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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

[4893] Anonymous, (F. Scott) Fitzgeralds on a Street in Paris, courtesy of Princeton University Library.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best-known work, The Great Gatsby, has made him familiar to generations of students of American literature. Though the book sold poorly when it was first published, it has since become one of the most widely read American novels and justified Fitzgerald’s reputation as one of the foremost chroniclers of the 1920s, which he famously labeled the “Jazz Age.”

Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and educated primarily in East Coast schools. He attended Princeton University for three years, leaving without his degree to enlist in the U.S. army during World War I, though peace was declared before he could see combat. While stationed in Alabama, he met and courted Zelda Sayre, who initially rejected him. He went to New York in 1919 to seek his fortune as a writer and to win over Zelda. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, became a best-seller and made Fitzgerald an overnight sensation; one week after its release he married Zelda. In addition to giving him fame and wealth, the book seemed to speak for the generation of which Fitzgerald was a part, and Fitzgerald’s next books, two short-story collections called Flappers and Philosophers (1921) and Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), solidified his reputation as an insightful narrator of the social world of the 1920s.

Fitzgerald and Zelda lived well on the proceeds of these books and a second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, published in 1922. The couple had a daughter in 1921; in 1924 they moved to Europe to economize after several years of lavish living. In Europe they associated with other expatriate American writers, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway. While living in Paris, Fitzgerald composed The Great Gatsby (1925), the story of a self-made millionaire who pursues a corrupted version of the American dream, dealing in not-quite-legal businesses to make his fortune and win back the woman he loves.

Despite his success as a writer, Fitzgerald had difficulty getting out of debt, though he wrote prolifically and published short stories in high-paying magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. He abused alcohol, and in 1930 Zelda suffered a mental breakdown, which would lead to her spending much of the remainder of her life in mental institutions. After the stock market crash of 1929, Fitzgerald, like many other American expatriates, returned to the United States, where he wrote and published a fourth novel, Tender Is the Night (1934), which chronicles the decline of a young American psychiatrist, Dick Diver, whose marriage to a dependent patient interferes with his career. Though critics generally praised the novel, it sold poorly, and Fitzgerald tried screenwriting. He completed only one full screenplay, Three Comrades (1938), and was fired because of his drinking, which eventually ruined his health. He died of a heart attack when he was only forty-four.

Teaching Tips

  • The nuanced social interactions and high cultural styles that Fitzgerald describes in The Great Gatsby will probably seem somewhat alien to your students. In order to dramatize these scenes, you might show excerpts from the 1974 film version of the novel, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and ask students to compare their own visualizations of the scenes with the depictions in the movie. Have them focus on Fitzgerald’s use of narrative point of view in one or more scenes, and ask them how it affects the presentation of these scenes in the film. Broaden the question to ask students about the significance of translating this novel–and other works, both popular and classic–into film versions.
  • Because The Great Gatsby is written in such a clear and evocative way, students may initially have trouble questioning the effects of Fitzgerald’s use of language and other literary conventions such as point of view. Have students focus on certain descriptions–of setting, character, or even of mannerisms detailed in Dialogue–and ask them to explain how the descriptions function to convey meaning in the novel. Additionally, ask students to imagine the story of The Great Gatsby retold from the point of view of a character other than Nick Carraway. How would such a change affect the structure of the narrative?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What about Judy Jones so fascinates Dexter in “Winter Dreams”? What in Judy’s attitude attracts (or repels) Dexter? Why does the narrative describe her house repeatedly?
  2. Comprehension: Though Dexter succeeds brilliantly in New York, we discover at the end of the story that his “dream was gone,” that a part of himself has somehow been lost. What do you think Dexter has lost? Why does he come to recognize this after hearing about Judy seven years after he left Minnesota?
  3. Comprehension: By calling his story “Babylon Revisited,” Fitzgerald asks readers to compare the ancient city of Babylon–famed for its wealth and decadence, which eventually led to its downfall–to Paris in the 1920s. Why do you think Charlie’s return to Paris to retrieve his daughter is a revisiting of Babylon?
  4. Context: While wandering through early 1930s Paris, Charlie reflects on the way he lived there before the 1929 stock market crash. In retrospect, how does he view his conduct when he was wealthy and seemingly carefree? In light of what you’ve read about the 1920s and the stock market crash, what does this story appear to be saying about the lives many Americans lived after World War I?
  5. Exploration: Consider other stories and poems that look back with longing or regret to a time past. Consider “Birches” by Robert Frost or “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway–why do you think these texts dwell on this sense of loss and remorse? Are there historical events or cultural developments that help to explain this shared preoccupation?

Selected Archive Items

[4879] Anonymous, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1919), 
courtesy of Princeton University Library. Portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald attended Princeton for three years before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I.

[4893] Anonymous, (F. Scott) Fitzgeralds on a Street in Paris
courtesy of Princeton University Library. 
Photograph of Fitzgerald with his wife, Zelda, and their daughter, Scottie, in an urban street scene. Fitzgerald was an expatriate Paris.

[4905] Anonymous, F. Scott Fitzgerald with Friends in Freshman Dinks (1913), 
courtesy of Princeton University Library.
Photograph of Fitzgerald with two male classmates at Princeton, all wearing college jackets. Fitzgerald often wrote about educated and wealthy Americans.

[7822] Emory Elliot, Interview: “F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American Dream” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Elliot, professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, discusses Fitzgerald’s mixed emotions concerning the American Dream. Some scholars argue that Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby describes the corruption of this dream.

[7823] Catharine Stimpson, Interview: “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Alienation and Drinking” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University, discusses heartbreak, drinking, and masculinity in the work and life of Fitzgerald and his contemporaries.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6