Greatest Literature banner

Tales of the Jazz Age

Critique • Quotes

Tales of the Jazz Age, first editionFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Also called
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Tales of the Jazz Age

First publication
"May Day", The Smart Set (magazine), 1920
"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz", The Smart Set (magazine), 1922
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", Colliers (magazine), 1922

First book publication

Literary form

Literary, fantasy, satire

Writing language

Author's country
United States

10 stories, approx. 81,500 words

The great, the good and the forgotten

Scott Fitzgerald's prolific output of stories for magazines early in his career was distinguished by at least one that was undoubtedly great, many that could be called interesting, and more that are best forgotten (and have been). All three categories are represented in Tales of the Jazz Age, his second story collection in book form.

This collection rises above others by the inclusion of the great one, "May Day", and one of the best of the interesting ones, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz", and the bizarre but popular non-story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button".

May Day

The long story "May Day" is novel-like in its sweep of characters and interweaving plot. It's the first of May shortly after the First World War and two groups are marking it in different ways in the big city. The young and affluent are living it up at a night club party that becomes an all-night drunk. Meanwhile former soldiers start an anti-Bolshevik demonstration that turns into an attack on a leftist newspaper office. Among the first group are a desperate man seeking a loan from a friend, and a socialite whose brother works for the socialist paper under attack. Their experiences in the course of the evening bring them all together in various combinations and split them irredeemably apart.

Even with some dramatic exaggeration everything about this story rings true. The dialogue is brilliantly real. The characters and storyline keep you turning the pages. And there are those situations that only Fitzgerald can dream up but which seem as natural as real life—such as the soldiers hiding in the supply room and watching the party through the door for their chance to steal liquor, or the two revellers taking the In and Out signs from the cloakroom and wearing them to parade about town as Mister In and Mister Out. (You had to be there.)

This is a story that, like his best novels, melds Fitzgerald's obvious fascination with wealth and his awareness of a larger world, creating a subtle social critique.

This is a story that Fitzgerald himself considered an unsuccessful attempt to weave together disparate events during the "spring which inaugurated the Age of Jazz". But I beg to disagree—about the "unsuccessful" part.

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz

Other stories are openly fantastic. Another long story, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," (sometimes considered a novella), concerns a mountain-size diamond secretly owned by the world's richest man who uses black slaves (they don't know slavery was abolished), protects his property with anti-aircraft weapons, and kills his children's friends to prevent them from revealing his secret. Our entry into this demented world is via a friend who comes to visit his schoolmate, falls in love with one of the rich man's nutty daughters and plans his escape.

I have to admit the first time I read this tale—too quickly, I think—I found it ridiculous.

But then I realized it was meant to be ridiculous. A deceptively light-hearted parody of American acquisitiveness and several other social ills. A tragedy of sorts in the end. Narratively unbelievable but entertaining if you give it a chance.

Fitzgerald's own comment on this highly praised story was, "If you like this sort of thing, this, possibly, is the sort of thing you’ll like."

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Other stories are even less credible. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" could have appeared in an Amazing Stories-type pulp magazine.

Benjamin Button was born a fully grown old man and grows younger throughout his life. Well done, but perhaps not what you expect from a literary great.

In a preface to an edition of this volume, Fitzgerald described the story's genesis thusly:

This story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. By trying the experiment upon only one man in a perfectly normal world I have scarcely given his idea a fair trial. Several weeks after completing it, I discovered an almost identical plot in Samuel Butler’s “Note-books.”

The popular 2008 film of the same name is greatly expanded beyond all recognition, retaining only the reverse-aging premise of this bizarre story.

The rest

Fitzgerald was not only incredibly prolific but incredibly versatile. He adopts a scary range of voices and styles in this small collection, with uneven results. Two of the "stories" are even written as one-act plays, suitable for the theatre of the absurd. My favourite is the bizarre, punning "Mr. Icky". Doesn't make a lot of sense but it's quite funny in a way that Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) might appreciate.

In the naturalistic vein of "May Day" are the very good "Jelly Bean", about a southern ne'er-do-well who falls for a fickle belle, and "The Camel's Back", about a man who courts his fiancée at a party while dressed as the front half of a camel—although this story slips near the end into burlesque.

"The Lees of Happiness" is a less successful example of the realistic style, but interesting to read because its story of two couples never comes together in the way you expect.

And check out that zippy first paragraph of "Jemina", which unfortunately turns out to be a silly satire about a hillbilly feud between the Tantrums and the Doldrums.

Many of Fitzgerald's stories from this period seem overly ornamented and somewhat precious in style, making them age badly compared to the more stripped down fiction that became popular later. Personally I prefer his own later leaner writing as in The Pat Hobby Stories.

You may not be able to get this original collection under the title Tales of the Jazz Age, as the volume appears to be no longer in print. Apparently a new, expensive hardcover edition is in the works. In the meantime you can find most of the stories from this book in the more recent collections Babylon Revisited and Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories, as well as in collected works. The raw text of the whole book is also available on various sites on the Internet.

— Eric


Critique • Quotes