Why We Still Can’t Quit F. Scott Fitzgerald

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It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940.

Was it worth the wait? That’s for Fitzgerald fans to decide. They’re certainly out there: At least 500,000 copies of The Great Gatsby are sold every year, and even those who aren’t familiar with his work use Fitzgerald’s name as a kind of shorthand for Jazz Age nostalgia. But what, exactly, is the author’s modern appeal?

Perhaps it’s the tension between his personal excesses—alcoholism, infidelity, and an early death—and the wistful way he translated his era’s restlessness into prose. Fitzgerald’s heroes, be they Gatsby or The Beautiful and the Damned’s doomed Anthony Patch, exude white male fragility. They want what they can’t have; when they do get what they want, they find that they didn’t really want it in the first place. (And they always do get what they want, or what they think they want, for at least a little while.)

In Fitzgerald’s world, everything that’s delicious turns bitter; every party is a tragedy. At first, things seem sexy and sumptuous and doused in champagne. When the music stops, though, everything falls apart. Money is the beginning and end of everyone’s troubles, and the world is sharply divided between those who have it and those who need it. The desperation in “The I.O.U” begins with the title and escalates in the first paragraph.

The above is not my real name—the fellow it belongs to gave me his permission to sign it to this story. My real name I shall not divulge. I am a publisher. I accept long novels about young love written by old maids in South Dakota, detective stories concerning wealthy clubmen and female apaches with “wide dark eyes,” essays about the menace of this and that and the color of the moon in Tahiti by college professors and other unemployed. I accept no novels by authors under fifteen years old. All the columnists and communists (I can never get these two words straight) abuse me because they say I want money. I do—I want it terribly. My wife needs it. My children use it all the time. If someone offered me all the money in New York I should not refuse it. I would rather bring out a book that had an advance sale of five hundred thousand copies than have discovered Samuel Butler, Theodore Dreiser, and James Branch Cabell in one year. So would you if you were a publisher.

When he died in 1940 at the age of forty-four, Fitzgerald was largely forgotten. But The New Yorker’s own Edmund Wilson was responsible for his revival five years later, publishing The Crack-Up, a collection of his nonfiction. Today, tales of Fitzgerald’s own life are as popular as any of his books. It can be hard to separate the person from the exhausted narrator. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald lore has become its own biographical subgenre.

We want to go to the places where he partied and wrote, read stories exposing him as a serial plagiarist who appropriated his wife’s talent to stoke his own fame, and figure out which lines from his books track to which real-life events. We want to know how Gatsby went from typewriter to trope and whether Zelda really was nuts. Yet the endless search for that legend feels kind of like Jay Gatsby’s futile chase after a dream that never really existed in the first place.

Fitzgerald existed, of course. But when it comes to both his biography and literary output, we’re nearing the end of the road. “The I.O.U” is a part of of a new book that collects the last of Fitzgerald’s unpublished “lost” stories. The bottle has run dry.

The Fitzgerald industry, though, shows no sign of slowing. As The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote in 2014, “Second acts there may not be, but American epilogues go on forever.” There may soon be a dearth of new information about the boozy bard of the Twenties, but don’t expect Fitzgerald’s flame to go out any time soon.

Read the short story