F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Kenneth Eble


Chapter 3
Early Success

To all young aspiring writers, Fitzgerald's success cannot help but be appealing; it came so fast and from such despair. The long-range effects of his quick and early success will be debated as long as Fitzgerald remains an important writer. The immediate effects are clear: it gave him the things his romantic self most desired—fame, money, and the girl.

In a year's time, between February 18, 1919, when he was discharged from the army, and the next year, he moved from an amateur writer whose sole publication had been in college magazines to a professional with one novel ready for publication and a dozen stories published or accepted. From the time he sold his first story, “Babes in the Woods,” to Smart Set for $30.00, to the next year, he had made over $3,000 from magazine fiction and $2,500 from the movie rights to one of the stories. By the end of the 1920, he had made over $19,000. No wonder he could write in “How to Live on $36,000 a Year,” “my income had a way of doubling every month. … At the end of the year it must reach half a million.”

Short of finding money in the street (and this seldom happens ) or winning huge sums at cards or in the market (and both require capital), writing is the most startling way to rise from poverty to fortune, from obscurity to fame. Nothing less can explain the persistence with which young men and women of widely varying talents and for little over-all return choose to flood the mails with manuscripts. Access to a typewriter and a dollar's worth of paper and stamps is the price of setting up a literary business and sending forth the products like notes in a bottle. No author has described this typical situation—and the untypical results—better than Fitzgerald did in 1937 in an essay called “Early Success.”

“Seventeen years ago this month I quit work or, if youprefer, I retired from business,” the essay begins. “I was through-let the Street Railway Advertising Company carry along under its own power.” Fitzgerald had come back from the army to New York, planning “to trail murderers by day and do short stories by night.” The newspapers didn't want him, and he became a copy writer for the Barron Collier Advertising Company at $90.00 a month. Between March and June, he wrote nineteen stories and collected, according to his own testimony, 122 rejection slips. When he did finally sell a story—to Smart Set in June for $30.00—the sale was not very exciting. “The real blight,” he wrote, “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.”

The girl was Zelda Sayre; with the thought of her growing “nervous” in Montgomery disturbing his nights, and the job at the agency ruining his days, he despaired of the one and chucked the other 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.”

Elsewhere in the same essay, he describes his feelings: “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.”

And then, suddenly, with “that first wild wind of success,” everything changed. The period between Fitzgerald's deepest despair (in “May Day,” the story created out of this period, Fitzgerald's fictional self commits suicide) and the beginnings of his success, was a little over three months. With the acceptance of the novel, the metamorphosis of amateur into professional began. Events and people began to be situations and characters for stories. The confidence of the professional began to appear in his work. “The Ice Palace,” written during this first flush of success, is one of his best stories; “The Camel's Back,” a very competent story, was written in twenty-two consecutive hours.

Equally important, the continuing acceptances meant that the other prize—Zelda Sayre—was now within reach. His wooingbecame a kind of courtship by financial statement, a flurry of letters and telegrams conveying who had bought what and for how much. “All in three days,” he wrote, “I got married and the presses were pounding out This Side of Paradise like they pound out extras in the movies.” The book and the girl were the center of that short and precious time. The effects, as Fitzgerald carefully considered them twenty years later, were these:

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 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.

The Carnival by the Sea came later. For the present, there was enough of a carnival in the New York life Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald lived between April, 1920, and May, 1921. As Zelda described it in Save Me the Waltz—in an intended or unwitting parody of the beginning of “The Open Boat”—“Nobody knew whose party it was.” The Fitzgeralds' life in New York was the kind one might expect of a newly married, newly rich couple who grew up founding their dreams “on the infinite promise of American advertising,” and who both believed that “one can learn to play the piano by mail and that mud will give you a perfect complexion.”

