The proper assessment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short-story achievements has been impeded by allegations that he squandered or damaged his genius by selling out to the high-paying mass-circulation magazines: that he deliberately wrote bad commercial stories to satisfy the requirements of the market. Their popularity was cited as evidence of their triviality. Fitzgerald wrote stories in order to sell them, but that is not the same thing as selling out. The commercial writer Samuel Johnson stated that “Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” The admission that Fitzgerald wrote them for money does not diminish the quality of writing in his stories. He was not two writers operating under the same byline—one who wrote stories for The Saturday Evening Post and the other who wrote novels for Charles Scribner’s Sons. Fitzgerald also expected his novels to make a great deal of money. He never wrote for the celebrated “fit audience though few.”
Fitzgerald’s stories were crowd-pleasers for clear reasons: interesting plots; attractive new characters—especially his determined young women; and fresh material. His stories were both entertaining and serious. He was a moralist who preached acceptable sermons in fiction. Looking back at 1920 in “Early Success,” he wrote:
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.
Fitzgerald was a natural storyteller; his stories are smoothly paced and hold reader attention. Although he occasionally employed trick endings, his loyal readers learned to expect eloquent or emotionally complex conclusions—as in “Winter Dreams.”
Fitzgerald gave the magazines and his readers value for their money. His early Post stories range from 8,000 words (“Head and Shoulders”) to 10,500 words (“The Offshore Pirate”)—longer than the standard magazine story of 5,000 or 6,000 words. They are carefully plotted, not stretched with nonfunctional incidents. Much of the wordage in a top Fitzgerald story is allocated to analysis and development of character. The padding takes the form of description: see the opening of “The Offshore Pirate.” After his mastery of the short story had fled, Fitzgerald ruefully commented: “It grows harder to write because there is much less weather than when I was a boy and practically no men and women at all.”
Readability is always a matter of style. Lionel Trilling—one of the soundest commentators on Fitzgerald—observed in 1950:
Fitzgerald wrote much about love, he was preoccupied with it as between men and women, but it is not merely where he is being explicit about it that his power appears. It is to be seen where eventually all a writer’s qualities have their truest existence, in his style. Even in Fitzgerald’s early, cruder books, or even in his commercial stories, and even when the style is careless, there is a tone and a pitch to the sentences which suggest his warmth and tenderness, and, what is rare nowadays and not likely to be admired, his gentleness without softness.
Raymond Chandler expressed the same idea about Fitzgerald:
He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature, and it’s a great shame that the word has been thoroughly debased by the cosmetic racketeers, so that one is almost ashamed to use it to describe a real distinction. Nonetheless, the word is charm—charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartettes. Yes, where would you find it today?
The defining quality of Fitzgerald’s style, in a broad sense of the term, is its narrative tone. Again Trilling: “In Fitzgerald’s work the voice of his prose is of the essence of his success. We hear in it at once the tenderness toward human desire that modifies a true firmness of moral judgment.”
Another reason for the popularity of Fitzgerald’s early stories in their time is their accuracy as current social history: the recognition factor. Readers respond favorably to accurate renderings of what they know about. Fiction that meets the that’s-the-way-it-is test generates confidence in attentive readers. Faked details erode reader trust.
Magazines make money by selling ad space. The text is bait. Appealing editorial matter increases circulation, and circulation figures determine advertising rates. Fitzgerald attracted a younger readership to magazines that had a stodgy, middle-class, business-oriented image. Gertrude Stein’s observation that This Side of Paradise “really created for the public the new generation” applies equally to the Fitzgerald stories published in the Twenties. His name on the magazine cover sold copies.
His stories brought high prices because they were Fitzgerald stories— with the qualities of style, observation, wit, tone, and imagination that identify his writing. He utilized the material that the slicks (magazines printed on coated paper for advertisements) required from him; but during his early years as a professional it was his own material: the concerns of youth treated seriously to examine the themes of aspiration, love, success, and failure. The charge that Fitzgerald wrote formula stories to meet magazine specifications is not substantiated by his early magazine work. “Head and Shoulders,” “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” “The Offshore Pirate,” “May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” and “Winter Dreams” are not predictable or formulaic.
