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One of the most prominent novelists and short-story writers of the Roaring Twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald was known as the ”spokesman of the Jazz Age.” In his works, he examines a generation’s search for the elusive American dream of wealth, success, and happiness. Much like his personal experience, Fitzgerald’s works mirror the headiness, ambition, despair, and disillusionment of America in his lifetime. His best-known novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), is considered one of the most penetrating descriptions of American life in the 1920s.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Class Division in Family
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was the son of Edward and Mollie (McQuillan) Fitzgerald. His mother was a rich heiress from a wealthy local family. His father was employed first as a furniture manufacturer, then by Procter & Gamble after his business failed. over the course of Fitzgerald’s childhood, Edward Fitzgerald’s job took his family from St. Paul to Buffalo and Syracuse, New York. After his father lost his job with Procter & Gamble, the family returned to St. Paul to live on Fitzgerald’s mother’s inheritance and the support of her family.
Over time, the young Fitzgerald developed an inferiority complex as a result of the class divisions within his family. Fitzgerald’s mother’s family had gained their wealth through the hard work of his Irish immigrant grandfather’s wholesale grocery business. His father’s family, on the other hand, was well bred and prestigious—in fact, Fitzgerald was named for his great-great uncle Francis Scott Key, who wrote ”The Star-Spangled Banner.” Out of this divergent background arose his ability to experience a wealthy lifestyle, yet he always felt somewhat like an outsider, never fully part of this class. Thus as a young man, he both emulated and loathed the rich, powerful, and beautiful, a social group with whom he maintained a lifelong love-hate relationship.
Published at Princeton
Fitzgerald was interested in writing poetry and dramas, and he aspired to become a great writer even as a youth. Privately educated early on, he wrote original plays for amateur productions while attending St. Paul Academy. He continued to write such plays while attending the Newman Academy, a prep school located in Hackensack, New Jersey. In 1913 Fitzgerald entered Princeton University, where he composed lyrics and wrote sketches for productions of the Triangle Club. Fitzgerald also appeared in Triangle Club productions as an actor. His first stories were published in Princeton’s literary magazine Nassau Lit.
Fitzgerald’s education at Princeton was interrupted by World War I. This conflict began in Europe in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Because of political tensions and entangled alliances, nearly the whole of Europe soon became involved in the conflict. The United States joined the war on the side of Great Britain and France in 1917 after Germany’s naval fleet began sinking American merchant ships in British waters. Ultimately, 10 million soldiers died and twenty million were wounded during the course of the ”Great War.”
Serving His Country
Fitzgerald volunteered for the army in 1917 and went to training camp in Alabama. On the weekends, Fitzgerald worked on the earliest drafts of his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920). He served in the army until 1919, without seeing action in the conflict or serving overseas. After leaving the service, Fitzgerald briefly lived in New York City and worked at an advertising agency, Barron Collier. He eventually returned to St. Paul and finished This Side of Paradise. The book was published to much acclaim, as it was the first American novel to deal with college undergraduate life in the World War I era.
The success and money Fitzgerald earned from This Side of Paradise allowed him to marry Zelda Sayre, a socially prominent daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge whom he met while at training camp. During the 1920s, Zelda Fitzgerald significantly affected her husband s life and career. She was his personal literary consultant and editor, and she matched Fitzgerald s extravagant tastes and passion for living in the moment. For some time, the couple lived a decadent lifestyle on Long Island, which inspired his novel The Great Gatsby.
Writing from Abroad
In the early days of their marriage, Fitzgerald produced several volumes of short stories, including Flappers and Philosophers (1920) and Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). He also wrote several unsuccessful plays, including The Vegetable; or, From President to Postman (1923) and How to Live on $36,000 a Year (1924). His second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), was also produced during this period. It was a lively but shallow book that was originally published serially in Metropolitan Magazine from 1921 to 1922.
Fitzgerald next turned his attentions to The Great Gatsby, completing the novel while living in Europe from 1924 to 1926. When the novel was published in 1925, it was recognized as a great leap forward for Fitzgerald’s craft and career. He published a third collection of short stories, All the Sad Young Men, in 1926 to favorable reviews.
