A sweep of the life, works and attics of F. Scott Fitzgerald - and a message or two

January 04, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The ghost of the Jazz Age is stalking this land, and many other lands - even in Asia and the more liberal corners of Islam. Excess, vulgarity, huge fortunes swiftly and arrogantly won and lost, opulently preening self-indulgence and more. The Jazz Age? Take Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald's famous line: "It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, it was an age of satire."

That era - the 10 years from the end of World War I until the crash of 1929 - was also the age of Fitzgerald, who was both repelled and hypnotized by it, and spent an intense, brief, but productive life exploring it in prose. There are strong, cautionary reasons today for a return to his work.

What's missing, in the present era, from Fitzgerald's four-legged definition, of course, is satire. Has there been a 20-year period in the history of what we coyly call civilization more bereft of the capacity to skewer its own vanity, to laugh at its own pomposity? I believe not. There is much to learn.

Now comes a volume that I find enchantingly suggestive, provocative, of lessons that might be taken. It is "F. Scott Fitzgerald A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work," by Mary Jo Tate, with historical consultancy by Matthew Bruccoli (Facts on File, 352 pages, with 72 illustrations. $45). It is a collection of exhaustively detailed references to the novels, short stories, screenplays, plays, poems, essays and the rest of the life work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

God's in the details

To say that it is a child of enthusiasm would be to be blind to obsession; this is a work of noble obsessiveness. Surely, there are parallels, famously including the mass-maniacal tracings of every zephyr and raindrop in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, the publisher of this Fitzgerald book, Facts on File, in New York, has previously put out similar "Literary A to Z" volumes on Agatha Christie, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf.

It could be argued, with some justice, that for any but the serious scholar or professional trivia maven, this book is what in my school days used to be called "a trot" - a painless, abbreviated substitute for studying the real stuff.

As that, it's delightful. Almost everybody who was then alive in literature or the arts and in the gaudy worlds of international culture and pseudoculture bounced off or got snagged in Fitzgerald's life.

Dozens of lustrous figures, including Hemingway, Maxwell Perkins, Edmund Wilson, Ring Lardner and their ilk, became friends or enemies or both with Fitzgerald in Paris, Hollywood, New York and points between.

They turn up in bright entries here, a few paragraphs to a few pages, many of which do a remarkable job as a short-course in the history of their era and influences.

I found it a delight to dip and drift in. As have most general readers of amateur seriousness, I have read much of Fitzgerald's work, much of it as a schoolboy and other bits and pieces over the ensuing years.

Fitzgerald's imagery and the intensity of his characterization are so strong that a lot seems firm in my memory. So in the process of scanning a half-dozen pages here and there in this volume, in settling on an entry here and another there, there is a strong sense of the familiar and the forgotten striking together, spraying sparks.

Entries range from very short to several hundred words. The book's fourth entry is: "Abby Character in 'The Intimate Strangers.' Friend to whom SARA reveals her concern about her second husband KILLIAN's unexplained absences." (Words in running capital letters have their own separate entries in the book.)

The fifth from the final entry is: "Zada, Madame (Amelia Wetherby Hendrix) Character in Assorted Spirits. Peter WETHERBY's sister, who earns her living as a fortune teller since her husband, Josephus HENDRIX, deserted her. She and Hendrix are reunited at the end of the play."

And at about the middle, on page 149, there is this representative entry: "little girl (unnamed) Character in 'Outside the Cabinet-Maker's.' Six-year-old child whose DADDY tells her a story of a fairy princess held captive by an ogre."

More, more

So much for intricacies. Longer entries, many from finer contributing writers, are sound, concise, informative and often surprisingly comprehensive.

In addition to 280 pages of these alphabetical entries, there is a substantial chronology of events from 1853 ("Birth of Edward Fitzgerald at 'Glenmary' farm near Rockville in Montgomery County, Maryland.") to November 7, 1975 ("F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald reinterred in Fitzgerald family plot at St. Mary's Church, Rockville, Maryland.")

There is a four-page "Categorical Appendix," an index to the some 2,400 listings in the main body of the book. A nine-page bibliography of Fitzgerald's publications, plus Zelda's, and an extensive bibliography of works on Fitzgerald fill out the appendices.

Does this volume define or explain Fitzgerald? It answers that question itself in an entry on page 20: "Biographical Studies Fitzgerald wrote in his [itals] Notebooks 'There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn't be. He is too many people if he's any good.'"

And neither is this an exhaustive biography of the age Fitzgerald chronicled so importantly - and from which there are such important cautionary lessons to be found for the 1900s and 2000s.

But it is an irresistible guide and invitation to go back to the fiction. There, it is fervently hoped, today's reader may find very fresh wisdoms for today - and some pomposity antidotes.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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