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F. Scott Fitzgerald Thought This Book Would Be the Best American Novel Of His Time

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This piece originally appeared in The New Republic on August 20, 1951.

To the end of his life Scott Fitzgerald was puzzled by the comparative failure of Tender Is the Night, after the years he spent on it and his efforts to make it the best American novel of his time. He had started it when he was living on the Riviera in the late summer of 1925. At first he had worked in bursts and had put aside the manuscript for months at a time while he wrote his profitable stories for the Saturday Evening Post; but early in 1932 he had found a more ambitious plan for it and had gone into debt to work on it steadily until the last chapters were written and the last deletions made in proof. He had watched it grow from a short dramatic novel like The Great Gatsby to a long psychological or philosophical novel on the model of Vanity Fair, and then, as he omitted scene after scene, he had watched it diminish again to a medium-length novel, but one in which he was sure that the overtones of the longer book remained.

Nine years of his life had gone into the writing and into the story itself. Reading closely one could find in it the bedazzlement of his first summer at the Cap d’Antibes—for he could picture himself as Rosemary Hoyt in the story, besides playing the part of Dick Diver; then his feelings about money and about the different levels of American society; then his struggle with alcoholism and his worries about becoming an emotional bankrupt; then his wife’s illness and everything he learned form the Swiss and American doctors who diagnosed her case; then the bitter wisdom he gained from experience and couldn’t put back into it, but only into his stories; then darker things as well, his sense of guilt, his fear of disaster that became a longing for disaster—it was all in the book, in layers, like the nine buried cities of Troy.

When another writer went to see him at Rodgers Forge, near Baltimore, in the spring of 1933, Fitzgerald took the visitor to his study and showed him a pile of manuscript nearly a foot high. “There’s my new novel,” he said. “I’ve written four hundred thousand words and thrown away three-fourths of it. Now I only have fifteen thousand left to write and—" he stood there with a glass in his hand, then suddenly burst out, “It’s good, good, good. When it’s published people will say that it’s good, good, good.”

Tender was published in the spring of 1934 and people said nothing of the sort. It dealt with fashionable life in the 1920’s at a time when many readers wanted to forget that they had ever been concerned with frivolities; the new fashion was for novels about destitution and revolt. The book had some friendly and even admiring notices—like the one in the New Republic—but most reviewers implied that it belonged to the bad old days before the crash; they dismissed it as having a “clever and brilliant surface” without being “wise and mature.”

Nor was it a popular success as compared with Fitzgerald’s first three novels, which had been easier to write: in the first season it sold 12,000 copies; This Side of Paradise had sold 50,000 in a similar period. Presently the new book seemed to be forgotten, although it really wasn’t; it stayed in people’s minds like a regret or an unanswered question. “A strange thing is that in retrospect his Tender Is the Night gets better and better,” Ernest Hemingway told Maxwell Perkins, of Scribner’s, who was the editor of both novelists. In scores of midnight arguments that I remember, other writers discovered that they had the same feeling about the book.

Fitzgerald continued to brood about it, although he didn’t blame the public or the critics. It was one of the conditions of the game he played with life to accept the rules as they were written; if he lost point and set after playing his hardest, that was due to some mistake in strategy to be corrected in the future. He began looking for the mistake in Tender Is the Night.

In December, 1948, when he was in Hollywood and was drawing near the end of his contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he wrote to Perkins suggesting that three of his novels might be reprinted in one volume. This Side of Paradise would appear with a glossary that Fitzgerald planned to make of its absurdities and inaccuracies. Gatsby would be unchanged except for a few corrections in the text (they were penciled into Fitzgerald’s copy of the novel and some of them have still to be transcribed). “But I am especially concerned about Tender,” he added “—that book is not dead. The depth of its appeal exists—I meet people constantly who have the same exclusive attachment to it as others had to Gatsby and Paradise, people who identified themselves with Dick Diver. Its great fault is that the true beginning—the young psychiatrist in Switzerland—is tucked away in the middle of the book.”

The first edition of the novel had opened with the visit to the Cap d’Antibes of a young, moving-picture actress, Rosemary Hoyt, and her meeting with the circle that surrounded the Richard Divers. It was the summer of 1925 and Antibes was enjoying its days of quiet glory. Rosemary had been entranced with the Divers and their friends, had fallen in love with Dick in a pleasantly youthful and hopeless fashion and had become aware that there was some mystery about his wife. Then, on pages 151-212, the story had gone back to wartime Switzerland in order to explain the mystery by telling about young Dr. Diver’s courtship and marriage. “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” Fitzgerald said in his letter to Perkins, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.”

In the literary notebook that he was keeping Fitzgerald made a new outline for Tender in which he followed the changed order and divided the novel into five books instead of three. He also transferred the changes to his personal copy of the novel, which is now in the manuscript room of the Princeton University Library. The pages of that copy are cut from the binding and rearranged in the new order, and there are also many small changes and corrections in the text. On the inside front cover Fitzgerald has written in pencil:

“This is the final version of the book as I would like it.”

