Toward the end of his life F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notebook, “I talk with the authority of failure–Ernest with the authority of success. We could never sit across the table again.” Fitzgerald, who had recognized Ernest Hemingway as “an equal and my kind of idealist,” now watched as the talented young man he had championed in Paris in the 1920s eclipsed him in both fame and fortune. Hemingway, who had once turned to Fitzgerald for editing advice on The Sun Also Rises, now cruelly satirized his former friend in A Moveable Feast. Yet as Richard Lingeman observes, “slender filaments of nostalgia trailing back to the good times in Paris” still held them together. This fraught mixture of respect and contempt defined their relationship to the end. Following Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, Hemingway told his biographer Arthur Mizener, “I never had any respect for him” but then added, “except for his lovely, golden, wasted talent.”
The complexity of literary friendship is the subject of this perceptive, elegantly written study by Lingeman, a senior editor at The Nation who is also the biographer of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. The title, Double Lives, recalls Cicero’s observation that “A friend is, as it were, a second self.” In his pairings, Lingeman draws upon letters and journals to explore each writer’s need for understanding and recognition from another who shares his or her solitary and anxious vocation.
While rivalry poisoned the friendship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, many of these friendships, in their best moments, capture Cicero’s idea of a “second self.” Mark Twain and William Dean Howells gave each other editorial guidance and support throughout their long careers; Sarah Orne Jewett encouraged the younger Willa Cather to reconnect with Nebraska and discover her true sexuality. The 1850 meeting of a shy, reticent Nathaniel Hawthorne and a passionate, egotistical Herman Melville is described as an especially fortuitous moment in American literature. Despite their clashing personalities, Melville recognized himself in what he called Hawthorne’s “Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin.” They lived for a while as neighbors and would meet for long conversations over brandy and cigars. Lingeman writes that it was during this period of camaraderie and understanding that Melville found the confidence to plumb new depths in his “hell-fired novel” and complete his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. While they drifted apart with age–Melville increasingly jealous that Hawthorne’s “dark sun” had eclipsed his own reputation–Melville’s sorrow at his old friend’s death in 1864 was profound.
As readers we think of certain books as old friends. The great charm of Double Lives is that it reintroduces us to their authors, casting them in a fresh light. We learn that Melville loved to dress up and that, clad as a Spanish cavalier on horseback, he delighted Hawthorne and his son, Julian. We imagine Fitzgerald, Zelda and Hemingway together again in the early days, on a misguided rainy road trip in France in a car with no roof. We travel with heiress Edith Wharton on her exotic and opulent escapades across Europe with her great friend Henry James in tow, his company offering her an intellectual escape from her unbearable husband, Teddy. And we experience vicariously the warm affection of the young Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cassidy, who shared beds, drinks, drugs and women as they invented the Beat narrative.
The duel biographies in Double Lives reveal both the pitfalls and the promise offered by literary friendship. However, the greatest and most sustaining of these friendships are those that were able to transcend the rivalry of writing. Never was this truer than in the tender relationship between the younger Wharton and older James. Following the death of her great friend in 1916, Wharton wrote: “We who knew him well know how great he would have been if he had never written a line.”