Behind The Great Gatsby

Sean Smith has an article in the October 16, last year, copy of The Independent which describes how F Scott Fitzgerald’s personality and life experiences defined the plot and the characters in The Great Gasby.

Sean Smith is a writer and freelance journalist who specialises in op-eds and features on a wide variety of subjects. I have abbreviated his article as follows:

“Gifted, charismatic and impoverished, F Scott Fitzgerald fell hopelessly in love with rich socialite Ginevra King while still an undergraduate at Princeton. When the affair inevitably failed, her father was quick to admonish the aspiring writer. “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” Had he heeded that advice, Fitzgerald may well have led a longer and happier life but he wouldn’t have gone on to write the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Although he was desperate to break into the inner circle of the Waspish, protestant elite, Fitzgerald’s limited means and Irish Catholic roots would cast him as a perennial outsider or “a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich man’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton,” as he later acknowledged. But his sense of exclusion would also provide his motivation and subject matter: “I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich and it has coloured my entire life and work.”

After being rejected by Ginevra, a heartbroken, Fitzgerald dropped out of college and joined the army in the vain hope of seeing action overseas before the end of the war. As a young officer, Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Alabama in March 1918 for basic training. History looked set to repeat itself when he unwisely became infatuated with wealthy southern belle Zelda Sayre, who could take her pick from the wealthy young officers who flocked to her family porch.

But Fitzgerald became her most persistent gentleman caller and he would later use the courtship as a model for Gatsby’s youthful pursuit of Daisy. The rule that officers had to wear uniforms at all times, even while socialising, meant that he could disguise the extent of his threadbare poverty from Zelda. Gatsby later benefits from the same “invisibility cloak” with Daisy.

After being demobbed from the army in February 1919, Fitzgerald proposed to Zelda, who made it clear that she had no intention of being poor: “I’d just hate to live a sordid colourless existence.” In the novel, Daisy dispatches Gatsby less brutally but ostensibly for the same reason.

For Fitzgerald it was far from plain sailing. Having failed to secure a writing job with every newspaper in New York, Fitzgerald eventually settled for an advertising role which paid just $90 a week, hardly enough to think of marrying a girl like Zelda.

In the evenings, Fitzgerald wrote short stories with limited success. When Zelda rebuffed a further proposal in June, Fitzgerald fell into despair and a month-long drinking bender only paused by the introduction of prohibition on 1 July 1919.

Depressed to the point of suicide, Fitzgerald resigned his job returning to his midwest family home in St Paul, Minnesota, to rework a previously rejected manuscript into a new novel called This Side of Paradise, which he sent to a publisher more in hope than expectation. When they wrote back with their intention to publish, everything changed.

Zelda, delighted that the sudden prospect of fame and fortune pushed Fitzgerald through the threshold of eligibility, accepted his new proposal with brutal pragmatism. “I hate to say this but I don’t think I had much confidence in you at first. It’s so nice to know you can really do things.”

This Side of Paradise was an overnight sensation that would make Fitzgerald the prince and chronicler of the jazz age. But Fitzgerald never forgot or forgave the terms of Zelda’s conditional acceptance and confided in friends that he was struggling to recapture the thrill of their initial courtship.

But in private, their alcohol-fuelled rows convinced friends that their marriage would be short-lived. Friends also noticed how theit celebrity lifestyle and Zelda’s expensive tastes made it difficult for Fitzgerald to find the time, space and sobriety to produce work of any real substance.

Fitzgerald was running up huge debts paying for hotels, jewellery, travel and extravagant parties, which he financed by churning out short stories for magazines. Financially, he seemed to be constantly running just to standstill.

Novels were lengthy investments of time and effort with no guarantee of financial success but commercial short stories were a sure thing that kept his creditors at arm’s length.

Fitzgerald quickly came to resent cranking out light and frothy dross to a prescribed formula: “I’ve made half a dozen starts yesterday and today and I’ll go mad if I have to do another debutante which is what they want.”

In contrast, the extravagant Zelda welcomed the lucrative fees offered by the magazines although she later acknowledged the strain it placed on their relationship. “I always felt a story for the [Saturday Evening] Post was tops, a goal worth seeking. It really meant something you know – they only took stories of real craftmanship but Scott couldn’t stand to write them.

