Saturday, July 8, 2017

Reflections on the 14th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference

Poster for the 14th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference in Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2017. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Me with Sam Lanahan, the grandson of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, June 26, 2017.

Author Scott Donaldson speaking at the Conference, June 26, 2017. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)
Last week I attended the 14th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference in Saint Paul. It was an excellent opportunity to meet some of the leading Fitzgerald experts from around the world, and to indulge my own burgeoning fascination with Fitzgerald. 

I read Fitzgerald in high school, back in the late 1990’s, The Great Gatsby in 10th grade, and some of his short stories after that. But for some reason, even though I loved Fitzgerald’s writing and bought several of his books, I didn’t go on a Fitzgerald binge the way I did with Hemingway at around the same age. So now I’m finally really digging into Fitzgerald’s life and work, and it’s been richly rewarding. He’s a great author who is still having a significant impact on popular culture, and he led a richly fascinating life. His writing obviously still speaks to people in a meaningful way in 2017, 121 years after his birth. 

I was excited to meet several of the scholars attending the conference, but Scott Donaldson was the one I was most excited about. I’ve been aware of Scott Donaldson’s work for about twenty years. At some point in 1995 or 1996, during my freshman year of high school, I picked up The Stories of John Cheever. The compact little paperback, with its distinctive bright red cover with the large, swooping C on it, quickly transported me to a post-war suburbia full of drinking, adultery, and page after page of gorgeous prose. At some point over the next year or two, I found Donaldson’s 1988 biography of Cheever at a bargain bookstore in an outlet mall. I read bits and pieces of it, but didn’t read it cover to cover, and I added it to my growing Cheever collection. A couple of years later, I learned that Donaldson and I were both alums of The Blake School. My awareness of Donaldson’s work has increased in the last couple of years, with the reissue of his biography of Fitzgerald, Fool for Love, by the University of Minnesota Press in 2012, and his 2015 book The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography. I recently reviewed Fool for Love and his 1999 book Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald. 

Scott Donaldson was very nice, and he was actually the first person I talked to at the conference, he was walking out of Hotel 340 as I was walking in, so I said hi to him, told him I’d enjoyed his books, and mentioned that we had Blake in common. He said he’s always looked back fondly on his time at Blake. His talk Monday afternoon was about Tender is the Night, and he said his next book will be about Tender. Later in the week I was able to ask Donaldson if he had known William F. Buckley when he was at Yale. Donaldson laughed and said, “I used to beat him at bridge all the time!” It turns out that Donaldson and his roommate regularly played Buckley and his roommate. He told me that it was obvious then that Buckley was brilliant. I knew that Donaldson had written a biography of Charlie Fenton, a professor at Yale who taught a class called “Daily Themes.” I told Donaldson that Buckley also had great things to say about the “Daily Themes” class. 

I also met Sam Lanahan, grandson of Scott and Zelda and son of Scottie Fitzgerald. He gave a talk about some of Zelda’s relatives, which was fascinating and informative. Lanahan has some resemblance to his grandfatherthe eyes and nose especially. Lanahan was also an excellent speaker, with a quiet charisma that drew the audience in. As I was listening to him, I thought, “This is probably similar to what Scott Fitzgerald was like.” I chatted with Lanahan briefly after his talk, and he was a delight. 

One of the highlights of the conference was an early morning session with A. Scott Berg, who has written acclaimed biographies of Fitzgerald’s editor Maxwell Perkins, Charles Lindbergh, and Woodrow Wilson. (I reviewed Berg’s biography of Wilson here.) Berg was a fascinating speaker; I could have listened to him all day. He’s actually named after F. Scott Fitzgerald, as his mother was reading Fitzgerald’s novels when she was pregnant with him. Berg and Chris Keyser discussed the upcoming Amazon TV series The Last Tycoon, based on Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel. It sounds pretty interesting, and the clips they showed made it look good. I hope it’s better than the 1976 movie that Elia Kazan directed, which I reviewed here.

