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“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.
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.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”