Nobody knew whose party it was. It had been going on for weeks. When you felt you couldn’t survive another night, you went home and slept and when you got back, a new set of people had consecrated themselves to keeping it alive.

So Zelda Fitzgerald described the characteristic occupation of the Twenties. Reading about it again makes one wonder about the meaning of such parties. Why were there so many parties? Why did they drink so much? James Mellow’s new biography of the Fitzgeralds leaves such questions and their implications still largely unanswered. Of course, there was the Jazz Age, and the Revolt against Prohibition, and the Defiance of Puritanism; but those are merely labels, or outline headings, substitutes for explanation. Perhaps any comment or question about the Fitzgeralds’ drinking is thought to be censorious. Don’t all writers drink, all American writers especially? Calling attention, to it upsets the easy domestication of tolerance. What seems most striking about the Fitzgeralds’ drinking, and their recovery from it, is the allocation of time, energy, and money it needed, resources which in other lives might be employed differently. In fact, drinking was their occupation, and it prescribed the occasions, parties, bars, and cafes where it could be exercised. Only much later did it become an addiction or a biochemical condition or solitary pursuit. Certainly in the beginning the Fitzgeralds did not drink out of despair or disillusion. For most of their lives, drinking was what they did; not an eruption or interference in their lives, instead it was their lives.

The unknowing young enthralled girl from Alabama, and the handsome talented young man from St. Paul, seeking his fortune in the great world of New York: these two must be seen as adopting an intoxicated mode of behavior almost for want, of any other. Without family, work, or any previous relation to the city, with no place, no links to anything, no regular income, few resources, they also tasted liquors never brewed, reinforcing the gin so emblematic of the day. The transforming magic of insouciance, admiration, glamour, success, and notoriety affected them, and before they quite understood what was happening to them, they became not merely examples of intoxication but victims of it. Their own personalities intoxicated them too, and so did their own exploits, like riding on top of taxis, or jumping into city fountains, and they intoxicated each other. Images of themselves as they appeared to others excited them, occasions which produced these effects were sought or arranged, and in the absence of occupations, professional or social or familial, their energies were available. This golden couple of the Twenties seemed to float in the mind of the public as representative of youth and the new vitality of America; they took New York by storm, according to legend, and thought they would go on forever. Drink fueled that illusion, and drinking maintained it.

Drink fueled that illusion, and drinking maintained it.

There have been many books about F. Scott Fitzgerald, large five-hundred- and six-hundred-page tomes, and the reader’s temptation may be to grumble about still another one, to ask whether there is anything left to say, or, with peevish cleverness, to chide the author for serving a “Fitzgerald industry.” Admittedly, Fitzgerald is not Dante, and the continued study of his work may not yield insights indefinitely; but, not quite everything has been said. There is room for James Mellow’s new book.

Perhaps what readers really fear is another promotion, or another hagiography, another recital of the romanticizing litany which tries once again to proffer an image and enthrall us. Mellow’s biography does not follow that pattern; it is a useful addition to the Fitzgerald shelf because it documents the extent to which not only Fitzgerald himself, but both of them, the fabled couple acting together, lived by fictions, inventing their own lives, treating themselves and those about them as part of a continuing fantasy. They themselves were well aware of it, and coached each other’s performances, as when they gave a duet recital of the story of a French aviator’s fatal love for Zelda. Fitzgerald said to Malcolm Cowley, “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels”; and throughout their lives, life would imitate art in the very moment that their lives were being re-created in fiction. Mellow’s interest in the Fitzgeralds’ self-creation, their early and prominent participation in their own mythicizing, advances well beyond the predictable adulation, elegiacs, and meticulous record of binges and hangovers so characteristic of the discussion of this couple; he shows something of how they sought the backgrounds for their own living theater.1

