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F. Scott Fitzgerald

September 24, 1896, is the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, his father, Edward, from Maryland, held an allegiance to the Old South and its traditional values that he passed along to his son.  Fitzgerald's mother, Mary (Mollie) McQuillan, was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who became wealthy as a wholesale grocer in St. Paul.

When Fitzgerald's father failed as a manufacturer of wicker furniture in St. Paul, he took a job as a salesman for Procter & Gamble in upstate New York.  After he was let go in 1908, he moved his wife and 12-year-old son back to St. Paul, where they lived comfortably on Mollie's inheritance.  Fitzgerald attended the St. Paul Academy; and his first writing to appear in print was a detective story in the school newspaper when he was thirteen.

During 1911-1913, Fitzgerald attended the Newman School, a Catholic prep school in New Jersey, where he met Father Sigourney Fay, who encouraged his ambitions for personal distinction and achievement.  In Princeton, Fitzgerald often neglected his studies for his writing.  Free to explore his artistic soul, he wrote the scripts and lyrics for several Princeton Triangle Club musicals and contributed his writing to the Princeton Tiger humor magazine, as well as the Nassau Literary Magazine.  His college friends included Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. 

In 1917, Fitzgerald found himself on academic probation and unlikely to graduate, so he joined the army and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry.  Convinced that he would die in service, he penned the novel, The Romantic Egotist/  A letter of rejection from Charles Scribner's Sons praised the novel's originality and asked that it be resubmitted after some suggested revisions were made.

In June, 1918, Fitzgerald was transferred to Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama, where he met and fell in love with a true southern belle, Zelda Sayre, the youngest daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge.  At 18, she already had a host of suitors, but Fitzgerald was determined.  His romance made him all the more anxious to get his novel published--he saw the money from it as being his personal salvation--but after resubmitting it to Scribners, it was rejected once again. 

The war ended just before Fitzgerald was to be sent overseas.  After his discharge in 1919, he went to New York City to seek his fortune so that he could ask for Zelda's hand in marriage.  Unwilling to wait while Fitzgerald succeeded in the advertisement business and unable to live on his small salary, Zelda broke their engagement.

In April, 1920, at the age of 23, Fitzgerald published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, making  him an overnight literary sensation.  A week later, he and Zelda married in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. 

After a riotous summer in Westport, Connecticut, the Fitzgeralds moved into an apartment in New York City, where he wrote his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, a naturalistic chronicle of the dissipation of Anthony and Gloria Patch.  The Fitzgeralds presented a picture of poise and beauty to New York society.  They proved to be perfect representatives of the Jazz Age, a term that Fitzgerald himself had coined.  Dorothy Parker said they looked "as though they had just stepped out of the sun."  They embarked on an extravagant lifestyle as young socialites.  Fitzgerald wanted to be taken as a serious writer, but his playboy image made it difficult for him to be critical of his own work.

When Zelda became pregnant in 1921, the couple took their first trip to Europe before settling in St. Paul for the birth of their only child, Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald, who was born in October, 1921.

Fitzgerald expected to become affluent from his play, The Vegetable; so, in fall of 1922, he moved his family to Great Neck, Long Island, in order to be closer to Broadway.  The political satire--subtitled "From President to Postman"-- failed at its tryout in November 1923, and Fitzgerald was forced to write his way out of debt with short stories. 

The distractions of Great Neck and New York City slowed his progress on his third novel.  His drinking increased.  Although he was by now an alcoholic, he wrote only when he was sober.  Zelda regularly drank to forget her problems, as well, but she was not an alcoholic.  The couple had frequent domestic arguments, usually triggered by bouts of drinking.

Literary reviewers were hesitant to give Fitzgerald full marks as a serious craftsman. His reputation as a drinker inspired the myth that he must also have been an irresponsible writer.  In reality, he had grown to become a painstaking reviser whose fiction went through layers of drafts.  His clear, lyrical, colorfully witty style evoked the emotions associated with time and place.  When critics objected to his concern with love and success, his response was: "But, my God! it was my material, and it was all I had to deal with."  A recurring theme in Fitzgerald's work is aspiration--the idealism he regarded as the defining American character.  Another major theme was loss. 

