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F Scott Fitzgerald rediscovered

In 1924 in a series of pieces for an American magazine, Motor, F Scott Fitzgerald described a 1200-mile journey he took with his wife Zelda from Connecticut to Alabama in a clapped-out automobile he named the ‘Rolling Junk’. Never published before in the UK, The Cruise of the Rolling Junk is a free-ranging comic alternation of fact and fiction. It also eerily presages the disaster and tragedy that overtook Fitzgerald later – and foreshadows the themes and brilliance of his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby

i n t r o d u c t i o n t o
T h e C r u i s e o f t h e R o l l i n g J u n k
Hesperus Press, October 2011

I first came across ‘The Cruise of the Rolling Junk’ when I was researching a radio programme for the BBC in 1996. It was the year of its author’s centenary. Remarkably, given that he was the author of The Great Gatsby, a book that belongs as much to American mythology as American literature, that radio show was, as I remember, the only marking of the anniversary in the British media. Its title was ‘The Authority of Failure’: the phrase was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, contrasting himself with his friend Ernest Hemingway in one of his Notebooks – Ernest, who always spoke ‘with the authority of success. We could never sit across the table again.’ Then again, perhaps that title reveals one of the reasons for Fitzgerald’s neglect. It is somehow appropriate that a writer whose life has accumulated at least as much mythical status as his best-known novel should at the same time be ignored, on account of his wholesale embrace of failure. Such is the present’s permanent nervousness about the lasting quality of its own success.

What did Fitzgerald’s failure consist of? ‘All in three days I got married and the presses were pounding out This Side of Paradise like they pound out extras in the movies,’ he wrote. Two years earlier, in 1918, he had fallen in love with the baby-faced Zelda Sayre; a year later she had ditched him. This sort of reverse was familiar to his adolescent, confused, aspirational and over-eager personality: through school, Princeton and the army he had become habituated to disappointment. Then abruptly, in the autumn of 1919, the New York publisher Scribner’s reversed his fortunes again by accepting his first novel. On the strength of it he got the girl back, and in April 1920, at the age of twenty-three, he was published and married, and his dreams had come true.

Yet at exactly the same moment, the romantic in Fitzgerald was profoundly frustrated by the loss of his dreams. In an obscure way, what he could lose through fulfilment and success came to mean more to him than what he could gain. Through the alcoholic years of the Twenties, the ashtray-throwing years on the French Riviera, the years of ‘1,000 parties and no work’, the squandering years when he and Zelda constantly outran spectacular earnings from his writing, it was to those pre-success days that he reverted. ‘Once in the middle Twenties,’ he wrote,

I was driving along the High Corniche road through the twilight with the whole French Riviera twinkling on the sea below. As far ahead as I could see was Monte Carlo… It was not Monte Carlo I was looking at. It was back into the mind of the young man with cardboard soles who had walked the streets of New York. I was him again – for an instant I had the good fortune to share his dreams, I who had no more dreams of my own.

In an essay called ‘Those Wrecked by Success’ Sigmund Freud writes how surprising and bewildering it at first seems when ‘one makes the discovery that people occasionally fall ill precisely when a deeply rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfilment’. At the pathological level, that is what Fitzgerald’s life after the publication of This Side of Paradise and marriage to Zelda feels like: an incurable illness whose symptoms were alcoholism, waste, collapse and attempted self-destruction. As if, having made his dreams of success come true, he had nothing with which to replace the yearning that had been satisfied – except another yearning, to throw the success away.

Fitzgerald was semi-consciously aware of his pathology. In 1936, in the autobiographical piece I quoted above, he wrote of his early success as a burden as well as a bonus, something that came with a ‘compensation’ – as though he experienced it as an encumbrance. The compensation, he said, was that he stayed young ‘in the best sense’, and had ‘fair years to waste, years that I can’t honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea’. The acknowledgment here is more important than the lack of regret: it doesn’t seem to have been in Fitzgerald’s nature to regret very much.

