Andrew Turnbull's Great Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald's life has been richly studied.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's life has been richly studied. (Associated Press)
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Saturday, June 7, 2008

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The glamorous, accomplished and tragic life of F. Scott Fitzgerald has lost none of its appeal to readers, and hence to biographers and literary critics. Beginning in 1951 with the publication of the first biography, Arthur Mizener's "The Far Side of Paradise," the scholarly mills have ground ceaselessly and endlessly small, producing a certain amount of valuable material -- biographies by Andre Le Vot and Scott Donaldson, various compilations of letters and notebooks -- and a rather more substantial mountain of academic ephemera. Heaven knows how many PhDs have been extracted from poor Fitzgerald's corpus, but the guess here is that the number is appallingly high.

I admit to having read, and occasionally reviewed, far more of this stuff than probably is good for me. For more than half a century I have been fascinated by Fitzgerald's story, that of a generous, decent and sublimely gifted man brought down by fatal flaws of alcoholism and self-destructiveness, and my admiration for his masterwork, "The Great Gatsby," grows more intense year by year. I find it hard to resist anything written about him, though that resistance has grown more vigorous as the amount of essentially pointless trivia has grown exponentially.

The truth is that for most people, interested in Fitzgerald but scarcely obsessed by him, just one out of all these books will do. A quarter-century ago, reviewing Le Vot's biography, I described it as "in some ways . . . the best" in that it is the most complete and the most up-to-date on Fitzgerald scholarship, but I have no desire to reread it and doubtless never will. On the other hand, I've just completed my third reading of Andrew Turnbull's "Scott Fitzgerald" and doubtless it will not be my last.

This is because to my mind Turnbull's book comes close to being an ideal literary biography. To be sure, it isn't perfect. First published in 1962, it misses out on the bits and pieces of Fitzgeraldiana subsequently unearthed by other researchers (none of which really is important) and at times Turnbull quotes at excessive length documents that are less revealing than he believes, but in the areas that matter most -- empathy for and understanding of his subject, a keen but clearheaded appreciation of his work, a prose style of genuine elegance and grace -- he has no rivals in the Fitzgerald camp and precious few outside it.

I first read "Scott Fitzgerald" 40 years ago, in a special seminar on biography. It made a powerful impression on me then, and the ensuing years have done nothing to diminish my admiration and, yes, affection for it. Returning to it yet again, I am struck once more by its grace, its compassion and its exceptional feel for the man and the complex of human relationships in which he was enmeshed.

Biographical information on Turnbull himself is scant -- I am indebted to Barbara Lehman Smith, who is writing a biography of his aunt, the artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, for a few basic facts -- but some is to be found in "Scott Fitzgerald," for in the opening paragraph he tells us that in 1932, when Turnbull was 11 years old, Fitzgerald rented La Paix, an old house on the Turnbull family's country place just north of Baltimore. He stayed there for a year and a half, befriending all of the Turnbulls and becoming an avuncular presence in Andrew's life; he remained one right up to his death in 1940, by which time Andrew was, as Fitzgerald had been before him, an undergraduate at Princeton.

Turnbull graduated in 1942, entered military service, worked in Paris after the war, then studied at Harvard, which awarded him a PhD in European history in 1954. He taught humanities at MIT for several years, then American literature at Brown. In addition to writing "Scott Fitzgerald," he edited two invaluable collections of Fitzgerald's letters and in 1967 published a well-received biography of Thomas Wolfe. He was married with two daughters, and seems to have been regarded as a perfect gentleman by everyone who met him, but Barbara Lehman Smith believes that he "suffered from a hereditary depression." In 1970 he committed suicide.

Whatever torments may have haunted Turnbull, there is no sign of them in "Scott Fitzgerald," though he shows powerful empathy for the dark periods through which Fitzgerald passed as well as the "fight and hope" that kept him going in the 1930s, when "he may have felt that the best was behind him." Precious few biographers have had personal knowledge of their subjects, and Turnbull turns his own friendship with Fitzgerald to his (and thus the reader's) advantage over and over again. Obviously he was deeply touched by the unfeigned interest that Fitzgerald bestowed upon him and the kindness with which this man in his late 30s treated a boy not yet in his teens, and his portrait of Fitzgerald is colored by this experience.

The particulars of Fitzgerald's story are so familiar it's pointless to recapitulate them here. Instead I would like to offer a generous selection of quotations from Turnbull, by way of demonstrating how acute was his understanding of Fitzgerald and how much light he shed on the man and his life. He understood, for example, that the reputation for frivolity that too often trailed after Fitzgerald had little to do with reality, which was that "there was little of the idler and nothing of the sponge or the chiseler in Fitzgerald, who reserved his deepest respect for the self-made man." Sometimes Fitzgerald liked to portray himself as having been a "poor boy," but the truth was that he "never knew hardship but rather the shabby gentility that has spurred so many of the great strivers and adventurers in history." The playboy's style that the world ascribed to him could be misleading:

"Over the din of a night club Scott would start talking literature, and suddenly one realized that behind his collegiate facade was someone finer and quieter, someone very much harassed by a gift. Sensitive as a young leaf, he trembled to all his surroundings. He registered every emotion, noticed every change of manners, and put it in his fiction which he wrote almost like journalism with a dash of poetry added. Thus he recorded the age he was helping to form, and his work and his play became hopelessly intertwined."

Of course a principal component of Fitzgerald's reputation was his marriage to the spectacular, irrepressible and emotionally troubled Zelda Sayre of Alabama. They met in 1918, not too long after the break in Scott's romance with the rich and beautiful Ginevra King of Chicago. Turnbull gets it exactly right:

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