I Early Stories

The early professional stories of Fitzgerald, those written shortly before and after This Side of Paradise was published, are collected in Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age. Neither collection is as good as Taps at Reveille—Fitzgerald's last collection of short stories—and Tales of the Jazz Age suffers badly from the inclusion of some early writing which might better have remained in the Nassau Lit, where it first appeared. Together, Flappers and Philosophers, published September 10, 1920, five months after This Side of Paradise, and Tales of theJazz Age, published March 26, 1922, contain all but two of the stories Fitzgerald published in magazines in 1920 and 1921.

These two uncollected stories are “Myra Meets His Family,” which appeared in the Post (March 20, 1920), and “The Smilers,” in the Smart Set (June, 1920). “Myra” was written and rejected during those first frustrating months in New York. Though accepted after being revised, its omission from Flappers and Philosophers is for obvious reasons: “The Offshore Pirate,” which was included, uses the same device. The device was to be used a third time and most successfully in “Rags Martin-Jones and the Pr-nce of W-les”; varied slightly, it did service in a fourth story, “Flight and Pursuit” (1932).

The device obviously appealed to Fitzgerald's theatrical nature: in an otherwise realistic story, the hero stages an elaborate fantasy complete in all its details and convincing to both the reader and the heroine of the story. In “Myra Meets His Family,” the Fitzgerald woman, bored with men to the point of seeking a mate, fixes upon a young, wealthy, desirable chap, Knowleton Whiting, who is somewhat suspicious of her motives but blinded by her charms. The fantasy is the “family” Knowleton creates to test Myra's motives. It includes a run-down suburban estate, two hired actors, two dozen dogs, and a portrait of a Chinese ancestor. The trickster tricked, with which the story concludes, is Myra's way of revenge. Having discovered the plot and having secured Knowleton's apologies, she offers to marry him anyway. The marriage she arranges is as phony as Knowleton's “family,” and she slips off the honeymoon train leaving him to discover his mistake somewhere past Buffalo. The closing line— “Tell the driver the Biltmore, Walter”—typifies the “flapper” story by which Fitzgerald won his dubious but imperishable reputation as “Chronicler of the Jazz Age.”

The second was also a previously rejected story called “The Smilers” when it was published in Smart Set. The story is what Fitzgerald called a “plant” and is mercifully both short and buried deep in the magazine. The idea, however, relates to the serious concern Fitzgerald felt for truth as against appearances. The narrator begins by declaring himself against the smile which falsifies true feelings, and then the story shows through the main character how the world's sorrows lie in wait for the smilers and the misanthropes alike. In 1922, Fitzgerald expressed somewhat similar distaste for “the smilers” as part of an article “What I Think and Feel at Twenty-Five” in the American Magazine.

Still later, in 1925, he wrote a popular story about a mild-mannered cashier who tires of affecting politeness in the face of the world's rudeness and becomes momentarily famous as a “pusher-in-the-face,” the title of the story. The idea, however, does not save either story from being a mere working out of a contrivance. It should be observed that “May Day,” in the very next issue of Smart Set, showed Fitzgerald at his best.

Among the stories collected in Flappers and Philosophers, “The Ice Palace” is clearly the best and, in its way, as good a story as Fitzgerald ever wrote. It was the last to be written in the burst of energy which followed the acceptance of This Side of Paradise. Of the nine stories produced during that period, “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong,” “Benediction,” “The Cut-Glass Bowl,” “Head and Shoulders,” and “The Ice Palace” appeared in Flappers and Philosophers. “The Ice Palace,” as Fitzgerald observed in “Early Success,” was written with the professional's knack of making use of experience almost as it was going on. In an interview during these early years, Fitzgerald said the story grew out of two experiences. The one was a conversation with a St. Paul girl. “'Here comes winter,' she said, as a scattering of confetti-like snow blew along the street. I thought immediately of the winters I had known there, their bleakness and dreariness and seemingly endless length…” The other was with Zelda Sayre when he went to visit her in Montgomery shortly after his novel had been accepted. “She told me I would never understand how she felt about the Confederate graves, and I told her I understood so well that I could put it on paper. Next day on my way back to St. Paul it came to me that it was all one story…” The success of the story is in those observations: like all the best of Fitzgerald's work, “The Ice Palace” is created out of an intensely felt past, not only from recent moments of great emotional impact but from long-held feelings that go back into his youth.

