IN DECEMBER 1940, after years of declining health and failing literary prospects, F. Scott Fitzgerald collapsed and died in the Hollywood apartment of Sheilah Graham, the gossip columnist he once, in a fit of pique, called his paramour. Graham had afforded more than companionship during Fitzgerald's final years of dislocation and estrangement in California: she had lavishly dispensed insider gossip about the movie industry that was assimilated by him into his last stories and novel. Their relationship sustained Fitzgerald during a final astonishing period of productivity that contradicts the popular depiction of a profligate author who squandered his talent. Journalists reporting Fitzgerald's death mourned the passing of youthful promise, stagnated genius, and unfulfilled talent. They reduced Fitzgerald to a cultural artifact, a symbol of the "lost generation." With his literary reputation conspicuously suspended in the 1920s, Fitzgerald represented the excesses and decadence of his generation. And yet, by the centennial of his birth, the novelist E. L. Doctorow reflected in "F. S. F., 1896-1996, R.I.P": "Of that triumvirate of hero-novelists who came of age in the twenties, we may salute the big two-hearted pugilist, and stand in awe of the mesmerist from Mississippi, but it's the third one we mourn, the Jazz Age kid, our own Fitzgerald."
Anticipating Doctorow's heroic projection of sorrowful kinship, Malcolm Cowley long contemplated this "exile's return." As he wrote to Kenneth Burke on October 26, 1950: Fitzgerald... is a perfect example of your theory of
social analogy. In all his early work the hero represents the rising
middle class, the heroine represents inherited money, they kiss as if
he were embracing a pile of stock certificates · and then, since
Fitzgerald distrusts the leisure class and thinks they are mysterious,
her relatives kill the hero.
Cowley, busy editing his selection of twenty-eight of Fitzgerald's stories for Scribners, had discovered a signature tension in Fitzgerald's life and work: the often antithetical relationship between happiness and money.
Fitzgerald, as Lionel Trilling proposed in The Liberal Imagination (1953), was "perhaps the last notable writer to affirm the Romantic fantasy, descended from the Renaissance, of personal ambition and heroism, of life committed to, or thrown away for, some ideal of self." Edmund Wilson , reflecting upon the "semi-excluded background" of America's Irish Catholics, noted in his journal that neither Scott nor his friend Gerald Murphy, no matter what their financial reserves, would ever be "‘out of the top drawer’ in New York." And so, alienated from his Midwestern, middle-class origins and ceaselessly striving for the unattainable security of wealth and class, Fitzgerald lived a morality play in which money and happiness were at odds.
Although most of Fitzgerald's best-known work exploits this opposition, "The Rich Boy," written during the spring and summer of 1925 (just after the publication of The Great Gatsby), attempts to ameliorate it. Seen by the biographer Matthew Bruccoli as central to understanding Fitzgerald's complex attitude toward wealth and class, the story owes its special celebrity to its opening confidence: Let me tell you about the very...