Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21,1940) was an Irish American Jazz Age novelist and short story writer, who is generally regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the Twentieth Century. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was perhaps the great American twentieth century novel, which laid bare the seamier side of the great American dream of wealth and "beautiful people." In the end, it shows the futility of such superficial markers of success, which has only become more prevalent in contemporary American culture.
Fitzgerald is considered to be the spokesman for the "Lost Generation" of Americans born in the 1890s who came of age during World War I and were overwhelmingly disillusioned with the state of twentieth century civilization. While living in France, Fitzgerald participated actively in the circle of expatriate modernists that included luminaries such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald, however, did not participate in the experiments of style and form that characterized most of the writers of his generation, sticking instead to the traditions of straight forward narrative. What made Fitzgerald stand out and rise above the capabilities of almost all of his peers was his ability to capture the nuances of the American psyche in a time of turmoil and dissolution. Fitzgerald is also one of the most accessible American writer of the 1920s and 1930s; while most other Modernist writers became so complex stylistically as to be almost obscure, Fitzgerald stuck to the core values of hope, doubt, loss, and triumph that have defined the American century.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota to an upper-middle class Roman Catholic family, Fitzgerald was named for his distant and famous relative Francis Scott Key—composer of the United States national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner"—but was commonly known as 'Scott'. He spent 1898–1901 and 1903–1908 in Buffalo, New York, where his father worked for Proctor & Gamble. When Fitzgerald, Sr., was fired, the family moved back to Minnesota, where Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul from 1908–1911. He then attended Newman School, a prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey, from 1911–1912. He entered Princeton University in 1913 as a member of the Class of 1917 and became friends with the future critics and writers Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. A mediocre student throughout his three-year career at the university, Fitzgerald dropped out in 1917 to enlist in the United States Army when America entered World War I.
Fearing he might die in the war, and determined to leave a literary legacy, Fitzgerald wrote a novel titled The Romantic Egotist while in officer training at Camp Zachary Taylor and Camp Sheridan. When Fitzgerald submitted the novel to the publisher Charles Scribner's Sons, the editor praised Fitzgerald but ultimately declined to publish. The war ended shortly after Fitzgerald's enlistment, and he was discharged without ever having been shipped to Europe. He frequently mentioned how much he regretted not fighting in the war.
While at Camp Sheridan, Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre (1900–1948), the "top girl," in Fitzgerald's words, of Montgomery, Alabama. The two were engaged in 1919, and Fitzgerald moved into an apartment at 1395 Lexington Avenue in New York City to try to lay a foundation for his life with Zelda. Working at an advertising firm and writing short stories, he was unable to convince Zelda that he would be able to support her, leading her to break off the engagement.
Fitzgerald returned to his parents' house in St. Paul to revise The Romantic Egotist. Renamed This Side of Paradise, it was accepted by Scribner's in the fall of 1919, and Zelda and Scott resumed their engagement. The novel was published on March 26, 1920, and became one of the most popular books of the year, defining the flapper generation. The next week, Scott and Zelda were married in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
The 1920s proved the most influential decade of Fitzgerald's development. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, published in 1922, demonstrates an evolution beyond the comparatively immature This Side of Paradise. The Great Gatsby, which many consider his masterpiece, was published in 1925. Fitzgerald made several excursions to Europe, notably Paris and the French Riviera, and became friends with many members of the American expatriate community in Paris, notably Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway prefaced his chapters concerning Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast with this:
His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.
Fitzgerald drew largely upon his wife's intense personality in his writings, at times quoting direct segments of her personal diaries in his work. Zelda made mention of this in a 1922 mock review in the New York Tribune, saying that,
[i]t seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home (Zelda Fitzgerald: The Collected Writings, 388).
Although Fitzgerald's passion lay in writing novels, they never sold well enough to support the opulent lifestyle that he and Zelda adopted as New York celebrities. To supplement his income, he turned to writing short stories for such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's Weekly, and Esquire magazine, and sold the film rights of his stories and novels to Hollywood studios. He was constantly in financial trouble and often required loans from his literary agent, Harold Ober, and his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins.
Fitzgerald began working on his fourth novel during the late 1920s but was sidetracked both by financial difficulties, which necessitated that he write commercial short stories, and the schizophrenia that struck Zelda in 1930. Her emotional health remained fragile for the rest of her life. In 1932, she was hospitalized in Baltimore, Maryland. Scott rented the "La Paix" estate in the suburb of Towson to work on his latest book, the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychiatrist, and his wife Nicole, who is also one of his patients. It was published in 1934 as Tender is the Night. Critics regard it as one of Fitzgerald's finest works.
Although he reportedly found movie work degrading, Fitzgerald was once again in dire financial straits, and spent the second half of the 1930s in Hollywood, working on commercial short stories, scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and his fifth and final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon. Published posthumously as The Last Tycoon, it was based on the life of film executive, Irving Thalberg. From 1939 until his death, Fitzgerald mocked himself as a Hollywood hack through the character of Pat Hobby in a sequence of 17 short stories, later collected as The Pat Hobby Stories.
