Automat, Edward Hopper, 1927
by Thomas Heise
After forty, all life is a matter of saving face. For those whose successes have run out early, the years are measured less by the decreasing increments of honors achieved, than by the humiliations staved off and the reversals slowed.
Among our canonical twentieth-century writers, none suffered this pronouncement—one avoids labeling it a fate—more than F. Scott Fitzgerald. At what should have been the height of his novelistic powers in the mid 1930s, he was listless, reckless in his personal affairs, sick with tuberculosis and jaw-droppingly drunk. As Fitzgerald himself would later admit, he had become a poor caretaker of everything he possessed, even his own talent. After a decade of enviable productivity, his writing had slowed to a trickle of short stories, most of them published in Esquire, his one remaining reliable outlet, and many of these, as the scholar Ruth Prigozy describes them, “elliptical, unadorned, curiously enervated, barely stories at all.”
When the editors of The New Yorker categorically rejected the forty-year-old’s delicate slip of a short story “Thank You for the Light” in 1936 as “altogether out of the question,” their reasons hinged partially on its lack of merits. Few of Fitzgerald’s pieces from the period, this one included, clocked in at the standard commercial length of five thousand words and most of them gave the strong impression that they were both dashed off quickly and forced. They were. Yet I’d hazard that other, more complex reasons for its rejection were in play too, namely the ever-ephemeral nature of the artist’s image and his ability to reflect back to the nation its own acts of bad faith, manias, exuberances and bankrupt ideas.
With a penchant for casting his own experience as a particularly grandiose American brand of success and tragedy and with a proclivity for scripting the drama of the inner life in the language of economics, Fitzgerald declared elsewhere in 1936 that his happiness through the Jazz Age was as “unnatural as the Boom . . . and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over.” In placing “Thank You” in the reject pile, the editors did not voice their concerns specifically in these national terms, but something like the outsized stakes involved in managing Fitzgerald’s reputation appeared to be on their minds. Calling the story “really too fantastic,” which is to say, ‘odd,’ they concluded, “It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him.”
Fitzgerald’s silver hip flask, from Zelda, engraved “forget-me-not”
Not only did it not square with the dashing image of the lyrical, romantic wunderkind of the vertiginous Twenties—which Fitzgerald’s readers were emotionally invested in—but in its small way, it also pulled back the sheet to reveal the unforgiveable American sin of personal failure and diminished talent. As he wrote and sent out “curious” stories that bore the stylistic markings of someone else altogether, and as he watched them come back declined, Fitzgerald understood too well that the conditions of his literary celebrity lay in the past.
If “Thank You for the Light” was “so unlike the kind of thing” The New Yorker associated with Fitzgerald (read: Princeton, the Plaza Fountain, East Egg, Paris, the French Riviera), it was very much like the sort of thing middle-class Americans could relate to on the other side of paradise.
In the brief sketch capturing a day-in-the-life of Mrs. Hanson, a “pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty” selling corsets and girdles to the good people of Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, the editors should have seen a tale of their own Depression, national malaise and personal endurance, even if they felt the messenger himself was better off frozen in amber, sealed from time much like the way memories of events leading up to a crash are often deeply suffused with unchangeable meaning.
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, the snub was seemingly corrected by the same magazine’s decision to publish the story in the August 6, 2012 issue after Fitzgerald’s grandchildren rediscovered it mixed in with some of his papers that were being put up for auction and re-submitted it on his behalf. But after all these years, it was perhaps Fitzgerald who was doing The New Yorker a favor, or, at the very least, forgiving it beyond the grave for other petty slights made in its pages against his character. Was the prospect of “new” work by Fitzgerald simply “too fantastic” a thing to pass up? Perhaps. But another, more timely reason for the story’s belated publication hung in the air.
The hardscrabble Mrs. Hanson’s American belief in self-transformation even in the depths of the Depression strikes a chord now seven decades later as we stagger through the distress and desolation of the second worst economic downturn in our modern history.
