“The Crack-Up” & “Afternoon of an Author” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I suspect every high school student in America has read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, usually in some tedious 10th grade English class, one of those “important” books you never think of revisiting once you’re out of school. This is a pity because The Great Gatsby is not particularly a story for the young – I know I didn’t appreciate it much at the age of 17 – but is rather a novel that gets better and better with age. No American author has ever written more gorgeously beautiful prose.
Fame came early to Scott Fitzgerald, at the age of 23 with the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920 – arguably his worst book – and then it passed him by, ironically, as he became a master. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, was greeted with mixed reviews and modest sales, and from there Fitzgerald’s career plummeted into an alcoholic oblivion. In the depressed 1930s no one cared to read about the flappers and philosophers of “the Jazz Age,” a term Fitzgerald himself coined. By the time of his early death in Hollywood at the age of 44 in 1940, Scott Fitzgerald was broke, a forgotten man. His wife Zelda was in a mental institution, his books for all practical purposes were out of print, and he was regarded by the literary establishment of the time as a has-been hack.
In the last years of his life, Fitzgerald turned his creative eye on his own down-and-out condition and wrote a series of personal memoirs detailing his despair that belong among his best writing. There are two different collections of these pieces, The Crack-Up and Afternoon of an Author, books that aren’t widely known. Oddly, I think high school students would understand the extremely modern tone of these essays more than the remotely beautiful Gatsby.
The Crack-Up, published in a New Directions paperback, contains eight essays written between 1931 and 1937, as well as excerpts from Fitzgerald’s personal notebooks. In the title essay, “The Crack-Up”, which appeared originally in Esquire magazine in 1936, Fitzgerald examines the failure of his life in stunningly honest detail. “I had been only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in my hands, even of my talent,” Scott admits, regarding himself without mercy. “Sleeping and Waking,” written in 1934, is surely the best essay ever written about insomnia. “It is astonishing how much worse one mosquito can be than a swarm,” Scott writes with wry humor, lying in bed in a state of terrible wakefulness. “A swarm can be prepared against, but one mosquito takes on a personality – a hatefulness, a sinister quality of the struggle to the death.”
In “Afternoon of an Author,” we experience a lost afternoon of Fitzgerald’s life as he roams about Baltimore. These essays are bleakly tragic but brilliantly written, not what you might think of as “depressing” – indeed, they are often hilariously, darkly funny. Anyone interested in a being an author should take a hard look at “One Hundred False Starts” and “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year.”
In his late writing, Scott Fitzgerald shed the flowery, poetic style of his youth and found his way to a precise, sparse, hard prose that absolutely describes the truth of his own human state, an honesty that transcends time. These essays are as good as anything ever written in the English language and if you don’t know them, you should.