FROM 1926 to 1934, Fitzgerald published forty-nine stories, the same number included in Ernest Hemingway's major collection. In addition, Fitzgerald published a dozen articles and completed the work that went into Tender Is the Night. This is no small amount of writing during a period generally regarded as one of decline. More important, though Fitzgerald and his readers felt disappointed in his not producing a second novel of the stature of The Great Gatsby, a surprising amount of good writing appears during these years.
The best sustained stories were those about Basil Duke Lee, discussed in a previous chapter. The eight published stories and an unpublished one deserve a higher place in Fitzgerald's work than they have been given. So regarded, they fill a place in 1928-29 that makes the period between The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night seem less empty than it otherwise appears. They show how professional a writer Fitzgerald was; for, though the first of the stories was done at Ellerslie in a period of comparative peace, the last four were done under the strain of Zelda's dancing mania in Europe in the chaotic summer of 1928 and during a period of quarrels, belligerent despair, and drunkenness back at Ellerslie.
From February, 1926, to June, 1927, Fitzgerald wrote no stories. Part of the time was spent on the novel called, at various times, The World's Fair, The Boy Who Killed His Mother, and Our Type. It was also the period in which the stage success of The Great Gatsby—it opened February 2, 1926, and ran three months—and the sale of the movie rights gave him temporary freedom from financial worries. The published output for 1926 after the appearance of The Rich Boy” in the January and February Red Book, was the essay on Hemingway (“How to Waste Material”) and two mediocre stories, “The Adolescent Marriage” and “The Dance.” The year 1927 was not muchbetter: three Post stories, one for Woman's Home Companion, and the article “Princeton” for College Humor. But then again came a summoning of energy that saw seven good stories published in 1928; eight stories, four of them excellent, in 1929; and eight stories of mixed quality in each of the years 1930, 1931, and 1932. Work on Tender Is the Night accounts for the relatively unproductive year of 1933, when he published four stories, the article on Ring Lardner for the New Republic, and “One Hundred False Starts” for the Post.
The stories of these years include the two groups of Basil and Josephine stories, a large number of stories contrived from familiar Fitzgerald characters and situations, some drawing on current experiences, a number of retrospective ones, and a few like “A Short Trip Home” and “Family in the Wind” that are somewhat uncharacteristic of Fitzgerald's magazine fiction. At least two—“Babylon Revisited” and “Crazy Sunday”—are commonly included among Fitzgerald's best stories. The best of them went into Taps at Reveille, making that collection the richest of his short-story collections. A number of others were included in Malcolm Cowley's edition, The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in Arthur Mizener's edition, Afternoon of an Author. About half remain uncollected.
The Josephine stories include “First Blood,” “A Nice Quiet Place,” “A Woman with a Past,” “A Snobbish Story,” and “Emotional Bankruptcy.” All appeared in the Post between April 5, 1930, and August 15, 1931; the first three were reprinted in Taps at Reveille. The central character relies heavily upon Fitzgerald's memory of Ginevra King, and the stories themselves are the successors to the Basil Duke Lee series. Josephine carries the burden of the story in the same way that Basil carried the burden of that group. If she is a less successfully created character, as I think she is, it may be because Fitzgerald did not, could not, fully understand her or be as privy to her youthful feelings and experiences as he could with Basil. Mrs. Ginevra King Pirie wrote to Arthur Mizener, in part: “I was too thoughtless in those days & too much in love with love to think of consequences. These things he has emphasized—and over-emphasized in the Josephine stories, but it is only fair to say I asked for some of them.”
The statement is accurate, as far as it goes, in defining the fictional character of Josephine. Being in love with love certainly is her outstanding characteristic. In a larger sense, Josephine is Fitzgerald's vision of an ideal woman, but since the ideal is unattainable, he invests the woman he creates with as much of this ideal as will still leave her credible as a person. It is a leading characteristic of Josephine that she, too, responds most readily to the unattainable or unobtainable.
The first of the stories, “First Blood,” shows Josephine Perry at sixteen, the daughter of a family well-established in Chicago society and almost very rich. The year is 1914, and she is introduced as an unconscious pioneer of that generation that was destined to get out of hand. The story, like so much of Fitzgerald's work, is both a character study and a plot story. Josephine is shown as determined, conceited, rebellious, indiscreet, and yet very young and innocent. She is chafing under her parents' demand that she stop going somewhere every day. Her response is typical of her—and of Fitzgerald's dialogue: “How crazy! How utterly insane! Father's got to be a maniac I think. Next thing he'll start tearing his hair and thinking he's Napoleon or something.”
