Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald:
Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were great writers and also great drinkers, and after reading Scott Donaldson’s Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, one wonders if great writers who are also great drinkers can ever remain great friends. Donaldson’s thesis is this: Two of the most important writers of the 20th century began as intimates but ended as enemies. And for all of the genuine love they had for each other, their relationship became more of a prize fight than anything else.
Donaldson has written By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway and Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, and is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. Even veteran admirers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald will come away better informed from his latest book. It begins with brief but telling psychological portraits of the two artists as young men. Fitzgerald was good-looking and bright, not to mention charming, but he was also extremely insecure. He said he suffered from “a two-cylinder inferiority complex” and that his youth had been spent “alternately crawling in front of the kitchen maids and insulting the great.”
Although his family was by no means wealthy or aristocratic, Fitzgerald very much wished it were. His mother’s side “exemplified the self-made merchant class,” which young Scott thought little of: “straight 1850 potato famine Irish,” as he put it. His father, on the other hand, came from an old family in Maryland, and Donaldson points out that the one consolation Fitzgerald had was to glorify his father’s ancestry, turning his father’s stories of the War Between the States into evidence that his father had been an important spy for the Confederacy, even though his father had been only 12 years old when the war ended.
“Though he grew up in some of the nation’s northernmost cities, Scott was on the side of the Confederacy from the beginning, as on the side of lost causes and underdogs generally. Among his juvenilia are two stories and a 1913 play that spin improbably romantic tales of Southern gallantry,” Donaldson writes. The sad truth was that, if Fitzgerald could not creditably claim to be the scion of a glamorous family gone to seed, he could always simply go to seed.
Hemingway had no genteel backdrop on which to hang his imagination. He came from an upper-middle-class home now famous for being headed by a strong-willed mother and a deeply depressed father. There was no drinking in the Hemingway home; nor were there any high tales of romance. As the great historian C. Van Woodward pointed out in an essay on Southern, as opposed to American, literature—correctly, he believed there was a difference—Hemingway was quintessentially American. American literature, Woodward argued, is replete with characters who “appear on the scene from nowhere, trailing no clouds of history, dissociated from the past….A Hemingway hero with a grandfather is inconceivable, and he is apparently quite as bereft of uncles, aunts, cousins, and in laws, not to mention neighbors and poor relations” (though he is not, one should add, quite as bereft of wives).
The fact is, Hemingway did have a family and a history, though he wanted to believe otherwise and tried his whole life to live up to the American ideal of pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. He wished to be self-made and self-reliant. His individualistic ethic—that which is moral is that which you feel good about after you’ve done it—only affirms this ambition. For Hemingway, anything that hinted of obligation other than to one’s own conscience only reminded him of his mother’s oft-quoted letter about how he had drawn heavily from the family’s capital reserves of love and kindness, though he had yet to make a deposit. And for Hemingway, anything that reminded him of his mother was anathema.
So in May 1925, when Hemingway and Fitzgerald met under the auspices of Gertrude Stein’s hospitality, they were two young men with deep-seated insecurities and diametrically opposite ways of hiding them. Fitzgerald, as Donaldson demonstrates again and again, played the part of the talented but breezy sidekick, and when the liquor hit—and it always hit hard—he played the fool. Hemingway played the part of the hard-drinking, hard-living man of action, and when the liquor hit—and though it always hit hard, Hemingway, unlike Fitzgerald, hit back and attempted to maintain some semblance of poise—he would become insistent that all observers understand just how dominant and manly a figure he was. Hemingway despised anyone who didn’t captain his own ship; Fitzgerald was forever sinking his own ship and dancing tipsily about the deck as it went down. Hemingway commanded respect; Fitzgerald was fawning, seeing in others proof of his own inadequacy. In many respects, theirs was a match made in hell.
At the start of their relationship, Fitzgerald was the star, the author of three novels, including The Great Gatsby, and two collections of short stories. Hemingway had published nothing of book length. These were salad days for the two writers. They lived and worked in Paris when Paris was a writers’ haven, a magical place where one could bump into James Joyce or Gertrude Stein or Ford Madox Ford and sit down for a cheap but gratifying meal complemented by decent wine. Fitzgerald had much to teach and Hemingway much to learn. Fitzgerald had many valuable connections, Hemingway few. Donaldson details the extent to which Fitzgerald selflessly helped launch Hemingway’s career—something Hemingway would later never forgive him for. Fitzgerald brought Hemingway into the Scribner’s fold. He tirelessly promoted him to reviewers and the literati. He introduced his work to his old Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson. And he supplied crucial editing for 1926’s The Sun Also Rises. Donaldson demonstrates that his help here was radical and made the novel much better than it otherwise would have been.
