New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
14 May 2017

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.

By Sarah Churchwell

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(And Other Lost Stories) most of these were not, as their editor Anne Margaret Daniel notes, lost: they were just unpublished.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the fact that Fitzgerald sought publication for these tales, considering them finished: most of them were rejected, or withdrawn when he refused to make cuts demanded by editors, some of which sanitised or toned down dark or difficult subject matter.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”.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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


Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning