Fitzgerald on Tender is the Night

While gearing up to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night,* I decided to take a look at Fitzgerald’s Contemporary Authors profile. It includes this brief excerpt from a letter Fitzgerald wrote to John Peale Bishop about the differences between Gatsby and Tender is the Night:

The intention in the two books was entirely different…. Gatsby was shooting at something like [William Makepeace Thackeray’s] Henry Esmond while [Tender Is the Night] was shooting at something like [Thackeray’s] Vanity Fair. The dramatic novel has canons quite different from the philosophical, now called psychological, novel. One is a kind of tour de force and the other a confession of faith. It would be like comparing a sonnet sequence with an epic.

The CA profile also reviews the changing critical reaction to Tender is the Night:

Fitzgerald received many letters from friends praising Tender Is the Night. Turnbull reported that Bishop, for example, wrote, “You have shown us what we have waited so long and impatiently to see, that you are a true, a beautiful and a tragic novelist.” And some reviewers, such as Gilbert Seldes in the April 12, 1934, New York Evening Journal who said that Fitzgerald had “written the great novel,” praised it too. But the majority of the critics were disappointed. William Troy, writing in the Nation for May 9, 1934, contended that Fitzgerald was merely repeating his earlier work, claiming, “Dick Diver turns out to be Jay Gatsby all over again…. And the repetition of the pattern turns out to be merely depressing.” Others criticized the novel’s structure. James Gray in the April 12, 1934, St. Paul Dispatch deemed Tender Is the Night a “big, sprawling, undisciplined, badly coordinated book.”

In 1938 Fitzgerald suggested a revised edition of Tender Is the Night. “It’s great fault is that the true beginning–the young psychiatrist in Switzerland–is tucked away in the middle of the book,” he wrote Perkins in a letter later published in Dear Scott, Dear Max. “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” Fitzgerald argued, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.” He revised his own copy by tearing out these pages and placing them at the beginning as well as making other changes. In the front of this copy, as noted in Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, Fitzgerald wrote: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” In 1951 Scribner published this revised version edited by Malcolm Cowley, but today the 1934 version is considered the standard text. As Bruccoli noted: “Whatever its flaws, the 1934 version has been vindicated by reader preference.”

Critical reaction to Tender Is the Night has also reversed itself, especially since Fitzgerald’s death, thus vindicating a 1935 statement by Ernest Hemingway; as reported in Dear Scott, Dear Max, Hemingway had written Perkins, “A strange thing is that in retrospect his Tender Is the Night gets better and better.” One recent explanation for the original disappointing reception has been suggested by Bryer in F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Critical Reception: “The world that greeted Tender Is the Night on April 12, 1934, was far different from that of 1920 or 1925. Readers who had been charmed earlier by the excesses and harmless eccentricities of Fitzgerald’s young people were now living through the deprivations caused by a depression. Their responses to a novel about wealthy expatriates cavorting on the Riviera were, predictably, varied, more so than to any other Fitzgerald book.”

* One of the writings included in The Portable Fitzgerald, which is also a Teachout fave.


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