Fitzgerald had expressed a version of this two-pronged sentiment (a dauntless spirit and a clear-eyed realism about the challenges faced) in his essay “The Crack-Up” (1936), published in Esquire when his editor and friend, Arnold Gingrich, asked him for something, anything, that could justify an advance to the financially strapped writer. At the time, Fitzgerald was ten of thousands of dollars in the red and sustaining himself on canned food at the low-budget Skyland Hotel in North Carolina, while hemorrhaging money on Zelda’s psychiatric care and his daughter’s private education. Fitzgerald wasn’t poor, mind you, just deep in debt due to a lifestyle that outpaced his remarkable earnings. The first of three personal essays that Fitzgerald handed to Gingrich opened at a somber, distant remove, washed in Fitzgerald’s melancholy twilight where the space between the contradictions and polarities of one’s thinking gives way to new possibilities, new prospects, new life. “[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” Fitzgerald wrote on page one, immediately going on to remark that “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Fitzgerald was speaking of himself and his near failing grade on that “test,” but he may have been imagining someone like his protagonist Mrs. Hanson as well, who isn’t so much a dialectical thinker as she is a doer, one who today would be talked about in terms of that old shibboleth ‘personal responsibility.’
Mrs. Hanson is the kind of person who might get invited to the State of the Union address these days with a prized seat next to the First Lady. She’s the ‘everyday hero,’ remarkable only for doing something ordinary in extraordinary times, such as raising a family, working two jobs, or volunteering in her community. In this case, it’s her strength to make a new go of it, “work[ing] very hard” in a fresh sales territory and doing so partly out of necessity when life deals her a bad hand—a dead husband and no close relatives to speak of. She’s a model of pragmatic American self-reinvention, minus the gargantuan ego that often accompanies the type in literature.
But if this were all she was, who’d really care? To make matters more interesting, Fitzgerald gives her a flaw, a minor one at first glance, but one that turns out to be more insidious on closer inspection. Despite the drive as a single, working woman in 1936 to take hold of her own life and master it, another compulsion—a need for cigarettes—over which she appears to have little control governs her. “Smoking had come to be an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road,” Fitzgerald explains, a small, compensatory gift that balloons into an inflated compulsion when the rest of life is hollowed out. I picture her spending her nights alone in a hotel room or an automat, like the pensive, unfulfilled women in the paintings of Edward Hopper, Fitzgerald’s contemporary. Cigarettes “relax her psychologically” when obtained and make her antsy and agitated when they’re not. “‘I’m getting to be a drug fiend,’” she muses. Her daylong quest to light up makes her a social outcast in a world where everyone throws a cold eye on her habit. Even as she’s mouthing the right figures on her calls—“‘A thirty-per-cent increase in national advertising in one year tells its own story’”—in the back of her mind she’s thinking, “‘If I could just get three puffs I could sell old-fashioned whalebone.’”
It’s a trifling device upon which to hang even a brief story, but substitute cigarettes for alcoholism or sexual addiction or gambling and you can see the workings of a craving that thwarts one’s higher purposes even as it functions as a rotten substitute for what might bring happiness. Smoking isolates Mrs. Hanson at the very time she feels most lonely. When she slips into a cathedral at the end of the story to sneak a smoke, supposing the smell will be disguised in the incense, she falls asleep in a pew after saying a few prayers and gazing up at the backlit image of the Madonna. She awakens to find her cigarette miraculously aflame. Between what Fitzgerald had called the “two opposed ideas,” he ushers in a third, a divine intervention whose promise of spiritual enlightenment brings the story to a quick finish. It’s gimcrack and gossamer, to be sure, but there is still value in it. “Thank you for the light,” she murmurs looking up in the half-darkness, “the smoke twisting up from the cigarette between her fingers.”
Fitzgerald is no blood and oil naturalist, of course, so there’s little in the story that pins it to the front pages of the Depression. No mention of the breadlines, the nearly 17% unemployment rate, or the black blizzards of the Dust Bowl—right smack in the middle of Hanson’s sales territory—that in 1936 were darkening skies as far away as New York City. She’s weary and bled out and the whole story is bleached of color, reduced to a haunted palette of white, black, and smoke without vibrancy, which may in its oblique manner visually echo the roiling clouds of topsoil over the prairies. The causes, however, of Mrs. Hanson’s “vague dissatisfaction at the end of each call, no matter how successful it had been in a business way” are not crudely reducible to economic forces. Rather, they arise from the sinking feeling that the guarantors of personal satisfaction—marriage, family, a career—have at forty either collapsed in upon themselves like a speculative bubble or have paid few dividends worth mentioning.
