A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald
David S. Brown
Cambridge (Massachusetts): The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2017
Hardcover. iv+397 p. ISBN 978-0674504820. $29.95
Reviewed by Frédérique Spill
Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)
Published in 2017, David S. Brown’s Paradise Lost : A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald is an extensive biography made of four parts, which respectively split into two to eleven chapters, totaling twenty-five chapters. Brown’s biography adopts a traditional chronological approach, though some chapters somehow distance themselves from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life and focus on the wider socio-economic and cultural context. Chapter 16, “Far from Home,” is a case in point as it compares Fitzgerald’s approach of the Old Continent with Thomas Jefferson, Henry Adams and Henry James’s perspectives. The introduction allows the author to define his project and method, contrasting them with the numerous biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald published prior to his. While evoking Fitzgerald’s constant changes of residences, both in the United States (in Great Neck, Baltimore, Appalachian North Carolina and Hollywood) and in Europe (mostly in France, in Paris and on the French Riviera), Brown retraces the conditions in which each of the writer’s books was written and published, as well as their critical receptions, most of which turned out to be mixed, if not tepid.
Half-way through the book, there is a series of illustrations: photographs of Fitzgerald at various ages, of the women of his life, of some of his dear friends, like the Murphys or the writer Ring Lardner, but also of places that mattered to him and/or that are represented in his work. The illustrations also include original book covers and a few other items (membership cards, a Plaza Hotel exorbitant bill) that contribute to highlighting the kind of life Fitzgerald lived. Each of the twenty-five chapters starts with a quotation, mostly from Fitzgerald’s abundant correspondence, that sheds light on the chapter’s specific mood. The book concludes with abundant notes and a useful index.
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896, three months after his parents lost their first two daughters to an epidemic. The opening chapters classically center on Fitzgerald’s lineage and family history, on his youth as “the undersized Fitzgerald (138 pounds)”  and on his education as “a poor boy at a series of rich-boy schools” . Brown underscores Fitzgerald’s early ambition to become a writer, though not any writer: “he wanted nothing less than immortality; he wanted to write the Great American Novel, that secret wish of writers that remained, in Fitzgerald’s era, as inviolable as Gatsby’s own” . Chapter 3, entitled “Forever Princeton,” underscores “[h]is poor grades and quashed football fantasies” , together with his first editorial successes as the secretary-elect of the Triangle Club, “a popular theatrical troupe founded in 1891” . His heavy drinking already was a problem at that time. “Golden Girl,” chapter 4, revolves around the figure of his first love, Ginevra King, a popular collector of beaux:
Standing near the shine of Ginevra’s North Shore star, he could observe up close the workings of wealth and privilege. These experiences would be transformed in his fiction into the trope of the spoiled girl and earnest boy and, still more broadly, into the allegory of corruptive power versus the pure imaginative impulse” .
The story of his first love is the occasion for Brown to evoke Fitzgerald’s “mixed attitude toward women”  for the first time. Chapter 5, “Opposites Alike,” moves on to Scott’s encounter with Zelda Sayre. The evocation of their quick marriage right after the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920 concludes the book’s first part, appropriately entitled “Beginnings, 1896-1920.”
The first chapters of Part II, “Building up, 1920-1925,” show that, together with his early stories, This Side of Paradise branded Fitzgerald as “a chronicler of young love”  and of “the relative permissiveness of the times,” which “produced among more urbane adolescents an entirely fresh style of language and humor, dress and dating that began to replace the stiff formalities associated with Victorianism” . In that respect, through the sixty-five stories he published in the Saturday Evening Post between 1920 and 1937, Fitzgerald became “one of the undisputed arbiters of Middle American mores” . But, though he doubtless wrote some excellent short stories, Fitzgerald often envisioned short story writing as a mere financial venture, not to say as a corruption of his art.
Chapter 10 centers on the publication of The Beautiful and Damned by Scribner in March 1922, “at the height of the Jazz Age” , a phrase Fitzgerald claimed he had coined. But Brown comments on the novel’s “Dreiser-like pessimism about modern life” , considering that, “[w]hile many of the era’s popular commentators celebrated the presumed lightness of the twenties, Fitzgerald offered instead a stark portrait of what we might call Jazz Age grief” . Indeed, together with his contemporaries Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, Fitzgerald tirelessly commented on “the sudden strong association of success with materialism” , an evolution that he undoubtedly resented. Now and again, Paradise Lost : A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald returns to the writer’s complex political sympathies: though he self-identified as a Socialist, Brown suggests that it may be more accurate to “locate Fitzgerald’s critique of capitalism as coming from a primarily conservative impulse” . But, together with his unfailing concern with wealth, his “keen historical sensitivity and ability to capture in a thimbleful of evocative words the pulse of the times”  certainly are the keystones of Fitzgerald’s talent.
