F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896-1940

Best known for The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934)—two keystones of modernist fiction—Francis Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was the poet laureate of the “Jazz Age,” a term he popularized to convey the post-World War I era’s newfound prosperity, consumerism, and shifting sexual mores.

Fitzgerald first rose to fame at twenty-three by chronicling those changes in This Side of Paradise (1920). Before the age of thirty he published his masterpiece, Gatsby, but its artistic maturity was stymied for a decade by alcoholism, financial problems, and the mental illness of his wife, Zelda Sayre (1900-1948). By the time he completed Tender, the Depression had rendered the Roaring Twenties irrelevant, and Fitzgerald was considered a has-been. A half-decade later, he died in semi-obscurity, considered a failure, despite publishing 160+ short stories in his twenty-year career. Only posthumously would critics appreciate his merits, although understanding of his talent would compete with popular interest in his life and marriage.

Fitzgerald’s main themes are ambition and loss, discipline vs. self-indulgence, love and romance, and money and class. Much like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, his work is instantly recognizable due to its distinctive prose style. Whereas Hemingway’s is sparse and Faulkner’s veers toward psychological abstraction, Fitzgerald’s is intensely poetic to the point of rhapsodic, elevating his laments into veritable threnodies for the sureties and stable values that he felt modernity superannuated.

Born September 24, 1896, Fitzgerald suffered from a life-long inferiority complex that he later claimed distinguished him from Hemingway, his chief rival. “I talk with the authority of failure,” he insisted. “Ernest with the authority of success” (Notebooks 318). His sense of defeat was the product of several formative setbacks that became the building blocks of his fiction. The son of an unsuccessful businessman who had to rely upon his wife’s inheritance to support his children, Fitzgerald was sensitive to his family’s outsider status among the monied elite of his native St. Paul, Minnesota. An indifferent student, he found his craving for recognition hampered by poor grades that interfered with his extracurricular pursuits of popularity, especially after he flunked out of Princeton University in 1917.

Nor were his aspirations for military heroism any more successful. Although commissioned as a second lieutenant during the Great War, he described himself as the “army’s worst aide-de-camp” (Crack-Up 85)—largely because he preferred writing his first novel to tactics and training. As his 1936 story “I Didn’t Get Over” suggests, the fact that he never saw combat—the Armistice arrived as his infantry regiment was preparing to ship abroad—was an additional lifelong regret.

Of even greater influence were his early romantic disappointments. Fitzgerald’s desire for acceptance in the haute monde led him to court debutantes from whose circles he was doomed to be rejected. At nineteen, while dating Ginevra King, the daughter of a wealthy Illinois banker, he overheard a family member of hers (accounts differ as to whom) remark, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls” (Ledger 17). Two years later, while he was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda Sayre declined his initial marriage proposal because of his poor career prospects.

These snubs combined to become his most characteristic plotline, which typically revolves around the efforts of young men of humble backgrounds to prove themselves worthy of the daughters of a wealthier class. That Fitzgerald explored this theme both farcically (“The Offshore Pirate” [1920]) as well as tragically (“Winter Dreams” [1922], Gatsby) is indicative of how thoroughly his perceived unworthiness stamped him.

Because Fitzgerald promoted his fiction as autobiographical, early critics tended to dismiss him as a “facile” writer. Yet he never would have attracted the wide audience he did during his peak years of popularity (1920-1925) had he not possessed a talent for presenting personal milestones as representative of peers’ collective experience. This Side of Paradise sold upwards of fifty thousand copies because protagonist Amory Blaine’s thwarted ambitions are depicted as generational dilemmas: his failures in love and college are attributed not simply to personal shortcomings but to the sweeping changes of modern life, which caused young people to grow up “to discover all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths shaken” (260). With its unflattering portraits of adults and unrepentant vignettes of teenage initiation rituals—drinking and petting, most notoriously—Paradise gave voice to postwar youth by offering a realistic treatment of adolescent disaffection. In doing so, the book established the template for such 20th-century coming-of-age novels as J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963)—works that, like Paradise, resist the traditional Bildungsroman model by declining to conclude with their heroes entering adulthood.

