Tag: F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘The Last Tycoon’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Last Tycoon” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner, 1941.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published four novels and numerous short stories before his early death from alcoholism. Throughout his career, he had his critics and did not achieve his status as one of the most influential modern American writers until after his death. The author of “The Great Gatsby” was working on a Hollywood novel at the time of his death which would be published posthumously as “The Last Tycoon.”

In the early fall of 1939, Fitzgerald sent a proposal for a story to Collier’s magazine. The editor agreed to serialize the novel if Fitzgerald would send a 15,000 word advance for his approval. The screenwriting experience and his relationship with movie producer Irving Thalberg fueled his ideas for the novel but the actual writing only took a few months. With his health deteriorating, Fitzgerald failed, however, to reach the 15,000 word advance for Collier’s and instead sent in only 6,000 words. He was rejected in a telegraph but with a request for more work by Collier’s Kenneth Littauer: “FIRST THOUSAND WORDS PRETTY CRIPTIC THEREFORE [sic] DISAPPOINTING . . .”

edmund wilsonAfter his death in 1940, a longtime critic and friend Edmund Wilson secured permission from Fitzgerald’s family to publish “The Last Tycoon.” Wilson had never held back his negative criticism of the author’s work, even from Fitzgerald’s beginnings when Wilson published a satirical poem arguing that the young writer’s work was shallow and superficial. But Wilson was deeply affected by his death, expressing in a letter to Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda: “I feel myself as though I had been suddenly robbed of some part of my own personality.”

last tycoonWilson, who must have felt some regret at being so critical of what he often called a “commercial” and “trashy” writer, decided to set the tone for Fitzgerald’s legacy by preparing his last manuscript and titling it “The Last Tycoon.” It would be published in book form accompanied strategically by “The Great Gatsby” and selected short stories. In the Foreword, Wilson announced “The Last Tycoon” to be “Fitzgerald’s most mature piece of work” and “the best novel we have had about Hollywood.” Other critics followed with similar praise. Novelist J. F. Powers asserted that “The Last Tycoon” contained more of his best writing than anything he had ever done and Fitzgerald’s best had always been the best there was.”

last tycoon DECOFitzgerald’s influence, his attention to the illusive American dream, is seen in the work of Richard Yates, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, and many contemporary writers. Mystery writer, Raymond Chandler, wrote that that “Fitzgerald is a subject no one has the right to mess up . . . He had one of the rarest qualities in all of literature . . . The word is charm—charm as Keats would have used it . . . It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite.” While Fitzgerald had sold less than 25,000 copies of “The Great Gatsby” at the time of his death, this book has now sold over 25 million copies worldwide.

Sarah Churchwell’s ‘Careless People’ carefully examines ‘Gatsby’, Fitzgerald

careless peopleSarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby was originally released with the publicity surrounding the 2013 big-budget movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby, so it seems appropriate to use the spotlight of John Grisham’s great beach biblio-thriller Camino Island to recommend Churchwell’s wonderful work to those who, like I, missed it the first time around.

I first read The Great Gatsby on a car trip with my family to the Grand Canyon fourteen years ago, in preparation for sophomore English. Due to the circumstances of my reading and the rampant narcissism exhibited by most of the main characters, I did not engage with the book very deeply. I don’t think this is an atypical encounter for most people to have with ol’ F. Scott Fitzgerald, at least initially.

gatsbyFortunately, I was reacquainted with Gatsby & Co. almost a decade later when it was I, as an English teacher, who assigned Gatsby to a new crop of high school sophomores. I had a better appreciation by then of American history, and dreams, and ambition, and poetry—and so, too, the novel itself. But mine was a fairly by-the-numbers enlightenment about the books’ genius.

The Great Gatsby does stand as an artifact of its age, but in a very symbolic way. It is a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, just as it is a symbol for The American Dream. But the latter has always been an abstraction, while the former is not. The twenties are a time period that actually happened, and can be studied on their own contemporary terms. In this, Careless People by Sarah Churchwell excels.

Careless People is an examination of all the myriad inspirations for Fitzgerald’s most inspired novel. The title of Churchwell’s book is a phrase used in Gatsby by Nick to describe Tom and Daisy Buchanan specifically, but is reframed here to describe Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and the people and culture of the Jazz Age they inhabit.

