Fitzgerald's Mentors: Edmund Wilson, H. L. Mencken, and Gerald Murphy

Fitzgerald's Mentors: Edmund Wilson, H. L. Mencken, and Gerald Murphy

by Ronald Berman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817317614
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 02/06/2012
Edition description: 1
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ronald Berman is emeritus professor of English literature at the University of California at San Diego and past chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author of several books, including The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s World of Ideas and Fitzgerald—Wilson—Hemingway: Language and Experience.

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Fitzgerald's Mentors

Edmund Wilson, H. L. Mencken, and Gerald Murphy
By Ronald Berman


Copyright © 2012 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1761-4

Chapter One

Edmund Wilson's Authority

When F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 entered Princeton, Edmund Wilson '16 was already at the center of a group of writers who did lyrics for the Triangle Show, wrote humor for the Tiger and fiction for the Lit (Nassau Literary Magazine). In a sense, these were incidentals: he had already begun to rethink American literature and criticism. Wilson, John Peale Bishop, and Fitzgerald were enrolled at the same time in Christian Gauss's French tutorial group, which stretches the notion of serendipity. Lewis Dabney's life of Wilson recalls his authority even then: given Wilson's knowledge and Fitzgerald's enthusiasm, "they stepped easily into the roles of mentor and mentee." That relationship was to last throughout Fitzgerald's life.

Both men migrated to New York in the early 1920s, and in different ways they came to symbolize it. Wilson's letters identify Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald with the "jazz of American life" in New York City. Fitzgerald's work depicts Wilson as its center of intellectual life. In "My Lost City" Fitzgerald describes his sighting of Wilson on the streets of New York, a place "entirely sufficient to him." Simply by observing him, Fitzgerald writes, "I got my first impression of that new thing—the Metropolitan spirit." What did that knowledge entail, and how was it communicated? In a 1925 letter to Stanley Dell, Wilson remarked that he had no one to talk to at the highball hour: so "I have formed the habit of pouring it all into my correspondence to avoid the necessity of talking to myself." Letters to Fitzgerald are set between those to his confidant Dell, and to Eliot, Mencken, Gauss, and others who made up the new cultural matrix. They show why Fitzgerald thought of Wilson as the incarnation of metropolitan learning. Lionel Trilling's essay on Wilson is essentially about New York's importance in his work: Wilson understood modern culture as it had been shaped by its setting.

According to Trilling, Wilson's pieces in The New Republic (later collected in The Shores of Light) changed our minds about literary form and content, not to speak of its building materials. I think the Broadway pieces collected in The American Earthquake meet Trilling's standard. One of the reasons why Nick, Gatsby, and Wolfshiem meet at Times Square is that American literature's GPS had shifted: both Wilson and Fitzgerald saw the life of Broadway as the key to "the life outside." Wilson's references to Broadway provided material for Fitzgerald and other writers:

The new acts ... fit into the Follies better: you have, in almost every case, a fast-moving dynamic act in place of a slow or vague one. Instead of Ring Lardner's rather casual Rip Van Winkle sketch, there is a terrific team of rube dancers, and Will Rogers with his halting drawl has been replaced by the machine-like energy of Eddie Cantor. Ann Pennington has also been added, so that, with Cantor and Gilda Gray, you have now perhaps the three highest-pressure performers in the city all on the same stage. The tempo of the show is now uniform, and it is the same as that of the life outside. This is New York in terms of entertainment—the expression of nervous intensity to the tune of harsh and complicated harmonies. When, afterwards, you take the subway home, it speeds you to your goal with a crash, like a fast song by Eddie Cantor; and in the roar of the nocturnal city, driven rhythmically for all its confusion, you can catch hoarse echoes of Gilda Gray and her incomparable Come Along!

Names, ideas, and themes from Wilson reappeared in Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and other writers. For example, D. H. Lawrence described New York's "confusion that has no obvious rhythm" in his review of Manhattan Transfer (1925). Like Wilson, he concentrated on social effects, adding that there was a detectable "systole-diastole of success and failure" in New York lives. Fitzgerald's description of Gatsby's second party reshapes Wilson's "complicated harmonies" into "many-keyed commotion." At the Plaza, the motif of "confusion" applies to Tom's mind in particular; then to Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, and Jordan with "the city lights behind" them. Even Wilson's subway is there, and the "tumult" that extends to everything around it. Dissonance in Dos Passos and Fitzgerald follows Wilson's sense of "the bewildering confusion of the modern city." Such atmospheric nervousness is conveyed by intellectuals, and especially by Broadway comics like Joe Cook who show the way modern "minds are beginning to work." In 1924, Wilson described material that would be used by Fitzgerald in 1925, especially his thoughts on the incoherence of experience. In the "F. Scott Fitzgerald" essay of 1922, Wilson called Fitzgerald the poet of "the Age of Confusion itself."