Fitzgerald had clearly been an alcoholic since his college days, and he became notorious during the 1920s for his extraordinarily heavy drinking. This left him in poor health by the late 1930s. According to Zelda's biographer, Nancy Milford, Scott would also claim from time to time that he had contracted tuberculosis, but she states plainly that this was usually a smoke screen to hide his drinking problems. Ironically enough, it was most likely Fitzgerald's lifelong smoking habit, and not his drinking, that did the most to damage his health and bring on the heart problems that eventually killed him.
Fitzgerald suffered two heart attacks in late 1940. After the first, he was ordered by his doctor to avoid strenuous exertion and to obtain a first floor apartment. On the night of December 20, 1940, he had his second heart attack; the next day, December 21, while awaiting a visit from his doctor, Fitzgerald collapsed while clutching the mantelpiece in Graham's apartment and died at the age of 44.
Fitzgerald never completed The Love of the Last Tycoon. His notes for the novel were edited by his friend, the critic Edmund Wilson, and published in 1941 as The Last Tycoon.
First published on April 10, 1925, The Great Gatsby is universally considered to be Fitzgerald's masterpiece. It was not popular upon initial printing and sold fewer than 24,000 copies during Fitzgerald's lifetime. Although it was adapted into both a Broadway play and a Hollywood film within a year of publication, it was largely forgotten during the Great Depression and World War II. It was republished in 1945 and 1953 and quickly found a wide readership. It is now a standard text in high school and university courses on American literature in countries around the world.
The novel chronicles an era that Fitzgerald himself dubbed the "Jazz Age." Following the shock and chaos of the First World War, American society enjoyed unprecedented levels of prosperity during the 1920s as the economy soared. At the same time, Prohibition, the ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment, made millionaires out of bootleggers and gave rise to organized crime. Although Fitzgerald, like Nick Carraway in his novel, idolized the riches and glamor of the age, he was uncomfortable with the unrestrained materialism and lack of morality that went with it.
Nick Carraway, a New York bond dealer from the Midwest, befriends his neighbor Jay Gatsby, an extremely wealthy young man known for hosting lavish parties in his Long Island mansion. Gatsby's great wealth is a subject of much rumor; none of the guests whom Nick meets at Gatsby's parties know much about his past. Gradually the truth becomes clear: Gatsby is infatuated with an old flame, Daisy Buchanan, who happens to be Nick's second cousin once removed and the wife of his Yale classmate, a wealthy former football player named Tom Buchanan. Nick learns that the Buchanan marriage is not particularly sound—Tom has had numerous affairs with other women; the latest involves Myrtle, the wife of George Wilson, an auto mechanic.
Through Jordan Baker, a young professional golfer with whom Nick is mildly infatuated, Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meeting with Daisy. Gatsby had last seen her five years ago as a suitor during his military training near her home in Louisville. In the intervening period, Gatsby fought in World War I, then, stung by the need to make himself a wealthy man to vie for Daisy's attention, became involved with organized crime, through which Gatsby quickly amassed his fortune. Daisy, disinclined to wait, became engaged to Tom. On the eve of her wedding, she became distraught when she received a letter from Gatsby, but went through with the nuptials anyway.
Gatsby and Daisy eventually begin to see each other again, and ultimately the two engage in an affair. The conflict comes to a head in New York City, when Daisy's husband confronts Gatsby. It is then that Gatsby claims Daisy will leave her marriage and go with him. Daisy declares that she loves Gatsby now, but will not say (as Gatsby wishes) that she never loved Tom. Flustered, Daisy departs for Long Island with Gatsby; the rest follow later, in another car. By this point, the narrator, Nick, has become both Gatsby's sole ally and best friend. In response, Nick finds himself becoming extremely loyal to Gatsby, and comes to view him as his closest friend. During the middle of the hotel room confrontation, Nick becomes so impressed by Gatsby that he feels the desire to "get up and pat him on the back," saying he has experienced a complete renewal of faith in him.
Daisy is driving when Gatsby's car crashes into a woman in a hit and run accident, killing the pedestrian. The victim happens to be Myrtle Wilson, Tom's lover, who has run out to meet the car, thinking it was Tom coming for her. Myrtle's husband at first believes Tom has killed Myrtle, and confronts Tom, who directs him to Gatsby's car. Mr. Wilson tracks the car to Gatsby's house and shoots Gatsby to death, then kills himself. Daisy allows Tom to continue to believe it was Gatsby at the wheel when Myrtle was killed in the hit and run. None of the legions who attended his parties come to Gatsby's funeral; only Nick, Gatsby's father, and Gatsby's servants, pay their respects. Nick later describes Tom and Daisy as rich people who leave it to others to clean up their messes. Nick breaks off his relationship with Jordan and moves back to the Midwest, disillusioned with the dreams of wealth and fortune he had sought in the New York of the Jazz Age.
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