The book’s framework is structured around a list Scott Fitzgerald made around 15 years after Gatsby’s publication about each chapter’s general inspirations. Churchwell uses the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the fall of 1922 to search for the raw material used to sculpt the scintillating scenes from Gatsby’s explosive story. She does this for three reasons: 1) the fall of 1922 is when the last part of Gatsbyis set; 2) this is the period when the Fitzgeralds lived on Long Island and partied in New York (where Gatsby is set), and 3) this time period shows the aftermath of the Halls-Mills murder case that almost definitely inspired parts of Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson’s torrid and tragic affair.

The book helpfully provides a short manifesto against misusing it:

The problem with trying to think intelligently about the relationship between life and art is that it is so easy think unintelligently about it, to make literal-minded simplistic equations between fiction and reality. Such literalism is reductive and unimaginative, can be deeply tiresome, and often misses the point of fiction entirely. But nor can we simply eliminate life and history from the tale, as if they have nothing to do with the genesis of fiction. If as its best fiction can transform reality, that doesn’t mean that its history has nothing left to teach us. Art does not shrink when it comes into contact with reality: it expands.

Perhaps what Careless People expands best is not even Gatsby itself, but Fitzgerald, the artist who created it. It rescues him from either myth or caricature, and explains what kind of artist he really was. He was in love with his world, but his mind was also outside of it. He had a sense of history, not merely past, but future, with a finely-tuned gift for guessing right where history was heading. Fitzgerald was not a world-creator like a fantasy writer, even if that’s how the modern reader might experience his work, but a world-remixer who rearranged the stuff of daily life to make a grand statement. Contemporary critics could see the daily life, but no statement. We often run into the opposite problem. Careless People is both lyrical and suggestive, much like the novel it profiles, and does a deft job of explaining how Fitzgerald wove fashion into art, and made art from fashion.

‘The Great Gatsby’ dust cover has created its own story

In celebration of the release of John Grisham’s Camino Island, whose plot revolves around stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, Lisa has been tracing Fitzgerald’s career through his novels. You can read her examinations of This Side of Paradise here and The Beautiful and Damned here.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, April 10, 1925.

gatsby firstThe cover art for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner) is one of the most enduring covers in book publishing history. It also said to be the most expensive piece of paper in book collecting.

Before the publication of The Great Gatsby in 1925, Scribner’s had published two novels by Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922). Both of the dust jackets for these novels displayed rather straight-forward scenes from the novels, a man and a woman in courtship. Color is downplayed with the use of three muted shades of orange, gray, and black.

The art of the Gatsby jacket by Cuban artist Francis Cugat is remarkable for its symbolic nature, its use of color, and its fine details. Two feminine eyes float over a nocturnal Coney Island carnival scene. Two nudes are subtly reclining in the irises. A brush of glare, or perhaps a tear, in the midnight blue sky as well as the explosive light emanating from the carnival scene below suggest tragedy.

While Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing The Great Gatsby in the summer of 1924, he was shown a draft of the jacket. His reaction is famously documented in a letter to Maxwell Perkins: “For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone that dust jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”This influence of a dust jacket on the writing of a book is one of the only recorded instances. Cugat never produced another dust jacket, but his art is still beautifully reproduced on the paperback copies that many high school students purchase for required school reading.

The Great Gatsby as a first edition (18,000 copies in the first printing) is not one of the rarest books, but the survival of the dust jacket is key. The jacket, made too tall for the book, easily chipped, which only encouraged the owner to toss the jacket into the waste bin before long. The dust jacket of The Great Gatsby is one of the most outstanding examples of increased value in a first edition. Without the jacket, a first edition may sell for under $10,000. With the jacket, the price can be upwards of $100,000.

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ looks at Fitzgeralds’ marriage

In celebration of the release of John Grisham’s Camino Island, whose plot revolves around stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, Lisa has been tracing Fitzgerald’s career through his novels. You can read last week’s examination of This Side of Paradise here.

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, 1922.

beautiful and damnedAfter the great success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald enjoyed positive reviews for The Beautiful and Damned. Many critics of the time felt that the writer had matured from the episodic style of Paradiseto a novel with a strong omniscient narrator. The oddest review, however, came from his wife, Zelda, in the New York Tribune under the title “Friend Husband’s Latest.” She wittily encouraged readers to buy her husband’s book because there was an expensive dress and platinum ring she longed for. She also admitted that she had allowed her husband to incorporate pieces of her writing into the novel: “One one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared…[it] seems that plagiarism begins at home.”