Some of Fitzgerald’s most ebullient stories—those he evidently enjoyed writing—were written during his first three years as a professional writer. The money he earned from magazines and subsidiary rights represented achievement to the young man who left New York a failure in July 1919 and triumphantly returned in March 1920. His feelings about success and money informed his recurring investigations of the American dream in terms of character. Fitzgerald wrote so well about money because he was serious about it—as serious as Theodore Dreiser. He was better than outsider Dreiser at reporting the mechanisms of social stratification; Fitzgerald had the perspective of the participant who did not entirely belong there. He was in the club with a guest membership: a spy. Malcolm Cowley described this effect as Fitzgerald’s “double vision”—the capacity to be both participant and observer.
Fitzgerald’s early years as a professional writer, 1919-1922, brought the publication of two novels and twenty-six stories—establishing the pattern of his career: balancing magazine work with the novels he believed would determine his literary stature. Nonetheless, he did not disparage his stories at this time; he usually enjoyed writing them and welcomed what seemed to be generous payments. The two stories published in 1919 brought $65; the sixteen published in 1920 brought $5,035 plus $8,750 for movie rights.
As Fitzgerald increasingly regretted the time and strength his stories took away from novel writing, his statements became expressions of guilt. In 1929 he informed Hemingway that “the old whore now gets $4000 a screw.” Commentators have accepted Fitzgerald’s self-rebukes; his stories have been generally classified as hackwork, and too many of the later stories are clearly pot-boilers. Fitzgerald earned most of his living and much of his lifetime literary celebrity from 160 uneven stories. The best ones are among the best in American literature.
The ill repute of Fitzgerald’s stories was strengthened by Hemingway’s denunciation in A Moveable Feast (1964):
I thought he wrote Saturday Evening Post stories that had been readable three years before but I never thought of him as a serious writer. He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring. He said it was whoring but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent. Since he wrote the real story first, he said, the destruction and changing of it that he did at the end did him no harm. I could not believe this and I wanted to argue him out of it…’
Fitzgerald did not make this admission to anyone else. His manuscripts and revised typescripts provide no evidence for the process of spoiling good stories to make them sellable. John O’Hara made a more accurate assessment of Fitzgerald’s work: “All he was was our best novelist, one of our best novellaists, and one of our finest writers of short stories.” O’Hara, America’s best writer of short stories, informed John Steinbeck that “Fitzgerald was a better just plain writer than all of us put together. Just words writing.” Measured by the word-for-word gauge, Fitzgerald’s stories merit admiration. Even the most blatantly commercial ones are redeemed by paragraphs or sentences that bear the Fitzgerald mark.
The twenty-six stories Fitzgerald published during 1919-1922, his early years as a professional, are organized here in the order of their composition— not in order of publication—to provide a clearer impression of the extraordinary development of his tradecraft. Except for the four undergraduate stories revised or rewritten from their appearances in the Nassau Literary Magazine, these stories are not apprentice work. Fitzgerald served his literary apprenticeship while he was neglecting mathematics and chemistry courses at Princeton during 1913-1917. Nineteen of the stories were written before Scribners published This Side of Paradise in March 1920—before Fitzgerald was twenty-four. He came to resent references to his “facility”; but there are different grades of facility. Fitzgerald was a born storyteller who taught himself narrative technique by writing. These stories demonstrate that he rapidly established control over the short-story form. By early 1920 he was able to write “May Day,” a carefully structured novelette with juxtaposed plot lines.
After editor Maxwell Perkins accepted This Side of Paradise for Scribners on 16 September 1919, Fitzgerald proceeded to market himself as a story writer: “While I waited for the novel to appear, the metamorphosis of amateur into professional began to take 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. I had been an amateur before; 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.” He began polishing and revising his stockpile of rejected stories, and he secured a literary agent. His letter to the Paul Revere Reynolds agency asking to be accepted as a client and sending “Nest Feathers” (“Head and Shoulders”) is dated 28 October 1919. Fitzgerald became the client of Harold Ober at the Reynolds office. Within a week he sent Ober “A Smile for Sylvo” (“The Smilers”) and “Barbara Bobs Her Hair” (“Bernice Bobs Her Hair”). The Post bought “Head and Shoulders” for $400, and Fitzgerald was launched in the slicks after five previous appearances in The Smart Set. Three of these Smart Set stories—“Babes in the Woods,” “The Debutante,” and “Benediction”—were recycled from the prewar Nassau Lit. Although it had the imprimatur of George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, The Smart Set was printed on pulp paper and paid pulp rates—$35 or $40 per story. The Smart Set was read by young iconoclasts, and its circulation was 22,000 a month. The Post sold 2,750,000 copies every week. More people read Fitzgerald in a single issue of the Post than read all of his novels during his lifetime.
