doesn’t feel long because it runs downhill, so to speak. That is, you don’t have to stitch up clauses set far apart (like you would with, say, Henry James), retracing backwards to find an interlocking verb. This is pure flow.
But there’s a subtle misdirection in that sentence, a slight change in meter, with the “and” that transitions out of the portion in between dashes leading into what would be a straightforward declaration were we to encounter it outside of this setting. That closing rhythm, though, which is like a single beat, lodges in the mind, and Fitzgerald brings it out later for the conclusion of the story, where we now get a series of those beats:
“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”
It is a story, really, about the difference between existing and living. Fitzgerald knew pain. He also knew that the ability to feel it is far more necessary and human than pain’s absence.
Tender Is the Night (1934)
Fitzgerald’s final completed novel (with its title sourced from Keats’s “Nightingale”) was the one he seemed to esteem the most. The glamorous Dick and Nicole Diver live in the South of France. He’s a brilliant psychoanalyst, she’s his former patient he once treated for a mental collapse. He has an affair with Rosemary, an actress; we learn that Dick married Nicole as some ill-conceived attempt to bring stability to her life. Suffice it to say, Nicole has her own affair, Dick ends up all alone, crushed and gutted, a man without any means to gain traction to get back into the world, or back to being himself.
Now, this is not the book you want to read, perhaps, to bring you cheer at the beach, but Fitzgerald’s prose was never better. I’d put it up against anything Proust wrote, at the level of the sentence. Fitzgerald’s sentences could hang on the wall at MoMA, if one did such a thing with sentences. The name Dick Diver is a pun on “cocksucker,” which is, in the terms of Tender is the Night, a man devouring himself. In an inscription of the book made for a friend, Fitzgerald declared that while Gatsby was a tour de force, it was Tender Is the Night that, for him, was the real confession of faith—a faith in finding something paramount on that journey inwards, and the faith that one will make it back out again.
The “Crack-Up” essays (1936)
If you read a number of the exchanges between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, you’ll see what a dick the former could be. Fitzgerald worshipped him, though, and always—well, almost always—wanted his approval, whereas Hemingway couldn’t resist getting a boot in when Fitzgerald was down. And down he was at the age of 39 when he wrote the three personal essays that fall under the heading of “The Crack-Up.” The first begins:
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once.
From there, Fitzgerald goes on to examine just how messed up he thought himself at the time to be. He thought he was done, that he was at best a cracked plate you could make use of for a late night snack, but not one you’d use for a dinner party. And he was absolutely lambasted by everyone, especially Hemingway, who thought this kind of thing embarrassing, weak, pathetic, unmanly.
I find it so brave, personally, because the more Fitzgerald goes on—and if you can’t connect with at least some of what he says, you’ve lived a far luckier life than I have—the more he rallies. You do get the sense he’s not long for the world—despite his still-young age—but also that what time remains will see the creation of some special works of art. There is also a hilarious pun when a friend offers her counsel, which is well-intentioned but flowery and jejune, to which Fitzgerald replies, “Baby et up all her Spinoza?” You could make a nice Spinoza joke back then.
The end of the final essay, “Pasting It Together,” has a spirit to it that was as vital, so far as Fitzgerald’s gifts went, as his command of prose, his ability to evoke, and his grasp of our most human truths. Even the most gifted writers usually just get one such sizable gift. If you are a master of turning a phrase, maybe you’re not a master of plot-making. But if you’re both, it’s even less likely that you have the strength and the will to match, but that was Fitzgerald. The end of this one is so intense that each time I read it I’m ready to pop the Grim Reaper himself, if I could. And then I want to read Tycoon again. And then I want to read a lot of them again.
Fitzgerald’s genius has never even been born in the lives of so many Americans (and others) who absentmindedly think that F. Scott was a one-trick-pony called Gatsby. Maybe this year come September, which marks 120 years after his birth, he will get the revival he so much deserves.