Seventeen years ago this month I quit work or, if you prefer, I retired from business. I was through—let the Street Railway Advertising Company carry along under its own power. I retired, not on my profit, but on my liabilities, which included debts, despair, and a broken engagement, and crept home to St. Paul to “finish a novel”.
That novel, begun in a training camp late in the war, was my ace in the hole. I had put it aside when I got a job in New York, but I was as constantly aware of it as of the shoe with cardboard in the sole, during all one desolate spring. It was like the fox and goose and the bag of beans. If I stopped working to finish the novel, I lost the girl.
So I struggled on in a business I detested and all the confidence I had garnered at Princeton and in a haughty career as an army's worst aide-de-camp melted gradually away. Lost and forgotten, I walked quickly from certain places—from the pawnshop where one left the field-glasses, from prosperous friends whom one met when wearing the suit from before the war—from restaurants after tipping with the last nickel, from busy cheerful offices that were saving the jobs for their own boys from the war. Nickels and dimes in the hand. Did they make a dollar? Almost, but thouse two stamps had made the difference. And when one is under a dollar everything is different, people look different, food looks different.
Even having a first story accepted had not proved very exciting. Dutch Mount and I sat across from each other in a car-card slogan advertising office, and the same mail brought each of us an acceptance from the same magazine—the old Smart Set.
“My cheque was thirty—how much was yours?”
The real blight, however, was that my story had been written in college two years before, and a dozen new ones hadn't even drawn a personal letter. The implication was that I was on the down-grade at twenty-two. I spent the thirty dollars on a magenta feather fan for a girl in Alabama.
My friends who were not in love, or who had waiting arrangements with 'sensible' girls, braced themselves patiently for a long pull. Not I—I was in love with a whirlwind and I must spin a net big enough to catch it out of my head, a head full of trickling nickels and sliding dimes, the incessant music box of the poor. It couldn't be done like that, so when the girl threw me over I went home and finished my novel. And then, suddenly, everything changed, and this article is about that first wild wind of success and the delicious mist it brings with it. It is a short and precious time—for when the mist rises in a few weeks, or a few months, one finds that the very best is over.
It began to happen in the autumn of 1919 when I was an empty bucket, so mentally blunted with the summer's writing that I'd taken a job repairing car roofs at the Northern Pacific shops. Then the postman rang, and that day I quit work and ran along the street, stopping automobiles to tell friends and acquaintances about it—my novel This Side of Paradise was accepted for publication. That week the postman rang and rang, and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning with a world of ineffable toploftiness and promise. This phase ended with a caller.
The caller left only his name at first, but someone told me it was the name of a big publisher of newspapers in a neighboring city. What more natural than that he should have already heard of my brilliant destiny and come with the suggestion that I give him a column of left-over thoughts. One day my father came upstairs with the expression he reserved for thouse permanently outside the law.
“Mr. A is downstairs,” he said.
“Fine—he's the newspaper owner.”
“Hm!” said my father, managing to be ambiguous.
Within two minutes I myself was in some confusion to what Mr. A was. There stood my forst anonymous admirer, one who had not even read my book, and far from being a newspaper owner, he was a full-time horror, one who devoted imself to the business of being a horror with singlemindednessand concentration. His person was a continuous slither, of eye, of tongue, of sliding hand and mincing foot. He twittered with a coy and horrible excitement. He said he had written poetry, and he made the fact of writing at all somehow shameful and obscene. For many years he was what I half expected to meet when an admirer impinged on the home. My unqualified happiness rocked with the blow.
The metamorphosis of amateur into professional was taking place—a sort of stitching together of your whole life into a pattern of work, so that the end of one job is automatically the beginning of another. The men of promise who fade out in a year have been unable to subordinate all thinking and feeling to the business of thinking and feeling dramatically—sybarite and politician, editor and idealist, hedonist and charmer, wit and idler, find a way to avoid this necessity, and sit down to their work with the ribbons dry on their typewriters. That June I was an amateur—in October, when I strolled with a girl among the stones of a southern graveyard, I was a professional and my enchantment with certain things that she felt and said was already paced by an anxiety to set them down in a story—it was called The Ice Palace and it was published later. Similarly, during Christmas week in St. Paul, there was a night when I had stayed home from two dances to work on a story. Three friends called up during the evening to tell me I had missed some rare doings: a well-known man-about-town had disguised himself as a camel and, with a taxi-driver as the rear half, managed to attend the wrong party. Aghast with myself for not being there, I spent the next day trying to collect the fragments of the story.
“Well, all I can say is it was funny when it happened.”
“No, I don't know where he got the taxi-man.”
“You'd have to know him well to understand how funny it was.”
In despair I said:
“Well, I can't seem to find out exactly what happened but I'm going to write about it as if it was ten times funnier than anything you've said.” So I wrote it, in twenty-two consecutive hours, and wrote it “funny”, simply because I was so emphatically told it was funny. The Camel's Back was published and still crops up in the humorous anthologies.