After he broke into the slicks, Fitzgerald maintained his connection with The Smart Set, which published his stories that were declined by the mass-circulation magazines. Two novella masterpieces—“May Day” (1920) and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (1922)—appeared in The Smart Set, which paid $200 and $300 for them. The deterministic “May Day” shows the influence of Mencken, but Fitzgerald abandoned literary naturalism after his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922).
During 1919 Fitzgerald attempted to establish a connection with Scribner’s Magazine, the quality monthly owned by his publisher, which used “The Cut-Glass Bowl” (May 1920) and “The Four Fists” (June 1920). These moralistic stories suited the taste of editor Robert Bridges and brought Fitzgerald $150 each; but he soon abandoned this market.
Fitzgerald’s 1919-1920 correspondence with agent Ober provides evidence of the young professional’s attitude toward his market. Different stories are cited as “the best story 1 ever wrote” (probably “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong”), “the best I have done” (possibly “The Camel’s Back”) and “the best thing I ever wrote” (probably “His Russet Witch”). In November 1919 he began identifying certain stories as written for the Post. By 6 August 1920 Fitzgerald had commenced his custom of living on loans from his agent against unsold stories, borrowing $500 on “The Lees of Happiness.”
After “Head and Shoulders” in February, Fitzgerald had a string of five more Post appearances during March—May 1920, establishing himself as a popular new talent: “Myra Meets His Family,” “The Camel’s Back,” “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” “The Ice Palace,” and “The Offshore Pirate.” There was nothing else like them in the Post.
The rise of Fitzgerald’s commercial value is neatly documented by his Post treatment in 1920. His name first appeared on the cover with his third Post appearance, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”; and his stories were placed near the front of the issues. The circulation value of Fitzgerald’s stories is indicated by the circumstance that the magazines assigned top illustrators to him.
Fitzgerald became a valuable commercial property. William Randolph Hearst’s Metropolitan temporarily lured him away from the Post by raising his story price from $500 to $900 for “The Jelly-Bean,” published in October 1920. The Metro movie studio paid $3,000 for an option on screen rights to Fitzgerald’s stories; during 1920-21 “Head and Shoulders” (The Chorus Girl’s Romance) and “The Offshore Pirate” were produced by Metro; “Myra Meets His Family” (The Husband Hunter) was made by Fox.
The summary for 1920 was sixteen story publications: six in the Post, two in Scribner’s, one in Metropolitan, and one in the Chicago Sunday Tribune. The total take was $13,785 from the magazines (worth at least $100,000 in 2000): an ebullience-producing record for the twenty-four-year-old writer who had been embarrassed by his poverty the previous year.
In accordance with the Scribner custom, a collection of Fitzgerald’s stories followed This Side of Paradise in September 1920. Fitzgerald selected eight stories for Flappers and Philosophers, which unexpectedly required six printings totaling 15,300 copies between 1920 and 1922. He ranked the stories in the copy of Flappers and Philosophers that he presented to Mencken, but he overrated the stories that the Sage of Baltimore had published in The Smart Set— probably intentionally. The placement of “Head and Shoulders” and “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in the Trash category may indicate that Fitzgerald felt he had outgrown these early “flapper stories”—or that he was attempting to persuade Mencken that he was a serious writer.
The year 1921 was largely devoted to writing The Beautiful and Damned and to travel, during which Fitzgerald published three stories—two of which were Nassau Lit recycles. The third (“His Russet Witch”) was written in November 1920 and brought $900 of the $1,050 story take for 1921. Fitzgerald resumed providing commercial short stories in 1922, publishing five—two in Metropolitan, and one each in the Post, Collier’s, and The Smart Set—for $4,600 total. “The Popular Girl,” his only Post two-parter, brought $1,500; Fitzgerald disliked it and did not reprint it. He was disappointed that “The Diamond As Big As the Ritz” was declined by editors who didn’t understand it and by those who regarded it as blasphemous. “Winter Dreams,” written in September 1922 and published by Metropolitan in December, was the first obvious exemplar of what became identified as the Gatsby cluster stories: the stories written between 1922 and 1924 in which Fitzgerald was testing ideas and themes he developed in the novel.
