Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit, by Dave Page and John J. Koblas (1996)

F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit, by Dave Page and John J. Koblas, 1996. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)
Dave Page and John J. Koblas’ 1996 book F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit, is a study of the author’s time spent in his home state. The book examines how Minnesota influenced Fitzgerald’s writings. Sometimes it might be a bit of a stretch-did a trip Fitzgerald took to the town of Frontenac in southern Minnesota in 1909 really serve as inspiration for the 1922 short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”? It’s certainly possible, but it might not be very likely.

Dave Page and John J. Koblas have both been involved in other projects related to Fitzgerald’s time in Minnesota. Koblas authored the excellent guidebook A Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul, which I reviewed here. Page co-edited the 2004 collection The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and also edited the 2013 publication of The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a teenage diary that Fitzgerald kept in 1910 and 1911, which I reviewed here.

Page and Koblas do an admirable job of tracking Fitzgerald’s many comings and goings from Minnesota, from his birth in Saint Paul in 1896 until he left his home state for good in 1922. Fitzgerald first dreamed of becoming an author in Saint Paul, and it was in the school magazine of Saint Paul Academy that he saw his first short story published, “The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage.” Fitzgerald’s position as an upper-middle-class boy mingling with the upper class made him finely attuned to issues of class, status, and money. These issues would be of supreme importance in his fiction. Fitzgerald’s social position made him the perfect observer of the wealthy. Fitzgerald had entry into the same social circle as the very rich, but he knew that he would have to make his own way in the world-he couldn’t just be idle and let the family fortune take care of him. Thus, he had a different sensibility from some of his peers, and he had a powerful drive to succeed. Fitzgerald had a lot of ambition as a writer, and he also had the talent to back it up.

If Fitzgerald had been either higher or lower in the social strata, he might not have developed into the brilliant critic 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 probably wouldn’t have had the 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.

One of the more interesting tidbits in F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota is that for a while in 1917 Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis were living just a block away from each other on Summit Avenue, Saint Paul’s showcase street. The two writers didn’t know each other at the time­­­—Fitzgerald was about to leave Princeton University and enter officer’s training school, and Lewis had published several books, but wasn’t well known yet. It’s pretty remarkable that two of the leading American authors of the 1920’s were living on the same street, albeit for just a brief time. Both Fitzgerald and Lewis burst onto the American literary scene in 1920, Fitzgerald with his first novel This Side of Paradise, which I reviewed here, and Lewis with Main Street, his scathing account of small town hypocrisy. There are some similarities between the two writers: both men lived peripatetic lives, and both were alcoholics. Fitzgerald and Lewis did meet in 1921 at the White Bear Yacht Club. According to Page and Koblas’ sources, Lewis never cared for Fitzgerald’s writing. That surprises me, but literary rivalries are often hard to understand.

Page and Koblas have excellent material about Fitzgerald’s last year in Saint Paul, from 1921 to 1922. Scott and his wife Zelda were tired of New York City, and the stifling heat of Alabama had been too much for the pregnant Zelda, so they came back to Scott’s hometown. They finally settled at a beautiful house at 626 Goodrich Avenue, rented through their friends Oscar and Xandra Kalman. (It was Xandra who had the good sense to buy diapers and other baby supplies for baby girl Scottie, as it had slipped the minds of both Scott and Zelda.) Scott was happy working at the house on Goodrich, and he also rented a small office in downtown Saint Paul where he wrote. Scott wisely kept the location of his downtown office a secret to all but a few close friends, and the exact location of it still remains a mystery. Scott was working on finishing The Beautiful and Damned, his second novel, published in March of 1922. If Fitzgerald had been married to a different woman, maybe he would have stayed in Saint Paul, moving from house to house in the Summit Avenue neighborhood, still keeping his secret writing office downtown. But Zelda hated Saint Paul, and in September, 1922, Fitzgerald left his home town for the last time, never to return. In an odd biographical twist of fate, Fitzgerald was born on Laurel Avenue in Saint Paul, and his last address was Laurel Avenue in Los Angeles. (He died at the apartment of his girlfriend Sheilah Graham on Hayworth Avenue, one block off of Laurel.)

