F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896-1940
(Full name Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald) American novelist, short-story writer, essayist, scriptwriter, dramatist, and poet.
The following entry presents criticism on Fitzgerald's short fiction from 1990 through 2003. See also criticism on Fitzgerald's short story “Babylon Revisited,” The Great Gatsby, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Contemporary Literary Criticism.
Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the most influential novelists and short-story writers of the twentieth century. He is viewed as the spokesman for the Jazz Age, America's decade of prosperity, excess, and abandon, which began soon after the end of World War I and concluded with the 1929 stock market crash. As such, in his novels and stories, Fitzgerald examined an entire generation's search for the elusive American dream of wealth and happiness. Most of his stories were derived from his own experiences and portray the consequences of his generation's adherence to false values. The glamour and insouciance of many of Fitzgerald's writings reveal only one side of a writer whose second and final decade of work characterized a life marred by alcoholism and financial difficulties, troubled by personal tragedy, and frustrated by lack of inspiration.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Fitzgerald grew up in a wealthy family and showed an early interest in writing plays and poetry. As a young man he emulated the rich, youthful, and beautiful, a social group with whom he maintained a lifelong love-hate relationship. In 1913 he enrolled at Princeton University, and his first stories were published in Nassau Lit, the university's literary magazine, which was edited by his friend and fellow student Edmund Wilson. Leaving Princeton for the army during World War I, Fitzgerald spent his weekends in boot camp writing the earliest draft of his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920). The acceptance of this work for publication by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1919—and the ensuing popular and financial success it achieved—enabled Fitzgerald to marry Zelda Sayre, a socially prominent young woman he had met and courted during his army days. Zelda significantly affected her husband's life and career. During the 1920s, she was Fitzgerald's private literary consultant and editor, while publicly she matched Fitzgerald's extravagant tastes and passion in living for the moment.
While continuing to illuminate the manners of the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald's second and third novels, as well as the story collections published between novels, evidenced a growing awareness of the shallowness and brutal insensitivity that are sometimes accoutrements of American society. These weaknesses and America's lost ideals are movingly described in Fitzgerald's strongest and most famous work, The Great Gatsby (1925). Although it gained the respect of many prominent American writers and is now considered a classic, The Great Gatsby was not a popular success and marked the beginning of the author's decline in popularity. Another commercial disappointment, Tender Is the Night (1934) reflected the disillusionment and strain caused by the Great Depression and Zelda's gradual deterioration from schizophrenia and eventual breakdown. These events scarred Fitzgerald, contributing to a deep, self-reproaching despair that brought his career to a near standstill during the mid-1930s. Fitzgerald described his tribulations in detail in the three confessional “Crack-Up” Essays of 1936, which brilliantly evoke his pain and suffering. Trying to start anew, he became a motion picture scriptwriter and began The Last Tycoon (1941), a novel based on his Hollywood experiences, which remained unfinished when Fitzgerald died in late 1940.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Fitzgerald's short stories have often been dismissed as slick, commercial productions intended to capitalize on the successes of his novels. The author's own disparaging remarks regarding his stories have also helped lend discredit to their status as works of literature. Yet, since the 1960s, critics have come to regard many of Fitzgerald's short pieces as works that reflect themes characteristic of his most significant writings while experimenting with new techniques and subjects. In “The Rich Boy,” for example, Fitzgerald writes about the life of the wealthy and privileged. The protagonist of the story, the wealthy Anson Hunter, has developed a sense of superiority and aloofness, a need for dominance, and contempt for commonplace life—attitudes that result in alienation from those who would love him and separation from happiness. Instead of a means to fulfill his dreams, wealth has become for Anson an obstacle to self-realization. Another early tale, “Winter Dreams,” relies, like many of Fitzgerald's writings, on his recollections of childhood. In this story a young boy's longing for the “glittering things” of life guide his actions over the years until he realizes as a successful and wealthy adult that the greatest value of dreams resides in dreaming and striving, not in fulfillment.
In other stories, Fitzgerald portrays the socioeconomic divisions that characterized the early twentieth century. His story “May Day” is perceived as a somber and complex tale that many critics have interpreted as a remarkable evocation of the imminent collapse of the Jazz Age. The story focuses on the intersecting lives of three young protagonists—wealthy Phillip Dean; Dean's penniless former Yale roommate, Gordon Sterrett; and shallow, pretty Edith Bradin—during the May Day Parade in New York City in 1919. In “Babylon, Revisited,” overwhelmingly Fitzgerald's most frequently anthologized and analyzed short story, the author expands on his characteristic themes. Set against the backdrop of expatriate Europe during the 1930s, this story focuses on Charlie Wales, wealthy playboy of 1920s Paris whose excesses contributed at least in part to the death of his wife and subsequent placement of his daughter into the custodianship of his bitter and resentful sister-in-law, Marion. He has now returned to Paris, having put aside his careless ways and reestablished himself as a responsible member of society, to reclaim his daughter. Marion's suspicions of Charlie's insincerity are apparently confirmed, however, when two acquaintances from his halcyon days emerge to momentarily divert his attention. As a result, Marion will not relinquish the child. The story ends as Charlie resolves to return and try again to regain his daughter, believing that “they couldn't make him pay forever.”
At the time of his death, Fitzgerald was virtually forgotten and unread. Since the 1950s, however, a growing Fitzgerald revival has led to the publication of numerous volumes of stories, letters, and notebooks. Critics have universally praised Fitzgerald's mastery of style and technique that renders even his most trivial efforts entertaining and well-executed. Numerous critical studies on Fitzgerald's short fiction have been published, exploring his stories from socioeconomical, feminist, psychoanalytical, and autobiographical perspectives. Recent critical studies have examined the relationship between his novels and short stories, asserting that although earlier critics dismissed his short fiction as inferior efforts intended to capitalize on the successes of his novels, the stories are valuable for their insight into Fitzgerald's characteristic, thematic concerns and deserve a well-considered place in Fitzgerald's fictional oeuvre. He is regarded as a profound and sensitive artist, as well as the unmatched voice of the Jazz Age.