The essays and letters consistently see writing in terms of Broadway genres and motifs: The "F. Scott Fitzgerald" piece of 1922 states that The Beautiful and Damned is a "farce" about "actors" in a "harlequinade." The last term is used also in "The Follies as an Institution" (1923) to describe Ziegfeld, daily life in New York—and Fitzgerald's novels. A letter to John Peale Bishop (1924) describes Wilson's idea for "a great super-ballet of New York ... a pantomime explained by movie captions and with a section of movie film in the middle" to be undertaken by Chaplin. "The All-Star Literary Vaudeville" (1926) says that our great novelists have always been "one-man turns," so that current writers must likewise be performers on the pub lic stage. Wilson uses the idea of "vaudeville"—a favorite conception—as a metaphor of intellectual life. His "Broadway" review (1927) argues that current expressionist plays can't begin to approach "vulgar American life"— something better done by melodramas like Broadway and The Shanghai Gesture.

Leon Edel outlined three great accomplishments of Wilson in the 1920s: he was the first to understand modernism, he recognized that "subjective modes" would dominate culture, and he was right about the replacement of naturalism by symbolism. Broadway was essential to all three. Ruth Prigozy has shown that Broadway was not used by Fitzgerald as a backdrop to the fiction. Its numbers were used to define "personality, plot, and idea." In addition to revues, shows, and variety there was a new contender: "In 1934, when asked by a newspaper to list his ten favorite plays—or outstanding impressions in the theater—Fitzgerald selected three from films: Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim, Greta Garbo 'in her first big role,' and 'David W. Griffith's face'" as he imagined it during the filming of Birth of a Nation.

If Wilson represented the intellectual life of New York for Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald became an example of the city's sweet life for Wilson. Wilson's essay on the Follies says that it has "something of Riverside Drive, of the Plaza"—and also "of Scott Fitzgerald's novels." He thought that Fitzgerald was one of the few writers to capture the vitality and also the moral dissonance of the city. That needs some detail, and theater history is more specific: in the "early twenties, vaudeville was often concerned with the culture that was replacing Victorianism: sensual, expressive, individualist." Burns and Allen were a lot less innocent in "Lamb Chops" of 1926 than they later became as icons of our own sentimentality. As a 1918 reviewer said of Sophie Tucker, she brought to the audience a reminder of "tottering monogamy"—just what did Mrs. Rip Van Winkle do "when her husband was asleep?"

Wilson and Fitzgerald were both connected and separated by their ideas. Fitzgerald associated New York with more than dissonance. He saw in it the American rise to success, while Wilson saw American cultural failure. The introduction to The Undertaker's Garland, a collaborative effort of 1922, explained that John Peale Bishop and Wilson, recently returned from the war and with Paris on their minds, believed that "New York was no more fitted for love than it was designed for art.... Our cries 'for madder music and for stronger wine' met with absolutely no response, and we were informed that any attempt to get the latter would be considered a criminal offense. For money, it appeared, was the thing to get." That doesn't sound promising for an author like Fitzgerald, who wrote narratives of success in his fiction and analyses of the literary marketplace in his letters.

In later life Wilson was acerbic, demanding, and overbearing. He wasn't built for human relationships—Mary McCarthy called him "The Minotaur," which seemed appropriate. When dealing with Fitzgerald he could be kind and charming—although Leon Edel observes that Scott knew even in the early 1920s he might be "seriously hurt" by disagreeing with him. One of Wilson's letters of 1921 is endlessly patient, full of intelligent asides about the kind of reading Fitzgerald should do and the kind of criticism he should avoid. Wilson was right about most things: telling Fitzgerald that novelists like Cabell couldn't possibly last, reminding him that Mencken had his limits.25 Letters to Stanley Dell, John Peale Bishop, and Fitzgerald are really introductions to a literature course that went on for a lifetime. The process, however, was adversarial. Fitzgerald thought of Wilson as his "intellectual conscience," but I think the phrase needs examining. The connection of mind to conscience suggests useful knowledge conveyed through criticism. It also suggests willingness on one side and toleration on the other. Wilson did give Fitzgerald reading assignments, and he went over his writing. He coached mental discipline. But that does not exhaust the meanings of "conscience," because those meanings changed during Fitzgerald's career. That was one result of the flow of analytical work by Freud. Translations of his work on the super- ego were publishing events, just as were new works of Eliot and Joyce. In The Ego and the Id (1923) Freud de fined "conscience" as a form of emotional and intellectual constraint. By 1930, the date of Civilization and Its Discontents, even "good" conscience was seen to be authority—not all of it legitimate—internalized. In fact, Freud was much concerned with its psychic costs. He uses literary terms to describe the process as he often does: the super-ego keeps "a watch over the actions and intentions of the ego ... exercising a censorship." The nineteenth century (at least until Nietzsche) had found conscience to be liberating, a means to become nobly selfless. After Freud, it was found to be inhibiting.

