“The I.O.U.”
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
from he March 20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

A few of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “lost” stories have popped up of late. The New Yorker published “Thank You for the Light,” published in August 2012 (see our post here), and there is a new collection of these stories coming out in late April called I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories. If you’re interested in learning how this collection came to be and how these stories have been found over the years (and it is fascinating!), you should read this interview between Deborah Treisman and Anne Margaret Daniel, the editor of the new collection.

I’m a fan of Fitzgerald’s work, so I’m always up to give these a try. Rarely, though, do I think we have been given a lost gem. Indeed, it shows that some wisdom may have been involved when the thing was not published in the first place. Still, they are welcome, especially when accompanied by an illustration by Seth.

And especially when they begin with this kind of verve:

The above is not my real name — the fellow it belongs to gave me his permission to sign it to this story. My real name I shall not divulge. I am a publisher. I accept long novels about young love written by old maids in South Dakota, detective stories concerning wealthy clubmen and female apaches with “wide dark eyes,” essays about the menace of this and that and the color of the moon in Tahiti by college professors and other unemployed. I accept no novels by authors under fifteen years old. All the columnists and communists (I can never get these two words straight) abuse me because they say I want money. I do — I want it terribly. My wife needs it. My children use it all the time. If someone offered me all the money in New York I should not refuse it. I would rather bring out a book that had an advance sale of five hundred thousand copies than have discovered Samuel Butler, Theodore Dreiser, and James Branch Cabell in one year. So would you if you were a publisher.

This one was originally written in 1920, toward the beginning of Fitzgerald’s career (he was only 23 but already a celebrity author with enough experience to have an embittered relationship with the publishing industry) and the beginning of that tumultuous decade that has always been associated with Fitzgerald’s work and life every since. The interview I linked to above tells how this story got lost in the first place, and it seems to have a bit to do with this new fame. Again, the interview is great stuff!

Also included with this week’s story is “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Imperfect Romance with The New Yorker,” by Erin Overbey and Joshua Rothman (here).

Anway, to the story! I look forward to your thoughts below!

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By |2017-05-24T22:48:14-04:00March 13th, 2017|Categories: F. Scott Fitzgerald, New Yorker Fiction|8 Comments


  1. Sean H March 14, 2017 at 4:14 am

    Overall it’s no great shakes, no unearthed classic. Sometimes these archive dives come up with something truly brilliant, but more often than not it’s disappointment in them thar vaults. This one isn’t an absolute dud. There’s some wit and whimsy herein. Fitzgerald is certainly not lacking in smoothness or flow. The man knows how to tell a story. There are a trove of lessons for contemporary writers to learn from, particularly the importance of a brisk plot, a malleable but never inconsistent tone, quick and effective descriptions, and a convincing voice. I’ve always considered Fitz a great novelist first and foremost, and even his best-known short stories (“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “Winter Dreams,” “Benjamin Button,” “Crazy Sunday,” and the best of them, “Babylon Revisited”) make barely a fraction of the impact of his larger works. His best stories also tend to come from his later years, and this one’s from 1920.
    I’m also sure sure the contemporary silliness will ensue about “a prescient vision of Trump’s America” and “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and that couldn’t be less interesting to me. Might as well say The Canterbury Tales is about Trump too, by that logic.
    In terms of some specific highlights, the twist at the end of the story works. And who doesn’t get a chuckle from a mob appearing in a story’s third act. The names are lovely and well-chosen, so evocative of the period, reading them now, and not just the names of the people, as the naming of cities in Ohio and elsewhere really brought a smile to my lips. That first paragraph is a wonderfully economical one too.
    I’ll suppose I’ll come back if anything really changes for me in subsequent readings. My first impression is that it’s a curio, a trifle, an amuse-bouche. Tasty, but hardly substantive, sustentative or essential.

  2. David March 14, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    This was probably the first thoroughly enjoyable read I have had from a New Yorker short story in about four months. It also comes, coincidentally, a few days after I started reading Tender Is The Night for the first time. This story is a delightful comic tale that does not seem to aspire to any great ambitions other than to entertain, but at the same time seems to have something to say about the publishing industry. I was reminded by this story of a couple of chapters in the middle of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum that center on the activities of a vanity press and the odd authors and books they publish. Both satirize their subjects, but in ways that seems rather affectionate of them. I’m not sure he quite pulled off the ending when the man appears with his I.O.U., but that is a minor point. I wish The New Yorker would publish work of this quality more often. But perhaps that is too high a standard. Nearly a hundred years after this was written it is still well worth publishing and reading. That’s something you probably won’t be able to say for most authors they publish.

  3. Dennis Lang March 16, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Hah!! Loved it! Hilarious! As Sean H mentions some of its various virtues above, personally I don’t consider these any small achievement. I’m far from a student of creative writing but I can see where there may well be “a trove of lessons” to be learned by aspirants that are wonderfully exemplified in this story.
    (Sadly, my only past experience with FSF is “Winter Dreams”, read many times mainly because it captured my own romantic obsessions and failures. But I digress,)

  4. Dennis Lang March 16, 2017 at 11:35 am

    PS: For those interested in some possible social context for this story, there was great popularity of psychics and seers claiming the ability to communicate with the dead after WWI. An intriguing book on the subject with Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle as key players:


  5. Ted March 18, 2017 at 12:45 am

    I have a few questions regarding the lexicon used here. If anyone has any thought, feel free to share :)
    1) How to interpret “a Long Island sand card” in “His first book—I published it in 1913—had taken hold like a Long Island sand crab…” in Paragraph 2?
    2) What exactly does it mean by “a thousand points of the literate compass” in “Four weeks before the day set for publication, huge crates went out to a thousand points of the literate compass”?

  6. David March 18, 2017 at 9:21 am

    Ted, with regard to the sand crabs of Long Island, I have no specific knowledge. I interpreted what he meant from the context. He says that he thought the new book would be a sure thing based what happened with the previous one. So I took the idea he was suggesting was that as sand crabs will bite people on the beach and tenaciously not let go, the book had created and maintained a great deal of interest that lead to significant sales. I presume that the negative image of a sand crab bite is used to indicate something negative about the real value of the book despite its success.
    The second one is a little easier (for me, anyway). The thousand points of a compass just is a way of saying “in all directions” or that the books went everywhere. The qualifier “literate” just means that the books were sent to be sold to all places in every direction where people read. The rest of that paragraph describes the various places where the book was distributed.

  7. Mark Richardson (@RchrdsnMark) March 19, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    I thought it was fun. He was only 20 when he wrote it.

  8. Greg March 22, 2017 at 11:05 pm

    Sean – Thank you for sharing your perspective on this story and on Scott’s career. I believe this is how he wanted to be remembered.

    David – You will love “Tender is the Night”….. it’s my favourite lyrical novel of all-time!

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