BRIGHT STAR, GREEN LIGHT: THE BEAUTIFUL WORKS AND DAMNED LIVES OF JOHN KEATS AND F. SCOTT FITZGERALD by Jonathan Bate, Reviewed by Michael Theune
 


BRIGHT STAR, GREEN LIGHT: THE BEAUTIFUL WORKS AND DAMNED LIVES OF JOHN KEATS AND F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
By Jonathan Bate
(Yale, 2021) xiv + 415 pp.
Reviewed by Michael Theune on 2023-08-04.

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This is a deeply strange book. Jonathan Bate himself recognizes the idiosyncrasy of his dual biography, which forgoes "detailed 'cradle to grave' narratives" and instead brings the authors "back to life in the Plutarchan style: in parallel and by means of a highly selective series of anecdotes, moments and scenes that seem to [Bate] to come to [Keats and Fitzgerald's] essence and to reveal the wellsprings of their art" (5). I'm of two minds about this peculiar project. In one sense, Bright Star, Green Light is an engaging introduction to Keats's literary influence on Fitzgerald; as Bate makes clear, his book offers "a reading of Keats through the eyes of Fitzgerald and a Keatzian reading of Fitzgerald" (5). (Bate uses Fitzgerald's own eccentric spelling here.) However, in another sense--to borrow language from Keats's 19 February, 1818 letter to Reynolds--Bate ends up spinning "his own airy Citadel" from selected "points" of reference, and in the process weaves a "circuiting" which may be initially alluring but upon investigation is largely phantasmal and, when it comes to matters of fact and motivation, fraught.

Fitzgerald certainly loved Keats. This has long been well known; as Bate makes clear, "Biographers and critics have noted that John Keats was F. Scott Fitzgerald's favourite author" (3). Although it offers few details that will be news to Keatsians who have studied Fitzgerald closely, this book thoroughly probes the many facets of Fitzgerald's interest in Keats: the visceral, the thoughtful, and the artful. Himself seduced by Keats's poetry, Bate contends, Fitzgerald used selections from the odes to help him seduce at least two women, Lottie Stephens and Sheilah Graham (283; 315). In offering detailed insight and instruction to his daughter Scottie, he often cited Keats as a model of literary excellence (291-2; 318). The reading list for what he called a "College of One" (for Sheilah Graham) features a number of Keats's poems and Sidney Colvin's biography, which tells us essentially what Fitzgerald knew about the poet's life and thought (316-18). Finally, much of Fitzgerald's fiction evokes Keats. He takes from "Ode to a Nightingale" the title of his last novel, Tender is the Night (1934); Gatsby's lavish exhibition of shirts drawn from his closet--"'shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange'"--recall the feast laid out for Madeline by Porphyro in The Eve of St. Agnes (1820) (211); and among the images shared by the poet and the novelist are the nightingales that flit through Fitzgerald's work.

Though Fitzgerald's interest in and admiration for Keats is clear, noting such relatively obvious connections is not enough for Bate. While other critics cite "particular passages," Bate aims to chart "the full extent of the influence" (3) of Keats on Fitzgerald. But to do so, he often spins spider threads such as this:

Keats's very first poem would be an "Imitation of Spenser". Instead of a sea-shouldering whale, it had a gliding swan, oaring himself along, with "jetty eyes", while "on his back a fay [fairy] reclined voluptuously". Words often drift, swan-like, into a writer's unconscious. In The Great Gatsby, a Fay [Daisy Buchanan's family name--my note] would recline voluptuously on a sofa and eyes would look with longing towards a jetty. (12)

This kind of procedure--through which Bate attempts to tightly bind Keats and Fitzgerald via approximation and posited sublimations--occurs regularly throughout Bright Star, Green Light. Bate likens Sidney Colvin's biographical technique of offering "a sequence of lengthy quotations of anecdotes written by people who knew and loved [Keats]" to the way "Fitzgerald recycled material from his short stories into his novels" (106). He correlates the turn to the sleet on a window at the climax of The Eve of St. Agnes with the camera work "in the movies produced under the Hays code when Fitzgerald was working in Hollywood" (152). According to Bate, "The ground is laid for Gatsby as Fitzgerald shares [an] apprehension of Keats's friend Hazlitt in his essay 'Why Distant Object Please'" (163)--even though it's not clear that Fitzgerald ever read that specific essay. Even the book's title is made of such stuff; after briefly discussing Keats's "Bright Star" sonnet, which Fitzgerald knew and admired, Bate writes:

