Who Was F. Scott Fitzgerald?
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a short story writer and novelist considered one of the pre-eminent authors in the history of American literature due almost entirely to the enormous posthumous success of his third book, The Great Gatsby. Perhaps the quintessential American novel, as well as a definitive social history of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby has become required reading for virtually every American high school student and has had a transportive effect on generation after generation of readers.
At the age of 24, the success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, made Fitzgerald famous. One week later, he married the woman he loved and his muse, Zelda Sayre. However by the end of the 1920s Fitzgerald descended into drinking, and Zelda had a mental breakdown. Following the unsuccessful Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood and became a scriptwriter. He died of a heart attack in 1940, at age 44, his final novel only half completed.
Family, Education and Early Life
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fitzgerald’s namesake (and second cousin three times removed on his father's side) was Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to the "Star-Spangled Banner."
Fitzgerald's mother, Mary McQuillan, was from an Irish-Catholic family that made a small fortune in Minnesota as wholesale grocers. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, had opened a wicker furniture business in St. Paul, and, when it failed, took a job as a salesman for Procter & Gamble. During the first decade of Fitzgerald's life, his father’s job took the family back and forth between Buffalo and Syracuse in upstate New York. When Fitzgerald was 12, Edward lost his job with Procter & Gamble, and the family moved back to St. Paul in 1908 to live off of his mother's inheritance.
Fitzgerald was a bright, handsome and ambitious boy, the pride and joy of his parents and especially his mother. He attended the St. Paul Academy. When he was 13, he saw his first piece of writing appear in print: a detective story published in the school newspaper. In 1911, when Fitzgerald was 15 years old, his parents sent him to the Newman School, a prestigious Catholic preparatory school in New Jersey. There, he met Father Sigourney Fay, who noticed his incipient talent with the written word and encouraged him to pursue his literary ambitions.
After graduating from the Newman School in 1913, Fitzgerald decided to stay in New Jersey to continue his artistic development at Princeton University. At Princeton, he firmly dedicated himself to honing his craft as a writer, writing scripts for Princeton's famous Triangle Club musicals as well as frequent articles for the Princeton Tiger humor magazine and stories for the Nassau Literary Magazine.
However, Fitzgerald's writing came at the expense of his coursework. He was placed on academic probation, and, in 1917, he dropped out of school to join the U.S. Army. Afraid that he might die in World War I with his literary dreams unfulfilled, in the weeks before reporting to duty, Fitzgerald hastily wrote a novel called The Romantic Egotist. Though the publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, rejected the novel, the reviewer noted its originality and encouraged Fitzgerald to submit more work in the future.
Fitzgerald was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry and assigned to Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. The war ended in November 1918, before Fitzgerald was ever deployed. Upon his discharge, he moved to New York City hoping to launch a career in advertising lucrative enough to convince his girlfriend, Zelda, to marry him. He quit his job after only a few months, however, and returned to St. Paul to rewrite his novel.
'This Side of Paradise' (1920)
This Side of Paradise is a largely autobiographical story about love and greed. The story was centered on Amory Blaine, an ambitious Midwesterner who falls in love with, but is ultimately rejected by, two girls from high-class families.
The novel was published in 1920 to glowing reviews. Almost overnight, it turned Fitzgerald, at the age of 24, into one of the country's most promising young writers. He eagerly embraced his newly minted celebrity status and embarked on an extravagant lifestyle that earned him a reputation as a playboy and hindered his reputation as a serious literary writer.
'The Beautiful and Damned' (1922)
In 1922, Fitzgerald published his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, the story of the troubled marriage of Anthony and Gloria Patch. The Beautiful and Damned helped to cement Fitzgerald’s status as one of the great chroniclers and satirists of the culture of wealth, extravagance and ambition that emerged during the affluent 1920s — what became known as the Jazz Age. "It was an age of miracles," Fitzgerald wrote, "it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire."
'The Great Gatsby' (1925)
The Great Gatsby is considered Fitzgerald's finest work, with its beautiful lyricism, pitch-perfect portrayal of the Jazz Age, and searching critiques of materialism, love and the American Dream. Seeking a change of scenery to spark his creativity, in 1924 Fitzgerald had moved to Valescure, France, to write. Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who moves into the town of West Egg on Long Island, next door to a mansion owned by the wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby. The novel follows Nick and Gatsby's strange friendship and Gatsby's pursuit of a married woman named Daisy, ultimately leading to his exposure as a bootlegger and his death.
Although The Great Gatsby was well-received when it was published, it was not until the 1950s and '60s, long after Fitzgerald's death, that it achieved its stature as the definitive portrait of the "Roaring Twenties," as well as one of the greatest American novels ever written.
'Tender Is the Night' (1934)
In 1934, after years of toil, Fitzgerald finally published his fourth novel, Tender is the Night, about an American psychiatrist in Paris, France, and his troubled marriage to a wealthy patient. The book was inspired by his wife Zelda’s struggle with mental illness. Although Tender is the Night was a commercial failure and was initially poorly received due to its chronologically jumbled structure, it has since gained in reputation and is now considered among the great American novels.
'The Love of the Last Tycoon' (unfinished)
Fitzgerald began work on his last novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, in 1939. He had completed over half the manuscript when he died in 1940.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Short Stories
Beginning in 1920 and continuing throughout the rest of his career, Fitzgerald supported himself financially by writing great numbers of short stories for popular publications such as The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. Some of his most notable stories include "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Camel's Back" and "The Last of the Belles."
Fitzgerald’s Wife Zelda
F. Scott Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre on April 3, 1920, in New York City. Zelda was Fitzgerald’s muse, and her likeness is prominently featured in his works including This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Fitzgerald met 18-year-old Zelda, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, during his time in the infantry. One week after the publication of Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, the couple married. They had one child, a daughter named Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald, born in 1921.
Beginning in the late 1920s, Zelda suffered from mental health issues, and the couple moved back and forth between Delaware and France. In 1930, Zelda suffered a breakdown. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated at the Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland. That same year was admitted to a mental health clinic in Switzerland. Two years later she was treated at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She spent the remaining years before her death in 1948 in and out of various mental health clinics.
After completing his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald's life began to unravel. Always a heavy drinker, he progressed steadily into alcoholism and suffered prolonged bouts of writer's block. After two years lost to alcohol and depression, in 1937 Fitzgerald attempted to revive his career as a screenwriter and freelance storywriter in Hollywood, and he achieved modest financial, if not critical, success for his efforts before his death in 1940.
Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940, at the age of 44, in Hollywood, California. Fitzgerald died believing himself a failure, since none of his works received more than modest commercial or critical success during his lifetime.
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