Fitzgerald, F. Scott
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Novelist and short story writer
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
F. Scott Fitzgerald was probably the most gifted and insightful literary chronicler of the Roaring Twenties. It was he who, in the title of one of his collections of short stories, coined the term "Jazz Age" to describe this decade of exuberance, creativity, and sometimes troubling change. Along with his glamorous wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald himself lived the life of excess for which the period is known. His was a tragic story in many ways, yet he also produced lasting literary masterpieces. The best of these is undoubtedly his novel The Great Gatsby, which has become a classic of U.S. fiction, but his numerous, finely crafted short stories are also acclaimed.
An ambitious young writer
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was a native of Maryland, and his mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald, was from a wealthy local family; he had one younger sister. When his son was two years old, the elder Fitzgerald moved his family to the East Coast after accepting a position with the large dry
goods firm of Procter and Gamble, but they returned in 1908 when he lost this job. From then on the family lived on Mollie's inheritance. Some commentators have traced Fitzgerald's lifelong anxiety about financial failure to his father's inability to support the family.
As a boy, Fitzgerald always loved writing. His first publication, a detective story, appeared in the school newspaper of the St. Paul Academy, which he attended from 1908 to 1911. Poor grades forced Fitzgerald to transfer to the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, where he spent the years between 1911 and 1913. During this period he especially enjoyed writing plays, several of which were produced during his summers at home by an amateur theatrical group.
Fitzgerald entered New Jersey's Princeton University in 1913. He spent much of his time writing for various campus publications, including the Nassau Literary Magazine, and making some lifelong friends. One of these was Edmund Wilson (1895–1972), who would later become a famous and well-respected literary critic. Fitzgerald neglected his academic work, however, and had to leave Princeton in 1915. He returned the next year, but he would never graduate. When, in 1917, the United States entered World War I (1914–18), Fitzgerald joined the army. He was made a second lieutenant and sent to an army base near Montgomery, Alabama.
This was a crucial period in Fitzgerald's life, for it was in Montgomery that he met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. The couple became engaged, but Zelda belonged to a wealthy, upper-class social set, and Fitzgerald felt he could not marry her until he had achieved some success. During his fifteen months of military service, he was never sent overseas, but he did begin work on his first novel, an autobiographical work that he initially titled The Romantic Egoist.
Fitzgerald sent his manuscript to the Scribner publishing company. It was rejected but returned with an encouraging note to revise the novel and submit it again. After a brief period as an advertising copywriter in New York City, Fitzgerald went home to St. Paul to work on rewriting his novel. Following another rejection and another revision, Scribner finally accepted the novel, which was renamed This Side of Paradise.
The fast life of the Roaring Twenties
This Side of Paradise chronicles the life of Amory Blaine, a Princeton undergraduate who bears a notable resemblance to his creator. Among the experiences shared by both are a failed romance (Fitzgerald's had been with Ginevra King, a wealthy girl after whom he would model Daisy Buchanan, one of his most famous creations), problems with bad grades, and an interest in literature. The novel also features a female character who embodies the flapper ideal of the Roaring Twenties: these young women were known for such bold, unconventional behaviors as drinking and smoking in public and wearing short skirts and bobbed (short) hair. Generally, the novel was considered a truthful portrait of postwar youth, who rebelled against their elders and disregarded tradition. Because it included patches of poetry and pieces of short stories and plays that Fitzgerald had previously written, its structure seemed original and vaguely sophisticated.
This Side of Paradise was published in March 1920 and quickly gained popularity; by the end of the year, it had sold forty thousand copies. A week after its publication Fitzgerald married Zelda, and the two began an adventurous life of travel, parties, and outrageous antics. They were known, for example, for having ridden up New York City's Fifth Avenue on the roof of a taxicab. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald continued to write steadily, publishing his short stories in such well-known national magazines as Smart Set and the Saturday Evening Post. His first short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers (1920), appeared soon after This Side of Paradise.