The plot involves her desire, growing out of her mixed character, to force attention from Anthony Harker, a twenty-two-year-old “happy fellow, lazy, rich enough, pleased with his current popularity.” Anthony is engaged to Josephine's sister; although he first treats Josephine's interest in him as that of an infatuated kid, he ends up writing her a four-page letter pledging his undying love. Josephine has what she wants: not Harker himself but the satisfaction of knowing she could have him if she wished.
The short final section of the story, so often a strong part of the Basil stories, is less successful here. Now that she can have him, she no longer wants him. Harker's parents are forced to send him West to forget. Josephine's reflections, both amusing and shallow, are more Fitzgerald's than the character's. The story ends with a mildly amusing irony, as Josephine denies a rumor that she and Travis de Coppet are married. She conceals the fact that they had tried to get married but couldn't find a minister. “ 'Oh, how perfectly terrible!' she repeated. “That's the kind of story that gets started by jealous girls.'”
“A Nice Quiet Place,” depends more on plot and less on character than the first Josephine story. It begins with the Fitzgeraldflourish that distinguishes so much of his fiction. “All that week she couldn't decide whether she was a lollipop or a roman candle—through her dreams, dreams that promised uninterrupted sleep through many vacation mornings, drove a series of long, incalculable murmurings in tune with the put-put-put of their cut-outs, 'I love you—I love you,' over and over.”
The time is early summer, six months after her mother had taken her East to the Brearley School at the end of the previous story. “It was only recently,” the author writes, “that gossip had begun to worry Josephine. Her own theory was that, though at thirteen or fourteen she had been 'speedy'—a convenient word that lacked the vulgar implication of 'fast'—she was now trying to do her best, and a difficult enough business it was, without the past being held against her; for the only thing she cared about in the world was being in love and being with the person she currently loved.” Beyond this point, a conventional plot takes over.
When Josephine is sent to an out-of-the-way summer vacation spot to reduce her speed somewhat, she meets the fabulous Sonny Dorrance, the most susceptible and desirable man in America. He conceals his identity at their first meeting; but, when she finds out after returning to Lake Forest just who he is, she tricks her parents into banishing her once again from the high life to the pure simple life of Island Farms.
The last of the collected Josephine stories, “A Woman with a Past” finds Josephine exactly seventeen, blase, and bored. The scene is New Haven; the situation involves Josephine at the Yale prom. The central idea is an effectively made contrast between the ephemeral high-voltage effect of Josephine and the dull but durable power of Adele Craw. Adele, a pretty girl with thick legs, is president of the senior class, forceful, dominant, and without moral blemish. Josephine's attempt to get Adele's fiance, Dudley Knowleton, almost succeeds but eventually comes to nothing.
Between the two episodes in which she pursues Dudley, Josephine is locked in a room with a sleek Southerner, Book Chaffee. She escapes that scandal, but later she is expelled from Miss Brereton's school in a confusion of supposed misdeeds for which she is not responsible. Meeting Dudley with the Yale baseball team at Hot Springs, she learns that Adele's claim is too strong, her peculiar attractions superior to those of Josephine; for the first time in her life she has tried for a man and failed.At the end of the story, she lets a Princeton man drop his arm around her yielding shoulder and walk with her out into the spring night.
Like the Basil Duke Lee stories, the Josephine stories show the central character developing over a fairly short but important period of time. Dudley Knowleton is the first man to make Josephine realize that “one couldn't go on forever kissing comparative strangers behind closed doors.” Unfortunately, the two remaining stories do not adequately continue the development suggested in “A Woman with a Past.”
“A Snobbish Story” is the weakest of the group, weak in a way some other Fitzgerald stories are weak. In trying to invest Josephine with a change in the direction of seriousness, he loses the vitality of his central character. Josephine becomes involved with John Boynton Bailey, who is “extraordinarily handsome” but poor, something of a radical and married. Fitzgerald's intention is to show Josephine's defiance of Chicago society through her interest in John Bailey, but neither the character nor the situation carries much conviction.
The last story, “Emotional Bankruptcy,” is a better story quite aside from the interest it provokes as the means of introducing the concept of “emotional bankruptcy” which Fitzgerald felt was so applicable to his own life. At the peak of Josephine's “flowering marvelously day by day into something richer and warmer,” she begins to realize that her love affairs are like “a game played with technical mastery, but with the fire and enthusiasm gone.” Her ideal man, as she defines him in this story, is not necessarily handsome, but pleasant looking, with a good figure and strong: “Then he'd have to have some kind of position in the world, or else not care whether he had one or not… He'd have to be a leader, … and dignified, but very pash, and with lots of experience, so I'd believe everything he said or thought was right.” .
