In the middle of a class discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby some years ago, a student raised his hand and asked, in essence: What are we supposed to make of the scene where Nick Carraway goes off with the gay guy?
And I said, in essence: Wait, what gay guy?
He pointed me to the scene that closes Chapter II. This is the chapter in which Nick accompanies Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle, to an apartment Tom keeps in Manhattan. Myrtle invites her sister and some neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. McKee, to join them, and they throw a raucous party that ends with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose. Amid the blood and the screaming, Mr. McKee awakens from an alcoholic slumber:
Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.
“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed. “I’ll be glad to.”
…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
“Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery Horse…Brook’n Bridge…”
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.
I had, I’m embarrassed to say, never seen that passage before. Except that’s not true. I’d read the book half a dozen times since college, and taught it once, but I had somehow missed the fact that the narrator wanders off in a drunken stupor with a stranger and ends up in his bedroom.
Whether my student knew it or not, he was tapping into a strain of scholarly inquiry into the sexual orientation of Nick Carraway that dates back at least to Keath Fraser’s 1979 essay “Another Reading of The Great Gatsby.” Fraser ultimately equivocated on the question of Nick’s sexuality, but in 1992, Edward Wasiolek argued in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby” that the gay subtext in Gatsby is crystal clear: “I do not know how one can read the scene in McKee’s bedroom in any other way, especially when so many other facts about [Nick’s] behavior support such a conclusion.”
In the decades since, suggestions that maybe, possibly, there’s more to Fitzgerald’s narrator than he’s letting on have given way to ever more self-assured, even faintly indignant, assertions of Nick’s queerness, with titles like The Atlantic’s 2013 article “The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay” or BookRiot’s 2017 piece “Nick Carraway Is Queer and in Love with Jay Gatsby.”
Most queer readings of Gatsby begin with that scene with Mr. McKee and branch out from there to note that Nick’s love interest in the novel, Jordan Baker, is an athlete who carries herself “like a young cadet” and is most alluring to Nick when they play tennis and “a faint mustache of perspiration appear[s] on her upper lip.” When she and Nick break up at the end of the book, Jordan tells him she had thought he was “an honest, straightforward person,” to which he responds, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor”—a line that rings differently if you read Nick as a closeted gay man.
Of course, all of this shapes how we view the relationship between Nick and Gatsby. In a straight reading of the novel, Nick is merely an interested observer who helps facilitate Gatsby’s mad dream to rekindle his love affair with Daisy, now unhappily married to Tom Buchanan. That Gatsby, the one taught for generations in high school and college classrooms, is a classic tale about the American Dream and doomed love and the impossibility of turning back time. In that novel, Nick loves Gatsby, the erstwhile James Gatz of North Dakota, for his capacity to dream Jay Gatsby into being and for his willingness to risk it all for the love of a beautiful woman.
In a queer reading of Gatsby, Nick doesn’t just love Gatsby, he’s in love with him. In some readings, the tragedy is that Gatsby doesn’t love him back. In others, Gatsby is as repressed as Nick, each chasing an unavailable woman to avoid admitting what he truly desires. “Nick chooses Jordan for some of the same reasons Gatsby chose Daisy,” writes Wasiolek in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby.” “Daisy is Gatsby’s defense against women, and Jordan is Nick’s against women.”
That last one, I’ll admit, is a touch too Freudian for me, but if Nick were gay and in love with Gatsby it sure would clear up some things—such as what exactly Nick sees in Gatsby, a social-climbing fabulist with gangster friends who moves heaven and earth for a woman Nick plainly sees as a ditz. It would also make sense of Nick’s emotionally sterile affair with Jordan. And, of course, if Nick is queer, his trip to Mr. McKee’s bedroom isn’t merely a mysterious interlude in a canonical book, but a secret key that opens the door onto one of America’s first great gay novels.
So then, is Nick gay? The short answer is we’ll never know. The only person who could say for sure is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s been dead since 1940. But it’s worth noting that when he wrote Gatsby, Fitzgerald was the golden boy of American letters at a time of near-universal homophobia. Had readers picked up even a whiff of gay subtext in Gatsby, he risked losing everything: his career, his marriage, his reputation, his friends. But no one did see it, and, in fact, as Wasiolek notes, among the thousands of essays and critical studies of one of America’s most widely read novels no one noted the gay subtext in the McKee bedroom scene until Fraser wrote about it in 1979.