But this picture is not wholly true or complete. The waste happened – the gaudy spree that mirrored America’s own, the inability to apply himself to work, the summers spent permanently drunk, the vulgarity of having to make a scene whenever he entered a room – he tested most of his relationships to destruction, and finally his marriage crashed too and Zelda with it, within months of Wall Street’s crash, as if the two had the same source. Yet as a writer, as opposed to a drunk, an exhibitionist or a husband, he lived carefully and honestly from the material he provided himself with. His literary conscience stayed sober. In J B Priestley’s introduction to the first British edition of Fitzgerald’s collected works,1 Priestley is right to say that Fitzgerald ‘was considered an alcoholic hack by writers who never possessed and could hardly begin to understand his fine artistic conscience, his sense of obligation to his talent. He was a wild drunk who never yet ceased to regard himself and his doings with astonishing detachment and truthfulness.’ In The Best Times John Dos Passos, who met Scott and Zelda in 1922, identified them as celebrities ‘in the Sunday supplement sense’ but nevertheless paid homage to Scott. ‘When he talked about writing his mind, which seemed to me full of preposterous notions about most things, became clear and hard as a diamond. He didn’t look at landscape, he had no taste for food or wine or painting, little ear for music except for the most rudimentary popular songs, but about writing he was a born professional. Everything he said was worth listening to.’ Both these judgments suggest that there was an unviolated core to the writer, despite his personal failure, and even that his outward failure was a bulwark, a way of protecting his most important asset: his talent.

What I found most remarkable about ‘The Cruise of the Rolling Junk’, as soon as I read it, was how much of the fulfilled future this purposely lightweight account – a serial in three parts based on a journey he and Zelda made just after This Side of Paradise appeared and he was at the zenith of success – portends. The impression was so strong that the story seemed not to have been written shortly after the journey, but retrospectively by several decades, looking way back into Fitzgerald’s past – it was as though I were reading a confirmation of his trajectory from a much later date, or that this is how his life would have started if it was going to turn out the way it did: as if he were a character made up by a novelist named Fitzgerald.

With Fitzgerald’s novels there is often a temptation to read them as autobiographical. With ‘The Cruise of the Rolling Junk’ there is the opposite temptation, to read it as wholehearted fiction. The sense of reading a story or a novella rather than a true account is heightened by his dramatisation (you might as well say melodramatisation) of events and the narrative’s Wodehousian echoes. It’s in no sense an exercise in reportage, or in style or reflection: it was intended for one of the big-circulation magazines to which he often sold stories. Yet its frivolity derives an uncanny truthfulness from the accuracy with which it reverberates with presages of the writer’s life to come.
It was not an easy sell. Fitzgerald wrote the story up in spring 1922, two years after the event, just after the publication of The Beautiful and Damned, his second novel. His agent sent it to the Saturday Evening Post but the Post declined it, and Fitzgerald worked on it some more until it was eventually sold to Motor magazine for a pretty miserly $300. It was published in three parts in February, March, and April 1924, by which time he was working on The Great Gatsby. The dates, the delay, the story’s extended genesis as a narrative all suggest that Fitzgerald may also have felt there was something determining about it.

‘The sun, which had been tapping for an hour at my closed lids, pounded suddenly on my eyes with broad, hot hammers.’ When the story opens, the Fitzgeralds had been living the life of Connecticut aristocracy for two months, having quit New York and its permanent liquid revelry to write (Scott) and read and swim (Zelda). Their first establishment as husband and wife at the eighteenth-century farmhouse they rented at Westport became fraught almost immediately, with Scott trying to work and the nineteen-year-old Zelda jealous of his absences and vexed by his control over her life. With the start of the house-party season, the household went downhill fast. The July Fourth weekend, the house crammed with Scott’s Princeton friends, continued from Sunday through Thursday, when the party was wrapped up by one of the guests calling the fire brigade. (Legend has it that when firefighters asked where the fire was, Zelda pointed to her breast and said, ‘Here!’) Fitzgerald had to reimburse the town for the cost of the hoax. At the weekend the party restarted, and so it is possible that the couple’s decision to leave Westport four days later, on the 15th, was not so whimsical as his published account suggests; it may have contained a motive of desperation.

Fitzgerald’s announced reason for the journey – a 1,200-mile dash from Westport to Montgomery, Alabama where Zelda had grown up, to fetch her the southern peaches and biscuits for breakfast that she craved – frames the story as a lark, a Romantic refusal of reality. ‘To be young, to be bound for the far hills, to be going where happiness hung from a tree, a ring to be tilted for, a bright garland to be won – It was still a realizable thing, we thought, still a harbor from the dullness and the tears and disillusion of all the stationary world.’

