The Lost Generation and the Genealogy of The Great Gatsby

The Lost Generation

Jay Gatsby may have been handsome, dashing, and the consummate host, but he wasn't much of a reader. In the party scene in The Great Gatsby, Nick stumbles into Gatsby’s library, where the pages of the impressive collection of books remain uncut. (Another guest approves thoroughly, declaring Gatsby “knew when to stop” in creating the myth of himself as an educated sophisticate.) Odds are, the man born James Gatz would have been much happier in a movie theater, especially in the summer, where he could enjoy all that delicious air conditioning.

The latest movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless novel of excess and despair in the Jazz Age opens this weekend, and the party scene is sure to be a highlight, whether Gatsby’s library makes it onscreen or not. If you want the stories behind the story about the self-made tycoon who couldn't stop yearning for that green light at the end of the dock, check out these memoirs and biographies of members of Fitzgerald’s Lost Generation.

Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill

The identities of the real-life Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom may never be known, but Fitzgerald’s inspiration for the couple at the center of another novel, Tender is the Night, is clear: Sara and Gerald Murphy, a glamorous, artistic couple who gallivanted with Picasso on the French Riviera and caroused with Hemingway in Spain. In this biography, Vaill describes the high style and deep sadness that informed the life of the Murphys, along the way taking the reader on a tour of the expat scene in Paris and beyond in the 1920s.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Stein always claimed this “autobiography,” written in the voice of her life-long partner Alice, was a commercial book she wrote for fun, as a break from her more difficult language experiments. In Alice’s view (but Stein’s words,) Stein is a genius, while Alice is more interested in fashion and cooking. Whether the whole book is a Modernist prank remains open to debate, but the reader will get a detailed view of the Stein-Toklas salon, where the women entertained the cream of 1920s Paris art society, including Cezanne, Matisee, and Picasso.

Zelda by Nancy Milford

Her husband Scott called her “the first American flapper.” Zelda Fitzgerald was a Southern belle, her husband’s muse, and, ultimately, a tragic figure who died in an insane asylum. She was also a novelist in her own right, and in this biography, Milford traces Zelda’s influence on Fitzgerald’s writing, from the images she gave him to the scenes from her diary he stole and inserted into his novels. Their marriage was marred by jealousy, competition, Scott’s drinking, and Zelda’s mental illness, but without it we wouldn’t have The Great Gatsby, just as without Zelda, Scott wouldn’t have had a career.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway lived in Paris after the First World War with his wife, Hadley, and their son, Jack. He was trying desperately to be a writer, and spent many hours in cafes shaping his craft. He also spent plenty of time with his friend and rival F. Scott Fitzgerald, his occasional patron Getrude Stein, and women who were not his wife.  In this sketch of the city, and the group of expat writers and artists who Stein termed the Lost Generation, Hemingway recalls that heady, heartbreaking time.

The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald

When Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby at the breathtakingly young age of twenty-seven, he was already the author of two novels detailing the desires and peccadillos of his milieu. A decade later, still not yet forty, he was washed up, an alcoholic whose greatest literary achievements were behind him. In this book, which is comprised of a series of personal essays Fitzgerald wrote for Esquire as well as correspondence with fellow Lost Generationers such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, the writer describes with lacerating candor the breakdown that followed his early success.