The Great Gatsby’s recurring theme of selling your soul for financial remuneration was beginning to stir in Fitzgerald’s imagination. Exactly a century ago when their only daughter Frances was born, F Scott Fitzgerald was struck by his wife’s welcoming words: “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I’ll hope she’ll be a fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Three years later, he lifted them verbatim into the mouth of Daisy Buchannan in The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald felt helpless and resented the way his living costs limited the quality of the work he could attempt. “I can’t reduce our scale of living and I can’t stand this financial insecurity. I had my chance in 1920 to start my life on a sensible scale and I lost it and so I’ll have to pay the penalty. Then perhaps at 40 I can start writing again without constant worry and interruption.”

In September 1922, the Fitzgeralds moved to Great Neck in Long Island to be close to New York, where Fitzgerald’s disastrous first play, Vegetable,was being staged.

Its failure incurred enormous costs and Fitzgerald was forced to clear his debts by producing magazine short stories on an industrial scale, writing for 12 hours without a break and creating entire tales in a single sitting. He confided in a friend: “I really worked hard as hell last winter – but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart as well as my iron constitution.”)

And yet somehow throughout this period Scott and Zelda were still partying hard, spending a staggering $36,000. The parties at Great Neck were to furnish Fitzgerald with much of the raw material for The Great Gatsby and the fictional setting of West Egg – the suburban stepping stone for those aspiring to join the establishment elite in East Egg.

But the decadence was unsustainable. Indebted and exhausted, the Fitzgeralds decamped to France to take advantage of the advantageous exchange rate and to finally give Scott Fitzgerald the time and space to write the serious novel he’d been craving to tackle for so long.

Zelda’s hackles were raised because she could sense that she had become the inspiration for a cautionary tale of idealism corrupted by materialistic greed: “Scott has started a new novel and retired into strict seclusion and celibacy. He’s horribly intent on it and has built up a beautiful legend about himself which corresponds somewhat to the old fable about the ant and the grasshopper. Me being the grasshopper.”

Perhaps that resentment fuelled her affair with French aviator Edouard Josanne in July 1924 while Scott was working on a first draft of The Great Gatsby. The affair was undoubtedly a traumatic turning point which Scott later acknowledged. “That September, I knew something had happened that could never be repaired.”

Fitzgerald even stopped drinking and experiencing what alcoholics call a moment of lucidity, redrafted the relationship between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom Buchannan into sharper focus. The character of Daisy is drawn in a new light – part Ginevra and Zelda, utterly charming but profoundly insincere – capable of capturing the heart of a naïve young man but completely unworthy of a wiser man’s love.

Although Daisy is infatuated by Gatsby, just as Zelda was smitten by Fitzgerald it becomes clear that her true soul mate is the establishment itself, personified by her entitled and arrogant husband Tom Buchannan.

Fitzgerald casts Gatsby as a surrogate for himself – an idealistic and innocent bystander destroyed by his inability to truly understand the rich and their selfish instinct for self preservation .

Drawing on his own personal experience, Fitzgerald specialises in drawing characters who yearn to break into the ranks of the rich and powerful. Through his vivid depiction of the Wilsons, the unhappily married couple who run the gas station in Ash Valley, Fitzgerald captures the sense of life literally passing them by.

By 1925, Fitzgerald could already sense that there wasn’t going to be a fairy tale ending. The brevity of The Great Gatsby suggests a genius writing at full gallop, making the most of his moment of lucidity to produce his masterpiece before succumbing to the financial allure of Hollywood and his rapid descent into alcoholism.”

Not many writers have a life as emotionally riven and torn as Scott Fitzgerald’s, but he poured all of his feelings, observations and experiences into a great novel.

Manuscript Thefts

An article with the title ‘Hunt for the Book Thief in a literary Whodunnit’ by Anita Singh appeared in the 7 January 2022 issue of The Daily Telegraph.

“It was a mystery which gripped the publishing world: who was the secret fraudster behind a scheme to steal unpublished manuscripts? The scammer targeted hundreds of victims by assuming the identities of editors, agents and literary scouts in a global fraud spanning five years. On Wednesday, the FBI announced it had arrested and charged a suspect – Filippo Bernardini, 29, who had a lowly job in the rights department of the London office of Simon & Schuster.

