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The Cambridge Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald


Kirk Curnutt


Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007, viii,145 p.

Hardback ISBN 978-0-521-85009-7.

Paperback ISBN978-0-521-67600-7


Reviewed by Michel Viel

Université Paris IV-Sorbonne



As managing editor of The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review Kirk Curnutt is a not a newcomer to the F. Scott Fitzgerald family circle. However he has yet to establish a reputation equal to that of the members of the older generation. His Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald is a step in the right direction. It is a well-written, well-documented commendable piece of scholarship. Curnutt’s coverage of the Fitzgerald corpus aptly includes a great many short stories, and the bibliography is reliable, even though it is confined to American sources (as usual with the notable exception of Le Vot’s biography).

This volume comprises four chapters: 1 Life; 2 Cultural context; 3 Works; 4 Critical reception. These are of unequal length and importance. With 74 pages, Chapter 3 is by far the longest of all: half the size of the book. The author regrets that Scott’s life has overshadowed his art, and insists that one should focus on his works. The fact is that the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald has long seemed to be the most natural channel to address his works. Kurk Curnutt intends to break away from this tradition.

Thus F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is dealt with in the first chapter, a mere sixteen pages: Childhood and literary apprenticeship (1896-1917); Zelda and early success (1918-1924); Artistic maturity and personal decline (1925-1934); The crack-up and the comeback (1935-1940). The following extracts from each of the four periods give an insight into Curnutt’s book’s content and style.

From Childhood and literary apprenticeship (1896-1917)

In August 1916, Fitzgerald overheard someone (accounts vary as to who) remark ‘Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls’ (Ledger 17). It was The Snub that Launched a Career, for it became the defining motif of his fiction [16].

From Zelda and early success (1918-1924)

As Fitzgerald struggled to follow up Paradise, friends unfairly blamed Zelda for distracting him: ‘If she’s [home] Fitz can’t work – she bothers him,’ Princeton acquaintance Alexander McKaig wrote in his diary, an oft-cited source for this heady period. ‘If she’s not there he can’t work – worried what she might do’ [19].

From Artistic maturity and personal decline (1925-1934)

Critics acknowledged the elegiac style [of Tender Is the Night] but criticized the structure as diffuse – an opinion that Fitzgerald came to share. ‘I would give anything if I hadn’t had to write Part III […] entirely on stimulant,’ he told Perkins in 1935. ‘If I had one more crack at it cold sober I believe it might have made a great difference’ [24].

From The crack-up and the comeback (1935-1940)

Most damagingly, [Scott and Zelda’s] defeated aura seemed to substantiate Fitzgerald’s reputation as a has-been. […] Hemingway ungenerously described Scott as ‘wrecked’ in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (1936) […]. Yet the most devastating fallout occurred when New York Post reporter Michael Mok interviewed an intoxicated Fitzgerald on his fortieth birthday. As the Post’s apt headline announced, the author resided ‘on the other side of paradise… engulfed in despair’ […]. The portrait was so injurious that Fitzgerald claimed he attempted suicide [25].

Most anecdotes and quotes in this chapter are well-known to Fitzgerald’s aficionados but they perfectly fit the format of the book.

The next chapter is about the ‘Cultural context.’  (My generation: youth culture and the politics of aging; The theater of being: personality and performative identity; The marketplace of self-making: personal style and consumerism; Flaunting recreations: conspicuous leisure and the culture of indulgence.) This is the shortest chapter, about a dozen pages. Scott’s was the age of the ‘lost’ generation, Prohibition and heavy drinking, youth, bobbed hair, new clothes, new fashion, new morals and new mores, petting and kissing, movie stars and chorus girls, jazz music, the new theatricality of daily life – and a great amount of self-indulgence. The new standards were conveyed by the Saturday Evening Post, which had a weekly circulation of three million copies. In it Fitzgerald published short stories for ready income. It is from the Saturday Evening Post that Jordan Baker reads out loud for the benefit of Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby (1925). It was also the time consumerism was invented, with the car dominating the rest of the market. ‘This Side of Paradise, early flapper stories, and several Basil and Josephine installments explore the effect of a Blatz Wildcat or a Pierce-Arrow on sexual mores. They also examine the automobile’s appeal as a status symbol’ [35].  Ironically, Tom, the polo-player, boasts of being the only man in the land that converted a garage into a stable when his contemporaries did the opposite.

It is surprising that Curnutt does not mention the telephone. The telephone is an important element in the stories. With no telephone how could ‘philosophers’ make dates with ‘flappers,’ and flappers cancel dates with philosophers? The telephone is a character by itself, ‘the fifth guest’ at the Buchanans’ table in The Great Gatsby, and a mysterious intruder in The Last Tycoon (1941) as Stahr extemporizes about writing for the movies. This chapter however is informative and interesting. It is also a good introduction to the Twenties and the role that Fitzgerald played in the making of the myth. After Cultural context we proceed with the long chapter about the works. At this point chronological order is discarded in favor of thematic ordering. Curnutt’s approach implies that one believes that homogeneity outshines heterogeneity, that unity prevails over diversity.