The invention of self was not a strategy discovered by the Fitzgeralds, however, and Mellow is perhaps too pleased with his idea to set it properly in the context of existing ideas about the development of personality. There are interesting implications here about the power of rationalizations and revisions of the past, about fantasies, projections, recreations, complicated psychological systems which could illuminate the Fitzgeralds’ inventions. Without an adequate perspective on these matters, Mellow’s discovery of the Fitzgeralds’ propensity to invent themselves not only shows a certain naivete but also prevents him from carrying the idea further. Everyone after all constructs reality out of the materials at hand, even whole societies do so, and the inventions need to be shared and publicized if they are to be durable. Some aspects of self-invention might even be peculiarly American; Whitman, of course, is the prototype. What might have been especially interesting is a consideration of contemporary forms of self-invention and self-promotion, the development of techniques during the past half-century. The invented image of the self has shifted from its function as an agent of intoxication, as it was for the Fitzgeralds, to a newer more manipulated role, that of the commodity itself. The process is not unique, or peculiar to writers: artists, television personalities, architects, actors, figures in government and business, even impersonal organizations, all participate in processes of self-invention, serving their own ends and the celebrity culture, presenting identities as marketable objects.

Now, nearly forty years after both Fitzgeralds’ deaths, their invented selves are securely anchored in a legend of youthful America, intoxicated by its own promise. The young woman, the young man, their exuberance, enthusiasm, and innocence defeated both by society and by themselves, redeemed in art and the defects of their virtues, have become almost canonical. It is a version of the American Dream now elaborated at the highest levels of American consciousness. The Great Gatsby is itself canonical, as Silas Marner used to be; few young persons can finish their education without reading it. And the last page of the novel, with its invocation of the early Dutch sailors, has become a standard text. The Twenties are cherished, the style and artifacts of the period handsomely installed in our heritage. (It may be interesting to note here that Michael Graves, the postmodern architect, is illustrating a new edition of The Great Gatsby.)

If Mellow departs from the legend, and even appears to be harshly critical—as he has to some reviewers—it is perhaps because he fails to rehearse the saga with the expected romantic emphasis. Even to speak of “self-invention” may be offensive to some readers. Mellow concentrates attention narrowly on the fabled couple’s shared identity, however, and skimps on providing much of a context for them. Their story is culled from their autobiographical accounts—how Zelda came from Montgomery, Alabama, daughter of a judge, Episcopalian, granddaughter of a senator, and how Fitzgerald met her during the First World War, he the son of a faded once prosperous family with roots in the South as well as the Middle West, Catholic, ambitious. What “Catholic” might have meant in the America of Fitzgerald’s youth, what the Princeton of that day was, or Paris, or the Riviera, all such designations are more stated than supported. So thoroughly are the Fitzgeralds taken at their own definition that when their families are referred to during the course of their story, it is a shock to realize that those were real people, still alive! They had barely figured in the story, appearing only in brief formulaic stereotypes, in the background. The fabled couple may have invented themselves from the start, when they married two days ahead of plan, hurriedly, in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, at ages nineteen and twenty-three, without parents present but with This Side of Paradise just published. Their biographer was not obliged to limit himself to their invented identity, but following their lead produces a somewhat claustral quality in the book. Of course there are extensive notes, but they generally cite an earlier biography of Zelda, or the big biographies by the devoted Andrew Turn-bull, the indefatigable Matthew Bruccoli, or Arthur Mizener. Not quite enough new material has been explored, or from independent sources beyond the Fitzgerald milieu. Legendary exploits are reported from the same group of witnesses among Fitzgerald’s friends: John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson, Alexander McKaig. Or Hemingway’s version, or Malcolm Cowley’s, or Zelda’s, or the fictional re-creation or Gerald and Sara Murphy’s version are compared. Celebrated incidents are scrupulously recounted: the Hemingway-Callaghan fight, with Fitzgerald as timekeeper (when he failed to call time), or the Fitzgerald visit to Edith Wharton (when the old dowager showed her mettle, and he felt inexplicably defeated by her), or the versions of the celebrated exchange between Hemingway and Fitzgerald about the character of the very rich and whether they’re really different or just have more money.

There is a lack of distance in collating these tales of the Fitzgeralds in the Jazz Age.

