Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction by David Greenstein
No writer’s debut in the world of American letters made a bigger splash than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. From his first appearance as a novelist with This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, he was acclaimed as the writer who defined and personified a new era. Fitzgerald coined the phrase “the Jazz Age,” and along with his wife, Zelda, set the standard for its lifestyle. Known today primarily for his novels—The Great Gatsby above all—he was famous in the 1920s and 1930s as a writer of short stories. The nineteen stories in this volume (two of which are presented as one-act plays) first appeared in weekly or monthly magazines between January 1920 and June 1922, and shortly thereafter, in two hardcover collections, Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age. The great writer's gifts—what Matthew Bruccoli, a leading Fitzgerald scholar, has called "the Fitzgerald touch"—were sharp wit, gorgeous description, and precise observation. With these, he portrayed the emotional depth of a society devoted to excess and racing heedlessly towards catastrophe that was only a few years ahead.
The stories in this volume, like much of Fitzgerald’s work, come directly from the circumstances of his life, but they are not autobiographical. Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1896 to an upper-middle-class Irish-American family. On his father’s side, he was a distant relation to Francis Scott Key, who penned the “The Star Spangled Banner”; hence his full name, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. His Midwestern background and Roman Catholicism made him (at least in his own eyes) a permanent outsider in the world of the urbane East. Thanks to his mother’s inheritance, he attended several prep schools and from thirteen years old on wrote articles and stories for his school papers. In 1913, Fitzgerald entered Princeton where he devoted more time to writing and performing in plays and musicals than to his studies. On the verge of flunking out, he quit Princeton in 1917 and joined the army as America entered the First World War.
The war ended before Fitzgerald could go overseas, but during his military service he completed a first draft of a novel that eventually became This Side of Paradise. Also, while stationed at Camp Sheridan in Alabama, he met the beautiful and talented Zelda Sayre, the belle of Montgomery, Alabama. Their courtship was rocky. Upon leaving the army, Scott worked for an advertising agency in New York and began writing stories for publication with virtually no success. His prospects appeared so dim that Zelda broke off their engagement. Retreating to his parents’ home in St. Paul, Fitzgerald revised the novel. This time it was accepted by Scribner’s, whose editor Maxwell Perkins became Fitzgerald’s lifelong friend as well as his literary and financial supporter. This Side of Paradise was published in March 1920.
The years following the end of World War I in 1918 saw a tremendous change in American lifestyles and morals, and This Side of Paradise perfectly captured the new mood of the young. As Fitzgerald put it in the novel, “Here was a new generation . . . grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” These were the Americans that Gertrude Stein dubbed “the Lost Generation.”
The acceptance of his novel prompted Zelda to reconsider her engagement to Fitzgerald and they were married a week after its publication. Scott and Zelda instantly became a celebrity couple in New York’s café society and, for the press, the embodiment of everything the new era promised or threatened. Fitzgerald’s income (as recorded in his meticulously kept notebooks) was only $879 in 1919, but between 1920 and 1922, he averaged around $20,000 to $25,000 a year. In terms of current dollars, this would be an increase from about $9,000 per year to over $250,000. The Fitzgeralds lived extravagantly, bought a Rolls Royce, and took extended trips to Europe.
With the end of the First World War, America was at the dawn of a decade of unprecedented prosperity and change. In 1920, women won the right to vote. Hemlines rose from the ankle to the knee. Prohibition ended the legal sale and drinking of alcohol throughout the country, but increased its widespread consumption. Speakeasies and private cocktail parties became the center of social life for men and women, a striking break from previously all-male bars. Automobile ownership grew rapidly, as did cigarette smoking (especially by women for whom it had previously been taboo). The saxophone became the favored instrument of the younger generation while on the dance floor the provocative Charleston and Shimmy replaced the stately prewar waltz. America wanted nothing to interfere with its prosperity: the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia ignited a “red scare” in the United States that led to riots and even lynching in 1919 and for some years thereafter. Real strife—like a riot at a Socialist newspaper on May 1, 1919—became the crux of Fitzgerald’s story, “May Day.”
Fitzgerald’s income from his novels (The Beautiful and Damned was published in 1922 and The Great Gatsby in 1925) could not support him, Zelda, and their daughter, Frances Scott Fitzgerald (“Scottie”), born in 1921. As a result, he wrote stories for magazines including popular “slicks” such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, as well as the more intellectual The Smart Set. In addition to This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald wrote four other novels: The Beautiful and Damned (serialized in 1921 and published in hardcover in 1922), The Great Gatsby (1925), Tender is the Night (1934), and The Last Tycoon (left unfinished at his death in 1940 and published the following year). He also wrote about one hundred sixty stories. Although Fitzgerald considered his novels to be his major works of art, the stories paid the bills. Despite his own tendency to devalue them, some of his best writing appears in his short stories.