The foremost characteristic of Fitzgerald's developing craft in this story is his use of the two contrasting settings to unify and intensify the story. Scene, milieu, and characters are blended so successfully that the reader finds himself not only engaged in the story but in the larger clash between two cultures, temperaments, and histories. By comparison with the use of setting and its relation to character and action in the Eleanor episode of This Side of Paradise, “The Ice Palace” is a great advance.

For all the contrast between North and South, Fitzgeralddoes not lose touch with the reality of the individual cities— St. Paul and Tarleton, Georgia—he is describing. In Sally Carrol Happer, he creates one of his most convincing young girls, individualizing her through a muted Southern accent which seems always to find the words precisely appropriate to her character. A tightly plotted story, it uses the right incidents to illuminate character and has an inevitability that even a somewhat forced climax does not mar. Finally, the story is a long one that hangs tightly together. The languorous scenes in Georgia make it end where it began: the opening sentence, The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar,” is exactly paralleled by the first sentence of the closing section, “The wealth of golden sunlight poured a quite enervating yet oddly comforting heat over the house…” The story ends with Sally Carrol and the best bit of dialogue in the story:

“What you doin?”

“Eatin' green peach. 'Spect to die any minute.”

Perhaps the reason “The Ice Palace” is so successful is that Fitzgerald not only infused the story with the tensions that separated him from Zelda Sayre yet held him to her but also with the warring strains in his own background: the potato-famine Irish and the Maryland gentleman ancestry; the provincial and the Princetonian; poverty, cold, and control against richness, ripeness, and passion.

Of the other stories in Flappers and Philosophers, only “The Cut-Glass Bowl” attempts a literary device somewhat similar to the large contrasts in cultures in “The Ice Palace.” Like “Benediction,” it is a serious story, but longer and more ambitious. The setting is St. Paul; the principal characters are Evelyn Piper and her husband, Harold. The story takes place over twenty-five years during which time Harold's business declines and the Pipers' marriage degenerates into a “colorless antagonism.” Its climactic events are melodramatic, and all are related to the cut-glass bowl. Evelyn was given the bowl as a wedding present from a disappointed suitor because she, too, was “hard, beautiful, empty, and easy to see through.” Evelyn's first (and only) affair is discovered when the other man reveals his presence by accidentally bumping into the bowl. Harold's drunkenness is similarly dramatized. The daughter, Julie, cuts her hand on the bowl and has to have it amputated. The letter telling of the son's death in the war gets misplaced in the bowl.

Finally, Evelyn carries the bowl from the house, smashes it to earth, and falls upon it. In outline, such a story's faults appear clearly enough, and the Fitzgerald style and perception are not quite able to outweigh these defects. In addition, the story suffers from a habit which Fitzgerald had to discipline himself to overcome: the tendency to put himself into the characters and to urge their feelings rather than to disclose them through carefully chosen and precisely described actions.

“Benediction,” as serious in its intent as it is slight in its effect, is a greatly changed version of “The Ordeal,” which was published in the Nassau Lit (1915). The original story tried hard to dramatize convincingly the spiritual struggles of a boy of twenty about to take religious vows. At the moment of taking his vows, the boy is confronted with an immaterial yet powerful evil that has a way of turning up in other Fitzgerald stories. “Some evil presence,” Fitzgerald wrote, “was in the chapel, on the very altar of God… The eternity and infinity of all good seemed crushed, washed away in an eternity and infinity of evil.”

