Sentences — June 9, 2008, 10:29 am

His Dream of Himself

“It has been said by a celebrated person,” Edmund Wilson writes at the onset of his 1922 essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald, “that to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald is to think of a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond;”

she is extremely proud of the diamond and shows it to everyone who comes by, and everyone is surprised that such an ignorant old woman should possess so valuable a jewel; for in nothing does she appear so inept as in the remarks she makes about the diamond.

fscott Fitzgerald would have been twenty-five at the time Wilson, then only twenty-six himself, composed this remarkable sentence. No matter how often I have read it, its power to sandbag has not diminished. Who starts a critical essay this way? That is to say, who starts an essay that, as it unfolds, will praise its subject’s moral seriousness as a writer, his pure talent, his musicality, his promise (Fitzgerald had yet to publish The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night)—with a bit of hyperventilate hearsay that has the same texture as the worst gossip, (“It has been said…”)?

Of course, the sentence, dangled like a glittering lure into the busy waters of whichever magazine it appeared in first, was meant to hook a reader. This low feat accomplished, Wilson then barrels forward, performing a technically admirable double reverse as he moves down his argumentative field. First, he distances himself from the baseness he has just disseminated, saying that the anecdote given is misleading (“The person who invented this simile did not know Fitzgerald very well”); that Fitzgerald was not “inept” (“on the contrary, exhilaratingly clever”). This established, that Fitzgerald is not “in the least stupid,” Wilson then pivots and jukes into the opening he has made for himself: “Yet there is a symbolic truth in the description quoted above:”

it is true that Fitzgerald has been left with a jewel which he doesn’t know quite what to do with. For he has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.

Here at last we have a thesis. As to the matter of proving it out, Wilson, characteristically, writes with a certainty of his own certainty that precludes proof, or nearly. Wilson is happy to defend his cruelties but loathe to corroborate, textually, his blessings. Upon writing “This Side of Paradise is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published,” he does deal from the bottom of his deck a four card hand of quotations that flush with malaprop. And yet, of Fitzgerald’s “instinct for graceful and vivid prose” we get no more than Wilson’s instinct. The single long quotation in the piece, seven lines, is of Bernard Shaw describing the Irish people, a portrait frame that fits, Wilson assures us, Fitzgerald. Wilson fills that frame, not with proof, but his own portraiture: “F. Scott Fitzgerald is a rather childlike fellow, very much wrapped up in his dream of himself and his projection of it on paper.”

Wilson’s essay is more a dream of Fitzgerald than literary criticism. Read alone, one would think Wilson had all the right instincts as a reader (his generalizations about Fitzgerald the writer jibe with the sense a reader has of him) but all the wrong ones of a critic. Reading Wilson’s collected criticism disproves this piecemeal dismissal, of course, and suggests, as the fortune cookie trumpets, that a smattering of everything is a knowledge of nothing. A smattering of Wilson can produce just such a suspicion.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2016

Isn’t It Romantic?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trusted Traveler

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Iowa

The Queen and I

Disunified Front

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.
Article
The Queen and I·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Buckingham Palace is a theater in need of renovation. There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room. The plants are tired. Plastic is nailed to walls and mirrors. The ballroom is set for a ghostly banquet. Everyone is whispering, for we are in a mad kind of church. A child weeps.”
Photograph (detail) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Article
We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If I really wanted to learn about the Islamic State, Hassan told me, I ought to speak to his friend Samir, a young gay soldier in the Syrian Army who’d been fighting jihadis intermittently for the past four years.”
Photograph (detail) by Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty

Amount by which the number of government jobs in the U.S. exceeds the number of manufacturing jobs:

5,129,000

The sound of mice being clicked may induce seizures in house cats.

In Turlock, California, nearly 3,500 samples of bull semen were stolen from the back of a truck.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today