Saturday, March 5, 2016

Book Review: The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Dave Page (2013)

Cover of The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary, 2013. The cover photo shows Fitzgerald at the age of 15, shortly after he wrote the Thoughtbook.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896-1940.
The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2013, gives Fitzgerald fans a portrait of the artist as a very young man. The Thoughtbook was written by Fitzgerald when he was 14 years old, and it covers the months August 1910 to February 1911. It’s a short book, as the original thoughtbook is just 14 hand-written pages, but it gives the reader an interesting glimpse of the young writer. The 2013 edition is the first mass-market re-printing of this diary, making it widely available to the public for the first time. (A limited edition of 300 copies was printed by the Princeton University Library in 1965.)

The Thoughtbook also features an Introduction and Afterword by Dave Page, one of the most well-known experts on Fitzgerald’s life in Saint Paul. Page was also the co-editor of the 2004 collection The Saint Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the co-author of the 1996 book F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit. Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. When Scott was two years old, the family moved to Buffalo, New York, but they returned to Saint Paul in 1908, and Scott lived in Saint Paul off and on until 1922. Although the Fitzgeralds moved nearly every year to a different address in Saint Paul, they didn’t move far, and all but one of the Saint Paul houses that Fitzgerald lived in are still standing. 

At the time Fitzgerald started the Thoughtbook in August of 1910, he had already published three short stories in his school’s arts magazine. The Thoughtbook begins with the sentence, “My recollections of Nancy are rather dim, but one day stands out above the rest.” Already Fitzgerald has grabbed the reader’s attention. You naturally want to know what happened on that one day that stands out above the rest. You can’t tell from the Thoughtbook that Fitzgerald will become a great writer who turns out beautiful sentences with ease, but there are some themes in it that will inform his later writing. Fitzgerald is already highly attuned to gossip, people’s social lives, and how fickle girls' affections can be. Fitzgerald makes lists of the prettiest girls, and he also makes note of who he thinks is the prettiest, and who he thinks is the best talker. 

In the Afterword, Page makes the excellent point that Fitzgerald was part of the social elite during his time in Saint Paul. His maternal grandfather, Philip McQuillan, owned a very successful wholesale grocery business, and built an impressive house in Saint Paul’s fashionable Lowertown neighborhood. Fitzgerald went to Saint Paul Academy, one of the most prestigious private schools. His social circle included the sons and daughters of Saint Paul’s wealthiest families. Fitzgerald was finely attuned to issues of status and class, and those subjects appear again and again in his writing. Malcolm Cowley famously wrote of Fitzgerald’s “double vision” in a 1953 essay, “It was as if all his fiction described a big dance to which he had taken, as he once wrote, the prettiest girl…and as if he stood at the same time 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.” (Quoted on p.38, The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald) This duality is one of the reasons why Fitzgerald is such an interesting writer. Like any great writer, he was extremely observant and he was able to see things from other points of view. 

Of course, The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a piece of juvenilia, but it’s still a unique look at one of the most important American authors of the 20th century.

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