I carried F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up around with me for almost ten years before I got around to reading it last month. It was one of those books that I felt I was literarily required to read, what with my affection for all things Fitzgerald — especially Gatsby. Once I got into the book, I found parts of it fairly impenetrable, which must have been Fitzgerald’s state of mind while writing some of the material, a posthumous hodgepodge of uncollected pieces, samplings of notebooks, and unpublished letters (both from and to the author).
An excellent companion piece to the book is the PBS American Masters documentary, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams, which draws heavily from The Crack-Up. The film, in its quest to simulate the elegance that its subject so desperately tried (and failed) to attain, unfortunately breezes over some key points in the writer’s life; but the DVD is well worth checking out (literally, either from your local library or Netflix). (PBS’s website makes up for some of these omissions with a nifty timeline that puts all of Fitzgerald’s accomplishments into context with the tragic goings-on in his life. It also offers some additional footage that does not appear in the film, most notably interviews with E.L. Doctorow and Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfront and who, as a young screenwriter, was rewritten by Fitzgerald.)
Originally written as three essays for Esquire in 1936, “The Crack-Up” was Fitzgerald’s baring of his soul, his confession, his mea culpa to the world at large for letting them — and himself — down. It begins: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside — the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”
The literary world at large found such brash honesty unseemly, and Ernest Hemingway especially was disdainful of his friend’s candor. But just as “The Crack-Up” essays unnecessarily confirmed that Hemingway was indeed a bastard, they also demonstrated that Fitzgerald could still write.
One of the most poignant and telling passages in The Crack-Up anthology appears in Fitzgerald’s 1932 essay about New York, “My Lost City.” Returning a couple of years after the stock market crash of 1929 (“I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives,” he writes, “but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days”), Fitzgerald found a new skyline awaiting him. The Empire State Building, all 103 floors and 1,454 feet, had risen out of the dust of the Big Crash. Fitzgerald “went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood — everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits — from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.”
Perhaps at that moment Fitzgerald discovered he had his limits, too, and that they were already in his past. One wonders how many times in the eight tortured years he had left, dealing with the insanity of Zelda and Hollywood, book sales all but evaporating, he looked back on that moment atop the Empire State Building and wished he had jumped.