Speaker Fitzgerald, toward the end of his life in the 19 late 30s, wrote a series of autobiographical pieces looking back to his days of glory. He was sober and serious, and these pieces were collected after his death by Edmund Wilson, the critic and his lifelong friend. And this is something that I wrote by way of introduction to selection from the Crack-Up published by New Directions. I also later used it as the text for a memorial statement when Fitzgerald's stone was unveiled in the poet's corner of the Cathedral of St.. John the Divine in New York City. And this is what I said, said that of that triumvirate of hero novelists who came of age in the 20s, we may salute the big too guarded pugilists Hemingway or stand in awe of the mesmerise from Mississippi Faulkner. But it's the third one. We mourn the Jazz Age kid. Our own Fitzgerald. His was the most natural and unforced of the three authorial voices, and his plots required minimal invention. And his characters were not exotics nor self traumatising expatriates. And no matter where he put them, they were always recognizable, aspiring middle class people as Fitzgerald was himself. And all of that for North, who was working with Hiwa without without a net in his life, he lived rashly, susceptible to the worst influences of his time and lacking any defense against personality stronger than his own. When he died at 44, he was generally recognized to have abused his genius as badly as he had his constitution, yet at his best. The Great Gatsby, for instance. Much of Tender's the Night and the incomplete last haiku he wrote nearer to the societal heart than either of his Walker's contemporaries.

Speaker Can you tell me, how did you first encounter F. Scott Fitzgerald and become attracted to this? Right.

Speaker Well, I first read Fitzgerald when I was a college student at Kenyon College in Ohio.

Speaker And, of course, reading of his own collegiate life and picking up on that thing he had of cutting to the heart of of the social contract and understanding it in all its cruelties, appealed to me as a young student. The thing about, I guess, Gatsby was the book I read after this side of Paradise, which I understood incidentally, was a very imperfect book, but whose vitality really appealed to me. And there's a lot of risk taking in that book, which is a young writer I appreciated. He took great chances. He just let it all pour out.

Speaker What you what you love to see in any writer is is some kind of irrepressible vitality, extensive excess sense of transgression. And I think I picked up on a lot of that reading him for the first time. And of course, Gatsby, which should be read probably as the successor novel to theater. Dreiser's sister Carrie is about the American longing, and it's it's the fact that it could never be fulfilled.

Speaker A critic of Dreiser's said that Sister Carrie and Trice, who figured out that everyone in America is either going up or down. And I think that insight is characteristic of central to our understanding of The Great Gatsby. So perhaps with that being able to articulate all of this at the time, I nevertheless understood it and understood its crucial importance to to our understanding of this country.

Speaker Let me ask kind of personal. Did you and Fitzgerald, who seems to me had so many fantastically. Security's a fantastically interesting and security thing, but so eloquently sensitive and unsure about all his roles in life that he invented or assumed work except for one, it seemed to me this is only to me that he knew he was a writer. And I guess I'm wondering, in his struggle of coming of age, which this side of paradise is so much about, when you're a student at Kenyon, did you understand that you were a writer and recognized a fellow writer who was stumbling around for his identity?

Speaker Or is that all to know?

Speaker When I was Kenya and you see, Fitzgerald had just been rediscovered. It was a biography by author Misner that was published while I was a Kenyan and suddenly we were all looking at him I for the first time, but other people, apparently my elders for a better look, second look, because he had fallen to a good deal of obscurity, the great criticism of him, because he he did not stay current in the 30s. As I said before, what I recognized was an established writer and I didn't dare to compare my situation with his. He was already in the canon, as it were. There was biography written about him. The professors were giving lectures about him, and even though he was reported his own collegiate life, it was nothing I could really connect with. On a personal level, when you're just starting out, you you're looking up at all this and you're not. I don't think I identify with it, except perhaps as a reader.

Speaker Scott, was Scott Fitzgerald using his name as much as you can if you don't like him or in addition to him? There is this enormous paradox of someone is I'm asking, but it seems to me there's an enormous paradox of someone who is so self-conscious and so unsure of himself and yet needs is driven to throw himself into the heart of things, as you put it, to experience life and then report on it.

