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F. Scott Fitzgerald: An American Icon

Posted by definitive touch, November 21st, 2009

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Every great nation has a tradition of great writers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contributions to American literature and culture are why we focus on him as this week’s American icon. From his rise to prominence as a promising young novelist, to his free-wheeling lifestyle in Europe, to his death in obscurity and re-evaluation by critics, his life is known to aspiring writers worldwide, and is a source of equal parts inspiration and sympathy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born on Septeber 24th, 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota to an upper-middle class Irish Catholic home, and named for his distance relative, Francis Scott Key, composer of the Star Spangled Banner. Scott, as he was known, was juggled between various boarding schools between the East coast and Minnesota. His literary talent was obvious from an early age, having a short story published at twelve, and accepted to Princeton in 1913. Ostensibly just another private university, Princeton was unique from every other school in the Ivy League. Princeton was last to establish academic scholarships, and foremost in establishing trends and style – Princeton was one of two schools which had a J. Press store on campus. Fitzgerald was richer for his time at Princeton, reflecting on the school in a novel, The Romantic Egoist, which was rejected for publication. Fitzgerald was involved in Princeton’s young literary circles, writing for the Triangle Club, and submitted novels to various publishers. Not as affluent as his peers, Fitzgerald left to enlist in the US Navy during World War I.

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Though the war ended before he could be deployed, Fitzgerald was able to meet Zelda Sayre while assigned to Camp Sheridan in Alabama. The star of the Montgomery, Alabama social scene, Sayre was the most beautiful, most stylish figure around, and the two quickly fell in love. She was beautiful and intelligent, and her quick mind enraptured Scott, who used her as a muse. The two were engaged, but Fitzgerald’s unstable financial and social state was not enough for a marriage. A Princeton dropout and irregular advertising writer, Fitzgerald returned to St. Paul to revise The Romantic Egoist. A new edition of the book, now called This Side of Paradise was submitted to Charles Scribner & Sons, who were enthusiastic about it. This Side of Paradise was an overwhelming success, going through twelve printings in just two years. Riding off this success, Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre in 1920, with a raucous honeymoon in New York City’s famous Biltmore Hotel. The newly wed couple were asked to leave by management, due to noise complaints.

The Fitzgeralds embodied the Jazz age – wealthy, successful, intelligent, and beautiful, they were the darlings of the New York City social scene. Zelda was acclaimed as the first of the American flappers – beautiful, outspoken, stylish young women who were not afraid to defy social conventions. Zelda became pregnant quickly, and their only child, Frances Scott Fitzgerald, was born in 1921. Zelda and Scott were happy enough at first, but the earnings off This Side of Paradise would not last forever. Scott soon began work on The Beautiful and the Damned. The novel was acclaimed as an excellent sophomore novel, and the Fitzgeralds moved to Europe in 1924.

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In Europe, the Fitzgeralds ran in a crowd with Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and other members of America’s ‘Lost Generation’. Scott and Hemingway made fast friends, but was marked by disagreements. Scott was now able to sell short stories to publications like Scribner’s, and The Saturday Evening Post, introducing him to whole new audiences. Though the work paid, Scott considered the work below him, and Hemingway strongly disliked his friend’s commercial endeavors. What’s more, Hemingway saw Zelda as an enabler, distracting Scott with drink and believed her quirks to be signs of deeper problems. However, Zelda and Scott were inexorably tied together. He loved her, but he belittled her own writing work while at the same time, stealing from it. She loved him, but her constant flirting with other men, alcoholism and lavish spending wore him thin. Scott would work less and less on real novels, and spend more time on short stories for high paying magazines, and Hollywood screenplays, to sustain their lifestyle. Life was marked by jealous, violent arguments and torrid reconciliations that would steadily grow more and more intense. In 1925, Fitzgerald published what would be regarded as his magnum opus, The Great Gatsby.

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Documenting the rise and fall of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby during the fast-living era of Prohibition in New York City, The Great Gatsby was acclaimed by critics as a truly great American work. T. S. Eliot wrote to Scott, calling Gatsby “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James”. However, sales were dim, with many copies remaining unsold. Scott became disillusioned with his writing ability, and work began slowly on his next novel. Zelda’s behavior during this time grew more erratic, and in 1930, Zelda suffered a breakdown, diagnosed as caused by schizophrenia. Scott’s life fell apart, as he began doing more and more short stories to pay for her medical bills, and his drinking habit quickly blossomed into alcoholism. Zelda continued to suffer breakdowns, and she was committed to psychiatric care in 1932. During her time in medical care, she wrote, painted, and was able to complete a novel, Save Me the Waltz, which depicted her life with Scott in Europe. Scott discouraged her writing, and was able to have it edited before it was printed.

Scott was able to complete his fourth novel, Tender Is The Night in 1934, but critical reception and sales were dim. Fitzgerald was crushed, and financially despondent. Moving to Hollywood, Scott threw himself into film work, despite his own hate for the field. He slowly began work on his final work, The Last Tycoon. Scott and Zelda rarely saw each other, as she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals along the East coast, while Scott began living with Sheilah Graham, a gossip columnist. Scott had fallen out of the public consciousness, and when a young writer was told that he would collaborate with Fitzgerald on a screenplay, he mused “I thought he was dead”. Considering himself a failure, he wrote to his daughter, saying that this was the “last tired effort of a man who once did something finer and better”.

In 1940, Scott suffered a heart attack. Doctors told him he would need to stop drinking and avoid strenuous activity, but it was too little too late. On December 21st, 1940, Fitzgerald suffered a massive heart attack in Ms. Graham’s home, and died. He had last seen Zelda in 1938, taking her on a vacation to Cuba. Scott’s body was laid to rest in Maryland, where it was hoped he could be buried alongside his father, however, as a non-practicing Catholic, he was disallowed burial at Saint Mary’s. Eight years later, Zelda would die in a fire while being treated at Highland Mental Hospital. A lobbying effort was undertaken to have him reburied in his family plot, and in 1975, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald were laid to rest together in the Fitzgerald family cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.

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After his death, Fitzgerald’s work has undergone several massive re-evaluations, and he is now regarded as one of the most engaging, capable and insightful writers of the 20th century. His ability to clearly communicate the underlying problems and disappointments of an entire generation was renowned by critics and academics after his death, and The Great Gatsby is regarded as one of the great American novels, if not the Great American Novel. Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the truly great Americans storytellers, an inspiration for writers, and seen as one of the truly great troubled geniuses, destroyed by jealousy, egoism, and drink.

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