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Book Review: Paradise Lost

By (May 23, 2017) No Comment

Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

by David S. Brown

The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2017

Any biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald will necessarily bristle with quotes from people offering their opinions about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Since long before his dazzling debut in the publishing world with his 1920 debut novel This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald – and later his wife Zelda – seemed to invite such quotes, and most of those quotes over the years have been pure sheep-dip. The revered critic Malcolm Cowley, for instance, came up with this little chunk of nonsense: “Fitzgerald never lost a quality that very few writers are able to acquire: a sense of living in history. Manners and morals were changing all through his life and he set himself the task of recording the changes.” James Thurber for once in his life steered clear of nonsense when he took his turn at bat, writing about Fitzgerald and his wife: “In even their most carefree moments and their most abandoned moods there was scarcely ever the casual ring of authentic gaiety … [They] did not know how to invite gaiety. They twisted its arm, got it down, and sat on its chest.”

And Sheilah Graham, who knew Fitzgerald at end of his life, also had her turn, and one of her quotes was not only accurate but a loud, bright warning to anybody thinking about writing a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Scott … was a famous author before he had done much living. To fill his books, he had to create his life, to make it as fascinating as possible.”

Despite such warnings from those in positions to know what they’re talking about, history professor David Brown has assayed the task of writing the latest biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He tacks against the strong current of self-invention and deceitful theatricality on the part of his subject by delving deeply into the records of Fitzgerald’s youth and upbringing, his nature and personal contacts. But such a concentration pretty much always dilutes after a few dozen pages, and then the Fitzgerald Show commences. Like all the Fitzgerald biographers before him, Brown wants to understand the apparently eternal allure of that show:

For many years, literary detectives have kicked around [Edmund] Wilson’s old question: why the enduring interest in Fitzgerald? Some have argued for simple nostalgia, a yearning among readers to escape the banality of everyday life for a glamorous bygone era of jazz and gin. Others contend that the concerns facing Fitzgerald’s generation, the first to wrestle with a host of anxieties linked to the perils of prosperity, have remained vital to succeeding generations ensnared in their own struggles to establish “higher” goals. Both observations are correct as far as they go, though neither, in my mind, goes quite far enough.

“In Fitzgerald’s writings,” Brown observes, “we encounter an America unusually thick with fallen heroes, martyrs to a powerful social mobility mythology.” The same could be said of writings about Fitzgerald; Brown’s book – a worthy and readable addition to the always-widening shelf of Fitzgerald biographies, breaking no new ground by trailing no odd credulities – concentrates more closely on the people in the author’s life than it does on the books and stories, resulting in a very human portrait signalled by the warm Fitzgerald close-up on the dust jacket. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal – but readers should keep that Sheilah Graham quote in mind the whole time: the warts were mostly premeditated.