“He was a son of God–a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that–and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”
When I read The Great Gatsby, it was not for a school assignment. I decided to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel simply for pleasure. When I came upon the quote, above, I needed to pause in order to ponder the meaning of those words. “He was a son of God…” That’s a grand philosophical and religious statement. A statement that certainly evokes strong feelings from a reader. Taken as a whole, The sentences are an apt, nutshell description of the character of Jay Gatsby.
I thought a little bit longer about this excerpt. Perhaps the author felt some of this about himself. What made me think of this connection is the author’s full name and his family background? Was I reading more into the words than Fitzgerald intended?
His full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. He was the namesake and second cousin thrice removed of the famous writer of the US National Anthem. Francis was born on September 24, 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both of his parents were outwardly proud of their names and family pedigree. His father, Edward, originally from Maryland, was proud of the values of the Old South. His mother, Mary (McQuillan) Fitzgerald came from Irish immigrant stock. Her father founded a successful wholesale grocery business in the Twin Cities.
The budding author was a member of the Princeton University Class of 1917. He concentrated on his literary apprenticeship but neglected his scholastic work. His student accomplishments included lyrics and scripts for club musicals. Fitzgerald wrote articles for the “Nassau Literary Magazine” and the “Princeton Tiger” a satirical, lampoon type magazine. Because of Fitzgerald’s neglectful study habits, he was placed on academic probation and not likely to graduate.
The year, 1917, probably marks the beginning of Fitzgerald’s storied life. He dropped out of school and joined the US Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry. Francis strongly believed he’d be killed in the Great War. So he dashed off the first draft of a novel he titled The Romantic Egotist. The rejection letter from publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons requested revision and later resubmission.
In 1918, Lt. Fitzgerald was assigned to Camp Sheridan, Alabama, near Montgomery. Luckily, the war ended before his overseas assignment. It was in Alabama that he met and became engaged to marry the local belle, 18-year-old Zelda Sayer. She was the youngest daughter of a state Supreme Court Justice.
Fitzgerald pinned his dreams of success on his book. However, Scribners rejected it a second time for revision. Following Fitzgerald’s army discharge in 1919, the writer moved to New York City to build a fortune in order to wed Sayer. He managed to find work in the advertising business and was able to subsist on a humble salary. However, Sayer became impatient during the wait for Fitzgerald’s career climb. She was also unhappy with his meager earnings, so she broke off their engagement.
Following his breakup, Fitzgerald resigned his New York job and resettled in St. Paul to write and work. This time, he revised his novel, yet again. The story was billed as a “quest novel”. The book is set at Princeton University. The main character, Armory Blaine. The book follows the career and romantic yearnings of the protagonist. Fitzgerald retitled the book, This Side of Paradise. The book was accepted by Scribners after the successful rewrite.
The book was released on March 26, 1920. The young man became an “overnight” success. The following week, he and Zelda married in New York City. A whirlwind, extravagant lifestyle for the couple followed suit. Then the two settled into an apartment where he crafted his second book, The Beautiful and Damned. After Zelda became pregnant, they vacationed in Europe then resettled in Minnesota. Their only child, Frances Scott Fitzgerald, a daughter, was born in October in St. Paul.
The debut of his play, “The Vegetable (From President to Postman)” flopped on its tryout in 1923. Fitzgerald then took up short story writing in order to pay off his debts. The formal work, more New York lifestyle and Fitzgerald’s developing alcoholism hindered work on a third novel. The young family got caught up in discord and distractions.
In the search for peace and stability, in 1924, the Fitzgerald family relocated to Valescure, France. The marriage was shaken by Zelda’s affair with a French aviator. In addition to the new discord, Zelda’s behavior started to become more eccentric. During all of this, Fitzgerald wrote the first draft of The Great Gatsby. The rest of the next year was spent in Rome. He honed his style to encompass a controlled narrative and complex story structure while he revised his Gatsby draft.
In April of 1925, The Great Gatsby was published. The book was regarded highly by the critics but book sales were somewhat disappointing. The author did enjoy income through film and stage royalties from the book.
In the spring of 1927, the family moved to Wilmington, Delaware. Zelda took up ballet training. The intensity of her exercise hurt her overall health after the couples return to France in 1929 and led to F. Scott and Zelda’s estrangement. Mrs. Fitzgerald was hospitalized for her breakdown until 1931. At that time F. Scott lived in Switzerland, worked on a fourth novel and wrote more short stories to pay for his wife’s psychiatric therapy.
The Fitzgeralds again moved back to the United States to live in Montgomery, Alabama. Zelda had a relapse in 1932 and was hospitalized in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The rest of her life was subsequently spent in and out of sanitariums.
Meantime, while living outside of Baltimore, F. Scott finished novel number four. Tender Is The Night was published in 1934. The complicated story outlines the downfall of a brilliant psychiatrist, Dick Diver and his marriage to a wealthy psychiatric patient. The setting of the novel is 1920s France. Critics have debated the literary merits of the book but the work was a commercial failure.
The next year was marked by a low point of debt, drunkenness, and illnesses. Fitzgerald was unable to write commercially, so he lived in hotels in North Carolina near the hospitals Zelda was being treated. At this stage, the parents could no longer maintain a stable home environment for their daughter. She was sent to boarding school and lived under the supervision of a surrogate family. F. Scott did manage to provide some guidance by way of the US Mail.
He moved to Hollywood in 1937 and worked as a screenwriter for MGM. He also fell in love and moved in with Hollywood movie columnist Sheilah Graham. His lone screen credit was for the adaptation of “Three Comrades”. The generous salary enabled Fitzgerald to finally retire his debts. After his option was dropped at MGM, Fitzgerald became a freelance script writer and authored some short stories for Esquire magazine. In 1939, he had written over half of the working draft of the novel The Love Of The Last Tycoon. It was to be his Hollywood novel.
On December 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack and died at Graham’s residence. His remains and those of Zelda were later moved and laid to rest at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.
His last novel was completed by Fitzgerald’s friend Edmund Wilson from notes for the unwritten portion of the story. The book was published in 1941 under the title, The Last Tycoon. The novel was re-released in 1994 with Fitzgerald’s preferred title The Love of the Last Tycoon.
I have one more enigmatic Great Gatsby quote. “That’s my Middle West . . . the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark. . . . I see now that this has been a story of the
West, after all— Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”