Gatsby first appears on his lawn in the moonlight, watching "the silver pepper of the stars". Below thse bright stars, he stretches out his arms towards the dark water. Across the Sound, Nick sees "a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock". Gatsby has taken the house so he can see it. The bright star, denoting Fanny Brawne, has become the green light on Daisy's dock. (277)

This passage is not only strained, airbrushing "silver pepper" so that it turns "bright"; it's mistaken. To link the novel to the sonnet, Bate misreads the sonnet. Although its "bright star" has long been extratextually associated with Fanny Brawne, the "bright star" does not, in fact, "denote" her but rather serves as an imperfect mirror for the poet-speaker himself. If Fanny appears in "Bright Star," she is the sestet's "fair love" (l. 10).

Why is Bate so eager to Keatsianize Fitzgerald at the cost of such distortions? It turns out that Bate wants to revive these two authors, especially the more obviously problematic Fitzgerald, to bring them "back to life" (5), to resuscitate and rehabilitate their lives and works. In his Afterword he asks, "But why should we continue to read Keats 200 years after his death and Fitzgerald 100 years after he became the voice of the Jazz Age?" (332). These two, he answers, "are not of our time. In Keats, women are more often objects than subjects. In Fitzgerald, there is a repellent vein of racism ... and a tendency to glamorize wealth" (332).

Elsewhere Bate grapples with such problems. He acknowledges that Fitzgerald was, and remains, a vastly problematic figure: racist (115; 285), anti-Semitic (195), and prone to violence (285), he plagiarized his wife Zelda's literary output for his own purposes (67; 251). Keats fares only a bit better. Bate's Keats is the conventional quick developer--a poet whose "thinking," we are told (in a chapter on "Negative Capability),"was maturing at an astonishing pace " (126). At certain points, though, Bate's accounts of Keats's life and work are uncritically based on what Fitzgerald thought. Like Fitzgerald, Bate finds Keats simply mistaking Cortés for Balboa in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (44). Furthermore, Bate seems to believe that W. B. Yeats's "Ego Dominus Tuus" accurately portrays Keats as "'a schoolboy ... [w]ith face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window'" (qtd. 207-8). But besides taking Yeats's picture of Keats at face value, Bate ignores the rich critical debate over Keats's reference to Cortés. Sometimes Bate faults Keats without any prompting from Fitzgerald. According to Bate, for instance, the ending of The Eve of St. Agnes tacitly condones the use of "a date rapist's Rohypnol" (152). In short, Bate's Keats is virtually as problematic as Fitzgerald--and obviously needs redemption.

So what can redeem these authors--Keats and, especially, Fitzgerald? According to Bate, it's negative capability, which he has long mined for his previous scholarship and which serves as both an aim and a method for this book.

"Having . . . used Keatzian 'negative capability' as a touchstone for many of my own readings of Shakespeare," Bate writes, "I have more recently found myself asking which writer was shaped by Keats as Keats was shaped by Shakespeare?" (340). His answer is Fitzgerald, whom he connects to this lineage via negative capability. For Bate, The Great Gatsby (1926) "is not a documentary of the Jazz Age" but a demonstration of "Fitzgerald's growth into Keatzian negative capability" (205). In previous works such as This Side of Paradise (1920), Bate observes, "the protagonist is manifestly a version of the author himself, whereas in Gatsby Fitzgerald is 'capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason'" (205). Just after noting that "Gatsby's infinite capacity for hope is delusional and to be wondered at," Bate remarks: "'The test of a first-rate intelligence', Fitzgerald wrote some years later, in his reformulation of the principle of negative capability, 'is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function'" (205).

Besides his own longstanding love of negative capability, Bate has two more reasons to find it exemplified by the work of Fitzgerald. For contemporary readers, first of all, it's a well-known and greatly prized concept that has been used to explain Keats's multi-faceted aesthetics and practice. Traditionally, it denotes an aesthetics of disinterestedness, sympathetic imagination, and attention to the sensual that generates an intensity through which "all disagreeables evaporate," as Keats explains in the letter from late-December 1817 in which he coins the term. But since Fitzgerald lived before Walter Jackson Bate--no relation to Jonathan Bate--systematized and popularized the term, there is no mention of negative capability in Fitzgerald's public or private writings.

