I first came across the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald through his collection Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories. The slim volume, with its bright purple cover, called to me from the cluttered end cap of a secondhand bookshop. I cracked it open, sat, and read through "The Jelly-Bean" right there on the dusty floor.
"With the awakening of his emotions, his first perception was a sense of futility, a dull ache at the utter grayness of his life." Sentences like that one, many of which I eventually committed to memory, instantly made me a believer. When I'd finished the story, I paid the $2 and breezed through the rest in the car, the Miami sun beating like hell through my dented Saturn. In the weeks that followed, I would seek out the stories, which I found in various forms and editions, and give them as gifts to friends and family. (I'm almost positive none of them cared.)
Today, 75 years after his death — from a heart attack hastened by his infamous alcoholism — Fitzgerald's literary star continues to burn bright as ever. From big budget film adaptations like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Gatsby to countless biographies dissecting every aspect of his love and life, he's become a pop culture icon. Of course, it's impossible to know who's more of a household name: Fitzgerald, a socialite and egotist who blew through money like water, or man's man Ernest Hemingway, his friend, and even now his biggest competition. And while in my household we've always favored Hemingway, he didn't capture the post World War I mindset with the detailed insight of Fitzgerald.
What has always attracted me most about Fitzgerald's writing is the care with which he conveys the decadence and overall excess of this specific time in American history. The Jazz Age was a time of cultural rebirth, of creative expression and sexual experimentation. And it was the perfect backdrop for Fitzgerald's layered characters: men who had ordinary names like Dick and Nick and women with jazzy ones like Bernice and Rosalind, all of them anything but ordinary. Some were complicated head cases who grappled with greed, desire and the meaning of morality. Many of them are aloof and entirely self-absorbed. And for as much as I've never related to their ridiculous lifestyles, I can find something to appreciate in their confusion and lack of direction.
To this day, I credit Fitzgerald with convincing me that it's possible to sympathize with insufferable characters. Readers may root against Gatsby's Daisy, or Anthony and Gloria in The Beautiful and the Damned (arguably Fitzgerald's weakest novel), and gloat about their inevitable downfall. But when did likeability become a prerequisite for enjoying or buying into a story? And what about the author himself? An extravagant drunk, could he have been a trusted friend in his later years, or even good company? And if not, has it ever stopped us from engaging with his work? Not at all.
For all of Fitzgerald's artistic qualities, his ability to construct such striking voices, it's his insecurity as a person that gets me the most. "If fame is a mask that eats into the face," Andrew O'Hagan wrote in Esquire, "then Fitzgerald was quite repulsive to himself as the Jazz Age reached its height. He'd drunk too much champagne and told too many lies, ruining both his constitution and his innocence."
Fitzgerald, above all, made me realize that no matter the personal shortcomings, the artist who serves the work at all costs is the artist who gets to live forever. I'm not sure a man of his ambition could have hoped for anything more.
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove