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F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Crack-Up

The stock market crash brought the music of the Jazz Age to a screeching halt. People lost their savings in the massive stock market collapse of October 1929. Frightened consumers stopped spending whatever money they had left, sparking a worldwide downturn. Banks failed. (Is any of this starting to sound familiar?) Unemployment reached 30 percent. To make matters worse, a drought in 1930 ravaged farmers. It was a hard time in America.

Fitzgerald didn't lose money in the market; he never owned stock. But the dawn of the 1930s spelled the end of an era for him and Zelda. "We will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings anymore," he wrote in Echoes of the Jazz Age.12By 1930, at the age of 34, Fitzgerald had already passed the peak of his fame, health and marriage. Zelda's mental illness took a toll on the family. She spent the first part of the decade shuttling between different hospitals in Europe and the U.S., racking up huge medical bills. By the mid-1930s F. Scott Fitzgerald himself suffered a mental crisis, which he detailed in a three-part essay for Esquire magazine in 1936. "There is another sort of blow that comes from within," he wrote in "The Crack-Up," one that "that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again."13The essay, striking for its vulnerability and insight, was trashed by critics and readers as self-indulgent and whiny.

The market for print media was changing. People were turning away from literature and toward new forms of entertainment like radio and cinema. Tastes were shaped partly by escapism and partly by the economic reality of the Depression—books cost a few dollars each, but the movies cost only a few cents and provided hours of entertainment. Those who did read searched for different subjects. The public's taste for literature celebrating the excesses of the previous decade fizzled in favor of books with a social message. Out were Gatsby's shiny bespoke shirts. In was John Steinbeck's Joad family trudging grimly across the dusty West. People were worried about the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe. It was politically correct among writers and intellectuals to be liberal, if not Marxist. Fitzgerald was never politically active and was not willing to reveal political leanings of any kind in his work. He never catered to the desire for social redemption. He and his characters became reflective, musing on the talent squandered and the opportunities lost in an age of decadence.

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