Quick literary trivia question. Which hard-drinking modernist writer of legendary fame served in the U.S. Army during World War I?
Hint: it’s not Ernest Hemingway. As a young man, Hemingway tried to enlist but was barred from service because of a defective eye. However much he would later look down on his frenemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, for being someone who “for his actions in civil life as a criterion… would probably have been re-classified or shot for cowardice,” Fitzgerald is the only one of the two who could boast—not that he did, at least on this account—of wearing his country’s uniform in wartime.
A student languishing on academic probation at Princeton, Fitzgerald joined the army during the Great War and received a commission in the infantry as a second lieutenant. Unsurprisingly, this career move seems not to have gone over well with his mother. In a letter written in November 1917, shortly after joining up, Fitzgerald snidely asked her to “please be nice and respect my wishes”:
About the army, please let’s not have either tragedy or Heroics, because they are equally distasteful to me. I went into this perfectly cold-bloodedly …
Fitzgerald concluded the letter with this line, “To a profound pessimist about life, being in danger is not depressing. I have never been more cheerful.”
Against his mother’s advice, Fitzgerald left Princeton without graduating. He reported to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and began his training. Around this same time he also began a novel, The Romantic Egoist, which he worked on “like mad” during the weekends before reporting back to the barracks on Sunday nights.
Using his connections on the East Coast, Fitzgerald submitted the novel to Charles Scribner’s Sons, who responded in August 1918 with a letter posted to Headquarters Company, 67th Infantry, Camp Sheridan, Alabama, where Fitzgerald was by then stationed. In the letter, Scribner’s praised qualities of The Romantic Egoist, while rejecting the book as it stood and requesting a rewrite (which Fitzgerald completed, and which Scribner’s also rejected). This correspondence, however, initiated Fitzgerald’s lifelong working relationship with Maxwell E. Perkins, the great editor who was then starting his own career.
The interest in his novel must have been a heady thing for young Lieutenant Fitzgerald, and the stars continued to align for him in other, more intimate ways during the summer of 1918. In the course of attending a dance held at the Country Club of Montgomery, he first met seventeen-year-old Zelda Sayre, a Southern belle in the old genteel tradition, who was voted both “Most Attractive” and “Prettiest” in her high school yearbook; whose father sat as a justice on the Alabama State Supreme Court; and who, legend has it, once inspired an entire fraternity at Auburn University to swear an oath of devotion to her.
Zelda, not one to shy away from the spotlight, performed a solo dance at the Montgomery country club as Lieutenant Fitzgerald looked on enthralled. No doubt wearing his wool service coat and sweating in the July heat, he must have been a sight almost to match her, respectably boozy and love-struck in the way peculiar to infantrymen soon bound for carnage overseas. He never had a chance. The story, “Southern Girl,” which was by-lined “F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald” and published a decade later in College Humor, dramatized the fateful season of their meeting:
“There weren’t enough girls to go around. Girls too tall or too prim for the taste of Jeffersonville were dragged from their spinsterly pursuits to dance with the soldiers and make them feel less lonely through the summer nights. You can imagine how the popular ones fared! Harriet’s sagging veranda was almost completely in uniform. It looked like a recruiting station.”
A few months later Fitzgerald left the South and reported to Camp Mills, Long Island, where he awaited passage to Europe—only to have the war end in November before his unit could ship out. In The Romantic Egoists—a “pictorial autobiography” compiled from family scrapbooks and named after the writer’s aforementioned early stab at a novel—it is said that Fitzgerald felt terribly unfulfilled to miss out on the war, a lost prospect that produced in him “a life-long sense of disappointment.”
Meanwhile, there was Hemingway. Undeterred, he had taken an alternative route to the front lines. He had made it there despite his bad eye after volunteering for the less discriminating (compared to Uncle Sam) Red Cross in France.
On July 8, 1918, at roughly the same time that Lieutenant Fitzgerald found himself feted by Zelda Sayre and the upper crust of Alabamian society, Hemingway was wounded by an Austrian mortar shell as he passed out chocolates to Italian combat troops gathered near a dugout. The exploding mortar knocked Hemingway unconscious and sprayed him with shrapnel. Two Italians died of their wounds, and a third man was reportedly saved by a dashing young ambulance driver who carried him on his back after having just regained consciousness himself. A witness to this act of heroism put Hemingway in for a valor award.
Convalescing in a hospital in Milan, Hemingway then revealed his own hopelessly romantic streak, falling in love with his older nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky. She returned his affections for a while before eventually doing the sensible thing and dumping him for an Italian officer with more rank and years under his belt. Hemingway was only nineteen. Nevertheless, this formative romance would figure prominently in his war novel, A Farewell to Arms, and Kurowsky’s rejection, like Fitzgerald’s regret about missing the war, was said to dog Hemingway for the rest of his life.
Hemingway’s insecurity about his own relatively modest combat experience surfaced outside his personal affairs, notably in his treatment of another writer who had served. In 1951, Hemingway wrote to his publisher after reading an advance copy of a book by yet another Scribner author, World War 2 veteran James Jones. About that novel, From Here to Eternity, Hemingway said, “It has fine qualities and greater faults. It is much too long and much too bitching and his one fight, against the planes, at Pearl Harbor day is almost musical comedy. He has a genius for respecting the terms of a kitchen and he is a K.P. boy for keeps and for always. Things will catch up with him and he will probably commit suicide…. To me he is an enormously skillful fuck-up and his book will do great damage to our country. Probably I should re-read it again to give you a truer answer. But I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs; nor suck a boil to know it is a boil; nor swim through a river of snot to know it is snot. I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales.”
Jones may not have known about Hemingway’s over-the-top insults, but his views of the older author were also part literary critique and part appraisal of military pedigree. Of Papa, Jones wrote, “You know what really ruined Hemingway? It was the 2nd war, when all the boys found out what war was really like.”
Here, Jones hints at a theme that appears again and again in the writing of both Hemingway and Fitzgerald: authenticity. Whatever one thinks of the two men, their books, or more to the point, their sometimes self-aggrandizing mythologies, it is hard not to marvel at these two extraordinary writers and their ill-fated love affairs, carried out on the home front and overseas—originating by way of sheer wartime chance, cemented by sheer force of will—and all in the summer of 1918.