Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming rendition of The Great Gatsby has many people excited, but beyond our distorted view of the Roaring twenties, few actually know about the triumphant, tumultuous and troubled life of Francis Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately, I have compiled a concise but comprehensive who’s-who of Fitzgerald’s life and works. Enjoy!
Who was he?
Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St.Paul Minnesota. Named after Francis Scott Key (composer of The Star-Spangled Banner), he was a sensitive, romantic type who was as charming as he was self-conscious. Many of the early records we have of his life are diary entries about love interests written at a young age. His father was an unsuccessful furniture salesmen who eventually moved to Buffalo, back the Midwest again before sending Francis to boarding school on the East Coast.
From his early high school days, Fitzgerald showed a penchant for theater and poetry, writing many Elizabethan plays, and when he was a popular football player at the Newman School in New Jersey, he even published a poem defending a fumble he caused. He eventually dropped out of Princeton to join the army and focus on writing, and it was during training that he met Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald at a base in Alabama. Eventually, he got rejected by Scribner’s Press for a hastily-written novel, but he caught their attention and soon after published This Side of Paradise, to much critical and financial success.
Fitzgerald’s writing style was inspired in large part by Joseph Conrad and fellow American authors like Sherwood Anderson. While Conrad’s style is extremely dense, a series of puzzles wrapped in enigmas, it is includes a sense of mystery and the exotic.
Fitzgerald’s prose is lighter than Conrad’s, but it nevertheless contains this layering. It is this type of subtext that allows his novels to contain a “sense” of doom and tragedy while also appearing blissfully romantic.
Sherwood Anderson is arguably another influence of Fitzgerald. Combining the clarity of literary naturalism and the psychological complexity of early 20th century literature (See: Freud), Anderson inspired the clear and crisp sentence structure that would characterize the work of the more significant American authors of the 1920’s. Of course, Fitzgerald puts a lot of his own life into his fiction, and many stories can be read for their allegorical qualities. Alcoholism, mental illness and marital issues factor into nearly every one of his novels, and they aggressively contrast his glamorous public image.
This Side of Paradise
Fitzgerald’s first novel. This autobiographical story chronicles the coming-of-age of Amory Blaine, a thinly-veiled Fitzgerald who begins in Minneapolis, then moves out East to go to Boarding School and Princeton. This type of novel is known in the literary world as a Bildungsroman, or a novel of personal and moral formation. Fitzgerald demonstrates his unique voice and style and even includes poetry and theater within the work. He also counters the romanticized aspects of the story with a feeling of existential dread, which will typify much of his latter fiction. He also proclaims the rise of a new generation, one “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”
The Beautiful and Damned
Two years after Paradise, Fitzgerald wrote his most naturalistic novel, that is, drawing on such predecessors as Emile Zola and Stephen Crane. About a young heir to a large fortune living among the rising socialites of New York City, the novel is, just like Gatsby, about the failure of the illusion of materialism to hold itself up. Of his four completed novels, the least successful and acclaimed. This novel, however, can be seen as a trial run for Fitzgerald’s seamless execution of tragedy in Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby is almost unanimously known as his Magnum Opus, but it is not so because of it’s length or its stylistic breadth. Rather, Gatsby is simple and short (almost a novella, in fact), and more akin to the works of Joseph Conrad than James Joyce. The Great Gatsby is about Nick, another Fitzgerald-like narrator, who moves from the Midwest to Long Island to work as a bonds trader. There, he encounters Jay Gatsby, a mysterious and wealthy man who falls in love with Daisy Buchanan, a gorgeous Kentuckian married to the mean and bitter Tom Buchanan. The novel is about both the failure and success of illusion in the gilded age of materialism. Many of the minor characters are aesthetically beautiful but internally grotesque.
Gatsby has endured because of its layered complexity hidden beneath its conspicuous simplicity. While it did not do that well at first, Fitzgerald knew it would that it would eventually became the literary crown jewel of the decade. The extensive laundry list of remakes and tributes, as well as the flapper chic that has become synonymous with the book, are testaments of its legacy.