Throughout his career, Fitzgerald would fall back on the more profitable practice of publishing short stories (in 1922, for example, most of the $22,000 he earned came from short story writing) to bolster his income. Nevertheless, many of his short stories are finely written. This first collection contained several of Fitzgerald's best stories, including "The Ice Palace" and "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"; the latter centered on a girl accepting her friends' challenge to take the daring and modern step of cutting her long hair.
After a short period in Europe, the Fitzgeralds returned to St. Paul for the birth of their daughter, Frances Scott Fitzgerald (called Scottie). Afterward they plunged right back into their fast-living ways. They never owned a home, preferring to stay in expensive hotels or rent large houses.
Fitzgerald's second novel appeared in 1922. The Beautiful and the Damned centers on a beautiful, glamorous couple, Anthony and Gloria Patch, who live on inherited money. They spend freely, drink heavily, and quarrel often as their lives gradually fall apart. The novel is distinguished by its strongly cynical tone and emphasis on the negative effects of too much money. Although the critics gave it low marks, The Beautiful and the Damned sold well.
That same year, another collection of Fitzgerald's short stories was published. Tales of the Jazz Age (the author's nickname for the Roaring Twenties, which would become widely used) contains some of his most popular and frequently anthologized (compiled) stories, such as "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," "May Day," and "Winter Dreams." Most of the stories in the volume, however, are not up to the standard of Fitzgerald's best writing.
The Expatriate Scene in Paris
It was an unusual circumstance of the Roaring Twenties that many of the creators of the most exciting artistic developments in the United States lived in Paris, France, during this period. There were several reasons for this expatriate migration. World War I had exposed many young people to Europe, and life was cheaper there and offered an escape both from Prohibition and from what many considered the intolerance and small-mindedness of U.S. society. There also were more opportunities to have one's work published in Paris.
Although a great number of the expatriates in France during the 1920s were merely posing as artists, some genuinely talented artists and writers lived there as well. Such classic works as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway were written in France. These and other serious authors were welcomed by three older figures who had arrived several years earlier: writer and literary critic Gertrude Stein, who hosted a popular literary salon; poet Ezra Pound (at least until his departure in 1924); and Sylvia Beach, who owned a famous bookstore called Shakespeare & Company. It was Beach who, in 1922, published James Joyce's groundbreaking modernist novel Ulysses.
Other authors were able to publish their work through such Paris-based companies as the Contact Press, the Three Mountains Press, and the Black Manikin Press, or in literary journals like The Little Review, Gargoyle, and the Transatlantic Review. Paris also attracted musicians, some of whom—like composers Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland—studied with French composer Nadia Boulanger, dancers, and visual artists. Painters like Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso were on the scene, as were journalist Djuna Barnes and poets e.e. cummings and Hilda Doolittle.
A masterpiece of twentieth-century literature
Despite the success of his books and the considerable amount of money Fitzgerald had made through selling his short stories to magazines, the couple's extravagant lifestyle landed them in debt. They rented a house on Long Island (near New York City), where Fitzgerald wrote a play called The Vegetable (1923) that he hoped would ease their financial troubles. Instead, the play was a flop.
Searching for a less expensive place to live, the Fitzgeralds moved to Europe again, renting a villa on the French Riviera (a coastal region in southern France). There they entered a circle of U.S. expatriates (those who live outside their native country). Despite the demands of their active social life, and the heartache and tension caused by Zelda's affair with a French pilot, Fitzgerald wrote the novel that is usually considered his masterpiece.
The Great Gatsby is a relatively short, tightly written work with a complex structure and compelling characters. Fitzgerald used symbolism masterfully to illustrate and explore the novel's themes, which include the clash between traditional values and modern culture, the shallow pursuit of wealth and the tarnishing of the so-called "American dream," and the stubborn persistence of hope.
The novel takes place on Long Island. Its hero is Jay Gatsby, born Jimmy Gatz, whose pursuit of a wealthy, out-of-reach young woman leads him to amass a huge fortune through bootlegging (the selling of alcoholic beverages, which had been made illegal by Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). The object of Gatsby's blind devotion, Daisy Buchanan, is a shallow creature who has married the rich but insensitive Tom Buchanan. The couple has a young daughter. Meanwhile, Tom is involved with the wife of a mechanic whose shop is along the road to New York City.
