Review of “Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald” by Matthew Bruccoli

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Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Matthew Bruccoli
624 pages
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Published: Dec 1981

Published in 1981, “Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald” is Matthew Bruccoli’s seminal work. Bruccoli was a professor of English at the University of South Carolina and the preeminent authority on F. Scott Fitzgerald. During his four-decade career he wrote and edited dozens of books on Fitzgerald and other notable literary figures (such as Ernest Hemingway and John O’Hara). Bruccoli died in 2008 at the age of 76.

Widely regarded as the definitive biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, this cradle-to-grave review is sweeping, thorough, penetrating and remarkably gripping. With a 589-page narrative and extensive appendices and notes, readers will walk away from this biography intimately familiar with nearly every aspect of the life of this tempestuous, brilliant, flawed and short-lived talent whose best-known works include The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise.

Bruccoli spent much of his life studying, editing and writing about Fitzgerald, and early in his career he became friends with Fitzgerald’s daughter. So it is unsurprising that Bruccoli’s biography exudes a decidedly sympathetic tone. Fitzgerald’s numerous flaws and failures, however, receive no shortage of attention. In fact, they are effectively the glue holding the book’s sixty-one chapters together.

The narrative is notable for its scholarly (rather than lyrical) edge, but while it lacks the colorful quality of the most animated biographies, it does a superb job placing the reader “in the moment.” Bruccoli’s frequent use of (often lengthy) portions of Fitzgerald’s letters to friends and family provides piercing insight into his state of mind. And after years of studying his subject it seems likely that Bruccoli understood Fitzgerald even better than Fitzgerald knew himself.

This biography contains just enough social, cultural and historical context to place its subject (and his often self-destructive tendencies) within the framework of his time. To the clear benefit of the reader it also devotes extraordinary attention to Fitzgerald’s wife and his other notable personal and professional relationships.

But the most interesting aspect of this book may be the way Bruccoli continually connects people and events in Fitzgerald’s past to characters and circumstances appearing in his literary works. The interconnection between the novelist’s life and his art – not always obvious at first glance – is fascinating.

Some readers may worry that an English degree is necessary to fully enjoy this biography. If that was true I might have found the narrative uncomfortably daunting. That proved not to be the case. The book’s themes prove universal and the elements of Fitzgerald’s life which receive the most focus are those which could lie at the heart of almost any captivating life-story.

But the narrative is fact-heavy – particularly with names of a broad assortment of people Fitzgerald encountered at one time or another.  In addition, the narrative occasionally devolves into a mechanistic review of various short stories Fitzgerald wrote and attempted to publish during a particular period of time.

More often than not, however, “Some Sort of Epic Grandeur” feels like the uncommonly thoughtful and incisive book Robert Caro might have written had he taken on F. Scott Fitzgerald rather than Lyndon B. Johnson…or Robert Moses.

Overall, Matthew Bruccoli’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a wonderfully illuminating exploration of one of the 20th century’s best writers. Anyone with a fascination for Fitzgerald or his literature will find this book inherently compelling. But even general readers are likely to discover this biography provides a wonderful combination of depth and insight about a fabulously interesting individual.

Overall rating: 4½ stars