Though the supernatural recurs fitfully in Fitzgerald's later work, very few of the stories and none of the novels after This Side of Paradise make explicit use of his Catholicism. The debate within him seems to have been written out (if not permanently stilled) in Amory's questionings in the novel. “The gaudy, ritualistic, paradoxical Catholicism whose prophet was Chesterton, whose claquers were such reformed rakes of literature as Huysmans and Bourget, whose American sponsor was Ralph Adams Cram, with his adulation of thirteenth-century cathedrals —a Catholicism which Amory found convenient and ready-made, without priest or sacrament or sacrifice” was unable to arouse even strong denial once this phase was over. Mention of it seldom appears in his notes or in any consequential way in his writings. At his death, his books were proscribed by the Church, and he was not permitted burial in hallowed ground. How little he knew of or felt for the religious life may explain the essential weakness of “Benediction.” However, the moral concern and the sense of evil to be found in all his serious work may be important consequences of his youthful religious interest.

The other stories in Flappers and Philosophers are entertaining ones in which Fitzgerald indulges in his fondness for involved plots and ironic twists and relies upon characters close to himself and his experiences. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” was thefirst story, he observed in “Early Success,” to provoke a large number of letters. “For a shy man,” he added, “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.” One of Fitzgerald's great strengths in his early work is the projection of this feeling into his fiction: the world in which his characters live is both real and fantastic, a bright, exciting world with no aggrieved past and no wearying future. Such an attitude does not create “serious” fiction, and Fitzgerald's “serious” stories here and to a certain extent later are less successful than his “light” ones. When, as in “The Ice Palace,” he could retain the manner of his light stories and still invest the characters and events with seriousness, he was moving in the direction of his best work. As he developed his craft, the abandon with which Fitzgerald created the rich imaginative details of the light story became the detachment which made it possible for him to become serious without becoming either sententious or wooden.

The contrast between “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” and “The Four Fists” may add to what has just been said. In 1920, a story could hardly have been better designed to elicit public response than the Bernice story. Its characters are the college set; its setting the comfortable middle class; its plot that of the ugly duckling. The effect of the story depends upon how much the reader is willing to let himself become engaged in the transformation of Beatrice from the unattractive cousin to the girl who bobs her hair. Its success is in the accuracy with which Fitzgerald captured the world of the moment and made it seem not necessarily important but terribly attractive. That attractiveness is only in part traceable to the story; in large part it is in the writing, in the way things are said, the way they are described. The story is not a great one; even by comparison with similar stories, it is rather obviously contrived. But, in not pretending to greatness, it pleases in that we get more than we had a right to expect.

“The Four Fists” is quite the opposite. It, too, is a story created out of a conventional, carefully contrived design, but the over-all intent is serious. It creates a young male protagonist, not unlike Basil in “The Freshest Boy,” and shows the effects of four physical blows upon his character. One blow was for snobbishness; the second, for personal unpleasantness; another, forselfishness; and the last, for immorality. Character and situation are about as well created as they are in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” but the reader, expecting more, gets much less. The story differs from the former one chiefly in that Fitzgerald was caught up in Bernice's world and in her emotions in a way he was not in those of Samuel Meredith in “The Four Fists.” The reader feels the essential truth of the one—trivial as that truth may be—and the essential falsity of the other—profound as the sought truth may have been. It is testimony to Fitzgerald's awareness as a writer that “The Four Fists” irritated him almost as soon as he finished it and even after it had been widely praised. He wrote Maxwell Perkins: “Not that it is any cheaper than The Off-Shore Pirate' because it isn't, but simply because it's a plant, a moral tale and utterly lacks vitality.”>

II Fitzgerald and the Popular Magazine

A close comparison between Fitzgerald's early light popular stories and his early serious ones reveals more weakness in the serious ones than in the others. Though Edmund Wilson could ask him for a realistic war story in 1919 with the appeal, “No Saturday Evening Post stuff, understand,” and Fitzgerald himself could complain of the ease of selling a cheap story like The Popular Girl” and the difficulty of selling “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” the Post did not do badly by his early work. Nor is Arthur Mizener quite precise when he says his best work was hard to sell and implies that his mediocre work wasn't.

