Literature
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Beautiful and Damned: On Growing Up with F. Scott Fitzgerald

With the writers we read again and again, our interpretation of their stories and legacies tends to change over time.


img-thingFrancis Scott Key Fitzgerald is buried at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland, and although he was not born, did not die, and did not even spend any significant time in Rockville, it seems perversely fitting: Fitzgerald moved between St. Paul, New York, Paris, the French Riviera, and Los Angeles, never belonging anywhere. So Rockville, Maryland, as the next step? It seems as good a place as any.

I have visited Fitzgerald’s grave three times in the last five years and while much has changed in my life nothing, of course, has changed in Fitzgerald’s. And yet, each time I go, my relationship to his work and his life seems to change: when I entered university, I thought of him as a young Princetonian reading Keats, strolling Nassau Ave., and scrawling out drafts of This Side of Paradise; when my mother passed away, I thought of what it must have felt like to lose Zelda to the sanitarium; when I left for Paris, I thought of Tender is the Night and how the Fitzgeralds colonized the French Rivieria with the Murphys and the Porters and the Picassos.

I first read Fitzgerald when I was thirteen years old. I remember going to the only bookstore in my small hometown one afternoon with my mother to pick up my books for Mrs. Ward’s English Lit class. While This Side of Paradise wasn’t on the curriculum, the cover looked pretty and so like the aesthetes of Princeton of whom I would soon read, that was enough for me. My mother shrugged and purchased it for me.

I wasn’t typically bookish nor particularly studious at the time. Most of my days were comprised of soccer practice and talking on the telephone in my bedroom with friends, but I remember making time to read This Side of Paradise that evening, all in one go, sitting on the kitchen floor, my chocolate Labrador puppy napping at my feet.

When I entered high school I read the rest of Fitzgerald’s novels, The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby, and Tender is the Night, and upon entering university, I read every short story and criticism our library stocked and then went to The Strand on Broadway to buy the three principle Fitzgerald biographies: Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise, Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, and, the biography that I have since deemed the very best, Turnbull’s Scott Fitzgerald, to round out my understanding. (Fitzgerald is far from a Salinger or a Tartt: the public understanding of Fitzgerald’s personal life deeply informs one’s understanding of his work.)

Through middle school and even high school, my understanding of Fitzgerald was one of blissful romance, blemished only by his untimely death as a 44-year-old. But even that seemed romantic — a heart attack in Los Angeles brought on by too many drinks, too many parties. It was not until my move to New York and my subsequent moves to Paris then Oxford then back to Paris that the façade began to dissipate.

Scribner’s published This Side of Paradise when Fitzgerald was 23 years old, and his life, for a moment, became a great party — he married Zelda, lived in the Plaza, threw bashes at his Long Island estate, and moved to France — all before transitioning into what would become a slow-burning implosion. The Great Gatsby was written during the time Scott found out that Zelda had been cheating on him, and Tender is the Night took a decade to write — a decade that saw Zelda going to an insane asylum and Fitzgerald becoming so dependent on gin that he once recorded a day of “only” drinking twenty beers as “a success.” Near the end of his life, his insecurities in himself as both a writer and a moral being became increasingly acute, his alcoholism reached its apogee, and over the course of two decades of writing stories he went from being a man who had everything, to a man who had lost everything he had ever loved.

114595-magic-marker-icon-alphanumeric-letter-ttThe St. Mary’s cemetery where he now rests is rather shabby, pinned in by freeways and office buildings, but each time I go something about it feels sacred, and on my most recent trip all I wanted to do was sit down under a nearby tree and re-read his stories, like I had done in my childhood kitchen so many years ago. And yet — perhaps it is the great tragedy of aging or perhaps it is the great joy of aging — I knew that whatever I chose to read, I would interpret and understand it differently for I had changed and thus my relationship to the text and to Fitzgerald’s life had changed as well.

Fitzgerald’s life had as many ups and downs as any author in history and yet now he can rest, his job done, his conclusion written. But my life continues to fluctuate: my chocolate Lab is no longer a puppy, my mother is no longer here, I no longer live in my small hometown in the Pacific Northwest. Even still, the highs and lows of Fitzgerald’s life still guide me, still act as mirrors for my present emotions, and it is in my interpretation of Fitzgerald’s work that I am able to understand who I am at the present moment.

But what is perhaps most extraordinary is that somehow, to conjure this mirror, to gain this understanding of who I am and who I want to be, I only have to flip open my tattered copy of Gatsby. And, like magic, a non-descript cemetery nestled next to a freeway becomes as alive and brimming with meaning as Fitzgerald’s wonderfully lyrical prose, ready to reveal something new once more.

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101 Comments

  1. The Beautiful and Damned is my go-to when I’m feeling depressed. I guess it’s like doing a downward social comparison to boost your self-esteem: no one could ever f@ck up more than Anthony.

