Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald

views updated

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald

The American author Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940), a legendary figure of the 1920s, was a scrupulous artist, a graceful stylist, and an exceptional craftsman. His tragic life was an ironic analog to his romantic art.

On Sept. 24, 1896, F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minn. His family was Irish Catholic, his mother's side wealthy. The family lived for some years in Buffalo and Syracuse; but in 1908, when Scott's father lost his job, they returned to St. Paul. For the most part, Scott was privately educated; he attended Newman School in Hackensack, N.J., from 1911 to 1913.

Fitzgerald enrolled at Princeton University in 1913 and struck up enduring friendships with Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. Because of ill health and low grades, he left college in 1915. He returned to Princeton in 1916 but left a year later without a degree and joined the Army with a second lieutenant's commission. Stationed in Alabama in 1918, he met Zelda Sayre, then 18 years old; he would marry her a few years later. After his Army discharge he took an advertising job briefly. Back home in St. Paul, he finished his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which was accepted by Scribner's in 1919, and that same year he had remarkable success placing nine short stories in leading commercial journals.

First Publications

Upon publication of This Side of Paradise (1920), Fitzgerald married Sayre in New York City. Of this period he later recalled riding up Fifth Avenue in a cab—young, rich, famous, and in love (he might easily have added handsome)—suddenly bursting into tears because he knew he would never be so happy again. He was right. Despite great earnings and fame, he and Zelda lived luxuriously, dissolutely, and tragically.

A daughter was born in 1921 after the couple had spent some time in Europe. When Fitzgerald's second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), and a collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), sold very well, they rented a house on Long Island and ran into debt because of their extravagance. Fitzgerald attempted to recoup by writing a play, The Vegetable (1923), but it flopped quickly. The Fitzgeralds went to Europe for over 2 years. The high points of this sojourn were publication of The Great Gatsby (1925) and the beginning of Scott's friendship with Ernest Hemingway. In 1927 Scott went to Hollywood on his first movie assignment. Afterward the Fitzgeralds again went abroad several times.

Zelda's first major nervous breakdown, in 1930, and treatment in a Swiss clinic became the basis for Fitzgerald's next novel, Tender Is the Night (1934). Zelda spent the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums, and Fitzgerald's own life ran a parallel disastrous course.

Analysis of the Novels

This Side of Paradise (1920), an autobiographical novel, tells of the youth and early manhood of a Princeton undergraduate. In the climactic action his loyalties shift from football to literature, with a concomitant growth in his character. This patchy work struck a nerve in the reading public, chiefly for its new type of heroine—the "flapper," a young woman in revolt against the double standard, who smokes, drinks, dances, and is considered to be somewhat promiscuous.

The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) deals with a dissolute couple, Anthony Patch, grandson of a millionaire, and his debutante wife. They live indolently, extravagantly, and quarrelsomely on the expectations of Tony's inheritance, but the grandfather discovers Tony's alcoholism and profligacy and disinherits him; however, after the grandfather dies, the will is broken. Ironically, the inheritance reinforces Tony's spiritual disintegration. As with most of Fitzgerald's novels, the autobiographical elements are fairly obvious.

The Great Gatsby (1925) is an American classic, generally regarded as Fitzgerald's finest work. It extends and synthesizes the themes that pervade all of his fiction: the callous indifference of wealth, the hollowness of the American success myth, and the sleaziness of the contemporary scene. It is the story of Jay Gatz, a successful, vaguely disreputable man, who has a background of poverty and has pretentiously altered his name to "Gatsby." A naively vulgar parvenu, he nonetheless emerges as morally superior to the slightly covert snobs who free-load at his parties and the reckless rich whom he so hopelessly emulates. Gatsby dies quixotically attempting to reclaim his former love, Daisy.

