F. Scott Fitzgerald was a writer very much of his own time. This rare ability, along with his rhetorical brilliance, has established Fitzgerald as one of the major novelists and story writers of the twentieth century.
The source of Fitzgerald ?s talent remains a mystery. Edward Fitzgerald , his father, came from tired, old stock with roots in Maryland. Edward Fitzgerald ?s great-great-grandfather was the brother of Francis Scott Key?s grandfather, and if Scott Fitzgerald claimed a closer relationship, it was hardly his fault. He had after all been christened Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald , and his mother Mollie was inordinately proud of the Key connection she had married into. Equally important, probably, was Fitzgerald ?s sense of having come from two widely different Celtic strains. Mollie Fitzgerald had lost two children to epidemics before her bright, handsome Scott came along. No beauty herself, she spoiled her son and loved to show him off. As a youth Fitzgerald revealed a flair for dramatics, first in Saint Paul where he wrote original plays for amateur production, and later at the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, and at Princeton, where he composed lyrics for the university?s famous Triangle Club productions. For Fitzgerald , boy-girl relationships amounted to a kind of contest in which there could be only one winner. During the hectic party season in Saint Paul, Christmas of his sophomore year at Princeton, Fitzgerald more than met his match in the charming Ginevra King of Chicago, Lake Forest, and the great world of wealth and family background. They dated a few times and conducted a long and heated correspondence, but in the end, almost inevitably, Fitzgerald lost her. There is a legend that Ginevra?s father told Scott that poor boys shouldn?t think of marrying rich girls. Whether he said it or not, Fitzgerald intuited such a message and tried to work off some of his disappointment in a number of his most powerful stories, beginning with The Debutante, published in the Nassau Lit in January 1917 and later included in This Side of Paradise (1920).
By the time that famous first novel appeared in 1920, Fitzgerald was engaged to marry yet another enchanting girl, Zelda Sayre of Montgomery, Alabama, the daughter of a judge and by all accounts a belle of shockingly unconventional behavior. It was characteristic of Fitzgerald , who was one of the most autobiographical of writers, to transform his own experience into fiction. Later he was to appropriate Zelda?s life in all its tragic dimensions for use in his stories and novels. At Newman Fitzgerald had encountered Father Cyril Sigourney Webster Fay, a worldly Catholic convert who delighted the boy by recognizing his potential and treating him like an adult. For a time Fitzgerald ?s Catholic roots threatened to emerge. At Princeton he had met John Peale Bishop, a young literary man who headed the Nassau Lit, Princeton?s literary magazine, and became, along with Edmund Wilson, a friend for the long haul. Always the emphasis stays on Amory, however. With people and events alike, as Andrew Turnbull observed, Fitzgerald adhered to the Renaissance and Romantic conception of the writer as a man of action who experiences his material at first handnot from lack of imagination, but so he can write about it more intensely.
This Side of Paradise became popular in large part because it portrayed the habits and customs of the young postwar generation. For his part, Amory Blaine is a remarkably tame and impeccably moral young man who flies from the arms of a seductive chorus girl as if she were an agent of the devil. Amory seeks to win the golden girl and to achieve recognition as a leader at Princeton. Like Fitzgerald , Amory Blaine throws himself into the work of the Triangle Club (and, in Amory?s case, the Daily Princetonian ). Like Fitzgerald , Amory spends too much time and energy analyzing the social system at Princeton as a kind of glamorous country club (this aspect of the book outraged some sons of Nassau and drew a letter of objection from Princeton?s president). At the end of This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine has presumably matured. In form This Side of Paradise is less a novel than the collected works, to 1920, of its twenty-three-year-old author. Fitzgerald embeds poems, play fragments, and short stories within his sprawling book. As James Miller was to observe, the result reads like what H. G. Wells called the novel of saturation. From the beginning Perkins believed in Fitzgerald ?s talent and was not afraid to show it. He became Fitzgerald ?s lifelong friend and financial benefactor. He fought for his author within Scribners during times when it seemed foolish to do so, like the long dry spell between The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934). Fitzgerald wryly imagined how it must have been for Perkins in a late self-deprecatory story called Financing Finnegan (1938). The house of Scribners brought out all of Fitzgerald ?s books during his life, and continues to publish them, in hundreds of thousands of copies, to this day.
With Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Scribners established a policy of following up each Fitzgerald novel with a book of his stories. In book form the stories sold less well than the novels, but they brought princely sums from the magazines. At one stage the Saturday Evening Post was paying Fitzgerald $4,000 per story, but the Fitzgeralds spent money so lavishly that they were almost always in debt. Their extravagance forced Fitzgerald to write more and more stories, which drained him of time and energy that might otherwise have gone into novels. Many of the best are included in The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1951), edited by Malcolm Cowley. Others are much less successful, but even in the least effective Fitzgerald almost always struck a grace note that stamped the story as indisputably his own. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were married in New York in the spring of 1920, and spent much of the next few years in and around New York, living variously in the city, Westport, Connecticut, and Great Neck, Long Island, with sojourns in Europe for a first look at that continent and in Saint Paul for the birth of their daughter, Scottie. They were never to alight anywhere long enough for it to seem like home, for Fitzgerald seems to have inherited an abiding restlessness from his parents. Fitzgerald earned a reputation as a symbol of the Jazz Age that he was never to rid himself of during his lifetime. The influence of Mencken, especially, emerged in his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922).
This is Fitzgerald ?s bleakest novel, infected by a tone of cynicism. The novel sold surprisingly well, but did not advance Fitzgerald ?s reputation. Both the novel and play touched on themes that were to dominate Fitzgerald ?s work for the next fifteen years: the effects of money and power on those who have too much of them and the excruciating dilemma of the young mannot necessarily poor but not rich eitherwho falls in love with a golden girl, wealthy, beautiful, and often cruel. These same themes emerged in several brilliant stories Fitzgerald wrote in the first half decade of the 1920s. The protagonist of the story, Gordon Sterrett, is a weakling who commits suicide rather than face marriage with the lower-class woman who has seduced him. Two stories of 1922, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Winter Dreams, concentrate on young men in contact with the world of wealth. Winter Dreams hits closer to home. In fact, it is one of the few Fitzgerald stories obviously set in and around White Bear Lake, the summer playground of Saint Paul?s elite. The little girl who had done this was eleven, Fitzgerald reveals, beautifully ugly now but destined after a few years to be inexpressively lovely and bring no end of misery to a great number of men. Like Dexter, most of Fitzgerald ?s male characters celebrate the ideal at the expense of the real. Regarded as background for the character of Gatsby, Absolution is most interesting in its strongly religious orientation. The Great Gatsby tells the story of a man who got too close.
Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in France, where he and his wife and daughter were to spend most of the last half of the 1920s. The novel bears almost no resemblance in form to those that had come before. In Jay Gatsby, nee James Gatz, Fitzgerald created far more than just another Amory Blaine seeking his fortune in the world, for in his misguided romantic way Gatsby stands for a deeper malaise in the culturea sickness that drives young men to think that riches can obliterate the past and capture the hearts of the girls of their dreams. Gatsby?s dream girl, hardly worthy of his romantic quest, is Daisy Fay Buchanan, wife to the safely (not newly) rich Tom Buchanan. She and Gatsby had met and fallen in love during the war, when Jay was a young officer with no money or position: eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand.
The novel tells the story of his attempt to get Daisy back some four years later. Told so baldly, the novel sounds like material for the pulps. Clearly, Fitzgerald had been reading Joseph Conrad and discovered in his use of the character Marlow as teller of the tale a way of distancing himself from his story without sacrificing intensity. Nick Carraway functions as an ideal Marlow in The Great Gatsby, for he is connected by background to the Buchanans (Daisy is his cousin, he had been at Yale with Tom) and by proximity to Gatsby (he rents a small house near Gatsby?s garish mansion), and he hashe tells uscultivated the habit of withholding judgments. At first, Gatsby is a mystery to Nick. Besides giving parties, Gatsby wears pink suits, drives yellow cars, and is in business with the man who fixed the World Series. Gatsby?s greatness lies in his capacity for illusion. Toward the end, Nick reflects, Gatsby must have realized that Daisy was not the golden girl after all, that she too had sprung from the material world and was made of all-too-human stuff, but those are Nick?s thoughts, not necessarily Gatsby?s. For all Fitzgerald lets us know, Gatsby dies with his dream intact, and then it is left to Nick to arrange for the service and erase the dirty word from the steps of Gatsby?s house and clean up the mess.
Like the books Gatsby was the real thing, but unformed, unlettered, and for all his financial cunning, ignorant. Like his father he preferred the picture in his mind to mundane reality. The Great Gatsby abounds in touches like these.