Fitzgerald displayed mixed feelings towards Saint Paul, writing 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)

These two letters could simply have been written in two different moods, but perhaps after the difficulties of Fitzgerald’s “crack up” period in 1935 and 1936 he felt a tug of nostalgia for the city of his birth.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota is essential for anyone who wants to understand the important role that Minnesota played in the life and fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Book Review: A Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald's St. Paul, by John J. Koblas (1978, revised edition 2004)

Cover of the revised 2004 edition of A Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald's St. Paul, by John J. Koblas. Note other Fitzgerald titles in background. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott Fitzgerald during his teenage years.

599 Summit Avenue, where F. Scott Fitzgerald finished his first novel, This Side of Paradise, in 1919. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. The Fitzgeralds moved to upstate New York in 1898, but they returned to Saint Paul in 1908. Saint Paul would remain Fitzgerald’s home, off and on, until 1922, when he left for good. The neighborhood where the Fitzgeralds lived was quite fashionable, and fortunately only one of the houses Scott lived in has been torn down. If F. Scott Fitzgerald could come back and wander around his old neighborhood in 2017, 95 years after he left it, he would find it much the same.

John J. Koblas’ book A Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul: A Traveler’s Companion to His Homes and Haunts, is an excellent reference for those seeking to learn more about the places associated with Fitzgerald. First published in 1978 and updated in 2004, the book combines text and photos of many of the sites, along with helpful maps.

A Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul fills a gap in the literature about Fitzgerald by emphasizing his Minnesota connections. Fitzgerald lived an upper-middle-class life in Saint Paul, and it was here that much of his awareness of class and status was formed. His maternal grandfather had made a fortune in the wholesale grocery business and then died young. Fitzgerald went to all the right schools, and rubbed shoulders with the very rich. The image of him as a poor boy obsessed with the rich is wrong, but because his social and financial positions were slightly more precarious than that of his wealthier friends, he was finely attuned to differences in class and status. Fitzgerald knew that he was not going to be able to just drift aimlessly through life with the family fortune supporting him.

It was in Saint Paul that a young Fitzgerald first dreamed of becoming a writer, and he was first published in the pages of the Saint Paul Academy’s school newspaper. Fitzgerald finished his first novel, This Side of Paradise, while living in his parents’ row house at 599 Summit Avenue, and he also put the finishing touches on his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, in a house at 626 Goodrich Avenue, just a few blocks away. Saint Paul was an important place in the life of this talented author, and you can still get a good idea of what Fitzgerald’s Saint Paul was like by walking along Summit Avenue and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Book Review: An F. Scott Fitzgerald Companion, published by Book-of-the-Month Club (2000)

Cover of An F. Scott Fitzgerald Companion, 2000, with some other Fitzgerald titles in the back. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896-1940.
An F. Scott Fitzgerald Companion, published by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 2000, is a slim little volume. Just 90 pages long, it includes some of the key writings about Fitzgerald. Excerpts are included from A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir about his life in Paris in the 1920’s, The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg’s 1950 novel featuring a character based on Fitzgerald, and Beloved Infidel, Sheliah Graham’s 1958 memoir about her romance with Fitzgerald in the last years of his life.

There are also two short pieces written by Frances Kroll Ring, who was Fitzgerald’s secretary in Hollywood for the last eighteen months of his life. Ring presents a sympathetic portrait of the great writer as he toiled on screenplays while trying to finish his novel The Last Tycoon, which he was hoping would return him to literary prominence. Ring sheds some light on Fitzgerald as a writer:

“He set very high standards for himself and fortunately he had the originality and creativity to achieve them. But his concern with minor corrections, once a story had gone out to a publication, indicates a certain unsureness of acceptance. Sometimes, the revisions were hardly more than a word or two on a given page which in no way affected the story, but seemed to relieve some desperate, perfectionist standard of his own.” (p.54)

