By Jeff Nilsson, Saturday Evening Post Historian
By the time he published The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald was already one of the best-known authors in America. His fame had begun years earlier with the bestselling novel, This Side of Paradise, which sold out in 24 hours and went through 12 reprintings.
But his reputation rested on more than just his novels. By the time Gatsby hit the bookstores, Americans had been reading Fitzgerald’s stories in the Saturday Evening Post for five years. The magazine had first printed one of his stories, “Head and Shoulders,” in its February 21, 1920 issue, and followed it with five more stories before the end of the year.
In later years, Fitzgerald recalled the elation he felt when he learned the Post had bought one of his stories. “I’d like to get a thrill like that again but I suppose it’s only once in a lifetime.”
It was the beginning of a long association betweenAmerica’s most promising young writer and its most popular magazine. In 1920, the Post had over 2.5 million subscribers, and could bring Fitzgerald into the living rooms of Americans who might never have encountered his novels. Over 17 years, it published 68 of his short stories, more than twice the number that appeared in any other publication. Fitzgerald began to get the reputation of a “Post writer.”
This reputation troubled the critics. One of them was already seeing his talent fading in 1920. Fitzgerald’s fiction in the Post, he said, was “clever enough but that’s all. Trouble is that he is likely to begin with the money rolling to think that this is literature.” Even Fitzgerald’s friends were concerned, as Hemingway tried to talk him out of submitting any more stories to the Post. Another friend warned that the magazine would use up Fitzgerald’s talent and then discard him, and that it would be known as “The Graveyard of the Genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Fitzgerald wasn’t worried. The Post was putting his writing in front of more Americans than any other magazine could. It published stories that were too long for any other periodical. It paid him quicker and it paid him more. He earned $400 for the first stories—a competitive price—but the Post increased their payments over time until, in 1929, he was earning $4,000 per story.
Making good money with short fiction was important to Fitzgerald. Throughout his career, he earned far more with short stories than he ever did from his novels. Frequent and fat checks from the Post enabled him to pursue the more creative work. They also helped him live in the style to which he felt he should be accustomed. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald was determined to live a life of success and affluence. Like Gatsby, he was determined to succeed so he could win the girl of his dreams.
In 1918, he met and fell in love with a judge’s daughter, Zelda Sayre, and she accepted his proposal of marriage. Five months later, though, she broke off the engagement when she realized he didn’t earn enough money for her comfort. As Daisy Buchanan tells Gatsby, “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” So Fitzgerald set out to make as much money as he could as quickly as he could, to win back his love. The stories came easily to him in 1920; Fitzgerald claimed to have written one of them, “The Camel’s Back,” in just 24 hours. But he never found revising to be light work. Every story he finished had to be rewritten several times over. His bright, energetic prose was, in fact, the product of days of dreary revision. But in 1920, he was fueled by imagination, ambition, and youth. The ideas came easier then, before he had exhausted himself, doubted his talent, and seen the collapse of his marriage and his wife.
Fitzgerald’s first Post stories appeared as the country was entering a promising new decade.
Americans were hoping to leave behind the bitterness of 1919, with its strikes, race riots, and arrests and the mass deportations of political dissidents. They looked forward to a new decade of prosperity and convenience made possible by affordable automobiles and electrical power.
Many homes were still being wired for electricity in 1920, and the Post issues that year were filled with ads for electric stoves, washing machines, and light fixtures. Readers also saw ads for glamour cars rarely seen in the muddy streets of small towns—the Auburn Beauty Six, the Cole Aero-Eight, the Haynes Speedster, the Jordan Silhouette, and the Paige (“The Most Beautiful Car In America”).
Adding to that year’s optimism was the belief in prohibition, which had begun in January. At this early stage, most Americans believed the country would be happier, more prosperous, and more productive now that alcohol was illegal.
The U.S. reached another turning point in 1920. Census figures revealed that, for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in the country. People were leaving farms and small town; there was little future left in the country.
Many young Americans already sensed this, but Fitzgerald’s stories confirmed what they suspected. If they lived in the city, they would have more interesting lives, spending their days at parties, dances, and Ivy League schools. There the young people were smart and witty. The men drank freely and the women flirted shamelessly.
To many young women in America, these stories must have been a revelation. Modern girls, they learned, were cutting their hair short instead of keeping it long and pinned up. Modern girls were abandoning the corset. They wore make up. They smoked cigarettes. They danced to jazz bands. Most girls didn’t even know what jazz was; their parent’s phonographs only played foxtrots and two-steps, and radio was years in the future. Still, it seemed all very wicked and fun.
In story after story, the heroines of Fitzgerald’s stories were reckless and frivolous and happy. None of them spent their days being useful around the house, or assuming the quiet modesty that mother expected. They drove cars. They drank liquor. They kissed boys—many of them—and never worried what others might think of it.
How the eyes of a nice, country girl—and Fitzgerald assumed all country girls were nice—must have widened as she read of women saying and doing things she had barely admitted to herself she wanted. Yet there it was, in the pages of Daddy’s Saturday Evening Post, between articles like “New Fashions In Investments” and “The Petroleum Problem In The World.”
If American girls hadn’t seen any of these modern women on the streets of their own provincial towns, they could be glimpsed in the stories’ illustrations: elegant, slender figures lounging around a bar or coupé, wearing loose, sleeveless dresses, cloche hats, and dark lipstick that emphasized their carefree smiles.
This modern woman—who, in time, would be called the “flapper”—was no mere creation of fiction. There was a living example, and her wild escapades were often reported in the newspaper. Her name was Zelda Fitzgerald and her impetuous self-indulgence and irresistible charms were captured repeatedly in the stories of her husband. “I married the heroine of my stories,” Fitzgerald said. Nobody better represented the impulsive, fashionable, carefree American woman of the 1920s.
If the flapper seems outdated today, it’s important to remember how much of an impact she had when she was new. Her defiance of convention may seem tame today, but only because generations of women have followed in her footsteps.
Fitzgerald’s modern tales of yearning and ambition shaped today’s fiction, but his short stories, and his Gatsby, helped create today’s society and the expectations of America’s women.