Within the lexicon of American Literature in the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald is a name that is recited repeatedly as the greatest novelist of modern literature. His works establish the cultural legacy of the American Novel that many writers dream of writing within their lifetime. His celebrated novel, The Great Gatsby, is a compulsory read for every American high school curriculum and part of the American cultural identity. Fitzgerald immortalized the illusory shortcomings of the American dream, defining a whole generation of writers — The Lost Generation.
A novelist whose legacy has withstood the test of time, Fitzgerald is America’s preeminent writer.
However, like Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald held dark secrets hidden and close.
Fitzgerald’s Destructive Tendencies
From a very young age, Fitzgerald was an alcoholic. That in itself doesn’t make him an awful author, but what does make him so is the fact that he was a destructive alcoholic who interacted with others within a destructive capacity (most notably his wife, Zelda). Fitzgerald had a family history of alcoholism which usually ended in reckless and destructive behavior. He himself called this “a two-cylinder inferiority complex.”
Fitzgerald’s alcohol abuse began fairly early in life while he attended Princeton University in 1916. He drank excessively and it worsened every year. Fitzgerald was even known for his drunken outbursts at parties and public events, often making a great fool of himself in the eyes of others. At times, his drunken outbursts grew violent to the point that he would get into verbal and physical fights with others. These drunken outbursts would usually end with blackouts and memory loss of the night before.
This behavior continued all his life, even when he was hospitalized no more than eight times between 1933 and 1937 for alcoholism. He made his stints in AA, but never really recovered from alcoholism. At this point, he drank and smoked himself into a terminal spiral of cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, angina, dyspnea, and syncopal spells. Additionally, Fitzgerald gorged himself on sugary treats to abate his desire for more alcohol. He eventually died at the young age of 44 in 1940.
The Era of Zelda Fitzgerald
While stationed at Camp Meridan in Montgomery, Alabama in July 1918, Fitzgerald met the greatest love and “muse” of his life — Zelda Sayre. After a two-year courtship which was not approved by Zelda’s parents on the account that Fitzgerald was an alcoholic and Catholic, Zelda and Fitzgerald married in 1920. Their marriage was equally full of passion and problems.
Fitzgerald’s passionate but tumultuous marriage to Zelda was widely known throughout their friend group. They attended parties and at these parties, at times they even got into shouting matches. Regardless, he held great, but very toxic love and admiration for Zelda. He went as far as saying that she was his “muse” during their two-year courtship. When Fitzgerald met Zelda, he was already writing This Side of Paradise. He was so enchanted by Zelda that he changed the character of Rosalind Connage to match Zelda’s personality and quirks. Gloria Patch from The Beautiful and Damned was also said to have been inspired by Zelda.
Plagiarism Begins At Home
In all actuality, Zelda became more than just his “muse.” Fitzgerald also heavily plagiarized from her own work. In a 1970 biography about Zelda’s life by Nancy Milton, his plagiarism of Zelda’s work began as early as their first year together in their courtship. He would use whole passages from the letters that Zelda sent him while he was relocated to Long Island; Fitzgerald even went as far as to lift whole passages from her personal diary. What would come as a result is his first published novel, This Side of Paradise.
After their marriage and the successful publication of his first novel, the Fitzgeralds moved to New York where they were the cream of New York society and known for their vitality, youthfulness, and buoyant personalities. When he published his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned in 1922, Zelda published a review in the New York Tribune. She eventually writes a positive review in her familiar wit and charming writing style, but there is a note of seriousness when she writes,
It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.
Things really escalated when Zelda began writing Save Me the Waltz at the same time Fitzgerald began writing Tender is The Night. Zelda was soon to publish her novel but Fitzgerald was angered at this. He had used whole passages from Zelda’s manuscript and it was enough passages that the plagiarism became very apparent. The result: Zelda was forced by her husband and their shared editor to edit her own manuscript, and when it was published, Zelda’s book was heavily criticized while Fitzgerald’s was highly praised.
The End Of Everything
As a husband, he was unsupportive of his wife’s dreams and struggles. As an author, he heavily plagiarized. Fitzgerald soon left his wife in Alabama after her father’s funeral for California. He also had an affair with movie columnist, Sheilah Graham, while Zelda was in Highland Hospital for her mental health. He writes:
“Zelda now claims to be in direct contact with Christ, William the Conqueror, Mary Stuart, Apollo and all the stock paraphernalia of insane-asylum jokes … For what she has really suffered, there is never a sober night that I do not pay a stark tribute of an hour to in the darkness. In an odd way, perhaps incredible to you, she was always my child (it was not reciprocal as it often is in marriages) … I was her great reality, often the only liaison agent who could make the world tangible to her.”from Nancy Milford’s Zelda: A Biography
In California, he became an underpaid screenwriter and struggled. His status as a well-received and admired author deteriorated and his creativity greatly diminished due to his alcoholism. He solely blamed Zelda and her outbursts, which stemmed from severe mental illness, for his great misfortune.
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