The Rise & Fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Detail from painting by Frank Holmes. Used with permission.

I recently listened to a lecture called The Rise and Fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Dr. Elliot Engel. Professor Engel is a good storyteller and active lecturer on literary subjects. He has also written three plays, many articles and seven books, including A Dab of Dickens and A Touch of Twain.

According to Engel, Fitzgerald is one of only four significant American authors of the 20th century. As he sees it, all the rest will be forgotten in 200 years, but these four will continue to be studied: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and the topic of this lecture, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Hemingway’s significance is chiefly due to the impact he made on modern literature. His punchy prose smashed the old rules and replaced them with a new stylebook. Short is strong, shorter stronger. Steinbeck will always be associated with his keenly perceptive Depression-era stories. Faulkner’s landscape was the South, and Fitzgerald’s the Roaring 20’s.

Fitzgerald’s life story is itself like a novel. His sisters died while he was in the womb so that when he was born his mother doted on him excessively. When she lost the two girls she vowed never to have any more children.

Though his mother came from a family with means, his dad managed to do badly in business and when Scotty was eleven they were bankrupt. As a result, they returned to Minnesota to be near her folks who could then help them get on their feet. This and other anecdotes were presented to give a backdrop for Fitzgerald’s personality development and his fascination with the Jazz Age, particularly the lifestyles of the rich and infamous.

The irony is that his life seemed to be a repeat of his dad’s. He married a girl from a wealthy background, but somehow failed at providing for her. We’re talking about Zelda here, another tragic character whose insatiable zest for life was greased with wacko zeal. Though at one time the most sought after short story writer of his day, and highest paid, Fitzgerald’s books sold badly, after the first, and Zelda’s spending far exceeded the paltry pittance their sales provided.

Eventually, his nerves were shot, and he wrote about it in a three-part feature for Esquire magazine. His extreme candor resulted in his inability to sell any more work. He was “out of favor.” Here are the opening lines of that Esquire piece.

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside — the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick — the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.

It was actually a three part series — “The Crack-Up,” “Pasting It Together,” and “Handle with Care” — which was then published as a book. The irony is that several years later, this book helped restore Fitzgerald’s name as a writer of significance. But by this time he was dead.

Now my question is this. Do you believe Professor Engel is right? Is Fitzgerald worthy of being included in the short list of important American authors who will be remembered 200 years from now? Do you think Fitzgerald’s significance is overrated?

A few related questions: Where does Jack London stand in importance as an American writer? Are there no other American authors of significance? And who will be remembered from the second half of the twentieth century?

In closing, a description from near the end of The Great Gatsby, a summing up of what Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s lives were about. “They were careless people… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

Link to The Crack-Up
More facts about Fitzgerald

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