F. Scott Fitzgerald is a name that brings with it certain expectations. So when you come across a little selection of his personal essays selling itself as a kind of substitute for the autobiographical memoir he never wrote, you might well be thinking, “this is the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby. This is a book I have to read.” Unfortunately A Short Autobiography, James L. W. West III’s edition of 19 of the author’s essays written over the course of his career is disappointing. It’s not that the essays have no charm; they do–not that often, but they do. It’s not that they lack wit, there is wit in flashes. It’s not that the author has nothing to say, there are thoughtful moments. The problem is that it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, and you have great expectations.
The essays running from 1920 through 1940 deal with things like living beyond one’s means, modern young girls, beginnings of stories, life at Princeton, and a description of an author’s afternoon. More often than not the tone tends to be what we would today call snarky. What saves it from being offensive is that it is often self -deprecating “snark.” The author he talks about in the third person is so patently himself that one can almost laugh along with him—almost but not quite always. “A Short Autobiography (with acknowledgements to Nathan),” for example is a sample list of annual alcohol consumption. It is little more than a joke. It only runs four pages, but the joke gets stale on page one. The 1920 essay in which he interviews himself is a bit more substantial, but the humor is forced.
This is not to say there is nothing worthwhile in the volume. “How to Waste Material—A Note on My Generation” has some enlightening things to say about writing fashions and ends with an interesting appraisal of Hemingway’s In Our Time. The gently satiric portraits of the young couple trying to make ends meet in the suburbs and then abroad in the 1924 pieces “How to Live on $36,000 a Year” and “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year” poke fun at his own inability to live within his means. “An Author’s Mother” looks humorously at the author’s failure to garner recognition from his mother, and ends with a somewhat sentimental description of the elderly woman’s death.
Written for popular magazines, the essays never really get too intellectual—a bit of literary criticism here, some social commentary there, but nothing in depth. “My Generation,” the essay which ends the volume, is an attempt to characterize what it is that defines the generation born at the turn of the century. “We were the great believers,” he says, filled with hope and faith. Then came the war and things changed. The America they were born into “passed away somewhere between 1910 and 1920,” and left them disillusioned. It is this duality that defines his generation. There is certainly truth here, but it is truth that could use a good deal more discussion and analysis than would have been welcome in Esquire even in 1968 when the essay, written and revised in 1939/40, was eventually published.
Given the popular nature of the essays, they are filled with topical allusions, many of which will be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. West provides a fairly exhaustive section of end notes identifying both the great and the near great, from the architect Stanford White and the long distance swimmer Gertrude Ederle to the novelist Booth Tarkington and the poet Ruppert Brooke. Indeed, these are some of the more notable of the allusions. There are many more that have absolutely no meaning for the modern reader, even after they have been identified. He also includes a short biographical sketch of the author.
In the end, if you’re interested in Fitzgerald you’ll want to look at this little book. If you’re very interested in Fitzgerald, you’ll probably be more interested in looking at the essays collected in the Cambridge Edition of Fitzgerald’s works. If you’re not interested in Fitzgerald, you might want to get a copy of The Great Gatsby and get interested.