F. Scott Fitzgerald died on this day, December 21st in 1940. Scott and his wife Zelda personified the manic depressive world of The Roaring Twenties which saw a zenith of monetary excess concluding with The Crash of Wall Street. His beautiful prose is among the best of the twentieth century. His friend Ernest Hemingway said, “His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.”
Fitzgerald’s life ended in the tragedy he seemed to foresee. In Tales of the Jazz Age, he wrote
At any rate, let us love for a while, for a year or so, you and me. That’s a form of divine drunkenness that we can all try. There are only diamonds in the whole world, diamonds and perhaps the shabby gift of disillusion.
We all want a rich life. We also know the futility of trying to create it with things that don’t last. The stack of books on my desk tell me we aren’t the first to feel this way, from the nihilistic skepticism which figures so strongly in the novels of writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, alluding to and fully developed around the imagery of Macbeth’s despairing, dying proclamation that life itself “is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”
Advent is a celebration of the true and lasting – of light dispelling darkness. Our lives are indeed sequestered in darkness, but the intrusion of God’s light enables us to see. Consider the perspective of Emily Dickinson:
The Lilac is an ancient Shrub
But ancienter than that
The Firmamental Lilac
Opon the Hill Tonight—
The Sun subsiding on his Course
Bequeathes this final plant
To Contemplation—not to Touch—
The Flower of Occident.
Of one Corolla is the West—
The Calyx is the Earth—
The Capsule’s burnished Seeds the Stars—
The Scientist of Faith
His research has but just begun—
Above his Synthesis
The Flora unimpeachable
To Time’s Analysis—
“Eye hath not seen” may possibly
Be current with the Blind
But let not Revelation
By Theses be detained—
The poem references 1 Corinthians 2:9, one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible which says
Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
In her poem (popularly titled The Lilac Is An Ancient Scrub) she takes exception to this verse, suggesting that it “may possibly / Be current with the Blind,” but those who are capable of seeing a sunset might have experienced a glimpse of heaven.
When we brush up against God, we know it.
True enough, because Paul continues in verse 10, “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.”
We are able to imagine, to see in images, what God has prepared for us because of the work of the Spirit. “Let not Revelation / By Theses be detained,” the poem concludes, referring both to Paul’s account of revelation of the Spirit as well as the Book of Revelation, which uses vivid images to describe the heaven that is to come.
~JOHN 1: 1-5
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD, AND THE WORD WAS WITH GOD, AND THE WORD WAS GOD. THE SAME WAS IN THE BEGINNING WITH GOD. ALL THINGS WERE MADE BY HIM; AND WITHOUT HIM WAS NOT ANY THING MADE THAT WAS MADE. IN HIM WAS LIFE; AND THE LIFE WAS THE LIGHT OF MEN. AND THE LIGHT SHINETH IN DARKNESS; AND THE DARKNESS COMPREHENDED IT NOT.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, 1896–1940
In his writings as well as in the tragedies and often scandalous activities of his personal life, F. Scott Fitzgerald epitomized the spirit of the 1920s. Although the decade witnessed a sparkling array of writers, including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald became the Jazz Age’s most representative author and its somewhat uneasy spokesman.
In the four novels, 160 short stories, and one unfinished novel that he wrote, Fitzgerald sought to portray the American dream of the 1920s and its ultimate failure. He describes this in The Great Gatsby (1925), his most brilliant novel, in the words of narrator Nick Carraway: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.…”
Fitzgerald used the events and experiences of his own life as the raw material for his writing. In The Great Gatsby the opposite sides of his own complicated nature are seen in the sensitive, compassionate Carraway, a Princeton man, and in Jay Gatsby, the naive Midwesterner chasing an impossible dream.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, September 24, 1896, into an Irish Catholic family, the only son of an aristocratic but impecunious father and an eccentric, provincial mother. His father, a distant relative of Francis Scott Key, the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” passed on to his son that relative’s name as well as the code of the Southern gentleman—a belief in good manners and right instincts. But Fitzgerald also saw himself as the heir to his mother’s family—“straight 1850 potato-famine Irish.” The contrast between the two perhaps lay beneath his own mixed feelings about American life as vulgar yet nobly promising.
Somewhat frail as a boy, Fitzgerald grew up spoiled, especially by his mother. “I didn’t know till 15 that there was anyone in the world except me,” he declared later. School was all but disastrous for him academically. As a person with what he once called “a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” he entered upon his school activities determined to be a success. At St. Paul Academy (1908–10) and then Newman School (1911–13) his attempts at success made him unpopular.
