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F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Jazz Age

The 1920s have many names in America: the Roaring Twenties, the Boom, the Jazz Age (the name Fitzgerald himself invented). It was a period of wild economic prosperity, cultural flowering and a shaking up of social mores. It was also the defining era of Fitzgerald's life as a writer. He reached the peak of his fame with the 1925 publication of The Great Gatsby, a book that perfectly captured the era's moods and styles. The fun lasted for ten years and then, as Fitzgerald so eloquently put it, "leaped to a spectacular death in October 1929."5Two years after the crash Fitzgerald eulogized the period in an essay entitled "Echoes of the Jazz Age," writing that "the present writer already looks back to it with nostalgia. It bore him up, flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did, that something had to be done with all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War."6

The 1920s dawned on an America ready for peace and prosperity. The evil of war had been defeated, and the next great threat in Europe was not yet visible on the horizon. A booming stock market contributed to a huge growth in consumer spending, as investors saw their wealth (on paper) soar. This infusion of new money brought with it a new morality for the young social set, one less concerned with the traditional values of past generations and more interested in individualism and modernism. Policy changes in the U.S. unwittingly encouraged this new culture. Prohibition drove America's drinking population into speakeasies, underground clubs where people could enjoy their booze and the newly popular jazz music. Sexual mores loosened. Youth-centric culture flourished. Women bobbed their hair (see Fitzgerald's story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair") and traded floor-length skirts for the flapper dresses that live on today as Halloween costumes. The Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote, and (probably more important to Fitzgerald's fiction) the speakeasies were the first place in America where it became acceptable for a woman who wasn't a prostitute to drink and smoke in public.7Psychoanalysis became fashionable among the wealthy, who happily shed their inhibitions with Sigmund Freud's approval. The critic H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

"It was an age of miracles," Fitzgerald wrote of the Jazz Age. "[I]t was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire."8The Twenties gave Fitzgerald the settings for his greatest works. All of his novels are set in locations where Fitzgerald himself lived for a substantial period of time. From 1920 to 1921, he and Zelda lived in New York City, which became the setting for the 1922 novel The Beautiful and Damned. Following that book's publication, the couple and their baby daughter Frances Scott "Scottie" Fitzgerald rented a house in Great Neck, Long Island; the town had no idea that it would soon host one of the most famous fictional parties in literary history. The excesses of the time would later be criticized, but Fitzgerald defended them: "It is the custom now to look back ourselves of the boom days with a disapproval that approaches horror. But it had its virtues, that old boom: Life was a great deal larger and gayer for most people, and the stampede to the spartan virtues in time of war and famine shouldn't make us too dizzy to remember its hilarious glory. There were so many good things. These eyes have been hallowed by watching a man order champagne for his two thousand guests, by listening while a woman ordered a whole staircase from the greatest sculptor in the world, by seeing a man tear up a good check for eight hundred thousand dollars."9

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