Scott Donaldson: Fool for Love, F. Scott Fitzgerald; Congdon & Weed; New York.

Love, popular culture endlessly reminds us, makes the world go round. But since the cultural sphere now seems to be wobbling erratically in its orbit, a sensible observer might suspect that something is amiss in this rotary force. As citations in the Oxford English Dictionary well illustrate, love was formerly more truly “a many splendored thing” than it is today. For centuries, the word often signified the freely avowed loyalty of man to man, with no hint of homosex­ual perversion: a true knight loved his king and countrymen as fully as he loved his lady. Formerly, love also frequently denoted the beneficent regard of God for His creatures, and of the devout for their Deity. Now a­ days, love has in common usage shriveled into one meaning­–erotic attachment between two people (usually, but not always, of the opposite sex). Left behind is the word’s moral and religious heritage.

Though this semantic narrow­ing has been long developing, it accelerated dramatically during the 1920’s, with harmful consequences well illustrated in the life and art of the Jazz Age’s most gifted chronicler,  F. Scott Fitzgerald. As Scott Donaldson shows in Fool for Love, Fitzgerald, at the same time celebrated, feared, and fell victim to the “revolution  in morals” during the 1920’s. Leav­ing behind the love of God found in Catholicism, Fitzgerald sought to make romanticized sexual love the basis for his new credo in life and art. “I am always searching for the perfect love,” he told Laura Guthrie. In litera­ture this quest elevated the “golden girl over whom hung an aura of money, beauty, and social position” to a quasi-divine status for such hopelessly idealistic protagonists as Jay Gatsby. In life this meant first a disastrous marriage to the untamable Zelda Sayre, and then (with an insane Zelda institutionalized) a string of adulterous affairs about which Fitzgerald felt acutely guilty, but which he felt compelled to con­tinue. “Fitzgerald,” observes Donaldson, “needed the love of women, and the acceptance and approval that came with it.” However, as his alcoholism, his emotional instability, and his perpetual belligerence suggest, he needed something more as well. He needed the consola­tions accessible only through an older, less  romantic but more moral and religious love. Such consolations he never found. In such late works as Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald evinced a growing awareness that the single-minded pursuit of roman­tic love was inexorably destruc­tive. But in life he found little but despair to replace that pursuit. Professor Donaldson strains to make.a sober last year and an uneven, uncompleted last novel show that Fitzgerald had come to understand that his salvation lay in doing his work as a writer. But a man who could write, two months before his death, that “life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat” is one, like the protagonist of Tender is the Night, who had never found the “perfect love” among women and had been de­stroyed in the search. (BC)