There is a lack of distance in collating these tales of the Fitzgeralds in the Jazz Age. As they fly in the mists of their romanticizing legend, unique figures, there is no sense that others might have existed, even others rather like them, other young and golden people, mischievous and irrepressible and defiant. This treatment of them reinforces a sense of their unreality; and the second part of the story, beginning with Zelda’s breakdown after ten years of marriage, is equally unreal and free of social buttressing. Indeed, the romance deepens, as Zelda becomes the princess imprisoned now in a clinic, not a tower, imprisoned in her own insanity, remote and unreachable. No longer was she the spirited girl of inspired spontaneity, but the more diabolically triumphant figure whose diffuse eruptions would be as closely monitored as once her cheeky exploits were.

The problem of distance is especially evident in Mellow’s treatment of the Princeton setting and the Princeton element in Fitzgerald’s story. Even after some seventy years, these personal conceptions, powerful identifications, intoxicating dreams, and early literary triumphs remain at the level of Fitzgerald’s own presentation of them. The same elements and sentiments are once again summoned: the famed Cottage Club, the Tiger, the Prince,” and Triangle Club, the Lit,” Christian Gauss, the football games, the elegance and glamour Fitzgerald saw in his classmates. He was to be a boozy old alumnus, telephoning the football coaches in the middle of the night with neat ideas for brilliant plays. Although his departure from Princeton was inglorious, he would become, a great celebrant of his alma mater:

Suddenly all around you spreads out the loveliest riot of Gothic architecture in America, battlement linked on to battlement, hall to hall, arch-broken, vine-covered—luxuriant and lovely over two square miles of green grass. Here is no monotony, no feeling that it was all built yesterday at the whim of last week’s millionaire.

In fact, most of that Gothic architecture would have been fairly new when Fitzgerald ’17 was a student, built if not “yesterday,” then shortly before, in the Nineties or in the years 1900-14. Some of the dining clubs dated from the Eighties but most were later, like Cap & Gown (1890), Quadrangle (1901), where some of Fitzgerald’s literary friends were, or Cannon (1911). The splendid neo-Georgian Cottage Club by McKim, Mead & White was built in 1903–06. By 1936, when Fitzgerald’s encomium was written, other notable Gothic structures had been built, thanks to Rockefeller, Dodge, McCormick, and similar gifts. It was like Fitzgerald not to remember the genuinely eighteenth-century Nassau Hall (1756), setting for the Continental Congress, or the Notman buildings, or the Richardsonian Alexander Hall (1892), and to blur any distinction between the “Gothic” architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942) and the Gothic architecture of Oxford and Cambridge. It isn’t clear whether Fitzgerald knew there was a difference. Fitzgerald was powerfully affected by Princeton men—“lazy, good-looking and aristocratic”—and this part of his formative Princeton experience is similarly obscured when the critic or biographer adopts Fitzgerald’s own perspective. For example, Princeton was notably Southern in orientation with many students from the South; Cottage was Southern; so was the town itself, with many black families whose forebears, as slaves, had accompanied earlier generations of students. The dining clubs were served and staffed by some of those blacks, as if on the plantation. For Fitzgerald, these elements would have been connected with his lifelong tenderness for his unsuccessful father, and the father’s Southern heritage. And surely it must have been involved in his falling in love so passionately and permanently, soon after leaving Princeton, with the provocative, good-looking, imperiously unpredictable belle of Montgomery, Alabama. There are meanings to be explored in these clusters of impressions, but only if the biographer goes beyond Fitzgerald’s set boundaries.

Both the Fitzgeralds were destroyed by their invented identity, she in her insanity, and he in a more protracted deterioration from 1930 to 1940. Zelda’s role in their invented selves proved even more significant than either of them could have realized. He was outraged and combative with her doctors about her treatment. When she wrote her novel, he was furious, having regarded the material of her life as his material, subject to his control. He wrote abusively to her psychiatrist about it, and to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, whom he urged not to praise Zelda too much. The lengthy account of their arguments over their shared history, and his efforts to persuade the psychiatrists that his life and work were the more valuable, is chilling.

Like many a writer’s wife, Zelda had enjoyed the wholesale appropriation of her self and her history for the purposes of Fitzgerald’s fiction.

