The Tennessean, November 25, 1984, page 8-D
INVENTED LIVES: F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. By James R. Mellow. Houghton Mifflin, $22.50.
Fitzgerald Study Offers Little New
Reviewed by John Bethune
The continued fascination with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald is becoming nearly as remarkable as its objects.
James Mellow’s bulky new book, not quite 600 pages long, is the third biography of Fitzgerald in four years and will not likely be the last.
From a strictly literary point of view, the hoopla isn’t justified. Fitzgerald produced only one undisputed masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, and a host of American writers surpass him in genius and accomplishments.
Given Mellow’s reputation—his much-praised biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne won the American Book Award in 1983—one might expect this biography to break new ground in our knowledge of the Fitzgeralds’ lives. It doesn’t.
Matthew Bruccoli’s thorough if plodding Some Sort of Epic Grandeur (1981) will remain the standard biography.
Mellow indicates that his initial impulse was to write a considerably shorter work, but that he changed his mind in the writing. It was a regrettable decision.
Mellow, I think, has a genuine contribution to make to our understanding of the Fitzgeralds, but it is a purely interpretative one. He has as well a considerable gift for narrative and a pristine prose style, something lacking in previous biographies.
Mellow’s thesis is that the Fitzgeralds led “Invented lives.” They not only wrote novels; they tried to live them. Their confusion of life and art was damaging both to their work and to their marriage.
Fitzgerald, Mellow suggests, tended to “fictionalize life, to make intense literary demands on it.” Occasionally, as in Gatsby, he transformed it into art, but too often he tried to remake it in the image of fiction.
Hemingway perceived that Fitzgerald’s weakness was his habit of self-dramatization. He was not, Hemingway told him, “a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we do is write.”
But Hemingway’s code was not Fitzgerald’s. Much of the time he did not write.
We must be careful not to underrate what Fitzgerald accomplished in spite of his character flaws, his alcoholism and his despair. Perhaps because of the excessive length of Mellow’s biography, Fitzgerald’s achievements are somewhat lost amid the messy details of his life.
Mellow admits in his preface that he has little sympathy for people who waste their talents, and that he will not “let the glamorous Fitzgeralds get away with anything.” Given the admiration implicit in previous biographies, this is a necessary and fruitful approach.
We may, nevertheless, be grateful that Fitzgerald got away with Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.
It is an unfortunate phenomenon of literary study that those figures who need biographies least get the most. It is reported on the dust jacket of Invented Lives that Mellow is at work on a life of Hemingway.
Them that has, gits.
John Bethune is a Sewanee, Tenn., free-lance writer.