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June5, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 14

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Essay - F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17: A personal narrative

By Charles Scribner III ’73 *77
Posted on May 30, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 in 1937.
F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 in 1937.

“Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own. ... For learning purposes there is no substitute for one human mind meeting another on the page of a well-written book.” I found this quote of my late Dad’s via Google. (I never write about our most famous authors without consulting first with him.)

Born in 1896 on the brink of a new century, Fitzgerald’s life and career would alternate between success and setbacks like the alternating current of major and minor keys in a Mozart symphony. Just as his life bridged two centuries, so his work has a Janus-like aspect, looking back to the romantic lyricism and expansive dreams of 19th-century America, and forward to the syncopated Jazz strains of the 20th. “My whole theory of writing,” he said, “I can sum up in one sentence. An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” How magnificently — if posthumously — he fulfilled that ideal. His fleeting literary fortunes — a dozen years of commercial and literary success followed by distractions and disappointments — ended in 1940 with a fatal heart attack at the age of 44. He was then hard at work on the Hollywood novel he hoped would restore his reputation. At the time of his death his books were not, as is so often claimed, out of print with Scribner, his publisher. The truth is even sadder: They were all in stock at our warehouse and listed in our catalogue; but no one was buying them. When his daughter, Scottie, first approached the Princeton University Library and offered to give them her father’s papers she was turned down. They couldn’t be the repository, someone said, for every failed alumnus author’s papers. Fortunately she gave them a second chance, years later, to reconsider, and today those archives are the most avidly consulted holdings of the library, by scholars who come there, as if on pilgrimage, from all over the world.

A half-century later, more copies of Fitzgerald’s books are sold each month than the entire cumulative sale throughout his lifetime. His novels and stories are studied in virtually every high school and college across the country. I am the fourth Charles Scribner to be involved in publishing his works since my great-grandfather first signed him up, at the prodding of Max Perkins, in 1919. My grandfather, Fitzgerald’s contemporary and friend as well as publisher, died on the eve of the critical reappraisal and the ensuing revival of his works that gained momentum in the 1950s and has continued in full force down to the present time. It was my father who presided over a literary apotheosis unprecedented in modern American letters. I am struck by the realization that I am the first generation — of no doubt as many to come — to have been introduced to this author’s work in a classroom.

As a fledgling editor, I had the good fortune to work closely with Fitzgerald’s talented and delightful daughter, Scottie, together with her dedicated adviser Matthew J. Bruccoli, whose prolific scholarship and infectious enthusiasm have long fanned the flames of Fitzgerald studies. The day I met Matt, four decades and many books ago, I asked him what had prompted him to devote the lion’s share of his scholarly life to Fitzgerald. He told me exactly how it happened.

One Sunday afternoon in 1949 Bruccoli, then a high-school student, was driving with his family along the Merritt Parkway from Connecticut to New York City when he heard a dramatization of The Diamond as Big as the Ritz on the car radio. He later went to a library to find the story; the librarian had never heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald. But finally he managed to locate a copy — “and I never stopped reading Fitzgerald,” he added. This story struck a familiar chord — for I too remember where I was when I first encountered that same literary jewel “as big as the Ritz.”

It was an evening train ride from Princeton to Philadelphia: A commute was converted into a fantastic voyage. Fitzgerald later converted my professional life just as profoundly, claiming more of me than any living author. There are worse fates in publishing than to be “curator of literary classics,” especially if one’s own scholarly training is in Baroque art. Placed aside my other specialties, Rubens and Bernini, Fitzgerald seems very young indeed: a newcomer in the pantheon of creative genius.

There is something magical about Fitzgerald. Much has been written — and dramatized — about the Jazz-Age personas of Scott and Zelda. But the real magic lies embedded in his prose, and reveals itself in his amazing range and versatility. Each novel or story partakes of its creator’s poetic imagination, his dramatic vision, his painstaking (if virtuoso and seemingly effortless) craftsmanship. Each bears Fitzgerald’s hallmark, the indelible stamp of grace. He is my literary candidate to stand beside the demigods Bernini, Rubens, and Mozart as artists of divine transfigurations. The key to Fitzgerald’s enduring enchantment lies, I submit, in the power of his romantic imagination to transfigure his characters and settings — as well as the very shape and sound of his prose. There is a sacramental quality — one that did not wane along with the formal observance of his Roman Catholic faith. I say “sacramental” because Fitzgerald’s words transform their external geography as thoroughly as the realm within. The ultimate effect, once the initial reverberations of imagery and language have subsided, transcends the bounds of fiction. I can testify from firsthand experience.

When I arrived at Princeton as a freshman in the fall of 1969, I was following the footsteps of four generations of namesakes before me. Yet, surprisingly, I did not feel at home. It seemed a big impersonal place: more than 10 times as big as my old boarding school, St. Paul’s. There I had first been exposed to Fitzgerald in English class, where we studied The Great Gatsby. But my first encounter at Princeton was dramatically extracurricular. One day that fall, soon after the Vietnam Moratorium and the ensuing campus turmoil, I returned to my dormitory room to find that some anonymous wit had taped to my door that infamous paragraph from Fitzgerald’s The Rich Boy: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” (My next-door neighbors in the dorm represented a cross section of campus radicals; and while I was hardly “very rich” by Fitzgerald’s lights — closer to Nick Caraway than to the Buchanans — I was still the son of a University trustee.) Stung as I was by this welcome note, curiosity got the better of me. So off I went to Firestone Library, looked up the story, and read it.