So, making Nick a closeted gay man makes little emotional or artistic sense unless Fitzgerald was using Nick’s sexuality to explore in a deeply coded way his own guilt and shame over his unspoken desires—a theory that runs into the not inconsiderable hurdle that there is zero evidence that Fitzgerald was attracted to men. Yes, his wife Zelda did once accuse him of being in love with Ernest Hemingway, but at the time their marriage was unraveling and she was months from being hospitalized for schizophrenia. (Zelda also despised Hemingway, whom she reportedly saw as “a pansy with hair on his chest.” Hemingway, for his part, hated Zelda right back, times approximately a million.)
But here’s the thing: If Fitzgerald had wanted to scratch a sexual itch badly enough to make him write coded gay characters into his books, he suffered no shortage of opportunities. For the last decade of his life, he lived apart from Zelda in European resort towns and in Hollywood, where he was surrounded by men living more or less openly gay lives. Yet not one credible story of Fitzgerald having sex with another man has turned up, either in his journals or in the famously gossipy movie colony. Instead, he had a few minor flings with female starlets before settling into stable relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who was with him when he died.
But okay, people are complicated. Maybe Fitzgerald had a secret life he was able keep under wraps his entire adult life despite the fact that he was falling-down drunk for much of that time, or perhaps he desired men, but was so disgusted by this need that he never acted upon it. There is, I think, a deeper reason to question a queer reading of The Great Gatsby: It doesn’t sound much like a novel F. Scott Fitzgerald, gay or straight, would write.
Fitzgerald was a compulsively autobiographical writer who wrote his flaws into his work, unflinchingly and in plain English. When he drank, his characters drank along with him. When his marriage failed, his characters lost their wives, too. When he had a nervous breakdown, he wrote a searingly honest set of essays called “The Crack-Up” for Esquire. It strains credulity to suggest that if Fitzgerald were gay, he would expiate his guilt and shame by writing a veiled gay love plot nobody would notice for half a century. It’s just not how his artistic apparatus worked. As a writer, Fitzgerald wore remarkably few veils. For 20 years, he opened a vein and beauty flowed onto the page.
None of this, of course, proves that Nick isn’t gay—that can’t be proven one way or the other—but I suspect the queer readings of Nick Carraway say more about the way we read now than they do about Nick or The Great Gatsby. We read with a perpetually queered eye, forever on the hunt for coded language or secret lives in characters. This is not in itself a bad thing. It layers our reading, opening our eyes to stories within stories that we missed before, but it can blind us, too, because once we know the code, we start to think all writers are in on it, when some of them might not be. Just because Fitzgerald wrote a scene that reads to us like a gay tryst doesn’t mean that Fitzgerald was gay and trying to send us a message in a bottle. Similarly, the fact that Nick meets a gay man and doesn’t run screaming doesn’t make Nick gay. Maybe it just means he’s tolerant and curious about people, whether they’re closeted gay men or bootleggers who want to turn back time.
Let’s go back to that scene with Mr. McKee. No writer as attuned to wordplay and symbols as F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written that line about touching the elevator lever before a scene in which two men end up in a bedroom and not meant for a reader to catch the double-entendre. Whatever his sexual persuasion, Fitzgerald wasn’t an idiot.
To us, reading with our queered eye, the double-entendre must be a veiled hint that Nick is gay, but that’s us now when the closeted gay man has become a stock character in film and literature. Fitzgerald’s original readers wouldn’t necessarily have come to the same conclusion. The savvier among them might have picked up that Mr. McKee is gay. It’s McKee, after all, who invites Nick for lunch and gets accused of touching the lever. It’s also McKee who’s in bed in his skivvies while Nick stands, outside the bed, listening to McKee drone on about his photo album.
Of course, Nick does follow McKee from the party and accept his lunch invitation, but that’s Nick’s role in Gatsby: he follows people and agrees to things. Nick’s tolerance, his curiosity about people, isn’t just some minor character quirk. It’s key to Nick’s character and central to Fitzgerald’s narrative strategy. Over and over, Nick meets bizarre, interesting people and reserves judgment until they reveal themselves to him—and us. It’s right there on the first page of the novel, when Nick relates the advice his father gave him about keeping in mind that not everyone has had his advantages. “In consequence,” Nick explains, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.”
