“Nowhere is this cruel standoff between consumerism and consummation more brilliantly elucidated than in The Great Gatsby”
Faith and F. Scott Fitzgerald
In 2007 Ralph McInerny, the late novelist (probably best known for his Father Dowling mysteries), and also a translator, biographer and professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University, squeaked out one of the last and apparently one of the slightest of the more than 100 books he penned in his lifetime - a breezy 154 page literary survey almost offhandedly entitled Some Catholic Writers. Much meatier than it looks, this slim little volume contains short but profoundly well informed and tantalizing essays on 35 very disparate writers, mostly of fiction, and is the book of its kind I return to most often when I’m casting about for new writers to check out.
Some Catholic Writers is no bland roundup of the usual suspects though some of these naturally turn up and McInerny’s take on them is unfailingly original and rewarding. He also gloms onto contemporary authors whose Catholicity had not hitherto been widely recognized (Piers Paul Read), some who faded from popular memory and deserve another look (Georges Bernanos), some who belonged to other denominations but wrote on Catholic themes with real insight (Willa Cather) and some who were raised Catholic and may have intellectually rejected the faith as adults but nonetheless wrote all of their days with an irrevocably baptised imagination.
In this last category would fall F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) whom McInerny characterizes as “Catholic to the soles of his feet.” One shining emblem of this unshakeable Catholicity that McInerny cites is Fitzgerald’s “ability to gain imaginative distance from the forces that drove his own life. He had a mad American appetite for money and fun and social ascendancy, and all of these were coldly analyzed and condemned in his work. ‘The victor belongs to the spoils,’ is the mordant motto of The Beautiful and the Damned. His very style exhibits this duality, combining often in the same sentence lyricism and matter-of-factness. Pervading it all was the continuing hunger for that which the singular objects of appetite cannot give.”
Nowhere is this cruel standoff between consumerism and consummation more brilliantly elucidated than in the one universally regarded masterpiece among Fitzgerald’s five novels, The Great Gatsby, which tells of a driven and shady businessman’s obsession with a previously unattainable woman whose love starts to wither the moment he finally does attain her. A staple of high school and college reading lists, the book was most recently filmed by Baz Luhrman. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, this was the third run Hollywood has taken at Gatsby and the earlier two badly missed the boat. I’ve been similarly unimpressed with every film or TV adaptation so far made of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and it’s interesting to consider that both of those novels are narrated by secondary characters describing a destructive love affair that unfolds in their circle of acquaintance, thereby providing some distance and perspective that seem to evaporate when the stories are translated to the screen. Luhrman’s version worked because he attained that distance by treating the story as a larger than life myth.
Once one is alerted to Fitzgerald’s Catholic roots, remnants of his discarded faith turn up everywhere in his books. His very first novel from 1920, This Side of Paradise, is dedicated to Monsignor Sigourney Fay who he first met at his Catholic preparatory school and who did much to encourage the then 16 year-old Fitzgerald to see himself as a writer. The very first line of his second novel from 1922, The Beautiful and the Damned, charts the distance Fitzgerald was starting to mark from the Church but also its continuing influence: “In 1913, when Anthony Patch was twenty-five, two years were already gone since irony, the Holy Ghost of this later day, had, theoretically at least, descended upon him.”
At McInerny’s urging, I sought out Matthew J. Bruccoli’s 1981 biography of Fitzgerald, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, and felt a little frisson of second hand proximity to a legend to read that in 1903 when Fitzgerald’s father found work in Buffalo, the then-seven year-old boy was enrolled at Holy Angels Convent and later wrote that there he “fell under the spell” of Father Michael Fallon, who would become Bishop of the London Diocese six years later where he opened up St. Peter’s Seminary in 1912.
Fitzgerald’s religious progress (or regress) can be so readily charted because the experiences and preoccupations of his lifetime unfailingly turned up in his writing – both fiction and nonfiction. This is so to an extent with virtually any writer but that tendency was taken much further with Fitzgerald, starting with the publication of his very first rapturously received novel about glamorous flappers and the jazz age when he was just 24 years old. Fitzgerald had just married the southern debutante Zelda Sayre that same year (one of her conditions was that she wouldn`t marry him until he seemed capable of keeping her in high style) and the handsome young couple instantly became media mascots of their era.
The glamour and money seemed great for a while but soon started to exact a horrible price, fixing both of them in the public spotlight as wild and reckless hedonists whose antics soon became tiresome and passé, and discouraging the development of more sober qualities that would help their marriage or Fitzgerald`s career as a writer. Book sales fell off precipitously, condemning him to churning out short stories for the slick magazines, and later working in Hollywood to meet the bills for parties and booze. He felt like a sellout and drank even more to muffle his shame, soon developing full blown alcoholism which started to mess with his ability to meet deadlines. Feeling ignored, Zelda undertook a number of extramarital flirtations of varying intensity and then eventually cracked up and spent major portions of her remaining life in expensive psychiatric clinics.
The competition is pretty fierce but I think perhaps the saddest line Fitzgerald ever penned hailed from one of his notebooks: “I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.” While it became impossible for them to live together for any length of time, the perpetually cash-strapped Fitzgerald always saw to it that Zelda was provided for. They failed each other, they betrayed each other, they wounded each other repeatedly but in the end neither of them ever seriously considered anyone else.
Late in his life Fitzgerald wrote to their only child, Scottie, “I wouldn’t mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some graveyard. That is a really happy thought, and not melancholy at all.”
And that indeed was what eventually happened, first in unconsecrated ground, and then in 1975 at Scottie’s behest and with the authorization of Cardinal Baum of Baltimore, Fitzgerald and Zelda were reinterred in the Fitzgerald family plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.