The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carroway, a native of the Midwest and Daisy's cousin, who has rented a cottage near Gatsby's estate. Fitzgerald successfully employs this disillusioned but sensitive narrative voice to tell the story of Gatsby's downfall. He paints a vivid, detailed portrait of life in the Roaring Twenties, from the fancy parties attended by flappers and shady underworld characters to the ash heaps that exist just outside the glittering world of the wealthy.
Despite critical acclaim, the novel was not a popular success; it sold only twenty-five thousand copies in 1925. In fact,
The Great Gatsby would not attain its status as a classic of U.S. literature until after Fitzgerald's death.
A nomadic life and a new novel
The Fitzgeralds lived in Europe through 1926. During this period, Fitzgerald befriended Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), who was on his way to becoming one of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century. Fitzgerald greatly admired Hemingway both for his literary talent and his bold, adventurous personality. Meanwhile, Zelda was starting to show some signs of mental disturbance as she searched for her own creative outlet, experimenting with painting, ballet, and eventually writing. Both Fitzgeralds were drinking heavily.
In 1926 Fitzgerald's short-story collection All the Sad Young Men appeared. One of the stories included was "Rich Boy," which explored some of the same themes as The Great Gatsby. This volume, however, actually sold more copies than the novel. That same year, the Fitzgeralds returned to the United States, spending a brief period in Hollywood, California (the center of the new, expanding film industry), where Fitzgerald worked as a screenwriter. Then they settled for two years in Delaware, with Fitzgerald supporting the family by writing short stories, mainly for the Saturday Evening Post. At this point he was earning as much as four thousand dollars per story.
The ever-nomadic Fitzgeralds returned to France in 1929. There Fitzgerald continued work on a novel that he had begun earlier, now incorporating details and characters drawn from the expatriate scene around him. As the 1930s began, Zelda's psychological problems finally resulted in a total breakdown. She spent a year and a half being treated in a Swiss sanitarium (a kind of hospital and rest home for chronically ill people), which would be the first of a long series of hospitalizations. From now on, Zelda's illness would exert not only emotional but also financial stress on Fitzgerald.
The Fitzgeralds returned to the United States in 1931. After a brief period of recovery, Zelda had another breakdown, brought on by the news of her father's death. She would never be well again. Despite the turmoil of his personal life, Fitzgerald continued to work, and two years later he published a third novel.
Tender is the Night is filled with much autobiographical material. It tells of the gradual disintegration of Dick Diver, a talented psychiatrist who has given up a promising career to marry and continue treating a young female patient, Nicole Warren (a character with many similarities to Zelda). Like the Fitzgeralds, the Divers and their three children live on the French Riviera, supported by Nicole's family wealth. As the novel progresses, the couple, whose past lives are chronicled in a section placed in the middle of the book, rather than in chronological order, grows increasingly troubled. Nicole has an affair with a French naval officer, and Diver falls in love with a young actress. The marriage ends, and Diver retreats to practice in a small town in the United States.
Some commentators interpreted Tender Is the Night as an indictment of the shallowness and excess of the Roaring Twenties. Others found it a more complex chronicle that highlights the loss of innocence experienced by those who came to adulthood during and just after World War I. In any case, the novel was published in the middle of the Great Depression (the period of economic downturn and hardship that lasted from the 1929 stock market crash until the beginning of World War II), and readers were not particularly interested in reading about the problems of the wealthy. Tender Is the Night received mixed critical reviews, but it was not popular with the public.
A faltering career
During the last decades of his life, pressed with the demands of paying for both Zelda's treatment and Scottie's college education, Fitzgerald continued to write and sell his short stories. He also accepted a position as a screenwriter at Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), one of the most successful of the Hollywood film production companies. Fitzgerald earned one thousand dollars per week, but he was not particularly successful. He felt that he was wasting his talent, and he was drinking heavily. The only bright spot was provided by his stable relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.
