The Blade and the Gambler: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Mailer

Article excerpt

If the years since the war had not been brave or noble in the history of the country ... why then did it come as surprise that people in publishing were not as good as they used to be, and that the day of Maxwell Perkins was a day which was gone, really gone, gone as Greta Garbo and Scott Fitzgerald? ... there was no room for the old literary idea of oneself as a major writer, a figure in the landscape The day was gone when people held on to your novels no matter what others might say. (Mailer, Advertisements 233)

Here, in Advertisements for Myself, Norman Mailer laments the loss of what seemed to him a past world of publishing values, which he takes also as an index of a larger American culture of declining values and standards. His critique dismisses the academic essayists, creatures of the emerging system, whose "lack of the critical faculty" was both product and cause of what he saw as a new norm of enervation in American literature which had developed with the rise of mass culture since the war ended in 1945: "too lumpy for the particular" (233). F. Scott Fitzgerald, like John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe, is seen as belonging to a prelapsarian age that existed before what Mailer presented as the indecent collapse of American literary culture into a debased new order. By mid-century that age was "gone, really gone," replaced by an emerging world of corporate slavery, in which writers were ill-served by craven lumpenkritik, themselves both product and servants of the mass society that was "expert on the aggregate" and "masticate[d] the themes of ten writers rather than approach the difficulties of any one" (233). His epiphanic recognition that the idealism of the 1920s had declined into a post-1945 diminishment of values is one that informed the innovative autobiography that was Advertisements for Myself, easily conflating his own misfortune with that of the American century, with both growing up into the perils and cynicism of maturity. As Mailer puts it in the "Fourth Advertisement for Myself: The Last Draft of The Deer Park" "My adolescent crush on the profession of the writer had been more lasting than I could have guessed. I had even been so simple as to think that the kind of people who went into publishing were still most concerned with the few writers who made the profession not empty of honor, and I had been taking myself seriously, I had been thinking I was one of those writers" (234). The "Preface" to Advertisements is nothing if not confessional as Mailer owns up to what he regards as the fault besetting his early novels:

I did not know what I was doing. Apart from the psychological vertigo that will attack any athlete, performer, or young entrepreneur who has huge early success, I had my own particular problem, a beauty-I did not know my metier. The Naked and the Dead had been written out of what I could learn from reading James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos, with good doses of Thomas Wolfe and Tolstoy, plus homeopathic tinctures from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Melville, and Dostoyevsky. With such help, it was a book that wrote itself. (Spooky 74)

The inclusion of F. Scott Fitzgerald in this group is only one of the first of many such references to a writer whose influence upon Mailer's aesthetic as it developed throughout the 1950s was significant and shaping. Fitzgerald's final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, had most certainly informed The Deer Park in its Hollywood setting and subject matter as well as its style. Mailer's self-lacerating recognition that he was not, could not be part of that stellar group, was a crucial definitional aspect of his radical development as remembered in Advertisements, "a book whose writing changed my life" (76) and which he identified as "the first work I wrote with a style that I could call my own" (74). Advertisements for Myself can be regarded as one his most definitive style sheets, a complex blend of ideology, politics and autobiography mobilized through essay, short fiction, poetry, literary and cultural criticism and journalism. …