A glance at the magazines in which his early short fiction appeared suggests that good and bad appeared in both popular and quality magazines. Though Smart Set published “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” after the story was refused by the Post, it also published “Mister Icky,” “Tarquin at Cheapside,” “Porcelain and Pink,” and “Benediction,” all as weak as any of the stories of these years. The Post, on the other hand, published “The Popular Girl,” “Myra Meets His Family,” “The Off-Shore Pirate,” and a number of others somewhere between the bad and the competent, but it also published “The Ice Palace.” Scribner's, more reputable than either of the other magazines— and more solemn—published “The Cut-Glass Bowl” and “The Four Fists,” serious but weak fiction. Though the Post may be justly accused of encouraging Fitzgerald to turn out run-of-the-mill popular fiction for high prices (he wrote sixty-four Poststories), it did not indulge him in another direction he found easy to take: that of combining the melodramatic and the moral in ambitiously “serious” fiction. The collections of so-called “Best” stories were particularly drawn to these serious stories which neither Fitzgerald nor later readers regarded highly. Of these early stories, the O'Brien Best Short Stories reprinted “Two for a Cent” and gave high ratings to “The Cut-Glass Bowl” and “The Four Fists.” The O.Henry collection also awarded “The Cut-Glass Bowl” a high rating. Fitzgerald could protest against letting the Post have “Your Way and Mine” in 1926—“one of the lousiest stories I've ever written”—because he expected his Post stories to be of respectable quality. Two years later, it was the Post that took all of the Basil Duke Lee stories.

In the latest Scribner's collection of stories, which represents an attempt to cull out the best for college literature courses, three of the ten stories first appeared in the Post, two in Smart Set, two in the American Mercury, one in the Metropolitan Magazine (which also printed “The Jelly Bean” and The Beautiful and Damned), and one each in Redbook and Esquire. The general point that can be made about Fitzgerald and magazine fiction is that throughout the 1920's the popular magazines provided a large market for fiction and one whose requirements were not so far from those of the literary magazines of the day as that between the “slicks” and the “quality” magazines today. The Post published a good deal of bad fiction, much of it Fitzgerald's; but it also published some good writing by very good writers. In a weekly magazine running 190 pages and printing regularly eight or nine long stories and two serials by such writers as Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, and Dorothy Parker, some good writing was bound to appear.

If there is a complaint to be made about Fitzgerald's tie to the popular magazine, it is probably that the Post and its counterparts did not encourage new directions in fiction. As time passes, at least with respect to Fitzgerald's short fiction, this begins to appear as much a virtue as a defect. To modern students, Fitzgerald's stories are old-fashioned in form and leisurely in pace. [A close study of modern American fiction, Austin M. Wright's The American Short Story in the Twenties (Chicago, 1961), repeatedly stresses the “old-fashioned” character of Fitzgerald's stories as compared with those of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Katherine Anne Porter—the other modern writers under consideration.] Almost all are plot stories carefully directed toward a climax, fully created in both character and setting, and with the action often developing over a long span of time. They are, by comparison with modern popular fiction, long stories. Many of the stories that appeared in the Post ran to ten thousand words. A slight, early story like “Myra Meets His Family” went to almost thirteen thousand.

These attributes are not necessarily those of inferior fiction. The judicious question is how well the stories are done. For a novelist, as Fitzgerald liked to think of himself, the demand for long popular fiction called for more of the fullness and expansiveness associated with the novel. The defects of Fitzgerald as a short-story writer do not include sketchiness or dribble. His stories required careful structure (almost all are broken into three or more parts), and the space they unfold in offers more opportunities for the writer to practice his craft than the diffuse mood stories which were to become the standard pattern of the “new” fiction of Fitzgerald's time and after. Fitzgerald's natural skill, in this respect, can be measured by setting any one of his long, ambitious stories—“May Day,” “Babylon Revisited, “The Rich Boy”—beside the long short stories which are the exception in Hemingway's work. The superiority, in this one respect at least, is clearly Fitzgerald's. ' Fitzgerald's short fiction has suffered neglect because it seems so unaffected by the developments which were taking place in the short story. His weaknesses gain emphasis because they are related to the kind of short story which was out of favor even when it was well done. His reliance upon plot often forced the conclusion of a story or led it to a final twist that might have embarrassed O.Henry. The length of his stories sometimes leads to padding. The over-elaborate structure may be blamed upon a tendency to pursue—and not always clearly—several objectives within the same story. And, in sticking to the old-fashioned virtues, he may have relied too much on narration and situation rather than exploring the possibilities that indirection, understatement, symbolism, and conciseness were opening up to the short-story writer.

