An American sublime. Scott Fitzgerald wrote perhaps the most read American novel of the 20th century. But he died prematurely, a broken alcoholic. Julian Evans celebrates the last of the romantics

Flappers and Philosophers

F Scott Fitzgerald <em>Cambridge University Press, 430pp, £35 </em>

Just about all the objections ever levelled at F Scott Fitzgerald for his unseriousness as a writer - that he fawned on the rich; that he was a mongrel of letters; that, being tarred by his self-destructive excesses, he was a wretched custodian of his own talent - originated with Fitzgerald himself, except for the charge about the rich. As he said in 1940, when somebody repeated the canard: "I always thought my progress was in the other direction." To him, the motive seemed strange. "It can't be jealousy, for there isn't much to be jealous of any more . . ."

In 1940, at the age of 44, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, lying on the sofa in his none too grand Hollywood apartment a few days before Christmas, annotating the report of a football game in the Princeton alumni magazine. That year, all of his books sold a total of 72 copies, and he knew that he had wrecked himself physically. A couple of years earlier, he had said to the screenwriter Budd Schulberg: "You know, I used to have a beautiful talent once, Baby. It used to be a wonderful feeling to know it was there . . ." In 1940, he was also working strenuously on The Last Tycoon. Any writer interested in the prose of others should read the first six pages of that novel, then see if they could say so much, so well, in 60 pages.

The success of This Side of Paradise, published when he was 23, made Fitzgerald both star and sage. As a storyteller, he was elevated - wrongly, given that his commentaries are largely sceptical - as the prophet of a decade in which America wanted only to be entertained. Ever since, he has been viewed iconically, always denied the status of serious greatness. (His personality, and he and his disturbed wife Zelda's ashtray-throwing sprees, didn't help.)

That there is a new Cambridge edition of his work may indicate a sea change in the prevailing attitude. It is 30 years overdue, but welcome nevertheless, giving us the chance to start again, to reinspect the Fitzgerald house, to reappraise the style and re-examine the writing on the wall - as opposed to the personalities who lived there. The most recent volume to be published, in fact, offers a ground-floor entry in the shape of his first ambuscades: Flappers and Philosophers was his first collection of stories, published in the wake of (although, in several cases, written before) his first bestseller.

Misconceptions are rife about Fitzgerald's 160-odd published stories. He was partly responsible: disparaging them for the energy they drained from novel-writing, he encouraged critics to segregate them as hack work. But if, today, you read a number of the later stories back-to-back - say, "Winter Dreams", "Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar", "The Sensible Thing", "The Last of the Belles", "The Swimmers", "One Trip Abroad", "The Bridal Party", "Babylon Revisited" - I guarantee that few of you will deny that this is work from the hand of a brilliant maker. I use the word "brilliant" deliberately: brilliance and glitter seem to be the qualities that modern disparagers of Fitzgerald, including John Updike, find most offence in. But Fitzgerald's model of society - if it really is from the top down, and I have my doubts - is no less valid than that of Dos Passos or Faulkner. He may not have foreseen the Depression, but it wasn't the defining moment of the American century; no, Fitzgerald's point was that, as the story "Two for a Cent" shows, whether you succeed in making it on to the fast train going north, or east, from the opiate south or Midwest, is less than half a matter of class and more than half pure chance. And he also knew that, behind every American fortune - even Gatsby's - lies some meanness or rottenness. America at the end of the 20th century was the land of Gatsbys. Who is Bill Clinton but Jay Gatsby, Arkansas version? The real question is not how mature Fitzgerald's characters or his dealings with them are - a man has a right to wear a glorious crushed rag of a pink suit if he wants - but whether, as Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, says, they turn out all right in the end.

The stories in the Cambridge Flappers and Philosophers number not only those from the 1920 Scribners edition, but also four others that were rejected at the time by Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, and two that were omitted from Tales of the Jazz Age. This reflects the edition's desire to collect chronologically everything that Fitzgerald published. The terrific pleasure for me in this collection is reading Fitzgerald from 1917 to 1921, when he was learning the bulk of his confidence. The two earliest stories, "Babes in the Woods" and "The Debutante", although they were stripped and used by Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise, are the usual breathless stuff of early attempts: Fitzgerald makes something of them by the skin of his teeth, by his ability to create a sharp, colourful contrast of descriptive formality - stag lines and staircases - and emotional excitement within and without his characters' heads. (I wonder whether Elvis really invented the teenager. Maybe Fitzgerald did it first.)