A Great Depression
After completing The Great Gatsby, he began his fourth novel, which he worked on for nine interrupted years. Fitzgerald was distracted on several fronts. The alcoholism he had developed in his earlier years worsened, and his wife became increasingly mentally unstable. Furthermore, Fitzgerald was falling further into debt. These and other factors led Fitzgerald and his wife to return to the United States in December 1926. In 1927 Fitzgerald went to Hollywood for two months to work on a film treatment for a silent film, Lipstick, that was never made. He was able to make money by regularly writing and publishing short stories in periodicals in the late 1920s, but he soon faced new challenges.
His wife’s fragile state culminated in a mental breakdown, and she was ultimately diagnosed with and hospitalized for schizophrenia in 1930. Fitzgerald himself became depressed as well. In addition to sadness over his wife’s condition, he was feeling the economic effects of the stock market crash of 1929. The stock market crashed after an investment boom in 1924, which was fueled by investors buying stocks with purely speculative money. The stocks themselves were also wildly overvalued, and their worth plummeted as the economy took a downturn. The failure of the stock market sent the country spiraling into the Great Depression, which left the United States and then the world in a dramatic and sustained depression throughout the 1930s.
Decline in Output
As Fitzgerald struggled with these problems, his alcoholism worsened. The quality and amount of his writing declined as a result, and he nearly stopped writing in the mid-1930s. Yet over time, he labored over what some considered his most psychologically complex and aesthetically ambitious novel, Tender Is the Night (1934). Like Fitzgerald’s previous novels, it focuses on the spiritual emptiness of rich young Americans. He then published his last collection of short stories, Taps at Reveille (1935), which received little critical attention.
In the late 1930s, Fitzgerald continued to write short stories and essays for periodicals, and he also tried to start his life anew by moving to California to become a motion picture screenwriter. Employed first by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and later as a freelancer, Fitzgerald contributed to fourteen films, including Gone with the Wind (1939), but he received a credit on only one of them. While in Hollywood, Fitzgerald became romantically involved with Sheilah Graham, a local gossip columnist, while his wife remained hospitalized.
Also during this time, Fitzgerald wrote, but did not finish, his last novel, The Last Tycoon, about the motion picture industry. His work was fatally interrupted when Fitzgerald died suddenly of a heart attack in Hollywood on December 21, 1940, at the age of forty-four. His heart attack was believed to be induced by his long addiction to alcohol. The Last Tycoon was published in its unfinished form in 1941, after his death.
Works in Literary Context
Fitzgerald is generally regarded as the most gifted and insightful literary chronicler of the Roaring Twenties. The glamour and indifference of the youthful, affluent characters portrayed in his novels were derived from Fitzgerald’s own life and that of his wife and friends. Fitzgerald was further inspired by the events and values of American society in the 1920s and 1930s, especially the Jazz Age generation.
In This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned, Fitzgerald examined the lives of young characters who much resembled Fitzgerald and his friends. Hedonistic and acquisitive yet also jaded and rebellious, these affluent East Coast youths helped secure the popular image of a ”lost generation” both entranced and repelled by American materialism. The Great Gatsby called upon his experiences living among wealthy New Yorkers. Indeed, Fitzgerald and his wife attended many lavish Long Island parties similar to those that Gatsby hosts in the book. The colorful variety of characters in the novel, from flappers to gangsters to intellectuals, no doubt reflected the spectrum of his own acquaintances.
Fitzgerald took a different tone in Tender Is the Night, which was set against the backdrop of expatriate life in Europe in the 1920s. The story focuses on a brilliant young psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Diver, and his schizophrenic wife, Nicole. The story closely parallels Fitzgerald’s own life during this period, reflecting the disillusionment and strain he felt from both the Great Depression and his wife Zelda’s development of schizophrenia and eventual breakdown.
Reflection of American Society
In addition to reflecting the circumstances of his own life, many of Fitzgerald’s best-known works also reflected American society in the post-World War I era. His second and third novels, as well as his short-story collections published between novels, showed a growing awareness of the shallowness and brutal insensitivity that have been accoutrements of American society. This was most famously accomplished in The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald portrayed the decay of traditional American values in a suddenly prosperous society. He scrutinized the consequences of the Jazz Age generation’s adherence to false values by drawing a contrast between the immortality and shallowness of the East and the innocence and virtue of the West, highlighting the persistence of illusions and dreams in the face of sordid reality.
