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Book Review: Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald by Scott Donaldson

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If you’re looking for a detailed account of the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, you won’t find it in Scott Donaldson’s 1983 biography Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, now reissued by the University of Minnesota Press. If you’re looking for an analysis of how the writer’s life and personality, his psychological make-up affected his writing, this is the book you want. Donaldson’s thesis throughout: “there is no blinking the fact that Fitzgerald was among the most autobiographical of authors. The situations and characters sometimes take on disguises, but in his best fiction he wrote about himself, and above all about his own feelings.”

There was a time when biographical criticism of literature was looked down upon. Instead of dealing with what was really thought to be important–the novel, the poem, the play–it put the focus on the author, the author who was really only important because of the novel, the poem, whatever. Those were the days of the New Critics, a critical school that militantly asserted one mantra: the proper study of a literary work is the work itself. That time has long gone, and if for some of us it still seems to make good sense, it does seem that attention to the life of the mind that produced the work as well as all the other elements affecting its production might well be both interesting and important.

Essentially, what Scott Donaldson does is isolate two central themes in Fitzgerald’s work–love and class–and shows how the novelist’s treatment of these themes is related to the story of his life. Born to a family with limited means and large aspirations, he was always concerned with his social position, always felt himself something of an outsider. There were the social elites and there were the others, and it was vital but probably impossible to ever move from the one group to the other. There was the world of the Buchanans, and it was a world closed to the likes of Jay Gatsby no matter how conspicuous his consumption. In effect it was a world closed to Fitzgerald as well, dooming his romantic relations, overshadowing his years at Princeton. The author’s tumultuous marriage, his affairs and his abortive relationships with women throughout his life are treated in much the same way as ore to be mined for his literary product. Characters like Dick Diver in This Side of Paradise are self-portraits, perhaps unintentional, but self-portraits nonetheless.

Given his central concerns, it is not surprising that Donaldson seems less interested in the details of those relationships, less significant to those themes. If you want to know about Fitzgerald and Hemingway or his friendship with Edmund Wilson, there are books with more information. His time in Hollywood is another area that gets only limited treatment, concentrating primarily on his affair with Sheilah Graham. It is not that he ignores these things entirely; he talks about them, but never in the same kind of detail. In the end they never seem all that important.

In the end, Fool for Love is not intended as a definitive study of Fitzgerald’s life, and so long as the reader recognizes it for what it aims to do, it is an arresting exploration of the relationship between a writer’s psyche and the work he produces. Moreover, it is an accessible study. By and large it avoids the critical jargon that makes much of contemporary literary criticism a foreign language to all but professional scholars. It is quite readable. Indeed, dealing as it does with an alcoholic womanizer and his mentally disturbed wife, an intellectual who seemed to go out of his way to provoke confrontations, it at times reads like a novel.

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About Jack Goodstein