SEPTEMBER 27, 1996
F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of America's greatest writers, and one of the most romanticized, for his life and death were steeped in tragedy. For a closer look at the writer and the man on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Elizabeth Farnsworth talks to Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, and Fitzgerald biographer Matthew Bruccoli.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: F. Scott Fitzgerald was born a hundred years ago this week in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1940, the year he died, only 40 copies of his books were sold. His total royalties for that year amounted to $13. Today, The Great Gatsby alone sells about 300,000 copies a year. Fitzgerald's life is the stuff of legend and his work occupies a prize place in the history of American literature. Who was he and what is his legacy? We're joined now by novelist and playwright Joseph Heller, author of, among other books, Catch-22 and Closing Time, and Fitzgerald biographer and University of South Carolina Professor Matthew Bruccoli. Thank you both for being with us. This is quite a remarkable literary resurrection, Professor Bruccoli, explain it.
MATTHEW BRUCCOLI, Fitzgerald Biographer: It was an honest resurrection. Most literary revivals are rigged in English departments by professors and critics who have the ambition of critical discovery. The Fitzgerald revival that began slowly in the late 40's and then gained momentum in the 50's was a reader revival. People read Fitzgerald, told other people about it. People went into bookstores and asked for Fitzgerald. It--it comforts us with the thought that great books always find their proper place. Unfortunately, it may take a long time, and the author is not still extant when it happens.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joseph Heller, what about his writing most inspired you?
JOSEPH HELLER, Author: Well, what most inspired me about Fitzgerald's writing was that it was such wonderful writing. I read him when I was still a teenager and still harboring that adolescent daydream to perhaps become a writer someday. And reading him then, particularly his short story “Babylon Revisited,” and The Great Gatsby, just thrilled me. It was like hearing “Clair De Lune” for the firs time. I marvel at the fact that something so close to perfection could be achieved and fortified my own ambition to be a writer. I knew two things from him: One is I wanted to be a writer, and the second thing is I'd better not try to write the way he does. So I became a writer, and my novels are not like his.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is it that you loved? What is it about his style that you recognized as being so wonderful?
JOSEPH HELLER: What I recognized was the style was the control of language, the novelist's imagination, a philosophical and poet insight into this material. What I marveled at in Great Gatsby and still do is it is both a realistic, romantic novel and also a metaphorical one with as much relevance today as it had in the time he wrote it in the 20's. I still. I live in East Hampton, New York, and every summer I think great Gatsby's are giving big parties out there right out of the novel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Prof. Bruccoli, you have something you might read for us.
MATTHEW BRUCCOLI: This is the description of the visit to the trenches in Tender is the Night. And I don't think Fitzgerald ever achieved prose with more layers of meaning. "See that stream. We could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it, a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front, and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think he's endured, Professor, because of this writing, or because of the things he wrote about?
MATTHEW BRUCCOLI: They're always connected. Style is content, content is style. Uh, but, uh, I think that people begin reading Fitzgerald for the social history aspects of his work, and then as they become better readers, they understand how well he wrote.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Joseph Heller, he wrote about the beautiful and the damned, about great possibility and about great failure. So much of what he wrote was about that, wasn't it?
JOSEPH HELLER: I would say so, and I think so much of what he wrote came out of his own experience, real living experience and fantasy experience, imagined experience. There is a continuity I believe in all his work, from the short stories through the novels, and I think there's a continuity in the character, having read Prof. Bruccoli's biography, Fitzgerald as a child, Fitzgerald as an adolescent, and Fitzgerald as a successful writer, and then as a writer who saw himself go into decline.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He had a sense of time. I have this feeling of, of knowing exactly where he was in the writing, a very acute sense of time and place, didn't he?
JOSEPH HELLER: He certainly did, and he had it no matter--regardless of where he--what he was doing or writing. He had a--I don't know--it's not a good ear--he had an insight, an insight into existence, an insight into his own environment, and it's--and plus a lyrical gift and plus a poet's yearning to achieve, and I think he successfully fused all those into, into works of literary art. It is hard to explain why a novel or work of fiction, what there is in it that helps it endure because a work of fiction is an act of creation, of imagination. But if you would ask me what do I like in Fitzgerald, I'll say I like Fitzgerald's writing. I like what he did.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh.
JOSEPH HELLER: It has an essence that's valid.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Prof. Bruccoli, his life fell apart, didn't it? He was alcoholic. His wife was alcoholic. She had schizophrenia. His books stopped selling.
MATTHEW BRUCCOLI: Her main problem was not alcohol, uh, but yes, he was an alcoholic. Tender is the Night, published in 1934, had a disappointing reception. And Fitzgerald went into a period of terrible depression which he wrote about brilliantly in the essays which are known as the "Crack Up" essays. In 1938, he went to Hollywood, where he died in 1940, writing what promised to be his most brilliant work, his Hollywood novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did he have any sense when he died that he would ever be recognized in the way he is now?
MATTHEW BRUCCOLI: Shortly before he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter, Scotty, in which he said, uh, that, uh, the sacrifice of his talent in bits and pieces in order to maintain its integrity, uh, had some sort of epic grandeur. And I liked that so much that I took it for the title of my biography of Fitzgerald. Yes, he had to have known how good he wrote. How could he not know that he was doing things that the other writers couldn't do, didn't do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you both very much for being with us.