Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1896-1940)

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Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1896-1940)

Perhaps because so much of his writing is autobiographical, F. Scott Fitzgerald is as famous for his personal life as he is for his writing. In his career as a writer, Fitzgerald proved to be gifted in a number of forms—he excelled as a novelist, a short story writer, and an essayist. But because his personal and professional histories paralleled the times in which he lived and wrote, Fitzgerald will be forever identified with The Jazz Age of the 1920s and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, the namesake and distant cousin of the author of the National Anthem. His father, Edward, who viewed himself as an old Southerner, was from Maryland, while his mother, Mary (Mollie) McQuillan, was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who was a successful St. Paul grocery wholesaler. After Fitzgerald's father failed as a businessman in St. Paul, Minnesota, he relocated the family to upstate New York, where he worked as a salesman for Procter and Gamble. In 1908 Fitzgerald's father was let go and he moved the family back to St. Paul. After two years at the Newman School, a Catholic Prep school in New Jersey, Fitzgerald enrolled at Princeton in the Fall of 1913.

It was during his years at Princeton that Fitzgerald first applied himself to the pursuit of a literary life. He wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club's musicals and also contributed pieces to the Princeton Tiger and the Nassau Literary Magazine. In addition, he cultivated life-long relationships with fellow students who also went on to achieve literary success, including Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald's dedication to the literary life resulted in his neglecting his studies. In 1917, after being placed on academic probation and realizing that he was unlikely to graduate, Fitzgerald dropped out of Princeton and joined the army, in which he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry.

Like so many others who were slated to see action in Europe, Fitzgerald was certain his days were numbered. Accordingly, he quickly turned out a novel entitled The Romantic Egoist, which was an autobiographical work chronicling the Princeton years of "Armory Blaine." Although the novel was rejected by Charles Scribner's Sons, it was praised for its originality and invited to be resubmitted after revision. In the summer of 1918 Fitzgerald was assigned to Camp Sheridan, outside of Montgomery, Alabama. While there he met Zelda Sayre, the debutante youngest daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court Judge. Thus began one the most famous tragic romances in American history. Fitzgerald pursued Zelda with vigor, but was not particularly well liked by her family; who thought he was an ill-suited match for Zelda. He placed high hopes in Scribner's accepting his revised novel, which would, he hoped, make him worthy of Zelda's hand. They rejected it, which ultimately resulted in Zelda breaking off their engagement. Shortly before Fitzgerald was to go overseas, the war ended and he was discharged. In 1919 he left for New York intending to make his fortune in order to persuade Zelda to marry him.

Amazingly, Fitzgerald succeeded. After a brief stint in New York, he returned to St. Paul to dedicate himself to rewriting his novel yet again. The finished product, This Side of Paradise, was published on March 26, 1920. The novel was an immediate smash hit, making Fitzgerald suddenly famous as the voice of his generation. A week later he married Zelda in New York and the couple began their life together as young celebrities. In order to support their lavish lifestyle, Fitzgerald wrote short stories for mass-circulation magazines, which he did for the remainder of his life. Most of his stories were published in The Saturday Evening Post, which resulted in his becoming known as a " Post Writer." Since he wrote many of them for money, Fitzgerald often felt that his short stories were not artistic achievements on par with his novels. However, literary history has proven Fitzgerald's estimation of his short stories wrong. Fitzgerald published some 160 magazine stories in his lifetime, an extraordinarily high number by any count. Although many of these are second rate, his finest pieces nevertheless rank at the forefront of American short stories. Among his best are "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," "May Day," "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," "Winter Dreams," "The Rich Boy," "Babylon Revisited," and "Crazy Sunday."

After spending a summer in Connecticut the Fitzgeralds moved to New York City, where Fitzgerald wrote his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), which tells the story of the dissipation of Anthony and Gloria Patch. Much of the book's events were inspired by the Fitzgeralds' drunken lifestyle, particularly during their time in Connecticut. The novel was not particularly well received, nor did it make much money. The Fitzgeralds, especially Scott, where quickly gaining a well-deserved reputation as hard drinkers. Although he claimed never to have worked while under the effects of "stimulant"—and judging by the quality of his work it's likely the truth—Fitzgerald's reputation as a carouser hurt his literary standing.

After their first trip to Europe, the Fitzgeralds returned to St. Paul, where in October of 1921 Zelda gave birth to, their only child, a daughter, Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald. In the mean time, Fitzgerald wrote The Vegetable, a play he was sure would result in financial riches. The Fitzgeralds moved to Great Neck, Long Island in order to be closer to Broadway. Unfortunately, the play bombed at its tryout in November of 1923. Fitzgerald was bitterly disappointed. The distractions of New York proved too much for Fitzgerald. He was not making progress on his third novel, and he and Zelda were increasingly fighting, often after heavy drinking. The Fitzgeralds retreated to Europe in an attempt to find peace.