Writers Edmund Wilson and Ernest Hemingway counted among Fitzgerald’s close friends, friends for whom he did not hesitate to intercede with potential publishers. Throughout the book, Fitzgerald’s peculiar attractiveness—in his own words, borrowed from “A New Leaf,” published in 1931, “[l]ike so many alcoholics, he [had] a certain charm”—keeps surfacing, together with both men’s and women’s attraction to his charismatic and voluble personality. Throughout his writing, Fitzgerald exploited “his firsthand knowledge of what it meant to lose control of one’s drinking” . A source of inspiration and the prerequisite for a life of intense partying, alcohol soon became one of the major reasons for Fitzgerald’s precarious life and constant concern with solvability and, quite inevitably, the incurable disease that would take him away much too soon.
Chapter 11, “Exile in Great Neck,” details the decisive influence of the place on his germinating work, at the time, The Great Gatsby: “Great Neck proved to be immensely valuable to the writer. For here, as on the Princeton campus, the outsider Fitzgerald was a keen observer of life—in this case of a strange amalgamation of rich and poor, famous and notorious” . The chapter also records Fitzgerald’s admiration for Edith Wharton and memorable encounters with her (they mostly happened to be flops though), while drawing parallels between the two writers’ works [153-155]. It also evokes Fitzgerald’s failed attempt at writing and producing a play: The Vegetable indeed proved to be a “debacle” . Chapter 12 retraces the story behind The Great Gatsby, which was written in France, where, in search of a less costly way of life, the Fitzgeralds stayed, in various residences from 1924 to 1926. The novel, which was published in April 1925, also met with mixed reviews. Brown also underscores Fitzgerald’s singular insularity abroad, as he “largely confined his circle of intimates to fellow expats” , arguing that, wherever Fitzgerald lived, places were merely “outposts, centers of scenes, moods, and attitudes to be captured, copied and placed in stories and novels. The Continental experience interested him to the extent that it offered a civilizational contrast to America” . Likewise, in later chapters, Brown registers Fitzgerald’s surprising insensitivity to the natural beauty of Appalachian North Carolina  and his indifference to California as a place with characteristics of its own.
Part III of Paradise Lost, which is entitled “Breaking Down, 1925-1940,” undertakes the narrative of the Fitzgeralds’, both husband and wife, inexorable fall from paradise. The eleven chapters making up the most important part of Brown’s biography, mostly focus on the slow degeneration of Scott and Zelda’s marriage. Whereas Zelda is often thought of as a strong-minded woman, Brown highlights her strong emotional, then pathological, reaction to the loss of “her once-strong sense of identity”  as a popular, though quite unconventional, Southern belle. She experienced three major collapses, first in Europe in April 1930, then in America in February 1932 and in January 1934; as a result, Zelda remained institutionalized until April 1940: “The last time the couple saw each other, a disastrous April 1939 trip to Cuba, a soused Scott received a street beating for trying to stop a cockfight in Havana” . Brown suggests that Fitzgerald’s blind self-centeredness may be one of the reasons for Zelda’s downfall as “he failed to recognize that his wife’s often-desperate unhappiness, sense of displacement, and need for productive work may well have contributed to her deteriorating health” . Instead, Fitzgerald tended to interpret Zelda’s illness as “a metaphor for the greater sickness afflicting Depression-era Western society” , which certainly was of no help to her. Similarly, Brown suggests that “Scott interpreted his wife’s hospitalization as part of a broader neurosis afflicting the New Woman” .
Chapter 15, “Penance,” underscores Fitzgerald’s reluctance to encourage Zelda’s artistic pursuits at middle age, first ballet dancing, then writing. The publication of her single novel, Save Me the Waltz, written while she was in treatment at Phipps Clinic in early 1932, “kindled a latent and fierce competitiveness in the Fitzgeralds’ relationship that remained until she agreed, after much bullying, to retreat from Scott’s creative terrain” . Indeed, Fitzgerald proved to be extremely resentful to his wife’s desire to exploit material, their life together, which he tended to consider exclusively his own. Writing to one of Zelda’s several doctors—a new habit of his, further confirming his wish to control his wife—he complained as follows: “My God, my books made her a legend and her single intention in this somewhat thin portrait is to make me a non-entity” . Ironically, Tender is the Night, published by Scribner in April 1934, massively borrows from Zelda’s character and illness, even quoting from her letters and journals.
