The Price Was High

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The Price Was High includes a surprisingly large percentage of Fitzgerald’s total output. Of the 164 stories he published, The Price Was High collects forty-nine, supplementing a number of previously published collections. Only eight stories remain buried in the magazines where they appeared, because—as Matthew Bruccoli explains—“Scottie Fitzgerald Smith feels that they are so far below her father’s standards that they should be left in oblivion.” All eight stories were published in 1935 or later; for the curious and the unpersuaded, Bruccoli provides the publication data of these uncollected pieces. In addition to the forty-nine magazine stories which previous collections have not included, Bruccoli chose one story, “On Your Own,” from among the few surviving Fitzgerald stories which have never been published; he felt it was the last unpublished story which contained, in Fitzgerald’s words, that “one little drop of something . . . the extra I had.” There are fifty stories, then, which tend to confirm the common notion that Fitzgerald dissipated his great talent writing for the marketplace. In John Dos Passos’ view, Fitzgerald had helped to create, for their generation, the role of the professional writer for the popular market and was “tragically destroyed by his own invention.”

It is precisely this widespread view of Fitzgerald’s magazine fiction which Matthew Bruccoli, the preeminent textual critic of Fitzgerald, is at some pains to correct in his Introduction. Bruccoli does not downplay the commercial motive: where the reader expects the heading “Introduction,” Bruccoli has instead, in boldface, “$106,585.” Beneath that provocative heading, there is a quote from John O’Hara: “Fitzgerald was a better just plain writer than all of us put together. Just words writing.” Bruccoli’s implication is clear: by juxtaposing that impressive sum with O’Hara’s admiring judgment, he suggests that we should read these stories as evidence of Fitzgerald’s great gifts rather than as admonitory sellouts. “The stories in The Price Was High were written for money.” Thus Bruccoli begins his Introduction; later he writes: “The price was high because Fitzgerald delivered what nobody else could deliver.”

Many writers, having finally decided to set aside artistic conscience in favor of making money, discover to their sorrow that it is not so easy to sell out as they had supposed. Fitzgerald’s stories, Bruccoli reminds us, “show him as a professional writer earning his living in a highly competitive market by meeting a certain standard of quality and satisfying commercial requirements. They were not just hack-work.” A number of the stories in The Price Was High sold for four thousand dollars apiece; the stories supported Fitzgerald when his books could not.

Bruccoli’s emphasis on Fitzgerald’s professionalism is a welcome corrective, but it must be said that only a Fitzgerald scholar would be likely to wade through these stories looking for signs of the “extra” he had. Perhaps a reader steeped in the popular fiction of the 1920’s and 1930’s could distinguish the qualities which set Fitzgerald above the pack and earned him top dollar, but most readers in 1980 will find precious little magic here.

“The purpose of a fiction story,” Fitzgerald wrote, “is to create a passionate curiosity and then to gratify it unexpectedly, orgasmically.” Many of the stories in The Price Was High feature “surprise” endings, O. Henry twists, but they pack no punch: the surprises become all too neat and predictable. Indeed, predictability is the hallmark of this collection. In his finest fiction—The Great...

(The entire section is 1530 words.)