Bryant Mangum, “F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940),” Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. Paul Schellinger, London and Chicago: Fitzroy-Dearborn, 1998, pp. 416-417. Reprinted with permission of Fitzroy-Dearborn Publishers.
FITZGERALD, F. Scott (1896-1940)
The importance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s major contributions to the development of the novel were blurred during his lifetime by contemporary images of him as historian of the Jazz Age, as creator of the American flapper, and as popular author of more than 150 short stories, many of them about young love for the Saturday Evening Post, the mouthpiece of middle America in the 1920’s and 1930’s. While it would be a mistake to discount the importance of Fitzgerald’s role as social historian, it has become increasingly clear to critics and literary historians in the half century since Fitzgerald’s death, as it was indeed clear to a few serious artists and literary critics such as T.S. Eliot and H.L. Mencken during his lifetime, that his artistic contributions to American letters, particularly to the novel form, place him alongside such other immortals as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, two authors whom, along with Edith Wharton and for very different reasons, he perhaps most closely resembles.
Fitzgerald’s reputation as a novelist, as one observer has noted, results from “the hard core of morality” in his work and from his offering “a fiction that is hard to imitate but from which much can be learned.” Fitzgerald’s experiments with form led him from the novel of saturation in the case of his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), to the Jamesian and Conradian novel of selected incident in his later work, as he attempted to create believable heroes who embody the best of the genteel chivalric tradition and yet who, as inhabitants of the modern age when gods are dead and faiths are shaken, also embrace the existential quest.
Amory Blaine, the main character in This Side of Paradise, resembles the heroes of what he refers to as biographical “quest” books and is, in fact, a thinly disguised Fitzgerald persona. He is sent from Minneapolis (Fitzgerald’s hometown) to an eastern boarding school, St. Regis (Fitzgerald’s was the Newman School); and then he goes to Princeton (the university that Fitzgerald attended), learning there mostly from his own reading, until he goes out into the world ill-prepared to earn a living but with some definite, if impractical, notions about how life should be lived. In its adherence to the conventions of the Bildungsroman genre This Side of Paradise is not on its surface a particularly innovative novel, though it was considered experimental in its time because Fitzgerald included in it poetry and a play. Its importance in Fitzgerald’s development as a novelist results from the novel’s fusion of two kinds of quests: Amory Blaine is, on the one hand, a genteel, chivalric hero, entitled by birth and surrounded everywhere by affluence and grace. By the end of the novel, however, the romantic qualities of his quest are tempered by an existential conclusion: “I know myself…but that is all,” Amory cries in the novel’s final sentence. In addition, Fitzgerald objectifies Amory’s quest by associating his personal dilemma with that of an entire generation: his was a new generation, “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” This association made This Side of Paradise a cult novel to members of the generation which was coming of age at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, and it prompted contemporary critics to see Fitzgerald as a novelist with promise.
In the two years separating the publication of his first novel and his second, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), Fitzgerald’s goals as an artist were undermined by the literary marketplace of the early 1920’s, and his second novel represents, at best, minor progress toward the creation of his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925). In an attempt to align himself with what he considered serious literary theory, as opposed to the popular taste that dictated high prices for his frothy stories about flappers and young love, Fitzgerald experimented during the time of composition of The Beautiful and Damned with literary naturalism. Though his flirtation with naturalism led to a distinguished novelette, “May Day,” his attempts to communicate what Mencken called “the meaninglessness of life” philosophy through Anthony Patch and his wife Gloria, whose obsessive pursuit of money leads him to the breaking point and leaves her with an invalid for a husband and a marriage without promise even when they finally inherit Anthony’s grandfather’s money, is not convincing. In spite of the novel’s weakness, Fitzgerald advances toward what would become his trademark themes in The Beautiful and Damned, focussing especially on the destructive effects of materialism evident in the fate of Anthony Patch. He was also experimenting in his second novel with aesthetic distance, drawing as he does on his premonition of disaster, both in his own life and in his marriage to Zelda, and attempting to objectify it through a heavily plotted, imagined story. Contemporary reviewers were characteristically unimpressed, criticizing the novel’s deterministic message and lamenting the fact that it was not a sequel to This Side of Paradise.
