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BOOK REVIEW: ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald’

- - Friday, September 23, 2011

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD: A SHORT AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Edited by James L.W. West III
Scribner, $15, 224 pages

''Life is something you dominate if you are any good," F. Scott Fitzgerald observed. During the 1920s, he dominated the Jazz Age with hits including "This Side of Paradise" and "The Great Gatsby" - the latter ranking as one of the most widely read American novels of the 20th century.

Then, with the Depression, the bell began to toll against former idols of the 1920s. As Budd Schulberg remembered, "My generation thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald as an age rather than a writer, and when the economic strike began to change the sheiks and flappers into unemployed boys or underpaid girls, we consciously, a little belligerently, turned our backs on Fitzgerald."

For Fitzgerald, life hit bottom. His wife, Zelda, was under psychiatric care, causing her husband emotional and financial distress. Then there were the lukewarm sales for "Tender Is the Night." From 1933 to 1937, Fitzgerald was hospitalized eight times for alcoholism. When he reached Hollywood, he was weary; one of his names was "F. Scotch Fitzgerald." He became childishly grateful when anyone remembered "The Great Gatsby." Many thought he was already dead.

Despite hardships, Fitzgerald was a responsible breadwinner for his family. In 1934, he proposed to editor Maxwell Perkins a collection of autobiographical essays. Perkins was skeptical. Fitzgerald refused to abandon the idea and mentioned it anew; again the collection was put on hold. When Fitzgerald died in 1940, "The Last Tycoon" was under way and his autobiographical writings still had not been brought together.

The second postwar period led to a reassessment of the legends of former years. During the late 1940s, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken and Fitzgerald were among those restored to their rightful place in American literature. One of the most famous Fitzgerald compilers was Matthew J. Bruccoli, who wrote and edited more than 50 books on Fitzgerald and other figures.

Editor James West III, a literary historian at Pennsylvania State University, has been working on Fitzgerald studies for decades. And while this volume lacks the tragic incandescence of Edmund Wilson's "The Crack Up," a brilliant edition of pieces composed during the last seven years of Fitzgerald's life, there is still value.

As in Mr. West's 2005 book "The Perfect Hour: The Romance of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ginerva King," a thorough examination of archival material gives us another dimension. Fitzgerald had reached a low point when a 1936 expose in the New York Post presented him as a washed-up alcoholic. "A collection of personal writings would have given Fitzgerald a chance to counter this image and present himself in a different light - as a mature and thoughtful literary artist," Mr. West notes.

"F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Short Autobiography" is a selection of Fitzgerald's personal writings from 1920 to 1940, showing his power of observation, humor and seriousness about his craft. Highlights include "How to Live on $36,000 a Year" and "How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year," about the newly rich; "Who's Who - and Why," describing his rise to fame; and "Princeton," about his years in college. "One Hundred False Starts" and "Afternoon of an Author" illustrate the tribulations of the craft. Annotations place Fitzgerald's essays in the context of his times.

There is no knowing if Fitzgerald would have put together quite the same volume for Perkins as Mr. West has compiled. In a burst of enthusiasm, the writer John O'Hara once said to Dorothy Parker: "The guy just can't write a bad piece." She said: "No, he can write a bad piece, but he can't write badly." One gets that sense with some of the pieces reproduced here.

The best has been saved for last, making "F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Short Autobiography" well worth the modest price of admission. "My Generation," composed in 1939 and 1940, went unpublished until Esquire printed it in 1968. Here, Fitzgerald assesses his contemporaries, that youthful army of great believers with "one foot planted before the war and one after it," who "saw death ahead and were reprieved ." They were a generation "staunch by inheritance, sophisticated by fact - and rather deeply wise."

Unlike the "The Crack-Up," in which we see only one facet of Fitzgerald - depressed and regretful - "My Generation" reveals the man his closest friends actually knew, the one who, even toward the end, could never shed his empathy or deep interest in others, his sense of hope or, as Mr. West points out, a recognition in his country's dreams of infinite possibility.

As Schulberg rightly observed, Fitzgerald was far more complex - one of the few writers in a canon of American literary titans who "made cynicism beautiful, poetic, almost an ideal."

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the editor of H.L. Mencken's "Prejudices," recently published by the Library of America.