Thorough biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald corrects many of the myths
Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 624 pp. $25.
There was always something fabulous about F. Scott Fitzgerald. From his swift rise to fame with the publication of ''This Side of Paradise'' (1920) to his long spiral into near-oblivion, the life was replete with legend. True, he overdramatized everything: the rise wasn't quite as spectacular nor the oblivion as total as he made them seem.
Ironically, the most fabulous happening of all is the fame that has come to him since his passing. After a revival of interest in his work during the 1950s, his books have sold over 8 million copies. ''The Great Gatsby'' still sells 300, 000 copies a year. And in addition to his own books, there have been two important biographies and a spate of memoirs.
Now comes a third biography, the climax of Prof. Matthew Bruccoli's 30-year quest for every relevant fact and figure. What the professor seeks to do in 624 pages was stated somewhat more concisely by Stephen Vincent Benet as far back as 1941. In reviewing Fitzgerald's unfinished posthumous novel ''The Last Tycoon,'' Benet wrote: ''You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation - and seen in perspective it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.''
In his quest Bruccoli sets up the old image of Fitzgerald as an ''uncritical reveler'' who ''scribbled his masterpieces during a lifetime bender,'' the stereotype of Scott and his wife, Zelda, as the Jazz Age incarnate and the sacrificial victims of the Depression. Then he moves on to show how these began to be replaced 30 years ago, as the revival refocused interest. Bruccoli then reinforces the familiar highlights and shadows of the uneven life and unfortunate marriage already known to many.
Yet there were still some lacunae for Bruccoli to fill. For example, Andrew Turnbull's 1962 biography, firsthand and affectionate, was sketchy on the Hollywood years. Now, with Bruccoli's work, the record is complete. We learn what Fitzgerald was paid for every one of his 160 magazine stories. We are told the provenance of the dust jacket of ''Gatsby,'' and the kind of pills Scott took for insomnia.
With a hitherto unpublished transcript of a session with a Baltimore psychiatrist as text, we listen to Scott and Zelda yowling at each other like alley cats for the destruction each had wrought. (It might be noted here that Bruccoli does not attempt his own psychiatric interpretations of Fitzgerald. Despite his use of certain rather odd-sounding words like ''intra-psychic,'' ''ontogeny'' and ''echolalia,'' his whole approach is that of a researcher, with more than a touch of the pedant and a perfectly controlled admiration for Fitzgerald as a writer.)
Is Bruccoli's journey really necessary? The answer is an unqualified yes. Despite his professed admiration, the biographer maintains an admirable restraint. The nearest he comes to an actual appraisal is an oft-repeated assertion that Fitzgerald was a hard-working professional despite his addiction to alcohol: ''Amidst the echolalia of his parties, there was a quest for values operating in his work. As the Twenties lurched or sprinted forward, Fitzgerald's warning notes become clearer. Yet the preacher was unable to heed his own sermons. He could only send out a message from within the hysteria. . . . By 1929 Fitzgerald knew that he had lost something. Not his genius, not his capacity to feel intensely, not even his capacity for work. He had lost his belief that 'life was something you dominated if you were any good.' ''
How Fitzgerald fought his way back to a domination if not of life at least of his craft is well told here. The silvery, magical ''Tender is the Night'' and the haunting ''Last Tycoon'' are the novels of these last years. By Fitzgerald's own story outlines, by quotes from the reviews, and apt selections from the matchless style itself, they are beautifully documented.
Scott Fitzgerald himself made the statement which supplies Bruccoli's title: ''I am not a great man, but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent, and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value, has some sort of epic grandeur.''
It is left for you and me to decide whether the claim is valid. It is the great virtue of the Bruccoli biography that we now have all the evidence in hand.