It is also a dare, in which he and his wife comically pit their nerves and endurance against each other. The competitive state of the Fitzgeralds’ relationship is the first thing the reader learns about their life together. As soon as Scott wakes up he finds Zelda in his room, ‘singing aloud. Now when Zelda sings soft I like to listen, but when she sings loud I sing loud too in self-protection.’ Their rivalry is intense. Moments later, when the ‘wild idea’ of the journey comes to him and ‘parade[s] its glittering self around’, he is satisfied to see that she is properly impressed. The reflex to outdo each other grows into a leitmotif that reaches a climax when their car throws a back wheel outside Baltimore. In the aftermath of finding help and fixing the wheel back on, Scott demands to know why Zelda was bent double with mirth in the passenger seat after the wheel went bowling past them. ‘“I had more fun than you did”’, she shrieks ‘“and that’s what we came for”’.

The intensity of these skirmishes interests us, I think, because of Fitzgerald’s ability to draw comic energy from them, and because they are also the story of an absence – Fitzgerald describes few countervailing tendernesses between the couple as they romp and wriggle egotistically towards their destination. His studied exploitation of their competitiveness might then reasonably be construed as an indicator of his private view of his marriage – as might the ledger he kept through his working life, where each year he summarised for himself what kind of a year it had been. At the end of 1922 his judgment was harsh: ‘comfortable but dangerous and deteriorating, no ground under our feet’.

The heart of the comedy is located in the Fitzgeralds’ automobile. The roads of the 1920s were mainly unmetalled, and a distance that would be routine in a modern car was an epic undertaking. (An advertisement in one of the issues of Motor in which Fitzgerald’s account was serialised offers after-market Gruss air-springs with the slogan, ‘Make all Roads Boulevards!’) The Fitzgeralds’ car was inevitably flashy and immodest. Fitzgerald nicknamed it an Expenso: in reality it was a Marmon 34, a swanky touring car with a racing pedigree. But the Fitzgeralds’ Marmon had been bought second-hand and passed its prime, with what sounds like a badly welded chassis (Zelda having driven it over a fire hydrant in Westport) and many secondary defects, though still ‘in a nerve-wracking and rickety way exceedingly fast’. Where the car was concerned, Fitzgerald cast himself in the role of sucker rather than incompetent:

Of course, while nominally engaged in being an Expenso, it was, unofficially, a Rolling Junk, and in this second capacity it was a car that we have often bought. About once every five years some of the manufacturers put out a Rolling Junk, and their salesmen come immediately to us because they know that we are the sort of people to whom Rolling Junks should be sold.

He certainly knew nothing about how cars worked. His skill with them was literary. Here the Rolling Junk is literally the vehicle for the narrative; elsewhere he was one of the earliest novelists to understand the significance of the new world of the automobile (as later in The Last Tycoon the aeroplane), and how it would change life, sexual relations and literature. One thinks straight away of the importance and underlined newness of the automobile in the plot of The Great Gatsby, of the ‘new red gas-pumps [that] sat out in pools of light’ and the ‘“Big yellow car. New… going faster’n forty”’ at the scene of Myrtle Wilson’s death.

According to Fitzgerald’s account of the trip to Montgomery, he and Zelda set out within half an hour of the idea being born. Twelve hundred miles rich in disaster follow: every particular of auto-related calamity – meaningless signposts, importunate darkness, grave-deep ruts, wrong-way streets, blow-outs, a spare tyre called Lazarus, shed wheels and batteries, pompous guidebooks, a map-reading wife, highwaymen, thunderstorms and sandstorms, derisive onlookers, know-it-all motorists – happens (though actual mechanical breakdown is rare). Misfortunes often draw crowds and are then related in the style of a conversation of the early Twenties, one wisecrack after another (‘Cracks had to fly back and forth continually like the birds in badminton,’ Dos Passos remembered): as at the outset when the couple are doing no more than filling up with gasoline:

‘You mean to say you’re going somewhere in this Rolling Junk that it takes a week to get to?’
‘You heard me say Alabama, didn’t you?’
‘Yeah. But I thought that was the name of a hotel up to New York.’
Somebody in the crowd began to snicker.
‘Which half the car you going in?’ demanded an obnoxious voice, ‘the high half or the low half?’
‘Race you there in Schneider’s milk wagon.’
‘What you goin’ to do, coast down?’
The atmosphere was growing oppressive.

The wisecracking is, as it usually is, an outer shell of comedy paying tribute to latent disaster, but something deeper is going on here too, that will reach from this adventure into the rest of Fitzgerald’s life. Beneath the couple’s competitiveness and badinage (lost near Princeton, ‘“We can camp out,”proposed Zelda dreamily. “An excellent idea,” I agreed. “I can turn the car upside down and we can sleep under it”’), they radiate an uncomfortable impression that they have dangerously few resources between them, not just to keep them going down the hurrying yellow ribbons of road toward the south, but to stay together at all. The comedy also hints at Fitzgerald’s alcoholism (‘In Westport we stopped at our favourite garage and were filled with the usual liquids, gasoline, water and oil of juniper – or no! I was thinking of something else’) and a running gag about running out of funds has them, for a punchline, crashing the North/South Carolina toll bridge without paying and reminding us that a decade later they themselves would crash, with profounder consequences.

