George Dempsey regrets a bogus, mean-spirited book on the most famous literary friendship of the century Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald
George Dempsey regrets a bogus, mean-spirited book on the most famous literary friendship of the century
Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald
By Scott Donaldson
John Murray: £25
ERNEST Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald first met in Paris in 1925. They took an immediate liking to each other and, for the next few years whenever they were both in Paris, they saw each other regularly, often on a daily basis, and whenever one was elsewhere they wrote long letters full of literary gossip and advice and the sort of slanging put-downs men of any age are wont to indulge in with their best friends. Each consistently praised the other's genius as a writer.
In the 1930s, the intensity of their friendship slackened as they lived a continent apart Hemingway in Key West, Florida, and Fitzgerald in Hollywood and even farther apart professionally. In those years, Hemingway moved from one critical achievement to the next while Fitzgerald was mired in the literary doldrums and reduced to trying to recoup his squandered solvency by writing for the movies. Nevertheless, they retained their affection for each other, though now it was expressed more often in letters to Maxwell Perkins, their common editor at the publishing house of Scribner's, than it was directly to each other.
Still, shortly before his death from a heart attack in 1940, Fitzgerald received from Hemingway a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls inscribed ``To Scott with affection and esteem'' and he responded by telling Hemingway that it was ``better than anyone else writing could do.'' And, in the final year before his own death some two decades later, Hemingway put the finishing touches to the three sketches in A Moveable Feast (far more than he devoted to any of the many other literary notables he knew in Paris in the 1920s) in which he recalled Scott with affection and regret. It was, arguably, the most famous literary friendship of the twentieth century.
This is the true account of the friendship of these two literary giants but it is one which a reader will extract only with determined effort from this fundamentally mean-spirited book in which the author is hell-bent on convicting Fitzgerald of cringing obsequiousness and Hemingway of adversarial cruelty behaviour that ``led their intimate friendship to degenerate into a painfully cruel exercise in sadomasochism.'' The book's title, Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald, is perfect: it exactly captures this thesis and it is every bit as bogus.
Demonstrating that Fitzgerald was a bad drunk belligerent when under the influence and cloyingly remorseful when sobered up is not difficult. His boorish escapades had entered literary folklore during his own lifetime. But nailing Hemingway takes more determination. Donaldson attacks him on three fronts: that he treated Fitzgerald with condescension and even ``extraordinary cruelty'' because of Fitzgerald's drunken behaviour, that he ``covered up'' Fitzgerald's vital editorial advice on his first two novels, and, most spectacularly, that out of critical jealousy he waged a ``campaign of denigration'' against Fitzgerald over the two decades following his death.
DONALDSON piles on the evidence but what he doesn't seem to ever cop on to is that it all actually serves simply to demonstrate that Hemingway's reactions were shared by all of Fitzgerald's friends. Fitzgerald did, consistently, behave in a self-destructive manner when intoxicated (and he got intoxicated on surprisingly small amounts of alcohol), engaging in behaviour ranging from sophomoric to woundingly insulting: lobbing ashtrays at other tables in restaurants or asking intimate questions of strangers on trains. All of his friends Gerald and Sara Murphy, Edmund Wilson, Archibald MacLeish, H.L. Mencken, etc, etc were periodically fed up with him and barred him from their company. By any standards, Hemingway's tolerance was greater than most and no one expressed more regularly genuine affection for Fitzgerald. ``How I'd like to see you,'' is a refrain Hemingway never ceased to repeat.
Donaldson makes much of the infamous crack at ``poor Scott'' in The Snows of Kilimanjaro repeatedly referring to it as though it were an ur-event in their friendship. Here, he simply falls into the huge, if conventional, misreading of the incident. It matters not who initially made the crack to whom. What matters is the creative use Hemingway made of it. He treasured the revealing anecdote. And by putting, in his story, this judgment about selling out to the life-style of the rich into the mind of a writer who had indeed sold out to the rich and who is serving, in the story, as Hemingway's alter ego, Hemingway has made this a cautionary tale directed at himself.
Donaldson proves himself to be even less of a textual critic when it comes to his second charge. He calls Hemingway's account of his rewriting of The Sun Also Rises ``culpably incomplete'' but his own close reading of Hemingway's letter to Maxwell Perkins at the time is a juvenile attempt at a hatchet-job. Similarly, he imputes to Hemingway the ``invention'' of a rather clumsy suggestion by Fitzgerald for the ending of A Farewell to Arms because he can find no documentary evidence for it: he doesn't seem to realize that good friends do talk to each other.
But, then, there is much that Donaldson seems, wilfully, not to understand. It isn't just that he consistently interjects his own subjective and unsupported characterizations a possible ``slighting reference'' in one sentence becomes a ``slur'' in another he defies both logic and commonsense.
Thus with Hemingway's supposed ``campaign of denigration'' of Fitzgerald as both a writer and a man. Here, Donaldson's technique is to highlight the occasional negative remark (even while acknowledging that, as literary criticism, it is correct and justified) and to pass over the consistent praise. What would Donaldson have Hemingway do? Not tell the critical truth, as he saw it, about Fitzgerald's strengths and weaknesses as a writer? He wrote the comments which Donaldson calls to our attention, after all, in private letters to editors and scholars engaged in evaluations of Fitzgerald as a writer.
Donaldson's judgmental nadir is reached in his ``analysis'' of Hemingway's butterfly metaphor in A Moveable Feast. He is so caught up in finding insults and put-downs where there aren't any, that he simply loses it here. It is, contra Donaldson's reading, not a metaphor for Fitzgerald's sexuality but for his talent and, as metaphor, it is as lovely and precise as anything Hemingway ever wrote and it captures, truly, the very essence of Fitzgerald's lyrical and magically-evocative style.
In short, this interpretative study is so much psychobabble bunkum. Which is a pity. Donaldson is a long-established scholar of both Fitzgerald and Hemingway, having produced biographical studies of both and serving as general editor of the recent Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. He knows his subjects and there is much that is both perceptive and rational in this book. He is, for instance, fundamentally sound on their standing in literary history, treating them both as writers of genius.
ON THE other hand, there is nothing in this book that, from the point-of-view of scholarship, is new neither by way of biographical facts nor in critical insights. In truth, all Hemingway wished for his friend was that he exhibit in his own work the same traits which he (Fitzgerald) had, from the very beginning, recognized as the hallmarks of Hemingway's craft: dedication, discipline, and integrity.
At the end, he was coming close. Had he lived, he might have avoided Hemingway's final judgment of him: ``the great tragedy of talent of our bloody generation.''