|The cover of The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by Patricia Hampl and Dave Page, 2004. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)|
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896. His family moved to Buffalo, New York in 1898, but they returned to Saint Paul in 1908, and the city would be Scott’s home, off and on, until 1922.
Fitzgerald led a peripatetic life, spending considerable amounts of time in Minnesota, New York, Montana, Louisiana, Connecticut, Delaware, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and California. And that’s not even counting the numerous places where he and Zelda lived in France. Scott and Zelda never owned a home of their own. It’s difficult to say that any one place has a special claim on him. However, Saint Paul was where he first entertained the idea of becoming a writer, where he published his first writings, and where he finished his first two novels. Fitzgerald always saw places through the lens of an outsider, and I suspect that he secretly wondered if he truly belonged anywhere.
The 2004 collection The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Patricia Hampl and Dave Page, does a superb job of advocating for the importance of Saint Paul in Fitzgerald’s writings. Fitzgerald’s family was socially well-connected in Saint Paul, as his mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald, was born into a prominent and wealthy family. Mollie’s father, P.F. McQuillan, had come to Saint Paul from Ireland when he was just a boy. He eventually established a very successful wholesale grocery business, and built a mansion in the section of downtown Saint Paul known as Lowertown. (The mansion was torn down, as were all the mansions of Lowertown.) The McQuillans rubbed shoulders with people like the shipping and railroad tycoon James J. Hill, who had a nearby mansion of his own in Lowertown. Unfortunately, P.F. McQuillan died at the age of 43 in 1877 of Bright’s Disease, a kidney disorder. He left behind a fortune of about $250,000, a significant sum of money. However, after grandfather McQuillan’s death, no new money was being earned by the family, so by the time Scott was a young man, the family was still very well off, but they weren’t in the financial stratosphere like the Hills. In 1891 James J. Hill finished building his gigantic mansion on Summit Avenue, which totaled 36,000 square feet and included an art gallery. In contrast, Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in a spacious rented apartment, one of six units in a building on Laurel Avenue, four blocks off of the prestigious Summit Avenue. It was still a very nice residence in the best part of town, but it was most definitely not a mansion.
Fitzgerald’s father, Edward, was from Maryland, and was the epitome of the Southern gentleman. Handsome, courtly, and well-dressed, he was unfortunately not successful at business. Nevertheless, young Scott Fitzgerald grew up rubbing shoulders with the elite of Saint Paul. He attended Saint Paul Academy, the most prestigious private school in the city, and also attended dancing school, which was a must in those days for anyone in the upper classes. He went to parties at the University Club, and Town & Country Club. Fitzgerald’s unique social position gave him access to the world of the very wealthy, but he knew that he would have to make his own way in the world. There was not enough family money for him to coast idly through life.
If Fitzgerald had been either higher or lower in the social strata, he might not have developed into the brilliant observer of class and status that he became. Had he been a member of the idle rich, he might not have fully understood how his life was different from other people’s, and he might not have been interested in chronicling it. If Fitzgerald had been lower class, he wouldn’t have had access to the rich to see how they lived. But Fitzgerald had enough access to the rich to absorb their social milieu, and he knew how unique it was. There’s a brilliant quote from the critic Malcolm Lowry about Fitzgerald: “It was as if all his novels described a big dance to which he had taken the prettiest girl, and as if at the same time he stood outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the music.” Lowry called this Fitzgerald’s “double vision” and I think it sums up Fitzgerald perfectly. He is at once both involved participant and detached observer, and that’s one reason why he was such a great writer.
The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald includes some of his greatest short stories, like “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” “The Ice Palace,” and “Winter Dreams.” It also features the very funny “The Camel’s Back,” which Fitzgerald said he pounded out in a sleepless twenty-two hour stretch.
“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” was one of Fitzgerald’s first short stories to be published in The Saturday Evening Post, and concerns the popular Marjorie and her seemingly hopeless cousin Bernice, who is visiting her for the summer. A young man thinks about Bernice: “He wondered idly whether she was a poor conversationalist because she got no attention or got no attention because she was a poor conversationalist.” (p.52) However, with Marjorie’s help, Bernice is able to achieve social popularity. The story also features this beautiful line, which shows how Fitzgerald was wise beyond his years: “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.” (p.56)
“Winter Dreams” is one of Fitzgerald’s finest short stories, and he wrote that it was a “sort of 1st draft of the Gatsby idea.” (p.107) It’s a beautiful, haunting story, as Dexter Green tries to win the heart of the cold Judy Jones. Dexter Green isn’t exactly Jay Gatsby, but they have similarities in their single-minded focus to achieve their fantasies.
As usual in Fitzgerald’s writing, there are beautiful, poetic sentences in “Winter Dreams,” such as: “When the scarlet corners of her lips curved down, it was less a smile than an invitation to a kiss.” (p.119) And: “In the middle of May when the weather balanced for a few days on the thin bridge that led to deep summer he turned in one night at Irene’s house.” (p.125)
“Winter Dreams” was the last short story that Fitzgerald wrote while he was living in Saint Paul, but his hometown continued to be a setting and influence on his work. The 1927 short story “A Short Trip Home” is an interesting one. It mixes the supernatural with more typical Fitzgerald story material about young love. The story connects to Fitzgerald’s strong morality. While he’s often seen as the epitome of Jazz Age excesses, Fitzgerald had a strong moral sense of good and evil. As his friend Oscar Kalman said of him: “Poor Scott, he never really enjoyed his dissipation because he disapproved intensely of himself all the time it was going on.” (The Far Side of Paradise, by Arthur Mizener, p.93) Fitzgerald himself said, “Parties are a form of suicide. I love them, but the old Catholic in me secretly disapproves.” (The Far Side of Paradise, p.135) In Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, the main character Amory Blaine sees a physical manifestation of the devil, just as the mysterious man in “A Short Trip Home” functions as a physical manifestation of evil.