Fitzgerald’s second story collection, Tales of the Jazz Age, published in September 1922 following The Beautiful and Damned, included “May Day” and “Diamond” but was fleshed out with two Nassau Lit retreads. The volume included an annotated table of contents divided into categories, beginning with “My Last Flappers,” signaling Fitzgerald’s intention to abandon the characters who had launched him as a commercial success. “May Day” is inappropriately included in this group. In late June 1922 Fitzgerald reported to Perkins:
The first four stories, those that will comprise the section “My Last Flappers” left here several days ago. The second four, “Fantasies” leave either this afternoon or tomorrow morning. And the last three “And So Forth” will leave here on the 24th (Sat.) + should reach you Tuesday without fail. I’m sorry I’ve been so slow on this—there’s no particular excuse except liquor and of course that isn’t any. But I vowed I’d finish a travel article + thank God its done at last.
Don’t forget that I want another proof of the Table of Contents. There’s been one addition to the first section and one substitution in the 3d. Its damn good now, far superior to Flappers + the title, jacket + other books ought to sell at least 10,000 copies and I hope 15,000. You can see from the ms. how I’ve changed the stories. I cut out my last Metropolitan story [“Two for a Cent”] not because it wasn’t technically excellent but simply because it lacked vitality. The only story about which I’m in doubt is The Camel’s Back. But I’ve decided to use it—it has some excellent comedy + was in one O. Henry Collection—though of course that’s against it. Here are some suggested blurbs.
1. Contains the famous “Porcelain and Pink Story”—the bath-tub classic—as well as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and nine other tales. In this book Mr. F. has developed his gifts as a satiric humorist to a point rivalled by few if any living American writers. The lazy meanderings of a brilliant and powerful imagination.
2. TALES OF THE JAZZ AGE
Satyre upon a Saxaphone by the most brilliant of the younger novelists. He sets down “My Last Flappers” and then proceeds in section two to fresher and more fantastic fields. You may like or dislike his work but it will never bore you.
3. TALES OF THE JAZZ AGE
Have you met “Mr. Icky” and followed the ghastly carreer of “Benjamin Button”? A medly of Bath-tubs, diamond mountains, Fitzgerald Flappers and Jellybeans.
Ten acts of lustrous farce—and one other.
That’s probably pretty much bunk but I’m all for advertising it as a cheerful book and not as “eleven of Mr. Fitzgerald’s best stories by the y.a. of T.S.O.P.”
Tales of the Jazz Age required three printings in 1922.
At the end of 1922 the Hearst magazines paid $1,500 for an option on Fitzgerald’s 1923 story output, obtaining publication rights to at least six stories at $1,500 each. The arrangement proved unsatisfactory to both parties. Two stories were published in Hearst’s International during 1923. Thereafter Fitzgerald was identified with the Post.
Although Fitzgerald came to resent the appellation “Saturday Evening Post writer,” at the start of his career he aimed his work at the Post and took professional satisfaction in his ability to meet its requirements. He was competing against the most successful writers of the era. In 1940, after Fitzgerald had lost the capacity to write for the Post, he explained to his wife: “High priced commercial writing for the magazines is a very definite trick. The rather special things that I brought to it, the intelligence and good writing and even the radicalism all appealed to old Lorimer who had been a writer himself and liked style.”
During its peak decades the Post was an American cultural institution. Every week boys sold the latest issue in the streets. Thomas Wolfe—who was one of them and later published in the magazine—described his brother’s salesmanship in O Lost:
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir,” he would begin in a sonorous voice, dropping wide-leggedly into the “prospect’s” stride. “This week’s edition of The Saturday Evening Post, five cents, only a nickel, p-p-p-purchased weekly by t-t-two million readers. In this week’s issue you have eighty-six pages of f-f-fact and fiction, to say n-n-nothing of the advertisements. If you c-c-c-can’t read you’ll get m-m-more than your money’s worth out of the p-p-p-pictures. On page thirteen this week, we have a very fine article, by I-I-I-Isaac F. Marcosson, the f-f-f-famous traveler and writer on politics; on page twenty-nine you have a story by Irvin S. Cobb, the g-g-g-greatest living humorist, and a new story of the prize ring by ]-]-]-Jack London. If you b-b-bought it in a book, it’d c-c-cost you a d-d-dollar and a half.”
The time of this account is c. 1910, but the aggressive circulation effort persisted during the Twenties, when it was claimed that one of every ten American families took the Post.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s two readerships apparently had little overlap. The 2,750,000 weekly Post buyers did not buy The Great Gatsby—which sold under 23,000 copies in 1925. If Saturday Evening Post parishioners had supported his novels, Fitzgerald could have quit writing short stories for the magazine.
Fitzgerald regarded book publication of stories as bearing on his literary reputation. The magazine texts of stories were carefully revised for his collections. His revisions had two purposes: to improve the stories and to remove material that had been recycled in a novel. When Perkins attempted to expedite publication of Taps at Reveille by advising him that it was not obligatory to remove all the phrases from the stories that had been incorporated into Tender Is the Night—“Hem has done it”— Fitzgerald replied firmly:
The fact that Ernest has let himself repeat here and there a phrase would be no possible justification for my doing the same thing. Each of us has his virtues and one of mine happens to be a great sense of exactitude about my work. He might be able to afford a lapse in that line where I wouldn’t be and after all I have got to be the final judge of what is appropriate in these cases (24 August 1934).
The texts published here are the magazine versions for stories Fitzgerald did not reprint and his revised versions for stories he collected in Flappers and Philosophers, Tales of the Jazz Age, and All the Sad Young Men. Substantive editorial emendations are stipulated. Typographical errors, misspellings, and confusing punctuation have been silently altered. The proofreading standards at Charles Scribner’s Sons were low.
Fitzgerald was always a social historian, but he was not a reporter. From his apprentice work through his work-in-progress on The Love of the Last Tycoon he conveyed the sense of time and place by using meaningful and evocative details: what people talked about; what they owned; what they knew; how they dressed; what they drank; what they sang; how they danced. In the work of first-class writers there are no accidental details. Fitzgerald’s fiction abounds in scenes or descriptions that win reader trust by means of recognizable details. Yet Fitzgerald committed factual blunders; his delicate sense of place was linked to a poor sense of geography. Readers attempting to navigate Manhattan by means of Fitzgerald’s directions become lost. Accordingly, it is necessary in the twenty-first century to provide readers with explanations and corrections.
Literature—especially social fiction—ages fast. The world of an eighty-year-old story is as remote as that of a two-hundred-year-old story. Every work of fiction worth preserving ought to come equipped with a time machine to enable readers to read it the way the author expected it to be read on the day of publication. This claim clearly applies to Fitzgerald, whose work is so closely identified with one decade and a particular social class.
The notes provided here identify references that Fitzgerald expected readers to recognize when the stories were originally published; their meanings and connotations are built into the stories. Notes explain, explicate, or clarify the function of the details; but notes cannot convey the emotional associations of the details. Although songs can be identified and lyrics quoted, the way Fitzgerald and his characters felt about those songs in 1920 cannot be expressed or duplicated. Nonetheless, these notes document the actuality of Fitzgerald’s fictional world. Only in unimportant instances did he mention “a cabaret” or “a night club”; when the ambience matters, the actual establishment is stipulated. Thus, the Midnight Frolic was a Ziegfeld-produced cabaret on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theatre at Forty-second Street in Manhattan; there is no way to duplicate the sensations and emotions of a handsome, privileged young couple there in 1920. Yet when Fitzgerald is at the top of his form, he provides “the forlorn Laplander” with an impression of what it meant—how it felt—to his characters then and there.
Fictional people, events, and places are not identified as such, except in instances where there may be reader confusion. Notes are not repeated from story to story: the Ritz-Carlton and the shimmy, for example, are identified at their first appearances.
There will be objections to certain of these notes because “Everybody knows that.” I doubt it.
Published in Before Gatsby: The First Twenty-Six Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. by M. J. Bruccoli with the assistance of J. S. Baughman (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001).