George F. Will undoubtedly meant to honor F. Scott Fitzgerald in his Dec. 20 column, but ultimately he only perpetuated a myth that has dogged the novelist's memory for a half-century. Will said Fitzgerald's themes as a writer and the lesson of his life were one and the same -- "dreams dissipated by indiscipline." That Fitzgerald was an alcoholic with a taste for high living is indisputable. But to say he was undisciplined, that "his way of living ruined his talent," ignores the facts.
Despite his alcoholism, despite caring for a wife who was slipping deeper into madness during the '20s and '30s, Fitzgerald followed "The Great Gatsby" with the complex novel "Tender Is the Night." Simultaneously, to make money, he cranked out stories for magazines. It's tough enough sitting down and filling blank sheets of paper when you're sober and your domestic life is relatively tranquil. To do it when you are a drunkard and your home life is in turmoil takes a discipline few have.
Fitzgerald's essential toughness of spirit was manifested in other ways too. Even at the end of his life, when conventional wisdom had him pegged as a washed-up lightweight, Fitzgerald, then mostly sober, was working on "The Last Tycoon," which he hoped would redeem his reputation. His vision of the Hollywood "dream factory," even in its unfinished state, is testimony that Fitzgerald's talent was far from dissipated. Edmund Wilson, a man not given to softhearted literary judgments, devoted himself to getting "The Last Tycoon" into print. Moreover, Wilson, America's preeminent "man of letters" of this century, used Fitzgerald as a sounding board for his own work, recognizing an astute mind whose professional opinions were to be valued. Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at Scribners, concurred. It was largely at Fitzgerald's insistence that Perkins agreed to publish the work of a young expatriate named Ernest Hemingway.
In sum, the man who lies buried in Rockville was more complicated -- and stronger -- than the man profiled by Will. His values and lifestyle may be open to question or censure, but Fitzgerald was more than a romantic boozer -- he was a Midwestern Irish American who believed in the ethic of hard work and whose work has survived the mythologizing. It's as such that he deserves to be remembered.
-- Jack Purdy