F. Scott Fitzgerald: Writing the self-inflicted sins of the Jazz Age

He wrote “the kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartets.”

He was named after a distant relative, Francis Scott Key.  But most of the world would know him as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Key may have written the national anthem, but F. Scott, more than any other writer, captured the beat and rhythm, the glitz and glamour, the wealth and moral decay of his generation.

His was the Jazz Age. He moved easily within the highest society, was seldom seen without a drink his hand, was probably somewhat in love with every flapper and debutante he ever met, was acclaimed as America’s greatest writer, thoroughly detested the rich, and lived his life as though it were a little more than a fraud and a hoax. His stories, his novels, earned huge sums of money. His lavish lifestyle cost him huge sums of money. Easy come. Easy Go. F. Scott Fitzgerald was almost always hopelessly in debt.

He was born in Minnesota. He gained his fame in New York. He was born a poor boy. He mingled with the rich. While the other noted writers of the generation – Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and their band of talented expatriates  – kept their moveable feast on the roads and in the bars of Europe, F. Scott Fitzgerald cast his lot with the parties and publishers of the eastern seaboard, and the parties never ended, and publishers sought him out, and the passion of his words held a tight grip on the literary world.

Raymond Chandler wrote of Fitzgerald: “He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature, and it’s a great shame that the word for it has been thoroughly debased by the cosmetic racketeers, so that one is almost ashamed to use it to describe a real distinction. Nevertheless, the word is charm – charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s the kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartets.”

Few if any had his talent. Few if any had the demons that damned his soul. It all began to unravel for him so early. He found himself in love with a young lady who had been born into wealth, grew up with wealth, and simply assumed that wealth was an American inheritance.

They dated. The letters they wrote each other were heated and passionate. He had found the girl of his dreams. Just as quickly, he lost the girl of his dreams. Her father told him that, without exception, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”

The door slammed on his life and his psyche. The theme appeared again and again in the lives of so many of the characters who populated his great novels. He wrote constantly about the effects of money and power on those who had too much of them. He understood the excruciating dilemma of the young man – not poor, perhaps, but certainly not rich – who had the misfortune of falling in love with a golden girl – beautiful, wealthy, and often cruel.

As he once wrote: “That was always my experience – a poor boy in a rich town, a poor boy in a rich boy’s school, a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princton … However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald was forced by his editors to re-write his first book, which became This Side of Paradise, three times event though they saw genius in his words. He worked in advertising and sold magazine articles in order to eat. Then came the letter that changed his life. He wrote, “The postman rang, and that day I quit work and ran along the streets, stopping automobiles to tell friends and acquaintances about it – my novel was accepted for publication. That week the postman rang and rang, and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning with a world of ineffable toploftiness and promise.”

Next came The Beautiful and The Damned and The Great Gatsby. He was on top and thought he would remain on top forever. His notes, letters, and novels themselves, have provided the words he left behind as guidelines for writers.

  1. I had no idea of originating an American flapper when I first began to write. I simply took girls whom I knew very well and, because they interested me as unique human beings, I used them for my heroines.
  2. What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.
  3. Action is character.
  4. Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you – like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist – or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore around which pedants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations.
  5. All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences … A line like, “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,’ is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement – limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your eyes.
  6. All life is just a progression toward, and then a recession from one phrase: I love you.
  7. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty.
  8. All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
  9. Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind.
  10. Great art is the contempt of a great man for small art.
  11. Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.
  12. My whole theory of writing I can sump up in one sentence. An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.

F. Scott Fitzgerald lived on both sides of the mirror that reflected the American dream. More than anyone, he experienced young love, wealth and success, and the tragedies associated with excess and failure. After the enormous success of The Great Gatsby, he and his wife Zelda romped through France and the Riviera. F. Scott drank and instead of writing. Tender is the Night came almost a decade later when the clouds of the Great Depression shadowed the nation.

In the roaring twenties, he had been paid four thousand dollars for a magazine article. Now he could barely earn a hundred and fifty dollars for one of his stories. His book royalty in 1936 was eighty dollars. His money was gone, his wife was gone, his reputation was eroding, his money had all drained away. He began work on The Last Tycoon but would never finish it.

It has been said that F. Scott Fitzgerald was kept in champagne in the twenties, had already become a crumbling alcoholic and mostly forgotten in the thirties, and dead by the end of 1940. In his final evaluation of himself, Fitzgerald wrote: “The price was high because there was one little drop of something – not blood, not a tear, not my seed – but me more intimately than these, in every story. It was the extra I had. Now it has gone, and I am just like you now.”

He deemed himself a failure. The literary world remembered him as the man who forever preserved the eccentricities, the poetry, and the self-inflicted sins of the Jazz Age.

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