Such a man seems to be present in Captain Edward Dicer; but, when he kisses Josephine, she feels nothing. As the reader last sees her, her “youthful cockiness” gone, he can hardly fail to be moved by Fitzgerald's peculiar skill of investing his heroes and heroines with momentary but genuine emotional value:
She was very tired and lay face downward on the couch with that awful, awful realization that all the old things are true; one cannot both spend and have. The love of her life had comeby, and looking in her empty basket, she had found not a flower left for him—not one. After a while, she wept.
“Oh, what have I done to myself?” she wailed. “What have I done?”
Though only about one-third of the stories found their way into collections, there were thirty-three stories—in addition to the thirteen in the Basil and Josephine series—published in the Post between 1926 and 1934. Three stories in other popular magazines and one, “Millionaire's Girl,” largely Zelda's, were also published in these years.
These stories serve to confirm impressions already established by previous Fitzgerald magazine fiction. All of them are long stories and, at least until those of the middle 1930's, are expertly plotted. The stories they tell are faithful to the illustrations which accompany them: the handsome, well-dressed man; the clinging or pursuing girl; and, somewhere in the background, a rich father or benign employer. Some, like “Jacob's Ladder,” create interesting characters and move through multiple complications to a serious, uncontrived ending. Some are variations on previous stories, such as “Your Way and Mine” is on “The Third Casket,” or as “Love Boat” is on “John Jackson's Arcady.” Some, like “The Swimmers,” are serious attempts to encompass a large portion of the lives of the central characters and to relate those lives to larger themes. Stripped of their details, almost all are stories of poor boys falling for rich girls, or of rich men or boys falling for poor girls. Usually, intelligence, imagination, or beauty; hard work, daring, or luck manage to overcome the handicaps of social position.
A number of stories written before 1928 go back into Fitzgerald's Princeton past and into that period in New York just before and after his rise to fame. Two of the early ones, “A Penny Spent” (1925), and “Presumption” (1926), make the most of the young man who wins out through a display of imaginative bravado. Another, “The Bowl,” is a serious attempt to examine an undergraduate attitude from the perspective of greater maturity: Dolly Harlan's mixed feelings toward being a football hero. A half-dozen of the stories use Europe for a setting. Most of these, like “Babylon Revisited,” were written between 1929 and 1931, Fitzgerald's last long period of residence abroad. Another group of stories, written between 1931 and 1934, havesnobbery as a theme; they doubtless reflect Fitzgerald's mood as he sought to find blame for the insecurity of his position as both writer and public figure.
Almost all of the later stories use a Southern setting, usually Maryland or Virginia, and provide Southern backgrounds for the central characters. The movies figure prominently in three stories, hospitals in two; both settings reflect Fitzgerald's life at the time they were written. One story, “A Freeze-Out” (1931) goes back to St. Paul and Fitzgerald's early youth for its setting and situation. Another, “No Flowers,” revisits the college prom in the person of a young girl of the 1930's who contrasts her present age of tin with the golden age through which her mother had lived. “New Types,” a bad story in its total effect, begins as a serious attempt to describe the new woman Fitzgerald apparently saw developing in the mid-1920's. Finally, the worst of the stories are “plants”—mere plot stories announcing their destination in the first page—that are often either melodramatic of sentimental.
A glance at a few of the representative stories will indicate the kinds of interest these stories still possess. “The Swimmers” makes the most deliberate and effective contrast between Europe and America. Aside from an undergraduate war story, “Sentiment and the Use of Rouge,” written entirely from the imagination, Europe does not figure prominently in Fitzgerald's fiction until 1925. The stories written close to that time are contrived plot stories which use Europe for little more than atmosphere. “Love in the Night” (Post, 1925), “A Penny Spent” (Post, October, 1925), and “Not in the Guidebooks” (Woman's Home Companion, November, 1925) are stories of negligible worth. Europe does not appear again as a setting until 1929. A half-dozen European stories, all written between 1929 and 1931, were put into later collections. Of the five others, “The Swimmers” and “A New Leaf” are the most interesting.
In “The Swimmers,” Europe is almost as important as the characters. Throughout this account of a Virginia gentleman's unsuccessful marriage to a French wife, the contrasts between Europe and America are as obviously drawn as in a story by Henry James. Indeed, a passage like this one describing “the American girl” could have been taken from a James story: “In her grace, at once exquisite and hardy, she was the perfect type of American girl that makes one wonder if the male is notbeing sacrificed to it, much as, in the last century, the lower strata in England were sacrificed to produce the governing class.”
