HARDLY SCOTT FREE

F. Scott Fitzger­ald was paid a for­tune for his jazzy early fic­tion but his own story was a long dark night of the soul, writes Don An­der­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘Iam the high­est paid short story writer in the world.” So F. Scott Fitzger­ald boasted im­mod­estly but not in­ac­cu­rately in 1933 to his un­for­tu­nate wife, Zelda, whose novel Save Me the Waltz, pub­lished a year ear­lier, of­fended his amour pro­pre and pro­voked him to call her “a thir­drate writer” as well as “a third-rate bal­let dancer”. In 1929 The Satur­day Evening Post be­gan to pay Fitzger­ald $US4000 a short story, the equiv­a­lent of more than $US55,000 to­day. Yet he lamented to his ed­i­tor at Scrib­ner, the great Max Perkins, “the more I get for my trash the less I can bring my­self to write it”.

By the late 1930s his stocks had sunk, along with those of the US econ­omy, and only Arnold Gin­grich at Esquire mag­a­zine ap­pre­ci­ated what he was do­ing, pay­ing for and pub­lish­ing his great Pat Hobby sto­ries for $US200 to $US250 apiece in the two years be­fore Fitzger­ald’s death in 1940, aged 44. This was a low price for Fitzger­ald, even though in 1940 the av­er­age an­nual in­come was just over $US1000.

The irony if not the tragedy of the mat­ter was that in the 30s ed­i­tors and pub­lish­ers no longer wanted what Fitzger­ald was writ­ing but, rather, what he had writ­ten, which had made his young self very fa­mous in­deed.

A per­haps cru­eller irony is that in the decades af­ter his death Fitzger­ald’s stocks rose, so that by 2013 The Great Gatsby, a novel nei­ther crit­i­cally nor fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful at the time of its pub­li­ca­tion in 1922, had sold about 25 mil­lion copies world­wide.

This was pos­si­bly due to the sev­eral film vul­gar­i­sa­tions made of it as well as its be­ing du­ti­fully pur­chased by gen­er­a­tions of col­lege un­der­grad­u­ates.

“My whole the­ory of writ­ing I can sum up in one sen­tence,” Fitzger­ald pro­claimed with the wis­dom of 23 years. “An au­thor ought to write for the youth of his own gen­er­a­tion, the crit­ics of the next, and the school­mas­ters of ever af­ter­ward.” He should have in­cluded film pro­duc­ers in that cat­a­logue.

Fitzger­ald so suc­ceeded in writ­ing about, if not for, the youth of his gen­er­a­tion that ed­i­tors, pub­lish­ers and read­ers of the next decade would not con­tem­plate any­thing dif­fer­ent. He was in­creas­ingly stereo­typed as a writer of what he had dubbed “the Jazz Age”, that time of “Flap­pers and Philoso­phers” im­me­di­ately af­ter the end of World War I.

The pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished sto­ries in this new book, I’ll Die for You and Other Lost Sto­ries, date from the 30s. This was post-Jazz Age, the time of the dy­ing days of Pro­hi­bi­tion, the decade of the De­pres­sion.

Per­haps ap­pro­pri­ately, Fitzger­ald wanted to “open up a new well, a new vein”, per­haps un­con­sciously ex­ploit­ing a telling am­bi­gu­ity in that sec­ond noun. The sto­ries here are about di­vorce and de­spair, work­ing days and lone­some nights, smart teenagers un­able to at­tend col­lege or find a job, the wild vi­tal­ity and grind­ing poverty of New York City. As he wrote in Han­dle with Care ( Esquire, March 1936): “In a real dark night of the soul it is al­ways three o’clock in the morn­ing, day af­ter day.”

Through­out the 30s Fitzger­ald not only recorded but lived the years of The Crack-Up (1936), what with his own al­co­holism and Zelda’s se­rial hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tions for men­tal dis­or­ders. A decade-long dark night of the soul to be sure. The 1932 story Night­mare is set in a men­tal I’ll Die for You and Other Lost Sto­ries By F. Scott Fitzger­ald Edited by Anne Mar­garet Daniel Scrib­ner, 384pp, $39.99 (HB) Par­adise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzger­ald By David S. Brown Belk­nap Press, 424pp, $64.99 (HB) in­sti­tu­tion. It was re­jected by Cos­mopoli­tan, The Satur­day Evening Post, Red­book and Col­lege Hu­mor. It was not what ed­i­tors ex­pected of Fitzger­ald.

He was re­signed to it never sell­ing but claimed he had “stripped it” and used al­most all of the best lines in his 1934 novel Ten­der is the Night, the one he thought his finest, as did his friend from Prince­ton days Ed­mund Wil­son, the doyen of Amer­i­can crit­ics in the mid-20th cen­tury. His most re­cent bi­og­ra­pher, David S. Brown, agrees. (Some of us re­main true to The Great Gatsby.)

Wil­son, “Bunny” to his friends, was not al­ways crit­i­cally warm and gen­er­ous to his fel­low Prince­to­nian. In an early es­say, col­lected in The Shores of Light: a Lit­er­ary Chron­i­cle of the Twen­ties and Thir­ties (1952), he wrote: “It has been said by a cel­e­brated per­son [Edna St Vin­cent Mil­lay] that to meet Scott Fitzger­ald is to think of a stupid old woman with whom some­one has left a di­a­mond; she is ex­tremely proud of the di­a­mond and shows it to ev­ery­one who comes by, and ev­ery­one is sur­prised that such an ig­no­rant old woman should pos­sess so valu­able a jewel.”

With friends like this. Of course, Fitzger­ald would ce­ment his fame with a novella, The Di­a­mond as Big as the Ritz (1922), along with The Rich Boy (1926). But these were not the kind of sto­ries Fitzger­ald was writ­ing a decade later.

He fa­mously wrote: “There are no sec­ond acts in Amer­i­can lives.” But he suf­fered un­der ed­i­tors who wanted his sec­ond act to be a mere rep­e­ti­tion of his first. That may be what lesser genre writ­ers do but not Fitzger­ald. Or Mar­cel Proust, or James Joyce, or Gus­tave Flaubert.

Fitzger­ald’s sec­ond act may have been trag­i­cally and self-in­ducedly brief, but it was truly great. Con­sider the Pat Hobby sto­ries. In his last

A 1925 pho­to­graph of F. Scott Fitzger­ald with his wife, Zelda, and daugh­ter, Scot­tie

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