Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald , Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks, eds. Scribner, 400 pp.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway , The Hemingway Library Edition, Scribner, 547 pp.
By Allen Barra
“I write letters,” Ernest Hemingway told a biographer of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “because it is fun to get letters back, not for posterity. What the hell is posterity anyway?”
Well, for one thing, posterity is what has favored Hemingway and Fitzgerald while the work of so many of their worthy contemporaries – Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, even their Scribner’s stablemate, Thomas Wolfe – have faded into the twilight realm of the praised but unread. Books by and about Papa and Scott remain, after several decades, a light industry.
Considering that each new decade supplies enough material on the Fitzgeralds to fill a library shelf, the letters included in Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda offer fresh insights on the most celebrated American literary marriage.
Some have appeared in collections of Scott’s letters and a few in Zelda’s Collected Writings, but here are twenty-two previously unpublished letters and eleven telegrams from Scott to Zelda and 189 letters from Zelda to Scott (all from the Princeton Library). The editors “have followed two principles in selecting which letters to include ,” they tell us. “First, those letters that sustain the narrative – that tell us what actually happened.” Second, “those letters that convey the varied and complex emotional nature of the Fitzgeralds’ relationship.” They succeeded in both.
The letters go a long way towards countering the fashionable notion that Scott was “jealous of his wife’s creativity, suppressed her talents and drove her mad.” As the editors point out in their preface, “The Fitzgeralds’ marriage was a chaotic one, but it is no more reasonable to say that Scott drove his wife mad than it is to say that Zelda drove her husband to drink … their inherited predispositions to mental illness and alcoholism, respectively, were already present.” (Zelda’s brother Anthony was a suicide; it would be interesting to know if she ever discussed the subject with Hemingway.)
At times, Zelda stuns us with a lucid acceptance of her illness: “I’m rather angry because people won’t let me be insane.” For his part, Scott had no illusions about her mental state: “You were ‘crazy’ in the ordinary sense before I met you. I rationalized your eccentricities and made a sort of creation of you … My talent and my decline is the norm. Your degeneracy is the deviation.” But, the editors tell us, he probably never mailed this letter.
Partly because many of Scott’s letters weren’t preserved, Zelda’s personality seems more pervasive. This collection highlights her intelligence better than any biography. Her reading during her years of hospitalization included Eschaullus (as they spelled it then), whose plays she claimed to know by heart, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Tolstoy, H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and Ian Gordon’s Modern French Painters. (She had her dislikes, asking Scott to send her books but “not Lawrence and not Virginia Wolf,” and finds reading Joyce “a night-mare in my present condition.”)
Her observations on art and literature are, even if you don’t agree with her, intriguing. She finds that a Matisse nude “makes your tongue hang out from a sense of opaque blue Mediterranean heat enclosed in a shuttered room,” and Picasso’s work “is an idea, not a painting.” Of her husband’s Tender is the Night she writes, “it is a haunting book – everything good is haunting because it calls to light something new in our consciousness.”
And she was uncannily prescient. In 1919, nearly a year before they were married, she told him, “We will just have to die when we’re thirty.” In a very real sense they did. Nearly the entire decade was consumed by Zelda’s medical treatment and Scott’s desperate efforts to write fiction while making enough money writing movie scripts (including an uncredited bit for Gone With the Wind) to pay for Zelda’s treatment and their daughter Scottie’s care – not to mention the expenses of scrambling back and forth between the coasts. (“I use up my health,” he lamented, “making money + then my money in recovering health.”)
They saw each other for the last time in the spring of 1939. Zelda wrote more than 140 letters to Scott over the last two years of his life. The last line of a letter she sent to him in March, 1939, offers an epitaph to the terrible beauty of their marriage more than anything from their books: “Nothing could have survived our life.”
Scott had already come to similar conclusions; nine years earlier he had written, “We ruined ourselves – I have never honestly thought that we ruined each other.” But he probably never sent her this letter either.
