© the Fitzgerald Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
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Out of time: F Scott Fitzgerald and an America in decline

The last remaining uncollected stories and a new biography show the great novelist’s grasp of history and his place in it.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s publishing career lasted just two decades, from 1920 to 1940, when he died aged 44. But in that brief time he published four novels, a play and 178 short stories (some of which he compiled into four collections), while leaving an unfinished novel as well as many incomplete stories, fragments, notes, screenplays and film scenarios. Most have gradually trickled into print over the 77 years since his death, and with the publication of I’d Die For You, the trickle all but ends: these are the last known uncollected stories from the archives.

Despite the collection’s subtitle (And Other Lost Stories) most of these were not, as their editor Anne Margaret Daniel notes, lost: they were just unpublished. Some have been sitting in various archives since Fitzgerald’s daughter, Scottie, first donated her parents’ papers to Princeton University Library in the early 1950s; other drafts turned up over the years and were preserved, but not published. Seven more were found among family papers in 2012, and now the Fitzgerald estate has decided to publish them all in an authoritative edition, perhaps motivated by inflated recent claims about the “discovery” of “long-lost” Fitzgerald stories by means of the remarkable stratagem of going to a library and reading the catalogue. This happened in 2016 with a 1939 story called “Temperature” (which, as Daniel wrote at the time, Fitz­gerald noted should be “Filed Under False Starts”) and in 2015 with “Ballet Shoes” (1936), which was misleadingly publicised as a “fragment of a lost novel”.

Daniel (who – full disclaimer – I studied with, and who thanks me in the acknow­ledgements to this collection, though I had no hand in the volume and had read only a couple of these stories in alternate forms before she collected them here) has done a meticulous, engaging job. Yet the question that will concern most readers is not the standard of the editor’s scholarship, but the quality of Fitzgerald’s stories. That is a thornier issue.

Daniel’s argument for publication focuses on the fact that Fitzgerald sought publication for these tales, considering them finished: most of them were rejected, or withdrawn when he refused to make cuts demanded by editors, some of which sanitised or toned down dark or difficult subject matter. One early story, “The IOU”, from 1920, really did go astray among his papers, and is better than much of what he published at the time.

Most of these writings show Fitzgerald’s efforts to “open up a new well, a new vein”, during the Great Depression as his, and America’s, fortunes were falling. After a decade of bright success, his drinking was inexorably overtaking him, while his wife Zelda’s breakdown and hospitalisation created immense psychological and financial strain. Unsurprisingly, he found he could no longer muster cheerful stories of moonshine and starshine. Nor could he write about young love for ever: at 43, he acidly noted, to still show “an absorbing interest in young girls . . . at my age would probably land me behind bars”.

But although Fitzgerald refused to lower his standards, he also refused to lower his price. His efforts to make his stories both artistic and commercial, high literature that was Hollywood-ready, often left them lurching between extremes. It was a Faustian pact he tried to make from the beginning: a few early successes selling screenplays and film adaptations seem to have convinced him that money was there for the taking. But it was easy for only a few years, when his tastes and his audience’s achieved a near-magical synchronicity. By 1925 their inclinations had begun to diverge, as the comparatively cool response to The Great Gatsby demonstrated, and they never coincided again until after his death.

Increasingly, Fitzgerald refused to alter what he submitted to magazines, even as they rejected it. Daniel attributes his stubbornness to artistic integrity, a refusal “to submit to the expectations of those surprised to find in him a broad streak of realism, or a progression into the bleakness and broken styles of High Modernism”, as at times it surely was. But at other times it reads more like enervation. When asked to revise “I’d Die for You”, Fitzgerald responded: “I’m not going to touch it myself again but I know a boy here who might straighten it out for a share of the profits, if any.” That isn’t high-mindedness, it’s weariness. She notes that when, in 1936, three years after its original submission, his agent wanted to revisit the question of publishing “What to Do About It”, Fitzgerald replied that he could “scarcely remember the plot”.

The title story has been judiciously chosen: it is probably the best of the lot, and with some improvement to the sentimental conclusion might have ranked among Fitzgerald’s better work. It is let down, as are nearly all the stories here, by a pat Hollywood ending that seems calculated to appeal to film producers. The most surprising entry is “Salute to Lucy and Elsie”, which is far more explicitly sexual than anything else in Fitzgerald’s oeuvre, opening with a ribald letter from one college roommate to another about their efforts to “G the L [get the lay] — or is she still pulling that one about being a Catholic and not believing in Birth Control”. The letter ends with the young man’s assurance that he has not contracted venereal disease, which is the kind of thing Fitzgerald often joked about in correspondence with male friends, but not in his published writing. Daniel has also unearthed some wonderful photographs that make their first appearance, including (opposite) a very modern and deeply pleasing image of Fitzgerald pulling a face in a photo booth.

As Daniel notes, readers familiar with Fitzgerald’s classics will hear echoes of phrases here in new settings, creating a kind of treasure hunt. When a character in California says she’s “from the East” because she was raised in Idaho, she sounds like Jay Gatsby declaring that the “part of the middle-west” he comes from is San Francisco. The title story contrasts two men: “Roger rode along with life—Carley dominated it with his sophistication and humor,” a formulation recalling Fitzgerald’s famous confession in “The Crack-Up” that, as a younger man, he had thought, “Life was something you dominated if you were any good.” He had finished two drafts of “I’d Die for You” by November 1935, the same month he began “The Crack-Up”, into which the phrase migrates. In Gatsby, he calls the Midwest “the warm center of the world”; in “The Women in the House”/“Temperature” he questions whether “the safe, warm world” even exists, this time adding, “Or is there such a world —”. But there are also touches of the old visionary “incandescence”, of characters who look “slantwise upon a richer and more amusing universe”.