Wilson knew Freud thoroughly and often invoked him. Some of his great, lasting essays begin with a particular Freudian insight and then develop a view of authorial personality. His explanation of the work follows from his explanation of the writer's emotional condition. His method of revaluing Jonson, Dickens, and Kipling certainly ought to be applied to himself as well—not because it's rough justice, but because the presumption is that other writers understood his aims. The essay on Jonson begins with an allusion to Freud and other analysts; its subject is the relationship of the writer to an audience of friends and followers. Wilson is especially concerned with Jonson as a figure who needed to educate his readers. One aim was to have them recognize classical allusions, another was to recognize how well he had modernized the classics. Jonson, was, however, so immoderately ambitious that the second aim overwhelmed the first. There was a dysfunctional connection between the genius and the pedant. Teaching became a form of personal vindication, while the display of learning was an act of aggression, a challenge to his inferiors. The picture of Jonson that emerges from his plays—they deal largely with misanthropes—may be a seventeenth-century self-portrait. Wilson's description of Jonson may be a twentieth-century self- portrait. The literary works of both men are brilliant, entertaining, ebullient, while their shared personality remains emotionally distant, with out empathy. Both resemble a comic stage figure: "an unsociable and embittered personage who sometimes represents virtue and censors the other characters." Ultimately, knowledge becomes a weapon for both; as Wilson observes, Jonson defends his own work by criticizing other writers.

The Kipling essay also combines admiration for the work with unsparing analysis of its author. Parts of it—I am thinking of the passage in which he asks, "What became of this English Balzac? Why did the author of the brilliant short stories never develop into an important novelist?"—seem to bear on his own ambitions as well as on his sense of Fitzgerald.

Wilson is incognito in Fitzgerald's stories, as in his own works about other writers. His presence can be felt when Fitzgerald's characters get conscientious advice, when they become self-aware, and when they are unwillingly educated. A great deal has been writ ten about Fitzgerald's ego, but that should be viewed against his super-ego.

Wilson's conversations, letters, essays, and reviews criticize the novels and stories, with the first two of these also criticizing Fitzgerald's discipline and temperament. Fitzgerald's letters and essays admit his debt to Wilson. They comment on books he has been made to read and critical standards he has learned to follow—or not. Then there is the oceanic content of Fitzgerald's fiction. His reaction to mentoring may be seen when characters go through the tiresome experience of being improved. His artists, dancers, directors, musicians, and writers have to change standards in order to please a paying audience. Comic dialogues especially diminish big ideas, undermine their authority, show their temporality. "Contrary thoughts," according to a central study of Freud, "are always closely connected with each other and are often paired off." The stories have many parodies of instruction, high and low.

* * *

In Fitzgerald, ideas are judged by experience. There are a number of contemporary texts on the subject, for example, George Santayana's famous essay on William James that makes the point that experience—the natural subject of literature—is empirical, deeply resistant to generalization: "The word experience is like a shrapnel shell, and bursts into a thousand meanings.... physics and mathematics seem to me to plunge far deeper than literary psychology into the groundwork of this world; but human experience is the stuff of literary psychology; we cannot reach the stuff of physics and mathematics except by arresting or even hypostatising some elements of appearance, and expanding them on an abstracted and hypothetical plane of their own. Experience, as memory and literature rehearse it, remains nearer to us than that." Santayana emphasized the "passionate" immediacy of experience; Fitzgerald believed that literature mattered because of its emotional affect, its power to charm, persuade, and evoke. He argued against Wilson's rationalism until the end of his life. Points made around 1920 are restated in conversations with Sheilah Graham, in letters to his daughter, and by fictional characters who do not enjoy moral progress.


Excerpted from Fitzgerald's Mentors by Ronald Berman Copyright © 2012 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Teaching and Learning 1
1. Edmund Wilson’s Authority 29
2. H. L. Mencken’s Democratic Narrative 47
3. Gerald Murphy and the New Arts 69
Notes 91
Bibliography 109
Index 117

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