F. Scott Fitzgerald Will Never Die
A collection of unpublished stories, 'I'd Die for You,' brings the famous Jazz Age author back to life, sadder and funnier than ever before.
Fitzgerald, circa 1921. Public domain image
When it comes to being pigeonholed, few writers invite such easy association and expectation as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who coined the term "Jazz Age" and helped to define the era with his dazzling stories about beautiful people, glittering wealth, and moral decay, most famously exemplified by that staple of high school reading lists and Great American Novel measurements, The Great Gatsby.
But the work in I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories, a new collection of his previously unpublished short stories edited by Ann Margaret Daniel, defies this simple categorization, with somber stories that take on hospital settings, mental illness, suicide attempts, and failing marriages.
Publishing every last word written by a famous, deceased writer is nothing new. Stories and collections have appeared posthumously from Woolf, Joyce, DFW, Salinger, Bolaño, William Styron, Harper Lee. Even Dr. Seuss had a book released after his death. It's indeed tempting to question the necessity of such publications, of printing writing that perhaps could've remained in a desk drawer (after all, living writers, even great ones, know how many projects must be shelved or else abandoned, with no possibility of ever seeing the light of day, and for good reason). But in an era of thirsty publishers determined to squeeze every salvageable drop out of dead, bankable authors, there is a raison d'être for I'd Die for You. Its value derives largely from the different note struck by these stories, the ways in which they diverge from the work that Fitzgerald is often known for. The collection demonstrates his tremendous range, macabre wit, and above all, his risk-taking, most notably in the emotional core of the stories and the unflinching reality from which they derive.
In 2012, Fitzgerald's family heirs discovered seven stories among family papers that were thought to be lost. Scholars knew from his letters and correspondence, particularly with his agent, Harold Ober, that he had written these stories, but no one knew where they were. In the summer of 2015, the Trustees of the Fitzgerald Estate approached Daniel, who teaches literature at the New School and has published widely on Fitzgerald and modernism, with an invitation to edit a collection consisting of the lost stories, along with eight stories that were in the Fitzgerald papers at Princeton, and three at the University of South Carolina.
In introducing the body of work as a whole, as well as each individual story, Daniel sought to create a narrative between the stories that conveyed the difficulty of getting them into print. "I felt it was my responsibility to create a connection that showed the battles that Fitzgerald went through," she said when we recently spoke over the phone, "and the kinds of things he had to contend with, both in terms of criticisms that were coming in from putative editors, and what was going on in his own life at the time, things that he was literally trying to write his way out of."
The history of these stories, many of which are quite stark in subject matter (the collection's title story stems from Fitzgerald's time in North Carolina and his struggles with alcoholism while his wife Zelda was in a sanatorium), entails a back and forth with magazine editors, with Harold Ober, and with publishers who'd been conditioned to expect a certain kind of lighter, more glamorous story from Fitzgerald, and who were less comfortable with the idea that he wanted to mine dark material from his life as a basis for his fiction. "It's the middle of the great depression," Daniel said, "and people want pretty stories, they want nice things to read. Instead, he wanted to write realism. Writers like Hemingway and Faulkner could write gritty, ugly scenes because they weren't stereotyped in the same way that Fitzgerald was."
Fitzgerald partly set himself up for the expectation that he could consistently deliver magnificent, ornate stories; after all, he willingly gave his name to the Jazz Age with all its attendant frippery. And during his younger years, throughout his own 20s and the middle of the 1920s, his writing offered no sign of resistance to this distinction. But when his motivations for writing and his interests in subject matter changed, the publishing side wasn't quite so ready to cooperate. "For anyone who actually read The Great Gatsby, I don't see how he maintained that reputation once it was published," Daniel said. "The prose is gorgeous, but it's a bleak, painful novel about greed and adultery and death and despair."
"Fitzgerald is good at giving you a bitter pill that has a lot of sparkly sugar coating on it. I hope that this collection, even in the bleaker stories, will allow people to appreciate his humor."
An interesting relationship exists between Fitzgerald's novels and stories. According to Daniel, if you go through his tear sheets for his short stories, which are all preserved in the Fitzgerald papers at Princeton, you'll see that Fitzgerald would circle a paragraph and note next to it, "Beautiful and the Damned," or "Tender." "In that sense, he used his short stories as testing grounds for ideas," explained Daniel, "for patches of dialogue, for scenarios that would occur later in a novel."
Fitzgerald published hundreds of short stories during his lifetime, often for financial reasons, but also because of time constraints, which prevented him from fully devoting himself to longer projects. As it happens, he was constantly frustrated by not having a stretch of uninterrupted, peaceful time to work on his novels (he completed only four in his lifetime, with one unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon). He maintained in several letters that he always wanted to write a Civil War novel—two stories in the collection, "Thumbs Up" and "Dentist Appointment" are set during the era—that had reality rather than romanticism as its basis and that involved two close family members who fought on different sides of the war. Unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to write it (he died at the age of 44).
From about 1927 on, Fitzgerald was pressed by a feeling of working against a clock. "Certainly, finishing Tender is the Night was complicated by his running back and forth between Baltimore and North Carolina worried sick about Zelda," Daniel said, "and worried about his own health, worried about his daughter and what was going to become of her as he watched his family fall apart and disappear into hospitals. Those are circumstances under which you can't really get a novel done."
Fitzgerald had Hollywood ambitions, and several of the stories in the collection were intended as movie scenarios. Yet one problem for Fitzgerald in terms of writing for films was that his own writing had always been so sensory. "You're reading these thinking these would make a great movie," said Daniel. "But his language has already done all of the cinematic work. It's so colorful and so full of smells and sounds; it's like the movie is already formed there on the page for you to see in your mind. I think that capability really worked against him in Hollywood."
Daniel was fortunate enough to have conversations with people who knew Fitzgerald and who cite his "ridiculous, vaudeville sense of humor." One of the things people don't immediately realize about him is how funny he was. In "The I.O.U.," a story that makes a biting commentary on the publishing industry and that appeared in the New Yorker, a young man has been severely injured in World War I and has lost his memory. While he's lying in recovery, his uncle writes a fake spiritual book profiting off of him. The themes are bleak, but the story itself is extremely funny. "Fitzgerald is good at giving you a bitter pill that has a lot of sparkly sugar coating on it," said Daniel. "I hope that this collection, even in the bleaker stories, will allow people to appreciate his humor."
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I'd Die for You by F. Scott Fitzgerald will be published on April 25 by Scribner.