Transcript

'F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams'

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James L. W. West III
Fitzgerald Scholar, Author
Thursday, September 1, 2005; 12:30 PM

Featuring the life and career of literary legend F. Scott Fitzgerald -- the author of the classic novel "The Great Gatsby" -- the American Masters film "F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams" airs on PBS on Wednesday, Aug. 31, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter DeWitt Sage, "Winter Dreams" explores Fitzgerald's life and literature through his own words, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the tip of Long Island, to Paris. The film includes excerpts from private letters, scrapbooks, photos from family albums, interviews with Fitzgerald's friends and E. L. Doctorow, as well as Zelda Fitzgerald's drawings and paintings.

James L. W. West III, Fitzgerald scholar and author, was be online Thursday, Sept. 1, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the PBS American Masters film "F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams" and the life of literary legend F. Scott Fitgerald . Filmmaker Dewitt Sage will be unable to join today's discussion.

West is the Sparks Professor of English at Penn State University. A longtime F. Scott Fitzgerald critic and scholar, West is the General Editor of Fitzgerald's collected works, published by Cambridge University Press. He has recently published "The Perfect Hour: The Romance of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ginevra King" (Random House 2005; due out in paperback in Feb. '06 from Random House Trade Paperbacks) and has an edition of Fitzgerald's personal essays forthcoming under the title "My Lost City." West is also the author of "William Styron: A Life"(Random House 1998).

Sage is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a screenwriter who has produced, written and directed films on a remarkable range of subjects since 1968. His 2001 American Masters documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams, won him his second Peabody Award "for chronicling the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of America's greatest novelists, in images and ideas as lyrical and inventive as Fitzgerald's prose."

The transcript follows.

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Arlington, Va.: How was "The Great Gatsby" received by readers when it was first published? Was it an instant hit? At what point do you think it was considered a great American novel?

James L. W. West III: Actually, GATSBY had a mixed reception. Most of the reviews were positive, though not terribly perceptive. Some reviewers just thought of this as another FSF flapper book; one assumes that they hadn't read it very carefully, or that they reviewed the book they expected him to write. GATSBY was quite a departure for FSF, a big jump from his earlier novels, though anyone who had been reading his short stories would have seen signs of his artistic progress. Surprisingly, H. L. Mencken, a friend of FSF's and a critic generally appreciative of his work, thought the book pretty average and called Jay Gatsby a "clown." If you'd like to read the original reviews of GATSBY, go to a university library and look at F. SCOTT FITZGERALD: THE CRITICAL RECEPTION, ed. Jackson R. Bryer (Burt Franklin, 1978). They're all there. Happy reading!

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Chicago, Ill.: Jim, I'm one of your old students from Penn State. Congratulations! Your Wharton/Cather class was probably the most inspiring lit class I ever took. How did you find these new letters, or were they already there to be found? Last year a student brought the issue of Fitzgerald having straight up stolen/appropriated chunks of text from Zelda. I vaguely recall some allusions to this in Mitford's book. Is there any validity to this 'rumor'? Best Wishes, Ivor Irwin

James L. W. West III: Good to hear from you, Ivor. I trust you're flourishing, and I remember that seminar with pleasure.

The letters you're referring to, I think, are the ones that were written to FSF by Ginevra King, the beautiful Chicago rich girl who was his first serious love. [For other readers of this comment: I wrote a book about the romance, based on these letters. It's called THE PERFECT HOUR and was published by Random House in Feb. 2005, with a paperback coming out this spring.]

FSF saved the originals of her letters, of course, while they were engaged in their epistolary romance. Then, when it all ended and she asked him to destroy her letters (she had destroyed his), he probably did so, but not until he'd had them copied by a typist, probably because he know (as an aspiring writer) that they might be valuable to him some day, allowing him to recall the events and emotions of his time with Ginevra.

He kept the typescripts with him all his life. After his death, his daughter Scottie sent them back to Ginevra, who was by then Ginevra Pirie (in Chicago, married to the dept. store man). Ginevra kept them all of her life; at her death they went to her granddaughter, who donated them to Princeton two summers ago. The curator of MSS there asked me to read and comment on them, and on the diary that Ginevra kept during the romance (also donated by the granddaughter), and I did so. Then I wrote the book about the romance.

As for thefts and appropriations, FSF was ruthless in the way that any committed artist must be. He did use material from Zelda's letters and diaries for his novels, and he borrowed from others (Shane Leslie and Monsignor Fay, boyhood friends). I don't see it as a moral issue, but others in the field do.

