Mark Richardson —
I was 16 years old when I first became aware of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was a junior in high school when one of the most important teachers I’ve ever had, Mr. Robert Bottomley welcomed me into his Twentieth Century Literature class at George S. Parker High School in Janesville, Wisconsin. Mr. Bottomley’s approach was to provide a closet filled with some forty titles by some of America’s greatest writers—Hemingway, Faulkner, Oates, Updike, to name a few—and allow each student to read a minimum of ten books from the closet. The first book that I selected was Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, introducing me to an author I would never cease to love, and the second was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were close friends, both fresh young authors when discovered by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, and, along with Perkins’ other great find, the brilliant Thomas Wolfe, gave Scribner’s the finest stable of young literary talent in the world in the 1920s. Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald began their careers as chroniclers of the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age. They wrote of the seeming pointlessness of a life after the Great War, of a group of young adults known collectively as The Lost Generation. While Hemingway would grow beyond this time and these people as his subject matter, Fitzgerald would continue to write of them until his early death in 1941.
Frances Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, the only child of an upper middle class family. His father moved the family to Buffalo, New York, where Scott, as he was known to all, spent his early years, until his father lost his job and moved the family back to St. Paul. Scott entered Princeton University at the age of 17, and, while a bright young man, his college days were marked by behavioral problems and the ensuing punishments. He began writing for a college paper and this pursuit became the driving factor in his life, resulting in the almost complete neglect of his schoolwork. It was while at Princeton that he wrote his first novel, a book called The Romantic Egotist. He submitted it to Scribner’s Publishing House, where it was promptly rejected, but it had been seen by Scribner’s most respected editor, Maxwell Perkins, who thought that with a lot of revision it might be made into something salable.
It was at around this time that Fitzgerald met and fell in love with the beautiful southern belle, Zelda Sayre, and in no time he proposed marriage. Zelda wasn’t fond of the idea of tying herself to an out of work college failure, and she declined. He persisted, with promises of a life of grandeur once his book was published, and Zelda finally acquiesced, conditional upon the book’s success. Hemingway, by now a close friend of Scott, wrote in his memoir A Moveable Feast that Zelda was “insane,” and time would bear out his assessment. But for now, just after The Romantic Egotist had been fully revised, retitled This Side of Paradise, published, and met with unexpected success, Zelda married Scott and ascended to a spot as the toast of New York.
The high sales tallies of Paradise led to heavy pressure from Scribner’s for a follow up. Two years after the 1920 publication of his first novel, Fitzgerald completed and published his second, a much longer book, called The Beautiful and Damned. This work did not meet with the splendid success that its predecessor had enjoyed, and Fitzgerald was stricken to his core. He didn’t understand the public’s rejection. He was of the belief, now seconded almost universally, that this second novel far surpassed his first as a literary achievement, and he was deeply wounded by the general reaction to it.
Max Perkins, though, realizing the greatness of The Beautiful and Damned, persisted in prodding Scott to pick up his pen again. This time it took three years, and the final product, The Great Gatsby, met with both great critical and commercial acclaim. Fitzgerald was back on top of the literary world.
Let’s move forward in time to January, 1973, when I went over to Mr. Bottomley’s closet and picked up a copy of Gatsby. The process in our class was this: we would read a book and then schedule a one-on-one conference with Mr. Bottomley, during which he would probe our understanding and appreciation of the book. The first question he asked me was, “Why was it necessary for Fitzgerald to tell the story through the eyes of the third person narrator, Nick Carraway?” I answered with some success, and the questions, it seemed to me, got easier. By the time the conference was over, Mr. Bottomley was convinced that I had some potential as a student, and he encouraged me daily to pursue my love of literature.
By the time I was 22, I had read all of Fitzgerald’s novels and short story collections—This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender Is The Night, The Last Tycoon, Flappers and Philosophers, Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories, All The Sad Young Men, Taps At Reveille, Babylon Revisited and Other Stories, and The Pat Hobby Stories. I thought I was done with Fitzgerald, and for the next 41 years I never took up a book of his again. But this past fall, I read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up, a memoir written when he was an old man, in which he laments that his library was full of books that he had read but once and then forgotten about, despite the fact that he had loved many of them. And I decided that I needed to re-read many of my old favorites. I decided that I would read again the complete works of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe…and I would begin with F. Scott Fitzgerald. This time around, I resolved, I would read the works of each author in the order written, thereby enabling me to trace their development, and in a case or two, regression.
