How Thomas Boyd of Defiance, Ohio, Lost A Friend

F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald Becomes Incensed

Although he seems to have only read about it rather than having read it himself, F. Scott Fitzgerald was so incensed about a “dreary,” “unimaginative,” stereotypical and derivative novel* entitled Samuel Drummond that he excoriated both it and its Ohio author — twenty-seven-year-old Defiance native Thomas Boyd — in a June 1, 1925, letter to his editor, Max Perkins. It was more than Fitzgerald could bear when Perkins — a man whose judgement he respected — had the bad taste to personally praise the novel to him in a letter. Mortified that a man editing his books could like a “lousy” novel with “stock-prop” characters and a clichéd plot, Fitzgerald took him to task: “It amazes me, Max, to see you with your discernment and your fine intelligence fall for that whole complicated fake.”

What is the Samuel Drummond about?

Just before the Civil War, the “honest but mindless” titular character, Samuel Drummond — a man with “a big heart” but “minuscule vocabulary” — has come of age, marries, and, with blood, sweat, and tears, makes a farm of his own in northwest Ohio. Day after day, from sun-up to sun-down, Drummond, his wife, and a vagrant named Christy who stays with them as a hired hand, toil in the fields. After sunset, the childless couple and Christy sit in virtual silence, staring at the floor, the walls, or each other, inwardly counting the minutes till bedtime and then perpetuate the cycle. Drummond ultimately enlists to fight for the Union. While he is away, his farm becomes sickly, dilapidated, and behind in paying taxes. Returning home to a morass of dead soil and debt, Drummond ultimately fails to make a life for himself and sells the farm. He ends his days in obscurity in the city.  

Why did it make Fitzgerald so furious?

            In a timeline which he entitled “History of the Simple Inarticulate Farmer and His Hired Hand Christy,” Fitzgerald identified fifteen previous novelists and poets who, between 1855 and 1925, had already dealt with the “farm novel” who did it much better: George Elliot, Thomas Hardy, Emile Zola, Robert Frost, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and Eugene O’Neil, among others. In Fitzgerald’s eyes, those authors were craftsmen, and Boyd was unimaginatively ploughing what was, by then, dead dirt. “But Tom flatters himself that he can sit down for five months and by dressing up a few heart throbs in overalls produce literature.” Fitzgerald had an explosive contempt for novels that promulgated how holier-than-thou farmers living off the land had the true skinny on how life was truly meant to be lived and who thought they were the true prophets to lead the civilized and cultured out of darkness. Poor Boyd!

Fitzgerald and Boyd Were Once Friends

            While living with his wife, Peggy in St. Paul, Minnesota, Boyd published a literary supplement to the Saint Paul Daily News entitled “In a Corner with a Bookworm.” Fitzgerald had been among the writers to whom Boyd reached out with questions. Though the editors of the Saint Paul Daily News had never been admirers of Fitzgerald’s work, they received a response from him (without, in hindsight, really understanding why) with a critique of “the young man’s novel,” a critique which Boyd published in February 1921. When the Fitzgeralds moved into a home on White Bear Lake just outside Saint Paul, Boyd introduced himself. With Boyd now writing the reviews, the Saint Paul Daily News became pro-Fitzgerald all the way. Boyd was Fitzgerald’s Saint George who defended his character, his personal life, as well as his work. Their personal acquaintance developed into a friendship when the Fitzgeralds moved into Saint Paul itself and they began to pay regular visits to Kilmarnock Books (the bookstore of which Boyd was co-owner and manager). By February 1922, Boyd had praised Fitzgerald in forty separate articles “In a Corner with a Bookworm.” Out of gratitude, Fitzgerald introduced Boyd to his agent Max Perkins as well as his publisher, Charles Scribner & Sons. Soon afterwards, Scribner published The Love Legend, a book written by Peggy Boyd (under the pseudonym Woodward Boyd).

            After the manuscript of his own novel, Through the Wheat, was rejected first by Scribner, then by Harcourt Brace, Boyd mailed it to Fitzgerald with a request for him to read and evaluate it. Though he did not, by any stretch of the imagination, consider Boyd to be his literary equal, Fitzgerald not only read the book but took it personally to Scribner. Out of loyalty and gratitude, he convinced Scribner to publish it. Was he not, after all, a virtual talent scout for Scribner, referring promising but struggling authors (such as Ernest Hemingway) to them? Both parties recognized that it undoubtedly needed work. So, Fitzgerald and Scribner offered sage editorial advice to Boyd in how best to revise it. With Fitzgerald, Perkins, and Boyd working together, Through the Wheat reached a form that garnered high praise from The New York Times upon its release.

            By the time that Boyd’s third novel, Samuel Drummond, was published, the Fitzgeralds had moved, and letters between Boyd and Fitzgerald had trickled. Increasingly, Boyd refrained from asking for Fitzgerald’s advice (when given) or taking it (whenever offered).

Disillusioned, Fitzgerald never wrote to Boyd directly about how Samuel Drummond made him feel. If he had, he might have learned that by writing it Boyd was in truth paying (a somewhat idealized) tribute to his grandfather, Samuel Dunbar. If the critics had known that, they, too, might have been less harsh.   

    In 1978, a brief revival of interest in the work of Ohio native Thomas Boyd was re-kindled when the University of Southern Illinois Press published Through the Wheat as a part of its “Lost American Fiction” series — with a forward written by none other than James Dickey — but it did not burn hot or long. Perhaps in the end, Boyd will best be remembered as a one-time friend of the much-more-famous Jazz Age author whose works became so integral to the American psyche.


* Bruce, Brian. “Thomas Boyd & F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Brief Literary Friendship.” Ohio History Journal, Summer-Autumn 2000, pgs. 125-143.

* Robbins, J. Albert. “Fitzgerald and the Simple, Inarticulate Farmer.” Modern Fiction Studies 7, no. 4 (1961): 365–69.

* Through the Wheat by Thomas Boyd. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg:

* Samuel Drummond by Thomas Boyd. Available to read online at Hathi Trust: