At his zenith, F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the wealthiest and most renowned writers of the twenties. At his lowest, he was a depressed alcoholic with debts beyond his means. All said and done, he was an extremely sensitive and reflective writer who not only wrote about the age but also lived it to the hilt.
Francis Key Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) became the notorious celebrity face of America in the 1920s. It was the age of jazz. The war had come to an end, the economy was on an exponential rise; alcohol was flowing and everything about the period glittered, like a big, extended party. It is small wonder that Fitzgerald ended up as the literary emblem of the age. His own life was in many ways was a mirror reflection of the undulations of the golden times.
Fitzgerald was bright and ambitious. He saw his first writing published in print in his school’s newspaper when he was thirteen. At seventeen, he attended Princeton University. Fitzgerald had the aura of self-assurance bordering on arrogance. He always felt he was destined to be a writer, and he quickly decided that classes were a waste of time. He was unsurprisingly placed on academic probation and in the autumn of 1917, while in his senior year, Fitzgerald dropped out to become a war hero.
If it comes as a surprise that somebody arrogant, boastful and irritable like Fitzgerald would join the army, his eventual failure there quells all surprises. Fitzgerald was a poor soldier. He believed neither in the disciplinary nuances of the training nor in the war itself. He was almost convinced that he was going to die in battle and the only thing of importance to him was finishing his novel. He wrote maniacally, and finished his project in 1918. At this time, he was posted in Montgomery, Alabama, and at a dance, he met Zelda Sayre. Zelda, even at nineteen was a legendary woman- she smoked when it was considered unacceptable for women to do so, rode motorcycles and entertained beaus throughout the day. For Fitzgerald, she became the embodiment of the ideal woman, a figure of passion and fire who stood for beauty, dissent and adventure all at once. Gloria from The Beautiful and the Damned bears striking resemblances to the iconic Zelda. Fitzgerald began to pursue her relentlessly.
After World War I, Fitzgerald moved back to New York and asked Zelda to marry him. By then his stories had been rejected, but within two months, he produced a semi-autobiographical work, descriptive of his life at Princeton. It was titled The Romantic Egotist and later renamed This Side of Paradise. Published in March 1920, it became a quick bestseller and changed Fitzgerald’s life. The Saturday Evening Post, after having rejected his work repeatedly, began paying him $1000 a story. He married Zelda and settled in New York. Fitzgerald was now a wealthy, renowned author instead of a persona non grata of residual literary rejections.
What is characteristic of Fitzgerald’s works is the sparkling luminosity that he creates though his language. For him, language and meaning are two distinct entities. Language is not just a means and meaning is not just an end. He uses language to create a whole world, and infuses meaning into it through his descriptions. His own life has been closely intertwined with some of his characters. His marriage was on a downward spiral- his artistic temperament and whimsical actions drove Zelda to an edge, and Zelda’s adventurous allure now seemed to have metamorphosed into self-destructive tendencies. At a party, Fitzgerald chopped off his tie out of boredom. One evening he chased Zelda and her friend around with a knife, threatening to kill them. They were now living beyond their means, and the advances Fitzgerald was taking from his agent would soon drown him. His alcoholism was spiraling, and after some humiliating antics he landed himself in jail. Zelda threatened to commit suicide because she thought he was having an extra-marital affair. Despite all this, Fitzgerald finished his third and most renowned novel, The Great Gatsby. Perhaps his most mature and well-written novel till date, it was an enormous critical success, but unfortunately for Fitzgerald, a commercial failure.
In 1930, Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia after a nervous breakdown, and admitted into a sanatorium in Switzerland, while Fitzgerald stayed around. Fitzgerald was sinking further into his alcoholic depression, and he wrote a series of self-reflective essays for the Esquire magazine titled “The Crack-Up”. He was now incapable of writing about love and the pursuit of beauty and the sparkling dynamism of the life that had made him so famous. He felt that he had nothing and he was nothing.
In December 1940, Fitzgerald was writing The Last Tycoon, which he expected to finish by spring. On December 21, he died of a heart attack. By then his books were out of print, and his obituary treated him as a failed author who set his expectations beyond the capability of his talent. However, his writing began to resurrect soon and his works were reissued, and Fitzgerald went on to join Ernest Hemingway as one of the most exalted literary figures of 20th century America.