Gatsby's Epitaph: F. Scott Fitzgerald

NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER

The best Catholic novels seem to be written by those who know, no matter how far they've fallen in faith and morals, that the truth is there.

The best Catholic fiction is always written by the worst Catholics. Not the saints in all their virtue—and especially not the heretics, who are willing to undo the whole of Christianity if only their vices can be redefined as secret virtues—but the sinners in all their sin are the ones who are able to create a genuine story. The best Catholic novels seem to be written by those who know, no matter how far they've fallen in faith and morals, that above them or outside them or beyond them lies a truth they did not make and cannot change.

Or perhaps we should say the truth, for this is what distinguishes Catholic novelists from most others in the twentieth century. They may have moved so far away they do not even consciously realize it anymore. That's James Joyce. Or they may have failed to reach it in their own lives, and so imagine that no one can ever reach it. That's Graham Greene. Or they may even suppose that it enters the actual human world only in the comedy of our actual human failings. That, finally, is Evelyn Waugh. But they always somehow know that the truth is there, and it looms unchanging, pure, and real—as both the perpetual indictment and the perpetual hope of the characters in their stories. It's simultaneously how their characters can know they've wasted their lives and how they can go on living.

Take F. Scott Fitzgerald, who fell about as far as anyone can from the Church—though, of course, (and this is what everyone who reads Fitzgerald with even half an eye must eventually see) it turns out that you can't fall very far, no matter how hard you try. Apostasy or sin, even atheism pursued with all the wild-eyed devotion of a zealot, isn't enough to do it. You have to be a full-blown heretic—you have to make yourself an entirely new god—before you can undo an early training in the faith.

A few of Fitzgerald's sharper contemporaries saw it in him at the time. “There are still venial and mortal sins in his calendar, “wrote Ernest Boyd in a 1924 biographical sketch of the young atheist, explaining why Fitzgerald could never become a Communist. “His Catholic heaven is not so far away that he can be misled into mistaking the shoddy dreams of a radical millennium as a substitute for Paradise.” And his best readers have seen it ever since. “If Scott Fitzgerald had been a Protestant,” wrote Saul Bellow in his own novel, Humboldt's Gift, fifty years after Boyd, “success wouldn't have damaged him so much.”

One part of Fitzgerald's Catholicism—the weakest, least important part, in fact—is obvious in his life and in his fiction. He was born and reared a Catholic, and he had a cousin, Thomas Delihunt, who was a Jesuit priest and whom, in 1924, the fully apostate Fitzgerald would still list beside Theodore Roosevelt and Garibaldi as one of his heroes. His first novel—that scandalous, marvelous, twenty-three-year-old's astonishing bound into fame and fortune—opens with scenes among wealthy Catholic families. This Side of Paradise is dedicated, in fact, to Sigourney Fay, the worldly priest who stood for a time as spiritual (and surrogate) father to the author, and Fay appears, very lightly disguised as Monsignor Thayer Darcy, throughout the book's semi-autobiographical tale of a handsome, pampered, and yet still idealistic young Princeton student named Amory Blaine.

So, too, Fitzgerald published two explicitly Catholic short stories in the days of his great success. There was the bizarre tale “Atonement,” which he originally intended to be part of The Great Gatsby, about a boy who lies in the confessional and a priest who goes mad. And there was “Benediction,” which appeared in his first collection of jazz Age stories, Flappers and Philosophers, and tells the story of an upper-class Catholic girl who (on her way to give up her virginity to her lover) stops off to visit her brother at a Jesuit seminary in Maryland. In an early piece of juvenilia called “The Ordeal,” Fitzgerald wrote of his own youthful visit to his Jesuit cousin, and in “Benediction” he transfers from himself to a nineteen-year-old girl the visitor's experience of being simultaneously an outsider and in the presence of genuine righteousness. The story ends with the girl's almost deciding not to meet her lover.

Of course, in the world of modern literary criticism and biography, there's almost no mention of any of this—for Fitzgerald, like every other important author, has been redefined as a good, red-blooded, all-American, atheistical secularist. But in this one case, the redefinition has considerable truth. Fitzgerald didn't want to be merely a kind of Catholic writer, composing his books for the Catholic ghetto in America.

