Long before #squadgoalz and Fear of Missing Out (FoMO), Francis Scott Fitzgerald lived large, loved hard and died young; he even “saved jazz,” a master of cultural appropriation before his time. Scott and his gorgeous wife Zelda were a power couple of Kim-and-Kanye proportions, frolicking in the fountain of the Plaza Hotel, dashing off to the South of France to mingle with millionaires, teasing tabloid readers with hints of flirty affairs and always offering a heads-up that artistic endeavors of great magnitude would drop shortly—until addiction and mental illness did them in.
That was nearly a hundred years ago. Since his death in 1940 at age 44, F. Scott Fitzgerald has become perhaps the most famous American author, one of the 20th century’s most important American writers and the man behind what is often referred to as the greatest American novel, “The Great Gatsby.”
A glitzy tale of love and longing set in the Roaring Twenties, “Gatsby” is the high-water mark for Fitzgerald, who came from Minneapolis to go to Princeton University, married an Alabama spitfire and staggered between success and bankruptcy while writing novels and stories so good they continue to inspire fans around the world.
“What we’re celebrating is the written word and the best-of-the-best,” said Roberta Shahda Mandrekas, the new president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival, a three-day event that takes place in several locations close to Fitzgerald’s final resting place at St. Mary’s Church in Rockville. Founded in 1996 to commemorate Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, the conference has featured a variety of themes through the years and honored some of the nation’s very best authors with its Fitzgerald Award, which this year goes to Annie Proulx.
“We have people who have been coming every year—a handful of faithful attendees,” said Mandrekas. “I’m really astonished by the caliber of talented writers that we do attract; it is unique to this area. Year after year, we’ve had an incredible group of writers, amazing honorees chosen because they represent the best of American writers, and workshop leaders who are distinguished writers.”
The festival offers Fitzgerald fans a chance to get together with like-minded literature lovers, to explore new authors and old favorites— “the best of American literature,” according to Mandrekas—and to take part in everything from a literary luncheon to a writer’s workshop to a tour of Fitzgerald’s local haunts. For Mandrekas, it’s a reader’s paradise.
“I’ve been an enthusiast of all things Fitzgerald since my ninth-grade English teacher got me interested,” she said, noting that she was once asked if she ever read anyone else. “I’ve been involved as a volunteer at different conventions through my research on Scott and on the art of Zelda Fitzgerald…They’re adored because they’re real. They reach us—they reach me!”
Mandrekas loves the work itself, but also loves the work ethic, the struggle for perfection, the idea that Fitzgerald “never stopped trying. He was writing ‘The Last Tycoon,’ working on the day he died.
“Of course, he’s remembered for coining the phrase ‘The Jazz Age,’ of course he’s remembered for the ‘party’ (that was his life) and for the alcoholism—and Zelda for her mental illness—but they worked all the time,” she insisted. “They were working and creating, and they left something of themselves that endures.”
As humans, she pointed out, “we need to know that we’re not alone. “We identify with so much that made Scott Fitzgerald human; we identify with his struggle. You cannot forget how hard he worked for so long.”
All the past honorees, from William Styron in 1996 through Proulx, Mandrekas noted, and “anyone who cares for the written word, for literature, respects what Fitzgerald tried to do.”
“When he set out to write ‘The Great Gatsby,’ he set out to write ‘something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned,’” she added, quoting from Fitzgerald’s 1922 letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins. “And he did just that.”
Indeed, “The Great Gatsby” is known as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, even though it was never acknowledged as such during his lifetime. Its popularity soared during World War II, when it was sent to soldiers in paperback form (an Armed Services Edition, or ASE) by the Council on Books during wartime to boost morale.
It worked: “Gatsby” caught on with young Americans in 1944—four years after its author’s death—and has continued to be a favorite. Jason King Jones, artistic director of Olney Theatre’s National Players, has some ideas on why Fitzgerald’s work has only grown in popularity over time.
