If you’ve taken a high school English class, chances are you’ve probably heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald—and you may have even read one of his novels or short stories. Fitzgerald, who rose to prominence at the height of the 1920s Jazz Age, was born on this day, September 24, in 1896 (he would’ve been 122 years old today!). So who was Fitzgerald, exactly?
Born in St. Paul, MN, Fitzgerald attended Princeton University, where his writing was published by several campus publications—however, his grades suffered, and he soon dropped out to join the army. He was stationed in Alabama, where he met Zelda Sayre, the other half of what was perhaps the most tumultuous couple of the early 20th century. After the war ended, he returned to writing, but also struggled with alcoholism. He died of a heart attack at only 44 years old.
During his lifetime, Fitzgerald’s work only achieved modest success; it was after his death that people began to regard his work, especially The Great Gatsby, as quintessential American novels. His works were a look into the “Roaring Twenties” and a voice for the Lost Generation—he criticized the excess and drama of the 1920s, which had had a big impact on his marriage and life. He is widely considered one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century.
To celebrate Fitzgerald’s birthday, here are the books you should be reading.
1. This Side of Paradise (1920)
This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald’s first published novel, and a rewriting of his earlier work The Romantic Egotist, which had failed to reach publication. The influences of Fitzgerald’s own life on this novel are clear: its protagonist, Amory Blaine, is a Princeton student from the Midwest and a talented writer. He even falls in love with a character many say is based on Zelda. The success of This Side of Paradise persuaded Zelda to marry Fitzgerald, and also began his life as a “celebrity.”
2. The Beautiful and Damned (1922)
Fitzgerald’s second novel also drew considerable inspiration from his own life and marriage to Zelda—in fact, this one is notable because Zelda famously wrote that Fitzgerald had copied writing from her diary and that he believed “plagiarism begins at home.” While the originality of Fitzgerald’s work is still debated, The Beautiful and Damned follows the relationship between a socialite and his wife, which includes commentary on the Lost Generation’s focus on the past. The protagonist, Anthony Patch, also mirrors Fitzgerald, serving in the army and later dealing with alcoholism and a partying lifestyle.
3. The Great Gatsby (1925)
How could we leave out The Great Gatsby? Though it did not receive much attention until after Fitzgerald’s death, this novel is commonly regarded as his best work—and maybe even the best work of American literature, period. Narrated by a young man named Nick Carraway, the novel focuses on Nick’s neighbor Jay Gatsby, who embodies the American dream, yet is still miserable. Take a closer look at this novel and you’ll realize the irony of all those Gatsby-themed parties—Fitzgerald heavily criticizes the hedonism of his characters and their obsession with wealth and pleasure.
4. Tender is the Night (1934)
As Fitzgerald’s last completed novel, which was written while Fitzgerald was struggling financially and dealing with his alcoholism, Tender is the Night deals with darker themes, but is also regarded as one of his best works. The ethics are murky with this one; the novel centers on the marriage between Dick and Nicole, a psychiatrist and his patient. The book includes heavy subjects like affair, murder and alcoholism (sensing a theme yet?), and Dick is a bleak reflection of Fitzgerald’s own unhappiness.
Fitzgerald’s novels are all rather pessimistic, but they do say a lot about American culture, greed and selfishness during the 1920s. His contribution to American literature cannot be understated. Happy birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald!