F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to write more novels, but the easy money from magazines for his short stories was hard to resist. And then Hollywood came calling with its distracting wiles.
By the time he died in 1940, Fitzgerald had managed to publish only four novels, including his classic “The Great Gatsby,” now widely considered the Great American Novel. A fifth one, “The Last Tycoon,” was left unfinished; his friend Edmund Wilson edited and published it in 1941.
Since then, we’ve been left mostly in silence, surviving on a few found pieces now and then, wondering what might have been had he drunk less, run faster, stretched out his arms farther. . . .
But now comes tantalizing word of another novel — alas, unfinished — that’s been sitting in a box in the Princeton University library for decades — catalogued but apparently ignored.
Andrew Gulli, editor of the Strand mystery magazine, says he ran across an undated manuscript called “Ballet School — Chicago” last year.
Initially, he thought that he’d stumbled upon a lost short story, like the Fitzgerald story he found and published in the Strand a few weeks ago called “Temperature.”
“There was a scene that could have stood solely as a short story,” he says, “but then it went on one more paragraph, and then it just ended abruptly. And I realized, ‘Oh my God . . . it’s a novel.’”
The fragment — about 2,500 words — seems to be the beginning of “Ballet School — Chicago.” Gulli says he knows Fitzgerald “was thinking about publishing this as a book” because he also found a “whole outline of several chapters.”
“I really liked it,” Gulli says. “It’s romantic. There’s a ballerina trying to make her way in Chicago. She has an attraction to a wealthy neighbor because he can get her out of this tough existence . . . and she can have a happy life with him. The story goes into the very hard training for ballet dancers. But then something quirky and unsuspected happens that changes her impression of him.”
The story may be informed by Fitzgerald’s experience with his wife, Zelda, who developed a passion for ballet as a child and pursued it throughout much of her life.
Even this short fragment demonstrates Fitzgerald’s poetic care with his style. “He was like a real lunatic about going over things,” Gulli says. “He would scratch out whole paragraphs, and in his cursive make things more economical in pencil. He was obsessive about trying to find a shorter way. He was always trying to streamline.”
Gulli says the fragment, told in the third person, “is just enough to feel that he was really going somewhere with the character, and he had all the other characters outlined, too. The thing that makes this so novel — forgive the pun — is that he wrote so few novels. So he must have really been captured by this idea to the point that he outlined it fully.”
Although the fragment can’t stand on its own as a short story, the outline could provide sufficient guidance for some modern writer to complete the novel. But that might require negotiating with the Fitzgerald estate. (Works fall into the public domain 70 years after the death of the author, but some estates — notably, the Emily Dickinson estate — successfully hold on far past that limit, much to the chagrin of scholars.)
It seems remarkable that anything by a writer as famous as Fitzgerald hasn’t been completely vetted by now, but the volume of unexamined manuscripts is vast. And such discoveries not unknown. After all, the world is still trying to digest “Go Set a Watchman,” the lost, newly published novel by Harper Lee.
Gulli has made a name for himself ferreting out literary discoveries. Over the past five years, he’s found lost stories by John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Joseph Heller and Dashiell Hammett.
“The world’s neglect is my opportunity,” he says.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.