F. SCOTT FITZGERALD was a literary bootlegger. Like his bootlegging hero, Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald supported his great dream by selling inferior goods, of which he was not proud, in a market which he did not respect. The great Gatsby sold black-market booze to pay for his dream of being a great host who AARON LATHAM is the author of Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood . gave the greatest parties New York had ever seen. The Great Fitzgerald sold magazine-market stories to subsidize his dream of being a great novelist who wrote books like The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night . During his lifetime, Fitzgerald earned $106,585 from his magazine stories. The Great Gatsby made him $6,245 and change.
A new book has just been published which collects the worst of Fitzgerald's bootleg magazine fiction. The best of his magazine work had, of course, been published in book form long ago. The title of the new volume, The Price Was High , is taken from Fitzgerald's notebooks in which he wrote: "I have asked a lot of my emotions -- one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because 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. Now it has gone and I am just like you now."
After Fitzgerald wrote that his "extra" was gone, he wrote another 45 stories. Many of these wound up in The Price Was High which sells for $19.95. You could buy a half dozen Great Gatsbys for that price.
Bootleg Fitzgerald isn't good Fitzgerald, the way bootleg whiskey isn't good whiskey, but it's better than no whiskey at all. In fact, these stories have a lot in common with a bootlegger's brew: They are not very subtle, but they can still show you a good time.
When Fitzgerald wrote that "the price was high," he was, of course, being ironic, for the price was high in two senses. On the one hand, Fitzgerald really was extremely well paid for his magazine work. But on the other hand, his highpriced stories cost him the time he might better have used working on novels.He would probably have been better off if he had been paid less for his magazine fiction, because then he might have done less of it. In other words, the price was so high (in terms of time robbed from his novels) because the price was so high (in terms of money).
The theme of Fitzgerald's fiction is the irony of the American Dream. He understood this irony so well because he lived it. The problem was not that the American Dream no longer worked. The problem was that it sometimes worked too well. Fitzgerald would have been better off if America had not been such a land of opportunity. If Fitzgerald had not been such a great American success story, he might well have left more great books behind him. Just as Jay Gatsby would have lived longer if he had not been such a successful bootlegger.
Of all the stories in The Price Was High , one of the best is one that brought him the least. He could not sell it. The story -- called "On Your Own" -- was never published until now. In it, an actress is taken home to meet the aristocratic mother of the man she loves.
And the actress blurts out her most paintful secret: "Then somebody told us about 'party girls.' Businessmen with clients from out of town sometimes wanted to give them a big time -- singing and dancing and chanpagne, all that sort of thing, make them feel like regular fellows seeing New York. So they'd hire a room and a restaurant and invite a dozen party girls.... Sometimes you'd find a fifty-doollar bill in your napkin when you sat down at table. It sounds terrible, doesnht it -- but it was salvation to us."
Fitzgerald, who always felt on his own in a world made treacherous by his own alcoholism and his wife's insanity, knew what people would do for salvation. He himself had taken too many $50 bills from The Saturday Evening Post , from Esquire , from the Woman's Home Companion , and even from Hollywood. He had become a party-writer who wrote about partygirls.
The publication of "On Your Own" reduces to nine the number of Fitzgerald stories which have never been published. I have read all nine in manuscript form. There is a reason why none of them was ever published: None of them was any good. The absolute worst is about an old woman who wanders around a big city in search of a light for her cigarette. But no one will give her one. Finally, she wanders into a church where a miracle occurs. God lights her cigarette for her. The story is called something like "Thanks for the Light."
Scott Fitzgerald obviously would have been better off finishing a fifth novel than writing such drivel. If he had, perhaps he would not have died broke with his books out of print. And yet what if he had wasted less time and written more novels? Would we care about him more? Would he loom larger in our culture? I doubt it. He moves us because he was both a success and a failure. When he writes about the fall of Jay Gatsby, we think of Fitzgerald's own fall. His books wear his personal tragedy like dust jackets.
So it turns again. Fitzgerald's success led to his failure which has finally led to his success as an author we continue to care about. F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved the American Dream of becoming an American Hero by becoming an American Failure.