He didn't want, in fact, to be any kind of Catholic writer. The declassse world of American Catholicism mostly embarrassed him, and if F. Scott Fitzgerald was the first writer from a Catholic background to achieve canonical success in American writing (leaving aside the question of Theodore Drieser), you'd hardly know it from him. In some of his most snobbish letters and memoirs, he emphasizes the non-immigrant part of his family (“incidentally,” he wrote in 1922, “I'm not Irish on my Father's side—that's where [his great-grandfather's brother, the “Star-Spangled Banner” composer] Francis Scott Key comes in”), and no one can describe the life he lived as an undergraduate at Princeton as representative of the Catholic virtues—much less the life he lived in the wild days of his wild fame with his wild wife Zelda, or the time he spent in New York's night life or on the Riviera or off in Hollywood writing screenplays.

But he couldn't escape it, and it pursued him like the Hound of Heaven. There's a moment in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited when the fallen Julia tries to explain to her uncomprehending lover, the novel's narrator, Charles Ryder, why she has to leave him. And what comes out at last is an explanation that it doesn't really matter whether or not she believes that all the old, out-dated, superstitious Catholic mumbo-jumbo is true; she knows it—knows that it's true—and there's no chance of ever escaping from that. “Sometimes,” Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter near the end of his life, “I wish I had gone along with that gang [the pure entertainers, like the songwriter Cole Porter], but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart and really want to preach at people in some acceptable form rather than to entertain them.” The real, inescapable Catholicism in Fitzgerald is the truth that he knows even though he doesn't believe it. And it looms over all of his fiction.

There is, for instance, a curious apparition that shows up from time to time in The Great Gatsby, appearing without notice and seemingly without provocation at several points in Fitzgerald's compact, tight little novel. Midway between New York City and the “Eggs”—West Egg and East Egg, Gatsby's town and Daisy's town out on Long Island—there's a strange little no-man's land of ash dumps and abandoned cars. This is where the doomed Myrtle's husband keeps a garage, and where Daisy's husband Tom found Myrtle and made her his mistress. It's where the price is paid in garbage for both the city and the Long Island estates, and where—when Myrtle is run down at the end of the novel by Daisy's car—the price is paid in death for both Gatsby's poverty-stricken striving and Daisy and Tom's wealthy carelessness. And above it floats an image Fitzgerald evokes again and again through the novel: an enormous billboard of a giant pair of glasses, advertising “Dr. Eckleburg,” a long bankrupt optometrist whose eyes seem to watch the characters like God's.

The critic Alfred Kazin once rightly warned against trying to find more in “Fitzgerald's Catholicism than he ever put into it.” Fitzgerald himself complained toward the end of his life that critics working on The Great Gatsby “read things into it I never knew myself.” And the explicit meaning Fitzgerald seems to want the reader to find in Dr. Eckleburg is the hackneyed old notion that God is dead—sightless, powerless, bankrupt, unable to enact justice in the world. That's how the similar image of the statue in New York's Columbus Circle is supposed to work in the short story “May Day.” Christopher Columbus' bronze, unmoving eyes stare out lifeless and helpless at the mess all around him.

And yet, for a book that's supposed to teach that lesson (among many others of more central significance to the plot), The Great Gatsby has a curious certainty about the metaphysics of justice. Bad actions invariably have their stern moral consequences, even if the right people don't always have to pay them. “You're worth the whole damn bunch put together,” the narrator tells Gatsby the morning before he's gunned down by the dead Myrtle's angry husband, and it's Gatsby and Myrtle who pay for Tom and Daisy. But pay someone must, and Dr. Eckleburg sees. Amory Blaine imagines at a weak moment in This Side of Paradise that he might escape somewhere, to Mexico perhaps, away from America, and live “delivered from right and wrong and from the hound of heaven.” That might be the epigraph for The Great Gatsby. It might be the epigraph for all of Fitzgerald's books. The Hound pursued him, and he knew what was true even when he didn't believe it.