Thus, when Gatsby’s friend, the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, winds up a story about a mob hit by showing off his cufflinks fashioned from the “finest specimens of human molars,” Nick doesn’t back slowly out of the room and call the cops. He looks closer at the mobster’s cufflinks and exclaims, “Well! That’s a very interesting idea.” Later, when Gatsby arranges for Nick to set up a date with Daisy, a married woman Gatsby hasn’t seen since he was a poor boy about to be sent off to war, Nick doesn’t tell Gatsby gently and firmly that he’s out of his mind. No, he calls Daisy to set up the date.
This, to my mind, is what a queer reading of Gatsby misses: Nick’s tolerance, his willingness to reserve judgment about things his world found frightening or wrong. Yes, it’s possible Fitzgerald was using the scene with Mr. McKee to speak in code of his own hidden desires, but more likely it’s a scene in which a straight man in 1920s America meets a closeted gay man—and listens to him. Likewise, maybe Nick’s love for Gatsby is queer, but more likely it’s queer in the nonsexual sense, meaning odd, uncanny. Maybe Nick really is who he says he is: a nice, decent, rather conventional bond salesman from the Midwest who knows he shouldn’t admire Jay Gatsby, but does anyway. Maybe he loves Gatsby, not because he wants to have sex with him, but because he wants to understand him, make sense of his queer and improbable dreams.
Scott Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles on December 21, 1940, age 44, after spending his last 36 months working as a Hollywood screenwriter. He’d stopped drinking by then, but the well-paying screenplay re-write work that brought him to Hollywood had dried up too. With a weak heart, and a chronic lung condition aggravated by heavy smoking, he was increasingly bedridden, laboring away on a long-planned Hollywood novel.
Benzedrine got him up in the morning; Nembutal tucked him in. A steady intake of cork-filtered cigarettes, coffee, Coca-Cola, and pans of chocolate fudge, rounded out the medications. They weren’t enough. Two mild heart attacks anticipated a massive third, which quickly ended things. The Tycoon manuscript, approximately 50,000 words in five-and-a-half chapters, was edited promptly by the preeminent critic Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s friend from their days at Princeton, and published by Scribner’s the next year in a combined edition with The Great Gatsby, titled The Last Tycoon (issued in an edited format half a century later as The Love of the Last Tycoon).
Readers will find good accounts of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood sojourn in Matthew Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur and Scott Donaldson’s Fool for Love; while close-up views are rendered in Aaron Latham’s out-of-print Crazy Sundays; F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood and Against the Current, the 1985 memoir of Fitzgerald’s secretary Frances Kroll Ring. But Fitzgerald’s own reports of his struggles helped to cement his legacy. In 1945, The Crack Up, a collection of his magazine articles, notes, and letters, also edited by Wilson, was published by New Directions. Its title was taken from three confessional essays that appeared in Esquire magazine in 1936, shocking then for the abject candor Fitzgerald used to describe a recent nervous breakdown and his wobbly recovery.
Widely admired by young academics like John Berryman — who published a glowing reappraisal of Gatsby in 1945 — The Crack Up launched a movement in confessional literature that’s lasted to this hour. Once The Far Side of Paradise, Andrew Mizener’s 1951 biography, appeared, Fitzgerald’s brief, dramatic life, as reflected in his writings, became perhaps the central literary legend of the American Century. Gatsby, which had nowhere near the sales of his hit first novel, at last found an audience.
Fitzgerald’s L.A. years are typically regarded as a minor coda to a tragic life, and Tycoon as a brilliant fragment of tantalizing promise. However, Tycoon succeeds in expressing a lot: its portrait of L.A., of studio work, of fully seen characters; how Hollywood’s atmosphere of imagination ruins people. Wilson edited Tycoon and The Crack Up to benefit Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda and daughter Scottie, who had been left in no small want at his death. By launching the author’s posthumous career, The Last Tycoon finally let Fitzgerald support his family comfortably with income from his writing, which had been the goal all along.
I propose that this revival-after-death was planned by a man aware that time was running out; that at the end, Fitzgerald was working on something that would endure because he wouldn’t finish it; that Fitzgerald had found a way for his death to give Tycoon, a necessarily fragmented tale of loss, a more moving outcome than anything he might dream up. Largely forgotten by 1940, his subsequent literary resurrection was no less important and lasting than that of Franz Kafka, a writer who died in utter obscurity, and whose own unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Trial, Fitzgerald knew very well.
