Article abstract: With a poetic style and an insight into the lure of and the fallacies within the American Dream, Fitzgerald created some of the most distinctively American fiction.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was a furniture manufacturer, and his mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald, the daughter of a wealthy St. Paul businessman. After Edward Fitzgerald’s business failed in 1898, he became a wholesale grocery salesman for Procter and Gamble in Buffalo, New York. Edward was transferred to Syracuse, New York, in 1901 (when Scott’s sister Annabel was born) and back to Buffalo in 1903 before losing his job in 1908. The family then returned to St. Paul to live off the money Mollie had inherited from her father.
Edward Fitzgerald, who had cowritten a novel when he was young, read from the works of George Gordon, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe to his son and praised the boy’s attempts at writing, but he hoped that Scott would become an army officer. Mollie did not encourage his literary interests and wanted him to be a successful businessman like her father, to make up for Edward’s failure and to live up to the illustrious ancestors on his father’s side of the family, a long line of wealthy Maryland landowners, politicians, and lawyers. (Francis Scott Key was a distant relative.)
Because Scott’s family believed that he needed discipline, he was sent in 1911 to the Newman School, a Catholic preparatory school in Hackensack, New Jersey. At Newman, Fitzgerald met Father Sigourney Fay, a wealthy intellectual who introduced him to Henry Adams and other well-known literary figures. Fay became the boy’s surrogate father and is the model for Monsignor Darcy in This Side of Paradise (1920).
In 1913, Fitzgerald enrolled at Princeton University. He dreamed of becoming a college football star but did not make the team. He had worked on school publications throughout high school and began writing for the Princeton Tiger, the college humor magazine. He also wrote the books and lyrics for musical productions of the prestigious Triangle Club, and through such literary endeavors he made friends with fellow students Edmund Wilson, who became one of America’s most important critics, and John Peale Bishop, later a successful poet. Fitzgerald and Wilson wrote The Evil Eye for the Triangle Club in 1915. After a publicity photograph for that production of Fitzgerald dressed as a girl ran in The New York Times, he received an offer to become a female impersonator in vaudeville.
Earlier that year, Fitzgerald had met sixteen-year-old Ginevra King of Lake Forest, Illinois, at a party in St. Paul. For him, she was the embodiment of the perfect woman: beautiful, rich, socially prominent, and sought after. Ginevra, the model for many of the young women in Fitzgerald’s short stories, rejected him eventually because he was not wealthy.
That disappointment was not Fitzgerald’s only one in 1915. He was elected secretary of the Triangle Club, meaning that he would be its president during his senior year, but bad grades made him ineligible for campus offices. Fitzgerald had neglected his studies almost from his arrival at Princeton. At the end of the fall semester, poor grades and illness forced him to drop out of school.
Fitzgerald returned to Princeton in the fall of 1916 to repeat his junior year, and he continued to write stories for the campus literary magazine. He was never graduated, however, since the United States entered World War I, and he joined the army as a second lieutenant in October, 1917. On weekends, he began writing “The Romantic Egotist,” an early version of This Side of Paradise. In June, 1918, he was sent to Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama. At a country club dance that July, Fitzgerald met eighteen-year-old Zelda Sayre, and they fell in love two months later. Zelda came from a prominent Montgomery family, her father being a justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Zelda, considered the most popular girl in Montgomery, was attracted to Fitzgerald because they wanted the same things: success, fame, and glamour.
The war ended just as Fitzgerald was to go overseas. He was disappointed because he wanted to test himself in battle and because he saw the war as a romantic adventure. Yet more disappointments were the rejection of his novel by Charles Scribner’s Sons and the disapproval of Zelda’s parents, who believed that Scott was not stable enough to take proper care of their high-strung daughter. Nevertheless, Zelda agreed to marry him if he went to New York—where she desperately wanted to live—and became a success.
Fitzgerald began working for the Barron Collier advertising agency in February, 1919, writing advertisements which appeared in trolley cars. That spring, he sold his first short story, “Babes in the Woods,” to The Smart Set, the sophisticated magazine edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Zelda, however, was too impatient for his success and broke off their engagement that June.
Fitzgerald quit his job in July, 1919, and returned to St. Paul to live with his parents while revising his novel. Maxwell Perkins, the legendary Scribner’s editor, accepted This Side of Paradise that September, despite objections to what his very conservative employer considered a frivolous novel. Perkins, whose suggestions helped Fitzgerald improve the book, said he would resign if Scribner’s did not publish it.
Shortly after the novel was accepted, Fitzgerald became a client of agent Harold Ober and began publishing stories in the Saturday Evening Post, at that time the highest-paying magazine in the field. Unfortunately, he also began a lifelong pattern of drinking and wild spending. He and Zelda seemed made for each other because of their youth, beauty, ambition, and excesses. They were married April 3, 1920, a few days after This Side of Paradise was published.
Scribner’s published three thousand copies of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical novel about a college student’s coming of age, and the book was sold out in three days. By the end of 1921, it had gone through twelve printings of 49,075 copies, a huge success for a serious first novel. This Side of Paradise, considered the first realistic American college novel, was read as a handbook for collegiate conduct. By presenting the new American girl in rebellion against her mother’s values, the novel also created the prototype of the flapper. Novelist John O’Hara later claimed that a half million Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty fell in love with the book.
The Fitzgeralds quickly became major celebrities in New York because of Scott’s success and the young couple’s good looks and flamboyant personalities. (Unfortunately, few photographs capture the charismatic good looks of Zelda, with her wavy hair, almond-shaped eyes, and oval face, and blond, blue-eyed, stocky Scott, whose impact is widely attested in contemporary accounts.) Zelda went from the center of attention she had been in Montgomery to the wife of a famous novelist, and she resented the change. She remained jealous of her husband’s artistic success and attempted, in...
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