Friday, December 20, 2013

More short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Or, how to know when to stop reading?

I never set out to read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Just most of him.  I naïvely thought (and, as a lit scholar myself, I really should have known better) that it would be fairly easy to identify the Fitzgerald Canon, and that's all I really wanted to read.  I seem to have read more than that, and that too has been rewarding:  "The Cruise of the Rolling Junk" seems pretty extra-canonical, but as I wrote, I think it's one of his most enjoyable things.

If I had set out to read everything, I'm not quite sure where I would have turned.  It seems there are a couple of ebooks out, just out, that contain the complete short stories and essays, and there is a complete-works scholarly edition finally coming out right now that presumably will eventually include all the short stories.  As it was, though, I think I was unconsciously figuring I'd read what's available in mass-market editions;  I'm really trying to figure out how American publishers curate and market American literature.  And on that score I've been mildly surprised and disappointed:  I figured at the very least Fitzgerald's original short-story collections would all be in print, but no.  And I figured the stuff uncollected in his lifetime might have been rationalized and made easily available.

But no, not really.  Up to this point I had read the pre-humous collections (Flappers and Philosophers. Tales of the Jazz Age, All the Sad Young Men, and Taps at Reveille), and then the posthumous collections that didn't seem to overlap with the pre-humous ones too much (The Basil and Josephine Stories, The Pat Hobby Stories, Bits of Paradise, Afternoon of an Author).  At that point I thought all that remained was The Price was High, at which I balked - even the subtitle of that one admits that it's scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Those can't be Canon, right?

But then I looked at Matthew Bruccoli's The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which seems to be the current best attempt to identify the Best of FSF's stories, and realized that it includes a few from The Price was High.  More alarming, it included a few that aren't in there, and also weren't in any of the others I'd read.  I ultimately realized that the previous best attempt at the Best of FSF's stories, Malcolm Cowley's 1951 The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which drew from both collected and uncollected, and the uncollected of which stayed largely uncollected elsewhere, even as the book itself was superseded.  Confusing.

Anyway, since I'm in the mood to move on from this author, I read the stories from the Bruccoli and Cowley volumes that I hadn't yet read - about fifteen in all.  I'll pass on The Price was High (although Mrs. Sgt. T, who knows me rather well, says she's sure I'll read it someday, because I'm just that compulsive). 

It won't surprise anybody that these stories ended up being a mixed bag.  All of his collections are.  The Cowley volume includes at least a couple of gems:  "The Rough Crossing," about an intense few days on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, and the marital discord it shakes loose, is one;  "An Alcoholic Case," the most harrowing thing I've read by FSF about his alcoholism, is another.  The Bruccoli volume also includes some gems:  "Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar" is as high-spirited and stylish as it sounds;  "More than Just a House" is another slightly pat relationship story, but any time FSF is honestly in touch with poverty it gets interesting;  and "The Lost Decade" (actually in the Cowley book too) is another intense short piece about alcoholism.

All of which is to say that I probably will find more gems in The Price was High when I get around to it.  Which in itself is another way of saying that I don't entirely agree with either Cowley's or Bruccoli's selections.  But if I had to recommend a one-volume selection of FSF stories, I'd probably say the Bruccoli is best.  However I still think the ones he published in his lifetime should be in print, and that's what you should reach for first.  See what he wanted to be remembered for, then read what he wanted forgotten.  He wasn't right, but he had the right to be wrong, and it's interesting to see how he exercised it.  I mean, it's worth realizing that, in 1935, he would rather preserve something as slight as "The Night of Chancellorsville" than "The Swimmers."

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