Speaker Is that did that does that strike you as apparent as Fitzgerald had great anxieties and it's possible to understand his recklessness and his self-destruction as a as a means of dealing with those anxieties, pretending to be something he wasn't, but feeling inauthentic. The meantime, pretending to be a cool, sophisticated expatriate, but being terribly provincial at his heart and susceptible to gossip and good clothing and fine wines and all of that stuff as a as an arriviste as a as an aspirant. So it was that paradox. But I think probably I would say his anxieties remained undaunted and he simply was not able to hide them as well as Hemingway hid them in a kind of self presentation of of him in ship.

Speaker And as Faulkner dealt with his anxieties and and a sense of loss by going on drinking binges is a very, very heavy. They all drank, of course. But I think the champion drinker among them for all his life was Faulkner. So if you're talking about authors, generally, the anxiety is always there. And you, in effect, they're productive of the work. The it's the complacent writer who thinks that everything's fine and that he's a master, that everything he does is beautiful. Who's he? That's the writer in trouble, but the one who's self doubting and tormented and never satisfied with what he's done and will be happy for five minutes after book is completed and then tormented ever after because it wasn't the book he wanted that that's the writing you trust. That's the writer who do something good.

Speaker And Scott Fitzgerald, in addition, wasn't the idea not only for his own work, wasn't he? There was a limit, it seems to me, to the American. Dream that he Chronixx, he was a chronicler of the American dream, but it was a dream that was elusive and not just his dream of what he wanted to be, but he seemed to have a special ear for the wave as well as the particle, as you put it.

Speaker I would tend to resist any generalization of that, of the talking about his dream for himself. He had a very difficult life, a difficult marriage and difficulty controlling his own impulses and his own weaknesses. These were the struggles of his daily life, some of that struggle he imparted with letters to his daughter, letters of advice and counsel when she was growing up. Reflections of a man who had learned his lesson. And in bitterness, he Fitzgerald was a essentially inconsolable.

Speaker I think that his so-called crack up, if you read read his work, you're trying to say, well, what was the nature of his crackup? Was he depressed, clinically depressed? Was he did he have psychotic episodes? What went on? He cried a lot and he wept and he felt bad. But my reading of the crack up is that he was simply a romantic whose illusions had been shattered, that that he was inconsolable because having had innocence and lost it, he now was bitter and angry at that loss. And so rather than putting any kind of psychological spin on on this idea of the Crack-Up, I would say that he was a romantic whose whose life is pretty well destroyed his romanticism.

Speaker And yet he had the.

Speaker Something drove him to write about it, perhaps nothing more than he was a writer, and I gather this was this was a shock.

Speaker And now we're living in a day and age a huge revelation of every possible thing that I'm reminded of, a line of Ralph Waldo Emerson talking about writing and writers. He said, for writer, everything that can be thought can be written. A writer is the faculty reporting, and the universe is the possibility of being reported. So finally, underneath everything that he was living through personally, there was the writer's self who wanted to lay it out on the page, and the probably the worst abuse that he was guilty of was not drinking and carrying on and the pretense of the social sophisticate, but the hackwork that he did very damaging to to write for money and for the market, as he did very successfully time and time and time again. And that's probably what brought him down finally in his own mind.

Speaker But wasn't he simultaneously proud of the fact that he was at least I mean, as you know, from his accounts and letters and reports, and money was always in crisis, you know, and he was keeping me away so I can never sense that.

Speaker Was there a sense that this was that he was damaging himself, that he wasn't even aware enough?

Speaker Well, you understand that he was very young at the time and he died at the age of 44, which is quite young.

Speaker And the but I think the point is that they were all of those people. He was friends with Hemingway and Gillanders Pasos, contemporary of the time.

Speaker And they they all wrote to each other and they communicated through their editor, Maxwell Perkins, and they were all very self-conscious about what they were doing. And they all understood that there was the act of writing was a kind of personal expenditure and that you just had so much to spend and then it would be gone.

Speaker And they were all had this view of of themselves as expendable sources and that must be cared for and treated well and conserved.

