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F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940): What 'The Great Gatsby' Means to American Literature

Fitzgerald published "The Great Gatsby" in 1925, five years after his first novel
Fitzgerald published "The Great Gatsby" in 1925, five years after his first novel

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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: I'm Shirley Griffith.

STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember with the Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Every week, we tell about someone important in the history of the United States. Today, we complete the story of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen twenty-five, just five years after his first novel appeared, F. Scott Fitzgerald published "The Great Gatsby." It was a major event in American writing.

"The Great Gatsby" is a story about success -- American success -- and what one must do to gain it. It is a story about appearance and reality. It is a story about love, hate, loyalty, and disloyalty. This is how the story begins:

STEVE EMBER: "In my younger years, my father gave me some advice. The ability to do what is good and right is not given out equally at birth. The rich and powerful -- who should have it -- often do not. And those who were born knowing neither good nor right, sometimes know it best."

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Jay Gatsby, the main character in the book, learns this moral lesson. He dies at the end of the story. Yet his spirit survives, because of his great gift for hope. It was the kind of hope, Fitzgerald said, that he had never found in any person. Yet it was hope that used Gatsby and finally, in the end, destroyed him.

Gatsby is a self-made man. Almost everything about his life is invented -- even his name. He was born Jimmy Gatz. As a child, Jimmy Gatz sets a daily program of self-improvement. These are the things he feels he must do every day to make himself a success.

STEVE EMBER: When Jimmy Gatz invents himself as Jay Gatsby, part of his dream of success is the love of a beautiful woman. He finds the woman to love -- as Fitzgerald did -- while training in the army during World War One.

The other part of his dream is to be very rich. That, too, was part of Fitzgerald's dream. In just three years, Gatsby gains more money than he thought possible. All he needs to do now is to claim the woman he loves. In those same three years, however, she has married someone else.

The story of "The Great Gatsby" is told by a narrator, Nick Carraway. When Gatsby seeks to renew his earlier love, Carraway says: "I would not ask too much. You cannot repeat the past. " Gatsby answers: "Cannot repeat the past. Why, of course you can!"

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: For a brief time, Gatsby seems to succeed. He does not know that he can never succeed completely. The woman he loves, Daisy Buchanan, is part of the very rich world that Fitzgerald found so different. It is a group that does not share what it has with people like jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrote:

STEVE EMBER: "They were careless people. They smashed up things and creatures. Then they retreated back into their money, or their great carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together. They retreated and let other people clean up the messes they had made."

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The mess they make in "The Great Gatsby" is a tragic one. They hit a woman with a car, and kill her. Gatsby accepts the blame, so Daisy will not be charged. He, then, is killed by the dead woman's husband.

Not even Gatsby's few friends come to his funeral. Of all the hundreds of people who came to his parties, no one will come when the party is over. After Gatsby's death, Nick Carraway, the storyteller, says:

STEVE EMBER: "I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first recognized the green light at the end of Daisy's boat dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn. His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to hold it. He did not know that it was already behind him ...

"Gatsby believed in the future that, year by year, moves away from us ...

"So we beat on -- boats against the current -- carried back endlessly into the past."


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: "The Great Gatsby" was not the popular success F. Scott Fitzgerald expected. Yet other writers saw immediately how skillful he had become. His first books showed that he could write. "The Great Gatsby" proved that he had become an expert in the art of writing.

The story is told by a third person. He is a part of the story, but he rejects the story he is telling. His answers are like those heard in an ancient Greek play. The chorus in the play tells us what to think about what we see.

"The Great Gatsby" is a short novel whose writing shines like a jewel. The picture it paints of life in America at that time -- the parties, the automobiles, the endless fields of waste -- are unforgettable.

STEVE EMBER: Fitzgerald wrote at great speed to make money. Yet no matter how fast he wrote, he could not stay out of debt. By the end of the nineteen twenties, the Jazz Age had ended. Hard times were coming for the country and for the Fitzgeralds.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen thirty, Zelda Fitzgerald became mentally sick. She lived most of the rest of her life in mental hospitals. Scott Fitzgerald also became sick from drinking too much alcohol. And he had developed the disease diabetes.

In nineteen thirty-one, the Fitzgeralds returned to the United States from Europe. Zelda entered a mental hospital in the state of Maryland. Scott lived nearby in the city of Baltimore. Zelda lived until nineteen forty-eight. She died in a fire at another mental hospital.

STEVE EMBER: In nineteen thirty-four, Fitzgerald wrote another novel, "Tender is the Night." He thought it was his best. Many critics disagreed. They said Fitzgerald no longer recognized what was happening in the United States. They said he did not understand what was important to the country during the great economic depression.

"Tender is the Night" tells the story of a young American doctor and his marriage to a rich, beautiful patient. In the early part of his life, he believes in success through hard work. Slowly, however, his wife's great wealth ruins him. His energy is weakened, his work destroyed. His wife recovers her health while he becomes worse. In the end, she seems to have stolen his energy and intelligence.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen thirty-six, Fitzgerald wrote a book he called "The Crack-Up." It describes his own breakdown, and how he attempted to put himself and his life together. "It seemed a romantic business to be a successful writer," he said. "Of course ... You were never satisfied. But I, for one, would not have chosen any other work. "

At the age of thirty-nine, he realized that his life had cracked into pieces.

It became a time for him to look at himself. He realized that he had not taken care of the people and things he loved. "I had not been a very good caretaker of most of the things left in my hands," he said, "even of my own skills." Out of the wreckage of his life and health, he tried to rebuild himself.

STEVE EMBER: Fitzgerald had always written many stories. Some were very good. Others were not good. He wrote quickly for the money he always needed. After his crack-up, however, he discovered he was no longer welcome at the magazines that had paid him well. So, to earn a living, he moved to Hollywood and began writing for the motion picture industry.

He had stopped drinking. He planned to start writing novels and short stories again. It was too late. His health was ruined. He died in Hollywood in nineteen forty at the age of forty-four. There were few people who could believe that he had not died years before.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Fitzgerald was working on a novel when he died. He called it "The Last Tycoon."

Fitzgerald's friend from Princeton University, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, helped to get it published. Wilson did the same thing for a book of Fitzgerald's notes and other pieces of writing, called "The Crack-Up."

These books re-established Fitzgerald's fame as both an observer of his times and a skilled artist. That fame rests on just a few books and stories, but it seems secure.


STEVE EMBER: Today's program was written by Richard Thorman and produced by Lawan Davis. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program, in Special English, on the Voice of America.