“His themes continue to be relevant,” Jones pointed out. “We continue to ask the same kinds of questions that a piece like ‘The Great Gatsby’ is investigating: Why does privilege have so much influence in our daily lives? Why is part of our identity as Americans the desire to socially climb? Does the idea of an American Dream exist for everyone, or is it only available to a chosen few?”
The National Players staged a production of “The Great Gatsby” in Olney this autumn, and they’ll be taking the play (in repertory with “Othello” and “Alice in Wonderland”) on the road this year and next as part of the National Players’ Tour 69.
In Gatsby, Jones said, “We have veterans of a war no one in the community around them wants to talk about; on a personal level. I too am a mid-westerner who came East to figure out my way in life and when I first moved to New York, it felt like a foreign country. I didn’t have the tools to navigate.
“For us to tell the story here in our local community and take it around the country, we want to spark conversations about privilege, about the American Dream, about what it means to be successful, in the ideal form and in the reality of our day-to-day lives.”
It’s not just “Gatsby.” Sam Brumbaugh, senior director of programming for the Music Center at Strathmore, said that his outlook on Fitzgerald has shifted dramatically since he read “This Side of Paradise” in college decades ago.
“It’s a gauzily romantic viewpoint,” he remembered, “but it can also be very realistic and bleak. I don’t know how well it’s weathered, but there certainly a lot of beautiful writing in it—beautiful sentences that build into uniquely powerful passages.”
What has weathered well, Brumbaugh observed, is Fitzgerald’s most prescient work, a posthumous publication of essays detailing his own journey through what we now might categorize as psychological turmoil and addiction.
“‘The Crack-Up’ is one of the first confessional books,” he pointed out. “It was sort of a groundbreaking book, written in a strange, almost chapbook style—and a lot of it was posthumously edited with different cutouts from his diaries, but really the design of it was Fitzgerald’s.
“It was a confessional: a confession of addiction and failure, which has become a hugely popular mode of literature.”
Strathmore will host one of the first events of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, a literary luncheon feting not Fitzgerald but Silver Spring environmentalist and author Rachel Carson. As they gather in the Mansion to hear author Robert Musil, president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council speak about “Rachel Carson’s Legacy for Today,” conference attendees might note that they’re in a spot that was home to D.C. bakery magnate Charles Corby when Fitzgerald’s fame was at its zenith.
Indeed, from his office on the Strathmore campus, Brumbaugh offered yet another reason why Fitzgerald is remembered here on Rockville Pike: “His grave is just down the road; his father was from here,” he said, then added, “Fitzgerald wrote about wealthy powerful people with deep flaws—flawed to the point of self-destruction, with self-delusion and compulsive deceit. And look where we are, we’re in D.C.
“Do I need to say anything else?”
Well, no, but Bethany Rae Perryman does. She heads Development & Community Outreach at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, which will host an event in honor of author Annie Proulx on Friday evening, with writers Francisco Goldman, Patricia Griffith and David Goodrich reading selections from their work as a tribute to the Fitzgerald Award honoree.
Perryman sees Fitzgerald and his legacy from a writer’s perspective. “Not only is the quality of his work aspirational,” she pointed out, “but, for a writer, Fitzgerald represents the consistent need to strive for bigger and better things, and to create meaning from the process itself.”
The authors will speak to the conference’s theme, “Literature and the Environment,” and Perryman hopes they’ll be able to pass on their own search for meaning to the community of writers assembled at the free event.
“Artists, and people everywhere, need to know that it’s important to create meaning through higher-order thinking and creativity,” she said. “And if Fitzgerald, a literary festival, or a town that never gives up on celebrating the man and his work do that for someone, then that’s what matters.”
The 21st Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival takes place Thursday, Friday and Saturday with events at Strathmore in North Bethesda, The Writer’s Center in Bethesda and Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. For more information, visit http://fscottfestival.org. For information on The National Players, visit https://www.nationalplayers.org.