More immediately, both the novel and Fitzgerald’s earliest short stories—most published in The Saturday Evening Post—popularized a character type with which he remains inexorably associated: the flapper. With their bobbed hair, knee-baring skirts, and unapologetic coquetry, heroines such as Paradise’s Rosalind Connage, Marcia Meadow in “Head and Shoulders,” Ardita Farnam in “The Offshore Pirate,” and Sally Carrol Happer in “The Ice Palace” (all 1920) modeled for female readers a self-consciously rebellious subcultural identity that freed them from the strictures of Victorian femininity. Nowhere is that freedom more obvious than when a character invokes Louisa May Alcott in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” (also 1920): “Oh, please don’t quote Little Women!” Marjorie Harvey responds. “What modern girl could live like those inane females?” (Short Stories 33).

Fitzgerald capitalized upon adult worries over “flaming youth” by entitling his first story collection Flappers and Philosophers (1920), his second Tales of the Jazz (1922), and by opining on adolescent mores in interviews and articles. Even after the vogue for flappers faded, he remained fascinated with youth. Between 1927 and 1931, he wrote a series of thirteen “juveniles” for the Post that follow Basil Duke Lee and Josephine Perry through their late teens. Although nowhere near as well-known as Gatsby or Tender, these pieces, posthumously collected as The Basil and Josephine Stories (1973), offer as nuanced a portrait of the paysage moralisée as one will find on any shortlist of “young-adult” classics.

Despite his fixation with youth, Fitzgerald knew that to be regarded as more than a “flapper novelist” he must reach beyond his immediate generational focus to address broader cultural concerns. One interest that allowed him to do this was money. Keenly aware of the expanding consumer market, he examined the ways in which the Victorian values of hard work and frugality were losing their moral valence to a new mindset of abundance and leisure-time indulgence. At times he parodied the previously unimaginable wealth amassed by barons such as John D. Rockefeller. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (1922) tells the fantastical story of the world’s richest man, who lives on a mountain-sized diamond in the Montana Rockies. The irony is that Braddock Washington’s net worth is far from stable, for his diamond is so large that “if it were offered for sale not only would the bottom fall out of the market, but also, if the value should vary … there would not be enough gold in the world to buy a tenth of it” (Short Stories 193). Washington must thus keep the diamond’s existence secret, which in turn requires him to either imprison or kill anyone who trespasses upon his Xanadu-like estate—a commentary both on the cutthroat extremes men like Rockefeller were said to go to protect their fortunes from the volatility of commodity markets but also the increasingly abstract and transitory nature of monetary values themselves.

In other cases, Fitzgerald preferred to moralize rather than satirize. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), traces the decay of an upperclass New York couple, Anthony and Gloria Patch, as they await an inheritance from Anthony’s wealthy grandfather. Without any guiding motivation in life, Anthony and Gloria succumb to drink, concupiscence, and adultery, their degeneration only accelerating after they discover themselves excluded from their patriarch’s will. Heavily influenced by naturalist fiction, The Beautiful and Damned is marred by didactic authorial intrusions and a confusing ending whose irony escaped many contemporary readers. (The Patches win a legal battle that recovers their lost fortune, but only after a breakdown that renders Anthony an invalid). Yet, despite its flaws, the novel captures the fear that prosperity encouraged laxity and dissipation.

Fitzgerald would explore this theme more successfully in his most anthologized short story, “Babylon Revisited” (1931). Charles Wales is a more sympathetic character than Anthony Patch because he recognizes how the extravagance afforded by the bull market cost him his family and landed him in a sanitarium. Even if his nostalgia for reckless living undermines his insistence that he has regained his moorings, his regret inspires incisive criticism of how affluence distorted his sense of reality: “The snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow,” Charlie concludes. “If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money” (Short Stories 633). In still other efforts, Fitzgerald trumpeted the Protestant work ethic as intently as any Babbittesque Rotarian that Sinclair Lewis might skewer. One of his most widely read stories during his lifetime, “George Jackson’s Arcady” (1924), concerns a disillusioned businessman who discovers how many lives he has benefited by epitomizing the virtues of honorable effort and civic giving. Although virtually forgotten today, this proto-It’s a Wonderful Life tale was deemed so inspirational that in 1928 it was republished in pamphlet form as part of a series promoting public readings of motivational texts.

One reason that Fitzgerald’s critiques of Roaring Twenties mores continue to resonate has to do with what critics call his “dual perspective” or “double vision.” His work does not merely sermonize against easy money and irrational exuberance. Instead, it acknowledges their appeal with great empathy, allowing readers to experience their allure rather than condemning them from a distance. The result, as Malcolm Cowley observed, is a mixture of a “maximum of immersion” combined with a “maximum of critical attachment” that creates a beguiling aura of ambiguity (“Double Man” 9).