Though the story ends with a desperate contrivance, it is worth reading if only for its style and for its skillful contrasts between two cultures.
“A New Leaf,” which begins in Europe and shifts to America, is of most interest because of its central character, Dick Ragland, whose alcoholic charm is one of many characteristics he shares with Fitzgerald: “'Just when somebody's taken him up and is making a big fuss over him, he pours soup down his hostess' back, kisses the serving maid, and passes out in the dog kennel. But he's done it too often. He's run through about everybody, until there's no one left.'”
The heroine's attempt to mother him into reform fails; and, before the story ends, he jumps overboard to his death. “Isn't life cruel, sometimes—” the girl says, in another transparent reflection of Fitzgerald's own thoughts—“so cruel, never to let anybody off.”
A theme that gained much of Fitzgerald's attention in these forgotten stories is that of snobbery. If we include “The Swimmers” and another European story, “Hotel Child,” six uncollected stories are preoccupied with snobbery of one land or another. “Two Wrongs,” reprinted in Taps at Reveille, is the best of this type. “A Change of Class” (Post, 1931), the most obvious and mechanical of the uncollected group, is the story of a barber who moved out of his class and back into it with the ups and downs of the market. “The Rubber Check,” about a poor young man who tries to make his way by assuming the manners of the upper class, comes closest to revealing Fitzgerald's own feeling of occupying a social position to which he was not really entitled.
Of the other uncollected stories, “What a Handsome Pair” (Post, 1932) is noteworthy because of the skill with which Fitzgerald makes an essentially didactic comment upon the nature of marriage. One marriage succeeds because Theodore Van Beck, a composer, marries an Irish waitress who shares none of his artistic interests but who is content to mother him, love him, and allow him great freedom. The other fails because the girl who turns down Van Beck later marries a man who shares all her interests. The marriage becomes an intense competition which reaches bottom when he is rejected by the army but she is accepted by the Red Cross for a war assignment overseas. “OnSchedule” (Post, 1933) is interesting for the amusement Fitzgerald is still able to get out of looking at himself trying to manage his family's life at Ellerslie. The story's central character, Rene du Cary, feels that if everyone will just stay on schedule, he can keep a complicated life running smoothly.
In the last stories of these years, one begins to see signs of Fitzgerald's crack-up. The beginning of “Diagnosis” (Post, 1932) is an essay about cracking up, a kind of unpolished, fictional version of the “Crack-Up” essay itself. Similarly, in “The Rubber Check” (August, 1932), Percy Wrackham, a character in the story, is always making up lists—the same lists Fitzgerald ascribes to his own compulsions in “The Crack-Up.” “Her Last Case” (Post, 1934) is about a thirty-five-year-old Virginian, Ben Dragonet, who has mysteriously aged, lost his health and his peace of mind. When he is not drunk, he walks his nights away, brooding about the past. “Family in the Wind,” as Arthur Mizener has pointed out, is an early version of the state of mind Fitzgerald described later in “Pasting It Together.”
When Fitzgerald went through the large number of stories published after 1926 to select the contents of Taps at Reveille, he first included “A New Leaf” and “Her Last Case.” Either story would have been as good a choice as the weaker stories in the volume, though the ending of “Her Last Case” is almost ruinous to the story. Of the rest, only The Swimmers,” “What a Handsome Pair,” “On Schedule,” and “The Bowl” seem to me to be nearly equal to the stories Fitzgerald did select.
Of the stories in Taps at Reveille which drew upon personal experiences, “Two Wrongs” is the most revealing. Its central actions relate closely to the drunkenness, belligerence, and subsequent guilt of Fitzgerald's life in 1928 and 1929 and to Zelda Fitzgerald's dancing. The hero, Bill McChesney, is a producer rather than a writer—a kind of grown-up Basil Duke Lee—who is still capable of saving a play when the actors threaten to walk out. Almost everything of Fitzgerald's early success is in this story, as are Fitzgerald's later feelings that the late 1920's marked his decline. McChesney is a markedly dual character: on one hand he is “a fresh-faced Irishman exuding aggressiveness and self-confidence”; on the other, “the quietly superior, sensitive one, the patron of the arts, modeled on theintellectuals of the Theatre Guild.” Emmy, McChesney's wife, is a Southern girl who decides to become a ballet dancer at twenty-eight. Three years after their marriage and after the husband's two flops and a period of increased drinking, McChesney becomes somewhat mildly attracted to Lady Sybil Combrinck. In a climax which exposes most of Fitzgerald's feelings of insecurity and guilt, McChesney crashes Lady Sybil's party and is thrown out. While he goes on to get blind drunk, Emmy has had to arrive at the hospital alone, falls in getting out of the taxi, and delivers a stillborn child. It is after she recovers that she begins to dance.
