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Joseph Kaminski

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September 24, 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald and The First World War


The 1920’s, referred to as The Roaring Twenties, was a great decade to live in. Economics were prosperous, the social diversity was vigorous, and the cultural aspects of the western world was emphasized in almost every way imaginable. Jazz music exploded throughout the streets, modern fashion developed through the ‘flapper’ look of early-twentieth-century women from Britain to America, and industries blossomed into a new era of productivity.

New-aged automobiles, fancy telephones, the birth of widespread radio, and brand new electronic appliances made their way into almost every home across the map! Cubism and Fauvism dominated the spectrum of popular art, silent films forced their way into the spotlight of entertainment, and patriotism (birthed from a ‘successful’ exit from the Great War) painted a pretty picture that Americans fell madly in love with. The cult of personality for celebrities from athletes to movie stars emerged, and the first wave of feminism seemed to have brought forth some primitive equality between the sexes. New business, such as aviation, set up a profitable foundation; new biological breakthroughs in the form of penicillin were on the horizon; and urbanization dotted the skyline with new buildings galore.

Then everything would be thrown into the trash on October 24, 1929…but who cares! We’re not there yet. In fact, lets travel back a bit further back than the infamous Roaring Twenties. Of course, the foundation of the short-lived era of so-called prosperity roots to the victories the Western World found in the First World War, then known as the Great War. Because, you know, how could that ever happen again? Forever recorded in history as one of the most notorious, largest, and nastiest wars in all of human history – with more than 70 million troops mobilized throughout the entire conflict – the Great War existed only as a sort of ‘battle of wits’ between growing powerhouses in the old-age of imperialism and new-age nationalism.

One major flaw we have with such large conflicts would be our tendency to summarize. Soldiers – whether they survived to tell their tales or died before they ever could – are oftentimes discussed as simple statistics in history textbooks; and many names go unrecognized or misrepresented by the conflict. So many people served in this major war, including some of our favorite and most classic authors. From J.R.R Tolkien to Ernest Hemingway, some of our favorite tales of fantasy and more awe-inspiring works of novella have roots in the tragic war that dominated the first half of the twentieth century and inspired the horrors of the war’s sequel less than twenty-five years later.

Who would be the best representation of the Roaring Twenties mentality…the perfect example of being unrecognized (even during his own life) who found himself (albeit acutely) wound up in The War That Would Supposedly End All Wars?

F. Scott Fitzgerald and The First World War

Born in 1896 to a middle class family in Minnesota, F. Scott Fitzgerald (named after his famous distant relative and creator of the Star-Spangled Banner Francis Scott Key) was born into a house of tragedy. Shortly before his birth, his would-be sister Louise collapsed and died. His family, depressed at such a terrible event, welcomed the future writer into the world with deep emotions and sorrow hearts. Tragedy is more often than not an influence, however subtle it may be, in 20th century writing, and Fitzgerald would later recall the earliest years of his life as the family moved from Minnesota to New York.

“Well, three months before I was born, my mother lost her other two children … I think I started then to be a writer.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Afternoon of an Author: A Selection of Uncollected Stories and Essays

Despite his recollection of having the means (or tragedy) of writing and the urge to be remembered through written words, Fitzgerald had one major obstacle to overcome: his terrible spelling and schoolwork. Recalled as a lousy student by his professors, he apparently “struggled to achieve passing marks” at all levels of his education. He graduated from the Newman School in 1913, and found his way – by chance – to Princeton University, where he desperately tried to hone in on his artistic and athletic abilities.

He failed, horrendously. He attempted to join the college’s football team, failed, and was ultimately booted from the practice field before the first day of practice was over. Afterwards, he fixated himself on the ‘passion’ he had for writing. He tried his hand out in writing by working on articles in several different newspapers – which would ultimately result in his grades slipping even further at his lack of free time. He was called into the Dean’s office and placed on academic probation, which Fitzgerald scoffed at and responded by dropping out in favor of joining the Army.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921

Thus, we reach the connection between F. Scott Fitzgerald – who would, in post mortem, be recalled as a literary definition of Roaring Twenties culture. As the United States entered the Great War, Fitzgerald took commission as a second lieutenant, choosing any method of ‘being remembered’ over failing at University. He quickly fell into a depression and paranoia-fueled anxiety.

Fitzgerald seemed to feel as if he had made no difference in his life by switching from a low-grade scholar’s life to an even lower-grade military life. Despite never leaving the United States during the initial conflict, he began worrying about being shipped out and dying in the midst of battle. He didn’t want to become what we today look back on as mere statistics, and he decided to dedicate every spare moment of his free time writing. He wrote The Romantic Egotist within mere weeks, and it was rejected in an even quicker amount of time than it was written. The reviewer did, however, spark some sort of positivity into the young writer’s mind by encouraging him to submit more, but better, work in the future. In the words of the reviewer, The Romantic Egotist seemed to have a good quality within it – uniqueness.

