September 07, 2011

A Fitzgerald compendium

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F. Scott Fitzgerald never wrote an autobiography, although readers can feel his presence in the guises of his stand-in narrators, not least of all Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. As the pre-eminent chronicler of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald—born 115 years ago on September 24—freely borrowed from his own experiences, as well as those of his wife, Zelda, and many of his friends, in writing his evocative fiction. Twice during the last decade of his life, Fitzgerald did consider putting together a collection of some nonfiction pieces he had written for magazines, but as editor James L.W. West III tells us in his introduction to A Short Autobiography, the idea was shot down by legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins. 

Seventy-some years after Fitzgerald’s untimely death, West has at last realized a version of the writer’s intention. Though not by any measure an autobiography (the title for the book is taken from one of the shorter pieces—a pithy catalog of a year’s drinking that ran in The New Yorker in 1929), this charming compilation of unfamiliar pieces does manage to provide an illuminating and varied portrait of the writer and the man. The essays span the length of Fitzgerald’s relatively short career, beginning in 1920 and ending with a piece he was writing at the time of his death.

A Jazz Age icon tells his own story.

The earliest essays in the book have an archness befitting the undoubtedly cocky young man who took the literary world by storm with his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Two companion essays, “How to Live on $36,000 a Year” and “How to Live on Practically Nothing,” published less than six months apart in two 1924 issues of the Saturday Evening Post, are brilliant, tongue-in-cheek depictions of his and Zelda’s spendthrift ways. With a similar self-aware insouciance, albeit one tempered by age and professional disappointment, “One Hundred False Starts” (1933) will speak to anyone who has put pen to paper. “An Author’s Mother,” from 1936, though couched as a story about someone else, undoubtedly reflects the painful truth that his own mother never accepted his chosen profession as respectable: “An author was something distinctly peculiar—there had been only one in the Middle Western city where she was born and he had been regarded as a freak.”

There are repetitions and recurring themes, understandable since these pieces were written independently over many years and, given the nature of magazine pieces, regarded as largely disposable. Fitzgerald reiterates the idea that his generation was soft, the result of having been raised predominantly by mothers. His views on modern “girls” are complicated at best, wavering between admiration and disapproval. A piece about Prince­ton and another written after the death of his father, both published posthumously, underscore a nostalgia for a certain American gentility that he sees as a vague memory.

One of the finest pieces is the last, “My Generation,” not published until 1968. Those who hold dear the story and literature of what Gertrude Stein dubbed “The Lost Generation” will welcome Fitzgerald’s retrospective take on his World War I compatriots, trudging reluctantly into middle age, still holding onto an America that has disappeared. “So we inherited two worlds,” he writes, “the one of hope to which we had been bred; the one of disillusion which we had discovered early for ourselves. And that first world was growing as remote as another country, however close in time.” An imitable Fitzgerald passage, to be sure.

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