Despite the melodramatic climax, the story exposes many of Fitzgerald's deep feelings: his real and imagined abuse of Zelda and her abuse of him, his feeling of decline both in popularity and personal strength, his attitude toward his excessive drinking, and his still intense feelings for rank and position. The marital relationship, as it is described in the concluding section of the story, anticipates that of the Divers in Tender Is the Night. As Emmy increases in vitality, McChesney declines. He comes “to lean, in a way, on her fine health and vitality,” the author comments. When she receives an offer to dance at the Metropolitan, McChesney insists that she take the opportunity. He leaves for the West feeling that the trip is, for him, a definite finish. “He realized perfectly that he had brought all this on himself and that there was some law of compensation involved.”
There is nothing new here in Fitzgerald's using the events and feelings of his own life soon after they had taken place, nor in his turning to melodrama and contrivance to enhance the story. There is, however, something moving about the precise-ness of the description and about the feeling of helplessness which pervades the story—“an almost comfortable sensation of being in the hands of something bigger than himself.” The reader with a knowledge of Fitzgerald's life may find the story too uncomfortably close to reality to be enjoyed.
“The Bridal Party,” written shortly after “Two Wrongs,” also uses a recently experienced event for its plot. Arthur Mizener ascribes its central situation to the wedding of Powell Fowler in Paris in the summer of 1930, but he attributes the feeling to Fitzgerald's deepest reactions to his own marriage. The situation dramatized in the story is very close to the central one to which Fitzgerald returned again and again. The rich young man about to be married learns he has lost every cent; but withouta moment's hesitation he goes through with every expensive detail of the elaborate wedding. As it turns out, such bravado so confounds adverse Fortune that, ten minutes before the wedding, he is offered a salary of $50,000 a year. This triumph is set against the failure of the other central character, a man too poor, too afraid, too futile to win the girl in the first place, and now come too late into an inheritance of a quarter of a million dollars. Despite his ineffectual attempts to break into the wedding plans, he is forced to admire the superior brashness of his successful rival. Though many Fitzgerald stories create similar figures involved in similar actions, few disclose these two contrasting images—the failure who hesitates, the successful man who always pushes on—as clearly as they are presented here.
“The Rough Crossing,” like “One Trip Abroad,” is a story about a couple like the Fitzgeralds in Europe during the late 1920's. The first, written a year and a half before the other, is a less ambitious, less successful story; it is little more than the reflection of the jealousies aroused in both the Fitzgeralds by their being attractive to and attracted by other people. The central character is the playwright, Adrian Smith, who, on a trip abroad, is drawn to a young girl half his age. The jealousy of his wife Eva and her own flirtation motivate the action. The storm, during which Eva gets drunk and mistakenly thinks Adrian is with the young girl, is a way of emphasizing the chaos that seems close to the surface of both the main characters' lives. The boat arrives in Europe, the young girl has forgotten that she ever kissed Adrian, and the Smiths ostensibly pick up life at a less stormy level.
“One Trip Abroad,” written in 1930, is a more ambitious story and one directly connected with Tender Is the Night. Like Tender Is the Night, the story is centrally concerned with the gradual decay in Europe of a handsome American couple of good breeding and sufficient wealth to be idle. The structure of the story poses the central couple, Nicole and Nelson Kelly, against an older couple, the Mileses, at the beginning, and against another young couple, who appear at both the beginning and the end. In these couples, the Kellys see themselves as they will become and as they actually are.
As in all the successive versions of Tender Is the Night, the corruption of innocence is a central theme. Almost all the important parts of the final version of the novel are in “One Trip Abroad”: the ease and grace and brilliance of the Kellys; the glittering surface of their lives which conceals the growing emptiness within; the cynicism and waste in Oscar Dane (Abe North in the novel); the steady drinking amidst the international set; the violence into which the Kellys occasionally erupt; the tentative affairs which both have; the repeated unsuccessful attempts to start over; and the Lake Geneva of the ending—“the dreary one of sanatoriums and rest homes.”
