After forty, all life is a matter of saving face. For those whose successes have run out early, the years are measured less by the decreasing increments of honors achieved, than by the humiliations staved off and the reversals slowed.
Among our canonical twentieth-century writers, none suffered this pronouncement—one avoids labeling it a fate—more than F. Scott Fitzgerald. At what should have been the height of his novelistic powers in the mid 1930s, he was listless, reckless in his personal affairs, sick with tuberculosis and jaw-droppingly drunk. As Fitzgerald himself would later admit, he had become a poor caretaker of everything he possessed, even his own talent. After a decade of enviable productivity, his writing had slowed to a trickle of short stories, most of them published in Esquire, his one remaining reliable outlet, and many of these, as the scholar Ruth Prigozy describes them, “elliptical, unadorned, curiously enervated, barely stories at all.”
When the editors of The New Yorker categorically rejected the forty-year-old’s delicate slip of a short story “Thank You for the Light” in 1936 as “altogether out of the question,” their reasons hinged partially on its lack of merits. Few of Fitzgerald’s pieces from the period, this one included, clocked in at the standard commercial length of five thousand words and most of them gave the strong impression that they were both dashed off quickly and forced. They were. Yet I’d hazard that other, more complex reasons for its rejection were in play too, namely the ever-ephemeral nature of the artist’s image and his ability to reflect back to the nation its own acts of bad faith, manias, exuberances and bankrupt ideas.
With a penchant for casting his own experience as a particularly grandiose American brand of success and tragedy and with a proclivity for scripting the drama of the inner life in the language of economics, Fitzgerald declared elsewhere in 1936 that his happiness through the Jazz Age was as “unnatural as the Boom . . . and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over.” In placing “Thank You” in the reject pile, the editors did not voice their concerns specifically in these national terms, but something like the outsized stakes involved in managing Fitzgerald’s reputation appeared to be on their minds. Calling the story “really too fantastic,” which is to say, ‘odd,’ they concluded, “It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him.”
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