So it was that I began again, with the changed perspective of a 63 year old man, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical account of his Princeton days. Like Fitzgerald, the central character of Paradise, Amory Blaine, is thoroughly convinced that he will be a great author. But his literary career takes a back seat to his need to eat and pay his bills, so he winds up writing copy for an advertising agency. His love leaves him for a wealthy man, and Amory, one of the Lost Generation, a generation of disillusion and hopelessness, is left alone to wonder what comes next. This Side of Paradise is decidedly the first novel of a very young writer. It is clearly the least mature of Fitzgerald’s works, but it shows some magnificent flashes of things to come. His command of the language, his remarkably advanced vocabulary at a young age—the product of his classical studies at Princeton—seem the work of a much older, more experienced author.
Next up was The Beautiful and Damned, written in 1922 when Fitzgerald was 26. He was now married to Zelda, living the life of a much in demand member of the literati, and both he and Zelda were drinking a lot more than was good for them. This would lead to great troubles in the future, but for now, they were the couple to be in 1922 America. The Beautiful and Damned is a study of America, and the cafe society, just before and then after The Great War. Anthony Patch, the protagonist, if one so hard to care for can be called one, is a young man who is squandering his time in useless idleness, waiting for the day when his grandfather’s fortune will be his. He spends his life falling in and out of dead-end jobs, drinking, wallowing in his love for Gloria Gilbert, doing foolish things with his friend, Dick Caramel that only lead to further dissipation, and embarrassing both himself and his grandfather until he has no chance of ever seeing any inheritance, Grandfather dies, leaving Anthony high and dry, and we last see Anthony and Gloria looking at their lives through the bottom of a glass. It is an extremely pessimistic novel, albeit a remarkably well written one. It did not stand Fitzgerald in good stead with the public in its time, but has gained much acclaim in the years since.
Then came his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Since this was the first Fitzgerald novel I had ever read, it was, of course, the one I read at the earliest age. I loved this book when I was a teenager, and I was prepared to love it as a 60-something old geezer. I was not disappointed. It has stood the test of time. The story of the mysterious, crime-connected millionaire Jay Gatsby, newcomer to town, whose parties, at which he makes only token appearances, take the locals by storm, is set in the mid-twenties (contemporary, as it was written in 1925). The flappers are at their apex, jazz music has swept America and become a staple of the time, and crime is at an all-time high. There is a suspicion among the town folk that Gatsby is connected to a crime syndicate, and has maybe even committed a murder himself, but he is an engaging host, always seeing to it that his guests have a wonderful time at his lavish parties but always remaining mysteriously in the background, befriending his wary neighbor Nick Carraway, who is the story’s narrator. Nick is close to most of the other characters in the story and serves as someone who connects Gatsby to the others. Nick’s close friend Daisy Buchanan falls in love with Gatsby, and Gatsby loves her, too, but there is a feeling of doom over the relationship from the start. Daisy is married to sullen Tom Buchanan, who is having an affair with Myrtle, the slovenly wife of a garage mechanic. One night, Daisy and Gatsby, by now engaged in an affair of their own, drive past the garage, Daisy at the wheel. She is drunk and accidentally hits Mytrle, killing her. They drive on into the night, but it soon becomes known that in the car were Gatsby and Daisy. Gatsby allows people to believe that it was he who was driving. Days later an enraged Tom appears at Gatsby’s house. Seeing Gatsby standing in the back yard by his pool, Tom shoots him repeatedly in the back.
The Great Gatsby won great accolades, putting Fitzgerald (and Zelda) back in the limelight. But their drinking had only grown more and more excessive. Max Perkins, after watching the effect that alcoholism was having on another of his his great young writers, Thomas Wolfe, tried to intervene, but Fitzgerald became very defensive and insulting, putting a great strain on their friendship. Fitzgerald eschewed any more novels, instead churning out a long succession of short stories to pay for the extravagant lifestyle he and Zelda had adopted. Nothing was enough for Zelda. She descended further into the throes of mental illness, taxing both Fitzgerald’s bank account and his patience. He continued to write his stories, for which The Saturday Evening Post was paying him substantially.
Seven years passed and then, in 1932, Fitzgerald wrote what most critics believe is the second best book of his life, Tender Is The Night. Some critics argue that structurally it is his best. I picked it up immediately after finishing The Great Gatsby, and when I began to read it I realized how little of it I remembered.