But for all the mentoring, Fitzgerald saw himself as inferior around
Hemingway. Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich explains that Fitzgerald was, from the beginning, “so ‘gone’ on Ernest [that]… the degree of his admiration was, as among grown men, almost embarrassing.”
In later life, when Hemingway no longer needed Fitzgerald’s help and was quite anxious to make people believe he had never received it, Fitzgerald was only too willing to be Hemingway’s dupe, as evidenced by his willingness to exalt Hemingway’s talents above his own and often at his own expense, to treat Hemingway as his mentor, and even, if A Moveable Feast is to be believed (no small leap of faith), to come to Hemingway for assurance that his member was sufficiently sized. Whereas Hemingway routinely berated Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald routinely responded with extravagant praise for Hemingway. When Fitzgerald was going through his long, dark phase of writer’s block, he told Thorton Wilder: “I don’t write any more. Ernest has made all my writing unnecessary.” Donaldson provides a further illustration of Fitzgerald’s intense devotion: “Back on the Riviera, he again sprang to Hemingway’s defense when Zelda [Fitzgerald, Scott’s wife] described The Sun Also Rises as full of ‘bullfighting, bullslinging, and bullshit.’ She could say anything she pleased, Scott told her, ‘but lay off Ernest.’” Such devotion took its toll. “Fitzgerald invested much of the psychic energy that might have otherwise gone into his own work in assuring the success of his friend,” Donaldson concludes.
The dynamic between the two writers was mutually destructive. Fitzgerald needed to be humiliated and found in Hemingway a humiliator of the first rank; Hemingway needed to be worshipped and found in Fitzgerald a fanatical devotee. Donaldson surveys this troubling terrain with poignancy and authority. One is left with the disturbing thought that this friendship provided Fitzgerald all the resources that he needed to ruin himself. Compared with Hemingway, he was a lost cause. He couldn’t hold his liquor. He wasn’t manly enough. And when the going got tough, he deferred to Hemingway and almost gave up his own career. But if they both suffered from the relationship, the evidence clearly suggests that Fitzgerald ended up with the shorter end of the stick.
The only clear winner here was whiskey. Whiskey beat both of these men to death. Fitzgerald was the weaker drinker—he drank constantly, though he hadn’t the constitution for it—whereas Hemingway lasted quite a few more rounds before hitting the mat. But both went down. One of the most sensitive and original parts of Donaldson’s work is his careful analysis of their boozing. Donaldson is not so reductive, but a few things seem clear: In the case of Fitzgerald, the evil twins of insecurity and the desire to humiliate himself before being humiliated by circumstances beyond his control appear to have led to the drinking. With Hemingway, it was depression.
Scolds, schoolmarms, and nutcase busybodies at the Food and Drug Administration will of course draw different conclusions, but Donaldson makes a case that Hemingway might not have lasted as long as he did had it not been for alcohol. Though he bragged of drinking for sheer pleasure and drinking more than he should because he could, in quiet moments he had this to say: “We always called it the Giant Killer and nobody who has not had to deal with the Giant many, many times has any right to speak against the Giant Killer.” The Giant was depression. Alcohol was its killer. Hemingway’s father, a teetotaler, had been unable to deal with the Giant and had killed himself. Donaldson reminds us, for the record, that when Hemingway took his own life he had gone three months without a drink. Let the Prozac Nation protest cigarettes, cocktails, good steaks, and hunting all it wants, this much is certain: It will not negate Hemingway’s fine prose, and Donaldson is to be thanked for exploring this disturbing subject with fairness and finesse.
There is much else to Donaldson’s book. He gives close readings of Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s work. He examines not only the events that made up this famous friendship but the correspondence that remained behind the scenes. Furthermore, he weighs in on various debates to settle old scores. For instance, it has become part of the Hemingway-Fitzgerald mythology that Fitzgerald was once glamorizing the wealthy when Hemingway quipped: “The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.” In fact, that quip belongs to the Irish writer Mary Colum, who had sent it in Hemingway’s direction after he’d been going on and on about his well-heeled contacts in Bimini.
As the book draws to a close, it becomes ever more disturbing. Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s lives both ended tragically. And even after Fitzgerald died, Hemingway continued to insult his memory, telling biographers and editors that Fitzgerald had been basically a drunken savant, gifted with genius he could neither understand nor master, a bright but small flame too quickly extinguished.
Yet for all of Fitzgerald’s annoying behavior and Hemingway’s ruthlessness, the tenderness between the two men was genuine. The truth was that Hemingway was not enough of a man to love Fitzgerald honestly, and Fitzgerald was not enough of a man to demand to be treated with respect. But the greater truth is the body of literature they left us. After all of the criticism levied against them, it is now safe to state that their work will remain; the two writers triumphed over the inadequacies of their lives through enduring prose. Of saints we might demand more. Of writers we should settle for nothing less. CP