The question remains whether the final version as Fitzgerald would like it is also the best version of the novel. I was slow to make up my mind about it, perhaps out of affection for the book in its earlier form. The beginning of the first edition, with the Divers seen and admired through the innocent eyes of Rosemary Hoyt, is effective by any standards. Some of the effectiveness is lost in the new arrangement, where the reader already knows the truth about the Divers before Rosemary meets them. There is a mystery-story element in the earlier draft: something has passed between Nicole Diver and Mrs. McKisco that is shocking enough to cause a duel, and we read on to learn what Nicole has done or said. There is also the suggestion of a psychoanalytical case study: it is as if we were listening outside the analyst’s door while his two patients, Nicole and Dick, help him to penetrate slowly beneath their glittering surfaces.

But the mystery story ends when Rosemary discovers—on page 148 of the first edition—what Violet McKisco had seen in the bathroom at Villa Diana. The psychoanalytical case study is finished by page 212, when the reader has all the pertinent information about the past life of the Divers; but meanwhile half of the novel is still to come. That critics were right when they said that Tender broke in two after Rosemary left the scene. By rearranging the story in chronological order Fitzgerald tied it together. He sacrificed a brilliant beginning and all the element of mystery, but he ended with a better constructed and more effective novel.

One fault of the earlier version was its uncertainty of focus. We weren’t quite sure in reading it whether the author had intended to write about a whole group of Americans on the Riviera—that is, to make the book a social study with a collective hero—or whether he had intended to write a psychological novel about the glory and decline of Richard Diver as a person. We are certain in reading the final version that the novel is psychological, that it is about Dick Diver and that its social meanings are obtained by extension or synecdoche: Dick is the part that stands for the whole.

It has to be said that Fitzgerald could never have revised Tender into the perfect novel that existed as an ideal in his mind. He had worked too long over it and his plans for it had changed too often, just as the author himself had changed during the years since his first summer on the Riviera. To make it all of a piece he would have had to start over from the beginning and invent a wholly new series of episodes, instead of trying to salvage as much as possible from the earlier versions. No matter how often he threw his material back into the melting pot, some of it would prove refractory to heat and would keep its former shape when poured into the new mold. The whole Rosemary episode, being rewritten from sections of the manuscript that go back to 1925, would be a little out of key with the much-later-written story of Dick Diver as witnessed by himself and by his wife. But a novel has to be judged for what it gives us, not for its defects in execution, and Tender gives us an honesty of feeling, a complexity of life, that we miss in many books admired for being nearly perfect in form.

Moreover, in Fitzgerald’s final revision it has a symmetry that we do not often find in long psychological novels. All the themes introduced in the first book are resolved in the last, and both books are written in the same key. In the first book young Dr. Diver is said to be like Grant in his general store in Galena, waiting “to be called to an intricate destiny”; meanwhile he helps another psychiatrist with the case of Nicole Warren, an heiress suffering from schizophrenia, and learns that the Warrens have planned to buy a young doctor for her to marry. In the last book he finishes her cure, realizes that the Warrens have indeed purchased and used him—“That’s what he was educated for,” Nicole’s sister says—and is left biding his time, “again like Grant in Galena,” but with the difference that his one great adventure has ended.

When I read Tender in 1934 it seemed to me as to many others that the Rosemary section was the best part of it. The writing there was of a type too seldom encountered in serious American fiction. It was not an attempt to analyze social values, show their falseness, tear them down—that is a necessary attempt at all times when values have become perverted, but it requires no special imaginative vitality and Fitzgerald was doing something more difficult; he was trying to discover and even create values in a society where they had seemed to be lacking.

Rosemary with her special type of innocence offered the right point of view from which to reveal the grace and manners and apparent moral superiority of the Diver clan. The high point of her experience—and of the reader’s—was the dinner at Villa Diana, when “The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights.” Then came the underside of the Divers’ little world, as revealed in Abe North’s self-destructiveness and in what Violet McKisco had seen, and everything that followed seemed a long anticlimax or at best the end of a different story.

Coming back to the novel long afterward and reading it in the new arrangement I had a different impression. The Rosemary section had its old charm and even with something added, for it was now the evocation of an age first condemned, then forgotten and finally recalled with pleasure in the midst of harsher events; but the writing seemed to be on a lower level of intensity than the story of the hero’s decay as told in the last section of the novel. That becomes the truly memorable passage: not Dick as the “organizer of private gaiety, curator of a richly incrusted happiness”; not Dick creating his group of friends and making them seem incredibly distinguished—“so bright a unit that Rosemary felt an impatient disregard for all who were not at their table”; but another Dick who has lost command of himself and deteriorates before our eyes in a strict progression from scene to scene.

At this point Fitzgerald was right when he stopped telling the story from Dick’s point of view and allowed us merely to guess at the hero’s thoughts. Dick fades like a friend who is withdrawing into a private world or sinking to another level of society and, in spite of knowing so much about him, we are never quite certain of the reasons of his decline. Perhaps, as Fitzgerald first planned, it was the standards of the leisure class that corrupted him; perhaps it was the strain of curing a psychotic wife, who gains strength as he loses it by a mysterious transfer of vitality; perhaps it was a form of emotional exhaustion, a giving of himself so generously that he went beyond his resources, “like a man overdrawing at the bank,” as Fitzgerald would later say of his own crack-up; or perhaps it was something far back in his childhood that could only be discovered by deep analysis. We can argue about the causes as we can argue about the decline of a once-intimate friend, without coming to a fixed conclusion; but the point is that we always believe in Dick and in his progress in a circle from obscurity to obscurity. With our last glimpse of him stumbling to a high terrace and making a papal cross over the beach that he had found and peopled and that has now rejected him, his fate is accomplished and the circle closed.