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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

BIOGRAPHY / BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Have you ever felt that there were two of you battling for control of the person you call yourself? Have you ever felt that you weren't quite sure which one you wanted to be in charge? All of us have at least two selves: one who wants to work hard, get good grades, and be successful; and one who would rather lie in the sun and listen to music and daydream. To understand F. Scott Fitzgerald, the man and the writer, you must begin with the idea of doubleness, or twoness.

Fitzgerald himself said in a famous series of essays called The Crack Up, "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Everything about Fitzgerald is touched by this idea. For example, he both loved and hated money. He was attracted to the life of the very rich as an outsider who had very little, and at the same time he hated the falseness and hypocrisy and cruelty of their lives. He was disciplined, knowing that he had to have great mental and physical self-control to succeed as a writer, but he was often unable to exercise those very qualities he knew he would need in order to succeed. He loved his wife Zelda more than anything in his life, and yet he hated her for destroying his talent. Part of him lived a dazzling life full of parties, gaiety, and show; and part of him knew that this sort of life was a complete sham.

All of this doubleness Fitzgerald puts into the novel you are about to read: The Great Gatsby. As you begin reading think about Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, and Jay Gatsby, the hero of the novel, as the two sides of Fitzgerald. Think of Fitzgerald as putting into his two main characters both of the people that he knew he had within him. As you read, ask yourself whether or not you have these two people within you: Nick, the intelligent and disciplined observer; and Gatsby, the passionate and idealistic dreamer who wants his dream so much that he will sacrifice everything for it.


Fitzgerald himself seemed genetically destined for doubleness. His mother's father, P. F. McQuillan, went to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1857, at the age of twenty-three. In twenty years he built up-literally from nothing-an enormously successful wholesale business. He was a totally self-made man, and from him Scott inherited a sense of self-reliance and a belief in hard work. The Fitzgeralds, on the other hand, were an old Maryland family. Scott himself-Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was his full name-was named for his great, great, great grandfather's brother, the man who wrote "The Star Spangled Banner." And Edward Fitzgerald, Scott's father, was a handsome, charming man, but one who seemed more interested in the family name than in hard work.

The McQuillan and the Fitzgerald in Scott vied for control throughout his childhood. He was a precocious child, full of energy and imagination, but he liked to take short cuts, substituting flights of fantasy for hard work. On his seventh birthday in 1903 he told a number of the older guests that he was the owner of a yacht (perhaps the seeds of Gatsby's admiration for Dan Cody's yacht in the novel). As an adolescent he loved to play theatrical games-pretending to be drunk on a streetcar or telephoning an artificial limb company to discuss being fitted for a false limb. He was an excellent writer and a vivid satirist of his classmates, but his marks were not good; so, like so many Midwestern boys, he was shipped East to boarding school, where he would be taught discipline and hard work.

In September of 1911, with the words and music of Irving Berlin's new song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" uppermost on his mind, he enrolled at the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, a popular Roman Catholic school among Midwestern families. Here he was to have two years to ready himself for a good Ivy League College, preferably Princeton or Yale. Scott chose Princeton, but Princeton very nearly didn't choose him.

The doubleness in Scott is beautifully illustrated by the way in which he maneuvered himself into Princeton. An avid writer and reader, Fitzgerald tended to read what he liked and ignore his school work, and therefore he failed his entrance exams during his senior year. After a "summer of study," he took them again and failed them again. Finally on September 24, 1913, his seventeenth birthday, he appeared before the Admissions Committee and convinced them to accept him. Personal magnetism was able to achieve what hard work had not.

One of the things Scott inherited from his Grandfather McQuillan was ambition. Scott was a fierce competitor, and if he wanted something badly enough he could work like a demon. What Scott wanted were women and popularity, and the way to win women and be popular, he had learned at Newman, was with money, good looks, and athletics. He didn't have the first, but he had the second, and he worked very, very hard at the third by trying out for freshman football. His problem was that he was only 5' 6" and weighed only 130 pounds, which doesn't get one very far in football. So he scrapped the football pads and found another outlet for his energy and his ambition: writing musical comedies. One of the most prestigious organizations at Princeton was and still is the Triangle Club, a group that writes and produces a musical comedy every year. (Among its graduates are the actors Jimmy Stewart and Jose Ferrer.)

Fitzgerald devoted most of his energies at Princeton to the Triangle Show, writing the book and lyrics in his freshman year and the lyrics in his sophomore year. He was elected secretary of the club, and was in line to become its president-something he wanted more than anything in his life. But it was not to be. In December of 1915, the fall of his junior year, he was sent home with malaria. He was told when he returned in March that he would have to fall back a year and that he was academically ineligible for the Triangle presidency. In the spring of 1917 his class graduated, and Scott was left behind to complete his senior year. He never did; instead, he enlisted in the army.

Why? Perhaps because he wanted to be a hero, and the United States was about to make the world safe for democracy. Perhaps because college was no fun anymore. Perhaps because beautiful women love young men in uniform. Whatever the reason, Fitzgerald left Princeton in November and found himself in the summer of 1918 stationed at Camp Sheridan, outside Montgomery, Alabama. Here 2nd Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald met Miss Zelda Sayre, who was to become his wife and the single most important influence on his life. Zelda was seventeen, and a combination of tomboy and Southern belle. She was used to having her own way with her traditional parents, and she very much enjoyed being courted by the officers from Camp Sheridan, just as Daisy in The Great Gatsby is courted by the young officers at Camp Taylor.

It was love at first sight. Just as Jay Gatsby, an outsider with no money and no respectable family, falls utterly in love with Daisy Fay, so the Midwestern outsider Scott Fitzgerald fell head over heels in love with the Montgomery belle Zelda Sayre. He loved her beauty, her daring, her originality. He loved her crazy, romantic streak which matched his own. He proposed to her, and she turned him down. Like Jay Gatsby, he was too young and he had no money, and she could not be sure he would ever amount to anything.

So he went off to war but, unlike Gatsby, he never got to Europe. By the time his regiment had been sent overseas, the Armistice had been signed and his dreams of military glory had to be set aside with the football pads and the presidency of the Triangle Club. But Scott was determined to be famous, and in March of 1919- this time like Nick Carraway-he went to New York to learn his trade. Scott's trade was writing and he had written, during his long, lonely months in the army, a novel about life at boarding school and at Princeton. But no one would publish it and Zelda, who had finally promised to marry him, changed her mind. In what he called his "long summer of despair," he went home to St. Paul, rewrote his novel, and submitted it to Charles Scribner's Sons. Maxwell Perkins, a young editor who was to become Fitzgerald's friend and supporter for life, accepted the book. In March of 1920, Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published.

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