F. Scott Fitzgerald on Joseph Conrad
Rude, Donald W., Conradiana
Critics of F. Scott Fitzgerald have long postulated that the author was greatly influenced by works of Joseph Conrad and that Fitzgerald's use of a character as the narrator of The Great Gatsby reflects Joseph Conrad's use of Marlow as the narrator in such works as Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Chance. (1) Because of the possible influence of Conrad on Fitzgerald, who did admit the influence of the author to H. L. Mencken (Turnbull, 482), the discovery of a previously unreported laudatory commentary on Conrad by the younger American writer has more than casual interest. Fitzgerald expressed his admiration for the British novelist in the spring of 1923, during the early part of Conrad's only visit to the United States. His comments appeared in a column entitled "Confessions," which was a regular feature of the literary page of the Saturday edition of The Chicago Tribune. Each week, Fanny Butcher, the literary editor of the newspaper, invited a famous writer to identify the book which they most wished they m ight have written.
Fitzgerald's letter to Miss Butcher appeared in this column on May 10, 1923. He wrote:
Dear Miss Butcher:
I'd rather have written Conrad's "Nostromo" than any other novel. First because I think it is the greatest novel since "Vanity Fair" (possibly excluding "Madame Bovary") but chiefly because "Nostromo," the man intrigues me so much. Now the Nostromo who exists in life and always has existed, whether as a Roman centurion or a modern top sergeant, has often crept into fiction, but until Conrad was there to ponder over him, he was dismissed superficially and abruptly by those who most admired his efficient handling of the proletariat either in crowds or as individuals. Kipling realized that this figure with his almost autocratic disdain of weakness, is one of the most powerful props of the capitalistic system, and under various names he occurs in many of Kipling's stories of Indian life-but always as a sort of glorified servant. The literary attitude toward him has been that of an officer sitting in his club during drill.
"Well, I've got nothing to worry about. Sergt. O'hare has the troop and"--this with a patronizing condescension--"I believe he knows just about as much about handling them as I do."
Now Conrad didn't stop there. He took this man of the people and imagined him with such completeness that there is no use of any one else pondering over him for some time. He is one of the most important types in our civilization. In particular that always made a haunting and irresistible appeal to me. So I would rather have dragged his soul from behind his astounding and inarticulate presence than written any other novel in the world.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (2)
The commentary is tantalizing, for it suggests Fitzgerald's awareness of Conrad's vision of a figure that had been developed in a more conventional manner by some of his major contemporaries. We could wish, however, for a more detailed commentary on Fitzgerald's part, one suggesting how he felt his admiration of Conrad's book had shaped his own artistic vision. Nonetheless, this brief expression of admiration is important, because it offers published testimony of the young American writer's admiration for the Anglo-Polish master.
This note reports on one of more than one hundred items published in the United States during Joseph Conrad's visit to this country in 1923. …