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