Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Lees of Happiness

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

Franz Heinrich Corinth on His Sickbed, 1888, oil on canvas by German artist Lovis Corinth (1858–1925). WikiGallery.
A few months after the publication of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), twenty-three-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald sent a letter to the editor of his books, Max Perkins. “Just finished the best story I've done yet,” he wrote, “& my novel is going to be my life masterpiece.” Neither half of this statement would prove true. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, is widely regarded as his weakest and the story, “The Lees of Happiness,” has been largely ignored by critics and readers alike since its inclusion in Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), Fitzgerald’s second collection.

Edmund Wilson, who reviewed Tales of the Jazz Age for Vanity Fair shortly after it appeared, wrote that Fitzgerald “lets his fancy, his humor and his taste for nonsense run wild; it is the Fitzgerald harlequinade with a minimum of magazine hokum.” (He likely knew that Fitzgerald had originally suggested Sideshow as the title for the book.) Wilson, who had been a year ahead of Fitzgerald at Princeton University and had become his friend, mentor, and rival, could be unsparing in his sarcasm and criticism, and he spent much of the review discussing “The Lees of Happiness.” The story appeared in the book’s last section with two selections Wilson called “delightful burlesques,” including one that had its origin in a sketch that had appeared in the Princeton magazine he had edited when both men were undergraduates. Wilson claimed, then, that he initially assumed Fitzgerald was employing his “mastery of the ridiculous” to satirize “the bitter short story of [Edith] Wharton and of fiction since Maupassant” but was startled to realize at the end of “The Lees” that the tale “was intended to be serious.” He then launched his zinger: Fitzgerald “always has some surprise: just when you think the joke is going to be on you, it may turn out to be on him.”

Several selections in Tales of the Jazz Age, including “The Lees of Happiness,” exhibit what The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald calls “his flirtation with naturalism” during 1920–21, when he was “working under the spell of ‘the meaningless of life’ philosophy.” This cynicism, not uncharacteristic among members of his generation in the years immediately following World War I, pervades his stories during this period, as well as The Beautiful and Damned. After Fitzgerald sent “The Lees of Happiness” to the Chicago Tribune, he admitted in a follow-up letter to the editor, Burton Rascoe, “It’s perhaps a little gloomy.” Rascoe decided to publish it anyway, even though he damned the story as “sentimental” when he reviewed Tales of the Jazz Age three years later.

In sum, as British literary scholar Lionel Kelly notes in an essay that takes a fresh (and more appreciative) look at the story, “It has not had a good press from Fitzgerald’s critics, though it persistently appears in English collections of his stories.” For his part, Kelly admits he hadn’t previously discussed it in his own writing because he “had formed a sentimental attachment to it which has something to do with its capacity to deal in romantic illusion.” However illusory, it is that romantic, sentimental aspect—unusual for a story by Fitzgerald—that has probably resulted in the lack of “good press.” In the three decades since the publication of Kelly’s essay in 1989, however, the story and especially the collection that contains it have received renewed attention among readers, aided unexpectedly by the 2008 film adaptation of another story in the book: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

When Fitzgerald was assembling Tales of the Jazz Age, he came up with the idea of describing in the book’s table of contents the inspiration and background for each story; one of the remarkable things about the annotations is that some of them weigh a story’s strengths against its faults—especially the weaknesses pointed out by critics and admirers after the selections appeared in periodicals. The overall impression is that Fitzgerald didn’t think much of many of his own stories, because (he admits) he had written some of them for the money magazine editors were willing to pay the century’s newest literary ingenue. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this contents listing has received more attention from scholars and biographers than have many of the stories in the book.

Fitzgerald’s initial draft for the annotation for “The Lees of Happiness” apparently contained an unambiguous comparison to the fiction of Henry James. After reviewing the copy for the table of contents, Perkins wrote to his author: “I don’t think Henry James had anything in the world to do with you at all, and so is not appropriate—but in all but details this material is admirable for our purposes.” When he returned the edited draft, Fitzgerald responded, “I have followed your suggestion about cutting the Henry James episode.” Yet he still mentions James in the final version, linking the story to an unidentified (and possibly fictitious) critic who anthologizes stories that all begin with hemming and hawing as if they were written by James—thereby suggesting to readers that Fitzgerald’s story, too, starts out like a Henry James tale:
Of this story I can say that it came to me in an irresistible form, crying to be written. It will be accused perhaps of being a mere piece of sentimentality, but, as I saw it, it was a great deal more. If, therefore, it lacks the ring of sincerity, or even of tragedy, the fault rests not with the theme but with my handling of it.

It appeared in the “Chicago Tribune,” and later obtained, I believe, the quadruple gold laurel leaf or some such encomium from one of the anthologists who at present swarm among us. The gentleman I refer to runs as a rule to stark melodramas with a volcano or the ghost of John Paul Jones in the rôle of Nemesis, melodramas carefully disguised by early paragraphs in Jamesian manner which hint dark and subtle complexities to follow. On this order:

“The case of Shaw McPhee, curiously enough, had no bearing on the almost incredible attitude of Martin Sulo. This is parenthetical and, to at least three observers, whose names for the present I must conceal, it seems improbable, etc., etc., etc.,” until the poor rat of fiction is at least forced out into the open and the melodrama begins.
We present the story below and leave it to our readers to decide if it resembles in any way a story by James or Wharton or Maupassant—or if it simply represents a unique contribution to Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.

Notes: In his reappraisal of Fitzgerald’s story, Lionel Kelly notes the ambivalence of the title. In modern English, “lees” is the plural of lee, referring to shelter and protection from wind and storm. But a less common use of “lees” refers to the sentiment or dregs at the bottom of a barrel of wine. Kelly points out a reference in the OED to this excerpt from Macbeth, which seems appropriate to the story:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There 's nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys: renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

Richard Harding Davis was a novelist and playwright but was perhaps most famous as a war correspondent in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His contemporary, Frank Norris, was an editor and novelist whose works included McTeague and The Octopus. Port Arthur (Lüshun) in Manchuria is the location where a Russian garrison surrendered to the Japanese on January 2, 1905, after a siege lasting over six months. At Château-Thierry, a town on the Marne River 40 miles east of Paris, American troops helped stop a major German offensive in early June 1918. The Florodora Sextette were six actresses who sang the hit song “Tell Me Pretty Maiden” in the Broadway musical comedy Florodora (1900). A Gibson girl was the image of a fashionable young woman of the upper classes, based on the popular drawings of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. Lillian Russell was one of the most famous musical theater stars from 1880 to 1920, appearing in several Gilbert & Sullivan productions; Stella Mayhew was a vaudeville and Broadway singer who appeared in numerous musicals in the first decade of the twentieth century, costarring in several with Al Jolson; the Polish actress Anna Held became famous by starring in several plays produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, her common-law husband.

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If you should look through the files of old magazines for the first years of the present century you would find, sandwiched in between the stories of Richard Harding Davis and Frank Norris and others long since dead, the work of one Jeffrey Curtain. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.