With the end of the winter set in another pleasant pumped-dry period, and, while I took a little time off, a fresh picture of life in America began to form before my eyes. The uncertainties of 1919 were over—there seemed little doubt about what was going to happen—America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it. The whole golden boom was in the air—its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America in prohibition. All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them—the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy's peasants. In life these things hadn't happened yet, but I was pretty sure living wasn't the reckless, careless business—these people thought—this generation just younger than me.
For my point of vantage was the dividing line between the two generations, and there I sat—somewhat self-consciously. When my first big mail came in—hundreds and hundreds of letters on a story about a girl who bobbed her hair—it seemed rather absurd that they should come to me about it. On the other hand, for a shy man it was nice to be somebody except oneself again: to be “the Author” as one had been “the Lieutenant”. Of course one wasn't really an author any more than one had been an army officer, but nobody seemed to guess behind the false face. All in three days I got married and the presses were pounding out This Side of Paradise like they pound out extras in the movies.
With its publication I had reached a stage of manic-depressive insanity. Rage and bliss alternated hour by hour. A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not. In a daze I gave out an interview—I told what a great writer I was and how I'd achieved the heights. Heywood Broun, who was on my trail, simply quoted it with the comment that I seemed to be a very self-satisfied young man, and for some days I was notably poor company. I invited him to lunch and in a kindly way told him that it was too bad he had let his life slide away without accomplishing anything. He had just turned thirty and it was about then that I wrote a line which certain people will not let me forget: “She was a faded but still lovely woman of twenty-seven.”
In a daze I told the Scribner Company that I didn't expect my novel to sell more than twenty thousand copies and when the laughter died away I was told that a sale of five thousand was excellent for a first novel. I think it was a week after publication that it passed the twenty thousand mark, but I took myself so seriously that I didn't even think it was funny. In a daze I opened The Tribune each morning to see if F.P.A. had found any more misspellings in the book. He started with a list of thirty and eager contributors to his column sent in a hundred more. My God—did they expect me to spell? If I was such a hot shot couldn't the proof-readers do the spelling?
These weeks in the clouds ended abruptly a week later when Princeton turned on the book—not undergraduate Princeton but the black mass of faculty and alumni. There was a kind but reproachful letter from President Hibben, and a room full of classmates who suddenly turned on me with condemnation. We had been part of a rather gay party staged conspicuously in Harvey Firestone's car of robin's egg blue, and in the course of it I got an accidental black eye trying to stop a fight. This was magnified into an orgy, and in spite of a delegation of undergraduates who went to the board of Governors, I was suspended from my club for a couple of months. The Alumni Weekly got after my book and only Dean Gauss had a good word to say for me. The unctuousness and hypocrisy of the proceedings was exasperating and for seven years I didn't go to Princeton. Then a magazine asked me for an article about it, and when I started to write it, I found I really loved the place and that the experience of one week was a small item in the total budget. But on that day in 1920 most of the joy went out of my success.
But one was now a professional—and the new world couldn't possibly be presented without bumping the old out of the way. One gradually developed a protective hardness against both praise and blame. Too often people liked your things for the wrong reasons or people liked them whose dislike would be a compliment. No decent career was ever founded on a public and one learned to go ahead without precedents and without fear. Counting the bag, I found that in 1919 I had made $800 by writing, that in 1920 I had made $18,000, stories, picture rights, and book. My story price had gone from $30 to $1,000. That's a small price to what was paid later in the Boom, but what it sounded like to me couldn't be exaggerated.
The dream had been early realized and the realization carried with it a certain bonus and a certain burden. Premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will-power—at its worst the Napoleonic delusion. The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining. The man who only asserts himself at thirty has a balanced idea of what will-power and fate have each contributed, the one who gets there at forty is liable to put the emphasis on will alone. This comes out when the storms strike your craft. What success my father had came fairly late in life and was brief in duration and never did I hear him blame his failure on anything but his own incompetence, yet he might have since he was caught once in a panic and once in the first rush to weed older men out of business. On the contrary after surviving many years of private misfortune, a comparatively small blow shot my morale temporarily out of existence. For two years I sulked in bitter discouragement, so sure about it that I told everyone and even wrote about it with as little reticence as if I'd lost a leg an a railroad accident.
The man who blooms at thirty blooms in summer. But the compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. In the best sense one stays young. When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascination, I had fair years to waste, years that I can't honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea. Once in the middle twenties I was driving along the High Corniche Road through the twilight with the whole French Riviera twinkling on the sea below. As far ahead as I could see was Monte Carlo, and though it was out of season and there were no Grand Dukes left to gamble and E. Phillips Oppenheim was a fat industrious man in my hotel, who lived in a bath-robe—the very name was so incorrigibly enchanting that I could only stop the car and like the Chinese whisper: “Ah me!Ah me!” It was not Monte Carlo I was looking at. It was back into the mind of the young man with cardboard soles who had walked the streets of New York. I was him again—for an instant I had the good fortune to share his dreams, I who had no more dreams of my own. And there are still times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county. But never again as during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment—when life was literally a dream.
Published in American Cavalcade magazine (October 1937).