Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by Anne Margaret Daniel (2017)

Scott looking handsome on the cover of I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, 2017. 
More than seventy-six years after his death in 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald continues to exert a fascination over readers and scholars. In April of 2017, I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories was published. The collection is made up of short stories that were unpublished during Fitzgerald’s lifetime. Edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, who also wrote the excellent explanatory notes, I’d Die for You adds some fine work to the official Fitzgerald canon.

Many of the stories in I’d Die for You date from Fitzgerald’s “crack-up” period of 1934-36, when he was at his lowest ebb personally and professionally. With his wife Zelda in a sanitarium due to her mental health issuesshe had breakdowns in 1930, 1932, and 1934Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, always problematic, now became debilitating. His 1934 novel Tender is the Night had gone through an extremely painful gestation. At a time when many novelists turned out a book a year, Fitzgerald had gone nine years between The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Sales of Tender is the Night were not fantastic, and Scott was heavily in debt. At a time when Fitzgerald desperately needed money, it must have been a severe annoyance to him that the stories in I’d Die for You were rejected by so many magazines.

I’d Die for You is inevitably something of a hodgepodge, and the stories range from strong“The I.O.U.,” “I’d Die for You,” and the very funny “The Women of the House,” to the weak“Gracie at Sea,” written as a screen treatment for George Burns and Gracie Allen, “Travel Together,” and “The Pearl and the Fur.” What comes across most strongly in I’d Die for You is Fitzgerald’s great talent. Even in stories with generic plots, there are always sentences of beauty that stop you in your tracks.

Sentences like these: “Non-fiction is a form of literature that lies half-way between fiction and fact.” (p.7)
“Her eyes were full of tears for the unpreventable sadness in the world.” (p.28)
“The girl hung around under the pink sky waiting for something to happen.” (p.41)
“She sat with Delannux on the side of a beached raft while the sunset broke into pink picture puzzle pieces that solved themselves in the dark west.” (p.93)
“Women don’t get bored the same way men do. They can sort of shut off their attention—but they always know when men are bored.” (p.115)
“He was one of those men who seem eternally stolid, even unobserving—and then announce the score added up to the last digit.” (p.115)
“It was a fine day with the buildings sparkling upward like pale dry ginger ale through the blue air.” (p.143)
“The sun shone bright on Kiki, a brisk November sun, blue in the drifting cigarettes of the crowd.” (p.209)
“…within a few hours he had become that strange dreamy figure of one whom we have been very close to and who is neither a stranger nor quite a friend.” (p.213)

Even the weaker stories are still interesting. “Travel Together,” from 1935-6, anticipates the plot of Preston Sturges’ classic 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels, as a screenwriter travels the country as a hobo in order to get material. For a moment as the story begins you wonder what’s happening—F. Scott Fitzgerald is writing about hobos riding the rails during the Depression? Has he been reading too much John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell? But then we learn that the main hobo is actually a Hollywood screenwriter, and we can breathe a sigh of relief knowing we’re back in Fitzgerald territory. And there’s a girl. In Fitzgerald’s stories there is always a girl, and she is always beautiful. Fitzgerald paid close attention to women, and his descriptions of women in these stories are wonderful to read.

There are always connections to be made between these stories and Fitzgerald’s own private life. One of the odder connections is in the short story “Cyclone in Silent Land,” which is set in a hospital and features a male patient who doesn’t want to take his socks off. It turns out that the man has an extra toe. Fitzgerald also hated to reveal his bare feet. He wrote in his ledger about a neighbor boy who “went barefoot in his yard and peeled plums. Scott’s Freudian shame about his feet kept him from joining in.” (Fool for Love, by Scott Donaldson, p.179) His last girlfriend Sheilah Graham wrote, “All the time I knew him he always refused to take off his shoes and socks on the beach.” (The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald Thirty-Five Years Later, p.33)

Through these stories the reader gets a sense of Fitzgerald’s diverse interests. “Offside Play” is about college football—one of the characters mentions that a star player should get paid, an issue still relevant in 2017, 80 years after the story was written. Fitzgerald was a lifelong football fan, and when his fatal heart attack struck he was making a list of football players in his copy of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. The last note he made was “good prose” on a story about Princeton’s football team. We learn from the explanatory notes to “The Women in the House” that Fitzgerald knew a lot about flowers and kept notes about them in his notebooks.

Another minor obsession of Fitzgerald’s was the Civil War. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, had deep roots in Maryland, a border state that allowed slavery but remained in the Union. However, Edward Fitzgerald had an affection for the Confederates, and passed this nostalgia for lost causes on to his son. (One could go deeper into the psychological consequences of Fitzgerald identifying more with failure than success, but I’ll stop here.) And of course, Scott went on to marry Zelda Sayre, a true Southern belle from Alabama. The Civil War is the setting for the stories “Thumbs Up” and “Dentist Appointment,” which start out in a similar manner, and then diverge into two different endings. The story was eventually published in 1940 in Collier’s in a very different format as “The End of Hate.” I actually think “The End of Hate” is the best of the three. “Thumbs Up” and “Dentist Appointment” come so close to working, but just don’t quite get there. Although “Dentist Appointment” does feature a wonderful sentence describing Fitzgerald’s hometown of Saint Paul, Minnesota, during the 1860’s: “The rude town was like a great fish just hauled out of the Mississippi and still leaping and squirming on the bank.” (p.196) “The End of Hate” was published in the 1979 collection The Price was High: The Last Uncollected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a title that is now out of date, thanks to I’d Die for You.

While it would seem to be a safe bet that I’d Die for You will be the very last collection of writing from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anne Margaret Daniel makes the tantalizing admission in her editorial note that “Many examples of what Fitzgerald called ‘false starts’ and what are obviously drafts of incomplete stories survive. Some run to twelve or fifteen pages before they fade out or stop abruptly. Others are as short as a paragraph or two.” (p.xxi) Why not publish those false starts? Of course, Fitzgerald wouldn’t have intended for those to be published, but his notebooks have been published, as well as several collections of his letters, so why not the false starts as well?

I’d Die for You is probably not the best place to start with Fitzgerald’s short stories but it is well worth reading and provides yet more insight into one of America’s greatest writers.

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