|Cover of A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, taken across the street from a restaurant named after him in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)|
|F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896-1940.|
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s non-fiction writings are not as famous as his novels and short stories, but they contain some superb pieces that shed light on the life of this fascinating author. One reason that might explain why Fitzgerald’s non-fiction writings are less well-known is that they have been scattered all over the place. It would be wonderful to have one volume that collected all of his major non-fiction pieces in one place.
A Short Autobiography, edited by Fitzgerald scholar James L.W. West III, was issued in 2011 with the aim of collecting Fitzgerald’s non-fiction works that reveal more of his personal life. Unfortunately, A Short Autobiography doesn’t include any of the “Crack-Up” essays, but it does have many other excellent pieces.
Another issue with Fitzgerald’s non-fiction is that some of the pieces are hard to categorize. Is “An Author’s Mother” fiction or non-fiction? It’s been published in collections of Fitzgerald’s fiction, but it also appears in A Short Autobiography. There’s obviously some fiction in it, as the name of the author in the piece is not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and unlike the author in the piece, Fitzgerald didn’t have a brother. However, the piece does seem to be a pretty accurate portrait of Fitzgerald’s mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was constantly borrowing from his own life to inform his fiction, and the line between the two is often blurred.
In the very first line of the first piece in A Short Autobiography, “Who’s Who-and Why,” from 1920, Fitzgerald writes: “The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.” (p.1) Little did he know how true this would be throughout the rest of his short life. There were always parties, and alcohol, and many other distractions for Scott that would keep him from his work. However, that being said, he was still very prolific despite all the distractions, turning out roughly 180 short stories, four completed novels and one unfinished novel in his forty-four years.
In “Princeton,” an affectionate look at the university Fitzgerald attended, (and didn’t graduate from) he mentions that 5% of his class at Princeton were killed in World War I. That’s a staggering fact that makes clear what a large impact the war had on Fitzgerald’s generation.
One of the pieces that showcases Fitzgerald’s sense of humor is “Salesmanship in the Champs-Elysees,” which is written in the voice of a French car salesman. For me, one of the highlights of A Short Autobiography was hearing Fitzgerald’s authorial voice in a more personal way.
In “One Hundred False Starts,” an essay from 1933 in which Fitzgerald detailed the many ideas for stories he had that never panned out, he wrote: “There is the question of dog stories. I like dogs and would like to write at least one dog story in the style of Mr. Terhune.” (p.126) Two years later, Fitzgerald finally did write his dog story, “Shaggy’s Morning,” an odd account of a day in the life of a dog, written from the dog’s perspective. It was an interesting experiment, although perhaps not entirely successful. “Shaggy’s Morning” is one of the few Fitzgerald stories to be published during his lifetime that has never been collected in a book.
In “Author’s House,” another essay written for Esquire in 1936, Fitzgerald wrote: “A writer’s temperament is continually making him do things he can never repair.” (p.139) This was certainly true in Fitzgerald’s case, as he wore out his welcome with friends again and again through his drunken behavior.
One of the most beautiful pieces in the book is “The Death of My Father,” which Fitzgerald wrote after his father’s passing in 1931. He never finished it, and it was first published in 1951 in The Princeton University Literary Chronicle. It’s a short piece, only three pages long, but it paints a vivid picture of Scott’s relationship with his father Edward. In it, Fitzgerald wrote: “I loved my father—always deep in my subconscious I have referred judgements back to him, to what he would have thought or done. He loved me—and felt a deep responsibility for me—I was born several months after the sudden death of my two elder sisters and he felt what the effect of this would be on my mother, that he would be my only moral guide. He became that to the best of his ability. He came from tired old stock with very little left of vitality and mental energy but he managed to raise a little for me.” (p.118)
This passage was repeated almost word for word in Tender is the Night, when Dick Diver learns of his father’s death: “Dick loved his father—again and again he referred judgements to what his father would probably have thought or done. Dick was born several months after the death of two young sisters and his father, guessing what would be the effect on Dick’s mother, had saved him from a spoiling by becoming his moral guide. He was of tired stock yet he raised himself to that effort.” (Tender is the Night, p.203)
A Short Autobiography reveals parts of Fitzgerald that we don’t often get to see in his fiction. For this reason, it’s an essential read for fans of Fitzgerald’s writing.