thomas wolfe vs. scott fitzgerald on writing, and the garden of allah: “putting in” and “taking out”


"Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer isnot only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoievsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers—and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out."

 

—from a letter by Thomas Wolfe to F. Scott Fitzgerald, July 26 1937

 

Fitzgerald to Wolfe, July 9, 1937:

 

Dear Tom:

 

I think I could make a good case for your necessity to cultivate an alter ego, a more conscious artist in you.  Hasn’t it occurred to you that such qualities as pleasantness or grief, exuberance or cynicism can become a plague in others?  That often people who live at a high pitch often don’t get their way emotionally at the important moment because it doesn’t stand out in relief?

 

Now the more that the stronger man’s inner tendencies are defined, the more he can be sure they will show, the more neccessity to rarify them, to use them sparingly.  The novel of selected incidents has this to be said that the greater writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe, (in this case Zola) will come along and say presently.  He will say only the things that he alone sees.  So Bovary becomes eternal while Zola already rocks with age.  Repression itself has a value, as with a poet who struggles for a nessessary ryme achieves accidentally a new word association that would not have come by any mental or even flow-of-consciousness process.  The Nightengale is full of that.

 

To a talent like mine of narrow scope there is not that problem.  I must put everything in to have enough + even then I often havn’t got enough.

 

That in brief is my case against you, if it can be called that when I admire you so much and think your talent is unmatchable in this or any other country.

 

Ever your friend,

 

Scott Fitzgerald

GOA_mainhouse.jpg
The former 8150-8152 Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights: Rumoured to be the inspiration for Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi . . . "They paved Paradise / And put up a parking lot."
 

 

From Wolfe’s July 26 response:

 

I’ll be damned if I’ll believe anyone lives in a place called “The Garden of Allah” . . .

 

I have read your letter several times and I’ve got to admit it doesn’t seem to mean much.  I don’t know what you are driving at or understand what you hope or expect me to do about it.  Now this may be pig-headed but it isn’t sore.  I may be wrong but all I can get out of it is that you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer from the writer that I am.

 

This may be true but I don’t see what I’m going to do about it, and I don’t think you can show me.  And I don’t see what Flaubert and Zola have to do with it, or what I have to do with them.  I wonder if you really think they have anything to do with it, or if it is just something you heard in college or read in a book somewhere.  This either-or kind of criticism seems to me to be so meaningless.  It looks so knowing and imposing but there is nothing in it. 

 

Why does it follow that if a man writes a book that is not like Madame Bovary it is inevitably like Zola? I may be dumb but I can’t see this. You say that Madame Bovary becomes eternal while Zola already rocks with age. Well this may be true—but if it’s true isn’t it true because Madame Bovary may be a great book and those that Zola wrote may not be great ones? Wouldn’t it also be true to say that Don Quixote or Pickwick or Tristram Shandy "become eternal" while already Mr. Galsworthy "rocks with age"? I think it is true to say this and it doesn’t leave much of your argument, does it? For your argument is based simply upon one way, upon one method instead of another. And have you ever noticed how often it turns out that what a man is really doing is simply rationalizing his own way of doing something, the way he has to do it, the way given him by his talent and his nature, into the only inevitable and right way of doing everything—a sort of classic and eternal art form handed down by Apollo from Olympus without which and beyond which there is nothing. Now you have your way of doing something and I have mine, there are a lot of ways, but you are honestly mistaken in thinking that there is a "way."

 

I suppose I would agree with you in what you say about "the novel of selected incident" so far as it means anything. I say so far as it means anything because every novel, of course, is a novel of selected incident. You couldn’t write about the inside of a telephone booth without selecting. You could fill a novel of a thousand pages with a description of a single room and yet your incidents would be selected. And I have mentioned Don Quixote and Pickwick and The Brothers Karamazov and Tristram Shandy to you in contrast to The Silver Spoon or The White Monkey as examples of books that have become "immortal" and that boil and pour. Just remember that although in your opinion Madame Bovary may be a great book, Tristram Shandy is indubitably a great book, and that it is great for quite different reasons. It is great because it boils and pours—for the unselected quality of its selection. You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoievsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

 

—All letters excerpted from Ted Mitchell (ed.), Thomas Wolfe: An Illustrated Biography (2006) 

“those beat people just about drove us crazy!”

—Jerry Hulse, "Beatniks Beat Bongos in Basement, Hearing Told," Los Angeles Times, 29 August 1959, sec. 1, p. 2. From the L.A. Times blog.