Alcohol / Art / Death / literature / Money / Portfolio / Quotes / Religion

F. Scott Fitzgerald – A Brief Examination of Alcoholism in a Literary Icon


“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

            The 20th century was a shining moment for American literature.  Great literary figures had grown up in the States in the previous one hundred twenty-five years of the nation’s history, but it wasn’t until the 1900s that American authors truly began to challenge European authors (especially the British) on the international literary stage.  One of the most prominent novelists of his age, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what some consider the definitive American novel, yet gnawing at the edge of his talent was an addiction that would eventually overshadow his greatest achievements.

           Francis Scott Fitzgerald had an uneventful birth, but his childhood was still troubled, mostly because he “grew up embarrassed by his mother and alternatively proud and ashamed of his father.”[1]  This shame derived from the fact that his parents were not among the upper echelon of society.  From an early age, Fitzgerald believed that he must find a way of inserting himself among the moneyed and influential classes, a preoccupation that filled much of his writing, though not without its fair share of critical consideration.  While his first and largely autobiographical novel, This Side of Paradise, depicts a young college “egotist” attempting to fit in among the Ivy League, his third and most highly regarded novel, The Great Gatsby, paints a rather grim picture of the rich and their utter disregard for decency and human collateral.  That is not to say that Fitzgerald rejected wealth and its excesses, only that it never quite lived up to his childhood aspirations.

           Fitzgerald flat out rejected his Irish ethnic heritage, almost certainly because it set him apart from those in high society.  In his attempt to recreate himself in the image of his ‘superiors,’ though, Fitzgerald never fully disassociated from his Irish roots, becoming “a mixture of aspiring, self-loathing WASP and, as he once put it, ‘straight 1850 potato-famine Irish.’”[2]  As concerns his religious upbringing, Fitzgerald likewise moved away from it, writing in a letter to his friend and, later, critic, Edmund Wilson, “I am ashamed to say that my Catholicism is scarcely more than a memory.”  He then waffles and claims it is “more than that” but then derisively asserts that he never goes to “church nor mumble[s] stray nothings over chrystaline [sic] beads.”[3]  There can be no question that Fitzgerald had little room in his life for the structured religion of his forbearers.  Of course, as most of the people he wished to call his peers would have been Protestant, it’s no surprise that he felt a need to distance himself from his Catholic heritage.

           He attended Princeton for a time, but he was never an ideal student and didn’t graduate.  While Fitzgerald certainly had his scholastic failings, he was a very popular and active member of his class and made a few lasting literary connections, but ultimately he dropped out to fight in the war (though, to his regret, he never made it overseas).[4]

           Fitzgerald is among a long line of Irish-American literary figures, and with that heritage comes an appreciation for alcohol.  It has been noted that the greatest undoing of the Irish was “not in how much the Irish consumed, but how they consumed it.”[5]  Alcohol plays arguably as large a role, for instance, in Italian culture as it does among the Irish.  However, the difference between the two cultures is “in the style and purpose of their drinking.”[6]  For the most part, drinking in the Italian culture involves wine drank with a meal, whereas for the Irish, the alcohol of choice is usually hard liquor, such as whiskey and it is done as a “recreation,” with emphasis placed on imbibing for purposes of “socializing, celebrating and mourning.”[7]

            For Fitzgerald, this cultural attitude towards drinking was obviously at play.  He began drinking at a young age and it would become such a prevalent force in his life that alcohol and alcoholics appear as central characters throughout his writing.  Whether it was the revelers at Gatsby’s parties or the disastrously young and married couple in The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald filled his writing to the brim with liquor.   He peopled a great deal of his short stories and pretty much all of his novels with alcoholics, though he rarely seems interested in self-indictment.  His characters, even when they display some of the most reprehensible characteristics of alcoholism, are by and large sympathetic people, often quite charming (as Fitzgerald, himself, was).[8]  That is not to say that he didn’t craft true-to-life characters.  One of his great gifts as a writer was his keen sense for humanity, but at times it seems he had a blind spot for his own greatest weakness.

