The poor son of a bitch, as F. Scott Fitzgerald has the only mourner at Jay Gatsby's wake declare. The poor son of a bitch, as Dorothy Parker repeated at Fitzgerald's own funeral. Both of them—the fictional character, madly trying to create himself, and the doomed author, madly trying to create fiction—were artists, in their way. And one of the things both their stories prove is that the cost of being an artist at that high a pitch is more than anyone in their right mind would pay. Of course, they weren't in their right minds. Poor lost bastards, Gatsby and the fiction writer who invented him were always straining to reach beyond themselves to something new.
Or maybe fiction is the wrong word. A new collection of Fitzgerald's last uncollected works has just been published. Called I'd Die For You and Other Lost Stories, it reveals something about just how weak the man was at plotting. At narrative. At story. Oh, he had a basic understanding of how to push a plot forward. You only have to read "The Offshore Pirate," "Winter Dreams," "Babylon Revisited"—any of his greatest short stories—to realize that. But as he was producing his Flappers and Philosophers short stories in the 1920s, he understood that he was often writing to fit a frame, a formula. To give them a frisson that would help carry the reader onward, for instance, the tales tended to be a little sexy, for their time, and a little risqué. Thus, in "Benediction," Fitzgerald tells the story of an upper-class Catholic girl who, on her way to give up her virginity to her lover, stops off to visit her brother at a Jesuit seminary in Maryland—and almost, but not quite, changes her mind about the reason for her trip.
By the 1930s, however, the formula was a little tattered. The flappers had disappeared into the Depression, along with the trust-funded boys in thrall to their jittery ways, short dresses, and bobbed hair. The slaughter of the First World War no longer bounded the thoughts of the young. And where Fitzgerald could once receive as much as $2,000, twice the average American yearly salary, for a single story, he began to find editors much less interested in the stories he poured out to finance the wild lifestyle he lived with his wife Zelda—and the expensive mental-health sanitarium to which she was later confined.
Hollywood provided some cash, but he never really mastered the formula for movie scripts, as some of the entries in I'd Die For You show. (In the movie studio, he was, the director Billy Wilder complained, "a great sculptor hired to do a plumbing job.") And most of the rest of the book consists of abandoned and rejected efforts to find the formula that would let him write successful short stories through the 1930s.
Without the frame, what did he have? The editor of the new collection, Anne Margaret Daniel, is willing to admit when the stories are bad—but that only brings to mind Dorothy Parker's famous quip that even in his bad stories, Fitzgerald was incapable of writing badly. Damaged by his alcoholism, his prose may have decayed before his death from a heart attack at age 44 in 1940, but at his worst his prose is still musical. It always dashes off sudden psychological insights. And it always creates an image. To read, for instance, the end of The Great Gatsby is to realize that Fitzgerald didn't write fiction. He wrote prose poems, strung together and carried along by what story he could give them.
In The Great Gatsby, it worked brilliantly. In The Last Tycoon, it worked so poorly that he couldn't finish the book. In the stories of the 1920s, the formula was usually sufficient, and when he ignored formula—as in his fantasy, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"—his fame was enough to keep readers moving through the impossibly perfect prose. In the stories of the 1930s, however, he lacked an easy frame that conveyed meaning to its time, and the stories were often bad, despite his prose.
The first of the 18 pieces in I'd Die For You is called "The I.O.U.," and it's also the only story in the collection that dates from the 1920s. Written when the author was 23, in the first moments of stardom after the publication of This Side of Paradise, "The I.O.U." was set aside for revisions by Fitzgerald, who was flooded with writing opportunities at the time and never got back around to it. Still, the story has the bounce and effortless feeling of his early writing, as it tells a comic tale of a hack publisher who explains his business philosophy: "I accept long novels about young love written by old maids in South Dakota." Along the way, he gets drawn into the clutches of a fake spiritualist, promising a glimpse into the afterlife—which circles back to his cynical description of non-fiction books: "Non-fiction is a form of literature that lies half-way between fiction and fact."
"Nightmare (Fantasy in Black)" dates from 1932, a time when Fitzgerald was rediscovering the rejections from editors he had known before he was taken as the very definition of the 1920s. Set in an expensive sanitarium like the one that held Zelda, the story grinds on in a grim, sad way, even in its comic moments.
Fitzgerald moaned in his letters that he was "whoring" himself, doing "hack work," but even when he did, he had trouble placing his work. In the 1937 "Offside Play," for example, he made an effort to tell a college story, a tale of a young woman attracted to a (probably illicitly paid) Yale football player. "She was plagued," Fitzgerald writes, "by her bright unused beauty." But the world and F. Scott Fitzgerald had changed from the days that magazines would have showered him with money for that kind of story. His agent wrote that the editors of the Saturday Evening Post had rejected "Offside Play": "They say it lacks the warmth of your best work and it hasn't the 'incandescent' quality your readers expect."
I'd Die For You includes two efforts Fitzgerald made at writing historical fiction, which was something that had always fascinated him and might, had he lived, been the next direction his writing took. "Thumbs Up" and "Dentist Appointment" are both attempts to tell the story of a man hanged by his thumbs during the Civil War—each of them combined with a wildly implausible second section in which the heroine, Josie Pilgrim, meets up again with the thumb-hanged man she rescued.
All in all, the collection of these last lost bits of Fitzgerald's fiction adds little to our sense of the man as a writer. The stories, for the most part, confirm the notion that he was adrift in the 1930s: incapable of writing a bad sentence, but unsure how to construct a story out of the prose-poem fragments he produced. He wasn't a poet without a muse; America and Zelda remained constant inspirations in his mind. But he was a poet without a genre, a frame, a formula—a sense of what to do with the thoughts and images that he created.
It's hard to let go of a man who could write of his birthplace, St. Paul, Minnesota, that back in its early rough-frontier days, "The rude town was like a great fish just hauled out of the Mississippi and still leaping and squirming on the bank," as he does in "Dentist Appointment." But the image itself is also like a fish out of water in this collection: a great bit of prose, without much further purpose or point.
No wonder by the end of the 1930s F. Scott Fitzgerald felt that he himself was without much further purpose or point. In 1940, the year he died, he wrote in a letter: "My God, I am a forgotten man."
The poor son of a bitch.
Published under: Book reviews