‘Not at all,’ I assured him. ‘I have dealt with authors all my life and he’s quite the sanest one with whom we’ve ever dealt. He never tried to borrow money from us; he never asked us to fire our advertising department; and he’s never assured us that all his friends were unable to get copies of his book in Boston, Massachusetts.’”— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The I.O.U.,” The New Yorker, Mar. 20, 2017
As soon as I saw on my newsstand copy of its March 20, 2017 issue, that The New Yorker had a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I knew that I had to read it immediately. And so I did. The story, written in 1920 but rejected by Harper's Bazaar (and only recently rediscovered by the author's estate, more than three-quarters of a century after his death), wasn’t a finely wrought mature masterpiece on the order of “Babylon Revisited,” but I wasn’t expecting anything like that, anyway. If you start reading it with modest rather than great expectations, you’ll be rewarded.
The one aspect of all this that surprised me was that there even remained any unpublished work by my favorite writer. Nothing like this situation existed in the case of his frenemy, Ernest Hemingway: in the last 15 or so years of Papa’s life, his physical and mental decline led him from false start to abandoned project again and again, resulting in as long a period of posthumous as regular publications.
In contrast, Fitzgerald had largely abandoned short-story writing after 1937, when desperate financial straits led him to Hollywood, where he concentrated first on screenwriting, then, when a drunken spree led him to be fired from that job, on his half-finished novel of Tinseltown, The Last Tycoon. But now, enough previously unpublished pieces have been unearthed from archives and family papers to fill out a new collection, I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories, due out next month.
In one sense, it’s an anomaly that this Fitzgerald piece appeared in The New Yorker. Of his 164 stories that appeared in magazines, only three—plus two poems—came out in this publication. The primary vehicle for the work that sustained his and wife Zelda’s extravagances was The Saturday Evening Post, whose Middle American readership was far removed from The New Yorker’s more Manhattan-centric sensibility.
But The New Yorker is one of the last general-interest magazines where short, non-genre fiction still appears on a regular basis, and the saucy tone of “The I.O.U.” is just the type of piece that the magazine’s founding editor, Harold Ross, might have felt in keeping with the mission he proclaimed in the publication's prospectus: “Not for the little old lady from Dubuque.”
Fitzgerald was only 24, one year after writing his first major success, the novel This Side of Paradise, when he created “The I.O.U.” Already, however, he was somewhat used to the vagaries of publishers who would reject his pieces for less than good reasons, so his satire here was informed by experience.
In time, Fitzgerald grew more and more like the insane authors he parodied in the above quote. The publishing figure who may have endured his eccentricities and manias most stoically—certainly most repeatedly—was Harold Ober. This agent was canny enough to earn Fitzgerald $193,300 for 64 Saturday Evening Post stories alone, and he was kind-hearted enough to let the financially hard-pressed author’s teenage daughter Scottie live with him and his wife while she attended school on the East Coast.
But there was a limit to what even this man could tolerate. At one point, Ober wept in showing a visitor the illegible, beer-stained corrected sheets that his client had sent him. For nearly a decade, at one point or another, he had acceded to Fitzgerald’s endless requests for advances. But when he had finally begged off doing so again, Fitzgerald severed their relationship.
By the end of his career, then, “I.O.U.” had become freighted with all too much meaning for the author. But, despite containing all the hallmarks of apprentice fiction, this piece is still filled with what Fitzgerald biographer Andre le Vot called “the giddy spontaneity, the burlesque fantasy of his early work.” He was already displaying the powers of close observation that so marked his greatest work, including the following:
“I had come quite close, half hidden by the magnolias, and was about to address him when I saw a girl in a purple morning dress break, stooping, through the low-branched cluster of apple trees that made the north end of the garden and move across the grass toward the house. I drew back and watched her as she came directly up to the open window and spoke unabashed to the great Dr. Harden.
“ ‘I want to have a talk with you,’ she said abruptly.”