Not that one minds, in a way – as one of those onlookers – because one suspects, in fact one is certain, that the moment Fitzgerald takes a step towards being less reckless he’ll probably start to become less interesting as a writer. But the greatest portent is still to come in the shape of the couple’s welcome at Montgomery, as they at last roll down Dexter Avenue, Zelda weeping ‘for the faithlessness of time’, for how things are the same yet not the same, and the little city ‘crouching under its trees for shelter from the heat’. Arriving, they find the house of Judge and Mrs Sayre shuttered and locked. The lady next door calls over, ‘Why, Zelda, child, did you ride down here in an automobile?’, and in Fitzgerald’s reaction to her explanation, that the judge and his wife have themselves left for Connecticut to surprise the couple, he releases all the ironic fulfilment to which their adventure is pledged.

‘Ah, and it was bitter how well they had succeeded!’

Even though his version is not strictly true (Zelda’s parents did not travel up to Westport until August), Fitzgerald is expressing the greater shape of his conviction: that personal surprises will blow up in his face; things must end badly, or at least heavily qualified; the path of life winds towards disillusion; and failure is his condition. He must break things, and break things up. On that, you might say, he cannot be faulted. The genuine Romantic intuits that they cannot be allowed to achieve their goal, that it can only be approached close enough to shatter it, for the elementary reason that, having once achieved it, there no longer remains a quest to live for.

On the way to such a willed and fulfilled failure, and within the limitations of the quest, a large space – the space of poetry – is nevertheless opened up where a lyrical sensibility can work and, as it will turn out, transcend the irony of those limits. Soon Fitzgerald will publish The Great Gatsby, the novel Harold Bloom has called his ‘Keatsian’ version of the quest. In ‘The Cruise of the Rolling Junk’ there are already descriptive passages, between the wisecracking and the frippery, that are both gorgeous and mature: not landscapes or cityscapes or crowds and certainly not individuals, but vistas, perspectives and, above all, lighting. It has been said that Fitzgerald wrote for the movies without knowing it, and it’s impossible not to notice here the way everything is lit, as it will be in Gatsby. This is the couple’s first view of Virginia:

A cool wind blew, faint and fresh. Slow short hills climbed in green tranquility toward a childish sky. And already there were ante-bellum landscapes – featuring crazy cabins inhabited by blue-black gentlemen and their ladies in red-checked calico. The south now – its breath was warm upon us. The trees no longer exfloreated in wild haste, as though they feared that October was already scurrying over the calendar – their branches gestured with the faintly tired hauteur of a fine lady’s hand. The sun was at home here, touching with affection the shattered ruins of once lovely things. Still, after fifty years we could see the chimneys and wall corners that marked the sites of old mansions – which we peopled with pleasant ghosts. Here under the gay wistaria life at its mellowest had once flourished – not as on Long Island with streets and haste and poverty and pain just twenty miles away, but in a limitless empire whose radius was the distance a good horse could travel in a morning and whose law was moulded only of courtesy and prejudice and flame.

Yes, of course there is sentiment here too (there’s also patronising dismissiveness towards blacks, and dismayingly not the only instance of it); but the wistfulness is there because the writer desires the domesticated sun, the loveliness and extent of the view to shift and falter in the last line, precisely so that they can be regarded in the next paragraph under differently angled light that reveals not just Virginia’s picturesqueness but its ‘selfconscious insistence on this picturesqueness’ in its cherishing of ‘its anachronisms and survivals, its legend of heroism in defeat’, and the ‘tinny and blatant’ quality of its soul. This is the perspective-changing by which the poet begins to remake reality, to engender and assert the value of his subject, and Fitzgerald will use it lavishly in The Great Gatsby: specifically in, say, the eroticism of Daisy’s sudden stormy tears as she admires Gatsby’s soft, rich piled-up shirts or in Nick Carraway’s shouted compliment in the wake of Gatsby’s confession,2 and more generally in our changing views of Nick as well-mannered friend and then prig or of Daisy as an unhappy beauty and later unforgivably careless woman. Many things – I’m tempted to say everything – in Fitzgerald’s universe seem to predicate their converse, not least ideas of success, hope, and destiny.

