“Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” by David S. Brown

David S. Brown

Reviewed by James Baresel

The location in which he placed the first meeting of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Fay is unlikely to be among the best remembers features of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel.  Louisville can seem a random setting for their introduction to each other, chosen for its proximity to the Midwest which was home to the book’s author, its narrator and its eponymous character.  Perhaps no more was in Fitzgerald’s mind.  But if his choice of Louisville may have been random his choice of a Southern city was hardly accidental.  That Fitzgerald’s writing can be only partially understood at best and misunderstood at worst unless the reader has an appreciation for his largely Southern sensibilities is the thesis argued in David S. Brown’s Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald’s life story is one of close ties to the American South.  Both his father, Edward Fitzgerald, and his wife, Zelda Sayre, came from aristocratic southern families, of Maryland and of Georgia respectively.  Edward Fitzgerald spent his formative years living near his state’s border with Virginia, in what was then one of its most culturally and politically southern regions.  Most of its inhabitants sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War which took place from the time Edward Fitzgerald was eight until he was twelve.  As a child he aided in the transportation and concealment of Confederate spies.  The author’s paternal grandmother was from a family about as prominent as any in the country.  Its surname provided a middle name both to Fitzgerald and to Francis Scott Key, a distant relative of a century earlier.  Mary Surratt, executed because of her participation in the conspiracy of John Wilkes Booth, was a relative by marriage.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s university was the preferred school of Southerners pursuing an Ivy League education.

It was Edward Fitzgerald’s Southern mindset which was to prove a decisive influence on his famous son.  Brown demonstrates that, despite his self-identification as a socialist, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critique of Jazz Age materialism was primarily rooted in a romantic attachment to pre-capitalist societies inculcated by his father instead of in more modern ideologies.  His own sympathies were with the Old South as well as with the Gaelic societies of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.  Similarities to the Southern Agrarians suggest themselves, though they are undeveloped by Brown and though Fitzgerald’s combination of the conservative with the avant garde probably had more in common with D.H. Lawrence or E.M. Forster than with the Southern Agrarians’ stricter traditionalism.  One can also see parallels between Fitzgerald and a form of socialism represented by England’s John Ruskin.  In common with Antebellum Southerners, Ruskin was influenced by the romanticism of Sir Walter Scott.  His own vision for the future was one of secularized medievalism.

Also passed on to him by his father was Fitzgerald’s preference for genteel poverty and his paternal Southern pedigree over his maternal grandfather’s capitalist achievement as a self-made businessman.  He was not the only son of an expatriated Southerner to embrace such values.  General George S. Patton, Jr. of World War II fame was proud of his father’s status as heir to a Virginia aristocrat whose family had been driven into poverty and to California because of the Civil War.  And he was embarrassed by the maternal grandfather whose life was another rags-to-riches story.  Fitzgerald’s resentment of the 1920s plutocracy was in large part based in his belief that he was a superior—at least in terms of cultural appreciation and ancestry—who was treated as an inferior.  His financial troubles were influenced by his father’s aristocratic disdain for the making of money.

Part of me suspects that Professor Brown overplays an undoubtedly good hand.  His emphasis on the Southern and the traditional at times appears to be the reverse of the more common one-sided emphasis which focuses on whatever in a writer is new, unique, original or innovative.  Even if Paradise Lost overcompensates in its response to the more common tendency it is an enjoyable read which has much to contribute to a fuller appreciation of one our country’s greatest writers while demonstrating that the importance of the South as an influence on American literature is much broader than that which it has more obviously exercised on such strictly Southern writers as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

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