Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Aug 21, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans – F.Scott Fitzgerald 

Michael F. Shaughnessy 

1) As with Ernest Hemingway, I am asking you to venture into the realm of literature, and perhaps even defend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s presence on this list of 50 Greatest Americans.  When and where was he born? 

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 24, 1896. His full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, as he was a distant cousin of the individual who wrote the National Anthem. His family moved to the state of New York when he was young, and his early years in school were spent in Buffalo and Schenectady. After his father suffered a financial setback in 1908, the family moved back to St. Paul. He attended the St. Paul Academy for three years, and when he was 15 his parents sent him to the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey. 

After graduating from the Newman School, Fitzgerald was admitted to Princeton University. An indifferent student, he chose to drop out in 1917 and join the US Army.

Commissioned a second lieutenant, Fitzgerald was stationed at a base in Alabama, where he met his future wife. World War I ended before he could be deployed overseas, and at the end of the war he was honorably discharged from the service. He went to New York and worked at an advertising agency, but found that he could not make enough money to convince the woman he loved to marry him. For that reason, he quit his job and went back to his parents’ home in St. Paul. While there he revised a novel that he had previously written, and it was published as This Side of Paradise in 1921. He would remain a writer for the rest of his life.

2) What were his early years like and when did he become involved in writing? 

Fitzgerald had his first work, a detective story, published in his school newspaper when he was 13. While at Princeton, he contributed articles to the school newspaper and wrote a novel. Although the company he submitted it to decide against publishing the novel, Fitzgerald did receive a letter of encouragement from the editor of that firm. As he was preparing to enter the Army in 1917, finished another novel that he titled The Romantic Egoist. 

Once again, Fitzgerald received both encouragement and a rejection letter from the publisher. When he moved back in with his parents after World War I, Fitzgerald decided to rework The Romantic Egoist. After giving it the new title This Side of Paradise, he submitted it to Charles Scribner’s Sons. They agreed to publish it, and when it appeared in print in 1920 it was both a critical and a commercial success. Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, his three other books published during his lifetime did not meet with this same level of immediate success. It was only after his death that Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby became regarded as classics.  

3) I know he spent some time as an expatriate in Paris, France. What do we know about those years? 

After the publication of This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald took an extended vacation in Europe. While in Paris, he spent time with a number of the expatriates who lived there, most famously Ernest Hemingway. By all accounts, the friendship was in many respects a love-hate relationship, but it is clear that Hemingway inspired Fitzgerald to do his best work. Fitzgerald would visit Europe a number of times, but should not be technically considered an expatriate because he never established residence there. 

4) His contributions are numerous – but what would you consider to be his main contributions? 

Although The Great Gatsby was not immediately embraced by the reading public, there were individuals who recognized the significance of the book. One of these was J.D. Salinger, who would himself go on to write one of America’s great novels with his The Catcher in the Rye. And because The Great Gatsby has been, and continues to be, required reading in many of our nation’s schools, it will continue to inspire others to write a great American novel. 

5) His later years–where were they spent? And how were they spent? 

As we have seen, Fitzgerald had initially not been able to marry the woman that he loved because he lacked the funds to support her in a manner that she expected. His first book did make him financially successful, but his next two books did not sell nearly as well. As a result, Fitzgerald had to put a great deal of time and effort into writing short stories for publication in journals and magazines. His life became even more difficult when his wife began to experience schizophrenia in the early 1930s. He had his wife admitted into a clinic associated with Johns Hopkins University, and moved to Baltimore to be near her. 

Fitzgerald, who had been a heavy drinker since his college days, began to consume even more liquor, and would have to be hospitalized nine time during the 1930s. Because of the financial difficulties that he incurred as a result of these problems, Fitzgerald decided in 1937 to accept a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and move to Hollywood. He also continued to write short stories, and began work on a fifth novel. Unfortunately, he would not live long enough to complete that book. In 1940, he suffered a fatal heart attack, dying at the age of 44. 

6) What have I neglected to ask? 

It is widely believed that Fitzgerald once said “there are no second acts in American life.” In reality, if one reads the whole passage that people are referring to, they will find that Fitzgerald went on to suggest that second acts were indeed possible. But it seems that regarding his own life, Fitzgerald was remarkably prescient. Sadly, the curtain raised on his second act too late for him to see it.

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