‘The Cruise of the Rolling Junk’ turns out to contain other foretastes of Gatsby. For one thing, the Fitzgeralds’ destination is not just an ante-bellum but, as he makes clear, a prelapsarian America, and their journey is not just into the south but into the past: an impossible return, as Gatsby’s is. Both pieces of work nurse an equation of balmy summer and automobile travel, and there are reused details: the Rolling Junk’s wheel falling off and associated reactions to it; a character who steps out into the road when Zelda is driving; her accelerating (as Daisy Buchanan does) rather than braking. Rhythms of prose remind us of later, refined rhythms: ‘We rested only five minutes – there was sunshine all around us now – we must make haste to go on, go down, into the warmth, into the dusky mellow softness, into the green heart of the Alabama town where Zelda was born.’

Forgotten, even assumed dead years before he died in 1940, then rediscovered in the 1950s, Fitzgerald has continued to be viewed by a curious, puritanical in a class-burdened way, consensus as a lovely but not a serious writer: as though, at worst, he was a snob and a suck around the rich, or at best that his belonging to the finite flashy myths of the Jazz Age excludes him from consideration. Yet as he said in 1940, when someone repeated the charge that he fawned on the rich, ‘I always thought my progress was in the other direction’; and if he ever was superficial, then the complex honesty and humanity of his superficialities has turned out to offer a harder, truer portrait of the American century than the mysticism and pose-ridden individualism of many of his contemporaries and successors.

This may be difficult to grasp when contemplating a description of one of Gatsby’s West Egg parties, or when studying Fitzgerald’s own dissolution. It is certainly impossible to grasp if you consider truth, or writing, to be utilitarian matters. If Fitzgerald were alive today and, looking for readers, decided to write a blog containing his writing tips for aspiring novelists, how much of a fan base would he accumulate if, instead of explaining how to introduce characters, generate plot or use impact words, he quoted Keats on the necessity of serving Mammon, extolled the value of failure, and asserted the importance of a life thrown away on a dream?

Should we feel like catching hold better of Fitzgerald’s durability and achievement, or putting a more complete description to his work than ‘lovely’, we might take another route and make an effort to get at what lay behind his embrace of failure – to go back in time from 1920 rather than forwards. It tends to be forgotten, because he emerged in the all but deafening early Twenties, that he was a post-First World War writer not a pre-Second World War writer, and that he was, albeit at a distance (because he did not get to France), a casualty of that war and a member of a generation that, faced with a vacuum, expected too much too soon. Another way of looking at his situation might be that the war had cleft him and his contemporaries into a divided youth, one that possessed not only great innocence and willingness of heart, not to mention hedonistic energy, but also the mind of a lost and failed civilisation.

If so, then at one level at least, the philosophical one, Fitzgerald’s life and writing are about how to live post-war, post-loss. He understood something else too: that the post-war world was continuing to use a failed civilisation as its model, that it was continuing to live in, as he describes it in Tender Is the Night, ‘the broken universe of the war’s ending’, and so his novels and stories, for all their vibrancy and charm, are, like the sometimes relentless wisecracking in ‘The Cruise of the Rolling Junk’, dramatisations of the coping strategies of an era that was, beneath its febrility, heart-broken and despairing. He wrote about exactly this when he was working on Gatsby in 1924: ‘That’s the whole burden of this novel – the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.’

‘Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,’ he wrote in one of his notebooks. His own mind, far from being a playboy’s or a wastrel’s, was that of an ascetic chronicling not just his failure but the massive faltering of humanity. That is what he means when, on the last page of Gatsby, he writes that Nick Carraway, sprawled on the beach, ‘became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent…’

‘Gatsby believed in the green light,’ we read a few lines further on, ‘the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us’; but it is at the end of ‘The Cruise of the Rolling Junk’, in its final flash of premonitory knowledge, that Fitzgerald first sets out Gatsby’s ideal, and our unappeasable hunger to return to a past from which to pursue it all over again.

And yet – I have discovered in myself of late a tendency to buy great maps and pore over them, to inquire in garages as to the state of roads; sometimes, just before I go to sleep, distant Meccas come shining through my dreams… My affection goes with you, Rolling Junk – with you and with all the faded trappings that have brightened my youth and glittered with hope or promise on the roads I have travelled – roads that stretch on still, less white, less glamorous, under the stars and the thunder and the recurrent inevitable sun.

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