I also heard James L.W. West III speak, he’s the editor of the Cambridge edition of Fitzgerald’s collected works; the 16th volume in the series is due to be released later this summer. Anne Margaret Daniel spoke at the same sessionshe’s the editor of I’d Die for You, the volume of uncollected Fitzgerald stories that just came out in April, which I reviewed here. I asked Daniel after her talk about the uncollected pages still in the Fitzgerald collection at Princetonwhat Fitzgerald called false startsand if she thought those would ever be published. She said they wouldn’t, since they were so clearly unfinished and never meant for publication. But they’re still available for scholars to see at Princeton. In that same session Don Skemer spoke. Skemer is the Curator of Manuscripts at Princeton and handles the Fitzgerald papers there. He spoke about how Fitzgerald’s papers came to Princeton, and he dispelled the notion that the University didn’t want Fitzgerald’s papers. That was what I had read, so I was glad to know that Princeton understood the value of Fitzgerald’s papers, even though he was out of fashion as a writer at the time they accepted the papers. There was initially some reluctance on the part of John Biggs, the executor of Fitzgerald’s will, and Scottie Fitzgerald to allow access to letters that described Zelda’s mental illnesses, but with her death in 1948 the decision was made not to restrict access to Fitzgerald’s papers. I think this was a very smart move, as the open availability of Fitzgerald’s papers has aided so much of the research that has produced biographies that continue to kindle interest in Fitzgerald’s life and work. 

There was also a superb bus tour of Saint Paul’s Cathedral Hill/Summit Avenue/Crocus Hill/Summit Hill neighborhood, where Fitzgerald grew up. I was fortunate enough to be on the same bus as Dave Page, the leading expert on Fitzgerald’s time in Saint Paul. Page was the co-author of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Towards the Summit, which I reviewed here, and the sole author of the recently published F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer and His Friends at Home. Page knows just about all there is to know about Fitzgerald’s time in Saint Paul, and I learned a lot of new information on his tour. 

The Fitzgerald Conference was a lot of fun, and thanks should go to Fitzgerald in Saint Paul for helping organize it.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review: Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, by Scott Donaldson (1999)

Paperback cover of Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, by Scott Donaldson, 1999.

Literary biographer Scott Donaldson.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are two of the most famous American authors of the 20th century. They had a contentious relationship that literary biographer Scott Donaldson chronicles in his 1999 book Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship. Donaldson has written biographies of both authors, so he is well-suited for the task of constructing a book about their interactions. (I reviewed Fool for Love, his biography of Fitzgerald, here.)

Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s friendship started out well enough. They first met in Paris in 1925. Donaldson shows how Hemingway, writing of this meeting decades later in A Moveable Feast, misled the reader in order to carry out his own vendetta against Fitzgerald’s posthumous resurgence. Fitzgerald, already a famous and well-established author, read Hemingway’s early stories and was bowled over by his talent. Fitzgerald worked hard behind the scenes to try and arrange for Hemingway to join him in publishing his books at Scribner’s, under the watchful eye of editor Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald was something of a one-man promotion team for Scribner’sHemingway was the fifth author he had recruited for the firm. Fitzgerald also helped Hemingway edit The Sun Also Rises. Specifically, Fitzgerald advised Hemingway that he should slice off a lengthy introduction that gave the reader background information about the characters. Hemingway took Fitzgerald’s advice about The Sun Also Rises and followed him to Scribner’s.

The Sun Also Rises became a huge success when it was published in 1926, and Ernest Hemingway became what Scott Fitzgerald had been a few years beforethe Next Big Thing. Hemingway and Fitzgerald would never again be so close. Something changed in the next couple of years. When Hemingway’s next novel, A Farewell to Arms, was being edited in 1929, Fitzgerald bombarded Hemingway with suggestions for edits, and even ideas about the ad copy that Scribner’s could use to sell the book. This time, Hemingway ignored most of Scott’s ideas. Hemingway also didn’t want Scott and Zelda to know where he was living in Paris, for fear that their drunken antics would cause him to be evicted.

During the 1930’s, their friendship drifted apart, and Fitzgerald never joined Hemingway for a fishing trip on his boat on Key West, despite Ernest’s suggestions. Fitzgerald wrote in his notebooks that he and Hemingway had meet “Four times in eleven years (1929-1940). Not really friends since ’26.” (p.162)

The 1930’s were a difficult time for Fitzgerald. His wife Zelda suffered a series of mental breakdowns, and spent most of the rest of her life in various hospitals and sanitariums. Scott and Zelda lived apart, but never divorced. Scott now had considerable expenses, as he had to pay for Zelda’s care, and also for private schools for their daughter Scottie. Scott was also deeply in debt to Scribner’s, as he was continually borrowing against the advance for his long-awaited fourth novel, Tender is the Night, which finally appeared in 1934 after a long and painful gestation. It was nine years after The Great Gatsby, which was an eternity in those days. Although correctly regarded as classics today, neither book was a sales sensation. Fitzgerald was regarded by many book critics as being a relic of the 1920’s Jazz Age that he had chronicled so well. A brief snippet into Fitzgerald’s misery during this time can be seen from his Ledger entry for September 1932, which read: “Drinking increased. Things go not so well.” (p.234)

Hemingway was also not terribly prolific at writing novels during the 1930’s, as he had an eight-year gap between A Farewell to Arms in 1929 and To Have and Have Not in 1937. But he filled the intermediate years with non-fiction about bullfighting and safaris, which further burnished his macho image in the public eye. Hemingway’s reputation was quickly headed towards legend, while Fitzgerald was forgotten and neglected.