Jim

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Washington, D.C.: I remember being told in college that we cannot begin to assume the author's intent. Do you know why Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby? Do you know if he was satisfied with it when it was finished?

James L. W. West III: I'd certainly agree that we can't do more than guess at an author's intent. It's stimulating to do, so long as you realize that you're probably never going to get it right.

Actually, and surprisingly, FSF wasn't satisfied with GATSBY. He thought that its modest sales (about 20,000) were attributable to the fact that the novel didn't have a female character with whom women readers could identify. And he feared that Jay Gatsby had never quite come into focus. But then FSF was inclined to heavy self-criticism all of his career. Later on, a few years before he died, he seems to have realized, at least in part, what a fine novel he had produced in GATSBY. Too bad he didn't live long enough to see the praise that the book has drawn in the last half-century.

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Northwest Washington, D.C.: Dr. West,

Would you categorize Fitzgerald a functional alcoholic?

James L. W. West III: That's probably as good a characterization of him as any. He tended to be a binge drinker, able to stay away from alcohol for long periods, especially when he was working, but unable to stop drinking once he got started, as he often did after finishing a big piece of writing. (I've seen his behavior in many writers--Faulkner, for one--so it must be fairly typical.)

There's been some speculation that FSF had a metabolic condition that magnified the effects of alcohol on him. That is to say, one drink would have an effect on him equal to the effect of two or three on others. We don't have any way of proving that now, but it's certainly possible.

FSF wrote very well about alcohol and its effects on people. Both THE BEAUTIFUL AND DAMNED and TENDER IS THE NIGHT are good on the subject; also a late story called "Financing Finnegan."

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Norfolk, Va.: While reading about Zelda's death at the sanatorium (sp?) fire, I wondered if there was any evidence of foul play in that fire. Dr. West, do you know more details about it?

James L. W. West III: I'm a little vague on this, but I visited Zelda's sanitariam (Highland Hospital) in Asheville once, and I remember rumors that the fire was set by a disgruntled nurse, dissatisfied with her working conditions or perhaps her salary. I don't believe anyone ever proved those assertions, but I've heard them from time to time.

There's a memorial to Zelda at Highland, and one of the rooms at the Grove Park Inn (one that FSF stayed in) has a plaque on the door. It's worth visiting Asheville to see these things. While you're there, have a look at Thomas Wolfe's boyhood home and at Carl Sandburg's mountain home nearby.

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Milton, Del.: I know it's really off topic, but can you identify the really lovely French Song that accompanied the scene when they first went to Paris? The tenor who sang was wonderful too, Thanks, Gary

James L. W. West III: I wish I could identify it. You're right: it was lovely, sort of wistful. Dewitt Sage, the producer, might know. Sorry I don't.

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Seven Corners, Va.: Did T.S. Elliot and Fitzgerald have a close relationship? Thanks!

James L. W. West III: I wouldn't call it a close relationship, but Eliot admired THE GREAT GATSBY and, in fact, published it in England under the imprint of his house, Chatto & Windus. The two men met only once, in Baltimore in the early 1930s. It was a polite meeting, with FSF expressing much admiration for Eliot's work, and I think the admiration was genuine. FSF was better at expressing such admiration for other writers than was his friend Hemingway, who went out of his way more than once to make unkind remarks about Eliot. FSF doesn't seem to have suffered overly much from professional jealousy.

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Washington, D.C.: I haven't yet read "The Last Tycoon" but I'm interested in it. Where in the scale of FSF's work would you place it?

James L. W. West III: It would certainly have been a brilliant novel, perhaps even his best, but what we have of it is in such fragmentary form that it's hard to judge. Monroe Stahr is a fine characterization, and I very much like Katherine, his new love, who seems to me as mature and complex a portrait of a woman as FSF ever produced. He had some good material to work with in the novel: all the unreality of Hollywood movie sets (and Hollywood life), and the beginnings of celebrity and fame for those at the top of the heap there.

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Leesburg, Va.: I'm very interested in Zelda's story -- do you know of the best biography of her (or is there such a thing?)?

James L. W. West III: The best biography of Zelda is still Nancy Milford's, entitled ZELDA. It has a 70's style feminist perspective (feminism has gone through lots of permutations since then), but it's well researched and perceptive, both about Zelda and FSF. A very good book of reproductions of Zelda's paintings and other art work is ZELDA: A BEAUTIFUL LIFE, with an intro by her granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, published by Abrams a few years ago.