The pinnacle of this trait is The Great Gatsby, in which narrator Nick Carraway stands both inside and outside of the action, at once enabling the enigmatic, nouveau riche Jay Gatsby in his quest to win back lost love Daisy Fay Buchanan with a fortune built from bootlegging and shady bonds while recognizing the unlikelihood of its success. Whether attending Gatsby’s lavish Long Island parties, traveling into New York City with Daisy’s philandering husband, Tom, or lending Gatsby his cottage for a rendezvous with Daisy, Nick is implicated in the intrigue in ways he cannot admit, especially when he is prone make statements such as, “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” (59). Whether such comments are meant sincerely or ironically is impossible to determine, suggesting that the dramatis personae are so caught in the flux of uncertainty that pragmatism and willful blindness have become their survival mechanism. In the end, Gatsby conveys a world so prone to cynical expedience and plausible deniability that the optimism of its titular hero can only seem tragically naïve.

Gatsby is considered Fitzgerald’s crowning achievement because of its stylistic and structural concision. Both This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned suffer from episodic forms that dilute their drama, while characterization is frequently conveyed through omniscient exposition rather than organic development. By narrowing the temporal scope of his timeline (the story occurs over the summer of 1922) and employing Nick Carraway as an observer-narrator, Fitzgerald was able to both intensify and internalize the tensions surrounding Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy. At once imagistic, dream-like, and profoundly sad, the novel contains several of the most evocative symbols in all of American literature, including the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the valley of ashes that separates Long Island from New York City, and the disembodied eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg that peer out from an abandoned billboard. The plot, moreover, asks to be read on different thematic levels: ostensibly a love story, Gatsby explores the limits of self-making, the delusions of materialism, and the intangibility of aspiration in a supposedly classless society. In the final paragraphs—Fitzgerald’s most cited passage—Gatsby’s ambition is even elegized as an expression of the American Dream:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.… And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (189)

Fitzgerald’s other major novel, Tender Is the Night, is the obverse of Gatsby in almost every imaginable way. Written over the course of a tempestuous nine-year period that saw the author handicapped by alcoholism and Zelda’s descent into mental illness, the book is chaotic, non-chronological, and fraught with “ruminations” and rhetorical “sideshows” that expound upon the historical, cultural, and philosophical import of its action (Life in Letters 467). Nevertheless, the story of the degeneration of a promising psychologist, Dr. Dick Diver, and his unstable wife, Nicole Warren, explores how the ruptures of modernity render past ideals of character obsolete. On one level, the book refutes the “Great Man” theory of historical progressivism, showing how the moral fiber of Romantic destiny in which Fitzgerald wanted to believe had given way to fashionable decadence and self-destruction. It also captures the peculiar placelessness of the 1920s’ globalization, depicting the drift of privileged Americans who expatriated to Europe (much as Fitzgerald and Zelda did throughout the second half of the decade).

Although Tender was at best a middling success when first published, its stature has grown over the years, with critics looking to its tangled subplots to appreciate how diverse phenomena shaped the era’s sense of fragmentation. Based closely on Zelda’s hospitalization in various Swiss sanitariums, Nicole’s treatment for schizophrenia invites exploration of the psychoanalytic concepts of transference and counter-transference in her and her husband-doctor’s mutual dependency. Dick Diver’s infatuation with ingénue actress Rosemary Hoyt, meanwhile, illustrates the role of the cinema in fostering the unreality of modern life. Even the leitmotif of romantic warfare is illustrative, suggesting how the Great War militarized everyday interaction—including the battle between the sexes.

After Tender, Fitzgerald only attempted one more novel. The Last Tycoon remained unfinished at the time of his December 21, 1940, death, however. Posthumously published a year later, it is notable for its treatment of the Hollywood studio system in which the author had intermittently toiled since the mid-1920s. As such, it is the culmination of several notable stories that explore his ambivalence toward both the industry and the medium, including “Jacob’s Ladder” (1927), “Magnetism” (1928), and a series of 1939-1940 tales featuring failed PR flak Pat Hobby.

Fitzgerald’s nonfiction is also considered a major part of his oeuvre, in particular the Esquire triptych “The Crack-Up,” which ignited controversy in 1936 for its beguiling confessions of squandered talent. His more commercial short stories—once derided as distractions from his “serious” work—are increasingly recognized for their craft and wit. Although Fitzgerald will remain best known for the elegiac melancholy of The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, his short fiction reveals that he was as adept at comedy and fantasy as at tragedy—a testament to the breadth and range of his talent.

