Men in slender-cut tuxedos, satin-draped women giggling tipsily at parties, the green light burning tantalizingly from Daisy Buchanan's dock at East Egg. These images from the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's fiction have become so closely associated with the writer and his time that it's hard sometimes to separate where fiction ended and real life began. For Fitzgerald, who earned his place in the American literary canon as the master chronicler of his era, separating the man from his era is a dicey business. Fitzgerald's life (and the lives of his characters) echoed the national mood—boldly romantic before 1920, excessive and exuberant in the 1920s, sober and reflective in the 1930s. All writers rely on personal experience and insight to shape their work, but Fitzgerald was able to reflect the nuances and details of his surroundings onto the page with a skill few others have matched. He was also almost shameless about borrowing scenes, settings and characters from real life. When critics questioned his preoccupation with the themes of love and aspiration, Fitzgerald responded, "But, my God! It was my material, and it was all I had to deal with."1
The defining period of Fitzgerald's life and work was the 1920s, the decade-long flowering of culture and literature that Fitzgerald himself named "the Jazz Age." As scholars have pointed out, the Jazz Age as captured in Fitzgerald's fiction is more reflective and self-aware than the cartoonish image of flappers and fur coats we often associate with the period today.2Fitzgerald saw the waste as well as the wealth, the pain that rattled below the surface of the parties. It pained him in later life that he was so closely identified with the frippery he found in many ways abhorrent. But the fact remains that the Jazz Age was such a sustaining, inspiring time for Fitzgerald that when it crashed out of existence, Fitzgerald himself struggled simply to exist. He lasted for only another ten years before collapsing at his lover's apartment of a heart attack at the age of 44. He died believing himself a failure. Generations of readers since have proved him wrong.