It is part of the romantic myth of the artist to say that someone was “born to be a writer,” but in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the myth has been substantiated. From the days of his youth, Fitzgerald seems to have had a natural instinct for expressing his most important thoughts and emotions in written form. As an adult, no aspect of his life seemed real until he had written about it. In addition to his fiction and poetry, Fitzgerald wrote steadily to his mother, his wife, and his daughter whenever they were separated and kept a detailed, systematic ledger of his work and its monetary rewards. He would probably have preferred to achieve distinction as an athlete during his school days, but as soon as he discovered that he did not have the physical gifts to be a successful athlete he began to seek celebrity through his writing. When he realized that he had the ability to attract people’s attention and then their admiration through his work, he recast his ambitions for greatness, envisioning himself a great artist rather than a great soldier or sportsman. When he saw the possibility of earning a living with his pen, his destiny was settled.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to the daughter of an Irish immigrant who became a self-made millionaire. His father, a failed businessman, moved the family from town to town in upstate New York and finally back to the security of family money in St. Paul. Fitzgerald attended a private school in New Jersey, then Princeton University. Academic difficulties forced Fitzgerald out of Princeton midway through his junior year; he returned the following fall but left college permanently in 1917 to join the army. While stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, he met and fell in love with the dazzling Zelda Sayre, who refused to marry him until he could prove his ability to support her. When World War I ended in 1918, Fitzgerald returned to New York, worked in an advertising agency, and revised his novel This Side of Paradise. Charles Scribner’s Sons agreed to publish it, and Scott and Zelda married in the spring of 1920.
This Side of Paradise became an immediate success. The first printing of three thousand copies sold out in three days. Additional printings of five thousand per month followed through October. During that year Fitzgerald also published eleven stories, earning $4,650. Throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, his prolific short story production brought Fitzgerald the cash flow he desperately needed to support his extravagant lifestyle and, later, Zelda’s huge hospital bills. His stories not only brought him quick money, but also propelled him into position as the preeminent short story writer-at least in the Saturday Evening Post genre-of the time. Although he publicly disparaged much of his popular work, complaining that he had to mold his writing to fit a mass-market magazine format, he did have high regard for many of his short stories.
In 1922 Fitzgerald coined the term “the jazz age,” and his stories brought him both fame and wealth. Scott and Zelda were the darlings of the rich; they socialized with the Astors and the Vanderbilts in New York; they lived on the French Riviera; they were the envy of the expatriate writers in Paris during the 1920s. But following the stock market crash in 1929, the lifestyle of the rich fell apart. The world that had given Fitzgerald his literary material, as well as social acceptance, no longer existed. He and Zelda faced personal and professional decline. In 1930 she was institutionalized for insanity, and his alcoholism became acute. Fitzgerald’s marketability also suffered; although some Depression literature was escapist, in general Americans were not eager to read magazine fiction about idealistic youths or carefree flappers. Although he adapted the tenor of his work to the spirit of the times, often focusing on the attendant evils of great wealth-Tender Is the Night (1934), Fitzgerald’s only novel of the 1930s, chronicles the fall from grace of a glamorous expatriate couple-he found it increasingly difficult to find publishers for his short stories.
Alcoholism and other health problems sapped Fitzgerald’s ability to write, and by the late 1930s he had fallen into total obscurity. Some of the twenty-four thousand copies of The Great Gatsby printed in 1925 still remained in the Scribner’s warehouse when Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1940, in Hollywood. Although he published some 160 short stories, Fitzgerald completed only four novels during his lifetime and left another, The Last Tycoon (1941), half-written. This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned (1922) achieved popular success, but those that followed-The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night-sold dismally both in terms of Fitzgerald’s expectations and in comparison to the great popularity enjoyed by his colleague, rival, and sometime friend Ernest Hemingway. But the critics, including H. L. Mencken, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, Edmund Wilson, and T. S. Eliot, always admired his work, and in the 1960s Scribner’s reprinted all of his works. Today, The Great Gatsby is one of the most widely read and critically admired American novels.