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The Egotist and the Epic

Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meager. -Letter to his daughter, 1940

Scott worked on his first book through Princeton (and you can't tell at all) and through the first world war, in which he had convinced himself he would perish and so endeavored to ensure his immortality via his words. (Note: though he enlisted in the army, he never left American soil.) After a stint in the advertising business he went back to his Minnesota home and completed the novel. After a few rewrites he had it published under the title This Side of Paradise.

If you've read it, the above story should seem oddly familiar, as that's pretty much the course of events in the life of Amory Blaine, the novel's protagonist. This Side of Pardise resonated for me more than any novel in recent memory, as it's clearly a book by youth, for youth. It's more insanely autobiographical than any of his other insanely autobiographical works. It's also, technically speaking, among the worst- in that one can tell it's a first novel. Still, I think it lives more than any of his other books. But that could be because I see an insane amount of myself in Amory.

This Side of Paradise was an instant best-seller, and with it came a celebrity he capitalized on with a hoarde of short stories. His next novel was The Beautiful and Damned, which as you may know, is the coolest title ever. Ahem. This is honestly my least favorite novel by him, but I still loved it. I actually liked it more than I thought I would- there are some memorable passages there for sure, and I loved the character of the young writer whose first novel was a success but the rest of his time was spent writing bad short stories. Anyway, this introduces the theme of the damning success. "Don't let the victor belong to the spoils." One thing to note is that towards the end of the book, the characters have a (mostly negative) discussion about This Side of Paradise. How's that for self-insertion? It tells the story of a rich young man and his beautiful wife, and their high-flying life and crippling fall in Manhattan.

Scott's next novel was his most famous. The one all red-blooded Americans have to read in English class, the one that defines the twenties and a good deal else- The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was always dissatisfied with the title, and when it was met on its release with mixed reviews and poor sales, he blamed the title and the lack of a strong female character. (This seems absurd in retrospect.) Fitzgerald tried to change the title to "Under the Red White and Blue" at the last minute, but it was too late to stop the presses. The epigraph - "Gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover," is credited to Thomas Parke D'Invilliers, who was the Amory Blaine's literary conscience in This Side of Paradise. This was the second time the epigraph came from a fictional character of his own device, as the epigraph in The Beautiful and Damned is a quote from that novel's protagonist. Anyway, Gatsby chronicles the love of its title character, an enigmatic and romantic crook, and Daisy Buchanan, a wealthy socialite who doesn't care about much but his money. The story is told by the original unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway, who I always had a soft spot for.

His next novel was produced after the onset of his wife's mental illness, and the stock market crash of 1929. The tales of the beautiful people had gone out of fashion, and he was attacked by a Socialist newspaper. "You can't stop the revolution with a beach umbrella." Closer to home, Hemingway, a friend, attacked the work for its unapoletically autobiographical subject. Tender is the Night, taking its title from a poem by John Keats, told the story of Richard "Dick" Diver and his wife Nicole. Dick was a brilliant psychologist who married his beautiful, young, and wealthy patient. Her lifestyle was not his own and after years of parties, the burden of brilliant success to its toll on their relationship. Nicole went through a relapse, Dick succumbed to alcoholism, and all was not well on the French Riviera.

His last novel, The Last Tycoon, was unfinished at the time of his death in 1940. It was told from the perspective of a woman and was about an epic romance set in Hollywood. Fitzgerald spent the last years of his life trying to (re)make his fortune as a screenwriter. Of course, by then his wife was institutionalized and he was deep in the bottle, but he made an honest effort at it all the same. Anyway, you can still find it if you look hard enough, I have a cheesy copy with pictures from a film version in the middle of it.

Fitzgerald also published numerous short stories, from which he earned most of his income. He felt like he was selling out and was generally ashamed of them, but he had a family to support. Among his most famous are Bernice Bobs Her Hair and Babylon Revisited. One of them, The Strange Case of Benjamin Button, is currently being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

Also, read The Crack Up. Just do.

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