Fitzgerald did not entirely abandon his literary work, as he began a novel based on his experiences in the movie industry. The protagonist of this book, which Fitzgerald never finished, is Monroe Stahr, the powerful, self-made head of a Hollywood studio. Eventually published under the title The Last Tycoon (1941), the novel tells the story of Stahr's ill-fated romance with a young actress. Some critics believe that it would have been Fitzgerald's best work if he had lived to finish it. Instead, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four. At the end of his life, he considered himself a failure, but he has since come to be recognized as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.
In 1975, the bodies of both Fitzgeralds (Zelda died in 1948 in a mental hospital fire) were buried together in the cemetery of St. Mary's Church in Rockville, Maryland. The epitaph on their gravestone is the final sentence of The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
For More Information
Bruccoli, Matthew. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Harcourt, 1981.
Bruccoli, Matthew, and Jackson R. Bryer, eds. F. Scott Fitzgerald in His Own Times: A Miscellany. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1971.
Lehan, Richard. The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Medlow, James R. Invented Lives: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. Available online at http://www.fitzgeraldsociety.org/. Accessed on June 22, 2005.
"A Brief Life of Fitzgerald." USC: F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary Home Page. Available online at http://www.sc.edu/fitzgerald/biography.html. Accessed on June 22, 2005.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Excerpt from The Great Gatsby
Published in 1925
Although F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) is now considered one of the most important figures in twentieth-century American literature, he was not highly regarded at the time of his death in 1940. He did enjoy a brief period of fame and success during the 1920s, when he used vivid language and imagery to bring the Jazz Age (a term that he himself coined) to life in his popular stories and novels.
Fitzgerald was born to fairly well-off parents in St. Paul, Minnesota. He showed an early interest in writing and drama and pursued both at Princeton University, which he attended for two years. He never graduated, leaving in 1917 to join the army. Fitzgerald served for fifteen months but, to his disappointment, was never sent overseas to fight in World War I (1914–18). While stationed at an army camp near Montgomery, Alabama, he met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the wealthy daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge.
"As the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes fresh, green breast of the new world"
Returning to St. Paul, Fitzgerald continued work on an autobiographical novel he had begun during his army days. Eventually titled This Side of Paradise, the manuscript was
accepted by Scribner's and published in 1920. Fitzgerald received rave reviews for his portrayal of Amory Blaine, who was seen as representative of postwar youth. The newly successful Fitzgerald soon married Zelda and began a life of travel and adventure with her. Over the next two years, he produced several volumes of short stories and a second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned.
The excerpt featured here is drawn from The Great Gatsby, the novel considered Fitzgerald's masterpiece. Published in 1925, it features the skillful use of a first-person narrator, young Nick Carroway. Like his creator, Nick is a native of the midwestern United States and an army veteran who now lives and works on the East Coast. The novel takes place on Long Island (located close to New York City) in the summer of 1922. Nick has rented a home on West Egg, a section of the island that is across a bay from East Egg, where the area's most established, wealthy residents live. Nick's unhappily married cousin Daisy Buchanan lives there with her husband, Tom, and their daughter. Next to Nick's modest rented cottage is a huge, extravagantly decorated home owned by Jay Gatsby, who is rumored to have grown rich through the buying and selling of illegal liquor.
Nick soon learns that Gatsby and Daisy had a brief romance several years before while Gatsby was a young soldier with little money. After Gatsby went overseas to fight in World War I, Daisy married Tom Buchanan, a member of her own social class. Gatsby still loves Daisy and involves Nick in his quest to win her back. In a tragic series of events, the characters attend a drunken party in New York, during which they quarrel and then begin the drive back to Long Island. On the way, Gatsby's car hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress. Although it is assumed that Gatsby was in the driver's seat, Daisy was actually driving; nevertheless, Gatsby intends to take the blame for the accident. Meanwhile, Tom has allowed Myrtle's grief-crazed husband to believe that Gatsby is responsible. Wilson kills Gatsby and then himself. Nick arranges Gatsby's funeral, but only two other people show up: Gatsby's deluded father and one of the many guests from Gatsby's lavish summer parties. In the end, the disillusioned Nick decides to return to the Midwest.