I would perhaps quibble with Ring’s phrase “a certain unsureness of acceptance,” as I interpret Fitzgerald’s constant editing of his work as an effort to make his work as good as it could possibly be. At the very end of Arthur Mizener’s biography of Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise, Mizener presents the reader with three different versions of the same scene from The Last Tycoon, and we are able to read it the way Fitzgerald wrote it initially, and then two revisions of it. Each time, small details are changed that strengthen the mood of the short scene. As Ring wrote, sometimes it’s only a word or two that has been changed, but that can make all the difference.

I think it’s important to appreciate the work that went into Fitzgerald’s writing. As I mentioned in my review of his novel This Side of Paradise, there are some literary critics who assumed that Fitzgerald was a sort of stupid genius, someone who just happened to write brilliant sentences in the first draft, and then went off to an elegant cocktail party. If you take the time to read anything about Fitzgerald’s work, you will find out that simply wasn’t the case. He worked extremely hard at editing his writing, from the flimsiest short stories to the complicated structure of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night.

I would argue that part of the implication behind the idea that Fitzgerald was this freakish natural talent is the assumption that he wasted his talent, focusing too much on parties and the good life during the 1920’s, and then toiling on screenplays in Hollywood during the 1930’s. I’m not going to say that Fitzgerald made the best use out of every single hour of every single day of his all too short forty-four years on this planet, but if he had truly wasted his talent, he wouldn’t have been able to produce four novels, (with a fifth unfinished at his death) and more than 180 short stories, plus other assorted works like the “Crack-Up” essays.

An F. Scott Fitzgerald Companion also reprints some fascinating tidbits, like Fitzgerald’s 1940 obituary from The New York Times. The Times obituary makes for interesting reading, and it is very hard on Fitzgerald: “Roughly, his own career began and ended with the Nineteen Twenties.” (p.79) It goes on to say “The promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled.” (p.80) Ouch. But that was certainly how some people felt in 1940, before the Fitzgerald revival began in the second half of that decade, and he rightly took his place as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Review: This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

The original dust jacket of This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920.

F. Scott Fitzgerald during his Princeton years.
F. Scott Fitzgerald burst onto the literary scene in 1920 with the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. The book immediately attracted the attention of critics and readers across the country, and the twenty-three-year-old from Saint Paul was hailed as a bright new talent in American literature.

This Side of Paradise is a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, as it follows Amory Blaine from birth through college and a little beyond. The focus is on Amory’s education and his romantic attachments to various young women.

There are numerous parallels between Fitzgerald and Amory Blaine. Fitzgerald was not as wealthy as he makes Blaine, but he grew up in an upper-middle-class household. His maternal grandfather had made a fortune in the wholesale grocery business and then died young. Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1896. (Yes, he was distantly related to the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”) In 1898 the family moved to Buffalo, New York for ten years, before returning to Saint Paul in 1908. Fitzgerald went to all the right schools, and rubbed shoulders with the very rich. The image of him as a poor boy obsessed with the rich is wrong, but because his social and financial positions were slightly more precarious than that of his wealthier friends, he was finely attuned to differences in class and status. Fitzgerald knew that he was not going to be able to just drift aimlessly through life with the family fortune supporting him.

One minor difference between Fitzgerald and Blaine is that Blaine spends several years as a teenager in Minneapolis, living with relatives. For his junior and senior years of high school, Fitzgerald attended the Newman School, a Catholic prep school in New Jersey, called St. Regis in This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald then attended Princeton University, as Amory Blaine does. While Blaine completed his college studies, Fitzgerald did not graduate from Princeton, as a case of tuberculosis kept him back in Saint Paul for most of his junior year of 1915-16. Fitzgerald was also in danger of flunking out of Princeton, and his poor grades meant that he could not participate in extracurricular activities. In the fall of 1917 he left Princeton for officers’ training school.