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Chicago, Ill.: Are there any recordings of Fitzgerald's voice or film of him? Or, do we only have stills?

Thanks

James L. W. West III: Almost nothing. A recording of him reading Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" survives, but he's reading in a rather stagy way. Still, it's a pleasant voice, medium timbre, with a bit of a midwestern flavor.

Just a few clips of him on film seem to survive. A&E did a documentary on him a few years ago that has most of those clips on it. My copy has "Cat. No. AAE-14210 on it, if you want to track it down or order it.

The lack of tapes or films is surprising in a way, but literary authors in FSF's time weren't the celebs that they are today, and, of course, TV wasn't generally available, nor were radio interviews always archived.

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Wintergreen, Va.

I missed the program last night; will it be rebroadcast and/or is it for sale?

thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Check your local listings

To purchase the film, visit http://www.shopthirteen.org/ and http://www.shoppbs.org/home/index.jsp

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Reston, Va.: Do you think Fitzgerald was a top-tier twentieth-century writer, with the likes of Conrad, Hesse, Hemingway? Did he fail to reach maturity as a writer?

James L. W. West III: I certainly would put him at or near the top, not only for his novels but also for the best of his short stories and essays. Have you read the BASIL AND JOSEPHINE STORIES? They're quite good, especially the Basil series.

He was only 44 when he died, so I think it's fair to say that he hadn't reached full artistic maturity, but he left us about 20 volumes of consistently good writing, some of it excellent. (I know because I'm the general editor of his collected works. We have six vols. out, about 14 to go.)

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Albany, N.Y.: Mr. West,

What does the title "My Lost City" in your collection of Fitzgerald's essays, refer to?

James L. W. West III: It's the title of one of his finest late essays. It's an essay about his relationship to New York City. I used it as a title for the book as a whole in what I hope was an evocative way---lost youth, lost hopes, lost identity. And of course the title has particular resonance after 9/11.

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McLean, Va.: Dr. West,

Do you think that Fitzgerald actually believed he was the spokesman for the Lost Generation, as so many people have said he was? Do you think he thought of himself that way, or was he just a writer?

James L. W. West III: He didn't start out to be a spokesman for his generation, and he seems genuinely to have been surprised by all the attention that came to him in the early 1920s. Later in his career, looking back, he did engage in some acute analysis of the times through which he'd passed, and of which he had been an important part. The essay "Echoes of the Jazz Age," in the volume entitled THE CRACK-UP, is particularly good on these things.

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Morgantown, W.Va.: Hi,

I'm a first-year English teacher and I want to teach Gatsby to my 8th graders, but I'm wondering if you have any opinion on the best film version of the book--getting kids to read is difficult, but I've used the film versions of great books to pique interest!

Thank you!

James L. W. West III: The best film is still the one from about 1974, with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford in the roles of Daisy and Gatsby. The sets and costuming and music are very well done. The acting is uneven: Mia Farrow is quite good, as are the actors who play Nick and Tom. Redford is wooden, but it sort of suits the role. It's a long movie; you'd have to show it over two or three periods, but I think your students would like it.

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Mequon, Wis.: Years ago, when I was a child I stayed with my family at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC, and my dad took me to see FSF's room. We also traveled and toured Thomas Wolfe's home that summer. Only years later in my last years of college did I read both Gatsby and "Look Homeward, Angel"--they've since become my favorite books.

Sorry for the long intro, but I wonder if Wolfe and FSF knew each other?

James L. W. West III: Yes, indeed they did. Both were published by Scribners, and both had as their mentor Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor there. The two men, FSF and TW, met several times, including once in Switzerland, when Wolfe, very tall, found that he could reach up and wiggle the power wires in a small town and cause temporary blackouts.

The two men liked each other but were a little skeptical about each other's writings. FSF thought Wolfe rather too inclined toward purple prose. TW thought FSF needed to let his talent cut loose more freely, without restraints.

A good book to read is Scott Berg's MAXWELL PERKINS: EDITOR OF GENIUS. Perkins was also Hemingway's editor.

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Reston, Va.: Why are Scott, Zelda and Scottie buried in Rockville (aside from the fact they are dead)?

James L. W. West III: FSF's father was from Rockville. He was of old Maryland Catholic stock, and FSF was always proud of those family connections. His mother was of Irish potato-famine origins; her side had the money, however.

Interestingly, the Catholic Church refused initially to bury FSF in consecrated ground, so for a long time you had to visit him and Zelda in the Protestant cemetery. He and she were exhumed and moved to a Catholic cemetery during the 1980s some time. Their daughter Scottie caused this to happen and chose, at the end, to be buried beside them, which was certainly appropriate.

