Mills: F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'new' story rounds out our view
The New Yorker has just done a favor for all of us who are admirers of F. Scott Fitzgerald and "The Great Gatsby." Earlier this month, the magazine published a story of Fitzgerald's, "Thank You for the Light," that it rejected in 1936. In so doing, it opened up the whole question of what we should expect from posthumously published writing.
The New Yorker got its second chance at "Thank You for the Light" because Fitzgerald's grandchildren found it while going through his papers for an auction at Sotheby's. It wasn't the first Fitzgerald story to be discovered after his death. His uncompleted final novel, "The Last Tycoon," was edited by his friend, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, and published in 1941, a year after Fitzgerald died from a heart attack at the age of 44.
In the case of "Thank You for the Light," the good news is that the one-page story required no editing. It stands as Fitzgerald wrote it, so we don't have to wonder about his intentions.
Most writers who have their work published after their deaths have no such luck. Their unfinished art is finished by someone else, and they lose the authority death should give them over what they meant to say.
Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," an account of his Paris years in the 1920s, was published in 1964, three years after he died, with only one added feature -- the title, supplied by Hemingway's friend, A. E. Hotchner, on the basis of a remark Hemingway made to him. But in 2009, the book was extensively reworked by Hemingway's grandson Sean, who didn't like what it said about his grandmother, Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway's second wife.
Ralph Ellison, who died in 1994, had equally bad luck with his posthumous novel, "Juneteenth," which was published in 1999. Ellison, who had started it decades earlier, left no instruction about what he wanted done with his work, and it took his literary executor, John F. Callahan, more than three years to whittle down some 2,000 pages of typescript and printouts into 354 pages. We will never know what Ellison, the author of the 1952 classic, "Invisible Man," had in mind for his second and final novel, a tale of the relationship between a black preacher and a bigoted Northern senator.
Hemingway, who suffered from depression, and Ellison, who suffered from pancreatic cancer, were in fragile condition when they died. It's understandable why their executors felt free to make changes in both novelists' work. Neither writer was in full control of himself at the end of his life.
Still, for most of us a flawed work -- true to an author's original intentions -- seems preferable to a tidy work that may be misleading. That's why the "new" Fitzgerald story is so interesting.
In the case of Hemingway and Ellison, the posthumous publication of their writing did not add to their reputations. Publication simply gave us more of them to read. Even today, it's not clear that their last books would have found a publisher if they'd been written by unknown authors.
Fitzgerald is a different case. In "Thank You for the Light" he has taken on a central character, Mrs. Hanson, who is the very opposite of the wild and ambitious Jay Gatsby, who lived so lavishly on Long Island's North Shore. In rejecting the story in 1936, the editors of The New Yorker wrote, "It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him and really too fantastic." The editors were right -- but that's why Fitzgerald's story deserved publication.
Mrs. Hanson, who sells girdles and corsets, is "a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty," so desperate for a cigarette that she stops in a church for a smoke and believes the Virgin Mary has lit her cigarette. She shows us a softer side of Fitzgerald. She's a figure he never would have been interested in at the height of his powers.
Mrs. Hanson lets us see that during 1936, the year he was also writing "The Crack-Up," his personal account of his own depression, Fitzgerald had widened his sympathies. He had outgrown his need to be spokesman for the Jazz Age or distance himself from his most eccentric characters.
"So unlike the kind of thing we associate with him," indeed. And that's exactly the point.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."