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F. Scott Fitzgerald: Biography and Works

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  • 0:06 Failure to Icon
  • 0:35 Early Life
  • 1:35 Zelda & Success
  • 2:59 Major Works
  • 7:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote one of the defining American novels: 'The Great Gatsby.' Yet, his personal life was tumultuous and filled with struggles. In this lesson, we'll explore his major works and his life story.

From Failure to Icon

He wrote one of the most cherished and widely read American novels in history. His most iconic novel's title character has been played by everyone, from a young Robert Redford to a not-so-young Leonardo DiCaprio. One of his short-story characters was played by a young, old and everything in between Brad Pitt. Yet, F. Scott Fitzgerald died thinking of his career as a failure. Does that seem inconceivable? Let's find out more.

Early Life

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Francis Scott Key? Yep. His second cousin, three times removed, wrote the National Anthem. His family was fairly well-to-do. When his father's career faltered, they lived just fine off his mother's inheritance from her family's wholesale grocery business.

As a boy, Fitzgerald attended a few different Catholic prep schools. In these early years, he already displayed an aptitude for writing and literature. At age 13, he got his first publication: a detective story in the school newspaper. He went on to Princeton University, and he would've graduated in 1917, but he dropped out to join the army during World War I.

Thinking he'd die in combat, he quickly churned out a novel, The Romantic Egoist, but it was rejected by the publisher Charles Scribner's Sons. They did encourage him to revise and resubmit, a practice he'd pursue with vigor throughout his life.

Zelda and First Success

Rather than face combat in the trenches of Europe, Fitzgerald was sent to Camp Sheridan in Alabama. While there, he met and fell for Zelda Sayre. Just 18 years old, Zelda came from a prominent, wealthy, Southern family. She was an active socialite, caring more about boys and excitement than school.

When the war ended in 1918, Fitzgerald went to New York to pursue his financial fortune in advertising. He knew he'd need wealth to marry Zelda. Early on, she agreed to his proposal, but when he didn't immediately strike it rich, she broke off the engagement.

Fortunately, he kept at his revising and turned that rejected first novel into This Side of Paradise, his first published novel. Scribner's liked it this time, and it was published in 1920. It was an overnight success. Plus, it won Zelda back! They were married a week after the book came out. A year later, they had their only child, a daughter named Frances Scott Fitzgerald (creative!), or Scottie.

This Side of Paradise is about Amory Blaine, a Princeton student from the Midwest who joined the army and unsuccessfully wooed a debutante. Sound familiar? Write what you know, I guess. The novel did signal Fitzgerald's blossoming role in the Modernist movement. Its theme of post-World War I disillusionment typifies much of the Modernist style.

Major Works

While his first novel was a hit, it was short story writing that would financially carry Fitzgerald throughout his life. He received a huge audience for his many stories published in The Saturday Evening Post. It's worth noting that he considered his stories to be of inferior artistic merit relative to his novels.

An early hit story from the Post was 1920's 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair.' This one showed Fitzgerald's knack for independent female characters. This was again evident in 'The Offshore Pirate.' Later, Colliers published 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' about a man who ages backwards. Brad Pitt starred in a very loose adaptation of this story.

With the fame from This Side of Paradise and the income from short stories, Fitzgerald and Zelda became, essentially, party animals. They traveled and lived in Rome, New York, Paris and the French Riviera. They hobnobbed with folks like Ernest Hemingway, with whom Fitzgerald developed a long friendship.

Fitzgerald published his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, in 1922. With more autobiographical elements, this novel is about New York socialites in the Jazz Age and their decadent lifestyles. Chronicling East Coast socialites in the Jazz Age was a specialty of Fitzgerald, and few did it better. He once wrote of the time: 'It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.'

In 1924, the marriage with Zelda was starting to strain. She was linked to a French naval aviator, which never bodes well. Zelda heavily influenced Fitzgerald's writing. For example, many characters in his stories were based on her. Yet around this time, these portrayals took a dark turn.

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