He had hit bottom in the summer of 1936 following the disappointing reception of his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, which he’d struggled for years to finish. At the end of his financial rope because of Zelda’s hospital bills and Scottie’s school tuition, his short story writing, high-paying romantic hackwork for The Saturday Evening Post, was completely blocked. Hiding out at a cheap North Carolina resort hotel near Zelda’s sanitarium, Fitzgerald consoled himself with a steady intake of beer, which, not being gin, somehow didn’t count as alcohol.
Without money or prospects, he wrote the abject Crack Up essays for Esquire, then a girlie magazine with literary pretensions published in Chicago. In their wake, miraculously, a sympathetic MGM executive offered Fitzgerald a writing job: $1,000 a week for six months. Out of options, he moved west, where he started re-write work on high profile projects like A Yank at Oxford, The Women, and Gone with the Wind.
Edmund Wilson gave Fitzgerald a copy of The Trial in early 1939, during a visit east. In May, Fitzgerald wrote thanking him, the first of his Los Angeles letters Wilson uses in The Crack Up: “It seemed to renew old times [with you] learning about Franz Kafka […]” Fitzgerald wrote another Princeton friend around this time recommending, among other books, “The Trial –fantastic novel by the Czech Franz Kafka which you may have to wait for but it is worth it.”
Eighteen months later, the Czech was still on his mind, writing Max Perkins, his Scribner’s editor: “Kafka was an extraordinary Czechoslavakian [sic] Jew who died in ’36 [wrong, but the Crack Up year]. He will never have a wide public but The Trial and America are two books writers will never be able to forget.”
He closes: “This is the first day off I have taken for many months and I just wanted to tell you the book is coming along and that comparatively speaking all is well.”
He was dead a week later.
Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, after instructing his friend and executor, Max Brod, to burn his three unfinished novels. Brod instead had them all published in Germany within two years. The Trial’s first English translation appeared in the U.K. in 1936, in the U.S. the following year.
To this day, editions of The Trial and The Last Tycoon are remarkably similar in form. Both were edited, with notes, by a close friend of the writer, both include unconnected manuscript episodes, notebook entries, and letters. Consequently, their authors play large off-stage roles in the novels’ wider drama. Some readers might also note how ably Kafka’s air of absurd paranoia translates, in Fitzgerald’s arch romantic vision, to cutthroat goings on in Hollywood.
Fitzgerald first went to Los Angeles in the ‘20s, when movie sales of his stories were nearly automatic. He returned needing work few years later, and his drunken, show-off antics at Beverly Hills parties quickly sank his prospects. During both stays he spent time with Irving Thalberg, MGM’s creative chief, who, in the Crack Up year of ‘36 successfully worked himself to death: 37, pneumonia.
Thalberg, of course, fascinated Fitzgerald; they were both young, gifted, successful self-made men with glamorous wives (Thalberg was married to Norma Shearer, then MGM’s biggest female star), both preoccupied with popular storytelling. That Thalberg died of overwork the same time as Fitzgerald’s own breakdown made him an irresistible subject.
The Last Tycoon begins narrated by a studio chief’s daughter, Cecilia Brady, looking back to when she was twenty, five years before. Like Nick Caraway’s remembrance of Gatsby, she is recalling a dead man — Monroe Stahr, her father’s studio partner, and bitter rival.
An elegiac mood sets in early as Cecilia describes her particular view of the movie colony with a world-weariness more appropriate to a man of forty: “I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house.”
Published recollections of Fitzgerald’s appearance are in striking agreement on just how ghostly he appeared in Los Angeles: pale green eyes, light brown hair, pallid skin, old, dark Ivy League suits (he drove a used Ford sedan); and how modestly he behaved in public, fading into backgrounds when once he demanded attention. According to Beloved Infidel, his lover Sheilah Graham’s bestselling 1958 memoir, she first sees him at a party, a handsome, very pale man sitting in an armchair smoking, smiling at her from across the room one minute, and, when she looks again, vanished the next.
