Book Reviewed: A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Edited by James L.W. West III
Back in February, when I first heard that Fitzgerald scholar James L.W. West III was putting together a chronological collection of Fitzgerald’s personal essays, I went crazy. When I found out I had to wait six more months before it finally came out, I went even crazier. How was I going to pass so much time without constantly thinking about this damn book? Well, somehow I made it. And trust me, it was worth it.
I have to admit that despite being one of America’s biggest Fitzgerald fans (I have to be up there, right?), I’m not all that familiar with his essays. His personality can be a little off-putting, and the handful of Fitzgerald essays I’ve read didn’t seem to display the same strength of prose as his fiction. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like A Short Autobiography (so titled because the chronological order of the essays shows the development of Fitzgerald as a thinker, writer, and person). And I didn’t like it. I LOVED it.
Fitzgerald’s early essays are full of the youthful arrogance he was famous for in his personal life. As can be expected, his later pieces are reflective and solemn. He starts off as a young snob going around giving (often annoying) advice. I wasn’t as big a fan of these early essays, but I was pleasantly surprised by how funny they were. I never think of Fitzgerald as a writer who makes me laugh, but I actually chuckled out loud several times while reading A Short Autobiography. I don’t agree with him every often, but as a young writer from the Midwest, I often find myself understanding the place he comes from.
I’m a much bigger fan of Fitzgerald’s later essays, even though they're quite sad. His confidence as a young man morphed into the voice of disillusionment. He’s a man who didn’t get what he wanted from life, and his few moments of hope seem all the more tragic to us modern readers who know how things turned out for him (alcoholic with a crazy wife, dead at 44). His unfinished essay, “The Death of My Father,” displays a Fitzgerald more honest than even I knew existed. Oh, how I wish he had finished it! It undoubtedly would have made me cry. Arguably, Fitzgerald’s most famous essays are “One Hundred False Starts” and the deeply melancholic “Afternoon of an Author,” and it’s easy to see why. They are written in the beautiful prose I so admire in Fitzgerald’s work, delicately heartbreaking. It’s hard to see the man who wrote the best American novel of all time deal with such unfortunate depression.
The essay that surprised and upset me the most, though, was “Author’s House.” This strange piece is written as a kind of fake interview in which a famous writer (obviously Fitzgerald) shows an imagined reporter around his house. It’s an unspeakably sad treatise on what it means to struggle between being a good writer and being a decent person. The essay’s ending works as a kind of summary on who Fitzgerald had become in middle age:
[The author] shivered slightly and closed the windows. As they went downstairs the visitor said, half apologetically: “It’s really just like all houses, isn’t it?”
The author nodded.
“I didn’t think it was when I built it, but in the end I suppose it’s just like other houses after all.”
That is ridiculously sad, isn’t it? I’m not sure what it says about me that this sentence upsets me so much, and yet makes me love Fitzgerald just all that much more. This book only helps cement my belief that Fitzgerald is one of the most interesting writers to come out of American literature.