In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald is brutally honest about the academic reputation of Princeton at the time, writing of Amory Blaine, “Princeton drew him most, with its atmosphere of bright colors and its alluring reputation as the pleasantest country club in America.” (p.41) This, coupled with the fact that Blaine seemingly never attends class or does any work at Princeton, greatly annoyed the President of Princeton, John Grier Hibben, who wrote a letter to Fitzgerald admonishing him for how the university was portrayed in the novel. It was this reputation of Princeton as a cushy country club that Woodrow Wilson was trying to change when he was President of Princeton from 1902-1910. Wilson also wanted to do away with the social clubs that were a fixture of Princeton life. Election to these clubs, at the end of an undergraduate’s sophomore year, determined a student’s social future for their next two years at the school. Just like Blaine, Fitzgerald made the prestigious Cottage Club, but both Blaine and Fitzgerald ultimately lost those positions due to poor academic standing.

Fitzgerald’s writing on college life is sharp. His description of the poses that Blaine goes through in the novel are incisive, beginning with his first day at Princeton: “By afternoon Amory realized that now the newest arrivals were taking him for an upper classman, and he tried conscientiously to look both pleasantly blasé and casually critical, which was as near as he could analyze the prevalent facial expression.” (p.44)  

Blaine later says, “’I’m a cynical idealist.’ He paused and wondered if that meant anything.” (p.94) That seems like a good way of summing up Fitzgerald as well.

Fitzgerald’s youthful romances and infatuations inspired Blaine’s relationships with women in the novel. Blaine’s relationship with Isabelle at the beginning of the novel was modeled after Fitzgerald’s infatuation with Ginevra King, a beautiful and wealthy Chicago socialite. Fitzgerald’s sense of humor is on display with this line: “They lunched in a gay party of six in a private dining-room at the club, while Isabelle and Amory looked at each other tenderly over the fried chicken and knew that their love was to be eternal.” (p.98) The failure of his relationship with Ginevra King was a severe disappointment to the young Fitzgerald, and she was the model for other characters in his fiction as well.

Blaine’s relationship with Rosalind Connage, the sister of one of his best friends, is drawn somewhat from Fitzgerald’s courtship of Zelda Sayre. Fitzgerald had met Zelda while he was stationed in Alabama during his Army service. Zelda broke off their engagement in June of 1919, when Fitzgerald was living in New York City after his discharge and trying to make a living working for an advertising agency. Depressed after Zelda’s rejection of him, and accumulating nothing but rejection slips for his short stories, Fitzgerald quit his job and headed back to Saint Paul to attempt to finish his novel.

Another brilliant line in This Side of Paradise is when Rosalind says to Amory, “You’re not sentimental?” He replies, “No, I’m romantic-a sentimental person thinks things will last-a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t.” (p.193) Again, this seems like an apt description of Fitzgerald himself.

One of the female characters in This Side of Paradise who did not have a real life counterpart is Eleanor Savage, who Blaine meets in Maryland during a torrential rainstorm. As her last name implies, Eleanor is a wild country girl, although she still comes from a wealthy family. Although Blaine’s romance with Eleanor feels rather improbable in the context of the rest of the novel, Fitzgerald gives her one of the best speeches in the book:

“…here am I with the brains to do everything, yet tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony. If I were born a hundred years from now, well and good, but now what’s in store for me-I have to marry, that goes without saying. Who? I’m too bright for most men, and yet I have to descend to their level and let them patronize my intellect in order to get their attention. Every year that I don’t marry I’ve got less chance for a first-class man.” (p.258)

Fitzgerald has eloquently summed up the dilemma of well-born women of his generation.

This Side of Paradise originally came to life as The Romantic Egotist, written while Fitzgerald was in the Army in 1918. The book was rejected by Scribner’s, but an editor working there, Maxwell Perkins, encouraged Fitzgerald to revise the novel and re-submit it.

