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. What he does have is a vivid sense of narrative and a delight in interpretation; the jousting of the men has a kind of mythic quality, which has to do with the often odd nature of literary friendships. Again and again he is struck by the parallelisms of the two men, and the way the life of each is central to the life of the other. As for heroes and villains, the matter isn’t easy. Some would say Fitzgerald was the better man and the worse writer, others would claim Hemingway was the true inventor, since he created, like Picasso, a modern discourse for the age of which Fitzgerald was no more than the brilliant fictional reporter.
In the matter of achievement, both reputations have risen and fallen. It was a rhythm which Fitzgerald had to adapt to early; by the Thirties he had, as he so strangely expected, cracked up; his decade was over, and by the time of his death, as the decade ended, his name had gone and his books were out of print. Hemingway rode triumphant, the military hero fresh from his triumphs in Spain and ready to go to war again. Ten years later, Fitzgerald was rising, Hemingway falling. Now, in most sensible judgements, both writers can be associated with works both good and bad, and their own moments of greatness: Fitzgerald’s in 1925 with The Great Gatsby; Hemingway’s with his early stories of similar date and with A Farewell to Arms in 1929.
The one who lives longer tells most of the story; and so Hemingway did. His version is in what became, with his suicide, a posthumous memoir: A Moveable Feast (1964). Yet Fitzgerald was the kinder soul and the better friend, and did the greater favours. When the two men met, he was by far the more successful author. He secured Hemingway’s American publication with his own firm, Scribner’s, publishers of Henry James and by this time the home of the finest of all the editors, Maxwell Perkins. Thanks to Fitzgerald, Hemingway moved from poverty to riches, obscurity to fame. Such favours cannot be accepted easily, and there is generally a price to pay. Hemingway, the younger and more arrogant of the two, was a bruiser, a figure of total confidence in his own powers; he expected nothing less. He had already adopted a note of amused condescension toward Fitzgerald, looking down on his drinking, his disorderly marriage, his public escapades, his general performance as Twenties public icon and popular-market prophet of the jazz age. He was serious, and he took Fitzgerald’s admiration and respect as his due. He was no socialite but the pure artistic expatriate, the man who worked hard, knew the territory, fought over the terrain, learned what to do and how to live with it. Paris was his creative-writing class; he was there to study, not to drink and enjoy himself. And he was a naked literary strategist, always ready to play writer off against writer, opportunity against opportunity, and to get into the ring.
It is, in a sense, a ritual story: about society, fame, rivalry, jealousy, and the war to win in art. Donaldson tells it vividly, as a battle of the giants, and an example of how failure destroys, and success does too. In every way, each man was in the books of the other. Their worlds are eternally intertwined, with all that went into them: jealousy, hardness, moral contrast, a brute competitiveness and a pathos that in the end afflicts and surrounds the careers of both men. As Donaldson says, Hemingway treated Fitzgerald with extraordinary cruelty, and even after his death conducted a campaign against his reputation. He concludes:
What Scott loved about Ernest was the idealised version of the sort of man – courageous, stoic, masterful – he could never be. What Ernest loved about Scott was the vulnerability and charm that his invented persona required him to despise. It made for a poignant story, really; one great writer humiliating himself in pursuit of a companionship that another’s adamantine hardness of heart would not permit.
Yet as a pair, an odd couple, a Gog and Magog, these two writers are still at the heart of twentieth-century American fiction. The Great American Novel of the first half of the century always was a game for the boys.