Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
I’d Die For You and Other Lost Stories
By: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Edited by Anne Margaret Daniel
Simon and Schuster, 2017, pgs. 358
F. Scott Fitzgerald is arguably one of the most famous and successful writers of the 20th century. Though he is largely remembered for his novels, especially “The Great Gatsby” and “This Side of Paradise,” he actually made his living during his lifetime primarily from selling short stories. It is hard to believe a writer of Fitzgerald’s fame and success had work he couldn’t get published, but Anne Margaret Daniel has put together a collection of his “lost” stories—those that even he couldn’t get into print in his lifetime. Most are actually from later in his career, when he was struggling against his own success. Magazine editors and the public had a firm idea of what they wanted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories to be. But he was no longer in his early 20s, looking at the world with wide eyes. He was married with a child and had responsibilities. Responsibilities included providing for his wife, Zelda, to stay in private mental institutions and, toward the end of her life, receive electric shock treatment. He was no longer the happy, unfettered, young man with the world at his feet.
Daniel opens the book with a quote from one of Fitzgerald’s letters, which states he just can’t write stories of young love anymore. Actually, the title story in the collection, “I’d Die for You (The Legend of Lake Lure),” is set in western North Carolina at Chimney Rock. It explores a sort of suicide pact, involving a young starlet shooting a film on location in the North Carolina mountains. The Fitzgeralds actually spent a good deal of time in the western part of our state, which was a popular place to escape the summer heat before air conditioning.
Eventually, Zelda would settle in a mental institution in Asheville for the remainder of her life. The following story “Day Off From Love” is also set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is interesting to see such settings through the eyes of a writer we associate with the cosmopolitan splendor of New York, Paris and the Rivera. Here, instead, we see a reflective observer taking in a world that seems frozen in time, compared to the fast-moving metropolis that usually attracts him. He also introduces us to his family’s Civil War history, beginning with the story of “Thumbs Up,” inspired by an ancestor who was strung up by his thumbs near the Mason-Dixon line.
Daniel opens each chapter with several pieces of ephemera to provide context. First, she includes some sort of picture from the era of Fitzgerald. So we see him sitting on a mountaintop, looking at the view; in another, he is standing in front of the Grove Park Inn, and then in another, he is at Chimney Rock. She also includes a facsimile of one page of each story—which frequently show his hand-written notes about the work.
In addition, she presents the history of each piece: where he sent it, in an effort to secure publication, what sort of response it got, what else was occurring in his life at the time, and who in his real life any characters might have been inspired by. For fans of Fitzgerald, it provides more insight into aspects of his life that have been shrouded in mystery than those that have made him famous. But for writers, both aspiring and established alike, the opportunity to look into his process—especially later in life feels irresistible. The idea the F. Scot Fitzgerald could fail to publish multiple stories—when he was a household name—is simultaneously hard to believe and incredibly reassuring. Or as my friend John Wolfe put it when we were discussing it, “wow, then none of the rest of us should be upset if that can happen to Fitzgerald.” Ah, but we still will be. That’s what writers do, after all—doubt and dwell in paranoia and disappointment.
I admit, in my early 20s, I went through a Fitzgerald stage and read almost everything of his in print. Yes, many of the stories start to feel formulaic, as he writes what he knows will sell. In the notes for this book, he laments the exact problem, essentially becoming a victim of his own success. But “I’d Die For You” shows us an entirely different writer.
Many of the stories were considered too racy at the time—even for the chronicler of The Jazz Age. For example, “Salute to Lucy and Elsie” involves the age-old question of where the responsibilities lie with regards to premarital sex. Is she trying to trap him into marriage? Or is he taking advantage of her? By today’s standards, it is incredibly tame. But, in 1939, it was too much to print. If anything, I owe Daniels a thank you for showing me what I sought for in Fitzgerald—and needed.