Perhaps because Fitzgerald’s writerly dialogue and sense of storytelling was so criticized by movie people, Tycoon is built on talk, and an early scene mercilessly dissects a story conference for a bad romantic B picture. Fitzgerald’s L.A. is as sad as Raymond Chandler’s, cruel as Nathanael West’s, though richer than both. He had, in fact, been relieved earlier that last year to find that his friend “Pep” West’s The Day of the Locust, which he greatly admired, didn’t cover Tycoon’s territory.
Cecilia Brady’s monologue soon shifts to a third person narration, though in much the same voice, to describe events she had no way of witnessing. Either Fitzgerald couldn’t quite decide how the story would be told, or was attempting something closer to film narration. Tycoon is held together with cuts, and mood, of making do with fragments.
A sense of the incomplete pervades the story. Nothing Stahr touches is ever finished: not the endless line of movies needing his constant attention (in Chapter IV he fires a director from a set, before reviewing dailies from several different productions); not his half-built Malibu house, the novel’s central symbol; not his marriage to his dead wife, a great movie star whose image can’t disappear, continued (as Sheilah replaced Zelda) in her apparent double, Kathleen Moore. Early, or untimely, death is never far off. Fitzgerald didn’t need a complete novel to show how short Hollywood lives could be.
Working from a story outline, trying to keep to a production schedule, he took great care with each emerging chapter, polishing them until they were nearly done. The sketched-in ending — a plane crash related somehow to a studio power struggle — had a possible coda: (spoiler) a boy finds Stahr’s briefcase in the wreckage and keeps it. That is: the papers survive the man.
Wilson was given the manuscript by Perkins and lacking any obvious directions consulted both Graham and Kroll Ring to shape the manuscript for publication. One Fitzgerald biographer asserts that he made the work appear more realized than it was.
Whether Fitzgerald was confident his old friend, a la Brod, would fashion something from the manuscript is impossible to say. But given Wilson’s stature then as America’s foremost critic (he had just published the magnificent historical study, To the Finland Station), it almost certainly crossed his mind. Three weeks before he died, Fitzgerald wrote Wilson, the last letter in The Crack Up, saying how pleased he was with the new novel, and that its emotional honesty will probably get him in trouble. “I honestly hoped somebody else would write it but nobody seems to be going to.” He closes with a p.s. mentioning he was working under “a horrible paucity of time.”
Late in Chapter V, shortly before the manuscript stops, his heart doctor realizes that Stahr “was due to die very soon now. Within six months one could say definitely. What was the use of developing the cardiograms?” Indeed, Fitzgerald was waiting for a visit from his own cardiologist at Sheilah’s apartment near Sunset when the third attack hit.
“He will never have a wide public,” Fitzgerald, writing about Kafka the week before he died, was probably thinking the same of himself. However wrong that turned out to be, he absolutely knew what he had with The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon: “two books writers will never be able to forget.” That same day he also wrote Zelda to say he was getting better; that he needed rest; that it was odd how, alone of all the body’s organs, the heart was able to repair itself.
Like many avid readers, I’m a sucker for book covers. I drink in everything about the dust jackets on hardcovers and the skins on paperbacks — the font of the title and author name, the artwork, the flap copy, the author photo and bio, the credit for the cover designer, even the blurbs. Yes, I’m also a sucker for blurbs, especially if they’re written by somebody I know, admire, or envy.
Lately I’ve been noticing something that might qualify as a trend in book covers. Though wildly different in concept and composition, these covers share something I find irresistible: the words are typewritten, usually on erratic old machines that result in subtle imperfections. The letters don’t quite line up, the spacing is uneven, the darkness of the impression varies from letter to letter because the keys were struck with erratic pressure. Many of these covers include x’ed-out or crossed-out words. They were made by a machine but they reveal a human touch, and they’re the opposite of the chilly perfection of computer-generated type, including that ersatz, too-perfect font known as “American Typewriter.”
No doubt one reason I’ve noticed these book covers — and responded so warmly to them — is because I write on a Royal manual typewriter that was built in 1948 and still works like new. But the bigger reason these covers have caught my eye and captured my heart is because they’ve so ingeniously captured the essence of the writing process. Simply put, these covers convey that writing is a messy business, a jumble of ideas, a string of false starts and dead ends and restarts. They also hint at the most central of truths: no piece of writing is ever truly finished.