Going on to Princeton he came close to realizing his dreams in the extracurricular activities that he pursued. A handsome charmer, he became the center of campus literary life, writing articles and plays which he then produced and acted in. There he made friends that he kept throughout his life, including the literary critic Edmund Wilson. Fitzgerald was also a leader in the socially prominent Triangle Club. He fell in love with Ginevra King, one of the generation’s beauties, and he treasured her letters all his life. In his story “Winter Dreams” (1922) he has been identified as the character Dexter Green and she as Judy Jones.
Academically, however, he skated on thin ice. He was put on probation and then in his junior year sent home ill with malaria. He returned to Princeton the following fall, but he had lost the positions that he coveted, and the grades he received for his class work remained unacceptable. In November 1917 he left college to enroll in the army’s officer training school. He took with him a manuscript for a novel entitled “The Romantic Egotist,” and while the rewriting of that progressed well, he earned the reputation as a very poor second lieutenant.
In July 1918, while stationed near Montgomery, Alabama, Fitzgerald met the beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. His ledger notes that he fell in love with Zelda Sayre on September 7, 1918, and she reciprocated. Fitzgerald headed for New York City determined to make a success at once so that he could marry Zelda. But the only job he could find was in an advertising agency that paid $90 a month. Zelda, tired of waiting, soon broke off the engagement. Fitzgerald, after a heavy drinking bout, returned to his mother’s house in St. Paul to rewrite his novel.
When Fitzgerald submitted his novel (for the second time) to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the editor Maxwell Perkins succeeded in getting it published as This Side of Paradise (1920). This novel, by showing the new morality of the young people of the time, made Fitzgerald famous. It also provided him an entree for his writings into magazines of high quality such as Scribner’s and well-paying ones such as The Saturday Evening Post.
One month after the novel appeared, Fitzgerald and Zelda were married. Of that event he wrote: “riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky, I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.” The couple embarked upon an extended honeymoon in New York, which he called “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” The wild partying and their subsequent lavish way of life made them what their friend the writer Ring Lardner called the prince and princess of their generation. But although they loved this role in the limelight, its demands also may have worried them. In his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), Fitzgerald wrote of a handsome young man and his beautiful wife who gradually degenerate into middle age waiting for a large inheritance only to receive it after they have nothing left to preserve.
Fitzgerald’s behavior showed wide variations. At times, especially during his frequent bouts of alcohol abuse, he was wild and outrageous and showed no consideration for either himself or others. At other times he was sensitive, generous, and penitent. A contemporary once observed: “I think Scott abused the kindness and friendship of nearly everyone, but at that time, one could not help liking him very much.”
From the outset of his career Fitzgerald made it a practice to record feelings and events in a monthly ledger. At times these records are found almost verbatim in his stories and novels. When Zelda was in labor in 1921 with their daughter, Frances (called “Scottie”), he noted in his ledger that Zelda said: “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” In Gatsby Daisy Buchanan uses almost the same words about her daughter in remarking that the best thing a girl can be is “a beautiful little fool.”
Perhaps fearful of their American success, the Fitzgeralds moved to the French Riviera in 1924. There he completed Gatsby and wrote some of his best short stories, which appeared in All the Sad Young Men (1926). In France they became part of a group of American expatriates whose life together was set largely by the wealthy social leaders Gerald and Sara Murphy. In his last completed novel, Tender Is the Night (1934), he described the Murphys’ mode of life and the anguish of mental illness; its hero is modeled on Gerald Murphy.
In France Fitzgerald’s drinking worsened, and Zelda’s high-strung nature disintegrated. In 1930 she had a mental breakdown, and in 1932 another, from which she never completely recovered. Henceforth Zelda spent many years in and out of sanatoriums. The effect upon Fitzgerald can be measured by his comment that “I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.”
In 1937, drinking somewhat less, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter. A week after arriving there he met gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (at a party to celebrate her engagement to another man) and took up living quietly with her for the rest of his life, except for periods of heavy drinking. In October 1939, with money earned from scriptwriting, he began work on The Last Tycoon, a novel about Hollywood based on the life of producer Irving Thalberg, his last attempt to describe the American dream and the kind of men who tried to realize it. The novel was only half completed when Fitzgerald died at age forty-four of a heart attack December 21, 1940. He and Zelda, who died in a 1947 hospital fire, were buried with a single headstone.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby,” in Imaginative Literature: Selections from the Twentieth Century, ed. Mortimer J. Adler and Philip W. Goetz, Second Edition., vol. 60, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; Auckland; Geneva; London; Madrid; Manila; Paris; Rome; Seoul; Sydney; Tokyo; Toronto: Robert P. Gwinn; Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 291–292.
