I thought I knew F. Scott Fitzgerald because I’d read The Great Gatsby, discarded Tender Is the Night, and heard Hemingway tell how drunk he would get in Paris.
I did not know F. Scott Fitzgerald.
One day, a writer friend told me Fitzgerald is one of his favorite writers. “Why?” I asked. He told me about The Crack-Up.
The Crack-Up refers to a collection of essays, and one essay in the collection, originally published in three parts in Esquire. I’m referring to that one essay, the best personal essay I’ve ever read. It begins with the happy thought, “Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” and gets darker from there.
It feels like you’re peering into someone’s journal. An individual’s conversation with himself. A personal reckoning.
He begins by telling us what he believed to be true as a young man, when he was relatively untroubled and the “big problems of life seemed to solve themselves.”
It seemed then that “Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both.”
But things shifted; the structural damage wrought by life’s various car crashes revealed itself. The “blows that do the dramatic side of the work” were galvanized by the “blow that comes from within.”
He had a crack-up.
I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.
The writing is, in short, superb. Equally remarkable are the ideas in the essay, Fitzgerald’s poignant reflections on paying the price for a heedless and hedonistic young adulthood. And what it’s like to witness your own decline.
The essay is powerful because it’s real. You have the sense of filterless communication. The Crack-Up is about the author falling apart, and telling you about it. He’s weary, exhausted, depressed, disillusioned. There’s no energy left for insincerity. Fitzgerald is telling us the unblinking truth.
I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking, I saw that even my love for those closest to me was become only an attempt to love, that my casual relations – with an editor, a tobacco seller, the child of a friend, were only what I remembered I should do, from other days.
It’s an intimate and unvarnished and uncomfortable window into one of the United States’s most famous writers.
Fitzgerald died four years after writing The Crack-Up, at the unripe age of 44.
Read it: “The Crack-Up,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Esquire (1936).