So here are a few of the typewritten covers that have caught my eye recently. It’s my little analog hymn to the human touch and to the eternal beauty of ink on paper.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel
This is one of those rare instances when the story behind the book is almost better than the cover or the book itself. Lee Israel had written biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder before her writing career hit a rough patch in the 1990s. So she acquired a small arsenal of manual typewriters — Royals, Remingtons, Olympias — and after some judicious research began forging typewritten letters and the signatures of their famous “authors,” including Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, the silent film star Louise Brooks, Lillian Hellman, and many others. Israel then sold the forgeries for about $100 apiece — until she was arrested and sentenced to probation and house arrest. Below is a sample of Israel channeling Dorothy Parker, including the line that became the book’s title. With its mention of a hangover that’s “a real museum piece,” is it any wonder that Israel’s work fooled so many people for so long?
The cover of Can You Ever Forgive Me? includes the typewritten, x’ed-out names of several of the prominent people whose letters Israel forged, including Parker, along with Israel’s signature, which, presumably, is genuine. She died last year at the age of 75.
Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis
Nobody does compression like Lydia Davis, and the 41 words on the cover of her latest collection of short stories could almost be a Lydia Davis short story. In fact, if you add just seven words — “I was recently denied a writing prize…” — to the beginning of the fragment on the cover, you would have the three sentences that make up the collection’s title story. (Some of the stories consist of a single sentence.) This cover relies not on cross-outs but on the clever use of color to get its message across. Against a white backdrop, the typewritten letters are green, until you get to the titular contractions and the author’s name, which are black. Those conventional black letters are the ones that jump off the cover. Very clean and concise and counter-intuitive, just like Davis’s stories.
The Way It Wasn’t by James Laughlin
James Laughlin, the patrician founder of New Directions, called his autobiography an “auto-bug-offery.” Unfinished at his death in 1997 at 83, it’s actually more like a scrapbook, full of snapshots, snippets of published works, reminiscences, rants, and lists. The cover — just the typewritten title and a photograph of the handsome author under his signature — is far more understated than what’s between the covers. Laughlin knew, worked with, published, or had an opinion about absolutely everybody. He went to a New York Yankees game with Marianne Moore. He went butterfly hunting with Vladimir Nabokov. He was capable of delicious invective, as with this string of epithets for Paul Bowles, who he called a “hashish-eating scum-bag,” a “dog’s-behind licker,” a “vomit-drinker,” a “snot-sniffer,” and a “dribble-pisser.” This book is a welcome reminder that snark is not something new and, when done right, it can be a thing of beauty.
The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The title and author of this 2009 paperback are typed on a sheet of paper that’s in the carriage of a typewriter that’s in serious trouble. The machine looks like it has just been gnawed on and spit out by a great white shark. It looks mangled and wet. Which is not a bad metaphor for Fitzgerald’s state of mind during his messy, booze-marinated decline, so poignantly captured in these writings assembled by Edmund Wilson.
Scissors by Stéphane Michaka
This French novel is spun from the testy relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish, whose heavy-handed cutting gives the novel its title. Beneath the title and author’s name, a string of typewritten words, inspired by the title of a Carver short story collection, are crossed out with a red pencil: “It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we are talking about when we talk about love.” The maraschino is a hand-written blurb from NPR across the top of the cover, which calls the book “(An) empathetic exploration of an author’s soul.” It’s also an exploration of the Faustian bargain Carver made with Lish in order to secure his fame.
Memories of a Marriage by Louis Begley
The cover on this 2013 hardcover shows a woman in a black dress, seen in profile, sitting on a park bench and gazing longingly into the distance. There is no man in the picture. The word “marriage” in the typewritten title is crossed out twice in lower-case letters before it survives as “MARRIAGE” in capitals. This is the high-WASP story of a man’s obsessive dissection of an old friend’s marriage, which he had believed, wrongly, was kissed by happiness. Since the novel is a quest for a narrative that requires constant revision, those repeated cross-outs of “marriage” are a perfect touch.
Disgruntled by Asali Solomon
Asali Solomon’s debut novel is the coming-of-age story of Kenya Curtis, a black girl in Philadelphia who’s trying to rewrite the conventional, confining narratives of race. The title and author’s name are typed on three sheets of colored paper — one pink, one green, one turquoise — that have been torn apart and unevenly patched together, just like Kenya’s world.
