F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Poison of Potential
The Pathetic Gatsby
The year is 1936. It’s a day after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 40th birthday and he’s decided to do an interview for The New York Post. In the presence of a nurse who watches him as he periodically retrieves a bottle from a desk and pours a shot for himself, he explains in the interview that he has fallen from grace:
A writer like me… must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It's an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing can- happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me.
Thomas Wolfe has it. Ernest Hemingway has it. I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip.
The interview follows Fitzgerald’s March 1936 confessional essay series about his nervous breakdown called “The Crack-Up.” In the series, he compares himself to a cracked plate:
The cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under the leftovers.
This same year also saw rumors that Fitzgerald had to rescue his wife, Zelda, from a suicide attempt when she threw herself onto train tracks. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Zelda had spent most of the thirties in and out of psychiatric treatment hospitals. At the time of the interview, Fitzgerald was in a desperate and lonely state of mind where he reflected gregariously on previous achievements but locked up when asked about the future, almost as if he no longer wanted to see past the present.
"What are your plans at the moment, Mr Fitzgerald? What are you working on now?"
"Oh, all sorts of things. But let's not talk about plans. When you talk about plans, you take something away from them."
Fitzgerald left the room.
"Despair, despair, despair," said the nurse. "Despair day and night. Try not to talk about his work or his future. He does work, but only very little - maybe three, four hours a week."
The distance between the interview subject of 1936 and the boisterous author who, at 24, became a national sensation and so-called voice of the Jazz Age with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, is a distance without horizon. The life of F. Scott Fitzgerald can be understood, according to scholar Matthew Bruccoli, as a life filled with a decade of confidence and a decade of loss.
A writer with so much potential, he lost the potential not when he lost his skill but when he lost his confidence in it. This much is clear. What, exactly, happened to the man who would, decades later, become a staple of every high school reading list and inspire a movie that put both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jay-Z on the same project? As Fitzgerald describes it, it was “One blow after another… and finally something snapped.”
If Fitzgerald had only read his work outside of itself, outside of himself, maybe he would have noticed the signs that his potential had become poison. Because, even in This Side of Paradise, he realizes that one of the most dangerous things that someone can do is actually reach their potential and become obsessed, from then on, with hanging from it. As his first novel puts it:
It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.
There are few judgements more divinely devastating than when a life lived is judged to be wasted potential. If you wasted your potential, it means that, with just a few different choices, you could have “lived up to your potential.” You were this close. But to what?
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940) knew his potential as certainly as his dreams: he wanted to be a famous writer and he wanted to marry rich. Specifically, he wanted to marry Ginerva King, who he courted for several years while at Princeton until being told by her father that "poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls.” Fitzgerald became suicidal, dropped out of Princeton, and joined the army in his hopes that he would die overseas during World War I. Anticipating his demise, he finished a 120,000-word manuscript he entitled The Romantic Egotist. His ultimate plan was to die in combat, so that his work would become famous after his death.
Yes, I wrote This Side of Paradise in the army. I didn't go overseas - my army experience consisted mostly of falling in love with a girl in each city I happened to be in.
It was while he was stationed in Alabama in 1917 that he first met Zelda who, just like Ginerva, was from a family where wealth meant a much different world than what Fitzgerald knew. After he was discharged in 1919, Fitzgerald lived in Manhattan in a single room and wrote ads for streetcars while trying to make a living as a writer. He was rejected 120 times, publishing a single short story for $30. He had become engaged to Zelda despite her reluctance that he would ever be able to support her but, after she saw him going nowhere, Zelda broke off the engagement. Fitzgerald, having failed to live up to his potential, contemplated suicide for the second time. He moved back with his parents and lived in the attic, where he fixed cars and decided to try writing one final time.
In March 1920, This Side of Paradise exploded onto the literary scene and became an instant success. Zelda married him a few months later. In 1921, the newlyweds moved first to Westport, Connecticut, and then to the Biltmore Hotel where Fitzgerald did handstands in the lobby and Zelda slid down the bannisters. One account even says that they were seen riding the rooftop of a cab. From there, the couple moved to Westport, attempted maturity, and failed.
