I want to know more about the Hollywood Novel. I had an interest and read a few at one point, getting a sense of the main titles and developing a TBR list. And I remember breaking off in the middle of Day of the Locust and moving on to another topic, something else. I’m sure that What Makes Sammy Run (1941) was on the list of titles, but I don’t think that I put it on the TBR, and I don’t recall having any interest in looking at it, feeling like I knew enough about it. Some of my friends read it decades ago, and it was known as a half-primer, half-cautionary tale about going to work in the film business and the supposed ethical vacuum of the industry. It was a Fountainhead of blind Hollywood ambition and a dangerous book, especially for WLA Jewboys like myself and my group, a dark prophecy at least one of us was destined to fulfill, maybe more. The book itself was never something I cared to know about first hand.
But Budd Schulberg was a name and writing talent that loomed over the industry at midcentury (not unlike Henry Adams did over 19th century history, another current interest). On The Waterfront, even with its murky politics, is part of the basic vocabulary of American Cinema, but the film that stunned me just as I was leaning towards the film business was A Face in the Crowd (1957), a phenomenal companion piece to Schulberg’s earlier works about media, creativity and ambition. So I was in awe, and I knew that Schulberg, to use his beloved boxing as a metaphor–has anyone seen a copy of The Harder They Fall(1947–it doesn’t even have its own wiki entry)–, was a hard-punching heavyweight and yes, a contender, but I didn’t know his record very well.
The funny part is that I’m also in Hemingway mode these days, the shortest of hops away from F. Scott Fitzgerald. I knew enough about Fitzgerald’s story to have a vague sense of his screenwriting stumbles, and I even remember something about some sort of Ice Follies project. Maybe I skimmed over the story of Fitzgerald and Schulberg before, in an earlier life, and it didn’t make an impression. It might have even been when my interest in Hollywood was just starting, in its first flicker, around the time I read the Pat Hobby stories and The Last Tycoon. Not too long ago I was reading about his relationship with Sheilah Graham, and I watched some of Beloved Infidel. I never had much of an interest in Zelda, but I knew about the long, troubled gestation and background of Tender is the Night, and I thought I had the basics of the Scott and Zelda story, her death in the fire, etc. A book I never read, though I’ve wanted to, is The Crack-Up, Edmund Wilson’s posthumous compilation of Fitzgerald’s writing about his own decay and crash. That might have helped my cause. And I guess I never read through a Fitzgerald biography, although I carried around a soiled paperback Mizener for years without opening it, and I had the Bruccoli book too that I never read–where did that go?
There’s a big question, at the moment at least in my mind, which is more interesting or pertinent: Schulberg’s 1950 novel The Disenchanted, which tells the story of his trip to Dartmouth with Fitzgerald, ostensibly to work on a Winter Carnival project; or the historical material of the actual trip itself. Schulberg transformed the events into a really good, even a great novel. It’s extremely well-written, and the story and its structure and fabricated denouement all work perfectly, we might say more than a half-century later; the quibbles are minor, and the novel is a solid, serious, and completely successful work of fiction. It was a #1 bestseller, it’s a critically important text in the genre of the Hollywood Novel, and it’s a powerful advance and antidote of sorts to the searing, striking, and even sickening What Makes Sammy Run (I assume–hope to get back to you on that). But there’s a predominant consideration as one reads this novel: it’s about F. Scott Fitzgerald. This shit happened. And it’s about Schulberg too, in his youth, at the beginning of his career, and the story is about Schulberg’s literary hero-worship and ambition as much as anything else. The novel itself is fascinating, while the circumstances surrounding it, including its writing and reception, are perhaps even more so.
Where to begin, because there’s so much going on? I’m tempted to look at Sammy and Disenchanted as conscious antecedents of This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, Schulberg taking the models of his hero and mentor and converting them to his own world and generation. It’s important to note that Fitzgerald himself cued this sequence, because Schulberg had read The Last Tycoon before he wrote Sammy, and Fitzgerald’s manuscript (or that of his alter ego, Manley Halliday) and its significance plays a crucial role in the conclusion of The Disenchanted. The genre itself was pioneered and validated by the Master. Lots of work to be done there.
But instead I’ll focus on the circumstances and setting of the writing and publication of this book, in broad strokes because I don’t know the details as yet (which means I’m going to make all of my usual mistakes, that I may or may not clean up afterwards). The main thing is that in 1950, when this novel climbed the charts, Fitzgerald wasn’t Fitzgerald, or he wasn’t just yet, not in the sense that we know. I say “we” meaning my own dazed and confused 70s generation, getting well on now, along with the early baby-boomers perceding “us,” who came of age and changed the world in the 60s–anybody born around the time the book appeared, the years just before or afterwards. We all grew up with the sense that Fitzgerald and Hemingway were touchstone American authors, indispensable giants even with their many flaws and limitations, and simple entry level literature, especially for males. I find the development of literary reputation and canonization as interesting as anything, and my guess here is that The Disenchanted played a major role in the rehabilitation and presentation of Fitzgerald as an important literary figure. And that’s what this novel is about! It’s amazing. The subject of the novel is Halliday/Fitzgerald’s accomplishment and talent, in its ruins and advanced decay, mere vestiges of grandeur, but epic nonetheless (Broccoli’s biography is titled “Some Sort of Epic Grandeur”.) Yes, it’s Fear and Loathing, but it’s also the Boswell and Johnson version–or maybe just Johnson and Savage. It’s a great text for students of biography, written just after John Hersey had expanded creative non-fiction and New Journalism in 1946, much like Johnson did in 1744.
The job, then, is to line up the dates and do some research, on Fitzgerald’s biography, on Schulberg, and on the specifics of the revival of Fitzgerald’s reputation. One very profitable way to read The Disenchanted it would seem, however (and leaving Sammy/Paradise aside), is as a rewriting of The Great Gatsby, with Nick/Gatsby transmuted into Shep/Halliday. Nick Carraway is considered Fitzgerald’s crucial creation (by FSF himself? I’m not sure; I don’t remember), the dispassionate observer who enabled Fitzgerald to capture his own romanticism and disllusionment in mythic terms. Schulberg, as Shep, was the observer, and he used a ruined icon, the man himself, to write out the same story–of disenchantment. Good stuff. I had a great time learning about and working through Richard Yates’ obsession with Fitzgerald, but Schulberg lived it, and wrote about it even more directly. It’s gonna be fun.