Fitzgerald and Pulp Fiction: from Diamond Dick to Gatsby
by Daryl E. Jones

Hard pressed financially, Fitzgerald spent the winter of 1923 producing commercial fiction which he later denigrated, explaining to Edmund Wilson that “it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart as well as my iron constitution.” Perhaps the least effective of the potboilers written during this period is “Diamond Dick and the First Law of Woman,” which yet remains interesting on two accounts: the story reflects the extent to which Fitzgerald was influenced by the pulp fiction he had read as a youth, and it exhibits in provisional form significant elements later incorporated in The Great Gatsby. Specifically, through its frequent allusions to a series of pulp Westerns issued at the turn of the century, and through its assignment of the values espoused in these Westerns to a female prototype of Gatsby, the story suggests an additional source for Gatsby’s naive romantic idealism and exaggerated notions of virtue and chivalry.

Replete with cliches, abounding in melodramatic dialogue (“…I’ll pump you full of tin as sure as you’re alive”), “Diamond Dick and the First Law of Woman” is clearly indebted to pulp fiction. The plot is a marvel of improbable situations and stock conventions. Beautiful and rich Diana Dickey, whose pugnacious, tomboyish behavior as a child has earned her the nickname “Diamond Dick”—a sobriquet appropriated from the “lurid cover” of a “forgotten nickel novel” (p. 134)—is understandably cool toward her ex-fiance when, five years after the war, he returns from France penniless and dissolute. Still, Diana mysteriously reserves for him a cherished place in her heart, and when Charley takes up with another woman, Diana is stirred to action. Resolving to reclaim at all costs what is hers, Diana reverts to her former boldness and confronts the startled pair over the muzzle of a .44. Charley, she reveals, is her husband; while in France during the war they had been married, an event which Charley, suffering from amnesia incurred in a plane crash, has completely forgotten. The news throws Charley into a faint. But when he regains consciousness his memory has returned, and the reunited couple lives happily ever after.

Fitzgerald’s allusion to the “lurid cover” of a “forgotten nickel novel” leaves little doubt that he is referring to Diamond Dick Jr. Weekly, a series of 762 nickel Westerns issued from 1896 to 1911 by the New York publishing house of Street 8c Smith. Released under the byline “W. B. Lawson,” a stock pseudonym used by a number of writers on the Street & Smith staff, the series chronicles the daredevil exploits of a dynamic Western duo, Richard and Bertie Wade, known respectively as Diamond Dick, Sr. and Jr. Attired in diamond-studded buckskin, chivalrous to a fault, this dashing father and son team brings swift and unerring justice to the Old West; together they exalt virtue, defend the downtrodden, and scourge evil. Danger merely quickens their sense of romance and adventure; always remaining cool, always displaying an indomit­able spirit, they invariably emerge unscathed from the most desperate situations. And they do so with flair.

It is this simplistic moral code of the pulp Western hero, this adolescent preoccupation with flair, that Fitzgerald ascribes to both Diana Dickey and Jay Gatsby. The name Diamond Dick, we are told, appeals to Diana because it symbolizes her “childish revolt against the softness of life. Diamond Dick was a law unto himself, making his own judgments with his back against the wall. If justice was slow he vaulted into his saddle and was off for the foothills, for in the unvarying Tightness of his instincts he was higher and harder than the law. She had seen in him a sort of deity, infinitely resourceful, infinitely just. And the commandment he laid down for himself… was first and foremost to keep what was his own” (p. 134). It is with this same strength of will that Diana, affecting the flair of Diamond Dick and thrilled by “a feeling of romance” (p. 134), determines to recapture the lover she has lost five years before. Likewise, Gatsby sets out to recapture his lost Daisy Fay, and his methods are much the same as Diana’s. Influenced by pulp Western heroes—his boyhood resolves are found jotted on the fly-leaf of a copy of Hopalong Cassidy—young Jimmy Gatz resolves to become one. Contriving for himself a colorful past, voicing pulp fiction cliches, and acting out an “unbroken series of successful gestures,” he becomes gorgeous Jay Gatsby. By the strength of his indomitable will, by the sheer force of his extraordinary “romantic readiness,” Gatsby strives to attain the unattainable, to recapture the past. His quest, of course, ends in “huge incoherent failure,” yet he remains true to the Westerner’s naive and narrow, but nevertheless honorable, “sense of the fundamental decencies.” And like all Western heroes, Gatsby, as Nick observes, turns out “all right at the end.”

Texas Tech University

Published in Fitzgerald-Hemingway Annual (1978).