The unexplainable decline of the Kellys is set forth with just the right air of vague, meaningless terror. In great part, the effect comes from the background scenes: the beginning, in Africa with the air black with locusts; the ending, against the Alps in Switzerland, “a country where very few things begin, but many things end.” The reason for the Kellys' decline is made even less explicit than Dick Diver's decline in the novel. Their movement away from “the music and the far away lights,” like the Fitzgeralds' loss of youth and joy, ends in a question neither can answer: “Why did we lose peace and love and health, one after the other?” Perhaps at the heart of it is the moral answer Fitzgerald casually introduces into the story: “There is some wise advice in the catechism about avoiding the occasions of sin.” With its posing of an essentially moral question, its fine shadings, and its deliberate balancing of characters, the story is strongly reminiscent of Henry James. Among its other virtues, the story serves to remind the reader how much continuity Fitzgerald's writing has with the past.
Though Hollywood furnished all or part of the material for four stories, only two found their way into collections. The first, “Magnetism,” derived from Fitzgerald's six weeks' experience in 1927. A carefully plotted story, it makes use of Fitzgerald's general experiences rather than specific personal ones. The hero possesses what Fitzgerald claimed was the “top thing” and what he himself did not have: great animal magnetism. George Hannaford, a highly successful though limited Hollywood star, has gained his eminence by being magnetic to those who attend the movies as well as to the women he actually meets. The running quarrel between him and his wife Kay, provoked by her jealousy and her own flirtations, is much of the story. The events include the attempted suicide of a script girl who has been in love with George. In the final scene, his animality is still drawing women to him, and he, unable to understand or deal with his mysterious power, prepares to go barracuda fishing.
A more celebrated story of Hollywood is “Crazy Sunday,” which transcribes an actual experience during Fitzgerald's second stay there in the late months of 1931. The story is a revealing one in its central idea—the man who makes a fool of himself before people who count. Dwight Taylor, in his recent book, Joy Ride, tells the story which Fitzgerald turned into fiction. He and Fitzgerald were invited to a party given by Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer. Thalberg later became the model for Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon. The only two writers invited, both were determined to keep Fitzgerald sober and not damage his already fragile reputation. Fitzgerald got drunk, insulted Robert Montgomery, and then insisted on singing a song—“a kind of song,” Taylor writes, “which might have seemed amusing if one were very drunk and still in one's freshman year at college.” No one laughed; indeed, Jack Gilbert and Lupe Velez, “the most liberal members of the herd,” hissed. Later, while Fitzgerald was castigating himself for the fiasco, Norma Shearer sent him a telegram: “Dear Scott: I think you were the nicest person at my party.” He was fired, Taylor says, the next Saturday.
The story reproduces these events with great fidelity. The song is changed to a take-off on a Jewish producer, the embarrassed writer sends a note of apology, and he receives a telegram in return like the one cited. This central incident is expanded into a longer story by creating a brief love affair between the writer and the producer's wife which plays itself out after the party. Dwight Taylor was understandably vexed to find that Joel Coles, the drunken writer, bears Taylor's parentage (he was the son of actress Laurette Taylor), and by such a transference, Taylor became the man who made a fool of himself and Fitzgerald the writer who tried to save him. But the fictional background for Joel Coles does not disguise the fact that his emotional reactions are precisely those of Fitzgerald. So is the mixture of opportunism, conscience, guilt, and moralizing which are central to Coles's character. No perceptive reader of Fitzgerald's fiction is likely to mistake him for anyone else. Fitzgerald frequently endows more than one character in a story or novel with his own character traits. Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, and Anthony Patch and Richard Caramel in The Beautiful and Damned, are the best examples.
The most ambitious story—besides the Basil and Josephine stories—to explore Fitzgerald's distant past is The Last of the Belles.” The scene is Tarleton, Georgia, once again. The material is out of Fitzgerald's life as a young second lieutenant at Camp Sheridan and after. The attention is focused on “belle” Ailie Calhoun and the three men—the narrator, Bill Knowles, and Earl Schoen—who pursue her. The events which have counterparts in fact are the aviator who is killed during his courtship ofAilie, the outfit's being sent for embarkation but not getting past the port, and the narrator's unsuccessful courtship during this period. Of most interest is the character Earl Schoen, a crude, aggressive chap who looks like a streetcar conductor and in fact was one before getting into the army. Again, the Fitzgerald belief in daring or bravado—or perhaps simply a display of will—almost enables Earl Schoen to win Ailie Calhoun despite his natural and cultural shortcomings that Fitzgerald somewhat painfully emphasizes. He doesn't win her, but neither does Bill Knowles or the narrator. The story ends six years after the war when the narrator decides to take a trip back to Tarleton. Ailie is going to be married to a man from Savannah. The site of the army camp is hardly visible. “In another month,” he says, “Ailie would be gone, and the South would be empty for me forever.”