You can see it all through his strange, short, celebrated life. Fitzgerald was right, in a 1928 biographical sketch, to put “the Roman Catholic Church” at the head of a list of his early influences. Born Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896, and baptized in early October, he had for parents the feckless son of an old, shabby-genteel Maryland Catholic family and the daughter of an Irish immigrant grown wealthy as a wholesale grocer. It was they who, with his mother's comfortable inheritance, put the boy in Catholic grade schools—where he wrote a schoolboy essay comparing Washington and St. Ignatius and, in September 1907, told a deeply disturbing lie in the confessional about never having told a lie, both scenes that he would return to in his fiction. From 1911 to 1913, he was a boarder at one of the premier (and most upperclass) Catholic prep schools in the nation, the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Newman was where he met Father Sigourney Fay. Fitzgerald described Fay as a Richelieu born in the wrong place and time, a man capable of dazzling an embassy ball, and the Irish writer Shane Leslie wrote that Fay was a “society priest in a country where they are very rare,” capable of going “straight from a party to give a convent retreat which could be appreciated by such good judges as the Carmelites.” Fay took up the young Minnesotan, introduced him to people like Henry Adams, and carefully encouraged and groomed him.

But Fitzgerald's career at Princeton was strangely undistinguished. He loved the place and became friends with such classmates as Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop, but left in 1917, on academic probation and unlikely to graduate, to join the army as a second lieutenant. Certain of his impending death in the trenches (though he never made it overseas), he quickly wrote an autobiographical novel, “The Romantic Egotist,” that was good enough to interest the publisher Charles Scribner's Sons in requesting to see a rewritten version.

It was in the army as well that he met and fell “in love with a whirlwind,” the eighteen-year-old Zelda Sayre, daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. This was 1918, his “last year as a Catholic,” he declared. In January 1919, Zelda later claimed, Fitzgerald had the premonition that shows up, perhaps, in This Side of Paradise as the uncanny rustling of curtains in a hotel room in Atlantic City, and the next day he received a telegram that Father Fay had died of pneumonia. “He was the best friend I had in the world,” the grieving Fitzgerald wrote Shane Leslie, who later declared that Fitzgerald would not have left the Church had Fay lived.

After a year working at an advertising firm in New York—and after Zelda broke off their engagement because of his poverty—he quit his job in July 1919 and returned to Minnesota to rewrite his novel as “a sort of substitute form of dissipation.” His mother agreed to “give him the third floor of her home for a while and keep him in cigarettes, “ and he put in final form This Side of Paradise, the novel that would make him famous and successful enough to convince Zelda to marry him in the rectory of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1920.

The young couple immediately became the whirlwind themselves and the gossip writers' favorite subject (“He hated to be sober,” as Fitzgerald described his character Anthony Patch), leading an extravagant life while Fitzgerald poured out short stories for the popular magazines. After a wild stay in Connecticut, Fitzgerald returned to New York to write his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, a story about the slow decay of the shining, wealthy Anthony and Gloria Patch.

Catholicism made some odd, little intrusions even into his Jazz Age life. When his daughter Scottie was born in 1921, he insisted on her baptism. Though there were some peculiar Catholic misreadings of his work (a wealthy Minnesota woman thought “the brilliant young Catholic writer” perfect to write a biography of St. Paul's archbishop, John Ireland), Fitzgerald complained to Leslie about Catholic denunciations of his work as immoral—when, apart from a mild literary review in America, there were none.

Scott and Zelda fled to Europe in 1924 in an attempt to cut down on the drinking, work on the manuscript that would become The Great Gatsby, and learn some financial management. (Through the 1920's, Fitzgerald averaged just under $25,000 a year, a large income for the time, but not wealth, and they could never live within their income.) It was in France over the next few years that they met Hemingway and the expatriate literary Americans, formed a friendship with the wealthy Gerald and Sara Murphy on the Riviera, and had their marriage deeply injured by Zelda's involvement with a French aviator—until, to escape the distractions of Europe, they had to flee back to the America they had fled to escape distractions.