The Great Gatsby has inspired probably as much critical commentary as any other twentieth-century American novel, but it is so intricately patterned and tightly knit, so beautifully integrated through a series of parallels, that it hardly seems possible that criticism will exhaust the novel. If This Side of Paradise resembles the Wellsian novel of saturation, where everything is included, The Great Gatsby epitomizes the Jamesian novel of selection, where every detail fits and nothing is superfluous. The reviews for The Great Gatsby were the most favorable so far. Fresh from The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote The Rich Boy (1926), another of his very best stories. The mere possession of a great deal of money seems to confer on Anson Hunter, protagonist of the story, certain rights and privileges unthinkable for the penurious. The Rich Boy appeared in All the Sad Young Men (1926), the volume of stories that followed Gatsby. Other than that collection, however, Fitzgerald published no book between 1925 and 1934. Late in his life Fitzgerald wrote his daughter that he should have said upon finishing The Great Gatsby, I?ve found my linefrom now on this comes first. Meanwhile, the Fitzgeralds played on the Riviera and in Paris with, among others, Gerald and Sara Murphy (whose physical appearance and social gifts Fitzgerald transplanted to Dick and Nicole Diver) and Ernest Hemingway.
The story of the friendship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway makes a sad chapter in American literary history. At first Hemingway responded warmly to such generosity, but it was part of his character to resent assistance from others and he eventually turned on Fitzgerald , denigrating him and his work in a series of public and private attacks.
Unlike her husband, Zelda Fitzgerald was never taken with Hemingway (nor he with her). Fitzgerald suggested what the years in Europe had cost them in the autobiographical Babylon Revisited (1931). Fitzgerald ?s own dreams had begun to fade too, but he had less control over his drinking than Charlie Wales. Meanwhile, his stories had lost some of their appeal. In the Basil stories (nine in all, written in the late 1920s), Fitzgerald had effectively called up recollections of himself as a boy growing up romantic. And the five Josephine stories, published in 1930 and 1931, poignantly depicted the disillusionment of a young girl who, though beautiful and rich as always, had dared to dream like one of Fitzgerald ?s young men. The Saturday Evening Post printed the Basil and Josephine stories, but continued to seek from Fitzgerald tales of young love triumphant, and these he would no longer produce. On the verge of his emotional bankruptcy, he staked a great deal on Tender Is the Night, a novel which failed to achieve the financial and critical success he hoped for.
Only part of the trouble was Fitzgerald ?s own. Even in the opening section of the novel, when Diver is lovingly depicted through the eyes of the smitten movie actress Rosemary Hoyt, Fitzgerald plants the seeds of doubt. What was a game for Amory Blaine has become for Dick Diver a way of life.
The military metaphor introduced above threads through the novel, emphasizing Fitzgerald ?s conviction that Dick and Nicole, like many others, are engaged in a war from which only one of them will survive unscathed. The young men think they could do it but they couldn?t. Why, this was a love battlethere was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.?
?All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love,? Dick mourned persistently.
Dick Diver declines steadily throughout Tender Is the Night, until he drifts off to the small towns of upstate New York, still working his charm on any female, no matter how young, who might respond. Nicole bought from a great list that ran two pages, and bought the things in the windows besides. Fitzgerald is obviously of two minds about Nicole, as he had been about Daisy and Rosalind and the rest of the golden girls whose beauty and vitality almost redeem, for him at least, whatever defects of character lie underneath. Like Anson Hunter Baby commands but cannot love. On the whole, Diver is a likable character. Diver is at once Fitzgerald ?s most complex character and the one who best represents the author?s mature understanding of his own psychological makeup. When Fitzgerald describes his own shortcomings in the Crack-Up essays, written a year after Tender Is the Night, what is wrong with F. Scott Fitzgerald turns out to be almost exactly what was wrong with Dick Diver.
