'His newly published vignette, Thank You for the Light, suggests that Fitzgerald's faith – in life, in art, even in Catholicism – may have lapsed, but it never expired'
F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda in 1921. Photograph: CSU Archives/Everett Collection/Rex Features
You might expect that a writer as celebrated as Scott Fitzgerald would have no unpublished material languishing in archives – but you would be wrong. Perhaps as many as 15 short stories that he was unable to sell have never appeared in print; many more have been published once and then forgotten; a few have been lost.
Several were stories Fitzgerald "stripped", by which he meant that he pulled his favourite sentences and used them elsewhere, afterwards considering the stories unsuitable for publication. Most of the stories he couldn't sell were written during the Depression, in the mid-1930s; sections of several found their way into Tender is the Night.
Last week, the New Yorker published for the first time a 1936 vignette called "Thank You for the Light", without explaining its history – perhaps because that history begins with the New Yorker rejecting it.
Throughout the 1930s the New Yorker published the occasional Fitzgerald sketch, as well as a poem ("Obit on Parnassus"). In 1937, they bought a sketch called "A Book of One's Own", which opens: "In this age of drastic compression, it is the ambition of all the publishers I know to get everything worth reading into one little book." So Fitzgerald proposes "a new super-anthology": "All you want to read in one pocket-size volume! A miracle of book-making." Prescient as ever, he recommended binding it "to look like a small radio". Fitzgerald's first piece for the magazine, "A Short Autobiography", comically told his life up to 1929 through a catalogue of cocktails.
Seven years later, the cocktails had caught up with him, and it was no longer funny. On 19 June 1936, desperate for cash, he sent his agent "Thank You For the Light", suggesting that it might be suitable for the New Yorker: "It's an old idea I had hanging around in my head for a long time." The New Yorker rejected "Thank You for the Light" (and then rejected a poem called "Thousand-and-First Ship"). Seventy five years later, Fitzgerald is famous enough to have received his acceptance slip at last; the irony would not be lost on him.
The summer of 1936 was a difficult one for Fitzgerald. From February to April 1936, he had published the essays in Esquire magazine that are now well known as The Crack-Up, the articles that helped invent confessional journalism, in which he revealed the collapse of his life and his hopes, and his determination to save himself with his art. Contrary to the impression most people have, The Crack-Up pieces never mention Fitzgerald's alcoholism: that was the main cause of the fracture (although Zelda's mental illness certainly contributed), but Fitzgerald was too firmly in denial to admit his alcoholism in public.
The book we consider Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, had been largely dismissed when it appeared in 1925. Fitzgerald spent the next nine years struggling with his drinking, and Zelda's breakdown, before pinning all his hopes on Tender is the Night in 1934. It received mixed reviews and sold poorly; its failure pushed him over the edge. He was hospitalised four times for alcoholic breakdowns over the next two years, reaching the bottom of his personal abyss at the end of 1935. "My life looked like a hopeless mess there for a while," he wrote later, "and the point was I didn't want it to be better. I had completely ceased to give a good god-damn."
'Thank You for the Light", finished a few months after The Crack-Up essays were published, is certainly slight, but it acquires more poignancy in this context. It is about addiction: in the story Mrs Hanson is addicted to cigarettes, but Fitzgerald's deep knowledge of the mechanics of addiction drives the tale. And it is a story about starting to give a good god-damn again.
The symbolically (and magically) returning light at story's end is too trite for a writer of Fitzgerald's calibre, to be sure, but the story has one small, tired flourish: Mrs Hanson thinks that her cigarette is "an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road". The pun is not accidental – language, for Fitzgerald, was always a release from imprisonment.
"Thank You for the Light" suggests that Fitzgerald's faith – in life, in art, even in Catholicism – may have lapsed, but it never expired. A year or so later, he would begin work on his last, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. Mrs Hanson's lit cigarette is not a green light at the end of a dock, but it's an image of renewed faith, and signals the beginning of Fitzgerald's struggle to regain his capacity for hope – his greatest theme of all.