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The Sun Is but a Morning Star

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, the only son of an aristocratic father and a provincial, working-class mother. He was therefore the product of two divergent traditions and, as a result of this contrast, he was exceedingly ambivalent about the notion of the American dream: for him, it was at once vulgar and dazzlingly promising.

Like the central character of "The Great Gatsby", Fitzgerald had an intensely romantic imagination; he once called it "a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life." The events of Fitzgerald's own life can be seen as a struggle to realize those promises.

While at Princeton University, Fitzgerald came close to the brilliant success of which he dreamed. He became part of the influential Triangle Club, a dramatic organization whose members were taken from the cream of high society. He also became a prominent figure in the literary life of the university. Despite these social coups, Fitzgerald struggled academically, and eventually flunked out of Princeton and joined the army in November 1917.

While stationed near Montgomery, Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, and the two fell deeply in love. Fitzgerald needed to improve his dismal financial circumstances, however, before he and Zelda could marry. At the first opportunity, he left for New York, determined to make his fortune in the great city. Instead, he was forced to take a menial advertising job at $90 a month. Zelda broke their engagement, and Fitzgerald retreated to St. Paul, Minnesota. There, he rewrote a novel he had begun at Princeton; in the spring of 1920, the novel, entitled "This Side of Paradise", was published.

Though today's readers will find its ideas dated and naive, "This Side of Paradise" came as a revelation to Fitzgerald's contemporaries. It was regarded as a privileged glimpse into the new morality - or the new immorality - of America's young, and it made its author famous. Suddenly, Fitzgerald could publish in both prestigious literary magazines, such as "Scribner's", and high-paying popular ones like "The Saturday Evening Post".

Fitzgerald, flush with his new wealth and fame, finally married Zelda; the celebrated columnist Ring Lardner was to christen them "the prince and princess of their generation." Though the Fitzgeralds reveled in their notoriety, they also found it frightening, as the ending of Fitzgerald's second novel shows. This novel, entitled "The Beautiful and Damned", was published two years later, and tells the story of a handsome young man and his beautiful wife, who gradually deteriorate into careworn middle age while they wait for the young man to inherit a large fortune. In a predictable ironic twist, the couple only receives their inheritance when there is nothing of them left worth preserving.

To escape this grim fate, the Fitzgeralds (together with their daughter, Frances, who was born in 1921) moved in 1924 to the Riviera, where they became part of a group of wealthy American expatriates whose style was largely determined by Gerald and Sara Murphy. Fitzgerald described this society in his last completed novel, "Tender Is the Night", and modeled its hero on Gerald Murphy.

Shortly after their relocation to France, Fitzgerald completed his most famous and respected novel, "The Great Gatsby" (1925). Fitzgerald's own divided nature can be seen in the contrast between the novel's hero, Jay Gatsby, and its narrator, Nick Carraway. The former represents the naive Midwesterner dazzled by the possibilities of the American dream; the latter represents the compassionate Princeton gentleman who cannot help but regard that dream with suspicion. The Great Gatsby may be described as the most profoundly American novel of its time; Fitzgerald connects Gatsby's dream, his "Platonic conception of himself," with the aspirations of the founders of America.

A year later, Fitzgerald published a collection of short stories entitled "All the Sad Young Men". This book marks the end of the most productive period of Fitzgerald's life; the next decade was full of chaos and misery. Fitzgerald himself began to drink excessively, and Zelda began a slow descent into madness. In 1930 she suffered her first mental breakdown; her second breakdown, from which she never fully recovered, came in 1932.

Throughout the 1930s the Fitzgeralds fought an ultimately unsuccessful battle to save their marriage. This struggle was tremendously debilitating for Fitzgerald; he later said that he "left [his] capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanitarium." He did not finish his next novel, "Tender Is the Night", until 1934. It is the story of a psychiatrist who marries one of his patients, who, as she slowly recovers, exhausts his vitality until he is "a man used up." This book, the last one that Fitzgerald ever completed, was considered technically faulty and was commercially unsuccessful; it has since gained a reputation, however, as Fitzgerald's most moving book.

Crushed by the failure of "Tender is the Night" and his despair over Zelda, Fitzgerald became an incurable alcoholic. In 1937, however, he managed to acquire work as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. There, he met and fell in love with Sheilah Graham, a famous Hollywood gossip columnist. For the rest of his life, though he frequently had drunken spells in which he became bitter and violent, Fitzgerald lived quietly with her. Occasionally he went east to visit Zelda or his daughter Frances.

In October 1939 Fitzgerald began a novel about Hollywood entitled "The Last Tycoon". The career of its hero, Monroe Stahr, is based on that of the renowned Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg. On December 21, 1940, Fitzgerald suffered a fatal heart attack while his novel was still unfinished. Even in its half-completed state, "The Last Tycoon" is considered the equal of the rest of Fitzgerald's work "in the intensity with which it is imagined and in the brilliance of its expression."



© E-publisher LiterNet, 25.10.2009
The Sun Is but a Morning Star. Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Albena Bakratcheva. Varna: LiterNet, 2008-2010