Cowley, Malcolm. (1951). “The Double Man.” Saturday Review of Literature 34 (February 14), 9-10, 42-44.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. All the Sad Young Men. (1926, 2007). (ed.) James L. W. West III. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
_____. The Basil and Josephine Stories. (1973). (ed.) Jackson R. Bryer and John Kuehl. New York: Scribner’s, 1973.
_____. The Beautiful and Damned. (1922, 2008). (ed.) James L. W. West III. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
_____. The Crack-Up. (1945). (ed.) Edmund Wilson. New York: New Directions.
_____. Flappers and Philosophers. (1920, 1999). (ed.) James L. W. West III. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
_____. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger: A Facsimile. (1973). (Intro.) Matthew J. Bruccoli. Washington D. C.: NCR Microcard Books/Bruccoli Clark.
_____. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. (1994) (ed.) Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribner’s.
_____. The Great Gatsby. (1925, 1991). (ed.) Matthew J. Bruccoli. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
_____. The Last Tycoon. (1941). Republished (1993) as The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
_____. The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (1979). (ed.) Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
_____. The Pat Hobby Stories. (1962). (ed.) Arnold Gingrich. New York: Scribner’s.
_____. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection. (1989) (ed.) Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribner’s.
_____. Tales of the Jazz Age. (1922, 2002). (ed.) James L. W. West III. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
_____. Taps at Reveille. (1935). New York: Scribner’s.
_____. Tender Is the Night. (1934). New York: Scribner’s.
_____. This Side of Paradise. (1920, 1995). (ed.) James L. W. West III. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
_____. The Vegetable. (1923). New York: Scribner’s.

Berman, Ronald. (1994). The Great Gatsby and Modern Times. Urbana.: University of Illinois Press.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. (2002). Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. 2nd rev. ed. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2002.
Bryer, Jackson R. and Cathy W. Barks (eds.) (2002) Dear Scott/Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. New York: Scribner’s.
Curnutt, Kirk. (2007). The Cambridge Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Curnutt, Kirk. (ed). (2004). An Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Oxford University Press.
Donaldson, Scott. (1983) Fool for Love. New York: Congdon and Weed.
Prigozy, Ruth. (ed). (2002) The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald 1900-1948

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (1900-1948) was an artist, writer, and personality who helped to establish the Roaring Twenties image of liberated womanhood embodied by the “flapper.” She and her husband, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), became icons of the freedoms and excesses of the 1920s Jazz Age and symbols of the emerging cultural fascination with youth, conspicuous consumption, and leisure. Best known for her extravagant public persona and descent into mental illness, she is also remembered as an artist and author in her own right, and both her vivacity and tragedy live on in the many characters she inspired in her husband’s novels and short stories.

Born on July 24, 1900, in Montgomery, Zelda Sayre was the youngest child of Alabama Supreme Court Justice Anthony Dickson Sayre and Minnie Buckner Machen Sayre, a prominent middle-class couple with roots in both Montgomery and Confederate history. (Judge Sayre’s uncle William was a prominent Montgomery merchant whose home eventually became Jefferson Davis’s first White House; Minnie Sayre’s father was a Kentucky senator in the Confederate Congress). By her early adolescence, Zelda—named after the gypsy heroine of an obscure 1874 novel—was already a formidable presence in Montgomery social circles, starring in ballet recitals and basking in the glow of elite country club dances. At such a dance in July 1918, barely a month after graduating from Sidney Lanier High School, Zelda met F. Scott Fitzgerald, a 21-year-old army second lieutenant stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan. Despite Scott’s claim that he was on the verge of literary fame, Zelda doubted his financial prospects and entertained several other suitors, much to the chagrin of the aspiring author, who continued to press for an engagement. Zelda’s tactics fueled Scott’s insecurities, and the motif of a young man pursuing an elusive and conniving woman would later come to define his fiction.