One of the novel's dominant themes involves the decay of traditional American values in a suddenly prosperous society. Fitzgerald draws a contrast between the immorality and shallowness of the East and the innocence and virtue of the West, highlighting the persistence of illusions and dreams in the face of sordid reality.
Things to remember while reading this excerpt from The Great Gatsby …
In creating this richly detailed portrait of life among wealthy New Yorkers, Fitzgerald called upon his own experiences in that environment. Certainly he had attended many lavish Long Island parties like those Gatsby hosts, and the colorful variety of characters in the novel, from flappers to gangsters to intellectuals, no doubt reflects the spectrum of his own acquaintances.
The effects of Prohibition on U.S. society are strongly felt in the novel. Illegal or not, liquor flows freely at the parties attended by Nick and his friends, and drunkenness is a factor in the novel's final outcome. Furthermore, motivated by his deep desire to impress the wealthy, upper-class Daisy, Gatsby has made his fortune through the shady underworld of bootlegging (the producing, buying, and selling of banned alcoholic beverages).
The Great Gatsby is famous for its intriguing, sometimes ambiguous motifs and symbols. Examples include the use of East Egg to represent the corruption of the eastern United States and West Egg to stand for the Midwest and West, where traditional American values and virtues remain intact. The color green represents not only Gatsby's dream of winning back the idealized Daisy but also the broader American dream. The valley of ashes that lies between Long Island and New York City may symbolize both the moral decay of U.S. society and the plight of the poor people (including Myrtle and her husband) who live in it. Seen on a faded billboard above the valley of ashes, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg may suggest the eyes of God, or they may be assigned different meanings by different individuals.
Excerpt from The Great Gatsby
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William Faulkner: Chronicling Southern Society
Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner was a major twentieth-century novelist who captured the essence of a particular place and time. In Faulkner's case, the place was the southern United States, and the time was the first several decades of the twentieth century. Praised for his modernist style and the psychological depth he brought to his characters, Faulkner wrote several of his best known novels during the 1920s.
Born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, Faulkner grew up in the nearby town of Oxford. He was educated sporadically after the fifth grade and never graduated from high school, but he loved to read and write.
Faulkner served briefly in the military during World War I before being discharged after being injured in an airplane crash. After spending a year as a student at the University of Mississippi in 1919, Faulkner traveled to New York City. He soon returned to Mississippi, but left again to travel in Europe. He returned to the United States in 1926.
The same year he returned from Europe, Faulkner's first novel, Soldier's Pay, was published, with another following in 1927. It was not until his third novel, however, that Faulkner's writing started to gain attention. Sartoris (1927) is the first of a series of novels Faulkner set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. It centers on an alienated veteran named Bayard Sartoris, who sinks into drinking and self-destructive behavior after returning from war.
Sartoris introduces several families that are featured in many of Faulkner's novels and short stories. These include the Sartoris and Compson clans, who represent the faded southern aristocracy, and the Snopes family, who embody the South's new merchant class.
The Sound and the Fury (1929) is considered to be Faulkner's masterpiece. Focused on the tragic history of the dysfunctional Compsons, the novel is written in four parts in an untraditional, stream-of-consciousness style. Each section records the events of one day (three of them in 1928 and one in 1910) from the perspective of four different characters. The book is considered difficult to follow, but this has not affected critical praise for the book. The Sound and the Fury relays with loss, despair, and cruelty the Compsons' experience as their family fortunes and relationships fall apart.
Faulkner's other acclaimed novels of this period include As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931) and Light in August (1932). Most critics find Faulkner's later works inferior to those he wrote in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Pylon (1935) failed to earn critical praise, while the complex Absalom, Absalom! (1936), received mixed reviews. In addition to his many novels, Faulkner's short stories are very well regarded, and some, such as "The Bear" and "A Rose for Emily" appear often in anthologies.
Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. He lived quietly in Oxford until his death in 1962.
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What happened next …
After completing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald started writing his fourth novel. The work went slowly, due not only to the many changes the author made but also to his alcoholism, his mounting debts, and Zelda's mental illness (which, beginning in 1930, frequently required her to be hospitalized). A short story collection that appeared in 1927, All the Sad Young Men, contains some of his best writing. Fitzgerald worked briefly as a screenwriter in Hollywood before producing another novel, Tender Is the Night (1934). Although many of his friends admired the novel, which once again centers on the spiritual emptiness of rich young Americans, few reviewers and readers seemed to like it. By this time the Great Depression had begun, and it may be that audiences had little patience for the problems of the wealthy.
Throughout the 1930s, Fitzgerald lived in Maryland and North Carolina, publishing little while his debts continued to increase. In 1937 he again went to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter, employed first by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film company and later becoming a freelancer. Fitzgerald worked on fourteen films, including the hugely popular Gone with the Wind (1939), but was credited on only one of them. His experiences in Hollywood provided material for his final novel,The Last Tycoon, a portrait of the filmmaking industry that he never finished. Fitzgerald died of a sudden heart attack in December 1940, at the age of forty-four. His work was mostly overlooked until the 1950s and 1960s, when his literary reputation began to improve. Fitzgerald is now regarded as a major twentieth-century author.
Did you know …
- Despite very positive critical reviews, The Great Gatsby was not popular with a broad audience at its first appearance. Only twenty-four thousand copies were printed, and the book was not reprinted during Fitzgerald's lifetime. The novel's unlikable characters and dark themes as well as its sophisticated style may have turned away many readers.
- Fitzgerald and his beautiful wife, Zelda, epitomized the glamorous, carefree life of the wealthy elite during the Roaring Twenties. In fact, Zelda is thought to have been the model for Daisy Buchanan. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald had once been a young soldier in love with an upper-class, seemingly unattainable girl. A parallel with the Fitzgeralds' real life may also be found in Tender Is the Night, which chronicles a young couple's struggles with the wife's mental illness.
- Fitzgerald's friends included some of the best-known literary figures of the period. He championed the early work of innovative writer Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), who greatly admired Fitzgerald but eventually spoke disapprovingly of him for not trying hard enough to produce his best writing. In the 1950s another close friend, critic Edmund Wilson (1895–1972), helped to restore respect for Fitzgerald's achievements.
Consider the following …
- How does this passage reflect the changes that were so much a part of life in the 1920s? In framing your answer, you might want to think about advances in transportation and technology, Prohibition, the emphasis on prosperity and material success, and women's roles.
- How do characters like Nick Carroway, Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanon, and Myrtle Wilson embody different aspects of life in the Twenties? Think about how they fit into both the specific social world around them and the wider U.S. society. Compare and contrast the characters, or do an in-depth study of one.
For More Information
Bruccoli, Matthew, ed. F. Scott Fitzgerald in His Own Times: A Miscellany. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1971.
Lehan, Richard. The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Medlow, James R. Invented Lives: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. Available online at http://www.fitzgeraldsociety.org/. Accessed on June 20, 2005.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, a legendary figure of the 1920s, was an extremely observant artist, a beautiful writer, and an exceptional craftsman. His tragic life was ironically similar to his romantic art.
Fitzgerald's younger years
On September 24, 1896, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born into an Irish Catholic family in St. Paul, Minnesota. His mother was from a wealthy family, and his father, Edward, was a furniture manufacturer. After Edward's business failed, he was employed by Proctor and Gamble, and the family transferred to Buffalo, New York. The family lived for some years in Buffalo and Syracuse; but in 1908, when Fitzgerald's father lost his job, they returned to St. Paul. For the most part, Fitzgerald was privately educated; he attended Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, from 1911 to 1913 and worked on the school paper.
