HEMINGWAY & FITZGERALD: THE COST OF BEING AMERICAN

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What made Hemingway important, what will keep his best work forever fresh, was his ability to express a certain feeling of hazard that men in particular do not suffer any less because they go out of their way to meet it. Who is to say how much this sense of hazard, peril, danger, with its constant rehearsal of the final and perhaps only real battle—with death as the embodiment of a universe that is simply not ours alone, that may not be ours at all—who is to say how much Hemingway sought it out for his natural subject matter as much as it constantly whipped him to prove himself again and again? In Gregory Hemingway's memoir, he says that he felt “relief when they lowered my father’s body into the ground and I realized that he was really dead, that I couldn’t disappoint him, couldn’t hurt him anymore…

“I hope it’s peaceful, finally. But, oh God, I knew there was no peace after death. If only it were different, because nobody ever dreamed of, or longed for, or experienced less peace than he.”

This is the truth about Hemingway that all the carousing and boasting could not conceal. Yet it is one that every reader recognizes with gratitude as the heart of the darkness that Hemingway unforgettably described: the sense of something irremediably wrong. Against this, Hemingway furiously put forth his dream of serenity, of nature as the promised land, for which composition—the painter’s word that he picked up as his ideal—suggested the right order of words in their right places. As Ford Madox Ford put it so beautifully in his introduction to A Farewell to Arms, “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water.”

II

Second Lieutenant Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (Princeton ’17) never made it overseas during World War I. That was only one of his many losses, chagrins, and heartbreaks in a career that swept like a comet (with final descent) through the American heavens. His career was peculiarly public, for almost everybody who admired his writing came to read both life and work in the same light—the light that Fitzgerald always trained on himself. With his special feeling about himself that he was handsomer, more gifted, more open to life than any other man in sight (but the gods smiling on him were really competitive Americans), Fitzgerald never tired of telling that as a second lieutenant in 1918 he had actually been marched up the gangplank to a transport—and had been marched down again. At Princeton he could never hope to compete with football heroes like the immortal Hobey Baker and Buzz Law, who, wearing a bloody bandage around his head, kicked a goal from behind his own goalpost. Blond and handsome as Fitzgerald was, with the famous blue-green eyes and drooping eyelashes, he was only five foot eight, slight, and “[took] things hard.” The slightest mishap was a strain that made him undergo everything “Wellington felt at Waterloo.” He was always more charged up than the occasion seemed to warrant. He could put a “touch of disaster” into the slightest short story. The real disasters were to fall on him in carloads. But even when he was reciting his “crack-up” in Esquire in 1936 to the jeers of the many who hated him for his talent, he saw himself in the best light, the right light. By “taking things hard,” he wrote, he created “the stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like Braille.”

He did not get to Europe until This Side of Paradise, Flappers and Philosophers, Tales of the Jazz Age, The Beautiful and Damned —all published between 1920 and 1922—made him newsworthy, luridly successful, and the voice of the “jazz generation.” He had had to be successful, he wrote in the bitter thirties, in order to win the girl. He won the girl—a wife amazingly his spiritual twin, so talented, spoiled, endlessly driven and demanding, like Fitzgerald himself, that they seemed born to excite and destroy each other. Sensation was necessary to him; Zelda, like the bottle, provided continual sensation. But it was also typical of his respect for his craft that he was able to begin the novel that first catapulted him, This Side of Paradise, while sitting on cracker barrels at an officers training camp in Kansas. Near the end of his life he was to produce his most deeply felt novel, Tender Is the Night (1934), while struggling against a mountain of debt, his notoriety as a drunk and has-been, and his despair over his schizophrenic wife. Just before he died in 1940 in Hollywood, he was doggedly working at the uncompleted The Last Tycoon. Published in 1941 in skeletal form, it proved to be subtler about the social facts in Hollywood and more luminous and sharp-edged in its creation of individual character than anything else in sight.