F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American Identity
David S. Brown, Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harvard University Press, 397 pp.
Given the proliferating monographs and biographies that have been published on F. Scott Fitzgerald, starting about a decade after his death in 1940, it’s hard to see how one could be entirely original when writing about this figure. Indeed if we look at biographical studies, beginning with Arthur Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise (1951), Arthur Turnbull’s Fitzgerald and New York (1962), Malcolm and Robert Cowley’s Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age (1966); and Robert Sklar’s F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon (1967), and then proceed to two outstanding biographies of Fitzgerald’s mentally disturbed Southern wife Zelda Sayre, one by Nancy Mitford in 1970 and another by James R. Mellow in 1987, it seems that works on Fitzgerald have been coming out steadily for the last seventy years. It’s not that Fitzgerald doesn’t deserve recognition. He was a gifted novelist who lived life to the fullest and who died at the age of forty-three from heavy drinking. All his major novels have been turned into films of varying quality. His best-known novel The Great Gatsby has provided material for four movies, only one of which (the one that came out in the 1970s and starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow) was a box-office success. The final months of Fitzgerald’s life, as recalled by his lady friend and biographer Sheilah Graham, has also inspired a film, although one that is easily forgotten. Fitzgerald died in the home that he shared with Sheilah in Hollywood, where he had gone as a script-writer in desperate need of cash.
Professor Brown explains that Fitzgerald’s meteoric rise to fame in the 1950s—ten years after he died as the author of novels with modest sales in a state of near poverty—is a story in its own right: “Fitzgerald’s apotheosis is all the more remarkable considering the depths to which his reputation had fallen.” It seems that “Fitzgeraldiana, both old and new began to find a market and build momentum. “ Starting in the 1950s, portable editions of his work appeared; and a market for his novels (Fitzgerald had earned money mostly for his short stories), together with curiosity about his life, continued to grow. Although this posthumous fame astonished Fitzgerald’s friend and anthologizer, Edmund Wilson, the explanation, according to Brown, is that post-war researchers had been discovering Fitzgerald even before his death. This began when Arthur Mizener came across Tender as the Night in Yale’s Sterling Library in 1934 and read it through in wonder. Fitzgerald’s last novel The Last Tycoon, which reflects his encounters with Hollywood personalities, came out posthumously in 1941. Much of this work had to be assembled from unfinished manuscripts, and so it took some time before it could attract readers.
For full disclosure, let me admit that Fitzgerald is one of my two favorite American novelists (Faulkner is the other one); and I’ve been reading him ever since The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, and Tender Is the Night were all assigned to me as a college student more than fifty years ago. On my first visit to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I toured the railroad station that is mentioned in the opening scene of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise; then in Rockville, Maryland where I later lived, I visited the graves of Fitzgerald and Zelda, which are located in a cemetery next to the Catholic Church in the downtown area. Professor Brown may have become interested in producing his study of Fitzgerald during the long conversations we held at Elizabethtown College about an author we both valued. Like me, my younger colleague had been reading Fitzgerald for decades, together with loads of secondary works that I had only glimpsed; and he came to the conclusion that there was still space for one more study of Fitzgerald, one that tried to understand his life differently from how earlier interpreters approached it.
Fitzgerald’s relationship to this country has been the subject of considerable speculation. Critics have questioned whether he appreciated being an American, as an Irish Catholic from Saint Paul who attended Princeton and then became a well-paid short story writer, with ties to New York publishers. In the late 1920s, Fitzgerald lived as an expatriate in Paris, and while in the United States he had no permanent home, although temporarily New York City became the center of his social and professional life. According to most biographers Fitzgerald felt alienated from the America he described, and he wrote critically about his American age whose vices and glitter he shared. Brown is particularly struck by the comparison drawn by Fitzgerald-biographer Robert Sklar between his subject and the legendary Trojan priest Laocoon. It was this Homeric figure who warned his countrymen against dragging into Troy the wooden horse that the Greeks had placed at the city gates. Although the priest’s admonition is justified, he is punished for his prescience when snakes come out of the water and strangle him. In a similar way Fitzgerald is destroyed by the glamor and pretension of an American society, the defects of which he reveals in his published writings and correspondence.
Brown offers a somewhat different picture of his subject. He views Fitzgerald as a quintessentially American author, who embodied characteristics that belonged to his time and place. Unlike most Fitzgerald’s biographers, Brown is an American cultural historian, not a literature professor; and he places his subject in the context of interwar America and Fitzgerald’s Midwestern Catholic upbringing. Like other Americans, who invent and reinvent their identity, Fitzgerald gloried in his distant descent from Francis Scott Key, who composed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He was obviously delighted that his first and middle names were taken from those of the famous Maryland Catholic. But this problem of identity, observes Brown, is also conferred on Fitzgerald’s most famous fictional character, Jay Gatsby. This fabulously wealthy mystery man, presumably from the Midwest, who builds a palatial estate on Long Island, after the First World War, never reveals his identity. Presumably Gatsby’s typically American background was not grand enough for his taste, and so he hides it from his admirers.
Unlike most interpreters of Fitzgerald, Brown examines minutely the “Catholic elements” in his work, which are most obviously on display in This Side of Paradise. In this largely autobiographical work, dedicated to a Catholic priest, Fitzgerald traces the physical and spiritual wanderings of his subject, Amory Blaine, from his youth in the Midwest, through his experiences at Princeton to his later social and amatory adventures. Amory confers regularly with a Catholic mentor in Upstate New York, Monsignor Thayer Darcy; moreover, his encounters with women, including a fiancée with whom he breaks off an engagement, are remarkably chaste.
Brown notes that perhaps more than any other Fitzgerald work, this novel is a “relic of the Twenties” constructed in “time-bound language.” But it’s also full of themes that Fitzgerald’s American contemporaries were then writing about, the travails of youth, the hollow pleasures of the Roaring Twenties, and criticism of our modern consumer economy. Amory’s emotional insecurities, which are those of the author, and the hard-won lesson—that one can only trust oneself—“tap into well-tilled literary soil.” Fitzgerald was hardly being original when he touched on these themes, but his first novel sold better than his other works during his lifetime. In its first year on the market after Scribner published it in 1920, This Side of Paradise sold close to 50,000 copies. Fitzgerald only netted about $6,000 on the sales but this modest success allowed him to win the hand of his beloved Zelda.
What distinguishes Fitzgerald, however, from other American authors of less quality is how he recycles his themes. His characterizations, like those of Dick Diver and Nicole Warren in Tender Is the Night and Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Daisy May Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, are deeply etched in the minds of Fitzgerald readers. His artistic treatment of the American dream continues to generate discussion. In his depiction of character, Fitzgerald may be compared to such European novelists of the nineteenth century as Dickens, Balzac, Theodor Fontane and Dostoyevsky. Brown’s biography does not deny this talent. As a historian he focuses on Fitzgerald’s American identity, but he never loses sight of Fitzgerald’s literary gifts; nor does he question his dedication to his craft. Brown produces the most clearly written biography of his subject, and it’s one I would recommend to undergraduates trying to learn about this great author of the Roaring Twenties.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.