The Fitzgerald letters speak volumes

August 25, 1994|By Lucille S. deView | Lucille S. deView,Orange County Register

Should we read the letters of a literary hero?

True, new breadth and depths of character make the heart flutter, but oh, the pain when our image of the one we adore is tarnished by his own hand.

The 428 letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald stir these conflicting emotions and more in a new selection edited and annotated by Matthew J. Bruccoli, noted Fitzgerald scholar and biographer.

Fitzgerald's wit delights, his writing dazzles, his genuine humility comes as a sweet surprise, so much so that even when this ultimate sophisticate of the Jazz Age emerges in the tatters of self-pity, his letters send us to the bookshelves.

What joy to rediscover among others, "The Great Gatsby," "Tender Is the Night," and "This Side of Paradise," his first major novel, published when he was 24.

The letters help restore Fitzgerald to the rank of genius after years of being dubbed a literary lightweight. For "when Fitzgerald wrote about literature," Dr. Bruccoli notes, "he wrote with the authority of a professional who had mastered his craft."

Fitzgerald's output was prodigious. He produced three novels, 50 popular stories, a play, articles and films in 1919-24 alone. He worried later that this pace "may have taken all I had to say too early" while living in "the gayest places" at top speed.

Indeed, his life seems compressed. He felt old at 28, and died a broken man at 44.

Fitzgerald wrote his letters for the record and was candid at his own expense. He defended his alcoholism as a necessity to his calling and maintained he "wrote sober." With rare insight he once said of Ernest Hemingway: "We always meet at parties. I am his alcoholic . . . and do not want to disillusion him."

Fitzgerald brought Hemingway and other promising writers to Scribner's editor Max Perkins. He maintained his loyalty and lavish praise even when Hemingway slighted him in print. In contrast, Fitzgerald saw his own talent as "of narrow scope."

But it is his letters to and about his wife, Zelda, that galvanize the reader. After a nervous breakdown in 1930, she never recovered and lived out her days in a mental institution.

He called her his swan and their love letters elevate language to new highs, even as their savage accusations of one another may plunge us into despair. Indeed, Fitzgerald's obsession with self-justification and the no-win situations in which he placed her are both moving and disturbing.

Their rivalry as writers did not help. Fitzgerald bowed to her "superior observation" and "harder intelligence," but it's doubtful ever forgave her for her novel, "Save Me the Waltz."

But letters do not tell all.

In writing to the couple's only daughter, we glimpse an authoritarian father haplessly trying to direct her teen and college years. Yet in a preface to "Bits of Paradise," the late Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, herself a skilled writer, shares poignant memories of imaginative, devoted parents who lavished her with laughter and love.

Smith helped Dr. Bruccoli select the uncollected short stories of her parents in "Bits" and said of him: "He loves his authors so much I do believe if he found all their grocery bills he'd put them out in an annotated edition."

Dr. Bruccoli has done better. This collection allows the letter-writer to speak for himself, along with a few others who speak to and of him. Flaws and all, Fitzgerald speaks eloquently.

BOOK REVIEW

hTC Title: "F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters"

Author: Matthew J. Bruccoli

Publisher: Scribner's

Length, price: 503 pages, $30

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