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Will the Real Great Gatsby Please Stand Up?

By Sarah Laskow
Smithsonian Magazine

donaldson_fool coverYears after he wrote The Great Gatsby, in the back leaf of another book, F. Scott Fitzgerald scribbled a list of his most famous novel’s nine chapters. Next to each one, he wrote down his sources. There were the old-money, polo-playing Rumsies and Hitchcocks and the impressive parties thrown by movie director Allan Dwan and by Herbert Bayard Swope, the editor of the New York World. There were his own memories, of the ash heaps, of days spent in New York City, and, in particular, of one wedding—the wedding of Ginevra King, his first love. Out of the whole book, he marked only three chapters as “an invention,” “inv,” or “all an invention.”

Fitzgerald did not mean for The Great Gatsby to draw heavily from his own life. His first book, This Side of Paradise, had lifted from his days as a Princeton student, and his second, The Beautiful and the Damned, from his relationship with his wife, Zelda. As he was beginning to start work on the novel that would become The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald had written to his editor, Max Perkins, complaining that, at 27, he had dumped more of his personal experiences into his fiction than anyone else he knew of. This next novel, his new novel, would be different. “In my new novel I'm thrown directly on purely creative work,“ he wrote, “not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world.”

But as he wrote, he ended up drawing on the rowdy elegance of the Roaring Twenties milieu in which he lived to create that radiant world.

"He's borrowing from various kinds of sources to get his story across,“ says Scott Donaldson, the author of the Fitzgerald biography Fool for Love. "But he's really writing about himself in the book. And that's why it's so intimate and why it still resonates, I think."

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