            A heavy dose of denial and rationalization explains how he could live so long pursuing a deadly habit without stepping back and realizing the dangers.  Part of that was undoubtedly cultural. 

            He never truly gave up alcohol, though there were periods in which he claimed to have cut back or even gone long periods without any drink.  In the Roaring Twenties, when he and his beautiful wife, Zelda, were the talk of the town, they lived up their celebrity both in the States and abroad as ravenous partiers.  Despite their public personas, though, the Fitzgeralds were lousy drunks.   When inebriated, Scott was prone to “theatrical” displays, almost invariably making a fool of himself in front of his companions.  “In Zelda Sayre, he found a companion who liked drinking – and exhibitionism – as much as he did.”[9]  Almost every friend they had as a couple could attest to an embarrassing story involving the couple’s drunkenness.  Ernest Hemingway, friend and competitor, fellow literary giant and alcoholic, looked down on Fitzgerald’s seeming inability to handle his alcohol ‘like a man’ and painted a very unflattering portrait of him in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s account of the expatriate American writers living in France during the 1920s.  In general, Fitzgerald does not come off well in Hemingway’s memoir.

            This is not to say that Fitzgerald was unaware of his drunken escapades.  His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, reads like a fictional version of the early years of his marriage to Zelda (just as his final complete novel, Tender Is The Night, offers insight into the later years of their troubled marriage), with a husband and wife who drink too much and make spectacles of themselves both in play and while fighting.  As is usual with Fitzgerald’s characters, though, the reader’s sympathies are with the couple, or at least with the husband, Anthony.[10]

            What is most astonishing is that, unlike other authors of his time and disposition, Fitzgerald remained married to one wife.  This fact has probably been largely responsible for the general myth that Scott and Zelda were literary romantic heroes, doomed to tragedy but passionately in love with each other.  In reality, their marriage was often contentious, even before Zelda’s mental breakdowns, though those made the situation all that much worse.  Up until her first collapse in 1930, they managed to find ways to rekindle their love and continue together, despite Scott’s fear of infidelity and Zelda’s feelings of abandonment, and even her accusations that he was a homosexual.[11]  Whatever had kept them together throughout the 1920s, their marriage began quickly unraveling in the 30s, much in the same way his literary reputation seemed to crash concurrently with the stock market.

          Of all their ups and downs, the one thing that can be said for their marriage is that Fitzgerald apparently never turned violent towards Zelda, which would have been entirely out of character for him.  He was a less physical person in comparison to, say, Hemingway who Zelda disliked on the grounds that he was a “poseur” who artificially inflated his masculinity (plus, she suspected her husband of being sexually attracted to him).  Hemingway, for his part, thought that Zelda was a bad influence on his friend’s writing productivity.[12]  In fact, Zelda and Scott did fight often, and when she had her breakdown and was admitted to a sanatorium, the letters between Scott and her doctor reveals just how bad the cracks in their marriage had become.  It also exposes an alcoholic who was unwilling, perhaps unable, to quit drinking and his justifications for it:

Two years ago in America I noticed that when we stopped all drinking for three weeks or so, which happened many times, I immediately had dark circles under my eyes, was listless and disinclined to work.[13]

Here is the author arguing that the alcohol helped him write, not the only time he would claim this.  At the same time, he is suggesting that he frequently went long periods without drink, throwing in the “which happened many times” to imply that it was no great task to be sober.  He made such claims to friends and editors, too, quite often, even going so far as to say that he planned to “quit drinking for a few years.”[14]  Of course, it was never true.  Ironically, his justification for drinking were the negative effects he felt when he wasn’t drinking, almost certainly symptoms of withdrawal.  But he couldn’t see it that way.

            Zelda had apparently threatened to not take him back if he kept drinking, but Fitzgerald refused to be bullied into sobriety, as he saw it.  In fact, he puts much of the impetus for his drinking on her, writing, “the regular use of wine and apperatives [sic] was something that I dreaded but she encouraged because she found I was more cheerful then and allowed her to drink more.”[15] Here, again, is an alcoholic who apparently has been browbeaten into the overindulgence of drink against his will.  The alcoholic as victim is a common theme.  Displaying a fine gift for contradiction, he later admits in the same letter that his abuse of liquor is a crime he must pay for with “suffering and death perhaps but not with renunciation.”  A glass of wine at the end of the day is, after all, “one of the rights of man.”[16]  In this one letter, Fitzgerald seems to check off every excuse and justification in the alcoholic’s handbook before finally concluding that he will not give up drinking simply because Zelda has asked him to.

