The Art of the Novella: May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In the spring of 1919, the world was recovering from the catastrophe of World War I, which had ended with an armistice in November of 1918. The Paris Peace Conference had begun in January of 1919 which would result in the signing of the TF. Scott Fitzgeraldreaty of Versailles in June. The economic inequities of the Gilded Age had been exacerbated by the war, but the working class soldiers, who had borne the heaviest burden, were returning home and were no longer complacent. The war had taken its toll on the social fabric of society. There had been a communist revolution in Russia and there was unrest everywhere else in the world including the United States. Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists were agitating against the status quo in cities across the United States. In April, at least thirty bombs had been sent by mail to a cross-section of prominent public figures – politicians, businessmen, and newspaper editors – by anarchists. The bombs were intended to explode on May 1, the official day of international solidarity for the Socialist and Communist movements. Several of them were detected early and because of their distinctive packaging, the Postal Service was able to recover the rest of them before they had reached their intended targets.

When May 1st came, the worst riot was in Cleveland, but there were demonstrations in other cities as well, New York included. F. Scott Fitzgerald was there to witness the mayhem. The Armistice had ended his military service without him ever being sent to fight and he was now struggling to make a living in the advertising business. Unlike his Princeton classmates, he was not among the sons of wealth who attended college in those days and he had to earn a living. Throughout his life, he had moved among that privileged class but he was not a member. His father had been a failed businessman. His mother had some small inherited wealth that kept him in private schools and in all the right social circles and had finally gotten him to Princeton, but he now had to work for a living. Perhaps because of that experience and his upbringing among that social class, he wasn’t particularly suited to working for a living. It was that lack of prospects that had prompted his fiancé to break off their engagement until he could prove he had the means to support her. He wasn’t making it in advertising and things didn’t look good for him.

Zelda SayreIn the fall and winter of 1919, F. Scott Fitzgerald was anxiously awaiting the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise.  The publishing contract with Scribner’s had come in just the nick of time for Fitzgerald.  Earlier in that year he had tried his hand in the advertising business and met with failure.  Unable to prove that he could support his fiancé, Zelda Sayre of Montgomery Alabama whom he had met when he was a soldier, the engagement had been broken off.  With the offering of a publishing contract by Scribner’s that fall, Fitzgerald could now claim to be a professional writer and the engagement was back on.  No matter how badly things turned out for Scott and Zelda later on, at that moment in time, he had a book coming out and had won the heart of the love of his life. Things were looking up. It had to be the most exciting and optimistic time of his life.

With Fitzgerald, however, happiness and satisfaction never came easy. He was always his own worst critic not only of his writing but of his own self-worth, and he always felt as though he was living on the edge of failure and tragedy was always looking over his shoulder.  To both his credit and to his later downfall, he embraced his self-doubt and forged it into art.  In one of his first efforts as a fulltime writer,  he wrote the most ambitious work of his early career, the novella May Day, inspired by his fears of failure and by the riotous events that he witnessed earlier in that year in New York City.

In retrospect, This Side of Paradise, isn’t very good, even for a first novel.  Today, it serves as a testament to Max Perkins’ judgment and intuition in identifying literary talent and to Scribner’s willingness to invest and nurture a young writer.  This Side of Paradise was successful and made Fitzgerald famous, but today it serves mainly as a biographical curiosity;  the investment that Scribner’s made in the young Fitzgerald wouldn’t pay off for the publisher until long after both Fitzgerald and Perkins had died.

May Day serves as a sort of missing link between the young embryonic talent first noticed by Perkins and the accomplished novelist he would become.  We can see him experimenting with naturalism as well as notice prototypes for the characters and themes of his later work: the poor outsider among the wealthy and privileged, the beautiful but shallow heroine, the ruthless and selfish rich.  The main character’s financial failure parallels Fitzgerald’s failure in advertising as well as the heroin’s rejection  parallels Zelda’s initial rejection. The novella also contains the some of th most pointed social and political statements that Fitzgerald ever committed to paper. His writing was very much “in the moment” and influenced by his personal circumstances, but it foreshadowed the riotous decade that would follow.  This novella and his masterpiece “Babylon Revisited” serve as bookends to the 1920’s.


Fitzgerald Grave, Rockville Maryland

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