19 F. Scott Fitzgerald Quotes for Flappers and Philosophers

Photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald c. 1921 © “The World’s Work”

Editor's Note:

Signature’s This Week in History remembers events of the past, and the icons that set them in motion. If you’re stirred by the words below, read on for more inspiring author quotes.

This week in history — on September 24, 1896 — F. Scott Fitzgerald was born to a wealthy family in St. Paul, Minnesota. The literary impulses of the young Fitzgerald — who’d go on to become the messiah of Jazz Age melodramas — arose with great urgency. By age thirteen, he ‘published’ his first work in the school newspaper. By the time he signed up for WWI, he dashed off a novel — The Romantic Egoist — in mere weeks, afraid he’d die before achieving literary success. Chastened by a rejection letter from Charles Scribner’s Sons, Fitzgerald edited his work after the war and renamed it This Side of Paradise. Published in 1919, it became an instant success. 

Despite the extravagance we’ve come to associate with Fitzgerald novels, his own ambitions were id-driven, sourced from some primeval urge to write rather than accumulate wealth. The Great Gatsby, after all, was not the green beacon of great literature it’s regarded as today. After draining the money that came from his first novel’s success, F. Scott and the unstable Zelda — then a combustible couple — found themselves in dire financial straights. Their troubles were often deepened by their own lavish, boozy lifestyles, and the Fitzgeralds frequently relied on loans from agents and editors to stay afloat.

With troubles mounting — alcoholism became an unwelcome guest in the Fitzgerald household, schizophrenia was prying at Zelda’s grasp of reality — Fitzgerald soon wrote what many critics deem his most thinly-veiled autobiographical novel: Tender is the Night. For a glimpse into Fitzgerald’s life through his own eyes, start there. For more on the overarching worldview of the great American writer  — in his fiction and his letters — start with the nine quotes below. And finally, if you’re wondering where the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald resides today, let his “Lost Generation” pal Ernest Hemingway color your imagination with a candid assumption of a Fitzgeraldian heaven: “A beautiful vacuum filled with wealthy monogamists, all powerful and members of the best families all drinking themselves to death.”

1. “The idea that to make a man work you’ve got to hold gold in front of his eyes is a growth, not an axiom. We’ve done that for so long that we’ve forgotten there’s any other way.” (“Amory Blaine” in This Side of Paradise, 1920, Bk. 2, Ch. 5)

2. “The victor belongs to the spoils.” (The Beautiful and Damned, 1922)

3. “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” (Undated letter to his daughter “Scottie,” Frances Scott Fitzgerald in Letters)

4. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” (The Crack-Up, 1936)

5. “His was a great sin who first invented consciousness. Let us lose it for a few hours.” (From “A Diamond As Big as The Ritz” in Short Stories)

6. “Genius goes around the world in its youth incessantly apologizing for having large feet. What wonder that later in life it should be inclined to raise those feet too swiftly to fools and bores.” (The Crack-Up, 1936)

7. “All life is just a progression toward, and then a recession from, one phrase— ‘I love you.'” (From “The Offshore Pirate” in Short Stories)

8. “It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won’t save us any more than love did.” (Notebooks)

9. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (The Great Gatsby, 1925)

10. “Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat; the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.” (1940 letter to his daughter “Scottie,” F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters)

11. “The world only exists in your eyes. You can make it as big or as small as you want.” (The Great Gatsby, 1925)

12. “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” (Beloved Infidel: The Education of a Woman by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank, 1958)

13. “Youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” (From “A Diamond As Big as The Ritz” in Short Stories)

14. “Sometimes it is harder to deprive oneself of a pain than of a pleasure.” (The Crack-Up, 1936)

15. “Advertising is a racket, like the movies and the brokerage business. You cannot be honest without admitting that its constructive contribution to humanity is exactly minus zero.” (1940 letter to “Scottie,” The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald)

16. “Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.” (“Notebook O,” The Crack-Up)

17. “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” (Beloved Infidel: The Education of a Woman by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank, 1958)

18. “Action is character.” (Notes for The Last Tycoon)

19. “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.” (“Bernice Bobs Her Hair”)