The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Near the end of his short life, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that he “had been only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in my hands, even of my talent.” It was his short stories, written to make money, that, he felt, had been the major dissipation:
I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you.
In his lifetime Fitzgerald promoted the view of his stories as hack work, simultaneously bragging and abasing himself to Hemingway, confessing how much he was being paid by the Saturday Evening Post and how much he despised the product. “Here’s a last flicker of the old cheap pride: the Post now pays the old whore $4000 a screw,” he wrote to Hemingway in 1929.1 While the story in question, “At Your Age,” deserves only slightly better, Fitzgerald also dismissed good stories like “Bernice Bobs her Hair,” telling Mencken that it was trash.
In view of how much has been written about Fitzgerald since his death, there has been scant discussion of the short stories. Edmund Wilson refers broadly to his “rather inferior magazine fiction.” Yet one pleasure of rereading Fitzgerald’s stories now is to rediscover just how good some of them in fact are, and how brilliant a handful. One problem is that there were far too many: 160 stories in a brief life—some of them really novellas—of which forty-three are included in Matthew Bruccoli’s recent edition, an almost 800-page volume which will discourage bedtime reading in those without great upper-body strength. Hemingway, by contrast, published forty-nine and Faulkner about fifty.
The standard collection of Fitzgerald’s stories to date has been Malcolm Cowley’s 1951 edition with twenty-eight stories. Cowley’s Fitzgerald is a realist in method if not in sensibility (with the stunning exception of the fabulist “Diamond as Big as the Ritz”), and very much the author of The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Cowley included the indisputable jewels. “Diamond…,” “The Ice Palace,” “Winter Dreams,” “May Day,” “Absolution,” “The Rich Boy,” “Babylon Revisited,” and “The Bridal Party.” Bruccoli’s huge collection, on the other hand, with almost twice as many stories, complicates, and lightens, Cowley’s picture. Bruccoli’s Fitzgerald is more fanciful. He is clearly the man who wrote nonsense lyrics for Princeton Triangle productions, and later tossed Gerald Murphy’s prized Venetian goblets over the wall of the Villa American just to hear the sound of the crystal breaking on the stones of the courtyard. (Cheever, so similar in other ways, has some of this mischievousness.) He’s more consciously an entertainer, to the point of turning tricks with the supernatural, as in “A Short Trip Home,” the story of a seedy ghost who nearly ensnares the soul of a Midwestern debutante. Many of the stories Bruccoli has included would be happiest wearing the label of “tales,” or “romances.” Their writer is also not above trick endings, and you can see him in the earlier stories all too obviously trying to charm. We can also see him straining desperately for that ebullience in the stories of the Thirties, as his output trails off. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” makes more sense in this company, even as it towers over the other romances in Bruccoli’s selection.
Almost all of the stories Bruccoli has collected have been republished in one form or another elsewhere. To judge by back issues of the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers, the quality falls off very sharply beyond this material. “Last Kiss” (1940) is the only one Bruccoli has included that was never published in Fitzgerald’s lifetime, and has never appeared in a book before. Set in Hollywood, it is a sentimental story about a producer and a beautiful and spirited English actress, whom he lets down. The main character strongly resembles The Last Tycoon’s Monroe Stahr, but the portrait here is full of self-hatred.
Bruccoli has included more stories from the middle of Fitzgerald’s career, between Gatsby and Tender Is the Night (1934). One I have never encountered before, “The Bowl” (Post, 1928), is a wildly romantic portrait of the athletic hero Fitzgerald worshipped all his life. “The Baby Party,” included in Dorothy Parker’s brilliant small selection of stories in the 1945 Viking Portable Fitzgerald, as well as in Cowley, has regrettably not made the cut. The story of a fiercely competitive suburban birthday party that erupts into a long bloody punchout between two fathers fresh from the commuter train, it is one of the funniest stories Fitzgerald wrote, and at this distance a rough prototype for the coolly ironic suburban tales that were later to flourish in The New Yorker.
Some of Bruccoli’s weakest entries seem to be included only to demonstrate Fitzgerald’s “range”—the mechanical, puerile “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (1922), for instance, which is about a man who enters the world in the body of an old man and who grows backward into maturity, youth, and infancy, or “Dearly Beloved” (1940), a short and pointless sketch of a black train steward and a golf champion. “Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window,” Nick Carraway tells us, and Fitzgerald’s best work rarely strays from that view. Bruccoli seems to want to punch new openings in the facade. “The appellation ‘a typical Fitzgerald story’ is useless,” he says, and includes far too many second-and even third-rate stories.
“Head and Shoulders” (1920), the first story in Bruccoli’s collection, was also the first story Fitzgerald sold to the Saturday Evening Post and it is in some ways characteristic of what Post readers—many of whom never read a Fitzgerald novel—would come to expect of him. Its scheme is preposterous, and also charming: a child prodigy philosophy scholar meets a chorus girl and marries her. They call themselves Head and Shoulders—he’s the brain and she does the shimmy onstage. By the end of the story they have reversed roles—she has written a best-selling book and he is working as a gymnast. The story farcically rehearses the arc of Tender is the Night and its theme of role reversal, in which the wife vampirishly drains her husband’s vitality. Passed over by Cowley for obvious reasons of quality, the story is interesting nevertheless as an example of an early stage in the development of Fitzgerald’s narrative techniques and style:
And then, just as nonchalantly as though Horace Tarbox had been Mr. Beef the butcher or Mr. Hat the haberdasher, life reached in, seized him, handled him, stretched him, and unrolled him like a piece of Irish lace on a Saturday-afternoon bargain-counter.
The familiar narrative voice at this early stage in Fitzgerald’s career is teasing, perhaps a little pushy; yet even here the voice, whether first- or third-person singular, is so disarming as to be capable of convincing the reader of almost anything. It is sophisticated without being superior, conspiratorial without the gossip’s malice. It is the nascent voice of Nick Carraway, who carries us past the improbabilities and gaps in Jay Gatsby’s background with such assurance that we are unlikely to notice them.
In “Head and Shoulders” we see in its earliest development one of Fitzgerald’s greatest gifts as a storyteller—the conversational intimacy of his narrative voice. Fitzgerald’s third-person narratives always sound as if they are verging into the first person, as indeed they sometimes do in the stories, the author stepping in from out of nowhere (almost like a latter-day Henry Fielding). “Now in Hades—as you know if you ever have been there….” “It is with one of those denials and not with his career as a whole that this story deals….” “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”2 In this regard Fitzgerald is something of a throwback. While modernism was striving for impersonality, and while Joyce, copping an attitude—and a metaphor—from Flaubert, was refining himself out of the text, F. Scott Fitzgerald never disappeared from his stories. They were entirely personal, intimate, and confidential. (Which is perhaps one reason why Fitzgerald’s critics have always been so personal, so much under the spell of his biography.)
The Thackeray of Vanity Fair comes to mind when one reads the early stories, the genial, coy, semi-omniscient narrator who sometimes avails himself of the first-person pronoun and who pops onto the stage toward the end of the book. As a satirist he is delicate: in exposing hypocrisy he is inclined merely to wink complicitly at the reader without necessarily thrashing the hypocrite to death:
There are things we do and know perfectly well in Vanity Fair though we never speak of them, as the Abrahamians worship the devil, but don’t mention him: and a polite public will no more bear to read an authentic description of vice than a truly refined English or American female will permit the word breeches to be pronounced in her chaste hearing.
Compare this with a passage from “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” Fitzgerald’s fourth Saturday Evening Post story, published in May of 1920.
It is well known among ladies over thirty-five that when the younger set dance in the summer-time it is with the very worst intentions in the world, and if they are not bombarded with stony eyes stray couples will dance weird interludes in the corners, and the more popular, more dangerous, girls will sometimes be kissed in the parked limousines of unsuspecting dowagers.
If the first half of this passage seems a little too easy in establishing a nudging rapport with the reader, the couples dancing “weird interludes in the corners” and “kissing in the parked limousines of unsuspecting dowagers” have Fitzgerald’s characteristic sparkle.
It is exhilarating to reread these early stories and see Fitzgerald flexing his talent. “May Day” (1920) shows the influence of Sister Carrie without sounding like anything but early Fitzgerald.
Fifth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street swarmed with the noon crowd. The wealthy, happy sun glittered in transient gold through the windows of the smart shops, lighting upon mesh bags and purses and strings of pearls in gray velvet cases; upon gaudy feather fans of many colors; upon the laces and silks of expensive dresses; upon the bad paintings and fine period furniture in the elaborate show rooms of interior decorators.
Working-girls, in pairs and groups and swarms, loitered by these windows, choosing their future boudoirs from some resplendent display which included even a man’s silk pajamas laid domestically across the bed.
The omniscient narrative presents a panoramic view of the city which moves effortlessly between a suite at the Biltmore, the offices of a radical newspaper, and the thronged streets. Eight or nine characters from diverse social strata are deftly sketched. There is a young plutocratic Tom Buchanan prototype, Philip Dean, who, after a bracing shower, would “[emerge] from the bathroom polishing his body.” At the other end of the social scale are two recently demobilized soldiers.
In September of 1929, See Andrew Turnbull, Letters (Scribner's, 1963), p. 307.↩
In his scathing biography, Invented Lives: The Marriage of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Houghton Mifflin, 1984), James R. Mellow puts to bed, forever one hopes, the alleged exchange between Fitzgerald and Hemingway about the rich being different.—Stop, you're both right! According to Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway was the recipient of the celebrated riposte, while Fitzgerald was nowhere in sight: "Hemingway and the literary critic Mary Colum had been lunching together when Hemingway made a passing remark about his wealthy acquaintance: I am getting to know the rich. And it was Mary Colum who made the famous rejoinder that the only difference between the rich and other people was that the rich had more money."↩
In September of 1929, See Andrew Turnbull, Letters (Scribner’s, 1963), p. 307.↩
In his scathing biography, Invented Lives: The Marriage of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Houghton Mifflin, 1984), James R. Mellow puts to bed, forever one hopes, the alleged exchange between Fitzgerald and Hemingway about the rich being different.—Stop, you’re both right! According to Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway was the recipient of the celebrated riposte, while Fitzgerald was nowhere in sight: “Hemingway and the literary critic Mary Colum had been lunching together when Hemingway made a passing remark about his wealthy acquaintance: I am getting to know the rich. And it was Mary Colum who made the famous rejoinder that the only difference between the rich and other people was that the rich had more money.”↩