Sunday, May 12, 2013

Louisville, H. L. Mencken, and The Great Gatsby

The new movie of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is opening soon and its connections have been making the rounds on the television talk shows.

Once again, Louisville's historical connections with the novel and its author are in the the news.  See this link, and this one, and this one.  This last week, KET showed a documentary about Newport, Kentucky and its Mafia connections, including the story of lawyer/gangster George Remus--who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby.  Or so they say.

When I was young, I loved the novel the first time I read it without really understanding why--except I that I could identify with that male narrative voice.  Over the years I've read much of the critical literature on the novel.  Like Lois Tyson's essays, "You Are What You Own" and "What's Love Got To Do With It?"  Indeed, later critical readings had me questioning whether the idea of love in here was a superficial possessive love or genuine unconditional love.

The movie adaptations are hard for me to watch, despite the eye candy of the different actresses who have played Daisy.  The plot is jarring without the meditative palliative of the prose.  I know the book by heart, and perhaps it is the great clanking inevitability of what happens that puts me off.  The Robert Redford/Mia Farrow movie strikes me as spectacularly beautiful but profoundly sad, a Kentucky Derby party when the favorite pulls up lame and is found to have broken its legs.

Still, in my opinion, the novel itself is great because it contains the right amount of mature reflection, the right mixture of recalcitrance, universal ambiguity, and human compassion.  It is a much more mature work than This Side of Paradise, which was a young man's novel, witty and clever but less wise, more materialistic than humanistic.

Predictably, critic H. L. Mencken, who had championed This Side of Paradise, turned against The Great Gatsby.

From Charles Angoff's memoir:

"Mencken once asked me to accompany him to a New York hotel where F. Scott Fitzgerald was staying.  I looked forward to meeting Fitzgerald, for while I had not taken him very seriously as a writer, I had a persistent curiosity about him.  I told Mencken as much as we walked to the hotel.'

"As usual, you're crazy, Angoff,' he said.  'If you had said The Great Gatsby was poor stuff I'd agree with you.  There Scott is writing about people he doesn't know anything about.  At best it's only an overlong short story, but This Side of Paradise is really something, my boy, and when your children start shaving you'll realize how right I am.  But by then I'll be in heaven or in a Trappist monastery, and you won't have a chance to apologize.'

". . .Fitzgerald greeted us warmly.  He had been drinking and was hardly able to stand up straight.  He tried to embrace Mencken, who was obviously annoyed by this attempt at intimacy.  Mencken then introduced me:  "Meet Angoff, my private chaplain."

"Fitzgerald and I shook hands.  Mencken then said:  "Don't say anything dirty about the Virgin Mary or call the Pope a dope or discuss Cardinal O'Connell's children.  You see, Angoff is an unfrocked priest and is living with an escaped Polish nun--she smells like a smoked ham--but deep down both of them are still very devout Catholics."

"Fitzgerald did not seem amused.  He offered us drinks.  Mencken noticed a copy of Spengler's The Decline of the West on a table.  "So you're reading that swill," he said.'

"That's not swill, Henry," Fitzgerald said.  "That man is a thinker."

"Bosh," said Mencken.  "You talk like Knopf, who published the stuff, and who probably hasn't read it."

"Have you?" asked Fitzgerald.

"Merely glanced at it.  A fellow like me knows when to stop reading.  Isn't he another one of those Socialist swine?"

"He's no Socialist," Fitzgerald said quietly as he fondled half a glass of straight whiskey in his hand. . .He walked up and down the room, in silence.  Then he said:

"Henry, I got another idea for a novel going through my head.  Have a lot of it written up.  It's about a woman who wants to destroy a man, because she loves him too much and is afraid she'll lose him, but not to another woman--but because she'll stop loving him so much.  She decides to destroy him by marrying him, but gets to love him even more than before.  Then she gets jealous of him, because of his achievements in some line that she thinks she's also good in.  Then, I guess, she commits suicide but she does it the way all people, all women, commit suicide, by drinking, by sleeping around, by being impolite to friends, and that way.  I haven't got the rest of it clear in my head, but that's the heart of it.  What do you think, Henry?"

"Well, it's your wife, Zelda, all over again," Mencken said.

Zelda Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald sat down, swallowed some of his drink, and then got up and paced back and forth.  Without looking at Mencken, he said:  "That's the dumbest piece of literary criticism I have ever heard or read."

Mencken said nothing.  Fitzgerald continued.  "You know, Henry, sometimes I think you're no literary critic at all.  I don't know what the hell you are, but you're no critic, that's sure. . .You don't know what a writer goes through, what he fumbles for, you don't know the grace he searches for.  And, goddamn it, you have no compassion.  Of all the times to mention Zelda to me.  Of all the goddamn times to mention her."  He sank into his chair and burst into tears.

Mencken stood up, muttered, "I'll be seeing you," and he and I walked out.  As we returned to the office he told me, "Scott will never amount to a hoot in hell till he gets rid of his wife."  

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