The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography by Scott Donaldson
Scott Donaldson’s new book is a meditation on his 40-year career writing biographies of Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, Charlie Fenton, and John Cheever, among others. This cover may be my favorite of the bunch. The title and subtitle are typed in capital letters over the suit jacket of a man whose face is obscured by a great cloud of unintelligible typed letters. It’s a deft way of illustrating the book’s two warring premises: that “knowledge of (a writer’s) life throws light on the work and vice versa,” even though, as Donaldson admitted to me in an interview, “you cannot know what someone else’s life was like.” No wonder that poor biographer on the cover is drowning in gibberish.
1. A Portrait of What Was In the Air
Haven’t enough trees been felled, enough ink spilled, enough careers devoted to praising, panning and parsing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest creation? Surely the answer is yes. And yet Sarah Churchwell has done something almost unimaginable: She has discovered something new and she has written something fresh and revealing about the most chewed-over piece of fiction in the American canon.
Churchwell’s new book is called Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. As the subtitle implies, the book is not straight history; rather, it sets out to explore how fiction gets made, what sources novelists plumb, and how the events of an age shape the fiction that springs from it, and vice-versa. Churchwell tells the story of Gatsby’s creation in tandem with the story of a bizarre double murder that dominated American newspapers beginning in late 1922, lurid tabloid fodder that, in Churchwell’s view, seeped into the bloodstream of Gatsby. The victims of this unsolved double murder were Edward Hall, an upstanding Episcopal minister in New Brunswick, N.J., and Eleanor Mills, his married lover who sang in the church choir. They were both shot in the head and their bodies were discovered under a crab apple tree on a local lover’s lane, surrounded by their love letters.
“The Hall-Mills case has, until now, been considered in relation to The Great Gatsby only by a handful of scholars in brief articles, and in a few footnotes,” Churchwell writes, “but it is my contention that this remarkable story amplifies and enriches the context of Gatsby in many more ways than have yet been appreciated.” She goes on, “Careless People began as a species of biography — the biography of a book — seeking the origins of Gatsby, especially in relation to 1922 and to the role these notorious murders may have played in its inception. But along the way it became about something more: it also reconstructs a remarkable moment in America’s history, at the dizzying center of which stood Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, trying to navigate their unsteady way through it.”
That remarkable moment was the year 1922, which began with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and ended with the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. That fall, Fitzgerald, a newly minted literary star and media darling, moved with Zelda to Great Neck, N.Y. It was in that year and in that place that he would set Gatsby, turning Great Neck into West Egg, where the arriviste Jay Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house” faced across Manhasset Bay toward old-money East Egg, where Tom and Daisy Buchanan lived in carefree splendor, unaware that Daisy — and the green light at the end of their dock — were the magnets that would soon draw Gatsby to his doom.
Churchwell’s book is handsomely illustrated and her research into the existing source material is prodigious — there are 20 pages of end notes and 13 pages of bibliography, including newspaper and magazine articles, the Fitzgeralds’ scrapbooks, essays, letters, scholarly articles, biographies, novels, and other books. A literary journalist and author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Churchwell even unearthed a few morsels than no Fitzgerald scholars were aware of — most notably a letter by Fitzgerald about his intentions in Gatsby that was quoted in a lost review of the novel by Burton Rascoe. Churchwell, clearly thrilled by her spadework, calls Fitzgerald’s letter “a tiny, heart-stopping treasure.”
So Careless People is a portrait of “what was in the air” as Fitzgerald conceived his masterpiece, including the drama in New Brunswick that contained every major element of the novel — “a remarkable tale of murder, adultery, class resentment, mistaken identity and the invention of romantic pasts.”
2. A Killing Regret
Considering what was in the air in the 18 months the Fitzgeralds lived in Great Neck, and in the ensuing months when he finished writing Gatsby in France, it’s not surprising that Careless People is a delightful blaze of a book. The air was full of music and laughter and parties, illicit booze and ill-gotten money and flashy cars, and characters from the worlds of show business, Wall Street, journalism, literature, and organized crime, all of whom seemed to share Fitzgerald’s mortal terror of “conventionality, dullness, sameness, predictability.” Such orgies tend to make good copy.
