Monday, June 24, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Earliest Writing Influences

by Stephen J. Gertz

A fascinating and insightful F. Scott Fitzgerald letter has come into the marketplace as part of a current online auction from Nate D. Sanders ending Thursday, June 27th, at 5PM, Pacific.

Addressed to Egbert S. Oliver (1902-1989), Professor of American Literature at Williamette University (and later Portland State University, as well as Fulbright lecturer in India) in Oregon, and author, the letter briefly discusses Fitzgerald's earliest influences on his writing.

It reads, in full:

1307 Park Avenue,
Baltimore, Maryland,
January 7, 1934.

Mr. Egbert S. Oliver
Williamette University,
Salem, Oregon

Dear Mr. Oliver:

The first help I ever had in writing in my life was from my father who read an utterly imitative Sherlock Holmes story of mine and pretended to like it.

But after that I received the most invaluable aid from one Mr. C.N. B. Wheeler then headmaster of the St. Paul Academy now the St. Paul Country Day School in St. Paul, Minnesota. 2. From Mr. Hume, then co-headmaster of the Newman School and now headmaster of the Canterbury School. 3. From Courtland Van Winkle in freshman year at Princeton -- now professor of literature at Yale (he gave us the book of Job to read and I don't think any of our preceptorial group ever quite recovered from it.) After that comes a lapse. Most of the professors seemed to me old and uninspired, or perhaps it was just that I was getting underway in my own field.

I think this answers your question. This is also my permission to make full use of it with or without my name. Sorry I am unable from circumstances of time and pressure to go into it further.


F. Scott Fitzgerald

In  1932,  Fitzgerald  moved to  Baltimore with  Zelda  and their  daughter, Francis Scott ("Scottie"), renting a  house on the estate of architect  Bayard Turnbull; Zelda's mental health  was declining and Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins was considered  the best place for  her to receive therapy. She was later treated at Baltimore's Sheppard Pratt Hospital.

After a fire on the Turnbull estate - which some attributed to Zelda - Fitzgerald moved the household to 1307 Park Avenue, near Baltimore's monument to Fitzgerald's ancestor, Francis Scott Key.

It was in Baltimore that Fitzgerald finished Tender Is The Night. He had been working on it for years and had high hopes for its success and literary acclaim; it had been nine years since The Great Gatsby appeared. Tender Is The Night was published on April 12, 1934, four months after this letter was written. Fitzgerald's mention of "time and pressure" precluding further detail surely refers to the crushing weight of beating the novel into final shape and the anxiety he felt about the novel's reception, all while coping with Zelda's problems and trying to raise a child.

Though the reviews were, for the most part, favorable, Tender Is The Night was "assassinated" (Bruccoli) in the marketplace.

"People who lament the failure of Tender Is The Night generally ignore the fact that Fitzgerald had not had a best-seller since This Side Of Paradise, and even it was not one of the top ten in 1920. Fitzgerald was a popular figure, but he was never really a popular novelist in his lifetime. The Great Gatsby, surely one of the great novels written in this country, was a comparative flop in 1925, selling only about 25,000 copies. Yet one never hears laments about the popular failure of this novel. Between the serialization in Scribner's Magazine and and the 13,000 copies of Tender Is The Night sold in 1934-35, it probably reached as many readers as did The Great Gatsby" (Matthew J. Bruccoli, The Composition of Tender Is The Night, p. 4).

"It is true that Fitzgerald's most ambitious novel was a failure in its own time; and it is true that its reception hurt and puzzled Fitzgerald, and doubtlessly contributed to his crack-up" (ibid).

Here we glimpse Fitzgerald on the cusp of the publication of that book, one he desperately hoped would recapture his literary reputation and secure his finances, a life-saving, do-or-die effort complicated by his wife and marriage falling apart and responsibilities of child-rearing. He takes a moment to recall from dark nights this side of hell how it began for him, when the support of his father and the encouragement of his teachers promised tender nights this side of paradise.

As of this writing the bid is $6,134.

Images courtesy of Nate D. Sanders Auctions, with our thanks.

Of Related Interest:

Original F. Scott Fitzgerald Manuscript Poems Discovered.

F. Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton.

Original F. Scott Fitzgerald Manuscript Poems Discovered.
In Paris With Scott, Zelda, Kiki, Ernest, Gertrude, Etc.

The $175,000 Dust Jacket Comes to Auction.

A Not-So-Great Gatsby.

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