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“F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing himself a failure.”

Those words from prominent Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli speak volumes about the fickle nature of literary fame.

When Fitzgerald died in 1940, it almost seems as if he was forgotten. The Great Gatsby was critically acclaimed but it never sold well during his life time. Years of heavy drinking had taken their toll on F. Scott.

Ironically, Fitzgerald’s funeral was much like the funeral of his most famous protagonist: Jay Gatsby. Here’s how Nick describes the event in the novel:

A little before 3, the Lutheran minister arrived from Fleshing, and I began to look involuntarily out the windows, for other cars. So did Gatsby’s father. And as the time passed, and the servants came in and stood waiting in the hall, his eyes began to blink anxiously; and he spoke of the rain in a worried, uncertain way. The minister glanced several times at his watch, so I took him aside and asked him to wait for half an hour. But it wasn’t any use; nobody came.

Maureen Corrigan, a literature professor and book reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air, described Fitzgerald’s funeral this way on NPR radio.

It was raining. There were about 25 people, so he got more than Gatsby. But the Protestant minister who performed the service didn’t know who he was. So when you read Gatsby’s burial description, you really do get a chill because it almost seems to anticipate what would happen to the author.

Think about that for a second.

One of the most prominent American authors of the 20th Century had 25 people at his funeral. The minister did not even know who he was.

Part of that, and this is my guess, might have had something to do with the time in which Fitzgerald was most popular. The roaring 20s, that era after World War 1 and before The Great Depression, was a decade of excess.

When you’re barely making it in the 1930s, you don’t want to read high-society, period literature about wealthy rich people from the prior decade, do you? Enter the popularity of John Steinbeck.

Fitzgerald’s close association with that time period, which immediately preceded one of the most difficult periods in U.S. history, probably harmed his popularity a great deal.

It wasn’t until after Fitzgerald’s death, when The Great Gatsby was republished in 1945 and 1953, that the book exploded and Fitzgerald suddenly became the author of “The Great American Novel.”

But it was always there. So why didn’t we realize it? What took so long to see The Great Gatsby for what it is? And the greater question: Why do authors have to die for us to realize the quality of their writing?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt #

    Great post. Never knew that he was forgotten about when he died.

    Like

    November 27, 2012
  2. I have not read the Great Gatsby yet. It is on my list, heard it is a great novel.

    What took so long to see The Great Gatsby for what it is? And the greater question: Why do authors have to die for us to realize the quality of their writing?

    Very good questions. In terms of the first one, maybe it takes decades, even epochs for a novel to mature. Perhaps it can’t be fully appreciated at its publication because the age, or time period, it describes and is trying to capture, is ongoing and has not ended yet. Tied into the second question, maybe endings give a better chance, or perspective, to look back and appreciate a novel’s portrait of a zeitgeist. On the broader question of why authors has to die for us to realize the quality of their writing?, again maybe the chance to see a particular authors’ life in its entirety gives us the chance to try view their work more objectively. Also, the jealousies and rivalry between authors has to end when they die. Some people react badly to success. Or perhaps it is just human nature to appreciate people and things more when they have gone. A kind of a ‘you don’t know what you have until it has gone’ thing.

    Like

    November 27, 2012
    • I think that last one you mention has a lot to do with it. It’s kind of crazy, but we really appreciate people so much more when they aren’t here anymore.

      Like

      April 11, 2013
  3. Same thing happen to Herman Melville. Ironic..

    Like

    November 27, 2012
  4. I have to agree with muttley79. Some authors are able to see more clearly than others what is significant in their era. Only decades after an era has passed can we look back on it more objectively and see what writers like Fitzgerald saw so clearly at the time.

    Like

    November 27, 2012
  5. Reblogged this on Y12 Literature and commented:
    What do you think? Interesting reading…

    Like

    November 27, 2012
  6. After publishing the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald in correspondence wrote enviously of the success of Michael Arlen who published The Green Hat in 1924. Who? you ask. The Green Hat?… Isn’t life ironic!

    Like

    November 27, 2012
  7. John Keats was so convinced at the end of his life that he had failed as a poet that he insisted his epitaph read, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Fortunately for the canon, Keats was a poor judge of his own work.

    Like

    December 2, 2012
  8. Even sadder was the fact that Fitzgerald’s friend Nathanael West died the day after FSF himself had died. West was killed in a car crash along with his wife. Perhaps they would have been two more mourners at his funeral.
    Lovely post.

    Like

    April 11, 2013
  9. Not to be overly dramatic, but this post makes me nauseous—putting it nicely.

    Like

    April 11, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Looking Back At The Great Gatsby | 101 Books
  2. The Day Hemingway Died | 101 Books
  3. Gatsby’s Girl by Caroline Preston | The Literary Lollipop
  4. “I’ll try another one anyway, I guess.” | 101 Books
  5. Day 2 of The 10-Day Beautiful Failure Challenge – The Beautiful Failure Challenge

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