In 1936 the final break in their relationship came, as Hemingway criticized Fitzgerald in print in his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Published in Esquire in August of 1936, Hemingway included a passage where his narrator ruminates about the rich:

“He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that read ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him as much as any other thing that wrecked him.”

Fitzgerald had never started a short story that way. The third paragraph of “The Rich Boy,” the story that Hemingway was referencing, begins:

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

Donaldson shows how the “yes, they have more money” line has become so twisted, with Fitzgerald supposedly offering his observation, and Hemingway then responding with the punch line. In fact, according to Maxwell Perkins, what actually happened was Hemingway had said that he was getting to know the rich, and the author Mary Colum responded with, “The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.” (p.198) For whatever reason, Hemingway then rewrote the incident to make the punchline at Fitzgerald’s expense.

After the publication of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Fitzgerald wrote Hemingway a short letter that began: “Please lay off me in print.” He then asked Hemingway to cut his name when the story appeared in a book. After some back and forth with Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway finally agreed, changing the name to Julian. In 1939 Fitzgerald wrote Maxwell Perkins that Hemingway’s turn against him had a “pointless childish qualityso much so that I never really felt any resentment about it.” (p.203)

After Fitzgerald’s death from a heart attack in 1940, Hemingway rarely had a good word to say about his former friend. As Donaldson writes: “What becomes clear, in reading through Ernest’s correspondence…is that Hemingway repeatedly and systematically denigrated Fitzgerald during the two decades remaining to him, and that these attacks were occasioned or at least intensified by the posthumous revival of Fitzgerald’s reputation.” (p.253)

A sentence about Fitzgerald that Hemingway crossed out for A Moveable Feast read: “He needed professionals or normally educated people to make his writing legible and not illiterate.” (p.270) What a mean thing to write. Yes, Fitzgerald was a notoriously terrible speller, but Hemingway wasn’t much better. Fitzgerald was especially bad with proper names, often writing “Hemminway,” which no doubt rankled Ernest. There’s no generosity from Hemingway towards Fitzgerald, and I think it speaks to Hemingway’s personality that he was unwilling or unable to acknowledge Fitzgerald’s great talent. Hemingway’s mean-spirited comment about Fitzgerald being “illiterate” is one of the oldest critical attacks on himthat he was a natural talent, a sort of holy fool who magically put words together, but who had no idea how he did it. That’s untrue. Both men worked extremely hard to perfect their craft.

Donald Ogden Stewart, who knew both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, once said of Hemingway, “The minute he began to love you, or the minute he began to have some sort of obligation to you of love or friendship or something, then is when he had to kill you. Then you were too close to something he was protecting.” (p.315)

Fitzgerald and Hemingway were opposites in many ways. Where Fitzgerald wore his emotions on his sleeve, Hemingway was harder to pin down. Donaldson writes that Hemingway’s jilting by Agnes von Kurowsky, who was a Red Cross nurse who he met after being wounded in World War I, and his mother’s angry behavior towards him at around the same time “compelled him to sever ties before friend or lover could strike a blow to the heart.” (p.50) That certainly fit the pattern of his relationship with Fitzgerald. The thought occurred to me that maybe Hemingway’s deliberate distancing of himself from his own emotions influenced his writing style. Perhaps that’s one reason why his writing is so blunt, with so little outward emotion.

In one chapter, Donaldson chronicles the alcoholism of both writers. Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald waged lifelong battles with the bottle, with only limited success. Sober, Scott Fitzgerald was by all accounts a charming man. Drunk, he was impossible. While alcohol brought out in Zelda a tendency towards physical self-destructionshe once threw herself down a flight of stone steps when Scott was flirting too much with Isadora Duncan, and on another occasion dove thirty-five feet off a cliff into the oceanScott had a tendency towards social self-destruction. He would behave terribly to his friends, and the drunken antagonism of the evening inevitably led to the ashamed hung-over apology the morning after. Hemingway was a late blooming alcoholic compared to Fitzgerald, but by the time he was in his 50’s he was imbibing a massive amount of alcohol as part of his daily ritual.

