In 2010, I awoke with the clearest vision and the purest happiness I have ever felt upon waking up. I woke up knowing, firstly that it was possible for me to collect the complete short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, secondly that it was possible to print them in a proper book, and finally that I could do both of these things and then read them all. This year, I finally completed this project.
Before now, no truly complete collection of Fitzgerald’s stories existed. When I woke up from my happy dream, I thought it would take about twenty days, so the fact that it took closer to a decade indicates that at some point at least one thing stood in the way of my plan as initially conceived.
The first, incorrect, assumption I made was that there would be about fifty Scott Fitzgerald stories. I don’t know where this number came from. It was probably a number that I made up, on the grounds that it “sounded about right” and meant the stories would be easy to compile. In reality there are 183 stories, meaning that my fond hopes were out by a factor of more than three. In context, here’s what that looks like compared with other major literary projects.
Landing at almost exactly one million words, the complete short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald represent 20% fewer words than In Search of Lost Time, but almost twice as many words as War and Peace and more than Infinite Jest and Ulysses combined.
This is also many, many more words than Fitzgerald wrote in his much more famous novels. At the time when he was writing, short stories were popular entertainment and Fitzgerald — constantly in debt and constantly shocked at that fact — would write them to pay off debts he really couldn’t ignore. At the peak of his powers, the Saturday Evening Post was paying him $4,000 per story, the equivalent of $59,000 today. By contrast, his share from The Great Gatsby’s first print run — a considerably greater time investment — paid off only his debts to his publisher. In those circumstances, I would have used the words on the short stories as well.
While there are many more short stories than I thought there would be, there is also much more within them than I first anticipated. There are undisputed masterpieces like The Rich Boy and The Diamond as Big as The Ritz. There are stories like Indecision, clearly written for money and in the depths of despair. There are his two series about Midwestern teenagers, with an unerring eye for minor adolescent humiliations. There are stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood, replete with cynicism and betrayal. There is his first story, published in 1909 in the 13-year old Fitzgerald’s school magazine. Between then and his death in 1940, there would be only four years in which he failed to publish at least one story.
This list of stories is somewhat easier to come by than the stories themselves, leading us straight to my second mistake; the assumption that all of the stories would be readily available on the internet. The thinking behind this one was clearer. Fitzgerald is out of copyright in many countries and he has obsessive fans, which feels like it should be enough.
It is mostly, but crucially not entirely, enough. 139 stories are available online, at least somewhere. Another 41 are available in books which can be bought quite easily even if they are no longer in print. And the final three are available only in the Fitzgerald papers at Princeton and in the Library of Congress.
These last three stories, the Philippe stories, are the reason why Fitzgerald’s complete short stories have remained uncompiled until now. When I tell you that they are his medieval stories, I expect your response is to recoil in horror, because that is what people usually do when I tell them that Fitzgerald wrote medieval stories. One person who agreed that these stories were recoiling-in-horror bad was his daughter, Scottie Fitzgerald. She believed that they represented such a blot on her father’s reputation that they would be better off suppressed. But they are in the Library of Congress, so that is where I went.
It is almost impossible to overstate the glamour of digging out an unknown work by a world-famous writer who is also your favourite author. That day in the Library of Congress is one of the happiest of my life. It is a day that I revisit in my mind, again and again; that amazing building, the feel of those journals, the tension and release of checking that the pages with the stories on them were actually there. I do not think I will experience anything like that again.
And then that excitement was over. I had the stories photocopied, I typed them up, and the sparkle of having done so wore off quite quickly on the realisation that I still had only 142 stories in a printable format. The rest, the 41 in the books, also had to be typed up, which as tasks go is inherently less glamourous than bringing suppressed stories to light. For a year, I would work on this in the morning and evening, typing out from second-hand books these stories that fans before me had decided were not really good enough to put on the internet. It was a lonely task.
We now get to a break in this story of about five years. My job changed and grew to the point where I didn’t have the time to do a project that nobody was asking for and that — in case I didn’t make this clear enough — I was by this point not particularly enjoying. I never quite let go of it, but if you’d asked me during those five years when I was going to finish I would have stared at you fixedly and said maybe never, with more emphasis than either of us would want or need. Five years later, my job changed again and by March 2018, I had five volumes of stories:
It looked a bit like a finished project at this point. Certainly, it’s finished as far as my original dreamy vision went. I had printed out all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories into books, and I could read them. The finish line, however, continued to lurch away from me. Having got this far, I now wanted to check every single story for spelling errors, OCR errors and deviations from a source of record. I also — again, without having planned for this — had to impose a coherent house style on stories that had been published in a lot of publications, each with their own different style guide.
This took most of the rest of 2018. For all the hours of dull, fiddly corrections and the seemingly ever-receding finishing line, this has been a project of many highs. Here is one more — taking a week off work in July just to spend time in the park with my favourite author. Sometimes I think I am the luckiest person alive, and I think that every time I look at the beautiful books that I created. I hope that there are people out there who will take as much pleasure from them as I have.
If you are interested in working with me to take this project further, or if you have questions about it, you can email me — alexandra.mitchell.FSF@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.