“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)