In Fifty Works of English (and American Literature We Could Do Without (1968) Brigid Brophy pummeled a passage of Hemingway’s prose in A Farewell to Arms: “In place of Gertrude Stein’s varied, and purposefully varied, cadences, Hemingway ties one short, blunt instrument to another by means of and: ‘She had a lovely face and body and lovely smooth skin too. We would be lying together and I would touch her cheeks and her forehead and under her eyes and chin and throat with the tips of my fingers . . .’”
I’ll take Brophy’s word for the manner in which Hemingway violated Stein’s principles. I’ve never read Stein, and I’m not going to read her just to see how Hemingway ignored dictums I don’t care about. But even if Stein had never lived, lines like the following from For Whom the Bell Tolls should draw a shake of the head:
Then they were walking along the stream together and he said, “Maria, I love thee and thou art so lovely and so wonderful and so beautiful and it does such things to me to be with thee that I feel as though I wanted to die when I am loving thee.”
What did people think in the 1940s when they read For Whom the Bell Tolls? Is it just now, in the 21st century, that the book seems sentimental and hopelessly melodramatic? Did readers not think that using the hero’s full name, Robert Jordan, three or four times a page seemed stilted? Did no one tell Hemingway that the constant use of “thee” and “thou,” even if that seemed to be an accurate translation of the dialect, read like the captions on a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic?
How could a writer who made his early reputation with a precise, crystalline prose write such goop as “Not shoot too much. Not want make noise here. Not want used cartridges.” I assume Hemingway is trying to convey the simplicity of the peasants’ speech – but did he have to make them sound like Tarzan?
“So that, eventually, there should be no more danger and so that the country should be a good place to live in. That was true no matter how trite it sounded.” It’s too bad that Hemingway’s great editor, Maxwell Perkins, didn’t point out to him that writing a trite line isn’t forgivable because you think you’re expressing a sentiment that is true. Especially when you’re smart enough to know that your sentence is trite.
“Afterwards we will be as one animal of the forest and be so close that neither one can tell that one of us is one and not the other. Can you not feel my heart be your heart?”
“But we will be one now and there will never be a separate one.”
“Then she said, I will be there when thou are not there. Oh, I love thee so and I must care well for thee.”
Maria: “If thou would show me I would clean and oil thy pistol.” “Kiss me,” Robert Jordan said.” How can a man resist a woman who can clean his pistol?
And then, this insufferable passage close to the end where they must part:
“I wilt go now, Rabbit [Robert Jordan’s nickname for Maria]… But I go with thee. As long as there is one of us, there is both of us. Do you understand?”
“Nay, I stay with thee.”
“Nay, Rabbit. What I do now I do alone. I could not do it well with thee. If thou goest then I go, too. Do you not see how it is? Whichever one there is is both.
“I will stay with thee.
“Nay Rabbit. Listen. That people cannot do together. Each one must do it alone. But if thou goest then I go with thee. It is that way that I go too. Thou wilt go now, I know. For thou art good and kind. Thou wilt go now for us both.”
“But it is easier if I stay with thee. It is better for me.”
“Yes. Therefore go for a favor. Do it for me since it is what thou canst do.”
“But you don’t understand, Roberto. What about me? It is worse for me to go.”
“Surely, he said. It is harder for thee. But I am thee also now.”
She said nothing.
I’m so glad she said nothing, because if she said once more that she wanted to stay and he said once more that they were one, I was going to throw my copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls out the window, like Bradley Cooper did with A Farewell to Arms in Silver Linings Playbook.
In our time, as Mary Dearborn wrote in her 2017 biography, Ernest Hemingway, “the so-called Hemingway code – a tough, stoic approach to life that seemingly substitutes physical courage … for other forms of accomplishments – [has] increasingly looked insular and tiresomely macho.” But there’s been a greater appreciation of Hemingway the literary artist as reflected in his short stories.
Even Vladimir Nabokov, who dismissed most of Hemingway’s oeuvre, as “something about bells, balls and bulls,” thought he had “a voice of his own and is responsible for that delightful, highly artistic short story The Killers.” I’m sure that if pressed, Nabokov would have allowed the same quality to many more of Hemingway’s short works.
