7 December, 2009Issue 10.5FictionLiteratureWriters

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The Joys of Rediscovery

Robert Ritter

foerScott Donaldson
Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days
Columbia University Press, 2009
520 Pages
ISBN 978-0231148160

What we know about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway is almost as deceptive as what we think we know. Owing to the men’s status as two of America’s most famous writers, their very different lives and works have developed a unique iconography that is often simplified to the level of parody in the public consciousness. (With generations of students raised on a steady diet of The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea, caricature is, inevitably, never far away.) This iconography is exacerbated by the fact that Fitzgerald and Hemingway took pains to perpetuate their own unique personae, with such success that their confected reputations overshadowed them long after their deaths. Paradoxically, this means it is still possible to unearth surprising truths about two of the most studied and written-about authors.

Literary biographer Scott Donaldson has proved himself capable of doing just that. Over the course of a 40-year career Donaldson has written and edited award-winning works on a wide range of 20th-century American writers, including Winfield Townley Scott, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and John Cheever (the last of whom especially is due for reappraisal). But it is his work on Fitzgerald and Hemingway for which Donaldson is best known—including By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway (1977), Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1983), Hemingway versus Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship (1999), and the edited collections Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1984), New Essays on ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (1990), and the Cambridge Companion to Hemingway (1996).

After completing a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota in 1966, Donaldson took up a position at William and Mary in Virginia, where he spent his entire teaching career until retiring as Louise G. T. Cooley Professor of English, Emeritus in 1992. Academia was not his first vocation: after serving in the Korean War, Donaldson spent ten years as a reporter, mostly at the Minneapolis Star. This training, coupled with a Midwestern perspective similar to Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s, has enabled him to write lucidly and with telling empathy about his two subjects.

Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days presents two dozen of Donaldson’s most important pieces: 11 on Fitzgerald, 13 on Hemingway. Culled from the 40-plus articles he has written on them, most appearing in scholarly journals over the course of five decades, they constitute a remarkable compilation of research across a broad spectrum of topics. While the Internet makes it easier than ever to track down a scholar’s disjecta membra, there is still much to be said for an anthology assembled by the scholar himself. “I am not through writing about these writers and their stories and novels”, says Donaldson in the volume’s introduction. “But in my eightieth year and with the encouragement of many colleagues, it is time to collect the best of what I’ve so far set down on paper about them.”

The book itself is handsomely produced: dust jacket, typeface, and paper make it look like a novel itself, an effect bolstered by the absence of footnotes. In the volume’s introduction Donaldson explains that he “solved the problem of footnotes by doing away with them (there weren’t many), either through outright omission or including them in the body of the article.” The in-text short-title notation that replaces the footnotes works fairly well, linked to a bibliography brimming with evidence of Donaldson’s decades of exhaustive research in archives and private papers.

The collection is clearly targeted at that publishing chimera, the “educated general reader” sufficiently engaged with literature to buy secondary texts. Whether there exists a sizable market peopled by those inclined merely to inform their own readings is unknown—though it is, as Hemingway might say, pretty to think so. Yet according to Donaldson’s editor at Columbia University Press, this collection is one of their most popular titles: proof of the American public’s enduring curiosity about Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and validation for diminishing the references. (Publishers are adamant that footnotes induce even the doughtiest general reader to flee.)

Nevertheless, those wishing to make use of Donaldson’s impressive and often innovative scholarship in their own research are at a disadvantage. Though some of the original essays had little or no notes, most had quite a few, and while Donaldson has obligingly updated the surviving references to current sources (no mean feat), there is no substitute for the edited references. Further, Donaldson states that while readying the collection for press, he “substantially revised everything”. This places academic-minded readers in a quandary: drawing on this collection potentially demands recourse to the originals to blend new scholarship with old references. (Unhelpfully, the book includes no acknowledgments for original publication, further hampering comparison.)

But these are minor concerns when measured against the collection itself. Donaldson describes the book as “biographical criticism”, and the most successful essays are those that employ biographical detail to shed light on the texts, offering compelling evidence that both authors “wrote fiction out of their experience, rather than merely about it.” In doing so Donaldson never slides into intentional fallacy; many of his readings are master classes in what insights can be gained through enlightened close-reading in the wake of New Criticism’s decline. As he plainly states, “The more we know about them as people, the better we will be able to understand their work.”

Donaldson collects his 24 papers under ten part-headings: for Fitzgerald, “The Search for Home”, “Love, Money, and Class”, “Fitzgerald and His Times”, and “Requiem”; for Hemingway, “Getting Started”, “The Craftsman at Work”, “The Two Great Novels”, “Censorship”, “Literature and Politics”, and “Last Things”. By providing balanced coverage of the authors’ lives and works across entirely separate essays, Donaldson steers clear of generalization. (In what John Updike once gently termed her “censorious streak”, Michiko Kakutani accused Donaldson’s Hemingway versus Fitzgerald of being “yet another cheesy chronicle of calamity and waste” for much this fault.)

Among the collection’s rich pickings is an examination of how Fitzgerald’s early life in St. Paul continued to resonate in his work, and how his father’s Southern background engendered in Fitzgerald both a diffident patricianism and a romantic devotion to lost causes—arguably culminating with that most seductive lost cause, the American Dream. In addition to an excellent character analysis of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby there are unexpected insights into Fitzgerald’s political beliefs.

Highlights for Hemingway include “The Averted Gaze in Hemingway’s Fiction”, which inspects minutely the surprisingly eloquent “scopophobia” among his characters, the context of his Spanish Civil War writing, and two essays on censorship. “A Death in Hollywood: F. Scott Fitzgerald Remembered” and “Hemingway and Suicide” examine each writer’s end, at opposite extremes of fame. Even so, one continues to be struck by unexpected parallels in their deaths, as in their lives and writing.

Here and throughout, the book’s great strength lies in its encouraging fresh connections between and among the authors and their works. Although one suspects Donaldson chose and arranged the collection with precisely that in mind, no links are made explicit, thereby offering readers both the material and the latitude to form their own conclusions. In considering anew aspects of seemingly familiar material, beneath what Donaldson calls “the persistent stereotyping of celebrity”, we are left with something like the joy of discovery.

Robert Ritter is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He works at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.