    Then there’s Gloria. No matter how much you want to hate her, you can’t: you’re as entranced with her as Anthony is at the beginning of the novel. And your heart is broken when she starts losing her looks–and her high-spirited, self-centeredness.

    Though I think the ending of Beautiful and Damned is a little cheap, I can never get the closing image out of my mind: Gloria and Anthony fallen far from grace, drinking themselves to death in Harlem, and occasionally looking across the Hudson at Palisades Park. Then that reversal of fortune–come much too late.

  2. Charlotte Atkinson says

    Reblogged this on The Extraordinary Everyday and commented:
    I have also loved Fitzgerald for a long time. There’s a romantic yet succint view of humanity that is entirely his, and it’s impossible not to get sucked into it.

  3. The beautiful relationship that we all develop with certain writers and their work alter over time, and one of the reasons we feel differently the next time we open up the page, or re-read one of our favourites is due to the change in ourselves. We see things differently, and this perception is altered from experiences, emotions and our relationship with the book.

    It is a very beautiful thing to find that each time you read a novel, it is as much as alive as you are, and has changed it’s shape similarly to ourselves.

  4. Pingback: Beautiful and Damned: On Growing Up with F. Scott Fitzgerald | Ahmad Hassan – Resume

  5. Cemetery is fascinating as we are all concern within ourself about the meaning of death that could be a painless moment or a longer painful one.
    After so many years thing about at the age of 78 years young, nobody gives me pore than 60 … I was in flight from Malaga to Barcelona and next to me as ta young looking girls with the most beautiful green eyes I ever seen … You looked like a model, trendy dressed with her indelible jeans looking older than they were. I was part of younger life a fashion photographer in Paris, fashion and good looking women are in osmosis. My green eyes flying companion, within our conversation told me that his father passed away recently in Gibraltar and that she was everyday that if he was suffering in his day. I immediately reassured her that he was not. I told her my mother’s death experience after a dental serious operation where she was in pain but feeling that she was dying and then the pain suddenly disappeared, realising that she was dying she start to call all of us me, my brother and my sister ….. Then suddenly she heard a waking voice the doctor telling the nurse “nurse the patient is chocking put her on her side” then her pain returned … We do not suffer in death only the living feel pain.
    My. Conclusion is that we unconsciously rehearse death every night …. When we sleep we are in state of total unconsciousness, if we die in our sleep we will never know if we ever lived. That’s our ultimate last experience in live.

  6. Amazingly expressed! The relationship depicted between the author and F. Scott Fitzgerald is wonderful to read. Keep up the good work!

  7. asvachula says

    This makes me want to read more of Fitzgerald’s work. I can’t believe I’ve only ever read “The Great Gatsby.”

  8. You have a great essence on your writing, and with this article you can make someone fall in love even more with this magnificent writer. This is a fantastic reading!

  9. Lovely essay. Expressed beautifully. Fitzgerald knew what Keats knew: poetry (and what is FSF’s prose but that) exists to evoke emotion. You’ve learned your lessons well, indeed.

  10. What a lovely blog. Thank you, I just bought the book: the far side of paradise and I am curious to read it.

  11. Thank your for sharing your insight and knowledge of Fitzgerald. You have enlightened me about his life and his writing. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  12. hayleysangtao says

    When we get older, our perception about everything changes, especially when we re-read our favorite pages. We recognize ourselves in a deeper way.

  13. Very good sentiment and thought on the author and his impact on you. Was a great read.

  14. I too, am a huge fan of F. Scott. As an English teacher, Gatsby was always my favorite novel to teach. I am obsessed with Scott and Zelda’s life and have read several biographies. I also own the scrapbook that Scottie put together about her famous parents. I also love The Beautiful and Damned.

  15. Great post on Fitzgerald. I grew up in Minnesota and although he was less talked about than Bob Dylan (grew up in Hibbing MN although he’ll deny it), or Prince, he was still there. Being a bookish sort, I always thought about him every time I drove around Grand Ave in St. Paul, where he spent much of his time in MN. I’ve read Beautiful and Damned..almost made me upset how the characters were slowly ruining their lives, but you could feel him writing himself into this story. The Great Gatsby of course is also a good one, and I enjoyed many of the stories in Winter Dreams. He is a writer who made you feel for his characters, whether you hated them or not, and I think that, is a sign of a great writer. Thanks for the post. Love reading posts like this on Freshly Pressed – it’s a great alternative to the constant political tripe. Thanks again!

  16. One day I will stand before his grave, when I am ready, and i will think of this article and how it magestically inspired a significant passion in me at perfect time. Thank you

  17. Nice tribute, sir. I didn’t know that about The Great Gatsby. The fact that Fitzgerald wrote it while coping with that kind of marital problem makes it even more beautiful. He translated his heartbreak into something that would heal people for generations to come. God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.

