From an F. Scott Fitzgerald Letter to his Daughter
I was recently revisiting the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald – Saturday nights are a riot at my place, as you can imagine – when I came across a letter from the author to his daughter, Frances, that I found interesting. What intrigues me here is the way that Fitzgerald talks about literature, in a letter dated October 5th, 1940, when Fitzgerald was writing The Last Tycoon as well as a movie that would have starred Shirley Temple, but which never saw the light of day.
The two speak at length about literature and art in a number of their letters (in the next in the collection I’m reading Fitzgerald says he started reading Tom Wolfe on his daughters’ suggestion) but there’s something particularly intriguing about the way that he communicates to his daughter in this exchange.
It’s clear that in her previous letter, Frances has spoken of enjoying Death in Venice, and has compared it to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Fitzgerald rejects this, remarking that they had no connection beyond what he called an ‘implied homosexuality’. He goes on to be rather dismissive of Dorian Gray, saying that ‘it is little more than a somewhat highly charged fairy tale that stimulates adolescents to intellectual activity at about seventeen (it did the same for you as it did for me’. He suggests that it is at ‘the lower ragged edge of literature’, while going on to say that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is ‘on the higher bracket of crowd entertainment’. By contrast, he says, Death in Venice is ‘a work of art’.
Some scholars might look at this and see the dimension of the patriarch telling his daughter in no uncertain terms that he thinks she is wrong, claiming the values of adulthood and experience as proof – and far be it from me to tell them that it is not there.
But of more interest to me is the number of categories that are invoked in this letter. We can see a clear line from crowd entertainment, to literature, to art. Clearly art stands at the pinnacle here and is something above the mere category of ‘literature’, to which Wilde is relegated. For Fitzgerald, Mann (and Keats, according to another level) as art reach something that simply transcends the boundaries of literature. A great part of his seems to be in originality as he notes the two inspirations for Wilde’s story while claiming Death in Venice is not derivative at all. In other places, though, this manifests more mysteriously – as in when he says that ‘“The Grecian Urn” is unbearably beautiful with every syllable as inevitable as the notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’.
Perhaps more intriguing than this rather typical notion of the transcendent value of true art is the categorisation of the works that do not reach up to that level. There’s a clear divide here between ‘crowd entertainment’ and literature, one that brings up some quite clear class overtones. But while art seems to exist in some rarefied realm, the position – or rather, the boundary – between these other dimensions seems to be less certain, and perhaps even a little fluid. The fact that there is a higher bracket of crowd entertainment for Fitzgerald implies that not all crowd entertainment is necessarily without merit, that some is better than others and some, therefore approaches the value of literature more closely.
It is the description of the other boundary, the lower echelons of literature, that is more suggestively phrased, however. ‘Ragged’ has overtones of being worn out, frayed, something that had been good but is roughed up by over or ill use. The ragged end of literature seems to me to suggest, much like people on the lower fringes of middle class life in the US, that this is something that could fall from the relative stability of literature into the mass of crowd entertainment – a fate that hit many Americans across the 1930s.
I’ll finish with a few questions – are these categories still useful for us today? Do we think there is a worthwhile distinction between literature as a body, and a subsection that reaches the realm of art? Do we still have much value in the idea of true art as something transcendent? Does the idea of ‘crowd entertainment’ still describe the way all kinds of literary products are seen in some contexts, ranging from the Harry Potter series through to Tom Clancy novels and at many other places in between? And how important is the idea of ‘originality’ in deciding what we value?
These letters can be found in The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull (Penguin, 1964)
Peter Templeton is Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Loughborough University.