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What Fitzgeralds Short Stories Teach Us About the Man Behind The Great Gatsby

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By Edited Jul 14, 2015 0 0

Great Gatsby
Although it's often said that the best writers write from personal experience, when you're a gifted alcoholic bumming around Europe during the Jazz Age with Ernest Hemingway and a schizophrenic wife, it's almost like cheating. The fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald was very much a man of his time certainly didn't hurt his portraying the era so brilliantly – or so tragically; in addition to the pervading sense of intoxicated irresponsibility that flows through his stories, much of Fitzgerald's best work is sprinkled with thinly-veiled references to his own troubled life.

Fitzgerald is of course best known for writing The Great Gatsby, but his 1931 short story "Babylon Revisited" is often considered the finest example of his immense talent. The story takes place in the aftermath of the decade-long party that was the 1920's, and like any good hangover, it's a complicated mix of guilty nostalgia and even guiltier regrets – especially when compounded by the fact that Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, was committed to an asylum in this same year.

The story's main character, Charlie Wales, is visiting Paris (one of Fitzgerald's old watering holes) in an attempt to regain custody of his nine-year old daughter (Fitzgerald's own daughter was nine at the time) from his sister-in law, Marion; because Charlie was being treated for alcoholism during the time of his wife's death, he wasn't considered fit to be a father – and Marion couldn't have agreed more. The task now falls to Charlie to convince Marion that he has changed. This tense family dynamic was inspired by Fitzgerald's real-life sister-in-law, who loathed his alcoholism and tried to get custody of his daughter in Zelda's absence.

Seeing Paris brings back vivid memories of the very escapades that would later separate Charlie from his daughter, including an incident involving a drunken night tour of the city on a stolen tricycle (another gem from Fitzgerald's personal memory bank). Although Charlie "lost a lot in the crash" of '29, returning to the scene of his past recklessness drives home the fact that he "lost everything [he] wanted in the boom."

Two years after Zelda's hospitalization, Fitzgerald wrote the novel Tender is the Night, which follows a charismatic Dick Diver struggling not to live down to his character name by having an affair with an 18-year-old movie star; in addition to the obvious pain and suffering it would cause, Dick fears that an affair would actually disrupt his wife's mental health, as she suffers from – you guessed it – schizophrenia. (And since Fitzgerald had had an affair with a young starlet only a few years earlier, we're pretty sure Dick's intuition is right.) The novel also has a character named Tommy Barban, a callous mercenary who is widely considered to be based on Ernest Hemingway. (Suffice it to say that the Fitzgerald-Hemingway friendship had soured by this time.) Tender is the Night shares several themes with Babylon Revisited, including being set primarily in France (particularly in the Ritz bar in Paris) and featuring an overprotective sister-in-law (this time called Baby). More telling than the similarities between the stories, however, is the critical difference: while Charlie Wales's story ends on a note of hope, Dick Diver continues on a downward spiral that suggests a change for the worse in Fitzgerald's emotional state.

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