Speaker And they all failed to do this one way or another, maybe because it's impossible as every time you read a book, you you're not the same person you were before. Something has changed. Something is a depletion has occurred. And that's why he said he's made his famous remark about there being no second acts in American lives, generalising it. If you think of the writer as some kind of activist hero, then you apply that generalization to all American lives where we're expenditure takes place and and then there's a fall. And that's the end of you.

Speaker This idea of how out of life force, whether it's as a writer or something else, but particularly now we're talking about writers that I know.

Speaker Fitzgerald seems to me we've got it's a cultural idea we don't have anymore as strongly. It's not a given ourselves out. How do you feel as a writer and as an American?

Speaker And part of our culture is this notion of I, I don't share that essentially visionary view they had of themselves. It was it was kind of self aggrandizing to think of the heroic, expensive ones being in the act of writing. Something of the sort does occur.

Speaker But I, I don't think it's a quantitative issue at all. And but you have to grant the spirit of the times in those men and the way they operated. They were all of them outsiders and at the beginning of their working lives, obscure and trying to as well writers do create something that would make them central to society.

Speaker This is the paradox of writing that the only way you can get anything good done is by being an outsider and always being an.

Speaker An outsider, but because of that, there was a community among them and a respect for one another and attention to one another that produced these ideas of their own heroic life work. And I I don't think writers today quite subscribe to that. It's the degree of self-consciousness.

Speaker It's not quite cool anymore to be that way. But speaking as an outsider myself, I would say that one of the great strengths of Fitzgerald is he was always an outsider. He was a Midwesterner coming east. He was a nonfunctioning soldier in a war of soldiering functionaries. He was an expatriate in France and he was a and he was abused and humiliated writer in the Hollywood community, which produced not words, but images which he never quite understood. I mean, he did understand it in his in The Last Tycoon, but he didn't understand it in his struggle to to make a go of it as a screenwriter.

Speaker So wherever he was, whatever period of his life, he was always on the inside. And that, paradoxically, is the strength you you have as a writer that never quite being in it, always through looking through the window at the grand ball going on and thus be able to see it in its entirety.

Speaker Scott, it seemed to me just temperamental, an outsider perhaps more than a lot of writers, meaning he just I almost had a feeling that wherever he whatever he aspired to, it was going to slip away from him. That was just he just didn't feel comfortable viscerally on the inside. Is that is that a false note about you? And you're saying basically you must have that quality.

Speaker You appear to be a writer.

Speaker You have to you have to accept your marginal status as a writer in in American society, as you did then. And you must today. There is a there is a system of support for writers today that didn't exist in his time when writers in his day writers came up from nowhere through as freelance magazine writers as he was or as newspapermen. They came up out of the world, as Traceroute did, and Hemingway, who wrote for the Toronto Star. Nowadays, the majority of professional writers go through a period of academic training in graduate writing programs all around the country. And this means, on the one hand, that technically they'll be more proficient when they first start. They'll know more about writing and they begin than these guys did.

Speaker But it also usually means a degree of timidity, a sense of the diminutive sense of the possibilities, fiction when you don't take on the whole world with it as as as they say or routinely thought.

Speaker In the 1920s when you had someone like Thomas Wolfe writing these 20, 200 page novels and Hemingway trying to articulate a lost generation and Fitzgerald seeing in The Gatsby story the the central issue of American longing, these were writers who who automatically try to take on the world, whereas today among professional writers, there's a maybe a sense that that's not possible anymore.

Speaker I don't know. It may be as a result of the academic influence on writing. I don't know that either.

Speaker It may be a result of television or the the fact that the social sciences, for instance, and that television and film have gradually taken up more and more of the territory that writers used to roam around in and put writing in on the reservation, as it were. So there are many reasons that that things are.

Speaker And now and many reasons that writers cannot see themselves heroically cast even in their heroic self-destruction as the writers of the 20s saw themselves, even with that, even with that different cultural context, wasn't you use the phrase.

Speaker The word.

Speaker But let me just follow what I was saying, which is it did seem to me it does seem relevant that Fitzgerald had an almost uncanny sense. You use this marvelous phrase, particle and wave in this essay. But he had a sense of this wave of American history, this idea coming from Sister Carrie to Gatsby, the up and down the dream. I didn't mean to make it a generalization his own life, but this American idea of self-improvement, a constant reinvention or being able to better yourself, and yet it is always slipping away. My own sense was that his feeling was the dreaming was more important than the achievement.

