Guest Author - Siobhain M Cullen
The new school year brings some reflections, and some student help ideas, on the bio of F Scott Fitzgerald, jazz age author of The Great Gatsby, short stories, novels, and collections including 'The Crack Up.'
With the coming of a new academic year in English literature study, authors Hardy and Salinger pass away and 'Jazz Age' novelist F.Scott Fitzgerald hoves into view. After achieving A Star exam grades my daughter moves on to ‘The Great Gatsby’ and predictably, one of her first assignments is to ‘research the bio of F Scott Fitzgerald.’ So, what advice and support to give to students preparing a term paper or an essay on an author bio – and in particular, The Great Gatsby?
Doubtless there is a lot of fine information online about the biography of the great American expert on ‘The Jazz Age’ but what about more in-depth research for the student who wants to ‘go the extra mile’ either through natural intelligent curiosity, or in the hunt for that elusive A Star benchmark – the one that will set his work apart from all the other term-papers?
In this situation, there can be no better authority on an author’s ‘life and times’ than the man himself, and to hear the novelist’s voice directly we can turn to his short stories, letters, essays and autobiographical papers. It is true that, in common with many of us, authors tend to want to highlight the areas they want readers to see and ‘brush under the carpet’ or ‘pretty up’ certain other less salubrious areas. But in the main, most readers will gain the clearest insights into a novelist’s work from his own writings about it. Some authors are very honest, and F Scott Fitzgerald is one such man.
Of particular interest to students and struggling writers, are novelists’ stories about their own challenges in getting recognised, and published – the lowdown on ‘how I did it.’ These stories are often retrospective and the gift of author hindsight can add delight and sage reflection on the dreams of youth, and an insight into what made a novelist ‘tick.’ The short stories, letters and autobiographical pieces presented in F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Crack-Up’ present a rueful look back at his luck or talent in gaining early recognition and the fame and money that went with it. He was one of that rare breed of novelists who actually write a book and get it accepted quickly by a publisher.
One autobiographical piece in particular from ‘The Crack-up’ collection is particularly intriguing and delightful. ‘Early Success’ (one of his recurring themes)charts the progress of F Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, and in it he outlines his own flaws and some of the disadvantages of author success, and of having ‘too much, too young.’
In a collection full of humour and the wisdom of hindsight, F Scott Fitzgerald remembers the ignominy of being dumped by his girlfriend and throwing up a job to return home as a failure, like a dog with its tail between its legs. He tells readers, from the heart, about his anxieties of facing a new life full of unpaid bills, embarrassing chance encounters (while wearing a dated suit) with more well-dressed successful friends and touting for new jobs in establishments which were closed to him due to the cronyism that he perceived after the war.
The moment all would-be novelists dream of is detailed with humor and honesty – in a ‘the postman always knocks twice’ kind of a way. Like the lad in Chekhov’s story, he admits to being so thrilled with his novel acceptance letter, newly delivered by the mailman, that he runs along the street waylaying friends in their automobiles to shout his success from the rooftops.
Scott Fitzgerald recalls the era of his early success as being a golden time of plenty for the glitterati of the jazz age and for those who documented it for those less fortunate – for readers who bought the books and magazine short stories to share in the glamour of the jazz age – at least vicariously.
The dying age of prohibitionist America and the dawning of a new age of spin, spree, song and spend provided rich pickings indeed for a writer with a golden pen. Yet Fitzgerald was aware, even at the time, of the clock ticking and of the elusive experience involved in ‘grasping the moment.’ He knew even then, before his bestselling novel The Great Gatsby was published, that it could not last.
A Midas, Fitzgerald sat on the fence of the cusp of the Jazz Age – with a foot in both camps – the ‘have-nots’ and the ‘haves’. His fresh success allowed him to both indulge in its lavish and often dissolute lifestyle, and to record it with a critical eye it at the same time. The Crack-Up reflects honestly and bravely upon his own shortcomings. Other works and letters cover the repercussions of this self-indulgence for his own health, lifespan and career.
Early Success (from The Crack-Up by F Scott Fitzgerald which is now available as a re-issue) is recommended for students researching the bio of the great American novelist of the jazz age – as it sheds light over the whole of the rest of his works, including The Great Gatsby, short stories, novels and essays. It will give students a fresh insight and perception into the very mind of the man.