In April of 1925 Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, the book that was to become his literary legacy. Through the recollections of Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby recounts the history of Jay Gatz and his love for Daisy Buchanan. As Matthew Bruccoli writes in his introduction to A Life in Letters, "Fitzgerald's clear, lyrical, colorful, witty style evoked associations with time and place…. The chief theme of Fitzgerald's work is aspiration—the idealism he regarded as defining American character. Another major theme was mutability or loss. As a social historian Fitzgerald became identified with 'The Jazz Age': 'It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire."' Gatsby is the essential Jazz Age document—the work most commonly considered an accurate reflection of the ultimately irresponsible optimism of the Roaring Twenties boom years. Jay Gatz started off with a traditional American work ethic, but in his pursuit of the American Dream his ethic eventually gave way to the pursuit of money. The inevitable failure of his dreams, which were all along founded on a fallacy, anticipated the demise of the postwar prosperity that characterized the 1920s, which officially came to a close with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929.

Fitzgerald knew Gatsby was good, but the reviews were lukewarm and sales were extremely disappointing. In fact, at the time of his death the book had sold less than 23,000 copies. But in the end, Fitzgerald was proved correct; in the years following his death, The Great Gatsby, along with the rest of Fitzgerald's work, underwent a remarkable renaissance. Beginning in the 1950s, Fitzgerald's literary reputation skyrocketed. Book after book was reissued and numerable new collections of his stories were released to keep up with demand. In the 1990s, The Great Gatsby remained by far the most frequently assigned book in American high schools and colleges.

After being labeled the voice of his generation and experiencing fame and notoriety as someone whose life was representative of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald, like the nation around him, fell on extremely hard times. In 1930 Zelda experienced her first mental breakdown. Her mental problems lasted the remainder of her life, which she spent in and out of sanitariums. Zelda's medical condition was of great concern to Fitzgerald, who by all accounts never stopped loving her. Unfortunately, his drinking increased concurrently with his need for more money. Scottie was in private schools and Zelda's medical expenses were immense. From the publication of The Great Gatsby in 1925, Fitzgerald had been writing almost exclusively short stories in order to counteract cash flow problems. But in the early 1930s his price, which had peaked at $4,000 per story for his Post stories, began to plummet. Fitzgerald's Post stories no longer had an audience; the country, deep in economic depression, no longer wanted to read about the Jazz Age. In truth, Fitzgerald's stories are often neither optimistic nor do they always end happily. But Fitzgerald's reputation as Jazz Age figure could not be separated from his fiction. His star fell rapidly.

Fitzgerald's final completed novel was Tender is the Night, a tale about the fall of Dick Diver loosely based on Fitzgerald's experiences with Zelda's various breakdowns. The 1934 publication was a critical and financial failure. Although not as well crafted as Gatsby, Tender has since earned its proper place as an American masterpiece. For the remainder of his life, Fitzgerald scrambled to make a living, writing essays and stories for magazines and spending time in Hollywood as a contract writer. Towards the end of his life he appeared to have finally put things in order. He was sober, in a stable relationship with Hollywood movie columnist Sheilah Graham, and in the midst of writing The Last Tycoon, which even in incomplete form has the characteristics of his finest work. Just as America appeared to be coming out of the Depression, so too did Fitzgerald seem to be on the brink of making a return to his former glory. But such was not to be. On December 21, 1940, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Graham's apartment. He was 44 years old.

Despite his meteoric posthumous rise to the forefront of American letters, the myth of Fitzgerald as an irresponsible writer has persevered. In fact, Fitzgerald was a meticulous craftsman—a dedicated reviser who went through countless drafts of everything he ever wrote. But when we think of Fitzgerald, we think of a raucous prodigy whose Jazz Age excesses became larger the life. Or perhaps we think of the tragic figure of the 1930s whose fall from grace somehow seemed to be the inevitable price he had to pay for his earlier actions. Either way, Fitzgerald's art ultimately supersedes his life. The events of his life will continue to fascinate us as legend, but the grace and beauty of his uniquely American works will forever serve as a testament to the truth of Fitzgerald's opinion of himself: "I am not a great man, but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent, and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur."

—Robert C. Sickels

Further Reading:

Berman, Ronald. The Great Gatsby and Modern Times. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Bloom, Harold, editor. F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, Chelsea House, 1985.

Bruccoli, Matthew J. A Life in Letters: F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994.

——. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Donaldson, Scott. Fool For Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

——, editor. Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Boston, G.K. Hall, 1984.

Kuehl, John. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Mellow, James R. Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Seiters, Dan. Image Patterns in the Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1986.

Tate, Mary Jo. F. Scott Fitzgerald A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York, Facts on File, 1998.

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Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1896-1940)

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