Thursday, August 06, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg

The passing of Budd Schulberg at age 95 is getting a lot of press, surprisingly so since we don't much value writers in America. While most of the comments are flattering, there are a few that ask us to remember that Schulberg was a "friendly witness" when brought in front of HUAC in the Fifties. It is claimed, without much proof, that his testimony put an old friend or two behind bars. I'm nobody's idea of hero so I have to say that I have no idea how I would've reacted if I'd been dragged in front of those slime ball bastards who ran the committee. Faced with the end of my career or even prison, I don't know what I would've done.

If Schulberg's decision to talk is open to question, his work certainly is not. What Makes Sammy Run. On The Waterfront. The Harder They Fall. The masterful and all but forgotten Wind Across The Everglades. A Face in The Crowd. Wonderful American writing.

One novel that never gets much mention is The Disenchanted. This is a novel about a writer whose fame was lost to alcohol and fashion. The great artist is now a Hollywood hack working on a screenplay with a young writer who worships him. The writing takes them back to their old college where the older writer goes through alcoholic breakdown.

If you know anything about F. Scott Fitzgerald, you know this story is true. Schulberg was assigned to work on a piece of dreck called "Winter Carnival" in the course of which he saw his idol come undone. There are two stories here, the tale of Fitzgerald's destructive love for Zelda and how the honor Schulberg felt for working with Fitzgerald turns to horror and pity (as pointed out in

I've often wondered if this novel failed to find a large audience because the more literary reviewers just didn't think it was possible for a writer of popular fiction (however important and occasionally profound) to understand a genius of Fitzgerald's caliber.

But the book is so powerful in places it hurts to read it. Line for line it's the best writing Schulberg ever did. No less a figure than Anthony Burgess wrote an essay about it and called it a masterpiece.

Along with the novel, I'd also recommend Schulberg's lengthy essay on Fitzgerald. It tells us far more about the man than all but a few of the many biographies written about him. Below is the link.


Michael S. Chong said...

Thank you for the link.

Strangely enough, I have been reading Schulberg's Sparring with Hemingway, a collection of his boxing writing and his experiences with Ernest Hemingway. When the two writers first met in Key West, Hemingway cornered and bullied the younger Schulberg questioning him about his knowledge of boxing. Later Hemingway became angered over The Disenchanted, feeling that Fitzgerald was his domain. For those who have read Moveable Feast, we know how Hemingway did by Fitzgerald's memory.

At the NYT, there's a video of Schulberg from 2006 discussing his trip with Fitzgerald among other things:

Anonymous said...

I tend to be gentle with people caught in the tumult of those times. Both Schulberg and Kazan believed they were doing the right thing; that communism was the larger threat. I can emphasize with all sides: those who thought capitalism was collapsing and joined the CP as well as those who saw Stalin's tyranny as the future they wanted no part of, and left-- like Dashiell Hammet. Schulberg was a socially sensitive storyteller, and they don't come any better. Let us celebrate the man. The nation and world are better because he lived and wrote. Indeed, we should be thankful that the Hollywood Ten managed to keep on writing, sometimes sub rosa.

Richard Wheeler

Joel Ostrow said...

I'm glad someone has noted this book. You can actually sense that Fitzgerald is talking and recalling his life and it's fascinating. I think Schulberg got so practiced mimicking Fitzgerald's elegnt voice, it flowed into the rest of the book's writing and the writing is beautiful.