In 1929 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Ernest Hemingway that because his short stories now earned $4000 a pop he was “an old whore” who had “mastered the 40 positions” when “in her youth one was enough.” But were the upwards of 180 stories he cranked out when not writing The Great Gatsby really the work of a literary prostitute selling out his talent for a fast buck? Kirk Curnutt and Robert Trogdon don’t think so. Each episode they draw a random title from a hat and explore its place in Fitzgerald’s career, in the magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post or Esquire where it may have appeared, and in the overall development of the American short story. Along the way, they talk literary politics, history, and gossip from the 1920s and 1930s, rediscovering the lively personalities and rivalries that tried to define the porous boundaries between commercial and artistic fiction, between the popular and the avant-garde, between the forgotten and the canonized.
“The Rich Boy” (Red Book, January-February 1926)
For reasons you have to tune in to discover, November 15 is an important day for at least three Fitzgerald diehards. So to celebrate we’re offering a special bonus episode featuring our first ever special guest: James L. W. West III, the mastermind behind the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. From 1995 to 2019, Jim singlehandedly produced sixteen of the eighteen volumes that establish FSF’s standard texts employing those alchemical arts known as textual editing. For our conversation, we dissect another of Fitzgerald’s all-time greatest short stories, “The Rich Boy,” which appeared in Red Book in January and February 1926 and went on to kick off All the Sad Young Men that same year. The story dissects the sense of superiority that at once drives Anson Hunter and yet leaves him leading a lonely life when he cannot commit to either the doomed Paula Legendre or Dolly Karger. We ask whether this story is an indictment of the rich in general or an anatomy of one aloof man. We also explore how the story’s most famous line (“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me”) stereotyped its author, most notably when Ernest Hemingway appropriated it to insult Fitzgerald by name in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936). We also test Jim’s patience by forcing him to play a game of “Flapper or Not a Flapper?”, quizzing his name recognition of Fitzgerald heroines. Finally, we learn that like Ludlow Fowler, the friend who inspired “The Rich Boy,” Jim once found his life fodder for a novel. When he declines to name it for us, we make hunting it down our new mission.
“Gretchen’s Forty Winks”
(Saturday Evening Post, March 15, 1924)
In this episode we nibble on a Fitzgerald comedy so light it could be meringue. Granted, the storyline of a harried husband who slips his wife a Mickey Finn of a sleeping potion so he can finish an important advertising campaign is probably today more of a wake-up call than the high-concept rib-tickler audiences in 1924 read it as. We explore how “Gretchen’s Forty Winks” fit into the March 15 issue of the Saturday Evening Post where it appeared alongside forgotten fiction with titles like “Bumbums in Boxes.” Such fluffy disposable short stories, we suggest, are akin to the innocuous sitcoms of our youth. We also reveal how the story parodies the 1920s’ work/life balance movement, with antagonist George Tompkins embodying some of the sillier self-fulfillment initiatives of the times while protagonist Roger Halsey preaches a Calvin Coolidge-like gospel of productivity. We also delve into how Gretchen’s flirtation with George reflects Fitzgerald’s own anxieties about his wife’s friendships with other men. Finally we trace the curious afterlife the story enjoyed in storytelling clubs and amateur theatricals. While no one will mistake the Halsey family’s adventures in rapid-eye movement for great art, Fitzgerald did choose it to close his third story collection, All the Sad Young Men, and it received surprisingly high marks from reviewers. At the end of the day “Gretchen’s Forty Winks,” we insist, is far from a snooze—instead, it’s a real sleeper!
“May Day” (The Smart Set, July 1920)
Most fans agree that “May Day” is among Fitzgerald’s all-time greatest stories: certainly Top 10, arguably Top 5, quite possibly No. 2 behind only “Babylon Revisited.” Some might even argue that this ambitious “novelette,” first published in The Smart Set in July 1920 when its author was all of twenty-three, tops that most-anthologized, most-ubiquitous of Fitzgerald’s short fictions. Based on real-life riots that erupted in New York City on May 1, 1919, this panoramic political tale pits four separate duos in intersections of restless violence and spoiled privilege: the dissatisfied debutante Edith Bradin and her brother Henry, the editor of a socialist newspaper; the failed artist Gordon Sterrett and the working-class woman, Jewel Hudson, who bribes him into marriage; the drunken Yale grads Philip Dean and Peter Himmel, who dub themselves Mr. In and Mr. Out as they trash elite restaurants and hotels; and Gus Rose and Carrol Key, two demobilized World War I vets who beat socialists bloody on the street. Critiquing both the proliferating Red-Scare neuroses and consumer opulence that inaugurated the Jazz Age, “May Day” finds Fitzgerald experimenting with naturalism, a style he adopted to curry the favor of The Smart Set’s co-editor, H. L. Mencken. We dissect the historical background, examine the literary affinities, and celebrate the political insight and artistic ambition.