Oh, where are the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of today? Centennial: The author's work is still great, so why is nobody writing this way?


September 22, 1996|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

All over, people are honoring F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born 100 years ago Tuesday. There will be observances in St. Paul, Minn., his place of birth; in Rockville, where Fitzgerald (who was proud of having Star-Spangled Banner lineage, on his father's side) and his wife, Zelda, are buried; and elsewhere among the several dozen places where he lived, between 1896 and 1940.

Baltimore doesn't seem to have much planned, even though three of his 1930s residential addresses were local. And Princeton University, his alma mater, has been distracted by an anniversary of its own - its 250th. That's all right; it would be futile to compete with the deafening sounds about to emanate from the University of South Carolina, about which there is more below.

Meanwhile, the ranking that Scott Fitzgerald sought, and had, and in later life lost, has long since been restored. Books by or about him fill five entire shelves upstairs at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The seven full-length biographies have done him to a turn. And Zelda, thanks in part to the women's movement, has a limelight tan that is all her own. (The most noteworthy centennial book, edited by her granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan, is "Zelda: An Illustrated Life" [Harry N. Abrams. 128 pages. $24.95.] It reproduces her artwork, in color.)

Well-meaning as such tributes are, they are hollow.

Where are the authors, where are the books, continuing along the course that Fitzgerald brilliantly set? The failure to follow his lead says hard things about our own literary age.

Fitzgerald's fiction had a theme: the uses of wealth, power, position in his own times. He lived to see the economy collapse, the elite lose importance. But today, in this country money is bigger than ever. But who writes about it, from inside as Fitzgerald did, and for a universal audience?

When Fitzgerald came on scene, almost the day after World War I's Armistice, America was about to bust loose. With his first novel, "This Side of Paradise," he spoke for young men and young women eager to throw off the constraints and the values and goals of their forebears.

As observers, he and Zelda turned out also to be unruly participants, and not to understand the dangers of that double role. Worse, both Fitzgeralds - Zelda was writing too -turned inward, each hardly disguising the other in their fiction.

But for most of the Roaring Twenties, on the strength of his early success, Scott Fitzgerald was an upperclass insider.

Neither he nor Zelda had money but, together, they had charm plus ambition plus renown: in sum, entree, at the Plaza, on Long Island, in Paris, along the Riviera - even, though by then the entree was turning into echo, at Bayard and Margaret Turn-bull's place, out York Road at La Paix Lane.

Late in his life, in the greatly different milieu of Movieland, Fitzgerald's response was the same - look around, then turn it into a literary novel - "The Last Tycoon." Altogether, Fitzgerald produced only five novels and 160 more or less commercial short stories, but they still ring true.

Long ago, William Dean Howells fixed his eye on wealth, in novels now forgotten. John P. Marquand had a vogue, but now pales. Louis Auchincloss eyes contemporary power from close up, for a limited audience. Let it be clear: The subject here is board chairmen, not entertainment celebrities.

Novels about the lower depths are beyond counting - novels about psychology, about crime and violence, about romance. But is there any good novel about a CEO, showing how he, or she, got there, what it takes or costs to stay there, and where our hugely remunerated CEO goes from there? A novel that is as "infinitely readable" (Alfred Kazin's phrase) as "The Great Gatsby," and gleams with that high art?

It is high time someone again explored life on the heights. There are, the Census Bureau keeps reminding us, more than 100,000 U.S. millionaires. The total grows, emphasizing the gap between upper and other classes.

Fitzgerald's term was "the leisure class"; today's usage is varied: "investors," "lever-pullers." For a smile such persons as could afford the $20,000 or so that a first edition of "The Great Gatsby" in pristine dust jacket now brings.

Unrecorded decadence

Advertising shows us the material luxuries which the monied may or may not indulge in - bear in mind, no group that large exhibits uniformity of behavior or outlook. Decadence lives (and spreads, perhaps). Yet sainthood, too, is possible among the washed, even if we be suspicious of unseen presences - the spin doctor, the publicist.

So how does a latter-day Tom Buchanan spend his days, and nights? Would Dick Diver of "Tender Is the Night" still go to Johns Hopkins for his M.D. degree? And, turning to Diver's Zelda-like wife, Nicole, who currently corresponds to her parents, Chicago's almighty Warrens?

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