In Fitzgerald’s best work, his ­satirical mind steadies his romantic heart. But too much of his later short fiction – often rushed, not always sober – is off-key, like listening to a once-great tenor straining to find the old easy power; you can hear grace notes, but also sharps and flats, thinning of the timbre and undisguised wobbles. With a few felicitous exceptions, the attempts at humour are strained; for all the efforts at farce in some of the Hollywood ­treatments, perhaps the funniest story is “The IOU” – also the only one that dates from the light-hearted months of his earliest success. “Thumbs Up” and “Dentist Appointment” are earlier, alternate versions of a story called “The End of Hate”, published a few months before the author died, inspired by a gruesome incident Fitzgerald’s father recounted to him involving a Confederate cousin who was strung up by the thumbs during the civil war. These two versions aren’t different enough from “The End of Hate” to justify being identified as unpublished stories, though they do show how Fitzgerald struggled with plotting: one version lurches into an absurd caper about rescuing the Empress Eugénie, the other into an equally ludicrous (and casually racist) kidnapping plot.

It’s a cliché that for Fitzgerald and his contemporaries the world changed ineradicably around the First World War, that it was the fixed point from which they assessed their lives. While that is true up to a point, for someone like Fitzgerald, born in 1896, America was transformed not by this war, but by the civil war: the end of slavery, the coming of industrial capitalism, the rise of the robber barons and the age of monopoly. Americans in the 1920s measured cultural changes from the end of the civil war just as we habitually measure them from the end of the Second World War. Fitzgerald’s lifelong ambitions to write a novel about the American Civil War were never realised, but most of his great work alludes in some way to its consequences and aftermath.

Fitzgerald’s historical imagination is the subject of David Brown’s Paradise Lost, presented as a biography, but really more of a series of essays that draw on important biographical moments to frame the evolution of Fitzgerald’s historical vision. This is a crucial aspect of his thinking, but the approach cannot be said to be new. Alfred Kazin declared thirty years ago that Fitzgerald “loved America and attached himself to its myths”, and that: “No one else in his generation so seriously took American history as his history.” Nobody has seriously disputed the idea since. Writing in 1929 in “The Swimmers” of an America that was rewarding “one, not . . . the ninety-nine”, Fitzgerald worried about a “recurrent idea in America about an education that would leave out history and the past, that should be a sort of equipment for aerial adventure, weighed down by none of the stowaways of inheritance or tradition”. That idea has recurred in US politics, which has recently elected an administration that floats free, unfettered not only by the past, but by facts altogether, and it makes Brown’s interest in Fitzgerald’s understanding of history very timely. Brown is a professor of history in New England and writes with a sure touch on the subject – but his feel for Fitzgerald’s writing can be a bit less certain.

Brown’s framing of Fitzgerald’s engagement with history is too broad, if anything, digressing from his direct influences and offering brief lectures on indirect ones instead. For example, a chapter on the Fitzgeralds’ time in Europe offers a discursus on ideas about expatriation, beginning with the 18th-century naturalist Comte de Buffon and his theories of degeneracy and native soil, linking those to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, moving on to ideas of American exceptionalism, pausing to explain the plot of Henry James’s The Ambassadors – before admitting that Fitzgerald almost certainly never read Buffon but “developed his own ideas on degeneracy”. Yet he didn’t: the ideas came to him through popular books such as Van Wyck Brooks’s The Pilgrimage of Henry James (1925).

By turning to the history he knows so well, Brown often leaves behind the life he has pledged to write. Zelda fades into a pale cipher, a fate she would have detested, and Hemingway is given short shrift. These complex, influential, competitive relationships are reduced to a few familiar stories.

Readers seeking basic biographical facts may find themselves adrift as errors creep in. Misnaming Fitzgerald’s recurring character Josephine Perry as Josephine Baker, the dancer, is minor. A more significant problem is Brown’s remark that “if Fitzgerald’s Ledger is accurate”, he was on the wagon in 1935. In fact, Fitzgerald’s Ledger (a register-cum-diary he kept erratically) is notoriously inaccurate, and he was repeatedly hospitalised for alcoholic breakdowns that year – which is why 1935 ended with the composition of the Crack-Up essays. Brown is interested in Fitzgerald as a social historian but makes the common mistake of thinking his “archives were any number of bars, newspapers, beaches and cities”, as if one of the 20th century’s greatest writers never opened a history book. Fitzgerald was at his best when his imagination could transform characters into emblems of a moment in American history, from “May Day” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” to “The Last of the Belles” and Gatsby.

“The truth is, Fitzgerald had lost track of time,” Brown writes, explaining how nine years elapsed between the publication of Gatsby in 1925 and Tender Is the Night in 1934. But Fitzgerald’s sensitivity to time – historical, psychological, metaphysical – was one of his greatest gifts. He feared its loss but knew, also, how to suspend it. The ending of Gatsby invokes not only national history, but a moment when time stopped. Fitzgerald is riffing on Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and its closing image of the wonder of discovery, the conquistadors awestruck by their first vision of the Pacific, left “Silent, upon a peak in Darien”.

At Fitzgerald’s best, that was the perspective he, too, could conjure: of a specific moment in historical time that somehow symbolised timelessness. Daniel’s fascinating collection of stories and, despite its flaws, Brown’s biography stand as timely reminders: if Fitzgerald ever “lost track” of time – which I doubt – he certainly never lost track of history, and neither should we. 

Sarah Churchwell is the author of “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby” (Virago)

I’d Die For You: and Other Lost Stories 
F Scott Fitzgerald
Scribner, 358pp, £16.99

Paradise Lost: a Life of F Scott Fitzgerald 
David S Brown
Belknap/Harvard University 
Press, 397pp, £23.95

 

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.