F. Scott Fitzgerald: Our nation's most poetic interpreter

Cover of “Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald”
Cover of “Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald” Submitted

In "Paradise Lost," the new biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, David S. Brown announces that he will treat the author as "a cultural historian." After all, Fitzgerald named the '20s the Jazz Age and perfectly captured the opulence and depravity of the decade in "The Great Gatsby." He then addressed the despair of the Depression in works such as "My Lost City." But Brown argues that Fitzgerald was no mere commentator. He became, Brown writes, "a national and even an international interpreter in the company of such contemporaries as Gertrude Stein, John Maynard Keynes, and Pablo Picasso."

Fitzgerald possessed a heritage that allowed him to appreciate the nation's history. His father, born near Rockville, Md., was raised amid memories of the Civil War. A distant relative was Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star-Spangled Banner"; another was Mary Surratt, part of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. "Fitzgerald," Brown argues, "was able to write as powerfully as he did about historical change in America because he identified with it in such a personal way."

Born in St. Paul, Minn., Fitzgerald nevertheless identified with his Southern legacy. This "hauntedness of home," as Brown puts it, produced a troubled life. At Princeton, Fitzgerald left without a degree, but the First World War, and his induction into the Army, "gave [him] an honorable out from his scholastic dead end." An uninspired soldier, Fitzgerald never made it to the war in Europe, but while stationed near Montgomery, Ala., he met 18-year-old Zelda Sayre, known "as a flirt and a free spirit." Their stormy engagement ended with a wedding at St. Patrick's Cathedral once Fitzgerald proved he could earn a living — Zelda's stipulation before marrying him — by selling his first novel "This Side of Paradise" (1920) to Scribner's.

That novel was a surprise best-seller. However, Fitzgerald's second novel, "The Beautiful and Damned" (1922), which "finds Fitzgerald experimenting with naturalism," sold modestly. "The Great Gatsby" (1925), described by Brown as a "commercial disappointment," barely earned back its $4,000 advance. "Tender Is the Night" (1934) appeared briefly on the best-sellers list. Fitzgerald's novels may not have been moneymakers, but he earned "a small fortune" writing short stories for the popular magazines of the day. He published regularly in the Saturday Evening Post, which paid him well and, because it had an enormous circulation, made him famous.

Most heartbreaking in Brown's account is Fitzgerald's marriage to Zelda. With daughter Scottie in tow, they were constantly on the move —- from Manhattan to Europe, Ashville to Hollywood. They drank heavily, had affairs, fought. Brown reports that one argument "literally drew blood." Unable to cope, Zelda suffered a series of breakdowns in the 1930s and was eventually institutionalized.

At no point was Fitzgerald's life more haunting than at the end. Living in Hollywood and writing for the studios, working on a novel he would not finish, he died of a heart attack in 1940. Brown quotes one reporter who described Fitzgerald's memorial service: "There lay American genius [and] not a soul was in the room. Except for one bouquet of flowers and a few empty chairs, there was nothing to keep him company except his casket." Fitzgerald was 44.

In Brown's telling, it was this life — defined by status and money but also by alcoholism and madness — that made him perfect to chronicle "the boom twenties and the bust thirties." Brown relies on archival material, and some chapters read more like expository essays than biography, but "Paradise Lost" does succeed in depicting Fitzgerald, whose life was as full of pathos as any of the sad young men about whom he wrote, as "an artist immersed in his times." As cultural historian, Fitzgerald documented his America, ultimately concluding that, despite the nation's flaws, "the best of America was the best of the world."

Fitzgerald never lived to see his real success. Then in 1951, two books— Alfred Kazin's "F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work" and Arthur Mizener's "The Far Side of Paradise" — triggered a boom that saw books by and about Fitzgerald rack up startling sales. Soon, "Gatsby" — finally hailed as the brilliant novel it is — was adopted by academia. Sales climbed until, by 2013, the novel was estimated to have sold 25 million copies.

Books by Fitzgerald published after his death — "The Last Tycoon" (his unfinished novel), "The Crack-Up," "The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald" — benefited from this newfound interest. And over the years, other books by Fitzgerald have continued to appear. The latest is "I'd Die for You." Sanctioned by the Fitzgerald estate and edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, this collection contains character portraits, screenplay treatments and unpublished short stories. Many of the stories remained unpublished because Fitzgerald reached a point in his career when he refused to allow his work to be edited by the magazines that might have bought them. Now, here they are — a welcomed addition to the Fitzgerald canon.

In "The Couple," an estranged affluent couple reconciles through their dealings with a trouble-causing husband and wife they hire to work for them. In "The Pearl and the Fur," a young woman named Gwen bestows an act of kindness on a young man "out of a pity that was so deep in her that she could never even tell [her friend] Dizzy about it - never told anyone at all." And, in the title story, intrigue swirls around movie people shooting a picture in North Carolina as, in true Fitzgerald fashion, the cinematographer falls in love with his star.

Some of these stories easily compliment those for which Fitzgerald is best known, such as "Winter Dreams" and "Babylon Revisited." Sadly, they are also testimony to the tragedy of Fitzgerald's all-too-early death.

“Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald”

By David S. Brown (Belknap, 397 pages, $29.95)