Much discussion has centered on the means by which Fitzgerald, in the three years between the publication of The Beautiful and Damned and 1925 made the artistic leap necessary for the creation of his finest novel, The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald himself partially credited his technical experimentation with point of view to his having read Joseph Conrad’s preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus and the evolution in his thinking about western civilization to his exposure to Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Whatever the case, Fitzgerald brought his search for a believable hero for the twentieth century and his technical mastery of the craft of fiction to a new plateau with The Great Gatsby. In a relatively short novel of nine chapters, Fitzgerald tells the magical story of Jay Gatsby’s quest for the rich and shallow Daisy Buchanan in such a way that it also becomes a credible story, not only of the emptiness of the materialistic American Dream, but also of the ideal quest for truth and beauty. Through the first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, who can both participate in Gatsby’s dream of
having Daisy’s love and criticize it, Fitzgerald establishes distance from material about which he felt passionately, based loosely as it was on Fitzgerald’s rejection by the wealthy Chicago debutante, Ginevra King. Though it is Gatsby who is at least superficially the hero of The Great Gatsby, ultimately it is Nick who absorbs the truth of Gatsby’s story: that the ability to dream is perhaps the highest end of man, but that “the foul dust that floats in the wake” of the dream, the compromise required by materialism, threatens to destroy the romantic vision.
If The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, his fourth and final complete novel, Tender Is the Night (1934), is his most ambitious. The major asset of Dick Diver, the novel’s main character, is his ability to solve complex problems using psychoanalytic theory, his modern legacy; his flaw, and as it turns out his legacy from the genteel tradition, is an excess of charm, which leaves him vulnerable to anyone who would use him, and ultimately leads him to moral and emotional bankruptcy. For Fitzgerald, a major challenge in handling Dick Diver’s story is the technical one of making his character flaw credible and his tragic fall inevitable. With bold experiments in point of view and inversion of chronological sequence, Fitzgerald tells Dick’s story, first from the vantage point of Rosemary Hoyt, a young movie star who observes him at the pinnacle of his career and at the height of his charm. Ultimately the novel employs numerous viewpoints as Fitzgerald carefully constructs the intersecting stories of Dick’s wife Nicole’s triumph over mental illness and of Dick’s dying fall, which Fitzgerald eloquently explains with allusions to Conrad in a 1934 letter to H. L. Mencken. Though some contemporary reviewers saw Tender Is the Night as a success, the majority found its chronological inversions and viewpoint shifts confusing.
It was Fitzgerald’s plan with The Last Tycoon (1941; published posthumously as a fragment with the author’s notes) to return to a story that more closely resembled The Great Gatsby than Tender Is the Night. It can never be known how fully he would have realized his conception of the last tycoon, Monroe Stahr, a sensitive, creative Hollywood producer who, like Jay Gatsby was a poor boy who had become financially successful and who, like Dick Diver, possessed extraordinary charm. Much of Fitzgerald’s success would have rested on his development of Celia’s point of view, which was to have allowed his narrator, in Fitzgerald’s words, “as Conrad did” to imagine the characters’ actions, and would have enabled Fitzgerald “to get the verisimilitude of a first person narrative, combined with a Godlike knowledge of all events that happen to my characters.” What can be known with some certainty, however, is that from the beginning of his career as a novelist through his last notes on The Last Tycoon fragment, Fitzgerald fully explored the novel form and freely experimented with its conventions; and finally that he used the novel as the primary vehicle through which he would attempt to reconcile the legacy of the genteel American past with the promises and the dangers for the human spirit of an era that had just begun.
Virginia Commonwealth University
[bibliographical information modified from original]
Novels by Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise, 1920
The Beautiful and Damned, 1922
The Great Gatsby, 1925
Tender Is the Night, 1934
The Last Tycoon, 1941; published as an unfinished novel with the author’s notes
Other writings: over 150 short stories; one play, The Vegetable; articles and essays; prose parody, humor, and verse; book reviews; volumes of letters, his ledger, and his notebooks have been published since his death
Bruccoli, Matthew J., F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Descriptive Bibliography, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1972
Bryer, Jackson R., The Critical Reputation of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hamden, Conn: Archon, 1967
Bruccoli, Matthew J., Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York: Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, 1981
Eble, Kenneth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York: Twayne, 1963
Lehan, Richard D., F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Craft of Fiction, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966
Miller, James E., Jr., F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Art and Technique, New York: New York University Press, 1964
Mizener, Arthur, The Far Side of Paradise, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951
Sklar, Robert, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967