III The Flapper and The Sheik

An inescapable consequence of Fitzgerald's early stories was his identification with two type characters: the flapper and the sheik, the new woman and the Jazz Age young man. That identification complicated his being taken as a serious writer. In truth, the early stories offer few characters who do not fit the stereotype or disclose a variant of it: Sally Carrol Happer, Bernice, Rosalind, and Isabelle among the girls; Warren McIntyre, Amory, Bryan Dalyrimple among the men. Paradoxically, variants of these two “type” characters in his best fiction were so sharply individualized—and therefore memorable—that he became identified with the stereotype. In a way, he was the victim of his own great skill, somewhat in the reverse of the condition described in his notebooks:

When the first-rate author wants an exquisite heroine or a lovely morning, he finds that all the superlatives have been worn shoddy by his inferiors. It should be a rule that bad writers must start with plain heroines and ordinary mornings, and, if they are able, work up to something better.

He created his best characters so well that all his inferior ones took on their characteristics. He was left, not with the handful of sharply individual characters he created, but with the generalized impression of having created one type.

“Even more puzzling to me—and I assume to all readers who were born too late to remember the Jazz Age,” Mrs. Frances Fitzgerald Lanahan wrote in 1960, “is how my father came to be a symbol of it all (except much later, in retrospect, when his life seemed to parallel it so closely that he became woven into the legend of the era).” There are only two flappers in Tales of the Jazz Age, she claims, and one of these “belongs less to the flapper family than to the turn-of-the-century soubrettes of Paris.”

Perhaps the answer to the puzzlement of Mrs. Lanahan (now Scottie Fitzgerald Smith) lies in This Side of Paradise and in Flappers and Philosophers. Given Amory and Rosalind and Isabelle in the novel and the leading characters in half of the stories in Flappers and Philosophers, the reader can find enough common characteristics to identify Fitzgerald with them forever. More than that, the stories all appeared within a very short period of time, evidently a time when the public knew this kind of boy and that kind of girl and was receptive to seeing them described precisely and with such effortless skill. It is not in Tales of the Jazz Age that one finds the typical Jazz Age figures. They appear in the earlier stories, are almost limited to them, because Fitzgerald was committing his talent to that kind of story even as he was outgrowing it. The flapper, Fitzgerald himself said, had become passe by 1923. Two years later, McCall's had the Fitzgeralds tell the public “What Became of Our Flappers and Sheiks,” with illustrations by John Held, Jr.

The quip about This Side of Paradise, “a book about flappers written for philosophers,” which furnished the title for the short-story collection, is more accurate than most such glib phrases. Though the title came after the stories, it fits a good half of the< stories in the collection and fits one exactly. This is “Head and Shoulders,” the first story Fitzgerald sold to themovies; it has as its central characters a flapper and a philosopher; the girl, Marcia Meadows, is a very good example of Fitzgerald's flapper type.

