LIFE AND WORKS Fitzgerald was the only son of an unsuccessful, aristocratic father and an energetic, provincial mother. Fitzgerald was sensitive to his family’s outsider status among the wealthy elite of his native St. Paul, Minnesota. He also had an intensely romantic imagination. At both St. Paul Academy (1908–10) and Newman School (1911–13), he tried too hard and made himself unpopular, but at Princeton University he came close to realizing his dream of a brilliant success. He became a prominent figure in the literary life of the university and made lifelong friendships with Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop.
He became a leading figure in the socially important Triangle Club, a dramatic society, and was elected to one of the leading clubs of the university. He fell in love with Ginevra King, one of the beauties of her generation. Then he lost Ginevra and left Princeton. Next autumn Fitzgerald returned to Princeton, but he had now lost all the positions he coveted, and in November 1917 he left to join the army. In July 1918, while he was stationed near Montgomery, Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. In the spring of 1920 Fitzgerald his first novel, This Side of Paradise, a revelation of the new morality of the young; it made Fitzgerald famous and allowed to marry Zelda.
This sudden prosperity made it possible for him and Zelda to play the roles they were so beautifully equipped for, and Ring Lardner called them the prince and princess of their generation. Though they loved these roles, they were frightened by them, too, as the ending of Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), shows. The Beautiful and Damned describes a handsome young man and his beautiful wife, who gradually degenerate into a shopworn middle age while they wait for the young man to inherit a large fortune. Ironically, they finally get it, when there is nothing of them left worth preserving.
In 1921 their daughter, “Scottie”, was born. In 1924 they moved to the Riviera, where they found themselves a part of a group of Americans whose style was largely set by Gerald and Sara Murphy; Fitzgerald described this society in his last completed novel, Tender Is the Night, and modeled its hero on Gerald Murphy. Shortly after their arrival in France, Fitzgerald completed his most brilliant novel, The Great Gatsby (1925). All of his divided nature is in this novel, the naive Midwesterner afire with the possibilities of the “American Dream” in its hero, Jay Gatsby, and the compassionate Yale gentleman in its narrator, Nick Carraway. The Great Gatsby is the most profoundly American novel of its time; at its conclusion, Fitzgerald connects Gatsby’s dream, his “Platonic conception of himself,” with the dream of the discoverers of America.
The next decade of the Fitzgeralds’ lives was disorderly and unhappy. Fitzgerald began to drink too much, and Zelda suddenly, ominously, began to practice ballet dancing night and day. In 1930 she had a mental breakdown and in 1932 another, from which she never fully recovered. He did not finish his next novel, Tender Is the Night, until 1934. It is the story of a psychiatrist who marries one of his patients, who, as she slowly recovers, exhausts his vitality until he is, in Fitzgerald’s words, “a man used up”. This is Fitzgerald’s most moving book, though it was commercially unsuccessful.
With its failure and his despair over Zelda, Fitzgerald was close to becoming an incurable alcoholic. By 1937 he had come back to become a scriptwriter in Hollywood. In October 1939 he began a novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon. The career of its hero, Monroe Stahr, is based on that of the producer Irving Thalberg. This is Fitzgerald’s final attempt to create his dream of the promises of American life and of the kind of man who could realize them. In the intensity with which it is imagined and in the brilliance of its expression, it is the equal of anything Fitzgerald ever wrote, and it is typical of his luck that he died of a heart attack with his novel only half-finished. He was 44 years old.