F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Fiction Analysis
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a professional writer who was also a literary artist. In practical terms this meant that he had to support himself by writing short stories for popular magazines in order to get sufficient income, according to him, to write decent books. Indeed, most of the money that Fitzgerald earned by writing before he went to Hollywood in 1937 was earned by selling stories to magazines. In his twenty-year career as a writer, he published 164 magazine stories; other stories were never published. All but eight of the stories that originally appeared in magazines became available in hardcover editions.
As one would expect of a body of 164 stories written in a twenty-year period mainly for popular consumption, the quality of the stories is uneven. At the bottom of this collection are at least a dozen stories, most of them written for Esquire during the last years of his life, which have few redeeming qualities; at the top of the list are at least a dozen stories which rank among the best of American short stories. One should not, however, be led to believe that these, as well as the hundred or more “potboilers” in the middle, do not serve a useful role in his development as an artist. Fitzgerald in the 1920’s was considered the best writer of quality magazine fiction in America, and his stories brought the highest prices paid by slick magazines; the Saturday Evening Post, for example, paid him four thousand dollars per story even during the Depression. Dorothy Parker commented that Fitzgerald could write a bad story, but that he could not write badly. Thus each story, no matter how weak, has the recognizable Fitzgerald touch—that sparkling prose which Fitzgerald called “the something extra” that most popular short stories lacked. Fitzgerald also learned at the beginning of his career that he could use the popular magazines as a workshop for his novels, experimenting in them with themes and techniques which he would later incorporate into his novels. An understanding of a Fitzgerald story should take into account this workshop function of the story as well as its artistic merits.
Fitzgerald’s career as a writer of magazine fiction breaks logically into three periods: 1919-1924, years during which he shopped around for markets and published stories in most of the important periodicals of the times; 1925-1933, the central period characterized by a close association with the Saturday Evening Post—a relationship which almost precluded his publication of stories in other magazines; and 1934-1940, a period beginning with the publication of his first Esquire story and continuing through a subsequent relationship with that magazine which lasted until his death. During the first of these periods, Fitzgerald published thirty-two stories in ten different commercial magazines, two novels (This Side of Paradise, 1920, and The Beautiful and Damned, 1922), two short-story collections (Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age), and one book-length play (The Vegetable). In the second period, during which The Great Gatsby and a third short-story collection (All the Sad Young Men) appeared, he enjoyed the popular reputation he had built with readers of the Saturday Evening Post and published forty-seven of the fifty-eight stories which appeared during this nine-year period in that magazine; the remaining eleven stories were scattered throughout five different magazines. In the final period, Fitzgerald lost the large Saturday Evening Post audience and gained the Esquire audience, which was smaller and quite different. Of the forty-four Fitzgerald stories to appear between 1934 and his death, twenty-eight appeared in Esquire. In addition to Tender Is the Night, which was completed and delivered before Fitzgerald’s relationship with Esquire began, Fitzgerald published his final short-story collection (Taps at Reveille); he also drafted The Last Tycoon (1941) during the Esquire years. Twelve stories, nine of which have appeared in Esquire, have been published since his death.
An obvious conclusion may be drawn about Fitzgerald’s professional career: He was at his best artistically in the years of his greatest popularity. During the composition of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s commercial fiction was in such demand that large magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Hearst’s, and Metropolitan competed for it. Tender Is the Night was written during the time when Fitzgerald’s popularity with slick magazine readers was at its all-time high point; for example, in 1929 and 1930, important years in the composition of Tender Is the Night, he published fifteen stories in the Saturday Evening Post. In sharp contrast to the 1925-1933 stories, which are characteristically of an even, high quality, and many of which are closely related to two novels of this period, the stories of the Esquire years are, in general, undistinguished. In addition, with minor exceptions, the stories written in this final period have little relation to Fitzgerald’s last “serious” work, The Last Tycoon. The Esquire years thus constitute a low point from both a popular and an artistic standpoint. They are years during which he lost the knack of pleasing the large American reading public and at the same time produced a comparatively small amount of good artwork.
In the first two years of Fitzgerald’s storywriting, his sensitivity to audience tastes was naïve. “May Day” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” not only the two best stories from these years but also two of the best stories in the Fitzgerald canon, were written for sale to mass-circulation magazines. Both, however, were too cynical about American values to be acceptable to a large, middle-American audience. By 1922 and the publication of “Winter Dreams” in Metropolitan, Fitzgerald had learned how to tailor his stories for slick magazine readers while at the same time using them to experiment with serious subjects and themes that he would later use in longer works.
Viewed in association with The Great Gatsby, “Winter Dreams” provides an excellent illustration of Fitzgerald’s method of using his stories as a proving ground for his novels. In a letter to Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald describes “Winter Dreams” as a “sort of 1st draft of the Gatsby idea,” and indeed, it contains sufficient similarities of theme and character to be called a miniature of The Great Gatsby. Parallels between Dexter Green and Jay Gatsby are striking: Both men have made a total commitment to a dream, and both of their dreams are hollow. Dexter falls in love with wealthy Judy Jones and devotes his life to making the money that will allow him to enter her social circle; his idealization of her is closely akin to Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby’s idealized conception of Daisy is the motivating force that underlies his compulsion to become successful, just as Dexter’s conception of Judy Jones drives him to amass a fortune by the time he is twenty-five. The theme of commitment to an idealized dream that is the core of “Winter Dreams” and The Great Gatsby and the similarities between the two men point up the close relationship between the story and the novel. Because “Winter Dreams” appeared three years before The Great Gatsby, its importance in the gestation of the novel cannot be overemphasized.
Important differences in Fitzgerald’s methods of constructing short stories and novels emerge from these closely related works. Much of the effectiveness of The Great Gatsby lies in the mystery of Gatsby’s background, while no such mystery surrounds the early life of Dexter Green. In “Winter Dreams,” Dexter’s disillusionment with Judy occurs suddenly; when he learns that she is no longer pretty, the “dream was gone. Something had taken it from him the moonlit veranda, and gingham on the golf links and the dry sun and the gold color of her neck’s soft down. Why these things were no longer in the world!” Because his enchantment could be shattered so quickly, Dexter’s commitment to Judy is not of the magnitude of Gatsby’s commitment to Daisy. Gatsby’s disenchantment could only occur gradually. When he is finally able to see Daisy, “the colossal significance of the green light vanished forever,” but his “count of enchanted objects” had only diminished by one. Even toward the end of the novel, there is no way of knowing that Gatsby is completely disenchanted with Daisy. Nick says that “perhaps he no longer cared.” The “perhaps” leaves open possibilities of interpretation that are closed at the end of “Winter Dreams.” While Dexter can cry at the loss of a dream, Gatsby dies, leaving the reader to guess whether or not he still held on to any fragment of his dreams about Daisy. The expansiveness of the novel obviously allowed Fitzgerald to make Gatsby and his dream believable while he could maintain the mystery of Gatsby’s past and the...
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