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Manhasset, N.Y.: As a fan of Fitzgerald who pays close attention to Fitzgerald references, I often see writers in newspapers and magazines invoking Fitzgerald, but usually more as a representative of the "Roaring Twenties" than as a tremendously gifted writer. In your opinion, has Fitzgerald's reputation as a representative of that generation eclipsed his literary legacy? It seems that most people know him only for Gatsby and not for his three other novels or his large body of short stories.

James L. W. West III: The two images--as a serious writer and as a celebrity--have coexisted for so long now that it's almost impossible to separate them. I don't even try any more, even when I teach FSF. Actually I kind of like the way the two images play off against one another, and I'm grateful that people remain interested in FSF, though sometimes, probably, for the wrong reasons.

A friend of mine plays a game in which (when he reads the Sunday NY Times) he bets himself that he'll find a reference to FSF within half an hour. He doesn't look in the obvious places (the book review, e.g.) but just reads as he normally would. He says he almost never fails to find some reference, either to Scott and Zelda, or to some famous bit of writing by FSF, such as "The very rich are different from you and me."

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Winchester, Va.: Dr. West,

Can you tell what it's like to be the general editor of Fitzgerald's works? (I'm an assistant editor myself and can't imagine what all goes into making a definitive collection of a major author!)

James L. W. West III: It's fascinating work, most of all because I regularly use FSF's manuscripts and revised typescripts to establish better texts of his writings. It's interesting to trace out the growth of his stories and novels, reading the early drafts and studying the revisions he made in successive versions. I've also found more instances than I thought I would of bowdlerization or other interference by magazine editors, and it's nice to be able to restore these readings to the writings. I also like doing the annotations, which provide context by identifying the politicians, sports heroes, movie queens, criminals, military men, WWI battles, cabarets, Broadway shows, etc., that are mentioned in the writings. That might be the most valuable thing I'm doing in these editions.

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Alabama: The documentary suggested that Fitzgerald was forgotten when he died. I understand his critical reappraisal began in the 1950s; was there some spark or some reason the people of the 50s re-embraced him?

James L. W. West III: I've always thought that the reappraisal was pushed ahead by three literary critics: by Edmund Wilson, who was FSF's friend at Princeton and who edited the unfinished LAST TYCOON and the important collection THE CRACK-UP; by Malcolm Cowley, who edited the PORTABLE FITZGERALD and the first big collection of his stories; and by Arthur Mizener, who wrote the first (and still in some ways the best) biography.

But the real reason that the revival took off was simply that FSF's writing was so good, so American, so perceptive about this country and its hopes and ideals. It doesn't matter how good critics and biographers are: they can't have much success unless the author they are writing about has genius.

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Reston, Va.: Were any of the Gatsby characters based partially on real people?

James L. W. West III: Nearly all of them were. Daisy was based on both Ginevra King (FSF's first real love) and on Zelda Sayre, his wife. Jordan Baker was based on Edith Cummings, a golf champion and a friend of Ginevra's. Nick was based on FSF himself, or on a part of him, though Gatsby resembles FSF as well. It's hard to be specific but fun to speculate.

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Anonymous: How do you think F. Scott Fitzgerald specifically contributed to helping define American culture?

James L. W. West III: I'd say he caught, better than most authors, the sense of yearning that many Americans have for social success. He also wrote very perceptively about money and its effects on people and their morality.

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: When quoted Fitzgerald's famous line in "Gatsby" that "the rich are very different from you and me," Ernest Hemingway shot back: "Yes. They have more money." Is it true that Fitzgerald was stung by Papa's remark and said publicly to him, "You overrated bloated sac of guts, why don't you go up to Ketchum, Idaho, or some other godforsaken hole, and shoot yourself in the head with a shotgun?"

James L. W. West III: Hmmm. The remark by FSF is in "The Rich Boy," not in THE GREAT GATSBY. And the reply was not made by Hemingway. He heard someone else say it and put it into his story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

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Southern Maryland: F. Scott Fitzgerald was a distant cousin. Also related to Francis Scott Key by marriage. There is evidence of hemochromatosis in our family, which causes early heart attacks, chirrosis of the liver, depression, all the problems FSW had. Back in those days they probably never thought about iron overload. Any descendents could be tested for it.

Also, re Thomas Wolfe's house in Asheville, N.C. -- wasn't that burned a few years ago? Is it still standing? I visited there and loved it.

