- First and Second Thoughts
It’s rare for a critic to be equally comfortable in biographical reconstruction, in close reading of fictional texts, and in painstaking research into primary and secondary source material (letters, manuscript revisions, memoirs, the detritus of a writer’s desk, as well as the accumulated criticism). When these capabilities are joined by the possession of a lucid prose style, it seems a downright overload of riches. The biographer of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Archibald [End Page lxxi] MacLeish, and John Cheever, as well as the author of three books on Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Scott Donaldson has culled and revised twenty-four essays—eleven on Fitzgerald, thirteen on Hemingway—from the forty-two he has published over the last four decades, thus fashioning a compelling parallel study of the two writers.
Inevitably as these disparate essays are reshaped into a coherent developing structure, there is a certain amount of repetition, but the chapters flow quite smoothly—especially in the Fitzgerald section in which Donaldson charts Fitzgerald’s ongoing attempts to come to terms with the themes of class, money, and romantic love. In the Hemingway section—possibly because his life has been so exhaustively detailed—the chapters seem more autonomous: an illuminating exposition of Hemingway’s participation in the Spanish Civil War, his political leanings, a discussion of the attempt by the military to censor his work in World War ii. In both sections there are close readings of Gatsby and a careful discussion of the tangled composition of Tender is the Night, interpretative explications of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms with an analysis of Frederic Henry as an unreliable self-serving narrator. With both writers Donaldson is at pains to show how their work reflected and illuminated the times, and he is especially interested in trying to evaluate the ways that fame—its increasing burden on Hemingway and its disappearance from Fitzgerald—affected their personae and their work.
Works and Days is both cogent and commendable in its exposition of the parallel trajectories of, as well as the differences between, the two writers.
Beyond that it has stimulated some general tangential questions in my mind. As a biographer Donaldson knows both authors so well that I wonder whether there may not be a tendency for the critic to let too much of the actual lives seep into an interpretation of the fictions. He is certainly careful not to overstep the boundaries—and the presentation of Frederic Henry as dissociated from Hemingway shows that he is well aware of the problem—but my predilection would be to give more slack to the novelist. I am inclined to see the writer as working from a stance of controlled schizophrenia, as it were, exploiting his own experience of course, but, as Whitman suggested, keeping himself “both in and out of the game” simultaneously. This is, of course, an unresolvable issue; we inevitably employ whatever knowledge we possess to what we perceive. I have always thought that one of the reasons why Homer and Shakespeare have maintained their magisterial supremacy is that we know so little about their real lives and personalities and are thus confined to the words—however disputed in transmission—that they have left us.
A second related question—also unresolvable—is the existence of a discrete defined text that readers can approach as self-contained and authentic. To what degree should that text be adumbrated or redefined by the unearthing of revisions, rejected materials, and the authors’ own statements on what they think they are doing at the time or have done when they’re finished? As with Trimalchio, Tender is the Night, The Last Tycoon, [End Page lxxii] Maxwell Perkins’s correspondence with both authors, and all of Hemingway’s posthumous publications, this rich archival material is both vital and fascinating to scholars; but it can also cause perplexing difficulties. In the case of revisions it’s difficult to know whether a writer’s second thoughts are superior to his first thoughts. And while I suspect that it’s unlikely that there...