In spring of 1924, the Fitzgeralds went to France to find a calmer place for Scott could work.  He wrote The Great Gatsby during the summer and fall in Valescure near St. Raphael, but his marriage was strained by Zelda's affair with a French naval aviator.  The extent of the affair--if it was in fact consummated--isn't fully unknown. 

The Fitzgeralds spent the winter of 1924-1925 in Rome, where he revised The Great Gatsby.  They were headed to Paris when the novel was published in April.  The Great Gatsby marked a striking advance in Fitzgerald's technique, utilizing a complex structure and a controlled narrative point-of-view.  His achievement received critical praise, but sales of Gatsby were disappointing, though the stage and movie rights brought them additional income.

In Paris, Fitzgerald met Ernest Hemingway--then unknown outside the expatriate literary circle--with whom he formed a friendship based largely on his admiration for Hemingway's personality and genius.  The Fitzgeralds remained in France until the end of 1926, alternating between Paris and the Riviera.

Fitzgerald made little progress on his fourth novel, a study of American expatriates in France tentatively titled The Boy Who Killed His Mother, Our Type, and The World's Fair.  During these years, Zelda's unconventional behavior became increasingly erratic.

Seeking once more to escape the hectic lifestyle they had fashioned for themselves, the Fitzgeralds returned to America.  After a short, lackluster stint screenwriting in Hollywood, Fitzgerald rented "Ellerslie," a mansion near Wilmington, Delaware, in the spring of 1927.  The family remained there for two years, interrupted by a visit to Paris in the summer of 1928.  Still, Fitzgerald's progress on his new novel was painstakingly slow.  Zelda, who had decided to become a professional ballerina, went into training, and the couple returned to France in the spring of 1929, where her intense dedication to ballet further damaged both her health and their relationship.

By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, Fitzgerald had begun to crumble, as well.  His marriage was in threads.  Zelda had suffered her first nervous breakdown in 1930.  She was treated at Prangins clinic in Switzerland until September 1931, while Fitzgerald lived in Swiss hotels.  Work on the novel was again suspended as he wrote short stories to pay for his wife's psychiatric treatment.

 The changes that came with the Great Depression made F. Scott Fitzgerald seem like ancient history, along with everything else from the Roaring Twenties.  He had written about the lives of the rich, and now he remained associated with them while he and his writing fell out of favor with the public.  His books, including The Great Gatsby (1925), did not sell well.  In 1929, the Saturday Evening Post paid him $4,000 per story, but his total royalties on seven books that year were only $31.77.

"Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken...." - from The Great Gatsby

The Fitzgeralds returned to America in the fall of 1931 and rented a house in Montgomery, where they would stay for seven months.  Fitzgerald made a second unsuccessful trip to Hollywood, and Zelda suffered a relapse in February, 1932.  She entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and spent the rest of her life as a resident or outpatient of various sanitariums.


The year 1932 brought the Great Depression to its most tenuous point.  Fitzgerald was living in New York, a city that he loved.  He had said, "New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world."  One evening he did what a lot of New Yorkers did that year—he went to the top of the newly built Empire State Building.  He wrote about it in his essay, My Lost City:

Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground. - from My Lost City

After The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald took nine years to write his next novel, Tender is the Night. When it came out in 1934, it received mixed reactions.  By the spring of 1936, he found himself broke and looking for advances from Esquire magazine, but the editor told him he'd have to write something, anything, just to prove to their accountants that he could still produce.  Fitzgerald looked at his problems, his situation as a writer, and wrote a series of personal essays called The Crack-Up, about what it was like to hit bottom.


In a time when people didn't air their own dirty laundry in public, the essays were shocking.  Fitzgerald's writer friends—Hemingway, Maxwell Perkins, John Dos Passos—didn't understand why he would expose himself in that way.  But not only did The Crack-Up place Fitzgerald's name back in front of the public, but also it paved the way for a new confessional style in American writing. 


It begins: "Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once.  There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again." 


Fitzgerald died in 1940 at the age of 44.  That year, all of his books sold a total of 72 copies, with royalties of $13.  Today, The Great Gatsby, alone, sells nearly 300,000 copies a year.


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