  18. This post is amazing you’ve described him and his books in such a romantic and beautiful way I’m only 16 but now I want to drop everything and go to his grave to experience what you have. I agree with one of the older comments, you will definitely make an amazing writer. Carry a notebook with you at all times so you can jot down any ideas you have 😁 you sound(ed) like a smart especially from a very young age so well done you!!

  19. I love your writing style! I love to read and write and have a whole blog devoted to it! I didn’t know much about F. Scott Fitzgerald other than the title of his book The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald seems like an incredible writer. Its such a shame he died at only 44. I`m sure he could have written a couple more books. Where in the Pacific Northwest did you live? I`m not trying to be nosy. I just might live around the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Keep Writing! I’m excited to see what you have in store.

  20. Your writing is so intricate and beautiful.
    After reading, I immediately sent a message to a previous English teacher of mine asking to borrow a copy of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for a nice reread.

  21. F. Scott Fitzgerald. My favourite author whom, I just noticed I knew less about from after his death . I didn’t know where he was buried till today .

  22. Lovely post! Very easy to read, good flow – and if course I can hardly criticize the topic! I adore “The Great Gatsby”. Have you read Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited)? Or Tolstoy? 😀

  23. This is excellent. I’ve only read Great Gatsby, but you have me downloading the rest of his work. I’ve felt this same way about movies. I grew up with The Sound of Music and didn’t understand the terror that Hans brought the family, only that he had tattled while they were hiding. I soon found out what the Nazi’s were all about with a disturbing reel of film of Auschwitz in 7th grade.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  24. Reblogged this on LBoogie's Pop World and commented:
    This is an exquisite exploration of the life and works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, written by Cody C. Dellstraty, a British young man with incredible voice and style.

  25. Cody,
    This is exquisite! I have been a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and with the popularity of the film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” my interest in his background has grown exceedingly.

  26. I’m glad for all my English teachers who pushed Fitzgerald ‘s stories. One of the many authors I grew to admire and try to emulate

  27. Love this post! I’m close to where you were at thirteen… I’ve read This Side of Paradise and all of his short stories. I can’t wait to read the rest of his work. His words are delightful to read, and his understanding of people is inspiring.

  28. As a self proclaimed Fitzgerald junkie, I have devoured everything on the Fitzgeralds that I could read. Perhaps, one of the most interesting books was penned by Nancy Milford on the subject of Zelda. Zelda is an equally fascinating character and I think everyone who loves F.S.F. should read it if they really want an insight into their lives.
    I too have loved Fitzgerald from a young age and find that his work is timeless and amazing. Each time I read Fitzgerald, I discover yet another nuance. No one has the ability to twist a more clever phrase than F.S. F.

    Thank you for your blog and for allowing me to savor yet another moment with Fitzgerald!

  29. Pingback: Beautiful and Damned: On Growing Up with F. Scott Fitzgerald | The Midnight Writer

  30. elenazolotariov says

    This was such a beautiful article to read, mostly because any reader would be able to relate. But I have always believed that the way we interpret a book says more about us rather than the book itself and as we develop, it is only expected that our interpretations change. Literature is like a cheat-sheet, a reminder of some kind that we are not lonely and our longings are universal longings as Fitzgerald had put it (I use that quote more than I should), though for me the beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing lies not so much in the lyrical mastery of his prose but, rather, in his approach to egotism. He acknowledged the egotism in human nature and he completely embraced it — as did Zelda. And perhaps, that was their point of ruination.

    But yes, this must be one of my favourite articles of yours, bravo!

    • Cody says

      Absolutely. That’s a wonderful quote too — one of the first I memorized: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” I think you’re correct too about the egoism. He knew he was an egoist (after all, This Side of Paradise was originally entitled The Romantic Egoist), and yet, at the same time, he found ways to analyze it, to use his writing to step out of himself by leveraging his characters as a means of examining himself (e.g. using Rosemary’s perspective of Dick in Tender is the Night).

  31. I’ve loved Fitzgerald since I was a teenager, and I agree that the experience of reading his work does change over time. Reading Fitzgerald at the age of thirty makes it hard to overlook his feelings about aging and depictions of beautiful women washed up in their late twenties. In Fitzgerald’s terms I’m practically on death’s door.

  32. creer254 says

    A little past midnight halfway across the world and still….still I find special thrill reading your posts.

  33. This is why we love reading the writers that speak our mind! I very much look forward to your first novel. And are you what, 22? If you publish by next year you’ll be publishing the same age as Fitzgerald! Will it be a coincidence? Think not.

  34. This is really cool. I would love to go here someday. I like doing stuff like this. I went to Elmira NY to see Mark Twain’s grave and then went to his house in Hartford, CT. My entire family thought I was nuts for going to the cemetery just to see a grave … nice to know I am not the only one. It fills me with a weird sense of calm when I go to the Clemens family plot. I like your word … sacred.

  35. I didn’t realize that is where he was buried. I lived near that area for awhile. Interesting.

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