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  • Mastering the Story MarketF. Scott Fitzgerald's Revision of "The Night before Chancellorsville"

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F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pictorial Parade, 1920s © Getty Images

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All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Portrayals of F. Scott Fitzgerald often depict him either as a handsome literary superstar who personified the Jazz Age boom or as a Depressionera washout who embodied the dangers of excessive fame, money, and drink. These renderings obscure his twenty-year career as a professional writer of great talent and energy who turned out more than 160 stories, five novels, and four short-story collections.

During the long breaks between novels—Tender Is the Night was published nine years after The Great Gatsby appeared in 1925—his short stories sustained him professionally and financially. He became one of the highest-paid magazine writers of his time, earning $4,000 a story from the Saturday Evening Post at the peak of his career in 1929.

Fitzgerald learned at a young age that he could achieve the recognition he craved from his writing. In grade school, he became a precocious social observer, taking his notebook to recess to jot down his observations on his classmates. As a teen, in his thought book, he chronicled his romantic adventures and pursuit of popularity. Writing gave him pleasure partly because he could make life turn out the way he wanted on the page.

Literature was a glamorous thing for Fitzgerald, and, like his favorite poet, Keats, he yearned for immortality through art. While an underclassman at Princeton, he told his best friend, writer and critic Edmund Wilson, that he wanted to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Wilson thought his ambition absurd but strangely respected him for it. Both knew he had talent; they were less certain about his genius and ambition.

In 1917, twenty-one-year-old Fitzgerald flunked out of Princeton. He had been a social success, writing and performing in revues for the Triangle Club, but an academic failure, preferring self-study to the college's traditional curriculum. Though he volunteered for the army, he regarded his service as an impediment to his writing. Scribner's editor Max Perkins had shown sustained enthusiasm for Fitzgerald's first novel, tentatively titled The Romantic Egotist, despite rejecting the first two drafts.

Discharged from the military, Fitzgerald moved to New York to work for the Barron Collier advertising agency for thirty-five dollars a week. Redrafting his novel would take time; he needed immediate and tangible [End Page 186] proof that he could make it as a writer. While stationed at Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama, he had fallen in love with Zelda Sayre, a renegade Southern belle, and desperately wanted to marry her. They shared a thirst for metropolitan glamour, and that cost money—lots of money. He believed that writing short fiction was a means to making a quick fortune, which was not a ludicrous notion. In the 1920s the short-story market was at its most lucrative, with plenty of outlets for well-written fiction; among others the Smart Set, the Saturday Evening Post, Scribner's magazine, Collier's, and Hearst's International were on the lookout for talented young authors.

During the spring of 1919, Fitzgerald wrote nineteen stories and amassed 122 rejection letters that he taped to the walls of his room near Columbia University. His first professional acceptance was in Poet Lore for a piece called "The Way to Purgation," but he was not terribly interested in the little magazine market. He could not win Zelda with contributor's copies and a small honorarium.

Fitzgerald studied the commercial market, determining each magazine's personality. The Smart Set preferred "sophisticated," realistic stories, while Scribner's sought didactic pieces. As he began tailoring his fiction to suit their editorial interests, he started to sell. He placed his first commercial story in the Smart Set, receiving thirty dollars, a week's salary. The mass-circulation magazine Saturday Evening Post looked for entertaining fiction and paid $400. Fitzgerald's first appearance in it was in 1920 with "Head and Shoulders," a piece about a chorus...


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