The Beautiful and Damned is a thinly veiled look at Fitzgerald’s marriage to Zelda. He admitted that he could not stop writing about his domestic life and count not bring himself to change their excessive alcoholic and spending habits. At one point after the publication of The Beautiful and Damned, the Fitzgeralds were living off $36,000 a year, which was 20 times that of the average American.

Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s agent and confidant, was a reader of his manuscripts. Unlike some of Fitzgerald’s other readers, Perkins provided constructive criticism on the structure and content of the writing. Unfortunately, he was a terrible speller and copy editor. Apparently, there was no solution to this, and first printings of all the novels and story collections are noted for copious grammatical, spelling, and factual errors. At a speed that pleased his pocket book, Fitzgerald dashed off stories for magazine publication as well. From 1919 to 1929, he increased his earnings from $30 a story to $4000 a story. From 1921 to 1922, The Beautiful and Damned was also serialized in the Metropolitan magazine in an edited form before hitting bookshelves on March 4, 1922.

As the years passed, Fitzgerald continued his excessive lifestyle. (He was known to display hundred dollar bills in his vest pockets at parties.) A moment of clarity emerged out of the chaos: “I’ve realized how much I’ve–well, almost deteriorated in three years since the publication of The Beautiful and Damned…If I’d spent as much time reading or travelling or doing anything–even staying healthy–it’d be different but i spent it uselessly, neither in study nor in contemplation but only in drinking and raising hell generally.”

What followed the tragic Beautiful and Damned was The Great Gatsby, a work that did not realize its full success that did not realize its full success until after Fitzgerald’s death at the age of 44. Unexpectedly, it also was the book that changed the way publishers marketed their books.

‘Camino Island’ and the Book Collector: ‘This Side of Paradise’

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, March 26, 1920. 

f scott fitzgeraldF. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise, as a semi-autobiographical account of his college years at Princeton University. Three more novels and numerous collections of short stories followed during his lifetime. He experienced limited success during his short life of 44 years, and regard as one of the greatest American writers came after his death. Over time, Fitzgerald’s work became synonymous with the Jazz Age, the lost generation of the 1920s, and the term, “flapper.” In a special insert in This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald wrote to the American Booksellers Association:

“My whole theory of writing I can sum up in one sentence: An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters ever afterward.”

The young author could not have proved his theory more succinctly. As a debut novel, This Side of Paradise flew off the shelves on a Friday, March 26, 1920. The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out within a week and two more printings were issued within a month. Fitzgerald had written the new modern novel, a sophisticated sequence of episodic scenes, prose, poetry, drama, book lists and quotations revolving around the life of Princeton student Amory Blaine. He wrote for his generation and commented in a 1921 interview: “I’m sick of the sexless animals writers have been giving us.” And “schoolmasters ever afterward” have been assigning The Great Gatsby, almost as a right of passage into adulthood.

John Grisham’s Camino Island (on sale June 6) highlights the high level of collectibility of Fitzgerald’s work in the form of a biblio-caper. When the manuscripts of Fitzgerald’s five novels are stolen from Princeton University, a young writer is solicited to help spy on a bookseller suspected to be involved in the heist. As a reader and collector of books, I had to do some of my own sleuthing into the collector’s world of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

this side of paradise by fitzgeraldThe dust jacket of any Fitzgerald first edition is key to its value. In the 1920s, publishers had only been making dust jackets for a short time. Readers often pulled them off and threw them away. Prior to the advent of the dust jacket, books were stamped with the title and author and often embellished with beautiful designs and gold stamped accents. The new dust jackets promoted the book, protected it, and advertised other books from the publisher. Because of this change in book design, it is very hard to find one of the 3,000 first printings of “This Side of Paradise”—a debut by a relatively unknown author—with the dust jacket present and in good condition. The era before climate control also did nothing to help preserve books.

If one is lucky enough to find a signed first edition—with the elusive dust jacket—and have the funds to call it your own, it would likely run in the six digits. That’s way beyond the budget of most collectors but these rare books and manuscripts of Fitzgerald provide the perfect impetus for one of the country’s favorite writers, John Grisham.

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