The Evolution of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Signature: From 5 Years Old to 21

Fun fact about F. Scott Fitzger­ald: he was a ter­ri­ble speller. No, real­ly. And his gram­mar was­n’t much bet­ter. Lit­er­ary crit­ic Edmund Wil­son described his debut nov­el This Side of Par­adise (find in our Free eBooks col­lec­tion) as “one of the most illit­er­ate books of any mer­it ever pub­lished.” Hem­ing­way couldn’t spell either, and nei­ther could Faulkn­er. With­out the patient revi­sion of great edi­tors like Maxwell Perkins, much of the prose of these Amer­i­can mas­ters may well have been unread­able. Nov­el­ists are artists, not gram­mar­i­ans, and their man­u­script quirks—of spelling, hand­writ­ing, gram­mat­i­cal mistakes—can often reveal a great deal more about them than the typ­i­cal read­er can glean from clean, type­set copies of their work.

Take, for exam­ple, the evo­lu­tion of Fitzgerald’s sig­na­ture (above). From the labored scrawls of a five year-old, to the prac­ticed script of an eleven-year-old school­boy, to the exper­i­men­tal teenaged pos­es, we see the let­ter­ing get loos­er, more styl­ized, then tight­en up again as it assumes its own mature iden­ti­ty in the con­fi­dent­ly ele­gant near-cal­lig­ra­phy of the 21-year-old Fitzgerald–an evo­lu­tion that traces the writer’s cre­ative growth from uncer­tain but pas­sion­ate youth to dis­ci­plined artist. Alright, maybe that’s all non­sense. I’m no expert. The prac­tice of hand­writ­ing analy­sis, or graphol­o­gy, is gen­er­al­ly a foren­sic tool used to iden­ti­fy the marks of crim­i­nal sus­pects and detect forg­eries, not a min­dread­ing tech­nique, although it does get used that way. One site, for exam­ple, pro­vides an analy­sis of one of Fitzgerald’s 1924 let­ters to Carl Van Vecht­en. From the minute char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Gats­by novelist’s script, the ana­lyst divines that he is “cre­ative,” “artis­tic,” and appre­ci­ates the fin­er things in life. Col­or me a lit­tle skep­ti­cal.

But maybe there is some­thing to my the­o­ry of Fitzgerald’s grow­ing matu­ri­ty and self-con­scious cer­tain­ty as evi­denced by his sig­na­tures. He pub­lished This Side of Par­adise to great acclaim three years after the final sig­na­ture above. In the pri­or sig­na­tures, we see him strug­gling for con­trol as he wrote and revised an ear­li­er unpub­lished nov­el called The Roman­tic Ego­tist, which Fitzger­ald him­self told edi­tor Perkins was “a tedious, dis­con­nect­ed casse­role.” The out­sized, extrav­a­gant let­ter­ing of the artist in his late teens is noth­ing if not “roman­tic.” But Fitzger­ald achieved just enough con­trol in his short life to write a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure chest of sto­ries (many bril­liant and some just plain sil­ly) and a hand­ful of nov­els, includ­ing, of course, the one for which he’s best known. Most of the rest of the time, as most every­one knows, he was kind of a mess.

Try a lit­tle ama­teur hand­writ­ing analy­sis of your own on the last sen­tence of The Great Gats­by, writ­ten in Fitzger­ald’s own hand below a por­trait of the writer by artist Robert Kas­tor.

And for an added treat, watch jour­nal­ist and sports­writer Bill Nack recite the final lines of Gats­by to his friend Roger Ebert. “Gats­by believed in the green light…”

via I always want­ed to be a Tenen­baum

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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