Like many of us, Emily Dickinson loved sunsets, “the Firmamental Lilac.” I live a few blocks away from Sunset Park, a narrow strip of grass and flowers perched on a hill above Puget Sound looking out toward the Olympic Mountains in the west. When the sun sets, especially during the summer, the park is full of neighbors who silently watch as the huge glowing orb steadily slips behind the mountains or sinks into the sea (depending on the sun’s position in the horizon). While the Psalms are full of appreciation for the presence of God in huge thunderstorms, I find sunsets one of the places where I am especially attuned to the goodness of God’s creation.
This poem has a deceptive opening, initially appearing to be another one of Dickinson’s flower poems. The syntactically simple first line is straightforward and blunt. The first thing about a lilac that comes to my mind is its sweet fragrance, but the poet singles out its age; it is “an ancient Shrub.” Dickinson’s garden at the Homestead had several lilac bushes, and their ancient quality is evidenced in the fact that some of these shrubs still bloom today, as you can see (and smell) if you visit Amherst in May. The “turn” that appears in so many of Dickinson’s poems shows up already in the second line of what, for Dickinson, is a long poem: “But ancienter than that / The Firmamental Lilac.” Firmament is a grand-old, King-James-Bible, literary word for sky that permeates the Genesis 1 creation story. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and separated light from darkness. “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.… And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day” (Gen 1:1, 5–8). Sunset, the lilac of the sky, is as ancient as the second day of creation.
But the poem describes the sunset we are witnessing this evening, “The Sun subsiding on his Course” over a nearby hill, which “Bequeathes this final plant.” The day is dying, and the expiring sun leaves as a last inheritance “The Flower of Occident,” the flower of the west. Unlike the ancient shrub of the opening line, however, this plant cannot be physically grasped, or touched. It is left us for “Contemplation.” The stanza breaks here, and the meditation follows in the second stanza.
That meditation opens with an unpacking or explicating of the controlling metaphor of the first stanza: lilac = sunset. Precise botanical terms are used: the corolla is the collective term for the petals of a flower that form a ring around the reproductive organs and are surrounded by an outer ring of sepals; the calyx is the group of sepals, usually green, around the outside of a flower that protects the flower bud; and the capsule is the fruit containing seeds that are released when the flower is mature. Think about a dandelion: its gold petals, green sepals, and mature feathery seeds that are carried away by the wind. Similarly, as a lilac’s flowers fade they develop into brown seed pods. In the sunset, the pinks and lavenders of the western sky are the petals, the green earth the calyx, and the glowing evening stars that gradually emerge are the burnished (shimmering) seeds, as the dying sun gives birth to other distant suns.
This explication uses technical scientific terms, which Dickinson knew from her study of botany at Amherst Academy and employed in constructing her herbarium, and she now mockingly terms herself a “Scientist of Faith,” who conducts “research” and performs the technical activities of “Synthesis” and “Analysis.” Such an approach is limited, however. The research “has but just begun,” and the “Flora” (another scientific term) is “unimpeachable,” impossible to discredit or challenge, so good that it is beyond reproach. Neither unpacking the metaphor nor scientifically explaining flowers/sunsets capture the full glorious reality, which can only be perceived for oneself. Twenty poems about sunsets do not even begin to approach the beauty of a single living sunset.
Line 17 quotes 1 Cor 2:9, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” The poet takes exception to this verse, suggesting that it “may possibly / Be current with the Blind,” but those who are capable of seeing a sunset might have experienced a glimpse of heaven. Indeed, Paul continues in verse 10, “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.” We are able to imagine, to see in images, what God has prepared for us because of the work of the Spirit. “Let not Revelation / By Theses be detained,” the poem concludes, referring both to Paul’s account of revelation of the Spirit as well as the Book of Revelation, which uses vivid images to describe the heaven that is to come. Theses, argumentative propositions associated with analysis and synthesis, ought not to detain the magnificent revelation of God granted to us through a sunset. If we open our eyes of faith, with the help of the Spirit, we will see God.
Susan VanZanten, Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson, ed. Clayton J. Schmit and J. Frederick Davison, Art for Faith’s Sake (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 71–72