Speaker But what did he have, in your view? An uncanny feeling for America, the American idea that was unusual.

Speaker You know, the cultural notion of you can make of yourself something better than you were when you began.

Speaker I don't think Fitzgerald dreamt in the way of reform or dreams or or politician visionary would dream. I I think he was rooted in the material he observed in the materials of his own life and what he saw the life around him and was prepared to report on it. If you're going to write a novel, the way to destroy the project is to begin with an idea or concept or grand plan to illustrate some philosophy you might have. That's sure death for novelists. What you do is you write from the ground up and try to create something organic that works and and worry about it's it's grand. You trust the act of writing to explore your own mind, your own convictions, your own beliefs, but you can't stick them into the peace as you would. Raisins into Cookie can't do that. You have to stay with the work down at ground level with it, with the people you're talking about, with the way they speak, with the diction you found, with the voice you find for the book. And then when it's all done, you can begin to wonder what you've done and what it's about what you've accomplished, but not before.

Speaker And what was it that Gatsby accomplished? And that seems to be more maybe now than at the time it was published and had has achieved a sort of epic recognition. What is it that was there from the ground up that Gatsby?

Speaker Well, Gatsby, like Fitzgerald himself, was an assimilationist. And what we try to assimilate into was a very was a level society that was actually cruder and more corrupt than Earth.

Speaker And he understood, coming from his own unwholesome background, he must have had an idea, Gatsby, that there was another life, a grander life, a pure life. And yet the irony of the book is that when he he goes after these people and connects with them, there's miserableness, Richard, a group of people you can find lacking courage, lacking class, lacking honesty, and with absolutely no concern for the value of their own lives or the truth of lives. They will leave leaving. And this is these with the assimilationist discovery is you see, but he did it all in terms of Tom and Daisy in their set, you see.

Speaker And if you would ask him to deliver a prophecy of the meaning of The Great Gatsby, he would tell you if he were here today. In the words of Sam Goldwyn, if you want a message, go to Western Union. Oh, it's it's the book that exists, you see. And if it's really good, it will it will carry or encourage readings and interpretations that will deliver never completely, never exhaustively, but deliver what the the meanings that the meanings that reside in the book that are part of the book that come off the page.

Speaker I wonder if it's a corollary of that, if you just said. Fitzgerald, if in a way, was resurrected not just by NASA, but by high school teachers, Gatsby came back through high schools.

Speaker Yes, well, he he accidentally wrote a short novel, which is what high schoolers always prefer. Gatsby is a short novel. He had a correspondence with Thomas Wolfe, famous correspondence. Wolfe wrote these humongous manuscripts, five novels in one that is edited to cut up, published in sequence. And he was critical of that kind of writing that. And he said to Wolfe, you were put a winner and I would take her out. Gatsby is a perfect example of the editorial discretion and and concern that looks for economy and for as a poet does. You see, so Gatsby is a short novel, which is one of the reasons that it's read in high school was not only great, but short. And in this particular time when America is in its entirety is suffering from an attention deficit disorder, he has looked at this idea.

Speaker You can't superimpose it in a grandiose or in an expository way, a message.

Speaker And we know that we recoil from that, whether whatever the dramatic medium, I think a lot of us do. I'm just wondering yourself as a writer, often I don't understand this process.

Speaker You have a beautiful way of writing your language, beautifully found. And Fitzgerald has a beautiful way of writing. There's a lyrical line to the words and to the line and the artist forgive and really kindergarten question, but doesn't often start with the music of the language, the sound of the language, and then the ideas, not the philosophy of the idea of even the story.

Speaker Can you. It can. It can.

Speaker I don't know how Fitzgerald, where I haven't studied that closely, that his working habits or I don't recall reading about his sense of inspiration or any of that sort of thing. But I can say for myself is that usually begins with a book, begins with some private mental excitement that I don't quite understand. An image comes into my mind or I'll hear a phrase or I'll see something that excites me. And then you write to find out why why that image is so evocative. I hesitate in this context to give you examples in my own work of how books began, but that's the way they do begin in the in the most odd and unbidden way. And then what you see is the first thing you require is a voice. And to have that voice and that diction, you can't write anything. You can't write a book. And The Voice will predict the book that you write.

