F. Scott Fitzgerald
was one of the major American writers of the twentieth century -- a figure whose life and works embodied powerful myths about our national dreams and aspirations. Fitzgerald was talented and perceptive, gifted with a lyrical style and a pitch-perfect ear for language. He lived his life as a romantic, equally capable of great dedication to his craft and reckless squandering of his artistic capital. He left us one sure masterpiece, The Great Gatsby;
a near-masterpiece, Tender Is the Night;
and a gathering of stories and essays that together capture the essence of the American experience. His writings are insightful and stylistically brilliant; today he is admired both as a social chronicler and a remarkably gifted artist.
Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was descended from Maryland gentility; he was dapper and well bred but lacked commercial acumen and, after a series of business failures, was forced to rely on support from his wife's family. Fitzgerald's mother was Mollie McQuillan, an intelligent, eccentric woman whose Irish immigrant father had made a success in St. Paul as a wholesale grocer. The Fitzgeralds lived conventionally -- "In a house below the average / On a street above the average," wrote young Fitzgerald in a poem. As a boy he was precocious: handsome and socially observant, he wrote plays for the local dramatic society and produced fiction and poetry for the school newspaper. In 1911 his parents sent him east to a Catholic prep school, the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, where he came under the influence of a sophisticated priest, Monsignor Sigourney Fay, and an Anglo-Irish author named Shane Leslie. These two men ignited his literary ambitions and encouraged him to develop his considerable talent as a writer. Fitzgerald entered Princeton in the fall of 1913. He was captured immediately by the great beauty of the university and by its aura of high striving and achievement. He labored under social disadvantages there -- he was a midwesterner and an Irish Catholic -- but his enthusiasm and literary talent won him some successes during his first two years. He wrote musical comedies for the Triangle Club, published fiction and poetry in the Nassau Literary Magazine, and accepted a bid to the prestigious Cottage Club. He was an indifferent student, though, and his poor marks eventually caught up with him, denying him the awards he had dreamed of. Fitzgerald never took a degree from Princeton; he made a semi-honorable exit from the university in 1917, answering the call to colors and serving as an army officer in World War I.
To his great regret, Fitzgerald "didn't get over." His battalion was waiting in New York to embark for Europe just as the armistice was signed in November 1918. Fitzgerald never saw the front, but the war years were momentous for him in other ways. In the summer of 1918, while in a training camp near Montgomery, Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, a beautiful and unconventional belle, the daughter of a prominent local judge. Fitzgerald fell in love with her -- with her passionate nature and adventurous spirit -- and they became engaged. After his discharge from the army he took a job in advertising in New York City, determined to make a success in business so that they might marry. Fitzgerald was a failure as an ad man, though, hating the work and chafing at his separation from Zelda. She lost faith in him, believing that he could not support her, and broke off their engagement in June 1919. After an epic bender, Fitzgerald quit his advertising job and spent his last few dollars on a train ticket home to St. Paul. He meant to prove himself to Zelda by writing a novel: "I was in love with a whirlwind," he later recalled, "and I must spin a net big enough to catch it out of my head."
Fitzgerald began this improbable quest by resurrecting the typescript of a novel that he was calling "The Romantic Egotist." He had finished the narrative during army training camp, working on it in the officers club during nights and weekends. The book had been rejected twice by Charles Scribner's Sons, a prestigious New York publishing house, but a young editor there named Maxwell Perkins had recognized Fitzgerald's promise and had told him to keep trying. During the summer of 1919, working diligently in the attic of his parents' home in St. Paul, Fitzgerald reconceived "The Romantic Egotist" and transformed it into This Side of Paradise, a daring and experimental novel. Perkins accepted the book in September for publication the following spring.
Backed by this success, Fitzgerald rekindled his romance with Zelda. They renewed their engagement and were married in St. Patrick's cathedral in New York on April 3, 1920, just a week after publication of This Side of Paradise. The novel was an immediate hit, with enthusiastic reviews and excellent sales, and the Fitzgeralds became famous overnight. Fitzgerald found that he was in demand as a writer; his price for stories rose quickly, and he began to write much commercial short fiction -- a dependable source of money for the extravagant life that he and Zelda now were leading. These triumphs in literature, love, and finances gave Fitzgerald great faith in his talent and luck. "The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter," he later wrote. "In the best sense one stays young."
For Fitzgerald the early 1920s were productive. He published a second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, in 1922; it marked an advance over This Side of Paradise in form and style, though it lacked the energy and charm of the earlier book. Fitzgerald also wrote some of his best short stories during these years -- prophetic tales like "May Day" and "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" and perceptive character studies like "Dalyrimple Goes Wrong" and "The Ice Palace." He and Zelda lived near New York City, in a cottage in Westport, Connecticut; later they rented a house on Great Neck, Long Island, where they socialized with the Manhattan literati and the Broadway theater crowd of the day. In the spring of 1924 the Fitzgeralds and their young daughter Scottie, born in 1921, traveled to Europe and settled on the French Riviera. Fitzgerald needed quiet and freedom from distraction in order to compose his third novel. He labored through the summer and by October had completed a narrative called "Trimalchio" -- a short, well-crafted novel of manners set on Long Island. His hero was a hazily depicted parvenu from the Midwest named Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald mailed the novel to Perkins in New York, and Perkins had it set in type for spring publication. Fitzgerald continued to work on the text in galley proofs, however, rewriting two chapters, focusing Jay Gatsby's character more sharply, and infusing the story with an aura of myth and wonder. The novel, now titled The Great Gatsby, was published in April 1925. Reviews were good but sales disappointing. In the years that followed, however, Gatsby would win much praise and ascend to a very high place in the American literary canon. Today it is probably the most widely read American novel of the twentieth century.
