Francis Scott Fitzgerald was a distant cousin of his namesake, Francis Scott Key, who wrote the poem that would eventually supply the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In naming him, Fitzgerald’s parents honored their esteemed distant relative as well as the nation that had provided Fitzgerald’s mother, the daughter of an Irish immigrant, with the sizable inheritance her father had amassed as a grocer. Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896, Fitzgerald was a precocious child who published his first piece of fiction, a detective story, in his school newspaper when he was thirteen. Fitzgerald eventually attended Princeton University, where he produced musical and theatrical skits, humor pieces, and contributions to one of the university’s literary magazines.
Fitzgerald favored his artistic pursuits over his academic work. In 1917, on probation and unlikely to graduate, Fitzgerald enlisted in the army, where he was eventually stationed at Alabama’s Camp Sheridan. There, he fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the woman who would possess and haunt him for the rest of his life. Fitzgerald tried twice—unsuccessfully—to publish an early novel, but he still believed that the one way to gain respect from others and support and affection from Zelda and her family was to establish himself as a successful novelist.
Fitzgerald returned home to Saint Paul to pursue his ambition. In a few months, he reworked his unsuccessful first novel, This Side of Paradise, and published it in 1920, to much critical praise. A week after the book’s release, Fitzgerald finally married Zelda.
In the early 1920s, Fitzgerald began writing short stories, which funded his novel-writing ambitions. His reputation rose when he published his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, in 1922. Despite his growing alcoholism, he continued to write, intensifying his engagement with the ideas of idealism and success, which Fitzgerald saw as fundamental to the American character. The Fitzgeralds moved to France in 1924, where Fitzgerald wrote the novel that would prove to be his greatest accomplishment: The Great Gatsby (1925). The novel’s publication marked the high point of Fitzgerald’s career, and he was unable to reclaim his earlier momentum. His later years were marked by slow progress on his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night (1934); an itinerant life that saw the family shuttling between Europe and America; his failed attempt at a Hollywood screenwriting career; an increasing estrangement from Zelda; Zelda’s advancing mental illness and eventual institutionalization; and Fitzgerald’s mounting debts and compromised health. Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1940.
Fitzgerald is best remembered for his spoiled and conflicted Jazz Age characters, including Dexter Green from “Winter Dreams,” who bears a distinct resemblance to Jay Gatsby, the protagonist of The Great Gatsby. Both are self-made men who are eager to rise beyond their station in life, and both find that personal fulfillment and their ideal women are ultimately elusive. “Winter Dreams” first appeared in Metropolitan Magazine in 1922 and later in the collection All the Sad Young Men (1926). The similarities between “Winter Dreams” and The Great Gatsby are not accidental, as Fitzgerald wrote the story while he was developing the ideas that would become the novel.
“Winter Dreams” has a distinct autobiographical bent, and the story traces Fitzgerald’s experiences growing up in a middle-class family in the upper Midwest. Black Bear Lake, where the glitterati spend their summers in the story, is only a partial disguise of White Bear Lake, an exclusive resort area where Saint Paul’s elite would summer. It was a place that Fitzgerald knew well. It is also arguable that Dexter Green bears a resemblance to Fitzgerald himself, a restless and talented young man desperate to advance himself in a singular pursuit of success.