The most bizarre letter between the two writers that Donaldson uncovered was one from Hemingway to Fitzgerald, written in December of 1935. In it, Hemingway tells Fitzgerald that if he is really, truly feeling depressed and despondent, he should take out a large life insurance policy and come down to Key West. There, Ernest could take Scott to Cuba on his boat and make sure that Scott got killed. Hemingway then went into great, satirical detail about making sure the Princeton Museum got Fitzgerald’s liver. The whole thing might have been a macabre joke, but there’s an underlying sadness, as the letter comes from someone whose family was plagued by suicides, and who would much later commit suicide himself. One wonders what Fitzgerald thought of the letter when he received it. (p.177-8)

One possible connection between the authors that Donaldson does not examine is “Shaggy’s Morning,” an odd Fitzgerald short story that ran in the May, 1935 issue of Esquire. “Shaggy’s Morning” was written from the point of view of a dog, and according to Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli, the story “may or may not have been intended as a parody of Hemingway.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.397) I think the story was Fitzgerald’s parody of Hemingway’s hard-bitten sentences and terse stoicism. Here’s a sample:

“In the front yard I howled. I don’t know why—then I went to look for the Brain. When I didn’t find her I began to figure that maybe something had happened to her, too, and she wouldn’t be back any more. I went up on the porch and waited, but she didn’t come, so I scratched on the screen and went in and howled a little at the Beard, who gave me a head scratch.”

To make Fitzgerald and Hemingway compete with each other seems superfluous. You don’t have to like only one and not the otherthey are not mutually exclusive. They were both brilliant and talented writers with many great works between them. I chronicled my own ambivalence towards Ernest Hemingway in an essay in April, and while I prefer Fitzgerald’s writing style, I enjoy Hemingway as well. These two men created some of the most vibrant prose of the 20th century.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Concert Review: Robyn Hitchcock at the Turf Club

Me and Robyn Hitchcock, June 15, 2017. (Photo by Davey Good Times.)

The Minneapolis skyline, with the art deco Foshay Tower from 1929 to the right, one of Robyn Hitchcock's favorite buildings.
On Thursday night I saw Robyn Hitchcock in concert again, this time at Saint Paul’s Turf Club. It was a typical Robyn Hitchcock show, with a set list that was mostly made up of songs that fans had requested through social media. There were fewer stream of consciousness monologues in between the songs than usual, and oddly enough, some of what Robyn said actually related to the song he was about to sing. Fancy that!

Robyn wore three different Robyn Hitchcock-style shirts-one during the show, one for the encore, and one after the show. What is a Robyn Hitchcock-style shirt, you might ask? Well, it’s a button down shirt with a vibrant paisley pattern or polka dots-I’ve long thought that Robyn should have his own clothing line. 

Some of the highlights of the show for me were “1974,” one of my favorite Hitchcock songs, which I wrote about a long time ago, “My Favorite Buildings,” “Raining Twilight Coast,” “Heaven,” and “Element of Light.” The set list skewed towards older songs, with just three tracks from Robyn’s latest release, titled Robyn Hitchcock. As always, Robyn’s guitar work was best showcased on “I’m Only You.” I wouldn’t mind it if he ventured off on similar flights of fancy on the fretboard on other songs as well, but for whatever reason that song really brings out his guitar playing. 

My favorite Robyn quote of the evening was, “I can count the number of times I’ve had sex in the Foshay building.” This was during the introduction to “My Favorite Buildings,” which Robyn, as usual, dedicated to the Foshay Tower. 

The encores featured a lovely version of Roxy Music’s “More than This,” which Robyn recorded as a B-side for a CD-single, back in the day when CD-singles existed. After the show Robyn graciously chatted with fans and signed autographs. He had a long conversation with the guy ahead of me about foreign pressings of LPs. Robyn told me that he liked my shirt-I was wearing a t-shirt with the cover of his new album. I told him that I was glad he played “1974,” and he asked if I was the person who had requested it. (I wasn’t.) All in all, it was another enjoyable evening with a uniquely talented individual.

Set list:
Old Pervert
I’m Pray when I’m Drunk
Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)
Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom
My Favorite Buildings
Glass (not Glass Hotel)
Beautiful Girl
Raining Twilight Coast
Madonna of the Wasps
Virginia Woolf
I’m Only You
Mad Shelley’s Letterbox
First encore:
Element of Light
Visions of Johanna
Queen of Eyes
Second encore:
She Belongs to Me
More than This