To celebrate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 117th birthday, the educational website Open Culture has republished a letter of advice from the author to his young daughter, Frances, sent to her at summer camp in 1933. Open Culture calls it a “wise,” “touching,” and “wonderful little letter” that lends insight into the “fatherly character” of the famous novelist. Here it is, sics and all:
AUGUST 8, 1933
LA PAIX RODGERS’ FORGE
I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy– but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed page, they never really happen to you in life.
All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.…
I think of you, and always pleasantly, but I am going to take the White Cat out and beat his bottom hard, six times for every time you are impertinent. Do you react to that?…
Half-wit, I will conclude. Things to worry about:
Worry about courage
Worry about cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship…
Things not to worry about:
Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions
Things to think about:
What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful intrument or am I neglecting it?
With dearest love,
I found myself nodding along to Fitzgerald’s letter, which applies as much to an adult in 2013 as it does to an 11-year-old in 1933. (That’s probably why it goes viral about every six months.) I do spend too much time worrying about the past, the future, boys, and (oddly) insects. Focusing instead on what it is that I “really understand about people” sounds like a lovelier way to experience life.
Then I read the letter again in the context of Fitzgerald’s own biography. It was written a year after Frances’ mother, Zelda, was hospitalized for schizophrenia; it was written seven years before F. Scott himself died of alcoholism; it was written at the time that he was fighting with Zelda to exert total artistic ownership over their life together—he called the relationship “his material,” and he often cribbed from Zelda’s diaries and letters to tell the story. F. Scott Fitzgerald could have stood to make his body a more useful instrument and spend more time understanding the other people in his life. In a family punctuated by mental illness, it is perhaps not helpful to boil down the ideas of “happiness” and “misery” to mere plot points. And I can’t imagine that administering a laundry list of petty worries to an 11-year-old girl would do much to assuage her anxiety. (The cat spanking is also probably unnecessary). Whether in 1933 or today, telling an 11-year-old girl not to worry about boys and disappointment only belittles a child’s concerns. And actually, isn’t the future more interesting to think about than, say, cleanliness?
Fitzgerald’s letter isn’t advice to his daughter. It’s advice to himself. It’s natural to want to give your kid a shot at a life you didn’t live, and to impart all the lessons learned from your own missteps. But as with all parenting advice, it’s probably more helpful to keep trying to model that life yourself as opposed to talking about it to your kid and hoping it sticks. Otherwise, the best advice may be just: “Don’t worry about parents.”