Tuesday, September 21, 2010

New to Fitzgerald?

I tend to get over-excited about Fitzgerald. I talk about him and his work all the time, but occasionally, I realize I'm talking about Fitzgerald with someone who's never read any of his work. Don't worry; I won't judge you if you've never read any Fitzgerald. After all, the list of important writers I've never read is downright shameful. But for those of you who might be new to Fitzgerald or might want to introduce him to someone, I thought I'd put together a guide for reading him. Hopefully, at least one person will find this guide useful.

Important Background Information: F. Scott Fitzgerald was born on Sept. 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father had no luck at business or money and the family lived in apartments, but Fitzgerald's mother's family was rich. Due to this wealthy family connection, Fitzgerald attended the best private schools and eventually ended up at Princeton. Although his literary talent began to flourish there, he was a terrible student and never did graduate. Eventually, he met Zelda Sayre, who came from a rich Southern family. She refused to marry him until he had money, so he finished his first (very successful) novel, This Side of Paradise, and won her hand. They lived a crazy life full of parties and hijinks, mainly on the East Coast. During this time, they had their only child, their daughter Scottie. Eventually, Fitzgerald and his family moved to France, where they were part of the infamous Lost Generation of writers and artists in Paris. They also spent a great deal of time living on the Riviera. Their marriage was tumultuous and riddled with personal problems. Zelda was mentally unstable (she eventually ended up in a mental institution, where she would die during in a building fire), and Fitzgerald was an alcoholic. Once the money and fun ran out, the couple returned to the United States. While Zelda lived part-time with her mother and part-time in an asylum, Fitzgerald became a screenwriter who made little money. In December 1940, he suffered a heart attack and died in Hollywood.

Important Themes to Understand: Fitzgerald is often called a chronicler of the Jazz Age. While it's true that his work does settle on a very specific generation of Americans, he goes beyond simply cataloguing their lives. Growing up without money inside a world of wealth had a lot of influence on his work. So often, his books and short stories suggest this central problem. It's as if Fitzgerald both hates the rich and yet wants so badly to be among their rank. Much of his work deals with this conflict, as well as the theme of West vs. East (particularly, the difficulty of Midwesterners adjusting to life on the East Coast). Many of the romantic relationships in his work reflect real life, particularly his marriage to Zelda. Often, his fictional couples simultaneously love each other and tear each other apart. There's not much in the way of happiness in Fitzgerald's work, although he's so good at displaying life in all its complexity that there is often joyful moments amidst the eventual ruin. His later works show a kind of sad resignation punctuated with a desire for change that never happens, much like the story of his own final years.

Where to Start: Obviously, The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's most famous work, and with good reason. It's a masterpiece, so if you're going to read only one Fitzgerald book in your life, make it this one. However, I do think there are easier places to start. The first Fitzgerald book I read was his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Admittedly, what seemed so great about the book when I was young has worn off a bit as I've gotten older and wiser. It seems pretty self-involved at times. But I still believe it is a great place to start because there are a lot more characters and vignettes here than in other Fitzgerald novels, so you're more likely to find something you like. I also think it's good to start with his best short stories. They play with his pet themes and make good introductions to his novels. I think the best ones to start with are "Absolution" (which is actually quite different from Fitzgerald's other short stories but closely related to The Great Gatsby), "Winter Dreams" (nearly all of Fitz's favorite themes are there), and "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz."

Where to Eventually Go: Admittedly, F. Scott Fitzgerald's best short story, "Babylon Revisited," would work as a gateway into his work because it's so good. However, it isn't like his other stories, and I would argue that it's a richer read once you've become more familiar with his earlier work. I also wouldn't start with "May Day," a novella-length story that is more class-conscious than any of Fitzgerald's other work. That being said, I've always had a big place in my heart for "May Day," so it's an eventual must for any Fitzgerald reader. Along those lines, I wouldn't start with Tender is the Night or his unfinished final book, The Last Tycoon, either. I've met a lot of people - mostly lit professors - who think that Tender Is the Night is Fitzgerald's best work. I personally don't agree, as I find it well-written and constructed but lacking in the poetry and movement of Gatsby. However, it's one of the most important books of the 20th century, and shows a maturation of subject for Fitzgerald. Because The Last Tycoon is unfinished, it would be impossible to start with. It's an incredible piece, and I honestly believe that if Fitzgerald had lived to finish it, it might have been as good as, if not greate than, Gatsby. But it's not a good place to start at all. Once you've read a few of his books though, you absolutely have to pick this one up. It's really something.

The Must-Reads: So, whether you are new to Fitzgerald or an old hand, there are some of his works that are fantastic and will add something to your reading life. They include my all-time favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, the ambitious and depressing Tender Is the Night, and his best short story, "Babylon Revisted." I also think "Absolution," "May Day," and The Last Tycoon should never be overlooked.

Well, everyone, I hope you found this an informative introduction to the work of one of America's most important writers. Also, let me know if you agree or disagree with any of my choices. I also like to hear what other people think about Fitzgerald.

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