Fitzgerald enrolled at Princeton University in 1913. There, he worked on The Princeton Tiger, a magazine published by the university. He also wrote for Princeton's Triangle Club, which was a distinguished organization that put on musicals. Because of ill health and low grades, he left the university in 1915. He returned to Princeton in 1916 but left a year later without a degree and joined the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. Stationed in Alabama in 1918, he met Zelda Sayre, then eighteen years old; he would marry her a few years later. After he left the army he took an advertising job for a brief period. Back home in St. Paul, he finished his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which was published in 1919, and that same year he had remarkable success placing nine short stories in leading magazines.
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 grandly and lavishly—but 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 well, they rented a house on Long Island and ran into debt because of their reckless spending. Fitzgerald attempted to recover by writing a play, The Vegetable (1923), but it was unsuccessful. The Fitzgeralds went to Europe for over two years. The high points of this trip were publication of The Great Gatsby (1925) and the beginning of Scott's friendship with Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). In 1927 Fitzgerald went to Hollywood on his first movie assignment. Afterward the Fitzgeralds again went overseas several times.
Zelda's first major nervous breakdown, in 1930, and her following 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 treatment centers, and Fitzgerald's own life ran a similar unfortunate course.
Analysis of the novels
This Side of Paradise (1920), an autobiographical (having to do with one's life story) novel, tells of the youth and early manhood of a Princeton undergraduate. The climax occurs when he shifts his devotion from football to literature, while at the same time he grows in character. This work struck a nerve in the reading public, chiefly for its new type of heroine—the "flapper," a young woman who goes against the idea that a woman must be stricter in her morals and behavior than a man. She smokes, drinks, dances, and is considered to be somewhat low in her character and conduct.
The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) deals with a couple who is concerned with only themselves. Tony Patch, grandson of a millionaire, and his beautiful wife live extravagantly on the expectations of Tony's inheritance, but the grandfather discovers Tony's alcoholism and wastefulness and disinherits him; however, after the grandfather dies, the will is broken. Ironically, the inheritance only worsens the destruction of Tony's morals. 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 contains the themes that pass through all of his fiction: the hardened indifference of wealth, the hollowness of the American success myth, and the sleaziness of the wealthy lifestyle. It is the story of Jay Gatz, a successful, vaguely disreputable man, who has a background of poverty and has altered his name to "Gatsby." He emerges as morally superior to the people who take advantage of his parties and the reckless rich whom he so hopelessly imitates. Gatsby dies unrealistically attempting to reclaim his former love, Daisy. The Great Gatsby is a major contribution to the writing work of the twentieth century.
The theme of Tender Is the Night (1934; later restructured by Malcolm Cowley) is parasitism—the health of one person gained through harm to the other—and the facts bear an unmistakable resemblance to Scott and Zelda's marriage.
The Last Tycoon (1941), published after Fitzgerald's death—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 very little critical attention.
Many regard Fitzgerald's short stories as his best work. The titles of his collections are a representation 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." The best-known pieces in All the Sad Young Men (1926) are "Winter Dreams," a basic example 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 (stories written by different authors that are collected and published together) story.
Fitzgerald earned over four hundred thousand dollars 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 critical; by 1937 Fitzgerald owed forty thousand dollars despite continued earnings from magazine stories. Zelda had been permanently returned to medical care in 1934; and the years from 1935 to 1937 saw Fitzgerald's own decline—increasing alcoholism and physical illness—which he described with emotional openness in articles that appear in Esquire in the mid-1930s.
In 1937 Fitzgerald signed a movie contract at a weekly salary of one thousand dollars. His relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham during the last three years of his life is described in her Beloved Infidel (1958). After two heart attacks Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1940. Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire in 1947 at Highland Sanitarium, Asheville, North Carolina, leaving a novel, Save Me the Waltz (1932).
For More Information
Prigozy, Ruth. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2001.
Ring, Frances Kroll. Against the Current. San Francisco, CA: D. S. Ellis, 1985.
Taylor, Kendall. Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
Turnbull, Andrew. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Scribner, 1962.