Now hooked by Fitzgerald, I bought a copy of This Side of Paradise, his youthful ode to Princeton. Though University officials to this day bemoan its satirical depiction of their college as a country club (if there was any book they could ban, this would be it), they miss the point — the poetry, the sacramental effect of this early, flawed novel on their majestic campus. For me, this book infused the greenery and gothic spires with a spirit, with a soul, with life. Fitzgerald transfigured Princeton. I now saw it not as a stranger, but through the wondering eyes of freshman Amory Blaine:

Princeton of the daytime filtered slowly into his consciousness—West and Reunion, redolent of the sixties, Seventy-nine Hall, brick-red and arrogant, Upper and Lower Pyne, aristocratic Elizabethan ladies not quite content to live

among shop-keepers, and topping all, climbing with clear blue aspiration, the great dreaming spires of Holder and Cleveland towers. From the first, he loved Princeton—its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes.

For me it was not love at first sight; but thanks to Fitzgerald, it was love at first reading. Oscar Wilde was right: Life imitates art, not the other way around. We view our world through a prism of words. During my sojourn there, my friends and I would religiously recite Fitzgerald’s sonnet of farewell to Princeton: “The last light fades and drifts across the land — the low, long land, the sunny land of spires...”

From his earliest days, Scott wanted nothing more than to be a writer: “The first help I ever had in writing was from my father who read an utterly imitative Sherlock Holmes story of mine and pretended to like it.” It was his first appearance in print, at age 13. Here’s the chilling denouement (which proves we can all write as well as Fitzgerald):

“I forgot Mrs. Raymond,” screamed Syrel, “Where is she?” “She is out of your power forever,” said the young man. Syrel brushed past him and, with Smidy and I following,

burst open the door of the room at the head of the stairs. We rushed in. On the floor lay a woman, and as soon as I touched her heart I knew she was beyond the doctor’s skill.

“She has taken poison,” I said. Syrel looked around; the young man had gone. And we stood there aghast in the presence of death.

No surprise that he next took to writing plays, one a summer, for a local dramatics group. At Princeton, he wrote musical comedies for the Triangle Club before he flunked out (chemistry was the culprit), joined the army, and wrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which debuted in 2005 as a musical in the East Village under a new title: The Pursuit of Persephone.

“Start out with an individual and you find that you have created a type — start out with a type and you find that you have created nothing.” Fitzgerald started out with himself — a good choice. “A writer wastes nothing,” he said — and he proved it by mining his early years at St. Paul, Minn. and Princeton to forge his early stories, poems, and dramatic skits into that witty autobiographical novel that launched his fame.

Fitzgerald’s first novel was turned down — can you believe — twice by my great-grandfather, until after several revisions by a young writer who refused to give up, it was published to great acclaim. Years later, writing to his daughter, Fitzgerald offered the following advice: “Don’t be a bit discouraged about your story not being tops ... Nobody became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before...”

Post Comments
6 Responses to Essay - Charles Scribner III '73 on F. Scott Fitzgerald '17

Kathy Roth-Douquet *91 Says:

2013-06-03 16:08:48

What an excellent, evocative, and timely reflection! It adds a great sense of Fitzgerald, the young man, and the young writer. It's wonderful of you to share your musings and memories.

Robert M. Clark '56 Says:

2013-06-03 16:29:16

My father was the Class of '20. He had the soul of a poet. He had a romantic attachment to Old Nassau. They were the best years of his life. In the fifties, my years, the Fitzgerald aura was still in evidence. My grand-nephew will be starting this fall. He, too, will fall under the spell.

Bruce C. Johnson '74 Says:

2013-06-04 09:49:40

Charlie's wonderfully lyrical essay has a passion and a penetrating yet compassionate sympathy in its approach that are reminiscent of Fitzgerald himself. Reading it, I had a sense of an ever-present attitude toward life that is part of the enduring quality of Princeton. Thank you, Charlie!

Robert S. Appel '62 Says:

2013-06-10 09:44:20

In 2007, on the occasion of the Library of America's 25th anniversary, I heard Garrison Keillor read a short piece on Fitzgerald of his own authorship that was, itself, so captivating and poetic that it remains with me to this day. I was able to obtain a copy of the text, which I still have, and wonder whether Charles is aware of it. If not, I'd be happy to have him contact me and share it with him or any other Princetonian who might be interested.

Jose Wiltshire '77 Says:

2013-09-03 09:43:05

I really enjoyed the essay. It captures the living history of the work, life and importance of the author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Charles Riley '79 Says:

2013-11-19 13:53:07

Not surprisingly, this is a brilliant and deeply insightful essay in biographical criticism with a charming dollop of memoir to satisfy all appetites. The "reading" of the Cugat cover is particularly valuable to all of us. Remarkable that Fitz, whose intimate circle in Antibes included not only Gerald Murphy but Picasso and Leger and Cocteau, and via Hemingway Miro and Gertrude Stein, had so little to say about the contemporary art of his time (the only artist named in "Gatsby" is El Greco). Bravo, Professor Scribner, and many thanks.
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