James L. W. West III: Yes, the Wolfe house did burn back in 1996 or so, I believe. I saw it when it was just beginning to be reconstructed. I think they are finished now.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: Is there any indication of influence by President Woodrow Wilson, who also dealt with class struggle at Princeton, University?

James L. W. West III: Certainly FSF was aware of Wilson and of his difficulties at Princeton. Wilson tried to get rid of the eating clubs there and failed; he also lost a battle over the nature of the graduate school. FSF seems to have admired the man's courage and standards but (like many others) to have thought him unreasonably idealistic.

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: You must be aware of the anecdote where Ernest Hemingway had to show Fitzgerald a series of classical sculptures in order to prove to him that Fitzgerald's "male equipment" was of normal size. Apparently, Zelda had tried to humiliate Scott by telling him that Howdy Doodie was better hung that he was. Did Zelda really know Howdy Doodie, and was she correct?

James L. W. West III: Wasn't it Chief Thunderthud? I forget.

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Westcliffe, Colo.: I saw the program last night. I still can't figure out what motivated Fitzgerald to head to LA.

Didn't locale have any impact on his work, that is, was he comfortable working just anyplace?

Regards.

James L. W. West III: He went there to work as a scriptwriter for MGM, initially at $1,000 a week, then for another year at (I think) $1,250 a week, excellent money for the times, though not the top of the scale for writers in Hollywood at the time. FSF was in heavy debt and took the Hollywood job to right his finances. After his stint with MGM ended, he stayed on, hoping to pick up smaller studio jobs, and also because he was involved by then with Sheilah Graham, whom he liked a great deal, and who looked after him.

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Argosy, Pa.: What prompted Fitzgerald, as a youth, to pursue writing? Is his youth filled with writing accomplishments? His Princeton days?

Did he always think of himself as a great writer?

Thanks.

James L. W. West III: He seems to have been a natural writer from the very first. He published a great deal of apprentice work, especially while he was in prep school and college. I'll eventually collect it all in a volume of the FSF Edition, of which I'm general editor (Cambridge Univ. Press). It's really quite high in quality, for this sort of early writing.

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Philomathean: How would you assess the range of Mr. Fitzgerald's writings: was he successfully able to vary his themes and genres, and how multifacted do you find his messages?

James L. W. West III: FSF wrote well in a variety of genres: novel, short fiction, personal essay, poetry, song lyrics, dialogue. Like most writers he repeats himself, but his comments about America life, about Europe, about fame and money and celebrity, are very fine. He also wrote well about memory, and about remorse and regret.

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Arlington, Va.: I didn't realize that Scottie had died. When did that happen? Also, have you heard about the modern film remake of Great Gatsby, called "G"? Any thoughts on modernizing this classic story? Thanks!

James L. W. West III: I believe Scottie died in 1985 or 86. There's a very good biography of her entitled (I think) SCOTTIE, THE DAUGHTER OF... by her daughter, Eleanor Lanahan.

I saw that "G" movie described too. Looks fascinating to me. It's a story capable of being reinterpreted almost endlessly, so I have my fingers crossed.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi,

How would you compare Fitzgerald's love for Zelda with his love for Sheila Graham?

James L. W. West III: He fell in love with Zelda when he was a young man, and he invested a great many hopes and ideals in her, probably too many for any one woman to live up to. Then he saw her grow older, lose her freshness, and descend into madness, but his love for her remained a powerful influence on him.

I don't know that he was actually in love with SG, but I know that he cared a great deal for her and enjoyed helping her to become better read and better educated. She had a fascinating life, if you can believe everything in BELOVED INFIDEL. Quite a woman. I've always liked what I knew of her and been grateful that she was kind to FSF and looked after him in his last years.

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Reston, Va.: Who were Fitzgerald's favorite authors?

James L. W. West III: As a young man he read lots of H.G. Wells, Compton Mackenzie, and G. B. Shaw. He loved the poetry of Swinburne and Keats and Shelly. He much admired Hemingway's writing and had to resist its influence on him. I think he liked the best of Mark Twain and Dickens; I know he admired Poe's best work. Have a look at Sheilah Graham's A COLLEGE OF ONE. It will show you the reading lists he made up for her. It's a fascinating (and almost forgotten) book.

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James L. W. West III: Thanks to everyone for sending in questions--I much enjoyed answering. Keep reading FSF! He's the real thing.

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washingtonpost.com: Next week's American Masters film, "Willa Cather: The Road is All," airs on Wednesday, September 7, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). A Live Online discussion will follow on Thursday, September 8.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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