America in the early 1920s had three mass-entertainment media: radio, silent movies, and magazines. A number of Fitzgerald’s magazine stories found their way onto to the movie screens, adding to his income. From both a business and personal standpoint, Fitzgerald was lucky to find a literary agent, Harold Ober, who would manage his magazine work (and serve as his unofficial banker) until near the end of Fitzgerald’s life. A January 1920 letter from Fitzgerald to Ober, referring to “The Camel’s Back,” sets the importuning tone for hundreds that would follow:
Dear Mr. Ober:
Here’s a “Post Story” I feel pretty sure. If you sell “Bernice” please wire me the
money as soon as you can because I am very broke. Am sending another story
on in two days.
I received the proofs and forwarded them on to the Saturday Evening Post. Thanks for your letter.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Five of the stories included in this volume first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the largest mass circulation “slick” with a readership of 2.75 million in the 1920s. For his first Post story, “Head and Shoulders,” published in 1920, Fitzgerald received $400. Magazine editors soon competed for his work. The Saturday Evening Post’s main rival, Collier’s, and Metropolitan Magazine both sought Fitzgerald stories, with Metropolitan upping the fee to $900 per story—nearly double what the Post was paying him at that time. His literary agent, Harold Ober, arranged for the Post to have first refusal on all Fitzgerald stories and his fee eventually reached $4,000 per story.
Seven of these stories, too sophisticated for the mass-circulation magazines, appeared in The Smart Set, a leading literary magazine edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. With a circulation of about 22,000, The Smart Set did not pay nearly as much as the Post or Collier’s. Two of the stories in this volume first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, put out by the firm that published This Side of Paradise.
These stories show an astonishing range. "The Offshore Pirate" is a light romance while "Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” another flapper story, is harsher. In "May Day," Fitzgerald weaves three different plot strands among eleven episodes without missing a step. "Mr. Icky" is pure Dada, while "O Russet Witch!" is Magical Realism several decades before the genre was officially invented. "The Cut Glass Bowl" is in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe or even Stephen King. "Tarquin of Cheapside," with its accusation that William Shakespeare was a rapist, so shocked Maxwell Perkins that he wanted to leave the story out of the collection. “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong,” an inverted Horatio Alger story indicting capitalism and politics, would have offended a mass American audience. Stories like “Tarquin of Cheapside” and “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” similarly too cynical for the “slicks,” found their audience in The Smart Set. “Benediction,” also a Smart Set story, shows a girl who under the sway of an ecstatic religious experience nearly renounces her sweetheart, but leaves us with some doubt about her real feelings. The stories of young love (even when they foreshadow an ultimate disillusion) were the kind of fiction that the largely female audience of the Post and Collier’s avidly read. Fitzgerald quickly learned that editors wanted the happy ending: a romantic farce like “The Camel’s Back” ends—as the formula requires—with a wedding.
Fitzgerald sometimes groups several stories around a single theme. Tightly related stories such as “The Ice Palace” and “The Jelly Bean” even share a character (although Fitzgerald had to change Sally Carrol’s last name from Happer to Hopper when the second story appeared in a different magazine). With this pairing, for example, Fitzgerald shows us the difference between the American Midwest, his own region, and the South, to which he had a sentimental attachment. “The Four Fists,” is a tale of a young man’s maturing through hard knocks, and in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a man born old reverses the normal course of a lifetime and regresses to babyhood. “Head and Shoulders” depicts a married couple so oddly matched that they virtually morph into one another, while “The Lees of Happiness” offers another couple who are clearly meant for one another but whose bond does not lead to marriage.
Fitzgerald’s stories were so popular that Scribner’s published hardcover collections almost immediately after they had appeared in magazines. Flappers and Philosophers came out in September 1920 with six additional printings in two years. A New York Times reviewer praised Fitzgerald’s talent and genius: “Mr. Fitzgerald is working out an idiom, and it is an idiom at once universal, American, and individual.”
Tales of the Jazz Age was published in September 1922 with Fitzgerald’s choice of rubrics and droll comments on each story, which also appear in this edition. The Times reviewer of the collection wrote, “If ever a writer was born with a gold pen in his mouth, surely Fitzgerald is that man. The more you read him, the more he convinces you that here is the destined artist.” The Denver Post’s critic called Fitzgerald’s insight into the minds of the younger generation “nothing less than amazing.”