One of the chief virtues of Careless People is the way it leads the reader back to its source material. Churchwell quotes extensively from The Twenties, Edmund Wilson’s sublime journalistic sketch of the Jazz Age. Here is an entry from 1924, when Fitzgerald was planning to leave behind the dissolution of Long Island and move to France to complete his novel:
Great Neck, mid-April. Fitz said he was going abroad because his reputation was diminishing in America, and he wanted to stay away till he had accomplished something important and then come back and have people give him dinners. There was great talk on (Ring) Lardner’s part of going to the Red Lion or some other roadhouse, but when we did leave — all the liquor now gone — we simply went on to Lardner’s, where we drank Grand Marnier — he insisted on presenting us each with a little bottle — and more Scotch…Zelda had gone to sleep in an armchair and covered herself with a shawl – she was bored by Scott’s chart of the Middle Ages and made herself very disagreeable about it…Then we went back to the Fitzgeralds’. Lardner and I started talking about the oil scandal and Fitz fell asleep in his chair…
Such boozathons were the rule, not the exception, during the Fitzgeralds’ time at Great Neck. Small wonder that he got little writing done there and yearned to get away. This passage also hints at the cracks in Scott and Zelda’s marriage, and it presages another of Churchwell’s sources, The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald’s autobiographical writings from the 1930s, collected and edited by Wilson.
That book’s title essay, which appeared as a three-part serial in Esquire magazine in 1936, is a brutally frank account of what it’s like to fall from a dizzy height. As the echoes of the Jazz Age faded, Fitzgerald likened himself to a cracked plate: “Sometimes, though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under left-overs…” And then there is the harrowing loss of self that accompanies a crack-up: “It was strange to have no self — to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do — ”
Sad as this is, it’s not as sad as re-reading The Great Gatsby and coming back into intimate contact with genius at its fragile peak, just before the crash. The greatness of the book points straight to the true sadness of Fitzgerald, something Churchwell addresses with an admirably cold eye: His failure to live up to his enormous talent.
In addition to being an alcoholic who was devoted to a mad wife, Fitzgerald was lazy, a squanderer, a man who drank until he passed out in hundreds of chairs, then woke up and kept drinking until he was in the grave at the age of 44. In “The Crack-Up,” he confesses to any writer’s most killing regret: “I had been only a mediocre care-taker of most of things left in my hands, even of my talent.”
In a telling observation about Lardner, his friend and neighbor in Great Neck, Fitzgerald wrote, “Whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work.” This is most likely true, and I think it absolves Lardner, much as it absolved Nathanael West, another genius who had no capacity for evaluating the worth of his own work. That, it seems to me, is a far less grievous sin than the one Fitzgerald and a handful of other American writers have committed — Truman Capote and Jack Kerouac come immediately to mind — the sin of squandering an outlandish gift.
3. A Story of Our Moment
Churchwell’s title is derived from the penultimate page of The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, has just overseen Gatsby’s sparsely attended, rain-drenched, and thoroughly depressing funeral (an end that eerily foreshadows what awaits Fitzgerald). One day shortly after the funeral, as he’s getting ready to leave haunted New York and return home to the Midwest, Nick spots Tom Buchanan striding purposefully down Fifth Avenue. They stop to talk, and Nick’s suspicion is confirmed that it was Tom who directed the pistol-wielding cuckold George Wilson to Gatsby’s house, in the mistaken belief that it was Gatsby, not Daisy, who was the hit-and-run driver behind the wheel of the car that killed Wilson’s wife, Myrtle. Tom neglected to tell Wilson that it was he, not Gatsby, who was having an affair with Myrtle.
“It was all very careless and confused,” Nick muses. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”
Sad as it was, re-reading this sharp little gem of a novel was also uplifting, a reminder that Jay Gatsby’s story is timeless. It is, as Churchwell writes, “so much a story of its moment and yet so much a story of ours.” In his essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald looked back on the wild party from the vantage of 1931, two years after the crash. He could have been talking about himself and he could have been talking about our world today when he wrote, “It was borrowed time anyhow — the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand ducs and the casualness of chorus girls.”
The upper 10 percent has become the upper one percent and class resentment grows deeper and more bitter by the day, but otherwise not much has changed. The Great Gatsby will continue to inspire re-reading, re-thinking, and sad rejoicing. This is so because Fitzgerald was a genius who understood that we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Image Credit: Bill Morris