As biographers put it:
The sober lifestyle was unsustainable for bubbly Zelda… Parties flowed with gin and orange juice. Compo Beach and its pavilions provided the setting and a modicum of privacy. Young men and women ran in and out of the waves in varying states of undress. “The Fitzgeralds and their friends were ‘reveling nude in the orgies of Westport,’” wrote [biographer Sally Cline]. Fitzgerald biographer James Mellow described “wild beach parties” and the writer and his wife as being fond of “mad rides along Post Road with abrupt stops at roadhouses to replenish the supply of gin.”
Or as Zelda Fitzgerald put it:
Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow? Let's think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.
Reaching for the sky, the Fitzgeralds had reached their potential. Now, open-handed, they reached for everything else. They decided, unanimously, that their purpose, post-potential, was indulgence. Until the sales stopped.
A Decade of Loss
His fiction is time-haunted, and it is ironically appropriate that his career breaks into a decade of confidence and decade of loss.
-Scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli, on F. Scott Fitzgerald
Part of the reason Fitzgerald is fascinating is because he foretold his life with each novel. In his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), Fitzgerald tells the story about a young artist and his wife who become “wrecked on the shoals of dissipation” due to their endless partying. He wrote this novel during the party itself, as if seeing through the clouds upon which he stood and watching as they dissolved beneath his feet.
A book about descent, The Beautiful and the Damned, was deemed too depressing by most critics but still became a popular read, serving to fuel the flames of Fitzgerald’s self-sacrifice. After moving to Europe in 1924, Fitzgerald began writing The Great Gatsby. This, he decided, would be his true masterpiece. As Fitzgerald wrote his editor during the writing of The Great Gatsby:
I think my novel is the best American novel ever written.
Who could blame him for his confidence? He had been walking on the clouds of his potential for a few years. Why would The Great Gatsby, his self-proclaimed best novel yet, be anything but another hit? Rather than the romantic angst of This Side of Paradise or the ludicrous indulgence of The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby, according to Fitzgerald, was about one thing above all: “the unfairness of a poor young man not being able to marry a girl with money.” In other words, a dream of the self realized: the American Dream.
Written in France, The Great Gatsby came out in 1925 and, almost instantly, was judged to be a commercial failure. It never became a success in Fitzgerald’s lifetime and led him to a slow, then sudden decline in status, health, and happiness. As he had worked on the novel, Zelda tried to divorce him in favor of a French aviator and, when the aviator spurned her after weeks of dancing late nights in casinos in the French Riviera, overdosed on sleeping pills. The Fitzgeralds didn’t mention the incident again. This is when Ernest Hemingway and Fitzgerald struck a relationship as lifelong frenemies marked at first by mutual admiration and then, slowly but surely, disgust.
Hemingway described his frenemy’s death a decade later:
I believe that basically you write for two people; yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful; Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead. I think Scott in his strange mixed-up Irish catholic monogamy wrote for Zelda and when he lost all hope in her and she destroyed his confidence in himself he was through.
Or, as Gore Vidal explained later:
Fitzgerald wrote one perfect novel… The Great Gatsby… the rest of it was quite sad.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald had once again written the prophecy of himself.
Prophecy of Obsolescence
First-time readers often lionize the namesake of The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is a self-made orphan with a dream to marry beyond his class. Pitted against the forces of old money, Gatsby, like Fitzgerald, does everything to achieve his potential in an effort to prove himself to the love of his life: Daisy Buchanan. After it’s all fallen apart, our narrator Nick Carraway reassures Gatsby that he’s better than the people he’s always tried to reach and the potential he always tried to achieve:
“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.
A reader may skip over the ending to this passage: “I disapproved of him from beginning to end.” Carraway is comforting Gatsby but, in his heart, unerringly reviles him. Fitzgerald, who maintained that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” recognized even then that he was both Carraway, observing himself from outside himself within himself, and Gatsby.
Who is Jay Gatsby? He’s a dreamer trying to assemble his potential from the beautiful fragments from a forgotten past. He wants to become a man worthy enough to marry a woman he dated five years ago, a woman who long became a dream. He unfailingly still thinks he can still make the pieces fit.
Carraway tries to explain the vanity of finding meaning in old symbols.
“You can’t repeat the past,” he tells Gatsby.
Incredulous, Gatsby responds: “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course, you can!”