            Fitzgerald’s final ten years would continue in pretty much steady decline.  His fourth novel, Tender Is The Night, was not well-received upon publication in 1934 (though it has since, like Fitzgerald himself, received critical revival), and he spent much of the decade supporting himself with short stories and attempting to find success as a Hollywood screenwriter, success that would not come.  The period would provide fodder for what would be his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.

            While a more self-aware author would have explored his history with alcohol  more directly (as Eugene O’Neill, a contemporary of Fitzgerald, did through his plays), he relegated the topic to secondary plot points.[17] However, from Fitzgerald we have a refreshingly candid but at times still self-deluding confession in his 1936 series of Esquire essays titled, “The Crack-Up.”  As a means of summing up his life, it serves as a better analysis of his motivations and failings than those offered by his peers like Hemingway.  In the second essay, he explains that he spent a great portion of his life “distrusting the rich, yet working for money with which to share their mobility and the grace that some of them brought into their lives.”[18]  For a man who famously wrote about and lived among his generation’s upper class, this is a remarkable admission of feelings of disconnection.  Yet, in the first essay he claims to not have been “entangled” in alcoholism, having periods as long as six months in which he didn’t touch even a drop of beer.[19]  While he did practice temperance during the writing of The Great Gatsby, this seems to be a pretty clear example of the author trying to offer up a sympathetic self-portrait for posterity.  In confession he could not admit to his audience (and, it seems, to himself) that he was an alcoholic, even at the end. 

            In 1940, at the age of 44, Fitzgerald died of an alcohol-induced heart attack, leaving behind a legacy of wasted talent.

           Posthumously, Fitzgerald has been recognized as one of the great writers of his (or any) generation in all of American literature.  His failing was that of so many of his peers, which in a way makes his tragedy seem inevitable, though it was not.  His literary strengths were overshadowed by his personal weaknesses; most damning, an unwillingness to admit them to himself.   For this reason, literature’s great gain was his greater loss, a truism of so many of the world’s finest artists.

~


[1] Scott Donaldson. Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald, The Rise And Fall Of A Literary Friendship (Woodstock: Overlook Pr), 1999.  15.

[2] Edward O’Donnell. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History (New York: Random House Inc), 2002, 258.

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald. On Booze (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation), 2009. 80.

[4] Donaldson, Fitzgerald, 56.

[5] O’Donnell, 1001 Things, 66.

[6] Kevin Kenny. The American Irish, A History (New York: Longman Pub Group), 2000. 201.

[7] O’Donnell, 1001 Things, 66

[8] Donaldson, Fitzgerald, 232-235.

[9] Ibid.,223.

[10] Ibid., 232.

[11] Ibid., 156-158.

[12] Ibid., 156-157.

[13] F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Life In Letters. Ed. by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli and Judith Baughman  (New York: Scribner), 1994. 196.

[14] Donaldson, Fitzgerald, 235.

[15] Fitzgerald, Life In Letters, 196-197.

[16] Ibid., 197.

[17] Thomas Dardis. The Thirsty Muse (New York: Houghton Mifflin), 1989, 250.

[18] Fitzgerald, Booze, 22.

[19] Ibid., 13.

About these ads

4 thoughts on “F. Scott Fitzgerald – A Brief Examination of Alcoholism in a Literary Icon

  1. Thanks for that, it was interesting and engaging. I didn’t know much about Fitzgerald though did enjoy The Great Gatsby. Will have to give the short stories a read! Keep up the good work!

    • Fitzgerald was a fascinating person, obviously flawed but insanely talented and fairly prescient about the way the rich could lose touch with reality. Definitely read his short stories, and give his other novels a try (none of them have the punch of Gatsby, but they have their charms).

      Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s