Marcia is nineteen, “a blonde by natural pigment who wore no paint on the streets at high noon.” She is the girl all the Yale students came to see do her song about the Jazz-Bound Blundering Blimp and a “shaky, shivery, celebrated dance.” She is fond of pranks and not afraid to play outrageous ones. Her wit displays itself in remarks like, “I call you Omar because you remind me of a smoked cigarette.” She smokes herself, yawns a good deal, and is fond of kissing, whether giving or receiving. She likes to be looked at and, while careless of her beauty, is so beautiful that she can afford to be. If her outward characteristics are designed to shock, her inner ones include a large measure of innocence and an instinctive though unconventional moral sense. She is no dumb blonde; Fitzgerald seldom creates such a character without endowing her with a good mind. In “Head and Shoulders” Marcia Meadows writes Sandra Pepys, Syncopated, a best-selling book through which she becomes “head” of the family. Marcia is, in short, a combination of those contrasting qualities Fitzgerald also admired in his male alter egos: naivete and knowingness, strong reserve and unquenchable wit, indolence and energy, gaiety and sadness, brashness and humility. She is a long way from being the sentimental heroine of today's popular fiction: the prostitute with the heart of gold.

As the flapper appears in other early stories, she may vary slightly in one quality or another, may have one trait emphasized and another subdued, but her basic character remains consistent from one story to another. Bernice and Marjorie in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” begin as opposites, then blend into one. At the end, Bernice proves superior to Marjorie, partly because Marjorie has done such an excellent job of tutoring her. Marjorie is described as “having a fairylike face and a dazzling bewildering tongue,” and she is “justly celebrated for having turned five cart-wheels in succession during the last pump-and-slipper dance at New Haven.” Bernice, being womanly, dainty in mind, and uncertain of her charms, is “out of style” in a way that challenges Marjorie to transform her. Having been forced, by Marjorie, into going through with bobbing her hair, Bernice retaliates by snipping off Marjorie's braids in her sleep and then tossing them on Warren McIntyre's porch. Thus, courage and daring are atthe last added to Bernice's character to complete her development into a Fitzgerald girl.

Her name is Ardita in “The Off-Shore Pirate.” She is again nineteen, “slender and supple, with a spoiled alluring mouth and quick gray eyes full of radiant curiosity.” She reads Anatole France, says “darn,” throws a book at her uncle; and yet, because of the “utter childishness of her beauty,” she renders him “helpless, uncertain, utterly fatuous.” When Toby Moreland decides to win her, he chooses to pose as a pirate and board the yacht on which Ardita has been idling her youth away. When he reveals his monstrous deception, she has to remain true to her own ideals and say, “What an imagination! I want you to lie to me just as sweetly as you know how for the rest of my life.”

Sally Carrol Happer is different only in the attention the story gives to her Southern, small-city background. She smokes, says “damn,” is fond of kissing, bobs her hair, makes witty remarks, engages in intellectual conversations, shocks her elders, and for all that, is, like the others, fundamentally, childishly innocent and eminently desirable.

The Fitzgerald male was similarly established in these early stories, but he did not become the central figure until the appearance of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise. In the stories just mentioned, only Toby Moreland in “The Off-Shore Pirate” is the equal of the girl being pursued, and in that story he appears for the most part in disguise. We can scarcely recall his name in “The Ice Palace.” His general characteristics can be picked out in Warren McIntyre of “Beatrice Bobs Her Hair.” “He was nineteen and rather pitying with those of his friends who had not gone East to college”; he was casually attending Yale. He worships Marjorie, though he fears she is faithless. He has a line, but he hates to be called “fresh” except in a joking way. He can be charitable as well as unkind, bored as well as impassioned. He is faintly superior to almost everyone, correct, handsome, too aware of bad form to be a parlor-snake but not sufficiently proper to be unattractive to the kind of girls we've been describing.

When the male of Fitzgerald's fiction becomes a fully developed character, he takes on certain eccentricities or peculiarities, distinctive traits of personality or family background, which bring him closer to the details of the author's past and make him a more interesting figure. Drunk, and he often is, he appears as Percy Parkhurst in “The Camel's Back,” or Clark Darrow in“The Jelly Bean,” or Gordon Sterrett in “May Day,” if we confine the observation to stories written in 1920. Sober, he begins to divide into two types: the rich boy who was born into his eminence; and the boy, like Dexter Green in “Winter Dreams,” who comes up the hard way. The latter affords a more interesting and fully understood character. Dexter, Nick Carraway, the Jelly Bean, even Gatsby, belong to this type. Bryan Dalyrimple in “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong” is the best example—and the best male character—in the stories in Flappers and Philosophers.