Two stories that I have called uncharacteristic of Fitzgerald's short fiction are “Family in the Wind” and “A Short Trip Home.” In the first, Fitzgerald uses a series of 1932 tornadoes in Alabama to create background for a story whose value, to quote Arthur Mizener, “is a result of his attempt to adjust to the wreckage of his own career and his present condition.” Aside from its bearing upon his personal plight (the central character is a skilled surgeon ruined by drink), the story shows Fitzgerald's ability to use people, settings, and even events somewhat distant from him in a convincing, significant way. The description of the country people, the dialogue between members of the Janney family, and the two tornadoes striking the town and countryside are all done well. The story is surprisingly good in capturing the feeling of the depression of the 1930's—a subject common enough in the writing of the time but not so in Fitzgerald's work.
Unfortunately, the story ends in a wash of sentimentality. A little girl is left an orphan by the storm, and Dr. Janney appears to draw a lesson from her experience. “Daddy stood over me,” she tells the doctor, “and I stood over kitty.” He starts for Montgomery at the end of the story, intending to resume practice. We cannot be quite sure he will succeed; he is still drawing courage from the bottle on his hip as he starts off, but he vows to put it aside in order to assume responsibility for the little orphan girl.
“A Short Trip Home” is better fiction, if only because it creates such a fine sense of mystery and such a curious aura of evil. Though Fitzgerald was obviously fond of fantasy and though he mixes realism and fantasy in other works, this story is a mostperplexing mixture. That same comfortable world of Fitzgerald's earlier fiction is in this story inexplicably charged with evil. The evil is embodied in a creature—an incubus, perhaps—who fixes upon Ellen Baker, the eighteen-year-old Fitzgerald girl full of “that sure, clear confidence that at about eighteen begins to deepen and sing in attractive American girls.” The creature's physical form is that of “a hard thin-faced man of about thirty-five.”
His eyes were a sort of taunt to the whole human family—they were the eyes of an animal, sleepy and quiescent in the presence of another species. They were helpless yet brutal, unhopeful yet confident. It was as if they felt themselves powerless to originate activity, but infinitely capable of profiting by a single gesture of weakness in another.
In the first part of the story, the man is the kind who “hangs around,” who hits with brass knuckles, who engages in any shady practice the world offers him. He is, in short, a very real sinister man whom Ellen has met on the train. In the second part, he has become a “thing,” a presence lurking outside the door of Ellen's compartment on the train taking them to the East. When he confronts the narrator, he is both human and fantastic—a punk who threatens the narrator with a gun but also a presence who was “getting around my abhorrence.” A long struggle ensues between the narrator and “the thing”; the prize is the girl in the compartment. At its conclusion, the narrator wins, for the man is dead. “A small round hole like a larger picture nail leaves when it's pulled from a plaster wall” is in his forehead. In a few seconds, he falls to the floor. “There was something extended on the bench also—something too faint for a man, too heavy for a shadow. Even as I perceived it, it faded off and away.” Ellen, inside the compartment, now sleeps peacefully; “what had possessed her had gone out of her.”
The third part of the story follows the narrator's attempt to find out something about the man. An informant says his name was Joe Varland; he worked the trains; he lived off girls traveling alone. He was shot, so the man says, in a row in a station in Pittsburgh. Ellen and the narrator meet again before the story closes, but they never mention the incident.
The story is confused, but whether deliberately or carelessly is hard to say. We have to assume that Joe Varland is a corporeal being in the first part of the story; he is given explicit existence in the third part; and he is both that and aprojection of the narrator's imagination in the second. But that alone does not answer for the malevolence of the man, for his sinking as the train approaches Pittsburgh, for the bullet hole in his forehead, and for his physical disappearance after he dies. This leaves a rather large burden to be carried by a genuine psychic experience on the part of the narrator which is not only general and pervasive but particular and accurate as to detail. Not much more can be done to explain the central peculiarity, but some conjectures may be made about why the story takes this form.
The story was written during those years of re-exploring the past, of thinking again about both Ginevra King and Zelda Sayre. Thus the pull is strong to explain the duality Fitzgerald saw in both women and which, fairly or not, he saw rather steadily as bountiful innocence joined with almost malignant knowingness. His own duality accented what he saw in them. Beyond that, and in all the girls he portrays, beauty is somehow entwined with evil. For at the center of Ellen's beauty lurks an evil, a corruption which threatens her self as well as those around her. Finally, Zelda's increasing obsessions help to explain the intensity with which Fitzgerald wrote this story of a woman literally possessed.
