Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Fitzgerald had the good fortune—and the misfortune—to be a writer who summed up an era. The son of an alcoholic failure from Maryland and an adoring, intensely ambitious mother, he grew up acutely conscious of wealth and privilege—and of his family’s exclusion from the social elite. After entering Princeton in 1913, he became a close friend of Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop and spent most of his time writing lyrics for Triangle Club theatrical productions and analyzing how to triumph over the school’s intricate social rituals.
He left Princeton without graduating and used it as the setting for his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920). It was perfect literary timing. The twenties were beginning to roar, bathtub gin and flaming youth were on everyone’s lips, and the handsome, witty Fitzgerald seemed to be the ideal spokesman for the decade. With his stunning southern wife, Zelda, he headed for Paris and a mythic career of drinking from hip flasks, dancing until dawn, and jumping into outdoor fountains to end the party. Behind this façade was a writer struggling to make enough money to match his extravagant lifestyle and still produce serious work. His second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), which recounted an artist’s losing fight with dissipation, was badly flawed. His next, The Great Gatsby (1925), the story of a gangster’s pursuit of an unattainable rich girl, was close to a masterpiece.
The Fitzgeralds’ frenetic ascent to literary fame was soon tinged with tragedy. Scott became an alcoholic and Zelda, jealous of his fame (or in some versions, thwarted by it), collapsed into madness. They crept home in 1931 to an America in the grip of the Great Depression—a land no longer interested in flaming youth except to pillory them for their excesses. The novel with which he had grappled for years, Tender Is the Night, about a psychiatrist destroyed by his wealthy wife, was published in 1934 to lukewarm reviews and poor sales. Fitzgerald retreated to Hollywood, a defeated and more or less forgotten man. He made a precarious living as a scriptwriter and struggled to control his alcoholism. Miraculously he found the energy to begin another novel, The Last Tycoon (1941), about a complex gifted movie producer. He had finished about a third of it when he died of a heart attack. Obituaries generally dismissed him.
Not until the early fifties did interest in Fitzgerald revive, and when it did, it became a veritable scholarly industry. A closer look at his life and career reveals a writer with an acute sense of history, an intellectual pessimist who had grave doubts about Americans’ ability to survive their infatuation with the bitch goddess success. At the same time he conveyed in his best novels and short stories the sense of youthful awe and hope America’s promises created in many people. Few historians have matched the closing lines of The Great Gatsby, when the narrator reflects on how the land must have struck Dutch sailors’ eyes three hundred years earlier: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity to wonder.”