Nothing can be repeated. Especially success. This made itself known as soon as The Great Gatsby hit bookshelves. As The Washington Post tells it:
When his third novel, “The Great Gatsby,” met with mixed reviews and poor sales, Fitzgerald descended deeper into drinking and Zelda lost herself in an obsession with becoming a ballerina that culminated in a nervous breakdown, causing her to be hospitalized in Switzerland from June 1930 until August 1931. The letters they exchanged were poignant. “We ruined ourselves,” Fitzgerald wrote. “I have never honestly thought that we ruined each other.”
His potential of marrying Zelda and literary greatness achieved, Fitzgerald couldn’t help but look back on the anticipation he had felt before it all happened, the clouds he had walked, and the cruel gravity that came after. Zelda ended up in a mental hospital for schizophrenia and Fitzgerald, after his disastrous interview in 1936, struck out for Los Angeles to become a screenwriter.
By 1939, he was drinking nearly 40 beers a day. According to one account from the memoirs of gossip columnist Sheliah Graham, he constantly fought to stay sober and sometimes relapsed. As Graham’s memoir, Beloved Infidel (1957) puts it and Wikipedia summarizes:
On occasions that Fitzgerald failed his attempt at sobriety, he would ask strangers, "I'm F. Scott Fitzgerald. You've read my books. You've read The Great Gatsby, haven't you? Remember?" As Graham had read none of his works, Fitzgerald attempted to buy her a set of his novels. After visiting several bookstores, he realized they had stopped carrying his works. The realization that he was largely forgotten as an author further depressed him.
This journey would later on be visualized into a surprisingly watchable 1959 movie.
Potential, as Fitzgerald had known ever since he tried to become a famous writer by getting killed in World War I, has post-mortem properties. He fed on that idea even in 1939, a year before his death. Writing his daughter, attempting sobriety, Fitzgerald explained:
Anyhow I am alive again—getting by that October did something—with all its strains and necessities and humiliations and struggles. I don’t drink. I am not a great man, but sometimes, I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent, and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur. Anyhow after hours I nurse myself with delusions of that sort.
Some sort of epic grandeur. This would go on to become the title of one of the definitive biographies of Fitzgerald’s life, as it captures the essence of it. Always self-aware, always holding two ideas - the present and the future - in his head, Fitzgerald gnawed the bones of his potential and justified his destruction. He died from a heart attack in 1940 at age 44. If he had sobered himself from his intoxication with tragedy - and drinking dozens of beers a day - he would have witnessed the redemption of his potential. But maybe that wouldn’t have mattered to him. It wasn’t redemption he was after: it was legacy.
Potential has post-mortem properties. In 1945, five years after his death, The Great Gatsby became a sensation when more than 100,000 copies were shipped to American soldiers overseas as World War II ended. As writer Chris Gash explains:
While waiting to go home, troops were more bored than ever. (Two years after the war ended, there were still 1.5 million people stationed overseas.) With that kind of audience, Gatsby reached readers beyond Fitzgerald’s dreams. In fact, because soldiers passed the books around, each ASE copy was read about seven times. More than one million soldiers read Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel.
For a man who earned $13.13 in royalties in the last year his life, this validation would have seemed heaven-sent. He had achieved the potential he had envisioned for himself all along and, just as he had predicted, it had all happened after he died. And, The Great Gatsby, most of all, would indeed go on to become one of those things called a Great American Novel at last, a monument and portrait and epitaph of the pain we all feel, sometimes, when we start to drink a little too much of the poison elixir we call potential, a novel that, with just 47,000 words, is as precious as the purpose we hold close to our hearts to tell ourselves it’s all worth it.
One must speculate that Fitzgerald was always living in two places at once, living those two ideas at once: in his dreams and in his life. No matter what, even after achieving the things he had always wanted, it must have seemed like the dream was always, still, just ahead of him. Or, as Carraway said about Gatsby:
His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.
When do we know we’ve reached our potential? What do we afterwards? Potential is the same as art: you can decide when you’ve achieved it, but it is not ourselves we aim to convince but the world around us and the way we see ourselves in it. While we can all say that living up to our potential is subjective, it’s how we measure it - and how the people we love are affected by it - that grant us the living immortality Fitzgerald found after death.
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Come back next Monday 12/19 for an exploration of Fitzgerald’s LA life…