Lucky for Fitzgerald, the war ended quickly after the new-wave of American soldiers deployed in Europe; and, unlike Hemingway, found himself entranced in a love story that would (despite its hardships) remain intact. He met a girl, Zelda Sayre, while stationed in Alabama during the conflict. Fitzgerald was never deployed, and as he was discharged he proposed to her. He quickly moved to New York with her in hopes to make enough money to support her; and, like previous endeavors, found himself failing. Zelda broke off the engagement, and Fitzgerald returned to his family’s home in Minnesota to write. It was there where he rewrote his initial failure of The Romantic Egotist into his ‘debut’ novel The Side of Paradise. It was accepted by Scribner in 1919, and after it’s first publication in 1920 it became a smashing success. Over 41,000 copies were sold within the first year alone, and Zelda became aware that her former lover’s career as a writer could provide a suitable income after all. She returned to him, and they became husband and wife in late 1921.

The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, first edition cover.

F. Scott Fitzgerald thought that one popular novel wouldn’t keep himself in the history books. It’s a rather interesting train of thought; he never felt at peace with himself because he had a problem with the thought of not being remembered. He didn’t want to be a statistic, he wanted to be a name. So, he continued to write in the hopes of creating a classic that would go down in history as a fine piece of American literature. This effort would eventually lead to his greatest achievement: The Great Gatsby. 

Taking place in 1922, the plot is oftentimes remembered for its contemporary placing. This was not some undated piece or a vaguely interpreted concept delivered through the form of literature. The Great Gatsby wa supposed to be an actual look into the society around the first readers. The story itself, to this day, receives mixed reviews. The eccentric millionaire Jay Gatsby, who resides in “West Egg” on Long Island, has an unrealistic passion – some could call it an obsession – to a girl by the name of Daisy Buchanan. The story continues onward into madness, truly showcasing a somewhat honest depiction of the era in general. The themes of debauchery, resistance, social flaws…it all relates to the Roaring Twenties on an up-to-the-minute level.

This is most likely because Fitzgerald himself was a man of the Roaring Twenties. He was inspired by extravagant parties across Long Island, he was a man of Jazz (and is historically credited with the coinage of The Jazz Age of the Twenties), and his wife was the literal stereotypical “flapper” of the era! In his own words, he desired to produce The Great Gatsby as “something new …something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned” in a way that showcased a tale through a setting that was purely autobiographical, in a sense.

Surely, such a tale would be considered excellent in the society that it was based upon! It wasn’t. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, and it was considered a flop. He received mixed reviews and little cash, as it sold incredibly poorly. Records show that the book – now considered his masterpiece – sold only around 20,000 copies in the first year, despite being published in an era of great economic prosperity. The author gave up on his novels, for the time being. He found himself working in Hollywood as an uncredited screenwriter and director. He worked on some films such as Gone with the Wind and A Yank at Oxford, but his personal screenplays were rejected time and time again. In the last two years of his life, he began to mock himself as a so-called hack in a sequence of 17 short stories known as “The Pat Hobby Stories”.

In debt, an alcoholic Fitzgerald turned his work back on what found him relative success to begin with – his novels. In 1940, Fitzgerald started The Love of the Last Tycoon, a novel that was inspired by his experiences in Hollywood – trenches that were presumably darker than those the soldiers of World War I survived and died in. He wrote letters to his wife, Zelda (who was in and out of a mental hospital for a diagnosis of schizophrenia) on how much he cared for his latest work. He felt as if he was “digging” the story out of him, much like “uranium” from the ground. It was going to be such a wonderful book, one that would get rid of all the debt and bring him back to the top! Soon afterwards, he died of a heart attack at the age of 44.

He died believing he was a failure; believing he wouldn’t be recognized as nothing more than a statistic or a name rather than a story after his time. He never ‘finished’ his last work, the one he thought would be the one to have him finally be happy in life. Little did he know that his so-called “flop”, The Great Gatsby, would make a massive “comeback” only two years after his death at the height of the Second World War – the sequel that no man, not even Fitzgerald himself, in The Roaring Twenties would have thought possible. Over 155,000 copies of the book were distributed to soldiers, which ultimately boosted sales and led to Gatsby becoming a literary name after his death. Only four years after his death, full length papers and articles were being published on his so-called failure.

Within two decades of his death, the book was believed to be a height of American literature. The book was flying off shelves and, by 1960, over 500,000 copies were demanded each and every year. It seemed as if the so-called “period piece” of literature was no longer considered that at all! This was no “contemporary” structure of Roaring Twenties culture…this was an honest-to-god representation of the American Dream!

“The opinion that Gatsby was merely a period piece had almost entirely disappeared.” – Gatsby, 35 Years Later; April 24, 1960

By now, most ninth graders who were too lazy to read the book and almost all literature fanatics who have been in love with the book for years have seen the 2013 film adaptation of the book with Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. As of 2013, the book itself has sold over 25 million copies across the world – and to this day it sells around 500,000 copies annually. As the movie became popular, the modernization of the book appeared in the form of an e-book – which sold 185,000 copies in the first year alone. The film adaptation made $351,000,000 with a $105,000,000 budget.

Without Fitzgerald ever realizing it, his writing has allowed him to go down in history as one of the greatest writers in American history. His fear of dying without being remembered… he himself died before his name would be known on the level that it is today. His distant relative wrote the nation’s song, but he himself wrote the nation’s book. He is the definition of an ‘American success story’, and it doesn’t hurt to remember where that drive to write came from: The First World War.

The Great Gatsby (2013)


This is the third installment of Writers of The First World War

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