Fitzgerald had a proprietary feeling toward “his material,” what the Times called his “idiom.” He exploited his acquaintance with the white upper classes: the rich, the superrich, and the diamond-as-big-as-the-Ritz rich. His work incorporates timeless elements of romance, allegory, folk, and Gothic tales. The Midwest, the heartland of the American Dream, is a theme in many of his novels and stories (The Great Gatsby, “The Ice Palace,” “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” for example), even those written in New York, Paris, or Los Angeles.
Fitzgerald’s characters are concerned with social position. For the men, it comes down to money; for the women, it is mainly a matter of the men they win. In a letter to his younger sister, Fitzgerald warned her that “in society, nine girls out of ten marry for money and nine men out of ten are fools.” Often, the central character is (like Fitzgerald himself) a young man from the provinces who comes to conquer the big city. His male characters are usually Ivy Leaguers: handsome and smooth, but often with a weakness that leads to their downfall. Sadly, in Fitzgerald’s case, the weakness was alcoholism.
More than anything, though, it was Fitzgerald’s women—girls, really—that made his reputation. As the Los Angeles Sunday Times put it in a review of Flappers and Philosophers, “It is your flapper that Mr. Fitzgerald does best, not because he loves her but because he is able to see quite through her.”
Girls of the 1920s were raised in a very different manner from their brothers. For the upper classes, women’s education comprised those decorative feminine arts of appearance, charm, and manners that would snare the most marriageable man. Flirtation was a blood sport. Marjorie Harvey’s “education” of her wallflower cousin in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is a perfect example. Fitzgerald, having married a classic Southern Belle, experienced the results of this style of upbringing in Zelda and captured it beautifully in his portraits of flappers.
The flapper was the “modern” girl who wore short skirts and no corsets, who put on makeup and bobbed her hair. She drank, smoked, and necked with men. Fitzgerald claimed to have invented the word “flapper” although it had been in use in England at least since 1912. If not the first to use the term, he, along with cartoonists like John R. Held, Jr., made the flapper an American icon. But Fitzgerald’s flappers were not ditzy airheads. He called them “girls with an extraordinary talent for living.” Lois, the heroine of “Benediction,” was “nineteen and very romantic and curious and courageous.” Ardita in “The Offshore Pirate” was “about nineteen, slender and supple, with a spoiled alluring mouth and quick gray eyes full of a radiant curiosity.” Idealism was a real virtue for many of his beautiful and bold young women although it was shot through with a sense of realism, too. Ardita observes, “All life is just a progression toward, and then a regression from, one phrase—‘I love you.’” Yet even she falls in love at the end.
Neither Fitzgerald's writings nor his personal style was appreciated by conservative American society. In January 1920, the Los Angeles Times mockingly denounced "Boy Authors of the Platte" (lumping Fitzgerald with Sinclair Lewis and other young writers originally from the Midwest) "who, sadly out of tune with the times, have revolted against things as they are and set up what they choose to consider a new view of life and a new way of society."
The Great Depression that descended in October 1929 ended what Fitzgerald called “the greatest, gaudiest spree in [American] history.” A newly sobered public had less interest in reminiscences of an era that seemed irrelevant and frivolous. Also, by 1930, Zelda’s madcap boldness that had so enchanted Fitzgerald when she was eighteen now veered toward madness. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and the remainder of her life is a sad tale of suicide attempts and repeated institutionalization. Fitzgerald, always a heavy drinker, became increasingly dependent upon alcohol. With his income from stories falling and the expenses of Zelda’s hospitalization and Scottie’s boarding school mounting, Fitzgerald moved to Los Angeles in 1937 to work as a screenwriter for MGM. His Hollywood career, though relatively lucrative, was not a success; his only screen credit was for Three Comrades (1938). His Hollywood earnings never enabled him to pay off his considerable debts. Toward the end of his life, he was regarded as a relic of a vanished and irrelevant frivolity. He always saw a conflict between his roles as popular entertainer and serious artist, though he often managed to achieve both in the same story.
Fitzgerald died in 1940 at the age of forty-four and many of his obituaries were harsh. The New York Times observed, “Mr. Fitzgerald in his life and writings epitomized ‘all the sad young men’ of the postwar generation. With the skill of a reporter and the ability of an artist, he captured the essence of a period when flappers and gin and ‘the beautiful and the damned [sic]’ were symbols of the carefree madness of an age.... The promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled.”
Time has reversed this judgment. New York Times critic Margo Jefferson, in a 1996 article celebrating Fitzgerald’s centennial, described him as “one of those rare artists with a cultural radar system that is constantly picking up sensations, responses, and fresh thoughts: still at the center of everything that is modern or postmodern.” The last word may fairly be accorded to the author himself, who in a notebook published after his death said of his short stories, “There was one little drop of something not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had.”
David Greenstein is Director of Continuing Education and Public Programs at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Columbia University and has taught at Middlebury College, the Sorbonne, and New York University.