Book Review

A desire left unfulfilled

Collection of Fitzgerald essays is an autobiography in name only

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vignettes in “A Short Autobiography’’ serve up brief and witty but empty social commentary. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vignettes in “A Short Autobiography’’ serve up brief and witty but empty social commentary. (Carl Van Vechten/Yale University)
By Jay Atkinson
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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When it comes to our very best writers, there is perhaps no greater object of desire than the one, long-imagined but illusory work that was never attempted, or if so, never completed. The unfinished novel, the boffo final story, and the unwritten memoir loom especially large when the writer dies young; and so the careers of artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, and our subject here, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have a certain wistfulness attached to them when one contemplates the things they left unsaid.

Known for his ambition as well as his talent, Fitzgerald managed to hit the trifecta in this regard. Upon his death at age 44, he left an incomplete novel, “The Last Tycoon’’; scribbled notes for a trove of his literary - and popular - short stories; and the often-expressed but unfulfilled desire to write an autobiography. In the mid-1930s, Fitzgerald twice approached his editor, Maxwell Perkins, on the subject of collecting a group of his “intensely personal’’ nonfiction works, but Perkins suggested an original “reminiscent book’’ in place of the collection, a physical and emotional challenge that Fitzgerald no longer had the stomach for.

Now, 71 years after Fitzgerald’s death, his venerable publishing house, Scribner, is bringing out a slim volume entitled “A Short Autobiography,’’ which, at roughly 200 pages, is at least half true.

Fifteen of the 19 nonfiction pieces reprinted here were published in a previous book, “My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940’’ (Cambridge University, 2005), after first appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, The New Yorker and other magazines. These essays don’t add up to an autobiography, even in the broadest sense, but rather, form a pastiche of brief, witty, often insightful but ultimately vacuous social commentary. Fitzgerald himself knew most of them were insubstantial piffles even as he was composing them. In an essay called “Afternoon of an Author,’’ published near the end of his life, the man who’d written “The Great Gatsby’’ before he was 30 admitted having trouble with “a magazine story that had become so thin in the middle that it was about to blow away.’’

Some of these vignettes are dated by obscure references and personalities (“A Short Autobiography’’); others are rather dull exhortations to social improvement (“Girls Believe in Girls,’’ “Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own’’); or reminiscences on Princeton or Paris or St. Paul, Minn., which lack the sort of detail that will engage most contemporary readers (“Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées,’’ “Three Cities’’). Still, Fitzgerald is a pleasant companion - humble for a man of such talent, aphoristic, generous to his peers (he’s much kinder to Ernest Hemingway than the old Oak Park brawler was to him in “A Moveable Feast’’), and fond of droll and self-mocking comments. In “What I Think and Feel at 25,’’ the cheeky young scribbler wrote, “I will concoct a Scott Fitzgerald who will make Benjamin Franklin look like a lucky devil who loafed into prominence.’’

Fitzgerald managed to cram a lot of living into the first third of the 20th century, noting that his trajectory spanned “[t]he war, the peace, the boom, the depression, the shadow of the new war.’’ Old at 30, ancient by 35, Fitzgerald and his sketches, even the early ones, are chock full of an oppressive fear of death, his dissipation and declining vigor, and mounting regret over his lost youth. His tempestuous relationship with his wife, Zelda Sayre, is barely hinted at, but by age 40, he’s exhausted, living in a Baltimore apartment with his daughter, Scottie, so worn out from the Jazz Age that he has trouble climbing stairs.

Floating through this volume like a specter is the notion of what might have been - the sort of “reminiscent book’’ that by the mid-1930s Fitzgerald didn’t have the energy to write. In the final piece, “My Generation,’’ published in Esquire after his death, Fitzgerald relates a wonderful anecdote about a night he spent carousing with the novelist Thomas Wolfe at Lake Geneva. Wolfe, who stood 6 feet 8, found that he could reach the “street wires’’ overhead and merely by pulling on them, cause a power outage in Montreux. Astounded by this, Wolfe “played at his blackout with the casualness of a conductor ringing up fares,’’ until an alarm went off and he and Fitzgerald ran off into the darkness, laughing. “His end was so tragic that I am glad I knew him in care-free and fortunate times,’’ wrote Fitzgerald.

He could have been talking about himself. But during his stardust years, Fitzgerald really cranked out the gems. To paraphrase remarks by the novelist Harry Crews on Tennessee Williams, it would be enough for us to honor Scott Fitzgerald if all he’d ever done was write the short stories, “Babylon Revisited’’ and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.’’

Jay Atkinson’s latest book is “Tauvernier Street,’’ a collection of stories. He teaches writing at Boston University.


Edited by James L. W. West III

Scribner, 204 pp.,

paperback, $15