Even America’s greatest writer believed he was a failure.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in the late 1920s when he was on top of his writing career.
F. Scott Fitzgerald in the late 1920s when he was on top of his writing career.

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.

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.

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 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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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Doubt and sudden, sever lacks of confidence simply goes with the profession of being a writer. We turn out the best books we can write, but will anybody buy them? Will anybody like them?

    • Roger Summers

      Some will. Some won’t. That’s what keeps us interested. Keeps us in a state of creative tension. That is a good thing.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        Roger, sometimes there is more tension than creative.

  • 1hollyrobinson1

    Caleb, I love this post. And it reminds me of John Cheever’s journals–have you read those? He battled doubt and depression every day, even while writing some of the century’s greatest short stories. Thanks for this.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Holly. I love John Cheever because I love short stories. However, I have not read his journals. I will. For writers, doubt and depression simply means it’s time to sit down, write again, and do it better this time.

  • This is a beautiful article, thanks, Caleb.

    I remember from reading A Moveable Feast that Hemingway said Fitzgerald was terribly conflicted over Zelda (along with writing insecurities). Of course, Hemingway may have exaggerated a tiny bit, but I remember thinking, “if only Fitzgerald could have gotten rid of her before it became too late.”

    I’ve been insecure about my writing for as long as I can remember. Even now with another story out, it doesn’t change. I like the stories I write but I always feel they can be better. At least I know I just need to keep writing and if I concentrate and pay it enough attention, my words will improve. This unemotional realization helps.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Woelf, all writers are conflicted and tormented, which is why we write about such conflicted and tormented characters. Normalcy doesn’t cut it in literature. We are always searching for the right way to tell the right story, never think we have measured up, and that’s why we keep writing one book after the other.

  • Darlene Jones

    I’ve never read Fitzgerald. Sounds like I should.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      His themes are pretty much the same, Darlene, but its use of the language is exquisite.

  • Christina Carson

    A haunting tale and you caught the mode beautifully. A lovely read. Thanks, Caleb.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Christina. Fitzgerald was good at writing haunting tales. That’s why The Great Gatsby has stayed with us for so long.

  • “2. What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.”

    is my new favorite Fitzgerald quote. It is SO true, and some people will go to any extremes to keep that from getting out, even blackmail and murder.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      And the strides they take to hide the shame, Alicia, are almost always more dastardly than the original shame.

  • At 83, I don’t have time for doubt. An idea for a story comes in the night; the next morning I begin. My stories are about Survive and Thrive. Tragedy strikes and the main character has to find a way to begin again. There’s romance,suspense, humor, add dogs and cats. Life. That’s what my stories are about. Interesting discussion going on here. Don’t know if I fit in but temptation prevailed.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thank God for temptation. I appreciate your joining the fray. Your words touch a lot of us who write about survive and thrive. However, I fear my characters are more concerned with surviving than thriving, and I’d be better off to add an occasional dog and cat.

      • I’m chuckling here in NY on this cold morning after reading your comment. I strongly believe if people want to survive, they thrive with the effort. I’m a good example. Funny thing about pets, my daughter
        told me to always weave at least one pet into the story. This was when I wrote my first book. She said it ‘warms’ the story. She’s so right.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          If I lived in the cold of New York, Charmaine, thriving would be out of the question, and I would need a big, furry dog in an out of literature to survive.

  • Don Newbury

    Am I the only retired educational administrator who has never read a Fitzgerald book? Shameful. Most add to my “barrel list.”…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      F. Scott would say thank you.

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