Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 16, 1996

The F. Scott Fitzgerald
Centennial: "Gatsby"
Author Still Subject
Of Critical,
Popular Interest

Steve Libowitz

John Irwin considers F. Scott Fitzgerald the second greatest modern American novelist--after William Faulkner--and The Great Gatsby perhaps the greatest modern American novel. And this week, he will find very few dissenters, as hundreds of scholars, students and aficionados gather at Princeton University to celebrate Fitzgerald's 100th birthday on Sept. 24.

The Princeton Centennial Conference, Sept. 19 through 21, is the largest of several gatherings convening around the world this month to memorialize the writer. It's an event Irwin, the Decker Professor of Humanities in The Writing Seminars, has been looking forward to.

"It's always energizing to be surrounded by other Fitzgerald enthusiasts," he says. "The problem will be trying to get to hear all of the talks and panels because they'll be going on simultaneously and covering every aspect of Fitzgerald's life and work."

Irwin says that Fitzgerald's reputation was not always highly regarded--particularly during the later years of his life. But it is now, and he explains the ebb and flow.

"Any popular writer is going to experience a backlash of critical and public opinion," he says. In Fitzgerald's case, the reaction was as much about who he was as what he wrote.

"Fitzgerald is so identified with the 1920s," Irwin says. "He did not coin the phrase The Jazz Age, but he certainly was identified with it and the excesses of the era."

He courted much of that identification, living a highly visible life, often on the far edge of eccentricity, fueled by the public antics of his wife, the former Zelda Sayre. In many ways, his life overshadowed his work. As Fitzgerald biographer Matthew Broccoli writes, "He has become ... a cluster of overlapping archetypes: the drunken writer, the ruined novelist, the spoiled genius, the personification of the Jazz Age. He dramatized his success and failure. Loving attention, he embraced his symbolic roles."

When the Depression hit, Irwin says, it seemed that the lifestyle epitomized by the Fitzgeralds was somehow to blame for the country's collapse. And as American writing became more socially conscious, Fitzgerald's period-based stories of style and manners lost favor.

As economic depression was eclipsed by mounting world tensions, Fitzgerald toiled in a fading light. Cranking out fluff but fun stories for popular magazines, he desperately tried to repay the enormous financial debt he came to owe his editor, Max Perkins, and his agent, Harold Ober. His move to Hollywood in 1937 was an attempt to cash in on his reputation and to dry out as his wife struggled for her sanity in a North Carolina sanitarium. His screen credit appears on only one film, Three Comrades, although he worked on many others, including a draft of Gone With The Wind.

While there, he also wrote the first six chapters of The Last Tycoon, a work Irwin, and many others, considers the best book about Hollywood ever written. Fitzgerald never finished it. He died of a heart attack in Hollywood on Dec. 21, 1940. He was 44. After his death, his reputation began to rise again.

"The type of idealism, romanticism, euphoria and innocence that characterized a great deal of his work was better suited to the period after the U.S. had won the Second World War and we were once again sitting on top of the world," Irwin says. "And then a good many of the writers who became popular after the war owed a great debt to him; J.D. Salinger, John O'Hara, John Cheever, John Updike all were inheritors of the novel of manners."

Fitzgerald's recent popularity can be marked, in part, by the amount of critical attention his work is receiving. Each year, Irwin says, Fitzgerald's publisher, Scribners, reports several hundred thousand copies of The Great Gatsby are sold for use in high schools and colleges. Irwin has been teaching a course on Hemingway and Fitzgerald for years. For him, Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, The Last Tycoon and a dozen or more stories keep scholars and students engaged and enthralled with Fitzgerald.

And most of that work is slowly entering the public copyright domain. Irwin says the proliferation of critical editions of his novels scheduled for publication in the next several years also is fueling something of a Fitzgerald renaissance. Irwin is co-editing the Norton Critical Edition of Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise.

The book--and one called "An Almost Theatrical Innocence," which he plans to write "before it's all over"--is part of Irwin's long-standing scholarly and personal interest in Fitzgerald, an interest born when, as an 18-year-old college freshman, he passed a Saturday night reading Gatsby from beginning to end.

"I was bowled over by Fitzgerald's world," Irwin will tell his Princeton audience this week. "I instantly recognized it not just as a real world but my real world, a world conceived in terms of many [of the oppositions] with which I had been raised."

Those oppositions have to do with what Irwin refers to as a symmetry in his and Fitzgerald's parentage and regional upbringings," which were centered on having one parent each raised in the North and the South and the ongoing cultural and identity struggles that that duality caused in both men's thinking, actions and writings.

In the years since his introduction to Fitzgerald, Irwin's interest has also turned on the power of Fitzgerald's writing and his ability to draw on the social and emotional turbulence of his life.

"Fitzgerald knew what he did well," Irwin says. "He had an ability to take incidents from his own life, in which the sting of his own humiliation always lingered, and turned them into fiction. And when he went back to those moments, the emotion was always there, and he could always get it across. These fictional moments are powerful whether or not you know the reality of Fitzgerald's life. But these are all incidents that are, for the reader, hard to look at without flinching."

Irwin recalls one such incident. "Fitzgerald greatly admired the writer Edith Wharton and sent her a copy of Gatsby when he was in Paris. She liked it and invited him to her house to have tea. Fitzgerald was excited. She was a hero for him. But he was nervous about the prospect of meeting this older, more accomplished writer. So on the way out to her house, he stopped several times for a drink. By the time he arrived, he was drunk. Wharton was very formal. She had him into the parlor for tea. And he reports sitting on a little gold chair and then suddenly just sliding off it and passing out.

"This was a predictable outcome for a Fitzgerald character: he sets up these moments, trying to make them come out perfectly. And when that moment arrives, he watches it all just disintegrate before his eyes."

A portion of Fitzgerald's disintegration took place in Baltimore, some of it quite near the Homewood campus. It was a circumstance that seemed to solidify Irwin's lifelong interest in the writer.

"Around 1933, when Zelda needed psychiatric care, they came to Baltimore so she could receive treatment at [Hopkins'] Phipps Clinic and later at The Sheppard Pratt," Irwin says. "While she was at Phipps, Scott lived for a time at 1307 Park Avenue in Bolton Hill as well as in the Cambridge Arms Apartments, which is today [undergraduate dormitory] Wolman Hall.

"It was there that he wrote the essay "Afternoon of an Author," at a time when he was recovering from emotional and physical fatigue and struggling with alcoholism. The essay recounts how, as a test of his recovery, he sets himself the task of taking the No. 11 bus downtown to get a shave and a haircut at the old Stafford Hotel on Mt. Vernon Place. He tells how he waited for the bus on the corner with the college students who were going to class."

Irwin laments that there is now no memorial in Wolman Hall, where Fitzgerald had once occupied the extreme northwest corner of the top floor. A plaque had once been there, and there had been pictures drawn by Zelda in the dorm room that used to be apartments 7K1 and 7K2.

"It would be good if the university placed a plaque there again," Irwin says.

But where he lived is of importance to Irwin only because of what he wrote. "The language of his best work is beautiful," Irwin says. "He, like Faulkner and Hemingway, started out as a poet. The power of his prose is that it's written by someone whose poetic skills are quite strong."

And that is what is at the heart of the efforts to remember Scott Fitzgerald, at 100.

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage