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Five things to know about F. Scott Fitzgerald

Synonymous with the Jazz Age of the American 1920s which his novels did so much to define, F. Scott Fitzgerald hardly needs any introduction. Reading The Great Gatsby in school has become as much a rite of passage as first kisses and the furtive adolescent rebellion of drinking alcohol before coming of age. Much of Fitzgerald’s reputation is linked to Gatsby, his third novel. To limit his career and his achievement only to Gatsby, however, is to miss so much about what defines Fitzgerald as an author.

A century has now passed since his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published, and the centenary celebrations of his literary output that begin this year will continue for the next two decades. To that end, and to reset some of the myths and facts about Fitzgerald’s life and writing, what follows are five observations that may not have previously caught your attention.

  1. Francis Scott Fitzgerald was named after a distant cousin on his mother’s side of the family.
    Francis Scott Key (1779-1834) was a lawyer and sometime author who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” three weeks after a British attack on Washington during the War of 1812 which led to the burning of the Treasury, the Capitol, and the President’s House. It would be officially adopted as the national anthem of the United States in 1931. Some accounts suggest Fitzgerald played up the family connection, though the fact that Key was a slaveholder has more recently led to the toppling of his statue in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, by Black Lives Matter protestors.
  2. This Side of Paradise was a bestselling novel during Fitzgerald’s lifetime.
    While The Great Gatsby might be the Fitzgerald novel most people know or have read, it sold relatively poorly in comparison to his debut work. When Paradise was released, it sold out its initial print run of 3,000 copies in three days. Scribner’s reprinted the novel eight times in 1920, and three more in 1921. By the end of 1921, there were 49,075 copies of the novel in circulation, though still not enough to challenge the bestselling works of the period: Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920) sold 295,000 copies in 1921. That said, This Side of Paradise was the benchmark Fitzgerald work against which reviewers measured his later works. In many ways, it was Paradise, not Gatsby, that was his defining achievement.
  3. Three of Fitzgerald’s sisters died in infancy or early childhood.
    In an entry in his journal for January 1900, Fitzgerald wrote “His mother presented him with a sister who lived only an hour.” This unnamed child followed her sisters Louise Scott Fitzgerald (1892-96), who had died at the age of three, and Mary Ashton Fitzgerald (1894-95), who was only seventeen months old when she died. One sibling would though live into adulthood: Annabel, born on 21 July 1901, outlived her brother by 47 years, dying one day after her birthday in 1987.
  4. As a five-year-old boy Fitzgerald visited the Buffalo World’s Fair.
    The event that left a lasting impression on both the young Fitzgerald as well as the wider nation, though for very different reasons. The Buffalo Fair, known as the Rainbow City, was renowned for its electrical light displays and attracted eight million visitors to its showgrounds between May and November 1901. The Fitzgeralds visited the Fair in August, a month before Fitzgerald would turn six. The effects of the multi-coloured carnival with an Electric Tower of two million lightbulbs, visible from fifty miles away, were not lost on the young Fitzgerald. When Nick Carraway remarks to Gatsby that his house is lit up “like the World’s Fair” and we read of the multi-coloured lights that bedeck Gatsby’s garden, the connection with the Buffalo Fair is, however subtly, made. That said, it was to be another event at that World’s Fair, in September 1901, which would secure its place in American political – and I would argue fictional – history: the shooting of President William McKinley on 6 September 1901 by Leon Czolgosz.
  5. Fitzgerald never graduated from Princeton.
    Having enrolled in 1913, Fitzgerald’s interest in numerous extra-curricular activities meant that he dropped out briefly in December 1915, though the end of his seven-month long-distance relationship with Ginevra King no doubt also played a part. Fitzgerald re-enrolled in September 1916 but just over a year later he accepted a commission as an infantry second lieutenant in the US Army and on 20 November he would report to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for preliminary training. Although he never saw active service in World War I, Fitzgerald never completed his degree studies either. His time at Princeton, although it did not have a beneficial effect on Fitzgerald’s terrible spelling, certainly expanded his range of literary interests. This is demonstrated in This Side of Paradise, a novel packed full of references to multiple literary works. Initially, Fitzgerald had ambitions to be a poet rather than a novelist. Of all the poets that interested Fitzgerald, it was John Keats that he most cherished: indeed, in the summer of 1940, the year that Fitzgerald died, he recorded himself reciting Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Fitzgerald’s importance as the definer of his times continues to this day, and his works remain popular almost eight decades after his death.

Feature image: Detail from This Side of Paradise jacket (OUP, 2020).

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