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Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was a Jazz Age novelist and short story writer who is considered to be among the greatest twentieth-century American writers. Born on September 24, 1896, he was the only son of an aristocratic father and a provincial, working-class mother. He was the product of two divergent traditions: while his father's family included the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (after whom Fitzgerald was named), his mother's family was, in Fitzgerald's own words, "straight 1850 potato-famine Irish." As a result of this contrast, he was exceedingly ambivalent toward the notion of the American dream: for him, it was at once vulgar and dazzlingly promising.
Like the central character of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald had an intensely romantic imagination; he once called it "a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life." The events of Fitzgerald's own life can be seen as a struggle to realize those promises.
He attended both St. Paul Academy (1908-10) and Newman School (1911-13), where his intensity and outsized enthusiasm made him unpopular with the other students. Later, at Princeton University, he came close to the brilliant success of which he dreamed. He became part of the influential Triangle Club, a dramatic organization whose members were taken from the cream of society. He also became a prominent figure in the literary life of the university and made lifelong friendships with Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. Despite these social coups, Fitzgerald struggled academically, and he eventually flunked out of Princeton. In November 1917, he joined the army.
While stationed at Camp Sheridan (near Montgomery, Alabama), he met Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, and the two fell deeply in love. Fitzgerald needed to improve his dismal financial circumstances, however, before he and Zelda could marry. At the first opportunity, he left for New York, determined to make his fortune in the great city. Instead, he was forced to take a menial advertising job at $90 per month. Zelda broke their engagement, and Fitzgerald retreated to St. Paul, Minnesota. There, he rewrote a novel that he had begun at Princeton. In the spring of 1920 the novel, This Side of Paradise, was published.
Though today's readers might find its ideas dated, This Side of Paradise was a revelation to Fitzgerald's contemporaries. It was regarded as a rare glimpse into the morality and immorality of America's youth, and it made Fitzgerald famous. Suddenly, the author could publish not only in prestigious literary magazines such as Scribner's but also high-paying, popular publications including The Saturday Evening Post.
Flush with his new wealth and fame, Fitzgerald finally married Zelda. The celebrated columnist Ring Lardner christened them "the prince and princess of their generation." Though the Fitzgeralds reveled in their notoriety, they also found it frightening, a fact which is perhaps represented in the ending of Fitzgerald's second novel. This novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was published two years later, and tells the story of a handsome young man and his beautiful wife, who gradually deteriorate into careworn middle age while they wait for the young man to inherit a large fortune. In a predictable ironic twist, they only receive their inheritance when it is too late.
To escape this grim fate, the Fitzgeralds (together with their daughter, Frances, who was born in 1921) moved in 1924 to the Riviera, where they became part of a group of wealthy American expatriates whose style was largely determined by Gerald and Sara Murphy. Fitzgerald described this society in his last completed novel, Tender is the Night, and modeled its hero on Gerald Murphy. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald's reputation as a heavy drinker tarnished his reputation in the literary world; he was viewed as an irresponsible writer despite his painstaking revisions numerous drafts of his work.
Shortly after their relocation to France, Fitzgerald completed his most famous and respected novel, The Great Gatsby (1925). Fitzgerald's own divided nature can be seen in the contrast between the novel's hero, Jay Gatsby, and its narrator, Nick Carraway. The former represents the naive Midwesterner dazzled by the possibilities of the American dream; the latter represents the compassionate Princeton gentleman who cannot help but regard that dream with suspicion. The Great Gatsby may be described as the most profoundly American novel of its time; Fitzgerald connects Gatsby's dream, his "Platonic conception of himself," with the aspirations of the founders of America.