In 1937 F. Scott Fitzgerald was in a trouble. His wife, Zelda, was permanently committed to an asylum, his daughter was in school and needed money, and Scott’s books weren’t selling well. In fact, it seemed that the world had forgotten about him. He was so desperate for money that he, like many other desperate writers before and after him, went to Hollywood with the dream of writing wonderful movie scripts. As it turned out, he had little control of what he wrote, and his alcoholic binges discouraged movie companies from hiring him. Along the way, however, he met and fell in love with a British-born gossip columnist named Sheilah Graham. They soon fell in love, and remained together until his death (in her apartment) from a heart attack in 1940.
Graham, born Lily Sheil, grew up in England in an impoverished setting. Despite the likelihood that she would ever make anything of her life, she eventually made her way to the United States and became a well-known Hollywood gossip columnist. But she had little schooling, and felt so inferior to the people she dealt with and partied with in Hollywood that she seldom spoke while with them. She confided her insecurities to Scott, and he proposed a curriculum that would make her feel more comfortable in public. She jumped at the chance to improve herself, and started what they called “a college of one.”
There were a number of things that he taught her about music, poetry, philosophy, and other subjects – he seems to have been a born teacher – but the most interesting part of the curriculum was what he proposed to have her read in order to “graduate” by 1941.
The reading curriculum, which she lists in her 1967 book A College of One, which has recently been reissued, is in 40 parts. Each part contains chapters from H. G. Wells’ Outline of History as well as a novel, short story or play that Scott chose for her. The readings may seem dated to you, but remember that they represented what was available in the late 1930s. Of course, the list also reflects what Fitzgerald enjoyed. In fact, he has more than one book listed for a number of authors including Shaw, Dreiser, France and Cather. It would have been better if he had not let his personal prejudices shape the reading list because many great authors are not represented at all.
Below is the entire reading list except that I am not including the exact pages of Wells’ Outline assigned for each of the 40 lessons.
- Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery
- Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw
- The Red and the Black by Stendhal
- Bleak House (1st half) by Charles Dickens
- Seven Men by Max Beerbohm
- Bleak House (2nd half) by Charles Dickens
- Androcles and the Lion by George Bernard Shaw
- Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackery
- A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
- Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
- The Red Lily by Anatole France
- Youth’s Encounter by Compton MacKenzie
- Sinister Street by Compton MacKenzie
- “The Kreutzer Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy
- Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Tono-Bungay by H. G. Wells
- Roderick Hudson by Henry James
- The Pretty Lady by Arnold Bennett
- Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
- How to Write Short Stories by Ring Lardner
- Chéri by Colette
- My Ántonia by Willa Cather
- The Sailor’s Return by David Garnett
- The Financier by Theodore Dreiser
- The Titan by Theodore Dreiser
- A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
- The Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France
- Ariel, or The Life of Shelley by André Maurois [in French because she spoke and read French fluently]
- The Song of Songs by Hermann Suderman
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- Flaubert and Malraux [no additional information provided]
- Byron: The Last Journey by Harold Nicolson
- South Wind by Norman Douglas
- Man’s Fate by André Malraux
- The Woman Who Rode Away by D. H. Lawrence
- The Cabala by Thornton Wilder
- Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (He jokingly listed the author as “Shakespeare.”)
Graham also mentions some books that Fitzgerald had her read before she started the above list and in addition to what was on the list. The books included Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (the first book that she tackled), The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan, A People’s History of England by A. L. Morton, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, and Sanctuary by William Faulkner.
She tells us that she had problems understanding the earliest works she read, but that it became easier and easier to understand what she was reading the more she read. That’s something to keep in mind when you’re thinking about reading challenging works – either fiction or nonfiction. Mental exercise is good for your brain just as physical exercise is good for your muscles.
In A College of One Graham states that Fitzgerald might have finished his final novel, The Last Tycoon, before his fatal heart attack in 1940 if it had not been for the time he spent working to educate her, and if he had been able to control his alcoholism. What a shame that he ended his life thinking that he was a failure. I glance at the Amazon Top 100 book list periodically, and The Great Gatsby is always there. In fact, all of his novels and many of his short stories remain popular over 70 years after his death.
If you were to create a list of works (fiction and nonfiction) to educate people, what would be on your list? Send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will print them in future posts.