F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Fiction:
“An Almost Theatrical Innocence”
By John T. Irwin
Johns Hopkins University Press | 2014 | 233 pages | $39.95
Reviewed by M. J. Moore
Is another book about the author of The Great Gatsby really necessary?
Well, yes. We do need this new and highly personalized account of the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This is a luminous, eye-opening, deeply appreciative study about the writings of Fitzgerald, as opposed to yet another chronicle of his high life and hard times; his roller-coaster of a marriage to Zelda; and his foray into Hollywood, the struggles with booze and depression, and his whole latter-day life framed as a cautionary tale.
Indeed, this is precisely the kind of book that’s long overdue: A comprehensive overview of the fiction Fitzgerald created—the seemingly innumerable short stories, and his novels. This book is anchored by the author’s profound love for the literary achievements of a writer who is too often pigeonholed only as the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby. That classic was one of many distinguished offerings.
Perhaps the greatest offering of all is the gift that a major author like Fitzgerald leaves to generations of readers. That is, the gift of transporting others’ minds and imaginations to other eras and milieus through the artful, magical power of fiction.
From the get-go, this assessment of the life’s work left behind by F. Scott Fitzgerald is inextricably bound up with the life of the John T. Irwin himself. Irwin’s career has been spent teaching and writing and researching and publishing about literature and writers. His career is now topped off by this unique study, which is the third volume in a trilogy that includes his prior book on poet Hart Crane and a dual-study of Poe and Borges in relation to their innovations as writers of detective stories.
“Fitzgerald’s work has always deeply moved me,” John T. Irwin tells readers right away. Irwin goes on to say: “And this is as true now as it was fifty years ago when I first picked up The Great Gatsby. I can still remember the occasions when I first read each of his novels; remember the time, place, and mood of those early readings, as well as the way that each work seemed to speak to something going on in my life at that moment.”
It is for those and other reasons that this book assumes a lyrical, persuasive, all-absorbing tone. The reader who comes to this book knowing Fitzgerald’s work only by way of assigned readings in high school or college English classes will be treated to a smorgasbord of intelligent insights, astute analyses, and most of all a sweeping survey of one author’s canon. And the passion that John T. Irwin still feels for the value, integrity, and validity of Fitzgerald’s fiction illuminates the narrative.
The book is divided into six densely textured, highly compelling chapters with titles that indicate John T. Irwin’s thematic preoccupations. In chronological order, the six chapters are: “Compensating Visions in The Great Gatsby”; “Fitzgerald as a Southern Writer” (true, Fitzgerald hailed from Minnesota, but his writings were steeped in the life-transforming experiences he had in the U. S. Army of the World War One era, down South, where Zelda was raised); “The Importance of ‘Repose’ ”; “ ‘An Almost Theatrical Innocence’ “; “Fitzgerald and the Mythical Method”; and, finally, “On the Son’s Own Terms.”
All academic discussions aside, what truly animates this valuable book is the idiosyncratic personal passion that John T. Irwin retains for Fitzgerald’s work.
“Because the things that interested Fitzgerald were the things that interested me,” Irwin writes, “and because there seemed to be so many similarities in our backgrounds, his work always possessed for me a special, personal authority; it became a form of wisdom, a way of knowing the world, its types, its classes, its individuals.”
Surely we have all had a similar kind of passion for one powerful writer, whose works somehow convey to us such an array of information. Whether it’s James Baldwin or Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison or Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison or William Styron, or Truman Capote or anyone else . . . the great common factor is that a top-tier writer’s life’s work lives on long after the author has come and gone.
And the ultimate value of a book like this one is that it leaves the reader wanting to go to the nearest library or bookstore and to load up on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction.
As such, this capstone to John T. Irwin’s trilogy on American authors is sublime.
(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review.)