The headings in the all-important third chapter are: Composition process, Major themes; Major characters; Major plots and motifs; Mode and genre; Style and point of view. A more conservative view of Fitzgerald consists in patronizing This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922), focalizing onto The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night (1932), grieving the uncompleteness of The Last Tycoon, and treating a selection of stories – usually the same – parenthetically, while ignoring the others. Above all each work is treated separately. This approach relies heavily on the ups and downs of Fitzgerald’s life, linking writing with life itself. No writer on Fitzgerald denies the importance of personal experience, Curnutt no less than any other. He quotes from Fitzgerald’s ‘One hundred False Starts’ (1933) to show that it was Fitzgerald’s first and foremost source of inspiration:

We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives – experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before. [39]

Yet Curnutt’s approach is anything but biographical. He admits once and for all that life has shaped Fitzgerald’s work but he believes that the autobiographical angle does not do justice to Fitzgerald as a writer. Thus work is compared with work, not with life, with the fortunate consequence that the short stories are given the treatment they deserve. Not only the usual half-dozen collected in most anthologies, ‘The Cut-Glass Bowl’ (1920), ‘May Day’ (1920, ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ (1920), ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ (1922), ‘Winter Dreams,’ (1922), ‘Gretchen’s Forty Winks’ (1924), ‘The Last of the Belles,’ (1929), ‘Babylon Revisited’ (1931), and a couple from the Pat Hobby series (1939-1940), but all of them, because all the works are mutually enlightening. Even supposedly pot-boilers like ‘Myra Meets His Family,’ (1920) or ‘The Popular Girl,’ (1921) which Fitzgerald claimed he did not like, shade light on the rest of his work. Curnutt quotes extensively from them. Here are a few examples:

From Major themes:

[Fitzgerald insisted] that desire inevitably invites disappointment for the gap between possibility and actuality is rarely bridged in this world. His typical protagonist is distinguishable from the main characters of other 1920s fictions by his ambition. … Amory Blaine, Jay Gatsby, Dexter Green, and Monroe Stahr […], are all driven to realize their dreams. While their aspirations differ (Amory and Stahr want to be great leaders, while Gatsby and Green, and many others conflate romantic fulfillment and upward mobility), their goals are, to quote from The Great Gatsby, ‘commensurate to [their] capacity for wonder’ [53].

From Major characters:

Rosalind set the standard for such subsequent Fitzgerald flappers as Myra Harper in ‘Myra Meets His Family’ (1920), Betty Medill in ‘The Camel’s Back,’ Sally Carrol Happer in ‘The Ice Palace,’ and Ardita Farnam in ‘The Offshore Pirate’’(1920), among others [70].

Quoting from Major plots and motifs (Courtship stories)

According to Scott Donaldson, Fitzgerald’s romances can be divided between those ‘depict[ing] the success, or seeming success, of the poor young man in wooing the rich girl’ and those in which ‘the young man (is] rejected in his quest and [is] subsequently disappointed.’ The distinction is convenient but too general, for it overlooks the oft-ignored fact that many of Fitzgerald’s romances are told from the woman’s point of view, not the man’s. ‘The Ice Palace,’ ‘Myra Meets His Family,’ ‘The Popular Girl,’ the Josephine Perry stories, and even the Rosemary sections of Tender Is the Night are just examples [85].

The stories therefore are not simply mentioned, but analyzed on a par with the major novels. The material is rich and abundant. Depending on what a story is, and on who actually wrote the stories signed ‘F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald,’ Scott wrote anything between one hundred-and-sixty to one hundred-and-eighty stories. Curnutt uses almost one hundred of them, and he does so up to ten times for a single story (‘The Offshore Pirate,’ 1920). He is determined to ensure that Fitzgerald is not going to be admired for bad reasons: ‘This approach emphasizes Fitzgerald’s professionalism, demonstrating that his legacy lies in the literature, not the legend’ [40]. It is the rejection of chronology and the adoption of a thematic point of view that makes this possible.

This holistic approach to Fitzgerald emphasizes the unity of his work. Not a single piece by Fitzgerald fails to evoke the tenuous line between success and failure, whether it be love or business. The illusion, or at least the fragility, of the American Dream of Happiness and Justice for all is continually exposed.

Although humbly labeled ‘an introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald,’ the book is not always easy to read. Chapter 3, in particular, is unexpectedly generous, but reading it is a rewarding experience. Better to be said that some prior reading of Fitzgerald (at least Gatsby and a few stories) is advised if you want to understand (and enjoy) this chapter.

The last chapter, Critical reception, comprises three parts: Contemporary reviewers, The Fitzgerald revival, and Modern Fitzgerald studies. This Side of Paradise was a best-seller. Up to the early Thirties Fitzgerald was immensely popular as a writer of short stories, but the reception of the other books was disappointing. All his life Fitzgerald belittled his genius as a short story writer, and claimed that he wrote most of his stories to finance his novels. True, Fitzgerald earned his living by writing. Disparaging himself as a short story writer was an indirect way of suggesting that he could make an exceptional amount of money in the trade. In That Summer in Paris, Morley Callaghan (in an anecdote that Curnutt ignores) tells how Scott boasted that he was a millionaire because he had tabulated he could earn by writing as much as he would if he had one million dollars in the bank.

