F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are two of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. Among the remarkable things about them are the peculiar similarities and parallels of their backgrounds and the kind of literary friendship – which was also a literary enmity – that they forged. Both were born to reasonably affluent professional families in the American Midwest; the families lived 150 miles apart in Minnesota and Illinois respectively. Both households were troubled, not least by domestic gender wars between the parents. Both writers were born on the cusp of what was to become known as the American century (Fitzgerald in 1896, Hemingway in 1899), and both felt a large responsibility for pursuing its mythologies and establishing its styles. Both, as Scott Donaldson notes in this book of engaging comparisons, were jilted by their first loves in dramatic and unlovely circumstances which became central to their fictions. Both responded to the crisis of the century, the Great War, in which the Americans became implicated in 1917. Hemingway went to Europe and was wounded, Fitzgerald applied for service but got his emotional wounds at home. Both were ready, once peace had come with the American-brokered Versailles settlement and, as Fitzgerald said, something subtle passed to America, ‘the American stylistic leadership’. Both began to write as the Twenties, the most American of decades, dawned. Both ended up in Paris; they met, and their lives became a joust.
The story has been told very often, and Scott Donaldson, who has written biographies of both men, does not have a great deal of new material to report. After all, postwar Twenties Paris was crowded from the start with writers who were all assiduously reporting on themselves and each other.