F. Scott Fitzgerald
Literature and Life
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F Scott Fitzgerald is a well-known name to us but during the era known as “The Jazz Age”, he was just like many of us – someone who wanted to write. This quote of his reminds me that while the world often tells us we are not so great, our hope and dreams are telling us greatness is possible.
Fitzgerald is known today as a great American novelist although only four of his novels were published before his death at the age of 46 with a fifth published posthumously. He did, however, publish over one hundred and sixty short stories in magazines. Of interest to me, though, was just how American Fitzgerald really was. He was named for a cousin, Francis Scott Keys who penned the poem that became the words to the National Anthem of the USA. Having gone aboard the “enemy” frigate to attempt to broker a peace agreement during the War of 1812, Keys found himself a prisoner of war during a battle in what is known as the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, MD, just outside Fort McHenry. The opening lines were his plea to know which flag was still flying at the end of the skirmish so that he would know who had been victorious. Another cousin was hanged in 1865 for her part in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Fitzgerald found himself at Princeton for college and wrote, to the detriment of his other studies. A brief love affair with a socialite in his native St Paul, Minnesota would become the model for his heroines in several novels and short stories. With World War I on the horizon he enlisted in the Army and fell under the command of a future US President, General Dwight D Eisenhower. While in the Army, Fitzgerald found himself stationed in Montgomery, Alabama where he fell in love with the daughter of a Alabama Supreme Court Justice. Her name was Zelda. The war ended and he took a job in advertising in NYC with the intent of convincing Zelda he could support her. She later broke the engagement unconvinced and Fitzgerald returned home broken-hearted. He penned “The Romantic Egotist” which was accepted for publication. Zelda relented and the two were married in NYC.
Four years before his death, Fitzgerald listed twenty-five books he deemed “essential reading”. One was “The Life of Jesus” by Ernest Rena. Joseph Ernest Renan lived in the nineteenth century and is remembered as a philosopher, theologian, and orientalist. He became a professor in a theological seminary in Paris. Eventually, though, his study of German theology, accompanied by his disenchantment with Roman Catholicism, led him to have doubts about the truth of Christianity. And so, in 1845, at age twenty-two, he left his initial teaching position. After a somewhat checkered life for several years, Renan embarked upon an archaeological mission to Phoenicia and Syria in 1860. He spent some time in Palestine during this adventure. While there, he wrote his celebrated volume, The Life of Jesus. At the time, his on-site library consisted solely of the New Testament and a copy of the writings of Josephus. While the Encyclopedia Britannica is sympathetic to Renan, it concedes that his book “is scarcely the work of a great scholar”.
If today’s post seems a contradiction of terms, it is. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best friend, fellow writer Ernest Hemingway, hated his wife. The writer generally faces self-doubt every day while hoping for the exact opposite. Remembered as a theologian, Rena wrote of a completely human Jesus, describing Jesus as a popular religious leader and self-proclaimed Messiah who increasingly advocated the overthrow of Roman rule and the establishment of a theocracy. To support his apocalyptic vision, Renan’s Jesus was not above using trickery and deception, as in the raising of Lazarus.
Fitzgerald struggled to be a successful writer, penning stories of his day and the glamor while struggling to live in that “Jazz Age”. His financial failings and the death of Zelda (Hemingway’s predictions that “She was mad” proved sadly to be true with her death as a result of schizophrenia in 1930) led him to Hollywood. His success there, however, led him to call himself “a Hollywood Hack”. The man who wrote about the heart and love affairs died of a heart attack himself. Perhaps this quote of his says it all: “All good writing is swimming under water while holding your breath.”
Life is a series of pros and cons. We all have good days and bad. Writers are no different. They live on the hope something good will be written while living a nightmare that nothing they do is ever “good enough”. Fitzgerald once said “Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.” I think good writing is the perpetual series of unbroken attempts.
F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us the key to success – in literature and life. “For what it’s worth… it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.”