Speaker I don't know if he ever had this this clear sense of things.

Speaker Maybe he didn't need it, but he probably if he were alive today we were contemporaries, I would not enjoy his company. He would not enjoy the drunken revelers and the throwing up in the mean spirit and the nastiness of which he was capable. And I would have a quieter person and would not want to hang out with him. I think I would have liked him in his later years when when he was much smarter and wiser and more interesting.

Speaker Did you think he would do you the evolution of his writing, do you think? I know. And completed last week, it seemed to me there was no confirmation of that. It was a more successful.

Speaker Writing, I like this writing better than the last I can and almost anything else I've written in terms of just one of the most unsettling things kind of get me out of here is a horrifying moment in The Last Tycoon when the writer is asked to come to the producer's office and the producer lectures him on how to write, and the writer defers to this greater knowledge and superior wisdom that to me as a writer, is a hideous, horrifying scene.

Speaker And to the extent that Fitzgerald may have indulged masochistic masochistically in his own humiliation, I can understand it. But and and it is true that writers are not dealt with honorably in Hollywood. That's all very true.

Speaker But that particular scene in the book is quite ambiguous, as you don't quite know where Fitzgerald stands, whether, in fact, he agrees that the producer is the master artist. Now, the production head, the company head is kind of the CEO of art or whether the the writer is himself flawed. It's an ambiguous scene. And in being ambiguous, it's it makes it should make every writer in this country quite nervous.

Speaker That's true.

Speaker He says it's true because Irving Thalberg, who I guess at the time he hated Fitzgerald, hated being dragged into this studio. You know, I, I, I he did it for money. I've certainly talked about Schulberg. His secretary is very much alive. Who was who was his secretary throughout that period. Yes, I read it. She describes this humiliating way, as you know. Yes. I tell that everyone.

Speaker Well, he always wanted approval. Wherever he was, he wanted people's approval. And he did that in Hollywood, too, whereas, for instance, Hemingway would have nothing to do with Hollywood and except to sell his work and go his separate way. And and Faulkner, of course, was disdainful and understood. It was only a source for an income for him, had no great regard for the work that could be done and cut out of town as quickly as he possibly could. There's a famous story about Faulkner saying to the production head, do you mind if I work at home rather than here in the studio? And the guys will write and buy home for Mississippi. He could've left Hollywood. And that was the attitude he had. But Fitzgerald wasn't built that way. If he was going to write a screenplay, he wanted the he wanted the approval and regard of the people he's working for. And that was his great weakness. And he was not a successful screenwriter.

Speaker He did not do well at that meeting approval.

Speaker Is that part of the constitution, that being the outsider is possibly a prerequisite for being a writer?

Speaker Well, not entirely. There is some highly personal thing going on there that has nothing to do with being an outsider. It's more of a child like thing, infantile thing that we all suffer from one degree or another. We all want approval, but not as avidly in itself, destructively as Fitzgerald did.

Speaker Here comes the last question, I hope, son, which is you describe to Scott Fitzgerald using his name, if you would, as inconsolable. Could you tell me about this? What does that mean? Started as a fresh thought?

Speaker What does it mean that he was so to the his makeup was such that he could describe his his mental state in psychological terms, but not really exhibiting any of the standard psychological problems.

Speaker In other words, he he did have a up. But what did it consist of? It's hard to know exactly why he was so upset. What my view of that is that as as a romantic de romanticized and he had lost a certain in. Since and belief in what in himself, in the possibilities of life and its glories and having been brought down that way, he he he was inconsolable that he could never forgive himself for life, for that matter. For what? For what he learned from it. And that's to be mourned, I think, because we don't deal after a century of of genocides and nuclear bombs, we don't deal with issues like the loss of innocence quite the way he did, and therefore that even that personal, tragic sequence in a person's life is to be mourned because we don't have it anymore.

E.L. Doctorow
Interview Date:
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"E.L. Doctorow, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 19 Jun. 2001,
(2001, June 19). E.L. Doctorow, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"E.L. Doctorow, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). June 19, 2001. Accessed June 27, 2022


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