In June of 1919, Fitzgerald returned to Saint Paul and moved back in with his parents, who were living in a Victorian brownstone at 599 Summit Avenue. They were less than thrilled that Scott had quit his job, but they gave him time and space to work on his novel. Working furiously over the summer, Fitzgerald rearranged the structure and added new scenes to the novel. In early September 1919, he sent the manuscript to Scribner’s again. Maxwell Perkins was the only editor who wanted to publish the novel. Perkins said, “My feeling is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish a talent like this, it is a very serious thing.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Matthew J. Bruccoli, p.99) Of course, Perkins was right. Scribner’s accepted This Side of Paradise just before Fitzgerald’s twenty-third birthday, and soon his short stories began selling to magazines. With his new success, he was able to win Zelda back, and they were married on April 3, 1920, just a week after This Side of Paradise was published on March 26th.

The first printing of This Side of Paradise was 3,000 copies. While Fitzgerald hoped for sales of 20,000 copies, Scribner’s informed him that a good total for a first novel would be 5,000 copies. The first printing sold out in just three days. F. Scott Fitzgerald was on his way. By the end of 1921 This Side of Paradise had sold 49,000 copies. It would be Fitzgerald’s best-selling book during his lifetime.

How does This Side of Paradise hold up now, almost 100 years later? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. This Side of Paradise clearly has its failings. It’s overstuffed, as Fitzgerald includes everything he can think of in the novel, including letters, poems written by the characters, and he even presents the first meeting of Amory and Rosalind as a play, complete with stage directions. It’s clear that Fitzgerald is throwing everything he can at the reader and seeing what sticks. It’s remarkable that Fitzgerald was able to move from the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style of This Side of Paradise to the crisp, clear economy of The Great Gatsby in just five years. But for all of the faults of This Side of Paradise, it’s also clear that Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer, with keen insight into the human condition. In the hands of a lesser talent, the book would probably be insufferable.

This Side of Paradise throbs with passion, emotion and feeling, and I think this is probably what spoke to young people in 1920. Fitzgerald wrote of the book in 1937, “A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.” (From the essay “Early Success,” published in The Crack-Up, p.88) What I think he meant is that there’s a lot of intellectual posing going on, but all of the emotion in the book was real.

I’m reasonably certain that had I written a novel at the age of 23, it would probably have been very similar to This Side of Paradise. As an adolescent and young man, like Fitzgerald and Amory Blaine, I was always seeking the attentions of attractive females, usually unsuccessfully. Also like Amory Blaine, my own self-image at that age was constructed in large part from books I had read, or authors I was seeking to emulate. This may account for the reason that I am rather forgiving of the youthful faults of This Side of Paradise.

When This Side of Paradise was first published, the text was riddled with spelling errors. Some of this was the fault of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as he was a terrible speller, but Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli also assigns blame to editor Maxwell Perkins for proofreading the book himself, rather than handing it off to a professional. (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.127) Unfortunately, these textual errors gave rise to the idea that Fitzgerald simply wasn’t very smart. It’s a criticism that was fairly common in highbrow literary circles during Fitzgerald’s life. His Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson, who I think was probably jealous of Fitzgerald’s talent, published a harsh critique of Fitzgerald in 1922, writing, “...he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.161) That’s almost exactly what my American literature professor said of Fitzgerald eighty years later. I remember him saying in class, “Fitzgerald writes like an angel, but he doesn’t write about anything.” I disagreed, saying that I thought he understood class and status better than any other American writer, and I considered that a real achievement. Bruccoli writes that Wilson’s view of Fitzgerald became a part of the standard treatment of the writer, “that he was a natural, but not an artist.” (SSOEG, p.161) This idea might have gained traction among the highbrow literary set because of Fitzgerald’s sudden early success and rise to fame. There’s nearly always a critical backlash against authors who become too well-known. And of course, Fitzgerald was turning out stories for popular magazines left and right, so how serious a writer could he really be?

Of course, Fitzgerald was a serious writer, and in a self-interview from 1920 he wrote: “The wise writer, I think, writes for the youth of his own generation, the critic of the next and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” How prophetic that statement proved to be.