In a comprehensive new biography, the life and work of F. Scott Fitzgerald is examined in historical, literary, and sociological perspectives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is currently in the middle of yet another renaissance. For an author who was forced unhappily, for financial reasons, to write short stories for mass consumption and whose work in Hollywood might have been considered ‘selling out’ in some circles (including his own), Fitzgerald didn’t really achieve the critical and artistic success in his lifetime that he felt he deserved. In the final year of his life, only 72 copies of his books had sold, and he was not being discussed among the literati in the same fashion as Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Conrad. “My one hope is to be endorsed by the intellectually elite and thus be forced onto people as Conrad has,” he wrote to a friend in 1921.
The market for Fitzgerald's work spiked dramatically after his death and The Great Gatsby has become a staple of high school classrooms and AP Literature essays. The 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio film version introduced another generation to Jazz Age excess of the Buchanans, while his wife Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald became the centerpiece of the Netflix series Z: The Beginning of Everything, based on a novel by Therese Anne Fowler. In 2017, I’d Die For and Other Lost Stories, a collection of Fitzgerald’s ‘lost’ and unpublished short stories and Hollywood treatments, was published by Scribner. David S. Brown’s new comprehensive biography, Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives further evidence that the great chronicler of The Jazz Age is finally receiving the deserved critical and intellectual scrutiny that never came in his lifetime.
This biography functions on two levels: as an historical document of Fitzgerald’s place in the history of his era (Brown is Raffensperger Professor of History at Elizabethtown College) and also as a detailed literary analysis of the collected works of Fitzgerald, from his mostly-fully formed early novels, through his short stories, and on through the Hollywood years and his final, unfinished novel The Last Tycoon. In this way, the book works nicely for anyone interested in the sociocultural history of the time period, as it's laced with references to the thinkers and events that influenced, and were influenced by, Fitzgerald.
The importance of Oswald Spengler’s “’Downfall of Western Civilization’ Explained” on the creation of The Great Gatsby, for example, is crucial to understanding the novel. The replacing of the ideology of what Spengler called “the West” (believing in “the crown and cross”) with the Enlightenment worship of science and technology has pushed man from the bucolic countryside to the “inauthentic” city. These people, living in man-made towers and valleys of ash struggle to “find meaning in the modern metropolis.” (175) Brown adeptly applies this Spenglerian idea to the characters of the novel, from doomed George Wilson to Gatsby himself, and the comparison seems apt. The book is rich with detailed historical, philosophical, and sociological examples that place Fitzgerald’s work within a historical situation that isn’t simply the stereotype of “Jazz Age Excess”.
One of the key elements of the narrative here is Brown’s re-telling of that myth of the author. Any capsule-sized discussion of Fitzgerald usually begins and ends with his vices and excesses, which were plentiful, and often paint the Fitzgeralds as libertine wild children of the era, complete with bobbed hair and bootleg cocktails in hand, and that image frames the analysis of the troubled lives of his characters. But, as Brown’s meticulous analysis goes to show, there's as much Jay Gatsby as Tom Buchanan in the author himself, and much effort is put forth to show these tensions in Fitzgerald himself.
While he certainly had his hard-living libertine streak, he was also a product of a romanticized version of Catholicism: he had planned, while at Princeton, to go to Russia under the banner of the Red Cross to unite Catholics in a collapsed tsarist regime (36). He was not averse to spending his money wildly, necessitating his long, unhappy periods of writing for others (notably as a screenwriter in Hollywood and his long stint writing for The Saturday Evening Post), and yet he was deeply skeptical of the influence of money on society: “Like Gatsby, Scott regarded money as a means to greater emotional ends rather than an end in itself. (44)” His protagonists are as conflicted about money as Fitzgerald himself was (the book contains a photo of his bill from a 1927 stay at the Plaza Hotel in New York proving that he and Zelda were not afraid of spending it) and Brown does an excellent job highlighting this aspect of the author vis-à-vis his characters.
From This Side of Paradise’s Amory Blaine’s “lament against capitalist-bourgeois civilization” (85) to Jay Gatsby’s inability to make inroads into the world of the Buchanans, despite the fact that his “far more appealing attributes-say courage, idealism, and the capacity for friendship” can “purchase very little” in East Egg (166), Brown re-shapes the standard understanding of the Fitzgeralds as rapacious consumers into something more nuanced. In the end, Fitzgerald seems to be torn between his own conservatism, rooted in his family’s antebellum roots in “half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions” (38) and his actual situation, which was less romantic and idealized. Like James Gatz, Fitzgerald was raised as a child of the ‘middle-west’ but his family’s wealth and influence in Saint Paul was far less than he would have preferred people to believe.
The conservative streak that ran through his life, and his work, wasn’t solely focused on the idea of money and the loss of purpose suggested by thinkers like Spengler and Thorstein Veblen. Brown notices it even in the author’s writings, where he steers clear of directly discussing taboo topics like masturbation, sex, and rape, instead shrouding them in metaphor to prevent them from offending. As he wrote to author John Peale Bishop about Bishop’s use of sex scenes “I think the book is a little too rough. The insistence on sex-in-the-raw occupies more space than the phenomenon usually does in life.” (267) Fitzgerald himself even regretted a reference to “making love to dry loins” in Tender is the Night, thinking it too ‘offensive’ after the fact (268). This attitude, bound up in Fitzgerald’s own self-identity as old-money and Princeton-educated elite (neither of which was entirely true, upon close inspection), is, of course, at odds with his own behaviors, and Brown doesn’t let this slide.
Far from being gossipy, the book does address the flaws and foibles directly: Fitzgerald was a prolific drinker. He (and Zelda) carried on extramarital affairs of various sorts. He had a long-term relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham while Zelda was institutionalized. He was frequently concerned about his sexual prowess and the size of his manhood, although Ernest Hemingway’s evaluation of said manhood in a bathroom was that it was “perfectly fine” (267).
Like all of his characters, Fitzgerald fought against himself and seemed trapped in a world that wasn’t quite what he had hoped it would be. In a letter to Zelda, discussing Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Fitzgerald says “I suppose life takes a good deal out of you and can never quite repeat.” And yet he spent much of his life trying to repeat things, as Jay Gatsby does. Where Gatsby tries to reclaim a glorious love spent with Daisy Fay, who is above his station, Fitzgerald tries to relive his glory days at Princeton, telling daughter Scottie after listening to a Princeton-Harvard football game on the radio that “the old songs remind me of the past that I lived a quarter century ago and that you are now living” (311) despite the fact that he never graduated from Princeton.
Things are never as good as we remember them, it seems, and even writers as talented as F. Scott Fitzgerald can forget this. The fact that Fitzgerald’s own funeral echoes that of Gatsby probably says volumes about this point. Journalist Frank Scully noted that “there lay American genius… [and]not a soul was in the room. Except for one bouquet of flowers and a few empty chairs, there was nothing to keep him company except his casket” (327). By writing this respectful yet critical biography, David S. Brown has done much to add to the now-prodigious legacy of a man who, like Jay Gatsby, died alone despite having done so much for so many.