The American Scholar published a piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s infamous autobiographical essays, The Crack-Up.” Published in Esquire in 1936, these essays were later posthumously compiled and edited by Edmund Wilson. During his life, however, Fitzgerald got a lot of flack from his contemporaries for revealing such a candid portrait of himself, his regrets, his literary failures, and his relationships.
The first readers to comment on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Crack-Up” essays made no pretense to literary criticism. They just wanted to dish—and diss. The dismay of old or former or soon-to-be-former friends came at Fitzgerald fast and furious, along with smack-downs from those critics who bothered to remark on the essays as they appeared in three successive issues of Esquire, in February, March, and April 1936.
John Dos Passos was particularly exercised. “Christ, man,” he wrote to Fitzgerald in October 1936. “How do you find time in the middle of the general conflagration to worry about all that stuff?” The “general conflagration,” presumably, was the Great Depression, but also National Socialism and fascism in Germany and Italy, and the Spanish Civil War, which had ignited in July. “We’re living in one of the damnedest tragic moments in history,” Dos Passos steams on. “If you want to go to pieces I think it’s absolutely OK but I think you ought to write a first-rate novel about it (and you probably will) instead of spilling it in little pieces for Arnold Gingrich,” the editor of Esquire, who had commissioned the essays.
By the standards of our own über-autobiographical age, with its appetite for revelation, its faith in the “redemptive” payoff of telling all, Fitzgerald’s essays seem decorously vague, cloaked in metaphor rather than disclosure. Though he describes his psychological and spiritual breakdown, his utter collapse, often in a wry, self-deprecating style, he doesn’t spill many autobiographical beans. We don’t learn of his despair over his wife’s mental illness. He doesn’t divulge his bouts with drinking, his imprudent affair with a married woman, his money worries, his literary woes. Mother, father, those stock figures of personal narrative—never mentioned. The master storyteller isn’t even very narrative, employing drifts of figurative language rather than episodes and scenes, feinting and lunging (mostly feinting) his way through his portrait of a breakdown that left him “cracked like an old plate.”
The complete review can be found on The American Scholar.