Dust Bowl storm in the Plain states
More than most people, Fitzgerald was conscious of how the logic of the market infiltrated all spheres of life, coding itself deep into the imagination and affecting the very terms in which we think about ourselves. He was part of the first generation of writers who came of age in the era of mass production and consumption and one of the first serious writers who in his heyday in the 1920s was earning over $3000 (a whopping $40,000 today) for a short story in new high-circulation, ad-supported magazines. He made his money in these venues, but, importantly, he also made out of the world they catered to his material. One recalls Daisy breathlessly telling Gatsby, “You resemble the advertisement of the man . . . You know the advertisement of the man.” Most of Fitzgerald’s fiction, in fact, turns on matters of money and class: the libidinal economy of desire, the speculation of romance and interest, the fetish for commodities by which one leverages one’s worth as a lover or business partner, the way we gamble with the heart, the exponential growth in the mind when the object, idea, or person desired is denied. Even “Thank You for the Light” is at base as much a story about buying, selling, and closing the deal as it is about anything else. In the depths of the Depression—economic, physical, mental, spiritual—Fitzgerald turned to pecuniary metaphors to describe his own condition when writing his personal essays for Esquire. He did so partly because they were ready at hand and partly because he wanted to show the way he himself enabled the corrosive influence of the market to inflate his own ego and puncture his self-worth. “I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt,” he revealed. By his own admission, he was “like a man over-drawing at his bank.”
His fortieth year—1936—was Fitzgerald’s “lowest point,” as he later described it in his notebook. And by any measure, it was. It was the year fellow writers, notably Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, flogged him for exposing in “The Crack-Up” essays his egoism, loss of self-respect, health problems and his bitter fawning over the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The New Yorker piled on in the “Talk of the Town” section: “F. Scott Fitzgerald has been telling, in Esquire, how sad he feels in middle life.” Such confessions were taboo in print, especially in the reticent 1930s. Personal details were not to be shared, a difference from Fitzgerald’s time to ours if there ever were one. It was the year, too, that Zelda moved into Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina for further psychiatric treatment. Fitzgerald took a room at the nearby Grove Park Inn with the intention to visit her, but the plan was largely thwarted when he broke his shoulder and ended up in a body cast. Later, he was almost evicted when he fired a pistol in a suicide threat. “He makes me think of a lost soul, wandering in purgatory—sometimes hell,” Laura Guthrie, his secretary at the hotel wrote in her diary. When things couldn’t get worse, they did. That September, Fitzgerald’s mother died.
The Grove Park Inn Hotel, c.1935
In the midst of a terrible year, the rejection of “Thank You for the Light” was an unmemorable setback, a minor infection in a body that had already gone septic. “My self-immolation was something sodden-dark,” Fitzgerald wrote in Esquire, a haunting description given the closing imagery surrounding Mrs. Hanson’s small fire. If filmed, the director would tightly focus the last shot on her glowing cigarette in the black cathedral. The story fades without giving Fitzgerald much of a chance to weigh in on her epiphany or augur her future. Yet before she herself falls asleep in the pew, she has a brief daydream that may unlock a deeper meaning to the story. Fitzgerald writes, “In her imagination, the Virgin came down, like in the play ‘The Miracle,’ and took her place and sold corsets and girdles for her and was tired, just as she was. Then for a few minutes Mrs. Hanson must have slept.” The small gift that “Thank You for the Light” gave back to Fitzgerald and gives back to today’s readers is the permission to forget, to daydream, to sleep peacefully and perhaps dream of a better way of living as the tiring labor of life is miraculously handed over to another, if only for a moment.
About the Author:
Thomas Heise is the author of three books, Moth: or how I came to be with you again (Sarabande, 2013), Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2010), and Horror Vacui: Poems (Sarabande, 2006). He currently divides his time between Montreal and New York City. For the record, he doesn’t smoke.