'I'd Die For You' Gives A Glimpse Into F. Scott Fitzgerald's Writing Life

Apr 30, 2017
Originally published on May 1, 2017 1:10 pm

Writing good fiction is hard, and doesn't necessarily get easier with practice. Some writers improve over time, others burn brightly but flame out early. Case in point: F. Scott Fitzgerald, who produced most of his best work — This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tales of the Jazz Age — in his 20s.

The 18 "lost stories" in I'd Die For You — all previously unpublished or uncollected — provide a sobering example of how difficult it is to deliver the goods when life is going against you. Most were written in the 1930s, the last decade of Fitzgerald's life, when his wife Zelda was expensively institutionalized after her mental breakdown, and he was beleaguered by financial pressures, alcoholism, and failing health. Fitzgerald's star had lost its shine, and his stories channel his desperation.

Many were rejected by the author's formerly reliable cash cows, The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. Some were lost for years in archives, but others were put aside as lost causes. Fitzgerald often balked at editors' suggestions for cuts or re-writes, preferring instead to move on to what he hoped would be more lucrative hack work in Hollywood.

The value of this book, nimbly edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, lies not so much in its assembled stories, fragments, and movie scenarios as in her fascinating literary sleuthing and fine scholarship. Augmented by typescript pages, snapshots of Fitzgerald (including one of him mugging in a photo booth), and multiple stabs at the same story, I'd Die For You is a treasure trove for Fitzgerald enthusiasts, scholars, and aspiring writers.

Daniel acknowledges up front that the "quality is uneven, and Fitzgerald himself knew this, as is evident from his correspondence." Under pressure to continue producing what editors had come to expect from him — upbeat dazzlers — he dashed off stories that, Daniel writes, "feel hasty and flawed." Readers during the Depression wanted cheer, not bleak, dark tales about suicide and mental illness. In a letter to Zelda in April 1940, just eight months before his death from a heart attack at age 44, Fitzgerald wrote sadly, "my God I am a forgotten man."

Still, there are flashes of brilliance. The earliest story, "The I.O.U.," written in 1920, is a funny satire of the publishing business. Its narrator, a craven publisher, describes his literary mandate in a sentence perched wonderfully on three simple adjectives — long, young, and old: "I accept long novels about young love written by old maids in South Dakota." When challenged about the veracity of one of his books, the publisher equivocates hilariously, "Non-fiction is a form of literature that lies half-way between fiction and fact." Although unpublished in Fitzgerald's lifetime, Yale University paid $194,500 in 2012 for the manuscript, and The New Yorker ran "I.O.U." this past March — both way too late, alas, to help poor Scott.

Many of these stories feature strong, resourceful female characters, including nurses stuck in subservient roles and flirtatious young women seeking eligible men. In "Offside Play," a 1937 attempt to recapture the vivacity of his earlier collegiate work, a young woman is drawn to a questionable Yale football star after her fiancé lets her down. A classic Fitzgerald line: "She was plagued by her bright unused beauty." One can only imagine the author's reaction to the Saturday Evening Post's rejection: "They say it lacks the warmth of your best work and it hasn't the 'incandescent' quality your readers expect," his agent reported.

"Thumbs Up" and "Dentist Appointment" offer two intriguingly different versions of a story about a man strung up by his thumbs during the Civil War — a tale which had its roots in Fitzgerald family lore. In both versions, feisty young Josie Pilgrim, traveling south with her dentist brother towards the end of the war, furtively cuts down a Virginian who's suffered this brutal punishment. In "Thumbs Up," she meets the maimed Virginian again in Paris, where they become involved in a ludicrous plot to save a French empress. In the second, shorter version, their paths cross in St. Paul in another ridiculous scheme involving Native Americans. Fitzgerald's description of his Minnesota hometown in 1866 is a high point: "The rude town was like a great fish just hauled out of the Mississippi and still leaping and squirming on the bank."

Many of these stories are marred by painfully cloying endings. In his eagerness for movie deals, Fitzgerald cranked out action-packed scenarios that awkwardly channel elements of 1930s screwball comedies and corny Charlie Chaplinesque love stories about tramps and waifs. But while none emit the sparkle of classics like "The Cut-Glass Bowl," even the least successful of these tales provide an invaluable glimpse into a brilliant but struggling writer's process.

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