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Tender is Fitzgerald's 'Autobiography'

A SHORT AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by James L.W. West III. Scribner, 204 pp., $15 paper.

An often light but still poignant side of F. Scott Fitzgerald is evident in this compilation of 19 of his previously published items and articles, written mostly for popular magazines between 1920 and 1940.

Edited by Fitzgerald scholar James L.W. West III, the collection is billed as an autobiography because the famed American novelist and short story writer keeps the focus on himself, his views and critiques, his celebrated life and times.

The personal essays are frequently funny and fast-paced, particularly during the 1920s, when he enjoyed huge literary success and, with his spirited wife, Zelda, came to embody the Jazz Age.

But beset by personal problems and a marital breakup during the Great Depression years of the 1930s, a somber side of Fitzgerald shows through in the later pieces. In a 1936 article for Esquire magazine, "Afternoon of an Author," Fitzgerald writes of his "growing seclusion . . . and the increasing necessity of picking over a well-picked past."

But this is not "The Crack-Up," the collection of Fitzgerald nonfiction published five years after his death in 1940, which West says paints Fitzgerald as "an apologist for the 1920s, a chronicler of remorse and regret, and a student of failure and lost hope."

"A Short Autobiography" is full of lighthearted prose as Fitzgerald employs a variety of unconventional structures -- a witty self-interview and a guided tour of a house, for example -- along with the serious essays of a memoirist.

As West notes, many of these pieces were written for the paycheck -- handsome paychecks, too -- and at times it's easy for a reader to tell. But even the self-interview, which Fitzgerald wrote when he was 23 and didn't see published in his lifetime, contains memorable lines: "My idea is always to reach my generation. The wise writer, I think, writes for the youth of his own generation, the critic of the next and the schoolmasters of ever afterward."

The pieces in "A Short Autobiography" don't often evoke the lyrically powerful prose of "The Great Gatsby," Fitzgerald's iconic American novel. Still, his gift is evident, even in a piece on Princeton University, as he describes entering the campus: "Two tall spires and then suddenly all around you spreads out the loveliest riot of Gothic architecture in America."

Fifteen of these 19 pieces appeared in a 2005 collection, "My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940," published by Cambridge University Press and edited by West.

This new volume is more accessible to the casual Fitzgerald reader -- the hardcover is $25, paperback is $15 and e-book is $9.99, compared with the Cambridge edition's price tag of more than $100.

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