Books: The Jazz Age

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THE CRACK-UP—F. Scott Fitzgerald—New Directions ($3.50).

When Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald died at 44, in Christmas-week of 1940, he left behind a handful of brilliant novels and collections of short stories (This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, Tales of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby) and an unfillable gap in the ranks of Postwar I's "lost generation." Wrote Novelist Glenway Wescott, "he was a kind of king of our American youth."

Now Critic Edmund Wilson has made a book of his friend's glittering, tragic life. It is in part a collection of essays, poems and letters written about Fitzgerald by his admirers (including Poets T. S. Eliot and John Peale Bishop, Critic Paul Rosenfeld, Novelist Wescott, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Thomas Wolfe). But the bulk of The Crack-Up consists of selections from Fitzgerald's own essays, stories, notebooks and letters, including the famed scarifying confession (published in Esquire in 1936) in which Fitzgerald explained his decline from high-ranking novelist to Hollywood hack. The result is an extraordinary character-study, wholly free from reticence or whitewash. Readers who hope to recapture the lilt and flame of flapper days will find themselves staring at the clogged ash trays and unwashed glasses of the morning after.

Scott Fitzgerald was barely 20, fresh from Princeton and a brief spell in uniform, when he saw "the unexpended nervous energy of the war years exploded [into] an age of miracles ... an age of art ... an age of excess." Suddenly, spontaneously, the Jazz Age had begun. "Life was like the race in Alice in Wonderland, there was a prize for everyone.''

At first, despite his good looks, wit and charm, it seemed that there would be no prize for young Fitzgerald. His girl broke their engagement because he had no money. At 21, he felt passé—"God! How I miss my youth!" he wrote to his friend Bishop. Then, between jobs, he sat down and poured into This Side of Paradise the romantic memories of his happy college days. Within two weeks of its appearance, Fitzgerald had the cash not only to win back and marry his girl, but to enter the jazziest, gayest time of his life.

"Incalculable city," wrote Fitzgerald. "What ensued was only one of a thousand success stories of those gaudy days. . . . I, who knew less of [New York] society than any hall-room boy in a Ritz stagline, was pushed into the position not only of spokesman for the time but of the typical product." Actresses whom he had worshipped from afar now eagerly lunched at his apartment. When he stepped into a public fountain in the small hours, the gossip columns turned the splash into a tidal wave. The morning after a mild argument with a cop, he read: "Fitzgerald Knocks Officer This Side of Paradise." It was a life which passed incessantly "through strange doors into strange apartments, with intermittent swings in taxis through the soft nights. . . . We were one with New York, pulling it after us through every portal. Many who were not alcoholics were lit up four days out of seven. . . . Frayed nerves were strewn everywhere. . . . The hangover became a part of the day."

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