The narrator's role is one of trying to protect the girl, but of being unable to enlist her feelings or to gain her concurrence in his attempt to save her. He is not really the lover but the almost-lover, a familiar role for a Fitzgerald narrator to play. Above all other fears when in the presence of Joe Varland is the narrator's fear of being an agent, if not an accomplice. “Suddenly I realized that from a while back I had stopped hating him, stopped feeling violently alien to him…” The fear aroused at this point is that of weakening or loss of will—one certainly uppermost of Fitzgerald's anxieties during the period he was writing this story. Beneath the story's climactic struggle is the silent one waged inside both Scott and Zelda when her obsession aroused his “New England conscience raised in Minnesota” to look at his own self in which will had been persistently draining away. Ultimately, the story may rest on Fitzgerald's intensely moral view in which evil is active and dominant over a will which is weak or passive. Whatever the weaknesses in the story because of its uneasy mixture of realism and fantasy, it cuts deep into the inner battle that Fitzgerald was waging then and throughout the rest of his life.
The inner conflicts and the outward circumstances of Fitzgerald's personal decline in the 1920's are matched with the decline of the Jazz Age itself in “Babylon Revisited”; in fact, it may become a period piece, so closely is it tied to that time. The story is of Charlie Wales, thirty-three, handsome, Irish, who has lived a Babylonian life during the 1920's, has reformed, and has returned to Paris to visit his daughter Honoria. The conflict is between Wales and his past; specifically it is between Wales and Marion Peters, a tight-lipped, mean-spirited woman, almost the only one of that type in Fitzgerald's fiction. Marion is the sister of Wale's deceased wife Helen, whose death is connected with a boozy quarrel in which Wales locked her out of the house in the snow. Though she recovered from pneumonia at that time and died later of heart trouble, Wales's guilt remains and Marion is unwilling to give him custody of his child.
The story is a celebrated one, with a famous line, “the snow of twenty-nine wasn't real snow. If you didn't want it to be snow, you just paid some money.” It creates a nice contrast between Marion and her husband—“they were not dull people, but they were very much in the grip of life and circumstances”—and the freer spirit of Charles Wales. It is notable too for its creation of the great love and longing which exists between Wales and his daughter: “He wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact. He wasn't young any more, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself. He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone.”
It is fitting to close this discussion of Fitzgerald's fiction during a troubled period with mention of the small number of stories which extended his range into the world of his daughter. “Outside the Cabinet-Maker's” is a delicate story of 1928, in which a couple like the Fitzgeralds buy a doll house for a six-year-old daughter (Scotty's age at the time). The father and daughter wait in the car while the mother goes into the cabinet-maker's. The parents have discussed the transaction in French to keep the secret from the girl. That small bit of “stage business” adds to the subtle central theme of the story: the impossibility, despite an intensity of love, of really entering into another loved one's world. The fantasy the father creates with the little girl as they wait, an improvised story of princesses and ogres and kings and queens, is a makeshift. Nor can his “'Listen,' said the man to the little girl, 'I love you'” create a reality superior to the fantasy. The playful yet intense conversation never quite Brings together the deepest feelings of father and daughter; momentary diversions distract each away into his separate world and keep them forever apart, however close they may be at the next moment. This is Fitzgerald's romantic vision at its most simple, most poignant: realization always falls short of the ideal; ecstatic moments never stop time; intensity of feeling never gathers the feeling itself into one clear, eternal possession.
At the very end of the period under discussion, Fitzgerald wrote a number of stories around a young girl named Gwen, obviously using his daughter—then just entering her teens—as the model for the central character. “Too Cute for Words” was published in the Post (April 18, 1936) and “Inside the House” (June 13, 1936). Two others were sold but not published. Though the stories are contrived in the manner of popular magazine fiction, they have some distinction as attempts to clarify family relationships about which Fitzgerald felt intensely. On the surface, the stories make the most of the conventional bewilderment of a father facing the peculiar language, desires, and fads of a young daughter.
The first story depends almost entirely on plot: Gwen's successful yet innocent attempt to escape her father's careful supervision. The second depends less on plot and more on defining the character of both father and daughter.
It's seldom you find beauty and intelligence in the same person —a friend of the father's tells Gwen—When you do they have to spend the first part of their life terribly afraid of a flame they'll have to put out someday—and sometime they spend the rest of their life trying to wake up that same flame … one of the sticks is the beauty they have lost and the other is the intelligence they haven't cultivated—and the two sticks won't make a bonfire.
The lesson is, of course, Fitzgerald's own; and this note of rather pathetic analysis runs through Fitzgerald's writing during the mid-1930's, his time of deepest despair.
Twayne’s United States Authors Series #36 (revised edition 1977, first edition 1963).