Tender Is The Night is the story of young American expatriots Dick and Nicole Diver, and the woman Dick loves more than Nicole, Rosemary Hoyt, and actress also living in Paris. (The expatriot movement was prevalent in the 1920s as many disillusioned young artisans left America in the post-World War I years to relocate in Paris. Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were among the leaders of the expatriot movement.) Dick is a psychiatrist, and Nicole, a neurotic young woman, once his patient, lacks the worldliness that Dick craves. Rosemary, whose movie career is successful and her stardom worldwide, tantalizes Dick but will not stay with him. She flits in and out of the picture, coming and going , travelling with her devoted mother, and then resurfacing to make Dick crazy with his love for her all over again. Nicole is aware of Dick’s infatuation with Rosemary, and is resigned to it. In the end, Rosemary goes off and leaves Dick for good. It is, at its heart, a book about the intricacy of human relationships. I liked it very much, but for me, nothing else that Fitzgerald wrote can really compare with Gatsby. There is more excitement in Gatsby than in any of the other novels, and more of what I think of when I think of the Roaring Twenties.
Fitzgerald’s final novel, The Last Tycoon, was left unfinished at his death. It is the story of Monroe Stahr, a movie producer in Hollywood. Fitzgerald, after his short stories had begun to repeat themselves and The Saturday Evening Post had stopped accepting them, moved to Hollywood after being given an astounding offer to write screenplays for more money than he had ever earned before. He stayed for only a short time and left with a bitter taste in his mouth. He found the work unchallenging, as shallowness was expected and nothing of substance was wanted or accepted. The Last Tycoon was a depiction of the decadence he saw in his time in the movie realm.
In The Last Tycoon, Monroe Stahr (based on movie producer Irving Thalberg) is often at odds with studio head Pat Brady (who is based on Louis B. Mayer). Monroe meets Brady’s daughter, Cecilia, in a coincidental meeting at the airport, along with a writer named Wylie White and an unsuccessful producer named Schwartz. Schwartz gives Cecilia a note, which she assumes is for her father. The four leave the airport, and the next day they become aware of the fact that Schwartz killed himself overnight. Cecilia then looks at the note and realizes it is for Stahr, not for her father. She decides to take the note to Stahr, on whom she has long had a girlhood crush. Due to a complex series of events, several people wind up going into Stahr’s office, one of whose name is Kathleen, who looks amazingly like Stahr’s deceased wife. Everyone leaves, but Stahr schemes to see Kathleen again. Upon convincing her to meet him, he tries to seduce her, thinking of his love for his dead wife, and she resists, but leaves the door open for future meetings. Meanwhile, Cecilia has arranged for a meeting between Stahr and another acquaintance of hers, a Communist (the Communist infiltration of Hollywood was, at this time, a central concern in America), who wants to organize a union at the studio. Stahr, learning of the man’s political ideology, starts a physical fight with him. Cecilia takes Stahr’s side, but her father does not, and he begins machinations to remove Stahr from his position. He goes so far as to hire a hit man to kill Stahr. Stahr is shot and wounded, but does not die. He, in turn, hires a hit man of his own to kill Cecilia’s father, He has second thoughts, and wants to call it off, but before he can the hit man’s plane crashes, killing him and saving Stahr from the ignominy of being a murderer.
Fitzgerald left The Last Tycoon unfinished upon his death in 1941, and it was completed by his close friend, writer Edmund Wilson from notes and sketches left behind by Fitzgerald.
I am not going to go into Fitzgerald’s short stories, though I enjoyed re-reading them very much. Suffice to say, he was not the great short story writer that he was a great novelist, but a handful of his stories do rise to that level. The Ice Palace, The Offshore Pirate, The Cut-Glass Bowl, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Diamond As Big As The Ritz (an intriguing story, and in my opinion, Fitzgerald’s most imaginative), to name a few, are noteworthy, and by any measure, Fitzgerald’s literary skills are evident in all of his works.
Our reception and understanding of literature depends to a large extent on the point in our life at which we come upon it. Reading Fitzgerald as a teenager and very young adult exposed me to a new kind of writing that I thought unique. It led me to expand my reading to new and unknown authors, introducing me to a magnificent world of books that I have loved all my life since. Bringing a much broader scope of knowledge and experience to my reading of them again, over 40 years later, I find that there is more in them than I realized as a youngster, and that they rank among the greatest American Literature contributions of the twentieth century. I’ve had a great time re-reading his works, and I am glad that I came upon the short line of lament in Maugham’s work that prompted me to return to the books of my early life. Now I find myself faced with taking on John Steinbeck. As was the case with Fitzgerald, it has been over 40 years since I finished reading the works of Steinbeck, who I have always regarded as my favorite author, so I am eager to get started. I’ll check back in with you.