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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 (continued)

This Side of Paradise made Fitzgerald famous. It also made Zelda change her mind again. On April 3, 1920, in the Rectory of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, they were married. Within two years they became the most notorious young couple in America, symbolizing what Fitzgerald called The Jazz Age.

The Jazz Age began, Fitzgerald tells us in his short story, "May Day," in May of 1918. It ended with the stock market crash of 1929. The Jazz Age brought about one of the most rapid and pervasive changes in manners and morals the world has ever seen, changes that we are still wrestling with today. It was a period when the younger generation-men and women alike-were rebelling against the values and customs of their parents and grandparents. After all, the older generation had led thousands of young men into the most brutal and senseless war in human history. People of Fitzgerald's age had seen death, and when they came back, they were determined to have a good time. "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm, now that they've seen Paree" was one of the most popular songs of the day.

And have a good time they did. The saxophone replaced the violin; skirt hemlines went up; corsets came off; women started smoking; and Prohibition, which was supposed to stop drinking, only reshaped it into secret fun. The public saloon, now illegal, was replaced by the private cocktail party, and men and women began drinking together. Parties like the ones given by Gatsby began to thrive, and hoodlums became millionaires in a few months by controlling the bootleg liquor business.

Scott and Zelda not only chronicled the age, they lived it. They rode down Fifth Avenue on the tops of taxis; they dove into the fountain in front of New York's famous Plaza Hotel. Scott fought with waiters, and Zelda danced on tabletops. They drank too much and passed out in corners; they drove recklessly and gave weekend parties, which were not too different from the ones Gatsby gives in the novel and which lasted until the small hours of Monday morning.


In the midst of all this, Fitzgerald tried to write. Part of him believed in work and tried repeatedly to discipline himself, to go "on the wagon," to give up parties.

Many years later in a beautiful letter to his daughter Scottie, he talked about the tension of those years: "When I was your age I lived with a great dream. The dream grew and I learned to speak of it and make people listen. Then the dream divided one day when I decided to marry your mother... I was a man divided-she wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dream."

The dream, of course, was his dream of being a great writer. This Side of Paradise had made him famous because it was the first novel that honestly described the life-style of the new generation, but his work during the first three years of his marriage was not nearly what he knew it could have been, and so in 1923 he set out to write a book that he could be proud of. In July 1923, Zelda wrote a friend: "Scott has started a new novel and retired into strict seclusion and celibacy." The new novel of course was The Great Gatsby, and the ten months he devoted to that novel was artistically the most disciplined ten months of his life. The novel was published in the spring of 1925. Though sales were disappointing, the criticism was very positive. Great writers like the novelist Edith Wharton and the poet T. S. Eliot wrote Fitzgerald letters of congratulations. And Gertrude Stein, who called Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway members of a "lost generation," gave great praise to the book. Hemingway himself, a new friend of Fitzgerald's in 1925, loved The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald was never again to reach the success of Gatsby. Until 1925 the Nick Carraway in him had sustained him enough to keep him writing well, but just as Gatsby's love for Daisy drove him to tragedy, so Fitzgerald's love for Zelda occupied more and more of his time. To maintain the social style she loved, he wrote stories for the popular magazines of the time, like Cosmopolitan, Smart Set, and the Saturday Evening Post. Maintaining a dizzying social life, Scott, Zelda, and their daughter Scottie moved from New York City to Great Neck, Long Island (the model for West Egg in Gatsby), eventually on to Paris and the Riviera, and finally back to the United States. He could not finish another novel, and he could not make Zelda happy. She became more and more depressed, and finally in April 1930, Zelda had a complete breakdown and had to be hospitalized.

The great stock market crash of 1929 had ended America's decade of prosperity, and Zelda's breakdown in 1930 ended the Fitzgerald's decade as the symbol of The Jazz Age. The party was over.

From 1930 until his death in Hollywood in 1940, Scott struggled to regain the stature he had earned with The Great Gatsby, but he never could. He wrote Tender is the Night, which is a beautiful novel, during the early '30s, but when the book was published in 1934, America was not interested in a story about rich Americans partying on the French Riviera. This was the Depression, and the novelists in demand were Sherwood Anderson and John Steinbeck, writers who talked about the plight of poor people. Scott continued to care for Zelda, who was to spend the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums. He also kept writing. But during 1935 and 1936 he had his own breakdown, which he recorded brilliantly in the series of essays for Esquire called "The Crack Up."

Desperate for money, he took a job as a script writer for MGM in 1937, where he worked on and off for the next two years. With the support of his friend the columnist Sheilah Graham, in 1939 he began a new novel. Called The Last Tycoon, this book was based on the career of the legendary Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg, whom Fitzgerald greatly admired. But Fitzgerald's years of dissipation caught up with him, and he died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940. Even unfinished, The Last Tycoon is a fine novel, almost as good as Gatsby. But for a long time the world didn't know that. At the time of his death all of Fitzgerald's books were out of print. Scott who? Oh, that guy that used to write about the '20s.

Well, he was much more than that, and during the 1950s and 1960s people started reading Scott Fitzgerald again. Today he is considered one of America's great novelists. The Great Gatsby, along with The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, has become a book we can't do without if we want to understand ourselves. Fitzgerald asks us to read this book with that same double vision with which he wrote it. He asks us to participate emotionally in the lives of its characters, especially Gatsby. And he asks us to stand back from them as Nick does and see what is wrong with them. He asks us to love and to evaluate at the same time, perhaps in the say way that Nick both loves and criticizes Gatsby.

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