Art Imitating Life in Fitzgerald’s Novels

F. Scott Fitzgerald Collection

All great fiction is autobiographical since authors write most effectively about what they know.  More than most other writers, Fitzgerald drew upon his own feelings and experiences for his novels and short stories.  As he explained in his 1933 essay “One Hundred False Starts”:
     Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselvesòthat’s the truth.  We have two or three great and moving experiences in our livesòexperiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.
     Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three storiesòeach time in a new disguiseòmaybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.1 
     Yet Fitzgerald’s fiction was never just thinly-disguised autobiography; it was instead transmutedòor transformedòautobiography.  None of the protagonists of his novelsòAmory Blaine, Anthony Patch, Jay Gatsby, Dick Diver, or Monroe Stahròcan be fully identified with Fitzgerald, though he clearly assigned certain of his own emotions and experiences to them.  In his best work, fictional elements provide artistic form and moral order that life rarely yields; autobiographical elements invest the work with an intensely “felt” quality, perhaps the most notable mark of Fitzgerald’s greatest writing.  Again and again he emphasized that his fiction had its origins in his feelings: “Taking things hardòfrom Genevra to Joe Mank ò: That’s stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like brail,” 2  or “Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotionòone that’s close to me and that I can understand.”3  
     Fitzgerald never wrote a roman à clefòa novel with a key ò in which real people and events are slightly fictionalized, and much of the pleasure for readers comes through their ability to identify the prototypes for the characters and actions and to share what purports to be an insider’s view of them.  Fitzgerald drew upon his life, family, friends, and favorite locales for his novels and stories, but his purpose in doing so was not to expose real people and events but to recreate them in fictional forms capable of conveying truths as he saw them.  Scottie Fitzgerald was the model for Honoria Wales in “Babylon Revisited,” but the character is not simply a portrait of Scottie as an intelligent and charming child but is instead a vivid representation of all that her father, Charlie Wales, has lost through his irresponsible behavior.     This Side of Paradiseòas is frequently the case with first novels ò is the most autobiographical of Fitzgerald’s major works.  Many of Amory Blaine’s experiences are drawn from Fitzgerald’s life.  Amory spends part of his teenaged years in Minneapolis/St. Paul where Fitzgerald grew up (Fitzgerald also called on childhood memories of St. Paul and of prep school for his eight Basil Duke Lee stories).  Amory, like his creator, attends prep school and Princeton (Ha-Ha Hortense! clearly reflects Fitzgerald’s first Triangle Club musical, Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!, and Amory’s friend Thomas Parke D’Invilliers is based on Fitzgerald’s friend John Peale Bishop).  Amory’s important relationship with Monsignor Thayer Darcy echoes Fitzgerald’s relationship with Father Cyril Sigourney Webster Fay (the young novelist, in fact, drew heavily on Fay’s letters for Darcy’s letter that appears in the Interlude between Book I and Book II of This Side of Paradise).  Amory’s unhappy romance with Isabelle Borgé parallels Fitzgerald’s unsuccessful courtship of debutante Ginevra King, and the protagonist’s more serious involvement with and loss of Rosalind Connage is based on Fitzgerald’s relationship with Zelda Sayre, whose unwillingness to commit herself to him before he achieved success both caused him distress and inspired him to finish This Side of Paradise.  (Zelda Fitzgerald recognized herself in Rosalind and admired the character.  In a 1923 interview she remarked, “‘I love Scott’s books and heroines.  I like the ones that are like me! That’s why I love Rosalind. . . . I love [the heroines’] courage, their recklessness and spend-thriftness.’” 4  Most important, Amory’s extraordinary ambitions replicate Fitzgerald’s own.
     The strongest autobiographical elements in Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, lie in its portrayal of a marriage both defined and strained by endless parties in New York City and its environs.  Although Fitzgerald told Scottie in a 14 June 1940 letter that her mother was, in fact, a much more admirable person than Gloria Gilbert Patch, the novel’s major female character,”5  Gloria and Zelda clearly share a tendency toward reckless, irresponsible, selfish behavior. Anthony Patch reflects Fitzgerald’s growing concern in the early 1920s that he was slipping into a life of dissipation, just as Richard Caramel illustrates Fitzgerald’s fear that he was compromising his reputation as a serious artist by producing apparently unimportant popular literature.  The Patches’ cynical friend, Maury Noble, who late in the novel snubs Anthony, was based on the Fitzgeralds’ friend George Jean Nathan, an influential drama critic and magazine editor.
     Between October 1922 and May 1924, the Fitzgeralds rented a house in Great Neck, Long Island, where they met and partied with well-to-do people, many of them in show business, and where Fitzgerald became a close friend of writer Ring Lardner.  Lardner may have supplied a model for the enigmatic party-guest Owl Eyes; Great Neck certainly provided the West Egg setting for Gatsby’s extravagant parties, just as the Corona dump in the borough of Queens provided the valley of ashes setting for Wilson’s garage.  Gatsby’s gambler friend Meyer Wolfshiem was loosely based on racketeer and gambler Arnold Rothstein, and Jordan Baker was modeled on amateur golf champion Edith Cummings, who had gone to school with Ginevra King.  In his “romantic readiness” and his belief in the American dream, Gatsby reflects his creator.  But Fitzgerald drew some biographical data for the character from a Long Island neighbor, Max Gerlachòor von Gerlachò, who was apparently a bootlegger and who, in a note to Fitzgerald on a newspaper clipping, used Gatsby’s defining expression, “old sport.”6  Much of the material of Gatsby’s life with Dan Cody was provided by Great Neck resident Robert Kerr, who in his youth had had a similar experience with a yachtsman benefactor.  Fitzgerald’s courtship of Zelda Sayre during the war and his desperation when she broke their engagement inspired Gatsby’s feelings about Daisy, and Zelda’s betrayal of Fitzgerald with Edouard Jozan during the summer of 1924 when the novel was being written fueled the sense of lost illusions in the novel.  ...
Judith S. Baughman 


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