Secondly, I believe, Bate links Fitzgerald to negative capability because he thereby hopes to make his "disagreeables" evaporate. Although certain elements of Fitzgerald's life and work may have been reprehensible, Bate seems to think, his canonical work is absolved of taint by its negative capability.

Of course, there's no reason for contemporary readers to find this line of argument convincing. Connecting one (white, male, heterosexual) canonical author with another (white, male, heterosexual) author who came before him hardly redeems the later one. If such a case is to be made at all, it should be much more rigorous than the "highly selective" approach taken by Bate. Additionally, canonical books such as The Great Gatsby cannot be adequately assessed without reference to the non-canonical works that constitute their literary context and thus invite different definitions of literary greatness and the aims of art. In slighting this context as well as in being insufficiently rigorous, Bright Star, Green Light stops short of fully redeeming Fitzgerald.

Even Bate ultimately acknowledges this. At numerous points he notes that Keats and Fitzgerald may each prove problematic for contemporary readers. Yet his Afterword seems to sweep all such problems away. "If," he writes, "Keats was right in his belief that 'Negative Capability' is the quality that creates 'Achievement especially in Literature', then as literary biographers we should restrain the assumptions of our own time and seek instead to prove the work of our subjects 'upon our pulses', as if we had 'gone the same steps as the author'" (333-4). Furthermore, he writes, "Negatively capable biography will let other pens dwell on guilt and the miseries of historical prejudice" (334). Here, however, the negatively capable approach is Bate's. He uses it to redeem the problematic aspects of the life and work of Keats and Fitzgerald, but he takes no responsibility for doing so. In the end, he seems to throw up his hands, saying about Fitzgerald's racism what W. H. Auden says about "W. B. Yeats's sympathy for fascism": "'Time ... Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives'" (334).

But, of course, this is not really all that can be said. Rather, Bate found himself trapped by the limitations of his own approach. Though I'm not sure what can or should redeem Fitzgerald, a far more powerful effort to rethink and reassess Keats is Anahid Nersessian's Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse (2021), reviewed elsewhere on this site. A different kind of idiosyncratic, revolutionary undertaking, this book radically reconsiders the odes by putting them into new conversations. Reading "Ode on Grecian Urn" through the eyes of Fitzgerald, Bate highlights its second and third stanzas--the stanzas one might use to woo a lover, as Fitzgerald did with Sheilah Graham, and also the stanzas singled out by Sidney Colvin (189-90). But the poem is much more than these two stanzas, and, taken as a whole, is far more problematic than Bate acknowledges. Nersessian finds the poem's idealizations of sexual predation "singularly abhorrent" (Nersessian 43), and she also understands that its disturbingly patriarchal speaker "demand[s] ... that the aesthetic appeal of the urn cleanse and redeem the horror it depicts" (Nersessian 50). But she offers another way to construe the poem:

It is a critique, not a catechism: it does not want you to buy what its speaker is selling. It gives [Keats] a platform and waits, like the urn, to see how we will respond. Will we choose to believe in an art that launders pain and calls that an ethics? Or will we opt for something else, not knowing necessarily what it might be but certain it will involve the loss of something precious--an elegant idea, a charming conceit, a way of being effortlessly in the world? (Nersessian 55-6)

Ultimately, Bright Star, Green Light poses a problem for negative capability itself. Bate's is not the first negatively capable biography of Keats; at least one other is Stanley Plumly's Posthumous Keats (2008). Plumly's rendition of Keats--another "selective, angled 'personal biography,'" the kind Bate admires "[m]ore than any other" (342)--is also engaging and informative but also deeply troublesome in its fuzziness with facts and leads, upon closer inspection, to some significant dead-ends and contradictions. (See my "Contradictory Keats," a review of Plumly's book and also my "Negative Capability T Wang Dillo Dee", which develops my critique). Thus, it is becoming increasingly probable that negative capability--at least as traditionally formulated--is not the solution to the problems raised by Keats's poetry but is itself a significant part of the problem. Though precious and elegant, it may be dispensable--another disagreeable in need of evaporation.

Michael Theune is Robert Harrington Endowed Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at Illinois Wesleyan University.


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