Perhaps best known for his novel The Great Gatsby, a fabulous work of fiction about society in the 1920's, F. Scott Fitzgerald was better known in his time for his short stories and novellas. A major theme in his work is aspiration-- the idealism that Fitzgerald regarded as a defining quality of the American character. Also seen in much of his fiction is the theme of mutability, or loss. As a social historian, Fitzgerald came to be identified with "The Jazz Age": "It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire."

Fitzgerald’s first attempt at professional writing started when he wrote The Romantic Egoist in 1917 before he left for the war. He was convinced that he would not return, so he dashed off this novel and submitted it to Charles Scribner’s Sons for publication. Although they rejected it, they were impressed with Fitzgerald’s originality and told him that they would be interested in it after he had revised the manuscript. However, when he did so in 1918 while stationed at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, Alabama, and resubmitted it to Scribners, the novel was once again rejected.

While Fitzgerald had been at Camp Sheridan, he had met and fallen in love with his future wife, Zelda Sayre, daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. They got engaged before the war ended in 1919, and as soon as he was discharged, Fitzgerald went to New York City to seek his fortune in the advertising business so that he could marry Zelda. However, she broke their engagement because she was too impatient to live on his small salary while waiting for him to succeed in advertising.

Ftizgerald’s professional writing career really started towards the end of 1919 when he quit his job in New York to return to his hometown of St. Paul. He first rewrote a previous manuscript for This Side of Paradise, which was accepted by Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins in September of that year. After that, Fitzgerald began to make money writing short stories for magazines through agent Harold Ober, which interrupted work on his novels. A great number of his stories were published in The Saturday Evening Post, as well as the smaller magazine The Smart Set. Most of these early stories read with a fresh, innovative style, as Fitzgerald created the independent, determined, young American woman and epitomized the free and easy style of the rich in the 1920’s. (see The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Bernice Bobs Her Hair)

When 24-year-old Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920, he became an overnight success. A week later, he and Zelda were married in New York and began an extravagant lifestyle that would lead to an underappreciation of Fitzgerald’s work. Fitzgerald’s success continued with his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, published in 1922. He was further blessed when his only child Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald was born in October of 1921.

However, Fitzgerald’s run of good luck did not last, as his play, The Vegetable, a political satire subtitled "From President to Postman," failed at its tryout in November 1923. Fitzgerald had invested a lot in it as he had expected it to be a great success; to get himself out of debt, he continued to write short stories, which further impeded his progress on a third novel. Upset with his failure, Fitzgerald began to drink heavily, and he and Zelda, who also drank, frequently fought after fits of drinking. Even though he was an alcoholic and knew that this was upsetting his personal life, Fitzgerald would not let it disturb his professional talent and he never wrote while intoxicated.

This did not, however, help his work to gain positive literary opinion. Critics knew about his drinking and so they looked down on his worth as a serious writer. They assumed that being an alcoholic was affecting his writing and refused to accord him the literary merit he deserved; Fitzgerald was a devoted writer whose work went through series of drafts.

Despite the disapproval he received, Fitzgerald continued to persevere, writing his novel The Great Gatsby in 1924 and 1925 while he and his family traveled through Europe. Fitzgerald's technique in The Great Gatsby was a solid departure from his earlier work, with a complex literary structure and a controlled narrative point of view. This regained him some of his merit in the literary world, but the novel did not sell as well as expected.

After returning to America in 1926, Fitzgerald made a brief attempt at screenwriting in Hollywood. When this did not succeed, the Fitzgeralds moved to Delaware in 1927, where Fitzgerald was unable to make any significant progress on his fourth novel, begun while in France the year before.

All the while, Zelda’s behavior, seen as eccentric and unconventional, had become increasingly erratic; while Fitzgerald tried to write his novel, she started intense ballet training, which damaged her health and led to their estrangement. In April of 1930, she had her first mental breakdown and was treated at Prangins clinic in Switzerland until September 1931, while Fitzgerald stayed in Switzerland in various hotels, writing short stories to pay for Zelda’s treatment. He made considerably more money from each of his 160 short stories than he did from any of his novels; but Fitzgerald was not often in a good financial situation because he was still not one of the highest-paid writers at the time, and he and his wife were not very careful with their money. He was always writing stories to try and keep on top of things financially, which took more time away from his novels.

In September 1931, after Zelda’s treatment, the Fitzgeralds returned to America and Fitzgerald tried another stint in Hollywood, again not meeting with success. A relapse of Zelda’s condition in February 1932 sent her to Baltimore for treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After that, Zelda spent most of her life as a resident or outpatient of sanitariums.

She wrote an autobiography, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932, while a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital; in Fitzgerald’s view, this was an appropriation of the material that he was using in his novel-in-progress, and it increased the enmity between the two. Renting a house outside Baltimore, Fitzgerald soon completed his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, published in 1934. It was another failure as he saw it; its low sales and lack of popularity in the world of literary critics once again fell below Fitzgerald’s expectations for his work.

Fitzgerald’s run of literary failure that had begun with his play The Vegetable in 1923 continued on through 1937. The time of 1936-37 was one of the hardest for him, called "the crack-up" after an essay Fitzgerald wrote in 1936. He was in poor health, unable to save himself from alcoholism, in dire financial straits, and his talent was failing him: he could not manage to gain any literary or commercial success with his short stories. He sent his daughter Scottie to boarding school and lived by himself in hotels near the North Carolina hospital where his wife had been admitted. Although Fitzgerald couldn’t manage to raise a fourteen-year-old child by himself with all the troubles he was facing, he tried to be a part of his daughter’s life through mail, acting the part of father as best he could.

Desperate for anything to buoy up his career and his finances, Fitzgerald returned to Hollywood, alone this time, in late 1937 with a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract. After a year and a half, Fitzgerald had gained a single screen credit (for adapting Three Comrades) and over $90,000. Facing the Great Depression, this was more than a lot of money, but Fitzgerald was still unable to save, and merely paid himself out of debt. His relationship with Zelda fell apart, and he found love in California with movie columnist Sheilah Graham. After 1938, Fitzgerald freelanced writing scripts and short stories. His unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, retitled The Last Tycoon, was still in draft stage when he died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940.

Fitzgerald’s real success came after his death, with a revival starting in the late 40’s. Critics of his time condemned him for his lifestyle and apparent lack of developed talent, but by 1960, he was recognized by the literary world as one of America’s greatest writers, especially for his defining novel The Great Gatsby.
sources: works of Matthew J. Bruccoli, F. Scott Fitzgerald historian.

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