But it was all coming to end. The Crash of 1929 claimed as its first victims the flappers and trust-funded “bright young things” that had been Fitzgerald's subject, and in April 1930, Zelda suffered the first of the complete breakdowns that destroyed their lives. From 1932 until her death in 1948, she would live in sanitariums. Tender is the Night, the novel Fitzgerald wrote at the time, tells the story of the American psychiatrist Dick Diver's marriage to a rich mental patient. It has a few little religious touches in it—a character “crosses herself with Chanel Sixteen” before going off to meet her lover, for example—but it is Fitzgerald's least religiously informed book, and it proved such a commercial and critical failure that the next few years in his life he called “the crack-up” in a serious of confessional articles he wrote in Esquire magazine for some badly needed money.

The $91,000 Fitzgerald made in a year and a half as a Hollywood screen writer helped, but even that he was unable to manage. Living with his mistress, the movie columnist Sheilah Graham (whom he made move out whenever his daughter visited), he began The Last Tycoon in 1939, writing more than half a working draft before his death of a heart attack in 1940 at age forty-four. The Archdiocese of Baltimore denied him a Catholic burial at the time, but relented in 1975 at his daughter's request, and he lies with his father's family in an old Catholic cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.

Catholicism gave Fitzgerald a little bit of alienness, a little stance of the outside from which to view America even while he was its golden success: “When I was young,” he wrote, “the boys in my street still thought that Catholics drilled in the cellar every night with the idea of making Pius the Ninth autocrat of this republic.”

But it gave him something, far more important. “What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story,” the narrating Cecilia declares in The Last Tycoon. And it was exactly shame that Fitzgerald knew.

There are plenty of good anti-capitalist asides throughout his work, the literary critics' beloved denunciations of the meaningless American world of striving and success. “The victor belongs to the spoils,” he put as the epigraph to The Beautiful and Damned. He “lost a lot in the Crash,” the narrator of the 1930 story “Babylon Revisited” admits. But he had already “lost everything I wanted in the boom.”

And yet, it isn't really capitalism's mad America in the 1920's that Fitzgerald was ashamed of, but something of which that was merely the particular, local occasion. He wanted to escape the fallen condition of man; he wanted his characters to want to escape the fallen condition of man. And even though he no longer believed in the Cross that is the only means of escape that he could think of, he hated his characters (as he hated Tom and Daisy) when they didn't know enough to want to escape, and he loved his characters (as he loved Gatsby) when they did.

In the story “Absolution” that Fitzgerald originally planned would explain the background of The Great Gatsby, a sin the confessing boy does admit—even while lying about never lying—is that he disbelieves he is really the son of his parents. And that did make it into Gatsby—or rather “James Gatz,” the real name of the hero, who had “never really accepted [his mother and father] ... as his parents at all.” “The poor son-of-abitch,” as the only mourner at Gatsby's wake declares—a line Dorothy Parker repeated at the author's own funeral. Even while he rejected God, Fitzgerald knew that to live without God is to be a bastard.

For a sensibility like Fitzgerald's, the worldly, sophisticated, Chestertonian Father Fay was exactly wrong. The young Fitzgerald—profoundly observant, easily embarrassed—couldn't help seeing through to how pretentious and threadbare was the social world of “the sort of Rome-haunting American” Catholic upperclass, when compared with the Protestant upperclass. And he needed to be turned away from the social ideal, not offered a weak substitute. He needed a stern St. Dominic to turn him to the true City of God, not a false-sounding Chestertonian assertion that he should stay a Catholic because Catholics build the best City of Man.

Edmund Wilson saw it, urging his friend in a 1919 letter to forget “the phosphorescences of the decaying Church of Rome.” Fitzgerald himself saw it. “I'm sick of Chesterton,” he has Amory Blaine complain in This Side of Paradise, and he replied to Wilson: “I am ashamed to say that my Catholicism is scarcely more than a memory—no that's wrong, it's more than that; at any rate I go not to church nor mumble stray nothings over crystalline beads.”

Dorothy Parker was right: “The poor son-of-a-bitch.” What he knew was true hounded him, no matter how much he believed that he had ceased to believe it.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Bottum, Jody. “Gatsby's Epitaph: F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Catholic Dossier 5 no. 4 (July-August 1999): 9-12.

Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

Jody Bottum is the book editor of The Weekly Standard.

Copyright © 1999 Catholic Dossier


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