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
‘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The previously unpublished stories in this new book, I’ll Die for You and Other Lost Stories, date from the 30s.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