The Great Gatsby established Fitzgerald as a skilled professional. This is one of the paradoxes of his life: though he was sometimes frivolous and irresponsible in his personal behavior, he was thoroughly serious as an artist. He had a good understanding of the marketplace and was ambitious and self-critical, aiming to create a body of writing that would survive him. His struggles to balance work against amusement, popular appeal against literary artistry, energized his career and gave complexity to the fiction he wrote. The Fitzgeralds remained in Europe during the late 1920s. These were years of growth for Fitzgerald; he read and traveled and observed, "seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea" and capturing in his fiction the exoticism of the great European cities. He knew James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Sinclair Lewis, and Archibald MacLeish; his and Zelda's closest friends were Gerald and Sara Murphy, a sophisticated American couple who later served as partial models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night. Fitzgerald also met a talented young writer named Ernest Hemingway, and they became intimate friends for a time. Their relationship, however, was eventually eroded by competition and jealousy, mostly on Hemingway's part.
The Fitzgeralds' marriage began to disintegrate during their last few years in Europe. Fitzgerald's drinking increased as he struggled to produce a new novel; he managed to write some excellent short fiction, including the Basil Duke Lee stories of 1928 and 1929, but failed to make much progress on the manuscript of his book. Zelda's health deteriorated as she worked fervently to construct a life of her own as a ballet dancer. Talented and restless, she wanted an identity apart from her role as Fitzgerald's wife. The strain of ballet training helped to bring about a mental breakdown in 1930 from which she never entirely recovered.
The family returned to America in 1931. Fitzgerald managed to complete his novel Tender Is the Night while living in Baltimore. Scribners published the book in April 1934 to generally good reviews but, again, to only moderate sales. Fitzgerald was greatly disappointed; he had worked on the book over a nine-year period, putting the manuscript through some seventeen drafts. Tender Is the Night shows evidence of this labor on every page; it is a brilliantly written study of expatriate life, but its flashback structure causes difficulty for readers, and the fall of its hero, Dick Diver, seems overly precipitate.
Fitzgerald's personal life went into decline after the novel was published. His health, never strong, had been damaged by the push to finish the novel, and his personal troubles had left him creatively and financially drained. Zelda was being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital and later in clinics near Asheville, North Carolina. In good periods she and Fitzgerald lived together, but the reconciliations were never successful or lasting. Zelda had begun to paint and write, producing an autobiographical novel called Save Me the Waltz. She and Fitzgerald had quarreled bitterly about her use of autobiographical material in the novel. Scribners had published the book in 1932, but not before Zelda, at Fitzgerald's insistence, had reworked the narrative in manuscript. Fitzgerald himself revised the text in galleys. Scottie, the Fitzgeralds' daughter, had flourished during the years in Europe, but now her parents could not provide her with a stable home. She spent her teenage years in eastern boarding schools; during most vacations she stayed with the family of Harold Ober, Fitzgerald's literary agent.
Fitzgerald reached a professional crisis in the mid-1930s. He found that he could no longer manufacture the light, entertaining tales of love that had sold for many years to Redbook, Metropolitan, and the Saturday Evening Post. While living in North Carolina he began to write for a new magazine, Esquire, and published three autobiographical "Crack-Up" essays there, famous today as dissections of the American Dream and as measured reflections on failure and loss. At the age of forty he found himself emotionally bankrupt, "standing at twilight on a deserted range, with an empty rifle in my hands and the targets down."
Fitzgerald was rescued in the summer of 1937 by Harold Ober, who arranged a lucrative Hollywood contract for him. He went to the West Coast in July and worked as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for eighteen months, paying off large debts to Scribners and Ober. He established a relationship with the newspaper columnist Sheilah Graham, who took care of him and endured his sometimes erratic behavior. Fitzgerald began his stint in Hollywood with high hopes but quickly became disillusioned. He was temperamentally unsuited for movie work and resented the requirements of the studio system, which dictated that he collaborate with other scriptwriters. Despite his frustrations Fitzgerald was a diligent breadwinner, sending Scottie to Vassar College, where she wrote plays and was a popular student. Zelda lived intermittently with her family in Montgomery; her health was fragile, and she spent periods of instability, by her own choice, in the Highland Hospital in Asheville.
MGM declined to renew Fitzgerald's contract at the end of 1938, and he returned to magazine writing. In October 1939 he began a novel about Hollywood; his hero, called Monroe Stahr, was based on the movie producer Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald was excited about the project and made good headway on his manuscript, but his health began to fail in 1940 and in late November of that year he suffered a mild heart attack. After a brief convalescence he resumed work on the novel; he died unexpectedly of a second heart attack on December 21. The drafts of the novel were published as The Last Tycoon in 1941. These chapters show great promise and provide a tantalizing glimpse of Fitzgerald's spare, mature style. He was buried in Rockville, Maryland, a town not far from his father's birthplace. Zelda lived on until March 1948, when she perished in a fire at the Highland Hospital. She was buried beside her husband in Rockville. In his working notes for The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives" -- but his own life has been resurrected and reexamined by two generations of biographers and historians. His victories and defeats (as he knew) mirrored the triumphs and downfalls of American society during the boom years of the twenties and the bust years that followed. His writings embody lessons of ambition and disappointment, idealism and disenchantment, success and failure and redemption, that are central to the American experience. During his short professional career he won a wide audience and helped to establish American authors as deserving of serious attention. His romantic readiness for life and his gift for hope have come to embody important aspects of the American identity; he was among the first to recognize his country's dreams of infinite possibility. Fitzgerald's works and life still fascinate us, and his reputation continues to grow.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Life and Career
By James L. W. West III
Pennsylvania State University