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. 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 …