Fitzgerald’s appeal transcends iconic Jazz Age depictions

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The work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, St. Paul Academy’s most renowned alum, has recently made fresh rounds in the media, thanks to a new book by literary critic Maureen Corrigan. Titled “So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to be and Why it Endures,” Corrigan’s volume explores the content, publication, and public reception of Fitzgerald’s iconic novel.

Of course, if any piece of American literature were to have another (much longer) book dedicated to it, The Great Gatsby would be a clear candidate for the honor. It is perhaps the most commonly required reading in college and high school English courses, has been subjected to no fewer than six film adaptations, and still sells over a half-million copies every year. But while The Great Gatsby is widely regarded as Fitzgerald’s most sophisticated work, in addition to being his most popular one, it is far from his sole literary masterpiece. Indeed, the cultural ubiquity of Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic, and his  distinction of being those years’ preeminent chronicler, has in its own way limited his reputation as an astute and relevant observer of human nature.

Fitzgerald’s writing inescapably epitomizes his time, but does so in truly timeless fashion.”

— Thomas Toghramadjian

To be sure, Fitzgerald’s association with the 1920s is hardly contrived. His first major success, This Side of Paradise and his posthumously released The Love of the Last Tycoon neatly bookend the period, reflecting the nervous postwar excitement that ushered in the decade and the national hangover that ensued afterwards. The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night reflect the dazzling excesses of New York’s young aristocracy and American expatriate community in Europe, respectively, at the height of the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald’s short stories immortalized The Flapper as the decade’s defining figure, with multidimensional portraits of young women with, in his words, a remarkable “talent for living.” His writing is no more easily separable from its period than Mark Twain’s is from the antebellum South or Tim O’Brien’s is from the Vietnam War.

But Fitzgerald’s oeuvre offers more than the vintage glamour that salacious biographies or over-the-top movie adaptations seem to conflate it with. The eminently quotable This Side of Paradise, for instance, presents a sprawling and sympathetic picture of youth through the eyes of Amory Blaine, its vain but insightful collegiate protagonist who bravely resists succumbing to cynicism. In short stories like “Benediction” and “Absolution,” Fitzgerald’s lapsed but deeply rooted Irish Catholicism informs nuanced depictions of faith and doubt. And his autobiographical essay series “The Crack-Up,” which, for better or worse, effectively created the confessional literary genre which has become so prolific, offers hard self-disclosure and erudite analysis , but with dignified reserve. Unlike the writers of today’s “failure memoirs,” (a growing group which is brilliantly identified and skewered by the New Yorker’s Giles Harvey) Fitzgerald took the daring step of publicly dissecting his own alcoholism, but without  excessive self-abasing detail. It would be a stretch to call one of the best-known and best-read 20th Century American authors underrated, but among a great many of his casual fans, he is oddly pigeonholed.

Of course, what few misunderstand is that Fitzgerald was and is one of our country’s greatest storytellers. His descriptions are convincing and poetic, drawing on a wealth of observations he faithfully recorded in his personal notes. His characters are deftly drawn, his prose has a fine humorous touch, and his dialogue, if not lifelike in its eloquent paragraphs, is certainly deeply expressive. And yes, he magnificently depicts the Roaring Twenties in all their raucous uncertainty. Fitzgerald’s writing inescapably epitomizes his time, but does so in truly timeless fashion.

 

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