The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘Early Success’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

On the essays shelf:

The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What an illuminating and honest essay. It is perhaps one of his most famous, and most often quoted. Fitzgerald’s first novel was published when he was 24 years old, fresh out of Princeton. Not only was it a hit, it was a smash hit, one of those books that ended up defining an era. It doesn’t happen often that way, and of course Fitzgerald knew his good fortune. He knew how rare his situation was. To be, at 24, so important a voice that his entire reading public was waiting with baited breath to see what he would write next. The following years were rather bumpy, although the strength of the sales of his first book were so strong (and continued to be so), that he could live in Europe, he could travel, he could buy houses and apartments, while many of his contemporary writer friends were living in cold-water walk-up flats and struggling to get a poem published. He, in one fell swoop, jumped to the head of the line.

While other writers have tackled the topics Fitzgerald does in his other essays (insomnia, depression, New York), I can’t think of another essay about “early success”. Perhaps because there are so few people who achieve it. It’s a rarity. It puts you in rare company, you are high above the fray. It is a great blessing, but as Fitzgerald expresses here, it can also be a trap. It is so interesting to have his perspective on such a rare thing, and of course his perspective comes with clarity and honesty. He does not complain. That would certainly be bad form, when you have clearly been so blessed. But that is one of the pitfalls of early success that he breaks down for us. It’s an interior pitfall. Since you “made it” so young, you have a belief that it was destined, you don’t have the same perspective as someone who struggled in the trenches of obscurity before finally hitting paydirt at 35 or 40 (the usual age when most writers “hit it big”). Your situation is unique. You may be a writer, like all your pals, but your perspective on things will be different.

Of course when talking about early success, it makes me think of someone else.

Any insight you may want to glean from what it felt like to be a 19-year-old virgin truck driver who, in a month’s time, found himself on the map (and not only on the map, but changing the map entirely), is here in Fitzgerald’s essay.

Fitzgerald, despite his time in Europe, is the most American of writers. He has so much to say about America: every line, every phrase, every thought and philosophy comes from a deeply national place. It’s still quite extraordinary to read his stuff now. We still have things to learn from him.

And Elvis, while he eventually got the love of billions of people around the globe, and while his story touches people from all different cultures, is a deeply American phenomenon. He seemed to understand that himself. Only in America could his journey have occurred. He had lots of reasons to be angry at his country of birth. Poverty is no fun. His father was imprisoned for altering a check when he was a baby. His mother worked her fingers to the bone. None of this was fair. America can be very unfair. But … but … the American dream, that you can make it if you just want it hard enough, you can change your circumstances if you work hard enough, was made manifest in Elvis Presley’s life. He loved America. When the call came for him to serve, at the height of his new fame, he uncomplainingly went off to serve. He would never have forgiven himself if he had somehow gotten out of the service, using his celebrity to do so. That would not have been right for Elvis. American had given him so much, America had given him everything.

Those who like their patriotism spiked with cynicism will be dismayed by Elvis. John Lennon stated that Elvis died when he went into the Army. Of course we all know that that was not true.

What happens to someone when they find “early success” has never been expressed before, not like Fitzgerald expressed it here. The essay is worth reading in its entirety, but I will just post the most famous passage. So much to think about here. And think about Elvis too when you read this. It’s relevant.

The Crack-Up, ‘Early Success’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Counting the bag, I found that in 1919 I had made $800 by writing, that in 1920 I had made $18,000, stories, picture rights and book. My story price had gone from $30 to $1,000. That’s a small price to what was paid later in the Boob, but what it sounded like to me couldn’t be exaggerated.

The dream had been early realized and the realization carried with it a certain bonus and a certain burden. Premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will power – at its worse the Napoleonic delusion. The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining. The man who only asserts himself at thirty has a balanced idea of what will power and fate have each contributed, the one who gets there at forty is liable to put the emphasis on will alone. This comes out when the storms strike your craft.

The compensation of very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. In the best sense one stays young. When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascinating, I had fair years to waste, years that I can’t honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea. Once in the middle twenties I was driving along the High Corniche Road through the twilight with the whole French Riviera twinkling on the sea below. As far ahead as I could see was Monte Carlo, and though it was out of season and there were no Grand Dukes left to gamble and E. Phillips Oppenheim was a fat industrious man in my hotel, who lived in a bathrobe – the very name was so incorrigibly enchanting that I could only stop the car and like the Chinese whisper: “Ah me! Ah me!” It was not Monte Carlo I was looking at. It was back into the mind of the young man with cardboard soles who had walked the streets of New York. I was him again – for an instant I had the good fortune to share his dreams, I who had no more dreams of my own. And there are still times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county. But never again as during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment – when life was literally a dream.

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10 Responses to The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘Early Success’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  1. Kent says:

    I love that Fitzgerald invokes Napoleon. It makes me think of Kubrick, also a man who achieved early and extraordinary success. Fitzgerald, Elvis, Kubrick… all deeply intelligent men whose errors are still almost incomprehensible… except… perhaps only to themselves. In the annals of unrealized ambition, Elvis as Norman Maine in A Star Is Born, and Kubrick’s Napoleon have to be two of the greatest never to be. Then ther is Monroe Stahr.

    • Kent says:

      (there) oops :)

      • sheila says:

        It’s interesting isn’t it – I love how you brought up Kubrick. His early success seemed to give him an almost reckless and fierce belief in himself – because why wouldn’t it? It’s hard to generalize about these things – but I think it’s very interesting to look at these weird singular phenoms: what do they know that we don’t?

        Of course there’s a certain amount of luck in any success – but it’s not ALL luck.

        It’s also what you do with it once you have it.

        and yes, great early success also goes hand in hand with titanic disappointments – stuff that mere mortals cannot understand. A Star Is Born. :(

        • Kent says:

          Yes, I’m very stuck by Kubrick after seeing an exhibit of many aspects of his working life, and all of his movies at LACMA. He was planning to cast Jack Nicholson as Napoleon, and Nicholson had agreed. They had begun discussions in the mid 1970s.
          I mean appointing oneself Emperor is a rational response if you are Napoleon. Where else could he go? Brilliant though he was… he blew it and suffered. It almost plays like a natural organic life pendulum… and in any case makes for great narrative.
          I think incredible narrative drive of these stories condition people to invest very heavily in stories like the Elvis myth of self destruction in his final years. Monroe too. It is expected. Elvis WAS King. Somebody like Clara Bow, who stays home and watches TV and drive-in movies with her nurse just doesn’t feed the national hunger for downfall personified.

  2. sheila says:

    and I agree with your last comment. Such blazing stars require brilliant flame-outs.

    • Kent says:

      Yes, flame-out is particularly American. I guess because other nations provide centuries of mythological continuity with their Monarchs, and we have movie and rock stars.
      Kubrick came very close to production of Napoleon. He had done all the location scouting, prepared a shooting script and an unbelievably detailed shot list. It’s all on display at the exhibit. He also had a card file which accounted for every single day of Napoleon’s life. Also on display. His research library for the project is also on display. A GARGANTUAN free standing bookcase. You would love that one, Sheila. Hours of spine reading alone.

  3. sheila says:

    // He also had a card file which accounted for every single day of Napoleon’s life. //

    Holy mackerel. It sounds like an incredible exhibit!

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