Fitzgerald’s growing sense of disillusion is reflected in the cycle of stories referred to as the Basil and Josephine stories, which “bear evidence of their author’s usual fascination with youthful precedents” , while demonstrating the damages of “the era’s moral laxity” . Chapter 19, “Purgatory,” records the couple’s “kind of joint convalescence” in Asheville, North Carolina: while Zelda was institutionalized at Highlands Hospital, Scott tried to live cheaply (his financial difficulties kept increasing) and to cut down on alcohol, which he never effectively managed to do. He also had a few affairs there, though Brown insists on Fitzgerald’s “reputation as a physically passive partner”  or his “lack of a commanding sexual drive” , thus suggesting that he had intimate issues of his own; he also links that aspect of the writer’s personality to the fact that Fitzgerald, as he puts it, “wrote almost exclusively above the waistline” .
Chapter 20, “De Profundis” relates Fitzgerald’s personal crack-up and the composition of the essays related to his condition:
Certainly Scott’s crack-up had changed him forever. He seemed to be wrestling with the loss of a romantic idealism that had once served as the rock on which he rested—both emotionally and artistically. Life had intruded, caught him unawares, and broken the kindly illusions of youth, wealth, and success that had for so long sustained him .
“Life in a Company Town,” chapter 21, describes Fitzgerald’s third and final Hollywood venture, between 1937 and 1940, where he finally reached a relative independence, notably thanks to his eighteen-month tenure at MGM. He actually died solvent, “leaving Zelda a small life-insurance policy” . The book’s last chapters highlight the kind influence of his last female companion, Sheila Graham, whom he met in California—her devotion to him and her acceptance of the limitations of what he could give her. In College of One, published in 1967, Graham retraces her years with Fitzgerald and his tutoring her into the classics of world literature, which he reread with her in the last years of his life. Thanks to her, “he began to slowly regain his creative footing” , as he undertook to write his last, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, largely inspired by his experience of tinsel town and, more particularly, by his encounter with producer Irving Thalberg. Sheila Graham is also featured prominently in The Last Tycoon under the features of Kathleen Moore.
The book’s final pages illustrate Fitzgerald’s being an exceptionally bossy and intrusive father for his and Zelda’s only child, Scottie, born in 1921, as well as Scottie’s rebellious reaction towards her father’s authority and her estrangement from her sick mother.
After a first heart attack, Francis Scott Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1940 at Graham’s, at the age of 44. His funeral was a particularly sad affair, as very few people showed up at Rockville Union Cemetery in Baltimore, after Graham insisted his body should be brought back east because he “really hated California” .
The short fourth and last part of the book, “Ghosts and Legends, 1940 and After,” first focuses on “Zelda after Scott.” After leaving the hospital, Zelda mostly lived at her mother’s, painting and cherishing the memory of her young happy years with Scott in “vintage Antibes” . She, in turn, died in dramatic circumstances in 1948, “in a fire at Highland Hospital, where she had checked herself in the previous November” . At Scottie’s request, she was buried with Scott.
The final pages of the book retrace the Fitzgerald revival that built up in the decade following the writer’s death thanks to reissues of both The Great Gatsby and The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Other Stories and thanks to the work of his successive biographers. Though emphasizing the negative aspects of Fitzgerald’s personality, Arthur Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise : A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1951, “initiated a long and still-ongoing line of scholarly biographies, edited volumes, and monographs dedicated to the man, his times, and his talent” , to which Brown’s Paradise Lost : A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, forcefully contributes.
Though commenting on the contexts and themes of Fitzgerald’s books rather than on their stylistic feats, Brown’s biography contains quite a few very insightful comments on Fitzgerald’s work, as in the following example:
To call [Gatsby] ‘great,’ as Fitzgerald does, is an ironic assertion meant to emphasize not the height to which he ascends but the distance from which he falls. Eager to ape the leisure class, Gatsby betrays his better instincts in pursuit of an unworthy prize. In the land of the rising dollar, his is a cautionary tale .
Although the reader may regret a few repetitions and false starts, what is striking about Brown’s biography, which is written in a clear, pleasant style, is its uncompromising honesty. Self-inflated and arrogant, Fitzgerald often appears as a rather unsympathetic character, a trait that is highlighted by the way he stifled his wife and later his daughter’s artistic aspirations or by a few shameful anecdotes involving Sheila Graham. But overall, what is told in these pages is the sad story of a man that “published only one novel after the age of twenty-eight” , the story of a man that restlessly fought his demons before succumbing to them much too soon. It is the pathetic story of a romantic idealist who suffered from the crises the world he lived in had to face—of an exceptionally talented writer who was confident about his skills but never got the recognition he deserved as one of the most impressive writers of the twentieth century.
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