Check out our lecture below for further commentary and analysis of The Great Gatsby
Tender is the Night
Tender is the Night is Fitzgerald’s fourth and last completed novel, written nine years after the publication of Gatsby. More ambitious, complex and psychological than its predecessors, the novel tells the story of the charming Dick Diver (yes, the name does have snicker-worthy significance), an expatriate psychoanalyst who suffers an gradual but inevitable mental decline because of alcoholism. The novel is also about a love triangle between Dick, his heiress wife and movie star Rosemary Hoyt. The novel was relatively successful and has retained its stature as one of the great works of the lost generation, along with Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
The Last Tycoon
The Last Tycoon (the original title given was The Love of the Last Tycoon) was published posthumously in 1941, but at the time of Fitzgerald’s death, it was incomplete and unedited. Following the biographical pattern of Fitzgerald’ s life, it told the story of Monroe Stahr, a Hollywood producer who succeeds through his charm but fails because of his sensitivity. Some critics have prudently suggested that a final edition could have even surpassed Gatsby in importance, but no one will ever know. What we do know is that Fitzgerald wanted to make this novel akin to Joseph Conrad’s more immaculate novels, and that he again wanted to connect the material pleasures and decadence of American society with the necessary downfall of those who try to uphold such an illusion.
The Diamond as Big as the Ritz
About a man who visits a hidden and strictly secretive estate in the Montana Rockies, this short story was initially rejected for its critique of wealth and iconoclastic religiosity. Just like his novels, opulence becomes the double-edged sword with which Fitzgerald both celebrates and denounces wealth. Mildly parodic and utterly fantastical, this short story/novella demonstrates just how significant the effects of wealth can be on character, and how the material goods meant to embellish lead those striving for immortality into the realm of the grotesque.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The short story that later became the acclaimed David Fincher movie was inspired by a Mark Twain quote. Paraphrasing Twain, Fitzgerald said that “it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” About a man who is born an old man and dies an infant, this story was not as significant as some of his other shorts, but it displayed just how different his shorter fiction was compared to his longer works.
An extremely personal story about a man trying to reconcile with a former lover and his past during a visit to Paris in 1930. When Charlie Wales meets with his brother and sister-in-law, the recovering alcoholic tries to get his daughter back, as she was taken away when a drunken fight unwittingly lead to the death of Charlie’s wife. Both a lament to his failures and a eulogy for a bygone day, “Babylon Revisited” is not only heavy because of its personal implications, but because Fitzgerald would in fact continue to replicate the troubled Charlie for a number of years after this story’s publication.
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was many things. Free-spirited. Wild. Beautiful. Talented. She met Francis while he was stationed as a cadet in Alabama, and though they had their early doubts, they nevertheless wedded in a small ceremony after This Side of Paradise achieved monetary success. In the 1920’s, they lead an extremely decadent lifestyle. Early hiccups in their relationship (aka Francis stealing parts of her diary) lead to a crisis in 1924, where she allegedly engaged in an affair with a French pilot. She then unsuccessfully attempted to do ballet. In 1930, she was hospitalized and eventually sent to Switzerland for treatment, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia While hospitalized in America, she wrote her novel Save me the Waltz. During the late 30’s and 40’s, she painted extensively, too, and a large collection of work still remains. in 1948, she and eight other women died when a fire broke out at the hospital where she briefly visiting. While some critics are divisive about her work, her extensive writings have become commonplace in University classrooms.
It would be difficult to classify Fitzgerald and Hemingway as “friends”. From the moment they met, their authorial merits were overshadowed by Hemingway’s condescension and Fitzgerald’s alcoholism. An infamous passage in Hemingway’s A Movable Feast depicts a conversation between the two where Hemingway makes comments about Fitzgerald’s unimpressive…physique. Zelda and Hemingway were notorious arch-enemies, too, believing the other to be crazy and pretentious. Nevertheless, both authors did admit that each other’s works were good, but after 1930, their reunions were few and far between.
Fitzgerald had suffered multiple heart attacks in 1930, and his rampant alcoholism became the harbinger of many other suspected illnesses, including tuberculosis. On December 20th, 1940, Fitzgerald was pronounced dead of an apparent Heart attack. He left behind his partially finished The Last Tycoon. He was 44.
Please stay tuned for more extensive articles and lectures about Fitzgerald and other authors mentioned here. In the meantime, enjoy this Gatsby-inspired playlist while you wait for the movie to come out.