MATTHEW J. BRUCCOLI, never known as one to mince words, gets right to the point in the preface to Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: "This volume is the third biography of Fitzgerald in English, in addition to shelves of reminiscences and critical studies. Its justification is that research has provided new evidence in the twenty years since the publication of Andrew Turnbull's Scott Fitzgerald (1962). I have corrected and augmented the record. When asked what is new in this biography, I reply, 'More facts.'"
To a great extent, therefore, one's interest in this biography is going to depend on the extent of one's desire for "more facts." Some Sort of Epic Grandeur-- surely one of the most elephantine titles ever to squat atop a literary biography--does not displace the earlier biographies by Turnbull and Arthur Mizener. The latter's The Far Side of Paradise is both the pioneering Fitzgerald biography (it appeared three decades ago) and the book that started the Fitzgerald renaissance. Turnbull's Fitzgerald is one of the outstanding American literary biographies, a beautifully written book that brings its subject wholly to life. Neither book is in any danger of disappearing into a dusty corner of the library shelves.
Why, then, read Bruccoli? Since he will not be read for psychiatric insight or literary style--he declines to attempt the former and he does not possess the latter-- what is there in his long book to justify the reading and writing of it?
The answer--leaving aside the fascination of Fitzgerald that draws some of us to read anything about him-- is twofold. In the first place, Bruccoli engages in some useful demythologizing; he feels that "the myth-making process that encapsulates Fitzgerald" has heightened the image of the riotous playboy while obscuring the serious writer, and he makes a yeomanly effort to set things back in balance. In the second place, he is right; he does have "more facts," some of them entirely trivial but others of genuine and arresting value.
Over the years Bruccoli, who teaches English at the University of South Carolina and is a partner in a small but aggressive publishing firm, has been accused in various quarters of being the impresario behind a "Fitzgerald industry." The charge is not without merit, especially as it applies to his eagerness to edit and publish any scrap of Fitzgeraldiana, no matter how trivial; the distinction between scholarship and profit, when he is drawing it, is often impossible to discern.
Yet this obsessive interest in the minutiae of Fitzgerald's life does have its rewards, and they should not be minimized. To some it will seem merely pedantic that there is a heavy emphasis in this book on money, for example, to the extent of including an appendix that lists every nickel of Fitzgerald's income as he recorded it in his ledgers. Yet the cumulative effect of this massive detail is instructive and revealing; it demonstrates as nothing else can that Fitzgerald had to write short stories for the commercial magazines in order to underwrite the extravagant life that he and Zelda insisted upon living, with unclear but hardly salubrious effect upon his writing of novels.
Similarly, Bruccoli publishes extensive extracts from a recorded conversation that Scott and Zelda had with her doctor in the spring of 1933 in Baltimore. This conversation is nowhere mentioned by Mizener, acknowledged in passing by Turnbull, and quoted only in brief by Nancy Milford in Zelda. Bruccoli, in his dogged way, reprints several pages of it--and thus allows us to judge its contents for ourselves. What we see is not pretty: a marriage falling to pieces in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination, tempered by an aching nostalgia for a lost love. At the time, Zelda had recently published her novel, Save Me the Waltz, and Scott's comments to her in the presence of Dr. Thomas Rennie were unspeakably cruel:
"I did not care whether you were a writer or not if you were any good. It is a struggle. It has been a struggle to me. It is self-evident to me that nobody cares about anything. It is a perfectly lonely struggle that I am making against other writers who are finely gifted and talented. You are a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet dancer. . . . If you want to write modest things you may be able to turn out one collection of short stories. For the rest, you are compared to me is just like comparing-- well, there is just not any comparison. I am a professional writer with a huge following. I am the highest paid short story writer in the world. . . ."
Cruelty and arrogance aren't supposed to be parts of the Fitzgerald myth, but they were central to the reality; Bruccoli makes no attempt to disguise them. Not merely was Fitzgerald incredibly indecent to Zelda as their marital troubles deepened, but he was also boorish and inconsiderate to others. The myth of Scott dancing in the fountain at the Plaza and sipping champagne from a slipper must be balanced against the reality of Scott the hopeless drunk, fighting and barfing and howling into the night:
"William L. Shirer has reported a night when Fitzgerald showed up drunk at the Paris Tribune around midnight, where he sat at the copy desk and ripped up copy. He sang and insisted that the reporters join in. Shirer, James Thurber, and Eugene Jolas tried to take him home, but Fitzgerald insisted on touring the bars. When he passed out, they delivered him to the rue de Tilsitt, where he refused to go in and fought with the three of them until they carried him into his apartment. The wonder of this account and similar ones is that the people who had to handle a drunken Fitzgerald usually forgave his misconduct. His talent and charm often rescued him from the social morasses he created."
That he got any work done at all in the circumstances is remarkable; that it includes some of the finest American prose of the century is a miracle. Yet if the drunkard is the dark side of the golden boy, the craftsman is the bright side of the drunkard. Fitzgerald was capable of prolonged periods of hard work and of an entirely workmanlike attitude. As Bruccoli observes of another misrepresentation in the Fitzgerald legend:
"The popular image of Fitzgerald as a broken-down, forgotten failure in Hollywood (in the late '30s) is a distortion as well as a simplification. His life there had a quiet order when he was not drinking. He knew that the movie work was unworthy of his genius and resented the power exercised over him by lesser men; but he earned an excellent salary at M-G-M and was proud that he was discharging his obligations."
In this respect as in many others, Bruccoli is a perceptive student of his subject. What he has to say about such matters as Fitzgerald's pervasive sense of social inferiority, his obsession with football heroism and his fear of latent homosexuality--to name but three-- seems to be entirely accurate. Yet there is a real strangeness to the book. Bruccoli's own feelings about Fitzgerald are obviously intense and probably complicated, yet he writes about him with an utter absence of feeling. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur has the passion of a timetable; for all its thoroughness, it gives the reader little sense of Fitzgerald, little sense that Bruccoli has worked his way past "more facts" toward the inner man.
But that is not Bruccoli's style; he is entitled to this distance that, for whatever reason, he prefers to maintain between himself and his subject. His research is scrupulous and meticulous, and it will be surprising if a more thorough Fitzgerald biography is ever written, But a better-written one--Turnbull's--already has been. Bruccoli writes the way Howard Cosell talks. He says that Fitzgerald "regarded stories as a way to subvene novels"; he means "subvene" to be a synonym for "subsidize," but in no dictionary that I possess is "subvene" acknowledged as an acceptable verb derived from "subvention." Similarly, he says that Fitzgerald "regarded Zelda and himself as epynomic figures," when the gist of the passage makes clear that the word he wants is "emblematic."
Careless writing in the name of F. Scott Fitzgerald hardly is appropriate, but careless writing is par for the course on the campuses these days. In the end Bruccoli's shortcomings are of less consequence than the honesty of his research.