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, he proved to be gifted in a number of forms—he excelled as a novelist, a short-story writer, and an essayist. 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 Francis Scott Key, the author of Page 327 | Top of Articlethe U.S. national anthem. Fitzgerald's father, Edward, who viewed himself as an old southerner, was from Maryland, and his mother, Mary (Mollie) McQuillan, was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who was a successful grocery wholesaler in St. Paul, Minnesota. After Fitzgerald's father failed as a businessman in St. Paul, he relocated the family to upstate New York, where he worked as a salesman for Procter and Gamble. In 1908 his father was let go by the company, 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 University in the fall of 1913.
COLLEGE AND THE MILITARY
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, he dropped out of Princeton and joined the army, earning a commission as a second lieutenant in the infantry.
Like so many others who were slated to see action in Europe during World War I, Fitzgerald was certain his days were numbered. Accordingly, he quickly turned out a novel titled 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 Fitzgerald was invited to resubmit it after revisions. In the summer of 1918 he was assigned to Camp Sheridan, outside Montgomery, Alabama. While there he met Zelda Sayre, a debutante and the youngest daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. Thus began one the most famous and 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 their daughter. He had high hopes that Scribner's would accept his revised novel, which would, he hoped, make him worthy of Zelda's hand. Scribner's 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.
SUCCESS IN THE JAZZ AGE
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.” Because 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 his low 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 works 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 life-style, particularly during their time in Connecticut. The novel was not particularly well received, nor did it make much money. The Fitzgeralds, especially Scott, were 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 may be true—Fitzgerald's reputation as a carouser did damage his literary standing.
After their first trip to Europe, the couple returned to St. Paul, where in October 1921 Zelda gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald. In the meantime, Fitzgerald wrote The Vegetable, a play he was sure would result in financial riches. The family moved to Great Neck, Long Island, in order to be closer to Broadway. Unfortunately, the play bombed at its tryout in November 1923. Fitzgerald was bitterly disappointed. The distractions of New York City proved too much for him. 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 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 Gatsby (born James 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 the emotions associated 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.’”
Gatsby is the essential Jazz Age document—the work most commonly considered an accurate reflection of the ultimately irresponsible optimism of the boom years of the Roaring Twenties. Jay Gatsby starts off with a traditional American work ethic, but in his pursuit of the American Dream, his ethic eventually gives way to the pursuit of money. The inevitable failure of his dreams, which are all along founded on a fallacy, anticipate the demise of the postwar prosperity of the 1920s. That prosperity officially came to a close with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929.
Fitzgerald knew that Gatsby was good, but the reviews were lukewarm and sales were extremely disappointing. In fact, at the time of Fitzgerald's death the book had sold fewer than 23,000 copies. In the end, though, he was proved correct. In the years following his death, The Great Gatsby, along with the rest of his work, underwent a remarkable renaissance. Beginning in the 1950s, Fitzgerald's literary reputation skyrocketed. Book after Page 328 | Top of Articlebook 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.
THE DEPRESSION YEARS
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 country around him, fell on extremely hard times. In addition, 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 school, and Zelda's medical expenses were immense.
Following the publication of Gatsby in 1925, Fitzgerald began writing short stories almost exclusively in order to counteract cash-flow problems. In the early 1930s his fee, 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, his stories were not often optimistic, nor did they always end happily. Fitzgerald's reputation as a Jazz Age figure, however, could not be separated from his fiction. Thus, his star fell rapidly.
His final completed novel was Tender Is the Night, a tale about the fall of Dick Diver that is 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. Toward 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 the United States appeared to be coming out of the Great Depression, so too did Fitzgerald seem to be on the brink of making a return to his former glory. However, on December 21, 1940, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Graham's apartment. He was forty-four years old.
LEGACY AND ADAPTATION OF WORK
Despite his meteoric posthumous rise to the forefront of American letters, the myth of Fitzgerald as an irresponsible writer has endured. In fact, he was a meticulous craftsman—a dedicated reviser who went through countless drafts of everything he ever wrote. However, the image of Fitzgerald as a raucous prodigy whose Jazz Age excesses became larger than life continues.
One cannot easily forget 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 continue to fascinate as legend, but the grace and beauty of his uniquely American works 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.”
Both Fitzgerald's talent and “epic grandeur” are due to be brought to life for twenty-first-century movie audiences by director Baz Luhrman—best known for his lavish musical production of Moulin Rouge (2001)—in a 3-D adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. Even before its release, the film made an influence on fashion; in early 2012 some fashion shows featured models wearing Ralph Lauren and Gucci versions of drop waists and beaded chiffon dresses. Luhrman studied Fitzgerald for several years to develop a feeling for his time and to present the author's masterpiece faithfully. However, many purists have criticized the use of 3-D technology in the movie, seeing it as a detraction from the amazing talent that Fitzgerald demonstrated in The Great Gatsby.
Robert C. Sickels
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