Like many a writer’s wife, Zelda had enjoyed the wholesale appropriation of her self and her history for the purposes of Fitzgerald’s fiction. It had been Zelda who gave him her diaries before they were married, who rather delighted in his retailing them among his friends and in his work. She had taken pride in the persona created for her and with her. What she might not have been prepared for was the way he would press his claims. Admittedly, any “rights” to the “material” of fiction are not easily assigned, but Fitzgerald couldn’t see the problem. Not only did he challenge her right to use her own life and experiences in her own novel Save Me The Waltz, but he also claimed her breakdowns, recoveries, relapses, her therapy, even her letters to him, as his material. He wanted Zelda’s doctors to accept his diagnosis of her, and to give him authority over her; he was just then writing in Tender Is the Night about a psychiatrist with an insane wife. That book was plotted with a chart of Zelda’s illness, and it incorporated the very phrases she had used in letters written from the clinic, as she tried to reconstruct their shared reality; her remembered words from their real life became the substance of his novel. Her illness gave him substantial material for the character of Nicole. He also sent one of Zelda’s letters to his agent, to illustrate the strain of his life, and later used one in trying to break off a love affair that had become too demanding. When Zelda planned a novel about Nijinksy, involving material about insanity and psychiatry, he made her stop because he himself was using psychiatric material in Tender Is the Night. The psychiatric material was about her, including Bleuler’s diagnosis of her, but he still considered it as his material.2

The horror of all this is not quite effaced by Fitzgerald’s subsequent stories of his own despair, alcoholism, attempts to earn money to pay for Zelda’s treatment, his victimization as a Hollywood screenwriter, and the destruction of his hopes and dreams. His story was a dreary catalogue of drunken states, illness, errors of judgment, attacks on friends, abusive accusations, self-dramatizations, gross misperceptions. The habit of inventing his life remained, even without Zelda’s sharing in it explicitly. Despite the abuse to which all his friends were subjected, many of them would not be dismissed; they maintained a belief in his gifts, and after his death they saw to it that he was not forgotten. The Crack-Up, The Last Tycoon, the letters were all published, earlier novels were reprinted, his reputation was revived and renewed. In Europe, and throughout the rest of the world, translations proliferated. Gatsby le magnifique was first translated in 1926, then reissued in 1946; it was soon followed by others, like Den store Gatsby, (1948), Il grande Gatsby (1950), Zärtlich ist die Nacht (1952), Gakuen no kochira gawa (1957), Kultahattu (1959), Újra Babilonban (1962), O grande Gatsby (1962), Diamant velky jako Ritz (1964), Les enfants du jazz (1967), Velky Gatsby a jiné pribehy jazzoveho veku (1970), Lambi di paradiso (1975), and Sukotto Fittsuzerarudo Kenkyu (1977).

How should this story be read? If one is a Fitzgerald specialist, it can be read and compared with other books about Fitzgerald, or other American writers. A biography, however, is the record of a life—or, in this case, two lives—and is not the same as a literary study or the map of a literary canon. Here it is the life itself that is thought to be of primary interest, not as ancillary to the art. Justification by art is not in fact the subject of this biography. Frequently, biographies have offered a species of secular guidance; and life could teach by example, if not by accomplishment or precept. The problem is that without the justification by art, the lives provide only ambiguous direction. Zelda, with her Southern charm and pranks that did not travel well, becoming ominous when translated to the larger stage of the great world, the high-school daredevil, her picture inscribed “Zelda Sayre: What the Hell!”—could someone want to be like that? Or like her symbiotic lover, in his alcoholic haze, who, with her, still always wanted to believe “in summer hotels and the philosophies of popular songs?” His beliefs about life and art do not travel so well from the Twenties either. What injunction should be heeded in this story? It would have made a difference in their lives if the Fitzgeralds had lived by a philosophy not found in summer hotels, popular songs or the “Gothic” architecture of Princeton. But is it a tragedy that they didn’t? Perhaps the cautionary tale must be interpreted as telling something about visions of the self, not just the familiar romantic visions of the past, but the more potent illusions hidden in the historicizing of modernity and popular culture.

  1.  It is of some interest that neither his play, The Vegetable (1923), nor hers, Scandalabra (1933), was successful.
  2.  Tender Is the Night was initially to be called The Boy Who Killed His Mother and had centered on characters other than Dick and Nicole Diver. Clearly there is much more to be said about the relation between earlier and later themes.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 6, on page 83
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