In 1928 and 1929, Fitzgerald was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block as he attempted to write the novel that would become Tender is the Night. So he returned to his adolescence in Saint Paul for a series of stories about Basil Duke Lee. The stories are excellent, and I strongly suspect that the young Basil Duke Lee shared many similarities with the young F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first Basil story was “The Scandal Detectives,” the short story taking its name from an actual club that the teenaged Fitzgerald started with his friends. The story features this lovely sentence, as Basil stares at Imogene Bissel: “For the first time in his life he realized a girl completely as something opposite and complementary to him, and he was subject to a warm chill of mingled pleasure and pain.” (p.167)
Fitzgerald describes Basil’s youthful idea of what his life will be like: “This summer he and his mother and sister were going to the lakes and next fall he was starting away to school. Then he would go to Yale and be a great athlete, and after that—if his two dreams had fitted onto each other chronologically instead of existing independently side by side—he was due to become a gentleman burglar.” (p.168) Like Basil, Fitzgerald dreamed of finding glory on the athletic fields, but it was not to be. He badly wanted to make the football team at Princeton, but he was cut the first day of tryouts.
Another Basil story, “A Night at the Fair,” describes the wonders of the Minnesota State Fair. If you haven’t had the good fortune to attend the Minnesota State Fair, let me assure you, it is a wonderful event, and one that most Minnesotans feel quite passionately about. Fitzgerald perfectly captures the mood of the Fair in this passage:
“The first lights of the evening were springing into pale existence; the afternoon crowd had thinned a little, and the lanes, empty of people, were heavy with the rich various smells of popcorn and peanuts, molasses and dust, and cooking Wienerwurst and a not-unpleasant overtone of animals and hay. The Ferris wheel, pricked out now in lights, revolved leisurely through the dusk; a few empty cars of the roller coaster rattled overhead. The heat had blown off and there was the crisp stimulating excitement of Northern autumn in the air.” (p.190)
At the Fair, Basil meets a girl. In Fitzgerald’s stories, there is always a girl, and she is always beautiful: “Her eyes, dark and intimate, seemed to have wakened at the glowing brilliance of the illumination overhead; there was the promise of excitement in them now, like the promise of the cooling night.” (p.191)
As Basil waits for his first pair of long pants to arrive by courier, Fitzgerald sums up Basil’s thoughts: “Like most of us, he was unable to perceive that he would have any desires in the future equivalent to those that possessed him now.” (p.198)
In another Basil story, “He Thinks He’s Wonderful,” Fitzgerald comes close to describing what Malcolm Cowley called his “double vision” as an author: “Passing from the gleaming store into the darkness, Basil was submerged in an unreality in which he seemed to see himself from the outside, and the pleasant events of the evening began to take on fresh importance.” (p.212) I think Fitzgerald was able to be both participant and observer in his own life, which was a trait that rankled some of his acquaintances. Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Fitzgerald’s who met him in Saint Paul in 1919, and encountered him again in Hollywood in the late 1930’s, wrote in his memoirs that Fitzgerald’s “note-taking watchfulness…kept me from ever feeling that he was really my friend.” Everything in Fitzgerald’s life was a possible story idea or a line of dialogue.
“At Your Age” is an interesting story of a much older man falling for a younger woman. The story was published in The Saturday Evening Post in August of 1929, and Fitzgerald was paid $4,000 for it—which would be approximately $58,000 today. One particularly lyrical passage was incorporated into Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night. Here is the passage from “At Your Age”:
“They came near and Tom admired the faint dust of powder over her freshness, the guarded sweetness of her smile, the fragility of her body calculated by Nature to a millimeter to suggest a bud, yet guarantee a flower.” (p.281)
In Tender is the Night this very similar passage occurs as Dick Diver admires the much younger Rosemary Hoyt: “It took him a moment to respond to the unguarded sweetness of her smile, her body calculated to a millimeter to suggest a bud yet guarantee a flower.” (Tender is the Night, p.104)
“At Your Age” also contains this beautiful description of Minnesota winters: “It was a long winter, even in a land of long winters. March was full of billowy drift, and when it seemed at last as though the cold must be defeated, there was a series of blizzards, desperate as last stands.” (p.291)
“A Freeze-Out,” from 1931, was the last short story by Fitzgerald that mentioned Minnesota. It’s an interesting, if somewhat slight story. But it features this nice line, once again about Minnesota weather: “On the day spring broke through and summer broke through—it is much the same thing in Minnesota—Forrest stopped his coupe in front of a music store and took his pleasant vanity inside.” (p.296)
Fitzgerald never wrote about his home town again, but he did mention it in letters that reveal his complicated relationship to Saint Paul. He wrote to his childhood friend Marie Hersey in 1934, “Having rambled so much I no longer regard Saint Paul as my home any more than the eastern seaboard or the Riviera. This is said with no disloyalty but simply because after all my father was an easterner and I went east to college and I never did quite adjust myself to those damn Minnesota winters. I was always freezing my cheeks, being a rotten skater, etc.—though many events there will always fill me with a tremendous nostalgia.” (The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, p.536-7)
Fitzgerald contradicted himself in a 1936 letter to Hersey: “St. Paul contacts have been so infrequent that I am practically determined to go out there next summer for a while and bring the daughter. In spite of a fifteen-year absence, it still is home to me.” (The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, p.568)
One wonders what Fitzgerald’s true feelings about Saint Paul were, but surely they were feelings that ran deep, given how often his hometown was referenced in his fiction.