In 1918, Fitzgerald seems to have written no stories, presumably occupied with This Side of Paradise; a year later, he wrote eight, four of which show a racing maturity. "The Ice Palace" is famous but, in an appendix here, a helpful essay by Fitzgerald about the genesis of the story tells how he was out "walking with a girl" in Alabama, and they wandered into a graveyard. "She told me I could never understand how she felt about the Confederate graves, and I told her I understood so well that I could put it on paper." Which he did, in a manner likely to do considerable damage to the ideal of a United States, and with not a grave in sight - the ice palace of the title doubling as the frozen labyrinth of northern forgetfulness, as against the ever-living memory of the south.

Before "The Ice Palace" in the autumn of 1919, Fitzgerald seems to have gone through some kind of climacteric. In "Dalyrimple Goes Wrong", a war hero turning to burglary to supplement his peacetime wages is taken up by a political sponsor: a sudden golden future beckons, but the picture is already stained. Dalyrimple is thus the first echo of Gatsby. "The Cut-Glass Bowl", with its suppressed family tragedy, is a surprising swerve into domestic bleakness. These are not my favourites, but they are interesting rebuttals of the image of Fitzgerald as gadfly. In fact, four of the 14 stories in this collection hit a base note of grief, of something irretrievable, and hardly one is about wealth and glamour, unless wealth is something sought and glamour an expectation of rich experience.

What matters in these stories - in fact, what is always at issue with Fitzgerald - is the prose, and its excellence or not, according to your point of view. However, it is not entirely a personal matter. That there are readers who can't stomach Fitzgerald's romanticism, and that it is possible to prefer another angle on the class-and-money question, I understand. But I fear that those who do not feel the epiphanies of his prose, do not feel. This is one of the most human, and humanising, voices of the past hundred years. "The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigour of the bath of light . . . only the Happer house took the full sun and all day long faced the dusty road-street with a tolerant, kindly patience." "You will have to take him as you take Abercrombie, for what he is and will always be. This is a story of the dead years." I don't know another writer who can make me so cheered to read about sunlight, or the dead years - cheered in the sense of being party to a pact of compassion (and pleasure) between writer and reader. Raymond Chandler once described this quality of Fitzgerald's: it was charm, he said, "charm as Keats would have used it . . . a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite".

Before he was 30, Fitzgerald believed that this ability was effortless. "I was a sort of magician with words - an odd delusion," he wrote, "when I had worked so desperately hard to develop a hard, colourful prose style." So, after CUP's very good edition of the stories, I am rather puzzled by the other Cambridge Fitzgerald volume published this year. This is the 100 per cent spurious novel Trimalchio, the first version of The Great Gatsby - a version on which Fitzgerald worked heavily in proof in the winter of 1924. The justification that these are two different books is a weird sort of sophistry, given that the first was a version that Fitzgerald didn't want published; having read both versions, it is clear that his winter labour is what clinched it as a masterpiece.

Are we to go on misunderstanding Scott Fitzgerald? If he was ever superficial, the honesty of his superficialities turned out to be a truer picture of the American Dream (and a truer prediction of the American century) than the mysticism and pose-ridden individualism of many of his contemporaries, and successors. It was Fitzgerald, too, who nailed the arbitrariness of its score sheet, nailed the obvious concomitance of success with rapid, violent disillusion. Listening to the one existing recording of his voice in the BBC archives, I thought of Gatsby's remark about Daisy Buchanan's baby voice (that seductress's voice used by Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe): "Her voice is full of money." Fitzgerald's own accent is barely American, practically that of an Oxford man, and his voice is low and gentle and full of everything he paid for. Romantic writers tend to pay more, because they see the passing of a dream, although they never quite let up on believing it. Fitzgerald died young, but he stood the course, unlike Hemingway; he wrote perhaps the most read American novel of the century. In The Crack-Up, incidentally, he invented the confessional memoir that has become routine for American writers. His stories remain a joy and a blessing, fragments of an American sublime. He turned out all right in the end.

Julian Evans is a travel writer and literary critic. He will be contributing regularly to the NS books pages