You probably know F. Scott Fitzgerald as the author of the famous novel The Great Gatsby, but he's also well known for his many short stories published in the 1920s and 30s. "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is one of his quirky, imaginative fantasy stories that also functions as social satire. It is the tale of a man who has discovered a giant mountain made of solid diamond – a diamond as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel – and now needs to keep it hidden from the world at all costs. The story is set in the woods of Montana and may be influenced by a trip Fitzgerald took to the area one summer with a buddy from Princeton University.
Fitzgerald originally wrote "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" as a novelette (a very short novella, or a very long short story) called "The Diamond in the Sky." It was rejected by several magazines, so he tried trimming it down. It was then accepted and first published in June of 1922 in The Smart Set, an American literary magazine, though they paid him only $300 for it. (Compare this to the $1,500 that the Post was then paying for short stories, or the $4,000 dollars Fitzgerald got for "Babylon Revisited" in 1931). Shortly after in 1922, it was anthologized in a collection of Fitzgerald's stories called Tales of the Jazz Age (where you can also find "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button").
Part of the reason so many magazines initially rejected "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is that the story has not-so-subtle satirical messages about American capitalism. The story criticizes Americans as obsessed with wealth, and considers exploitation inherent in building and expanding the country. American critics didn't react well to the story upon publication. After all, who likes being told they're greedy and exploitive?
But Fitzgerald didn't seem too fazed by these reactions. He said of the story: "[It] was designed utterly for my own amusement. I was in a mood characterized by a perfect craving for luxury, and the story began as an attempt to feed that craving on imaginary foods" (Jazz Age Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Picture this – it's the early 1920s, and the wealthy elite of America are having a giant party. As in, a decade-long party. There's lots of drinking, dancing, singing, mingling, and at the top of the social food chain are the ultra-rich. The wealthy elite live such a glamorous, stylish lifestyle that it's hard not to envy them. Who wouldn't do just about anything to get to this position?
You can think of "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" as a big fat reality check. It's the literary equivalent of Fitzgerald standing back, holding out his arms, and going, "Hold on a second, people – let's just take a minute to think." He takes a look at just what people seem willing to do to become one of the ultra-rich – and it's not a pretty picture. The problem is, the story explains, it's part of America's culture – from its founding fathers onward – to preach success at any cost. It's not so much the success that troubles Fitzgerald, but the "at any cost" bit. A lot of times, in order to climb just a little bit higher, we have to step on somebody. Or many somebodys.
A lot has changed since the 1920s, but lots is also still the same. We're still bred for success, from pre-school on forward. You're taught to go out there, grab the world by the horns, and succeed. Competition is naturally part of this process. But "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" demands that we take a look back and recognize how much all this success, status, and wealth really costs.