With Fitzgerald as with no one else in American literature save Poe, the biography gets in the way. Never mind that F. Scott Fitzgerald is the author of one exquisite short novel as perfect as anything in our literature and of another longer, more chaotic novel of tremendous emotional power. Never mind that he has written a couple of dozen stories that by any standard deserve the designation of “masterful.” Ignoring those legacies, much of the general public still tends to think of him in connection with the legends of his disordered and difficult life, and to classify him under one convenient stereotype or another. So diminished in stature, Fitzgerald becomes the Chronicler of the Jazz Age, or the Artist in Spite of Himself, or – most prevalent stereotype of all – the Writer as Burnt-Out Case: a man whose tragic course functions as a cautionary tale for more commonsensical aftercomers.
Fitzgerald played the game of courtship well. As a youth he was a notoriously successful flirt. “I’ve got an adjective that just fits you,” he would tell a dancing partner early in the evening, and then withhold the laudatory word to build up her expectations. He was good-looking, and at ease in the company of girls. He listened to them as few other boys did, and made it clear that he cared tremendously what they thought of him. Later, as a married man, he continued to woo women. He couldn’t help it. He needed their approval, which is to say their love and adoration. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald may have been the most important woman in his life, but she was not and could not be the only one.
Fitzgerald suffered a tremendous setback when Ginevra King of Lake Forest, north of Chicago – one of the wealthiest and most beautiful debutantes of her day – spurned him in order to marry a young man of her own class. The rejection devastated Fitzgerald, even as it supplied him with the basic subject matter of much of his fiction. There are probably more characters in his stories and novels modeled on Ginevra than on Zelda Sayre, who caught him on the rebound. By altering the circumstances of the plot, Fitzgerald played variations on the age-old theme of the battle of the sexes.
What is unusual about Fitzgerald’s treatment of this theme is its escalation – in the work as in the life – from the courting game of his adolescence to the fierce battle of his young manhood to the outright war of his maturity. In Fitzgerald’s fictional treatment of the war between the sexes, it is almost always the man who ends up defeated. By repeatedly depicting the downfall of his male figures, Fitzgerald was imagining what might well have happened (had not Zelda been afflicted with schizophrenia) and also excoriating himself for his weaknesses. The real Fitzgerald, like his invented protagonist, came to despise himself for this “fatal pleasingness,” a self-disgust that characteristically emerged under the influence of alcohol. Drinking runs like an inner malaise through Fitzgerald’s life and that of many of his male characters. His triumph came in the last years of his life, when – supposedly down and out in Hollywood – he cast aside this obsession, quit drinking, and went back to being what he called “a writer only.”
Adapted from Scott Donaldson, A Few Words about F. Scott Fitzgerald @ 2011 by The Public Domain Review.
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