In the novel, Fitzgerald employs a first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, to tell the story of Jay Gatsby, a farmer’s son-turned-racketeer, whose ill-gotten wealth is acquired solely to gain acceptance into the sophisticated, moneyed world of the woman he loves, Daisy Fay Buchanan. Gatsby’s romantic illusions about the power of money to buy respectability and Daisy’s love were skillfully and ironically interwoven with episodes that depicted what Fitzgerald viewed as the callousness and moral irresponsibility of the affluent American society. Set amid the glamour and the raucousness of the 1920s, Gatsby’s tragic quest and violent end foretold the collapse of an era and the onset of disillusionment with the American dream.
Works in Critical Context
Although Fitzgerald is now regarded as a major twentieth-century writer, only a few of his novels and short stories were greatly acclaimed during his lifetime. This Side of Paradise was well received when it was first published, but novels like The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night were initially commercial disappointments, despite critical appreciation for them. By the time of his death, Fitzgerald was virtually forgotten and unread, a relic of a decade seemingly long in the past. In the 1950s, however, Fitzgerald’s work was rediscovered, and a critical revival led to the publication of numerous volumes of stories, letters, and notebooks. Since that time, critics have universally praised Fitzgerald’s mastery of style and technique that renders even his most trivial efforts entertaining and well executed. He is regarded as a profound and sensitive artist, and he lives on as the unparalleled voice of the Jazz Age.
The Great Gatsby
Although it eventually gained the respect of many prominent American writers and is now considered a classic, when it was published, The Great Gatsby was popular only with critics. Fanny Butcher, writing in the Chicago Daily Tribune noted that “The Great Gatsby proves that Scott Fitzgerald is going to be a writer, not just a man of one book.” In Dial, critic Gilbert Seldes went further by writing, ”Fitzgerald has more than matured; he has mastered his talents and gone soaring in a beautiful flight, leaving behind him everything dubious and tricky in his earlier work, and leaving even farther behind all the men of his own generation and most of his elders.”
Despite such positive reviews, The Great Gatsby marked the beginning of the author’s decline in popularity. Only twenty-four thousand copies of the novel were initially printed, and the book was not reprinted during his lifetime. After Fitzgerald’s resurgence in popularity in the second half of the twentieth century, though, Gatsby became respected by critics, scholars, and readers alike for its intriguing motifs and symbols and its scathing social commentary.
Tender Is the Night
When first published, Tender Is the Night received decidedly mixed reviews. Some critics deemed it a masterpiece. Gilbert Seldes took this opinion in the New York Evening Journal, declaring emphatically that Fitzgerald had ”written the great novel.” Yet the novel drew criticism from many others for being chronologically confusing and thematically unfocused. For example, critic James Gray in the St. Paul Dispatch deemed Tender Is the Night a ”big, sprawling, undisciplined, badly coordinated book.” In The Nation, William Troy contended that Fitzgerald was merely repeating his early work. Troy claimed, ”Dick Diver [the main character] turns out to be Jay Gatsby all over again. . . . And the repetition of the pattern turns out to be merely depressing.” After Fitzgerald’s death, however, the novel was accepted as exhibiting far more depth and narrative canniness than early critics perceived. In fact, later examinations of Tender Is the Night conclude that the circle of wealthy expatriates that Fitzgerald so knowledgeably depicted expertly symbolizes the Western world in decline.
- Berman, Ronald. The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s World of Ideas. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.
- De Koster, Katie, ed. Readings on the F. Scott Fitzgerald. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
- Prigozy, Ruth. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2001.
- Butcher, Fanny. Review of The Great Gatsby. Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1925.
- Gray, James. Review of Tender Is the Night. St. Paul Dispatch, April 12, 1934.
- Seldes, Gilbert. Review of The Great Gatsby. Dial (August 1925).
- –. Review of Tender Is the Night. New York Evening Journal (April 12, 1934). Troy, William. Review of Tender Is the Night. Nation (May 9, 1934).
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