Filippo Bernardini

“While it had long been suspected that the culprit had links to the publishing industry – they used familiar abbreviations such as ‘ms’ for ‘manuscript’ – the arrest came as a shock. Some of those targeted had dealt with Mr Bernardini on a professional basis. Mr Bernardini, an Italian citizen who studied for a masters degree in publishing at University College London, was arrested at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport. He is charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors allege the Mr Bernardini impersonated, defrauded and attempted to defraud hundreds of individuals. The indictment did not mention the manuscripts in question. However authors who have been targeted by such a scam over the last five years include two of the world’s bestselling novelists – Margaret Atwood and Jo Nesbo and their books The Testaments and Knife – and at least one Pulitzer Prize winner.

“The charges allege that between 2016 and July last year, Mr Bernardini ‘engaged in a scheme to fraudulently obtain valuable prepublication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books, as well as synopses and other notes and reports related to unpublished books.’ He allegedly did this by creating lookalike email addresses – for example, replacing the letter ‘m’ in with ‘rn’, a tiny, easily overlooked adjustment. According to prosecutors, Mr Benardini registered more than 160 fraudulent internet domains. All would forward to a single email address that he controlled.

The Indictment says Mr Bernardini devised the scheme to obtain ‘money and property by means of false and fraudulent pretenses’. However the motive is obscure, as some of those targeted were little-known novelists. No ransom demands were made, and the manuscripts were never pirated. . . . Michael J Driscoll, of the FBI, said ‘he was allegedly trying to steal others’ literary ideas for himself.'”

It seems to me that Mr Bernardini was indeed trying to steal others’ literary ideas for himself, as he made no apparent attempt to monetise the information he obtained. We authors must be careful in our correspondence with publishers, agents and literary scouts. And the industry needs to tighten its internal controls.

Review: It Can’t Happen Here

This novel by Sinclair Lewis caught my eye at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia when I was in the States visiting family for Thanksgiving. It was published in 1935 when the US was still in the valley of the Great Depression, and parts of Europe were in the grip of fascism. In his introduction to the book, Michael Meyer, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, says, “Engulfed by the complexities and vulnerabilities of our post-September 11 world, Americans of nearly all political persuasions are likely to find that It Can’t Happen Here, though firmly anchored in the politics of the 1930s, surfaces as a revealing and disturbing read.”

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Minnesota. He attended Yale where he was editor of the literary magazine. After graduation in1907, he worked as a reporter and editor of various magazines, newspapers and publishing houses. His first novel, Our Mr Wrenn, was published in 1914, but his first successful novel, Main Street was published in 1920. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith in 1925. In 1930 he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1951.

Sinclair Lewis

It Can’t Happen Here is more a political commentary than a novel. Set in the mid-1930s it describes how the political climate at the time results in a fascist government taking power in the United States. It is all seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, the editor and publisher of a local newspaper in Vermont. Senator Buzz Windrip is elected President, having promised to restore American prominence in the world while providing $5000 per year for each American citizen. Dissent is outlawed by the new Corpo (short for corporate) regime, the American Congress is neutralised, power is removed from the states and given to new, autocratically-run districts. Women are disenfranchised; a. powerful new, savage militia known at the Minute Men is created, justice is administered by military tribunals, dissidents are imprisoned in concentration camps or executed. Doremus joins the New Underground resistance movement, secretly publishing the truth of what is happening. He is imprisoned, is tortured, escapes to Canada, and is assigned the territory of Minnesota to encourage resistance to the Corpos, who have started a diversionary war with Mexico, as the country descends into civil war.

At a personal level, viewed either from a liberal or an authoritarian position, the story has credibility. A gardener becomes a high-ranking Minute Man, with life and death power over his former employer. The motivations and emotions on each side are clear. The book is filled with minor characters, right- and left-leaning, filling many different positions at local, district and national levels, adding credibility to what is happening. The tone of the book is largely neutral: atrocities are reported factually, so that it is not a grand polemic, but a sober report. There are elements of satire and humour in the descriptions of some events, which make it clear whose side the author is on, while preserving his credibility.

