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{Note: I know I haven’t posted in a while, and I never finished my two-part series on dining etiquette–and for this I apologize. Seriously, my bad. However, this is my submission for a writing contest I just entered about the legendary American writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Please enjoy! And wish me luck…. 😉 }

Considered today to be one the greatest writers of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not always regarded with such esteem. In fact, while his first novel This Side of Paradise catapulted the young writer to fame and fortune, his subsequent works did little to further his literary reputation. It wasn’t until the late 1940’s, as the world picked up the post-WWII pieces, that his professional stock began to rise again. He now rests comfortably in the literary canon as the author of the “great American novel,” The Great Gatsby, and is held as a foremost chronicler of the Jazz Age.

Fitzgerald was born into an upper middle class, Irish Catholic, Minnesotan family. His father, Edward, contributed a sense of well-bred elegance, as well as an allegiance to the values of the Old South. But it was Fitzgerald’s maternal family, the McQuillans, that provided financial security for the budding writer. While his parents did not participate widely in society life, they ensured that their only son was able to meet all the right people. He mingled with the elite children, attending dance classes and preparatory school, all the while knowing he was not entirely part of this society. What resulted was a self-proclaimed “poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton,” who was never fully “able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored [his] entire life and works” (according to a 1938 letter written to Anne Ober, wife of his literary agent, Harold Ober.)

At the age of twenty-two, after leaving Princeton and joining the Army, Fitzgerald fell in love with the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge by the name of Zelda Sayre. The eighteen-year-old belle, however, refused to marry him until he could support her lifestyle, further fueling his literary ambitions. He revised the already-penned (and rejected) novel, The Romantic Egotist, resubmitting it under the title This Side of Paradise. This time it was accepted and published. A week later, Scott and Zelda were married in New York City, beginning a life of extravagance and tumult they would share over the next few decades.

Thrust into a world of lavish parties, overindulgence, and alcohol (despite Prohibition), the Fitzgerald’s quickly blew through Scott’s first novel’s earnings and struggled the rest of their lives to maintain the lifestyle of excess they’d become accustomed to. Fitzgerald  began writing short stories, which appeared in a number of national publications, to pay the bills. However, coupled with his playboy reputation and tendency toward alcoholism, critics were reluctant to regard him as a serious writer. His career would never recover–at least not in his own lifetime.

Riding the ex-pat wave– dubbed The Lost Generation– Scott, Zelda, and their daughter moved to Europe, where they would stay (between intermittent returns to the States) for the next decade and half. During this time, Zelda’s mental health began to deteriorate, creating a further rift in not only the Fitzgerald’s marriage, but also their financial stability.

It was truly a time of rapid change, for both the couple and the generation they embodied. Economic prosperity was met with first a crash, then widespread depression. Gender roles and social hierarchies were shifting; and war was on the forefront, threatening all corners of the world like never before. The promise and frivolity of youth was replaced with the smashing disillusionment of despair and inconsistency. Fitzgerald struggled to keep up. But through his writings, namely The Great Gatsby and a number of his short stories, we see an honest portrayal of the spiritual barrenness and hedonistic escapism he bore witness to.

Fitzgerald’s role, however, was neither pure outside-observer nor inside-participant. He walked (and wrote) a fine line between the two, affording his works a unique perspective rarely duplicated since. He both exalted the notion of the American dream– that lauded ambition for greatness– and criticized its outcome. He presented man as being simultaneously obsessed with wealth and power, as well as hope and equity. Perhaps we can take this as an outward extension of his own internal struggles regarding money, fame, and happiness.

Nevertheless, his stories, and the characters that inhabit them so passionately, possess such a genuinely “felt” quality that has transcended through the decades. They address the evolving nature of the American dream, as well as the role of individual desires in an ever-expanding global society. By addressing this universal notion, Fitzgerald and his works not only serve as a nostalgic return, but also a reminder of the current struggles between optimistic idealism and self-indulgent nihilism.

 

 

 

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