The reviews for Tender Is the Night were generally positive, but many reviewers expressed reservations, some commenting that the book was diffuse, not as well integrated as The Great Gatsby. Malcolm Cowley called it a good novel that puzzles you and ends by making you a little angry because it isn?t a great novel also, finding in it a divided purpose that perhaps goes back to the author himself and offering a persuasive definition of Fitzgerald ?s double vision: Fitzgerald has always been the poet of the American upper bourgeoisie; he has been the only writer able to invest their lives with glamor. Cowley adds that this dual perspective works well in Fitzgerald ?s earlier books, but in Tender Is the Night the division has become emphasized: The little boy outside the window has grown mature and cold-eyed: from an enraptured spectator he has developed into a social historian. At the same time, part of Fitzgerald remains inside, among the dancers. Actually, as recent criticism has demonstrated, Tender Is the Night is a far better integrated novel than has been generally supposed. Arthur Mizener, among others, considers it Fitzgerald ?s most complex achievement. Yet the novel has undoubtedly suffered, to some degree, from its author?s reputation for frivolity. Be careful not to use any advertising copy about gay resorts, Fitzgerald warned Max Perkins. He wanted Tender Is the Night taken seriously. In 1951, Scribners brought out a version of the novel which adopted this structure, put together by Cowley following Fitzgerald ?s notes. Deeply in debt and forced to pay hospital bills for Zelda and school bills for Scottie, Fitzgerald went to Hollywood in 1937 to recoup his credit and regain a sense of his own worth.
More recently, Fitzgerald had announced his emotional bankruptcy in the Crack-Up essays in Esquire. Time magazine picked up parts of the interview, and Fitzgerald , dejected, made a half-hearted attempt at suicide. Finally, readers of Fitzgerald ?s stories would have ascertained something of a self-portrait in Joel Coles, a screenwriter who manages to get rather drunk and make a fool of himself at a Hollywood party in Crazy Sunday (1932).
So Fitzgerald went to California very much under the surveillance of his employers and of himself. In the last year of his life Fitzgerald stole time from his screen writing and stories to begin The Last Tycoon (1941), an unfinished novel of great promise. Its protagonist, Monroe Stahr, is the most admirable of Fitzgerald ?s heroes. Great men of an earlier time, perhaps, might have succeeded in such an attempt. Here as in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald strove for economy of detail, a tight structure, and a reliable outside narrator. Ceciliahalf or more in love with Stahrwas to play the Nick Carraway role of observer. In time, though, as Fitzgerald ?s notes for his incomplete novel make clear, the moneymen from New York were no longer amenable to Stahr?s reasoning. There is a love story in this novel, too, a more explicitly passionate love story than any Fitzgerald had written before. But Stahr loses his Kathleen to a greater passion, his determination to rule his studio as one man. The real romance in The Last Tycoon is Stahr?s romance with his creative work. Fitzgerald underscores his stature by implicit comparisons with Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Here as in all novels since The Beautiful and Damned, he wanted to place the contemporaneous activities of his characters into a wider historical context (he had linked Diver, significantly, with General Grant). Fitzgerald ?s doubleness of perspective enabled him to identify with Gatsby and his dreams and yet to stand back with Nick Carraway and see how ridiculous this self-styled young rajah was. To an extent Fitzgerald ?s reputation still suffers from his image as Jazz Age playboy who did not take his craft seriously enough. Edmund Wilson did yeoman work to alter these misperceptions of his Princeton friend by editing The Last Tycoon and The Crack-Up, a potpourri of essays, letters, notes, and critical appreciations of Fitzgerald ?s work from other well-established writers.
In his review of The Last Tycoon , Stephen Vincent Ben?t took to task the self-righteousness of those obituary writers who, instead of reviewing Fitzgerald ?s work, merely reviewed the Jazz Age and said that it was closed. Had Fitzgerald been able to finish the book, I think there is no doubt that it would have added a major character and a major novel to American fiction. Even in its unfinished form, says Ben?t, the novel is a great deal more than a fragment. In it he finds the wit, observation, sure craftsmanship, the verbal felicity that Fitzgerald could always summon. Since that time almost anything written about Scott or Zelda Fitzgerald has attracted considerable attention. Most of the attention has concentrated on their lives as a romantic cautionary tale, orin the case of Nancy Milford?s Zelda (1970)as a sad story of a woman thwarted by her husband?s career. Andrew Turnbull?s Scott Fitzgerald (1962) drew on his own childhood acquaintance with Fitzgerald to evoke a moving portrayal of the writer during the trying years in the mid-1930s. In F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait (1965), Henry Dan Piper combined biographical research with critical insight to produce what remains one of the most useful books on Fitzgerald .
Happily, the tendency since 1965 has been to focus on the corpus of novels and stories Fitzgerald left behind, and the best scholarship has come from those who have worked with the storehouse of Fitzgerald materials at the Princeton University Library. Bruccoli was also the moving force behind the creation of both the Fitzgerald Newsletter and the Fitzgerald/ Hemingway Annual as repositories for research on Fitzgerald .