Part One
THE FICTION OF F. SCOTT FITZGERALD:
A CONFERENCE WITH PROFESSOR JACKSON BRYER



SIPIORA: Perhaps we might start with the short fiction. It is usually acknowledged that Fitzgerald is among the first rank of short story writers, and it would not be unfair to consider him the peer of Chekhov, Tolstoi, Poe, and Hemingway in terms of sheer quality and quantity of output. The best of Fitzgerald's fiction is often discussed as representative of a unique literary voice of the 1920s, reflective of a distinctive cultural and social milieu (commonly referred to as the "Jazz Age"). Can you identify one work from this period as quintessentially representative of Fitzgerald's voice at its richest and, more specifically, would you discuss the technical elements of this work that make it exemplary?

BRYER: I think that Fitzgerald's best short story is "Babylon Revisited," with perhaps "May Day" and "Winter Dreams" as runners-up. What I think makes "Babylon Revisited" and "May Day" the best is that those two stories combine Fitzgerald's human themes of loss with a background of the social times in which they take place. This is especially true of "May Day," which really captures a moment in historical time as well as the tragedy of Gordon Starrett played out against that moment. But Charlie Wales's story in "Babylon Revisited" is also played out against a background of a very specific time and place--Paris in the Twenties. These two dimensions of these two stories, I think, give them a resonance (the personal story played out within a larger picture) which many of Fitzgerald's other short stories lack.

SIPIORA: Many scholars of Fitzgerald (even those who have deep affection for him--Matthew Bruccoli, for example), acknowledge that there are a significant number of mediocre short stories in his corpus of approximately 180 works. Would you address the qualities--thematic and technical--that characterize strategic generic flaws in these works (which Fitzgerald called "trash") that make them distinctly inferior? Might you illustrate these qualities in a work you take to be representative?

BRYER: While I feel that Fitzgerald undervalued his own short stories, and, as a consequence, they are undervalued by critics today, I also think that many of his stories show the effects of having been written for the Saturday Evening Post and also of having been written hastily for money. Many of them seem little more than clever sketches, without the kind of resonance and body I alluded to above in #1. Frequently, they display unbelievable plot twists; they are often too frivolous and fail to grapple with serious issues; and they are too repetitive in themes and characters (that's what SEP readers wanted and expected from Fitzgerald). Having said all that, there is hardly a Fitzgerald story that doesn't have in it a paragraph or a phrase or two of brilliant writing; and many of the hitherto dismissed stories deserve far better than they have received (see, e.g., "The Swimmers").

SIPIORA: This Side of Paradise has sometimes been discussed as a work of juvenilia, an apprentice work that, in spite of its immediate popular reception, allows Fitzgerald the opportunity to experimentally hone his skills and set the stage for The Great Gatsby. What is your general critical response to Fitzgerald's Bildungsroman? More specifically, do you find the novel to reveal technical advancements that one does not find in the fiction before 1920? Does This Side of Paradise exemplify narrative strategies that indicate the arrival at a level of stylistic sophistication usually associated with later works?

BRYER: I have always felt that This Side of Paradise is an unfairly underrated Fitzgerald work. All of Fitzgerald's novels, of course, suffer by comparison with Gatsby, which is probably one of the two or three best American novels ever written. But TSOP, which is not Gatsby, is a wonderful novel in its own right--if you see it for what it is: a young man's novel. It has all the strengths and all the weaknesses of a book written by a 23-year-old. No mature writer could have written so callowly of such a collow subject. Stylistically, its combination of poetry, drama, narrative, letters, etc. is also a marvelous abandonment of conventional novel form. Again, only a naive untutored fiction writer could have broken all the rules as FSF does in that novel. The other thing about it is that the approach to the material perfectly matches the material itself. Amory is trying on everything for size and so is FSF in this novel. Unlike Gatsby, where, through Nick, FSF is able to be "within and outside" simultaneously, here there is no objectivity, only youthful exuberance and consequent disillusionment. Unlike The Beautiful and Damed, where one gets the feeling that the author knows more than his characters much of the time and you are thus not sure just what his attitude towards them is, in TSOP one always knows--and that, of course, is the inherent weakness of the novel as well: FSF's closeness to his material.

SIPIORA: Because of the success of This side of Paradise, Fitzgerald was trumpeted as the "laureate of the Jazz Age," "a kind of king of our American youth," as Glenway Wescott put it. Do you agree with those who attribute to Fitzgerald the power to speak for a generation of American Youth? Are Amory Blaine and his "crowd" emblematic of a generation's coming of age?

BRYER: Of course, Fitzgerald draws a wonderful portrait of his age; but his work is much more than just that. I have always felt that FSF should be remembered and valued most for the "how" of his fiction rather than the "what" of it, namely his style is what makes him exceptional, not his subject matter.

SIPIORA: The Great Gatsby is nearly universally recognized as Fitzgerald's crowning achievement. Its commercial success has been overwhelming and the critical reception it has generated rank it as perhaps the most influential novel of American Modernism. However, most of the critical treatment of Gatsby has focused on the novel's rich texture of social commentary, woven into a complex quilt of themes. Surprisingly, there has been neither a long nor strong tradition of technical analyses of this powerful novel. Why do you think that this is so? What are some significant areas of technical inquiry that might profitably be explored? What particular narrative strategy of Fitzgerald's has interested you the most in Gatsby?

BRYER: My answer to #4 anticipates this question. I think GG is best studied as one studies a poem, virtually line by line. If fact, I would someday like to teach a seminar which would devote an entire semester to reading GG that way. I am interested in very small stylistic units in the novel--I have an essay on the subject in Scott Donaldson's collection of Critical Essays on The Great Gatsby--such as linked opposites or arresting verbs (Wilson's car "crouching" in the garage, e.g.). Again, too much of the critical commentary on the novel has been directed at the "what" of it, i.e., its themes, rather than at the "how" of it.

SIPIORA: I've always been particularly interested in Nick's multiple voices in Gatsby, more specifically in Fitzgerald's deft use of the classical trope of prosopopeia. Do you find that Nick's role as narrator is a complicated issue and, if so, could you comment on some of those complications?

BRYER: I think Nick is a very complicated matter, especially because he is not FSF but a character in a novel by FSF, and, as such, as much of a fictional construct as Tom or Daisy or Gatsby. He is certainly not without flaws and he cannot be accepted unquestioningly at all. Of course, FSF also uses him as a fictional device, a la Conrad, but he is far more a character in the novel than Kurz is, for example. The complication is just how do we take him; where do we find him reliable? where can we believe him and where not? how self-aware is he?

SIPIORA: Tender is the Night, like so many of Fitzgerald's works, is often discussed in terms of its treatment of themes, particularly expatriation. Yet some critics have suggested that Fitzgerald employs a number of innovative (for him) narrative strategies in this novel, particularly his use of a Jamesian, "psychological," third-person textured sensibility. Would you comment on style in Tender is the Night, particularly as it reveals a significant departure from the earlier work?

BRYER: Let's leave this one to the 23rd.

SIPIORA: What do you think is the most lasting legacy that Fitzgerald contributes to the American Modernist movement?

BRYER: I think, as I've said above, that FSF's greatest legacy is his style. Beyond that, I do think he does have the ability to capture feeling and emotion brilliantly as well. Gatsby's frustration, Charlie Wales's exasperation, Dexter Green's sense of loss: these are palpably present to readers.


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