Princetonian correspondence: Fitzgerald, Wilson, and Bishop

There are times throughout history when a group of young talented friends all go on to do great work. One of these groups formed at Princeton in the 1910s and consisted of three men who became famous writers – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, and John Peale Bishop. While their relationships changed throughout the years, their correspondence continued and today I want to look at Fitzgerald’s letter to to each of them, using quotes extracted from The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1963).

First, to Edmund Wilson.

The letters in this collection date back to 1917, when they were still in college together. The early letters are especially interesting as they speak often about literary dreams and influences. Here is a selection:

“I sent twelve poems to magazines yesterday. If I get them all back I’m going to give up poetry and turn to prose.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, September 26, 1917

“Do you realize that Shaw is 61, Wells 51, Chesterton 41, Leslie 31 and I 21? (Too bad I haven’t a better man for 31. I can hear your addition to this remark.)” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, Fall 1917

“I remind myself lately of Pendennis, Sentimental Tommy (who was not sentimental and whom Barrie never understood), Michael Fane, Maurice Avery and Guy Hazlewood.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, Fall 1917

“God! How I miss my youth – that’s only relative of course but already lines are beginning to coarsen in other people and that’s the sure sign. I don’t think you ever realized at Princeton the childlike simplicity that lay behind all my petty sophistication and my lack of a real sense of honor.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, January 10, 1918

“Since I last saw you I’ve tried to get married and then tried to drink myself to death but foiled, as have been so many good men, by the sex and the state I have returned to literature” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, August 15, 1919

“As a matter of fact I have never written a line of any kind while I was under the glow of so much as a single cocktail and tho my parties have been many it’s been their spectacularity rather than their frequency which has built up the usual “dope-fiend” story.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, January 1922

“I’m filled with disgust for Americans in general after two weeks’ sight of the ones in Paris – these preposterous, pushing women and girls who will assume that you have any personal interest in them, who have all (so they say) read James Joyce and who simply adore Mencken.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, Spring 1925

“If I had anything to do with creating the manners of the contemporary American girl I certainly made a botch of the job.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, Spring 1925

“… with Ernest I seem to have reached a state where when we drink together I half bait, half truckle to him; and as for bringing up the butcher boy matter – my God! making trouble between friends is the last thing I have ever thought myself capable of. Anyhow, plenty of egotism for the moment.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, March 1933

“In spite of the fact that we always approach material in different ways there is some fast-guessing quality that, for me, links us now in the work of the intellect. Always the overtone and the understatement.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, September 7, 1934

“It was fun when we all believed the same things. It was more fun to think that we were all going to die together or live together, and none of us anticipated this great loneliness, where one has dedicated his remnants to imaginative fiction and another his slowly dissolving trunk to the Human Idea.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, September 7, 1934

“I am still the ignoramus that you and John Bishop wrote about at Princeton. Though my idea is now, to learn about a new life from Louis B. Mayer who promises to teach me all about things if he ever gets around to it.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, May 16, 1939

“I think my novel is good. I’ve written it with difficulty. It is completely upstream in mood and will get a certain amount of abuse but is first hand and I’m trying a little harder than I ever have to be exact and honest emotionally. I honestly hoped somebody else would write it but nobody seems to be going to.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, November 25, 1940

And to John Peale Bishop

Much of the correspondence in this collection of letters to Bishop involve criticism of each other’s work. The March 1925 letter is an amusing bit of work written intoxicated, which begins simply, “I am quite drunk.” It’s much too long to quote here, but worth checking out. Here is a selection from these letters:

“No news except I now get $2000 a story and they grow worse and worse and my ambition is to get where I need to write no more but only novels.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, March 1925

“I’m too much of an egotist and not enough of a diplomat ever to succeed in the movies.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, April 1925

“The cheerfulest things in my life are first Zelda and second the hope that my book has something extraordinary about it. I want to be extravagantly admired again. Zelda and I sometimes indulge in terrible four-day rows that always start with a drinking party but we’re still enormously in love and about the only truly happily married people I know.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, April 1925

“You ought never to use an unfamiliar word unless you’ve had to search for it to express a delicate shade – where in effect you have recreated it. This is a damn good prose rule I think.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, Winter 1929

“The main thing is: no one in our language possibly excepting Wilder has your talent for “the world,” your culture and the cuteness of social criticism as implied in the story.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, Winter 1929

“I believe that the important thing about a work of fiction is that the essential reaction shall be profound and enduring. And if the ending of this one [Tender Is the Night] is not effectual I should be gladder to think that the effect came back long afterwards, long after one had forgotten the name of the author.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, April 2, 1934

“The dramatic novel had 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.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, April 7, 1934

“I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who developed to me, in conversation, that the dying fall was preferable to the dramatic ending under certain conditions, and I think we both got the germ of the idea from Conrad.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, April 2, 1934

“When you plant a scene in a book the importance of the scene cannot be taken as a measure of the space it should occupy, for it is entirely a special and particular artistic problem.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Peale Bishop, January 30, 1935

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