What, though, are we in the 21st century to make of his novels? In the forward for the new edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s son Patrick jokingly refers to it as “Papa’s Spanish Western.” In truth, For Whom the Bell Tolls is as stylized and formulaic as a western and often seems to echo and sometimes anticipate the age of Hollywood melodramas.
When Robert Jordan tells Maria – who, after all, has been living and working with a band of guerrillas – “I cannot have a woman doing what I do,” you can almost hear Bogart telling Ingrid Bergman, “Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.” And Bogart’s Rick sounds more real than Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, just as Bogart’s Harry Morgan (bolstered by dialogue from William Faulkner and Jules Furthman) sounds more real in the film version of To Have and Have Not than Hemingway’s Harry sounds in the novel, because Bogart is playing honest melodrama and Hemingway is trying to pass melodrama off as literature.
Was Hemingway so deluded as to think, as he told Lillian Ross, that if writing was boxing, as a novelist he had fought “two draws with Stendahl” and he had the edge in the last one? (Even more deluded, the second novel/bout Hemingway was referring to was the immensely unreadable Across the River and Into the Trees.)
Surely he was punch drunk when he wrote to Maxwell Perkins, “I can write it like Tolstoi and make the book seem larger, wiser, and all the rest of it. But then I remember that was what I always skipped in Tolstoi.” He could have written War and Peace by leaving out the peace? (This reminds me of an interview I heard with Mickey Spillane where he was asked if he ever wanted to write like Thomas Mann. “If Thomas Mann sold,” replied the Mick, “I’d write like Thomas Mann.”
In a letter to Scott less than two months before his death, Zelda was cold-blooded but perceptive about For Whom the Bell Tolls: “Ernest sent me his book, and I’m in the middle of it … I imagine it would please the average type of reader, the mind who used to [emphasis added] enjoy Sinclair Lewis, more than anything he has written. It is full of a lot of rounded adventures on the Huckleberry Finn order …” (How strange that Nabokov made the same judgment when he accused Hemingway, along with Joseph Conrad, of writing “books for boys.”)
Zelda was also correct, I think, and not merely stroking her husband’s sadly deflated ego when she told him Hemingway’s work was “neither as meritorious nor as compelling as your own.” She was perhaps playing to Scott’s resentment. Fitzgerald felt, with much justification, that he had kick-started Hemingway’s career; in a long letter to Zelda in 1930, he referred to Ernest “whom I have launched.”
So who was the greater writer, Hemingway or Fitzgerald? Hemingway was probably the greater writer with a greater range in long and short fiction and a steel-trap efficiency as a journalist and writer of non-fiction. (His book on bull fighting in Spain, Death in the Afternoon, has outlived the world’s interest in bull fighting.) His posthumously published memoirs of his years in Paris, A Movable Feast, however unreliable as a history, will possibly survive most of his novels.
Zelda’s Huckleberry Finn remark hits a bullseye: Hemingway ended his career and his life as he had begun, as an inspired adolescent. He burned with a hard gem-like flame for a few years in the 1920s and early 1930s; most of what he wrote after that relied on the momentum of his extravagant influence and personality.
In the end, Fitzgerald came nearer to greatness as a novelist, and with The Great Gatsby (1925) he achieved greatness. Gatsby should finally be recognized as the Great American Novel that everyone talked about writing after World War II and into the 1950s, though a great many readers and critics can only see that in perspective. T.S. Eliot, who read the book three times, recognized it right away, telling Scott in a 1925 letter that Gatsby was the “first step that American fiction had taken since Henry James.”
Fitzgerald’s work deepened as he got older; Tender is the Night (1934) was his second best novel but had the misfortune to be published when he was starting to be regarded as a relic of the Jazz Age he had helped to make famous. The Last Tycoon, unfinished and published posthumously, might have marked both a recurrence and rebirth of his power.
Of course, there really is no such thing as in the end, and each new generation, lost or otherwise, may continue to see them as the twin beacons of romance — Fitzgerald — and adventure — Hemingway. And perhaps redefine what they want from posterity.
Alan Barra writes about books for The Daily Beast, Truthdig, and the Guardian.