In early 1920 prominent New York publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons accepted Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, and Zelda finally accepted his proposal of marriage. The couple wed in New York on April 3, 1920, just as the book began to ignite a scandal for its portrayal of the free-wheeling lifestyle and relaxed morals of what became known as the “Lost Generation.” As the presumed inspiration for character Rosalind Connage, Zelda became an instant celebrity; and for the first half of the 1920s, she frequently contributed her opinions on modern love, marriage, and childrearing to an eager media. In 1921, Zelda gave birth to the couple’s only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald. Her reaction to the birth is purported to have been used by Scott in The Great Gatsby, in which Daisy Buchanan states in response to the birth of her daughter: “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”


Zelda’s influence on Scott’s fiction in this period is inestimable. In addition to inspiring his major heroines, she supplied him with many other memorable lines, including an evocative description of Montgomery’s Oakwood Cemetery that appears in his short story “The Ice Palace.” When Scott’s novel The Beautiful and Damned was published, the New York Tribune hired Zelda to review it, she hinted that a passage in the book was lifted straight from her missing diary. Such statements have fueled scholarly debate that Zelda was Scott’s de facto collaborator and that he appropriated her personal experiences in his work. Such charges were given additional weight by the frequent addition of his name to her bylines on nearly two dozen stories and articles she produced between 1922 and 1934. In fact, Scott’s agent or editors added his name in several instances without his knowledge because the joint byline increased the price that these works received from leading magazines. Claims that Zelda “co-authored” her husband’s writing certainly are exaggerated, but few would deny that her personality was (and remains) key to its appeal.


By the late 1920s, the Fitzgeralds’s highly publicized and often stormy relationship began to break down as Zelda sought outlets for her own creativity. In addition to writing, she returned to two childhood passions—art and dance. In 1930, stress resulting from her frustrated attempts to become a professional ballerina led to the first of what would be many psychological breakdowns. (Although Zelda was treated for schizophrenia, mental-health experts later would contest both the diagnosis and recovery regimen prescribed by her main physician, Dr. Oscar Forel). From June 1930 to September 1931, Zelda lived at Les Rives de Prangins Clinic in Nyon, Switzerland. After her release, the couple returned to Montgomery and rented a home in the city’s Old Cloverdale neighborhood (the home is now the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum).


Scott soon left for Hollywood, and in February 1932 Zelda entered Johns Hopkins University’s Phipps Clinic, where she completed her only novel, Save Me the Waltz, an autobiographical recounting of her unstable marriage. Scott deeply resented the book, blaming the financial burden of her hospitalization for his inability to complete Tender Is the Night, and he also accused Zelda of poaching its plot for her novel. When her novel failed to garner critical or commercial interest (royalties amounted to a paltry $120), Zelda abandoned her literary aspirations. She then tried writing for the stage and produced the unsuccessful comedy Scandalabra, mounted by an amateur drama troupe in Baltimore in 1933. It was her last public writing effort. Zelda next turned to painting, but she fared no better. A 1934 show of her work in New York inspired a condescending notice in Time magazine that described the event as her “latest bid for fame” and her canvases as “the work of a brilliant introvert.”


Morgan Le FayThe Fitzgeralds parted ways in 1934, although they never divorced. (Their daughter was largely raised by nannies before entering boarding school). From 1936 to 1940, Zelda resided at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and Scott descended into alcoholism and literary obscurity, eventually relocating to Hollywood in the hope of establishing himself as a screenwriter. He died of a heart attack there on December 21, 1940. That year, Zelda returned to Montgomery, where she lived under the care of her mother. In addition to painting, she took occasional dance lessons and began a second novel entitled Caesar’s Things, which remains unpublished. She returned occasionally to Highland Hospital when her depression became debilitating and was one of nine women killed on the night of March 10–11, 1948, when a fire swept through the hospital’s main wing.


Zelda’s final years coincided with her husband’s posthumous rediscovery as a significant American writer. Early F. Scott Fitzgerald biographers and critics tended to depict Zelda as equal parts liability and inspiration. Negative opinion culminated with the 1964 publication of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, in which he portrays a fictionalized Zelda as a harridan who derailed her husband’s career. In Nancy Milford’s 1970 bestselling biography Zelda, she is a symbol of thwarted artistry, however—a theme echoed by many feminists, who see her frustrated attempts to establish herself as an artist as exemplifying the struggle women face in finding outlets and acceptance for their creativity. In recent years, scholars have both taught and written about Save Me the Waltz with increasing frequency, and exhibitions of Zelda’s surviving artwork regularly travel the United States. The Fitzgeralds’ story—of which Alabama is an indelible part—continues to fascinate scholars and the general public and has inspired an array of academic studies, movies, documentaries, and even musicals.

Additional Resources

Bruccoli, Matthew J., ed. The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.

Cline, Sally. Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2003.

Kurth, Peter, Jane S. Livingston, and Eleanor Lanahan, eds. Zelda: An Illustrated Life: The Private World of Zelda Fitzgerald. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald: An American Woman’s Life. London: Palgrave, 2004.

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