Papa Hemingway’s recently published letter to an Italian male friend purportedly revealed the “human side” of which his admirers were already well aware. (Like Bogie, he was tough on the outside, jelly on the inside.) Until lately, Papa’s haters had a good long run. Soon after Carlos Baker’s matchless biography appeared in 1972, 11 years after Hemingway’s suicide, the naysayers started to gnaw away at Papa. The rats were led by modernists, feminists, and other such rubbish, the kind of non-talented, self-aggrandizing phonies that have turned literature into the unreadable garbage that’s around today. Papa’s straight, short, no-nonsense style didn’t suit them. Magic realism did. It hid their lack of talent. He wrote about tough guys doing the honorable thing, something the sandal-wearing sissies who came after him couldn’t imagine doing.
I’ve just finished a 544-pager called Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson, in which that old story of Papa versus Scott Fitzgerald comes up, both sides generously treated by the author. In 1933, seven years before his death, poor old Scott was broke, potted, and praying that Tender is the Night would resuscitate his fading reputation. Zelda was institutionalized after a breakdown and her affair with a French aviator which had just about finished Scott. Tender is my favorite book of all time. I read it at 15, immediately after my first visit to the French Riviera. In late-night bull sessions, when fellow students would talk about their future plans, I only had one—go to the Riviera and find Dick Diver and live like him. After that it was Paris, looking for Jake Barnes and Lady Brett. Screw banking and screw shipowning; such trifles were for dullards and bores.
I did run into some characters who resembled Dick and Jake, and certainly more than a few women who were like Brett, but real life can never live up to fiction. Not the kind that Papa and Scott wrote. Fitzgerald had written Tender when the Jazz Age was over, just as the Depression had really begun to bite, while deeply in debt and in despair over Zelda’s schizophrenia. Hemingway had supplanted him as the numero uno star writer at Scribner’s, but Scott didn’t have an envious bone in his body. It was all great talent and self-destruction. Fitzgerald ached to hear from Papa about Tender. At first Hemingway gave it a thumbs-down. “I talk with the authority of failure—Ernest with the authority of success,” Fitzgerald lamented.
Scott had gone on a long bender leading up to his book’s publication and Papa was annoyed with him. Scott would pass out on the table, lie down on the floor, and invariably puke all over the place. I think if it had been anyone else, Hemingway would have put him to sleep with a left hook. Instead, he told Fitzgerald that he oughtn’t let Zelda’s psychoanalysis ball him up about himself and that if he didn’t keep writing, it meant he was yellow. Grand stuff, because there was nothing lower than being yellow back in those heroic times.
Fitzgerald had a dream start. His few great life experiences took place in the realm of love and imagination—he wrote three best-sellers and won the girl. But he also lost the girl due to her infidelity. More tragically, he lost the golden girl of his imagination. These personal losses provided some aspect of the emotional maturity and depth of understanding which shaped his two best works, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Yet his books were not confessional; they were works of art. To me, he was the supreme artist.
In August 1936 Papa’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” appeared in Esquire magazine, which included a Fitzgerald story in the same issue. Scott read the story while recovering from a broken shoulder.
The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.”
It was obvious that “poor Julian” was poor Scott. When Scott read that he was deeply hurt. He wrote Papa telling him to lay off, and Hemingway wrote back that he hadn’t written anything different than what Scott had written about himself in the same issue.
On a recent television program about books, Ben Macintyre listed Gatsby as his all-time favorite. It’s certainly on my Top Three list, and to hear it from a Brit made me happy as hell. What made me less happy was to read a letter from an American professor of literature calling Jay Gatsby/James Gatz an American tragedy. The idiot prof says that Gatsby dreams to possess a wealthy brat whose value he converts into money and calls it love. Gatsby will do anything to amass wealth to buy her. And he does—briefly. The moron professor thinks that good old Jay is the wrong role model for Americans.
Like most professors, this buffoon did not get the point, even though he taught Gatsby for 30 years. The point is that we can never really be someone else. We are who we are, and I’ve known a few would-be Gatsbys in my life and could see right through them. That’s why Jay was different. He could have fooled even me, an old-timer who regrets only two things: Not having met and run with Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
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