With T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby is a major contribution to the creative record of the barren spirituality of the 20th century. Ironically, in Gatsby an ash heap dominates the landscape between Long Island and Manhattan; Gatsby's memorabilia include rigorous self-improvement schedules and Benjamin Franklin homilies, but he rises to success as a bootlegger; Gatsby, whose notion of elegance is his pink suit, silk shirts, cream-colored car, and large house with swimming pool, has a similarly shallow knowledge of people and never sees Daisy's superficiality; finally, the green light on his dock, a multisymbol of lush vegetation (for the Pilgrims) or riches (for contemporary Americans), is ultimately a deceit—a forlorn, romantic image ending the novel.

Fitzgerald's characters are memorable despite his spare, ideographic method of delineation: Gatsby, whose pet term of address is "Old Sport," is seen only as "a pink suit"; Daisy's husband is identified by the wad of muscle beneath his suit jacket; Daisy has "a voice like money." Nowhere is Fitzgerald's contrast with contemporary author Thomas Wolfe better illustrated: Wolfe believed in "putting in," and Fitzgerald in "taking out," in extreme selectivity and economy in his art.

In its original form Tender Is the Night (1934; later restructured by Malcolm Cowley) is structurally imperfect. Set in Europe, chiefly on the Riviera, the first half is told by a 19-year-old starlet who has a crush on the hero, Dick Diver, a young American psychiatrist. The second half is seen through the eyes of Dick and of Nicole, the wealthy American schizophrenic whom he marries, cures, and is destroyed by. Dick ultimately returns to America and becomes a small-town practitioner and an alcoholic. The theme is parasitism—the health of one person gained at the expense of another—and the facts bear an unmistakable resemblance to Scott and Zelda's marriage.

The Last Tycoon (1941), published posthumously after Edmund Wilson put it together from Fitzgerald's unfinished manuscript, is the story of a movie producer. Though Wilson calls it Fitzgerald's most mature work, it has received minimal critical attention.

Short Stories

Some of Fitzgerald's best work is in the short-story form. The titles of his collections are extraordinarily representative of the spirit of the times. Flappers and Philosophers (1921) contains "The Off-Shore Pirate" and "The Ice Palace." Tales of the Jazz Age (1922) includes "May Day" and "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," two exquisite stories. The best-known pieces in All the Sad Young Men (1926) are "Winter Dreams," a quintessential instance of Fitzgerald's romantic vision, and "The Rich Boy." Fitzgerald's final collection, Taps at Reveille (1935), includes "Babylon Revisited," perhaps his most widely anthologized story.

Last Years

Fitzgerald earned over $400,000 between 1919 and 1934, but he and Zelda lived so expensively that they barely managed to cover their bills. When Tender Is the Night failed to excite interest, financial problems became acute; by 1937 Fitzgerald owed $40,000 despite continued earnings from magazine stories. Zelda had been permanently returned to the sanitarium in 1934; and the years 1935-1937 saw Fitzgerald's own descent—increasing alcoholism and physical illness—which he described with poignant candor in articles appearing in Esquire in the mid-1930s.

In 1937 Fitzgerald signed a movie contract at a weekly salary of $1,000. His liaison with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham during the last 3 years of his life is described in her Beloved Infidel (1958). But the heartbreak and dissolution took their toll, and after two heart attacks Fitzgerald died on Dec. 21, 1940. Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire in 1947 at Highland Sanitarium, Asheville, N.C., leaving a novel, Save Me the Waltz (1932, American edition).

Further Reading

Fitzgerald's The Crack-up, edited by Edmund Wilson (1945), is a revealing but fragmentary autobiographical collection of essays and letters. The standard work on Fitzgerald is Andrew Turnbull, Scott Fitzgerald (1962), a full and reliable biography, though not sufficiently critical. An exciting, sometimes inaccurate biography is Arthur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise (1951). See also Alfred Kazin, ed., F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work (1951); Sheilah Graham, Beloved Infidel: The Education of a Woman (1958); James E. Miller, Jr., F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Art and His Technique (1964); Robert F. Sklar, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoön (1967), a study of Fitzgerald as an intellectual; and Nancy Milford, Zelda: A Biography (1970), a brilliant study of Fitzgerald's wife and their marriage. For literary background see Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942). □

About this article

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald

Updated About content Print Article