The book is a sobering attention-getter without suggesting an action plan. Lewis was not a political thinker; he was an independent liberal who believed in individual rights. He was a reporter of what he saw and could foresee.

It seems unlikely that even with the concerted efforts of group of powerful fanatics America could become fascist as easily as it did in It Can’t Happen Here. It would not be easy to overcome the democratic forces exerted by an aroused US Congress, the US judiciary and the armed forces. But given what happened on January 6 2021, one has to pause for thought.

One-Hit Wonders

The Sunday Telegraph had an article about authors who wrote one brilliant novel and never published another. The article is written by Claire Allfree, who is a freelance writer covering arts and entertainment in the UK. I quote from her article below.

“When the New Zealand novelist Keri Hulme died last week at the age of 74, she joined a venerated group of authors not known for winning the Booker Prize – which she did in 1985 with her Maori magic realistic epic The Bone People – but for the production in her lifetime of only one complete novel. Emily Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, J D Salinger, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, Anna Sewell all wrote a single, game-changing, long-form masterpiece. To that list can be added novelists equally or better known for other art forms – the poets Sylvia Plath and Boris Pasternak; the playwright Oscar Wilde; the short story writers Alice Munro and Edgar Allen Poe, although Bronte was also a n accomplished poet and Salinger a revolutionary short story writer. Nonetheless the image of the artist who produces just one perfect piece of work and then lapses into silence, often out of sight of the public view, is seductive. How admirable to leave just a single artistic legacy, its brilliance undimmed by inferior additional works, untainted by the siren call of game or ego.”

“Seductive, but rarely true. Few writers calmly put down their pen after dashing off a fabulous big hit, with the possible exception of Margaret Mitchell, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. Mitchell always insisted she would never write another book, partly out of horror at her new-found celebrity (she expected Gone with the Wind to sell 5000 copies; it sold 50,000 on its first day). But while she refused all interviews, there were rumours she was considering a second, when she was killed in 1949 by a drunk driver at the age of 48.

The writer who comes first to my mind in this category is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic. “Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, but possibly not for want of trying. ‘Success has had a very bad affect on me,’ she later said. ‘I’ve gotten fat – but extremely uncomplacent. I’m running just as scared as before’. “

Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015, has confirmed to be an early draft of Mockingbird. In my opinion it was not even close to the calibre of Mockingbird.

“No, the messier, more complicated truth would appear to be: once a writer, always a writer. Some radical figures like Hulme, Salinger, Mitchell and Lee do not necessarily believe that everything they write needs to be published, or that writing – that most solitary of forms – should be considered a public spectacle.”

“In fact Hulme, who when told by telephone that she had won the Booker replied, ‘Oh, bloody hell’, rejected the idea that her writing was for the benefit of other people. A pipe-smoking, white-baiting aficionado who lived alone in a small settlement on New Zealand’s south island, in a house she built herself. Hulme embraced a maverick obscurity, yet she continued to write after her win, producing short stories and two further manuscripts that remained unpublished at her death. ‘It might seem that I’m low in the productive stakes. I don’t think it’s about being a celebrity at all. It’s about creating stories and songs that will last. Otherwise, it’s not worthwhile.”

“Meanwhile Salinger, who in 1953 retreated to a house in New Hampshire where he remained virtually unseen until his death in 2010 following the zeitgeist-defining of 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye told the New York Times in a rare 1974 interview that, ‘There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.’ All the same. rumours abound over what manuscripts may be gathering dust: in that same interview he said he continued to write ten hours a day, while his daughter Maureen has spoken of a vault filled with rigorous notes on what was to be published after his death. Nothing has so far materialised, with Salinger’s son and widow, who control his estate, as tightlipped and suspicious of public scrutiny and the publishing machine as Salinger was.”

I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye in 1955 when I was in high school in New Hampshire. At the time is was suggested reading for the senior class.

Ms Allfree goes on to say that “Salinger, Mitchell and Lee all attempted to exert absolute control over their writing, pursuing unscrupulous publishers who tried to produce unlicensed editions of their work.”

This kind of conflict ultimately benefits no one.