Considered in relation to the Basil Lee stories, which were not written until eight years later, Bryan is one possibility into which Basil might have grown. To Basil, the idea of being a gentleman burglar was always attractive; Bryan Dalyrimple tries it out. (When he commits his first robbery, he, like Basil confronting Hubert Blair, feels “morally alone.”) Aside from its rags-to-riches pattern, the story catches attention for the way in which Fitzgerald conveys the feelings of the poor boy of intelligence and desire who is trying to make a break upward. Bryan's father has lost his business; Bryan's education has ended after two years at the state university. Despite his being a war hero, he can find no job except that of stock boy in a wholesale grocery. The most important characteristic of the Fitzgerald male is to be found in Bryan's imaginative daring and in the intensity and direction of his desires: “I'll go East—to a big city-meet people—bigger people … My God, there must be a way.”

Anson Hunter in “The Rich Boy” (not written until 1925) is the best example of Fitzgerald's attempt to understand the man for whom wealth is a natural right. In a way, the rich boy is like a Platonic form; he lacks the substance to be found in the struggling human being trying to shape itself into that ideal. Much of Fitzgerald's examination of these dual characters was concerned with trying to see clearly the values in both the ideal and the copy. Intelligence, imagination, daring, courage, wit, beauty, and strength are the youthful qualities he prized; almost from the beginning of his fiction he prized wealth because that seemed so obviously the condition under which these personal qualities could flourish. What gives greater depth to his male characters is what Nick Carraway describes at the beginning of The Great Gatsby as “a sense of the fundamental decencies.” On the one hand, that sense is the basis for the morality none of Fitzgerald's male characters can escape; on the other, it is the invitation to the sin of pride to which all are drawn.

IV “The Most Famous Young Writer in America”

With as autobiographical a writer as Fitzgerald, the reality of his fictional characters, male or female, comes out of his incisive glances into himself. Their sameness explains itself there; the variations are explained in Fitzgerald's remark: “There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn't be. He's too many people if he's any good.” What comes through most of all in these early stories written in that brief glorious time of “early success” are the attractive men and the dazzling women, gloriously young and temporarily free.

“Scott Fitzgerald is the most famous young writer in America today,” an article in the American Magazine announced in 1922. “Read his article if you want to understand Youth's point of view.” The article, “What I Think and Feel at Twenty-Five,” displayed a full-page portrait of the author, and in an inset on the first page, an excerpt from the article called “The Chief Thing I Have Learned So Far”:

If you believe in anything very strongly—including yourself— and if you go after that thing alone, you end up in jail, in heaven, in the headlines, or in the largest house in the block, according to what you started after. If you don't believe in anything very strongly—including yourself—you get along, and enough money is made out of you to buy an automobile for some other fellow's son, and you marry if you've got time, and if you do, you have a lot of children whether you have time or not, and finally you get tired and you die.

As gloriously sudden as Fitzgerald's early success seems, it undoubtedly was in part a triumph of will, a persistence maintained against the common American notion that writing as a career was peculiar, profitless, and presumptive. When he reached sixty, Fitzgerald threatened in his article to “concoct a Scott Fitzgerald who will make a Benjamin Franklin look like a lucky devil who loafed into prominence.” His present fame, he pointed out, had been won over the repeated warnings from family and friends against wanting to write at all, against thinking he could, and against publishing stories “about silly little boys and girls that nobody wants to read about.” The image of himself as “Youth Triumphant” was a partial answer to his opposition. “The main thing,” he wrote, “is to be your own kind of darn fool.”


Twayne’s United States Authors Series #36 (revised edition 1977, first edition 1963).


Next: Chapter 4 A Touch of Disaster

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