Contemporaries were divided as to what was best in Fitzgerald. Mencken set The Beautiful and Damned higher than the rest of his work.  The role played by Scott’s friend Edmund Wilson is disconcerting. Wilson was largely dismissive, and even wrote spitefully about a poignant story, ‘The Lees of Happiness’ (1920). Yet he launched the Fitzgerald revival when he edited and published Fitzgerald’s unfinished Last Tycoon bound with a new edition of The Great Gatsby (1941). Writers and scholars followed suit. Fitzgerald’s sudden death at the age of forty-four had left work for two generations. Carnutt extols the virtues of textual analysis, under the emblematic figurehead of Matthew J. Bruccoli, and rejects such approaches as cheap psychoanalytical fantasies. The long delayed publication of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is now almost complete. It is unlikely that there is still much new relevant material about Fitzgerald although the recent rediscovery of the diary of Ginevra King, Scott’s first sweetheart and a model for many of the flappers, shows that a nice surprise can always happen. Curnutt’s Guide to further reading [136-140] is a useful complement to this interesting if too short chapter. Writing from the European side of the Atlantic I believe that a short paragraph about Fitzgerald’s reputation abroad would have been welcome.

I mainly regret that style is treated too rapidly, if hardly at all [107-109]. Dorothy Parker said of Fitzgerald that he could write a bad story but could not write badly. Mencken dismissed the action and the characters in Gatsby but extolled ‘the charm and beauty of the writing.’ In the wake of Fitzgerald’s death The New Yorker described Gatsby as ‘one of the most scrupulously observed and beautifully written of American novels.’  In The Price Was High [1981:12], Matthew J. Bruccoli elaborates:

Even his weak stories are redeemed by glimpses of whatcan be conveniently called ‘the Fitzgerald touch’ – wit, sharp observations, dazzling descriptions, or the felt emotion. Even the most predictably plotted of the Twenties stories have a spontaneity (which is not the same as facility) that differentiates them from other writers’ work. Above all, Fitzgerald’s style shines through: the colors and rhythms of his prose.’

What makes Fitzgerald’s writing beautiful? Where does the charm of his prose reside? What is ‘the Fitzgerald touch’?  Inimitable passages come to mind: the final vision in The Great Gatsby, the love scene which concludes Chapter 6, the incipit of Tender Is the Night, Nicole Diver’s shopping list… Add to this that Fitzgerald’s lyricism miraculously coexists with humor and irony. Like a bar from Gershwin, a phrase by Mozart, Fitzgerald’s style is immediately identifiable:

    I left Ailie sitting in the car,looking very beautiful with the warm breeze stirring her long, curly bob. ‘The Last of the Belles,’ 1929.

    And all over the moonlit sidewalkaround the still, black form, hundreds of prisms and cubes and splinters of glass reflected the light in little gleams of blue, and black edged with yellow, and yellow, and crimson edged with black.’ ‘The Cut-glass Bowl,’ 1920

    December tumbled like a dead leaffrom the calendar.’ Gretchen Forty winks,’ 1924

    These were the days of Florodora and of sextets, of pinched-in waists and blown-out sleeves, of almost bustles and absolute ballet skirts, but here, without doubt, disguised as she might be by the unaccustomed stiffness and old fashion of her costume, was a butterfly of butterflies. Here was the gaiety of the period – the soft wine of eyes, the songs that flurried hearts, the toasts and the bouquets, the dances and the diners. Here was a Venus of the hansom cab, the Gibson girl in her glorious prime. Here was . . . ‘The Lees of Happiness,’ 1920


Who but Fitz ever wrote so superbly?

The mystery of Fitzgerald’s prose is still to be unveiled. Like many authors, Curnutt insists that Fitzgerald is a great stylist but hardly says why. Nevertheless his treatment of the stories shows that beauty is not limited to Gatsby and Tender.

I must admit that I am a little skeptical about the book’s Introduction which is based on the 2003 Memoirs of Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which she did between 1979 and 1997, the year she emigrated to America. In her list of Western Classics was The Great Gatsby, this ‘quintessential’ American novel. Her students were highly critical of the way Gatsby and Daisy behaved, applying moral and religious criteria to judge the novel. Curnutt declares that his own book ‘in the spirit of Nafisi … is an invitation to explore a variation on her class’s concern: what use is F. Scott Fitzgerald in this world we live in?’  [p. 3] While I am aware of the current research about ‘teaching’ Fitzgerald as well as literature in general, I am not sure that one does literature justice by highlighting its ‘use.’ Nor am I certain that Curnutt’s volume is about the use of Fitzgerald, but that’s no matter. Let us call this introduction to the Cambridge Introduction, a ‘false start,’ and as such a tribute to Fitzgerald’s renowned ‘false starts.’

Assuming that your students have a limited knowledge of Fitzgerald, I suggest that they read a few stories before embarking on Kirk Curnutt’s Introduction. The success of his book will be measured by their eagerness to read more Fitzgerald’s stories. Now that I have read Curnutt’s Introduction myself, I am enjoying them more than ever before.



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