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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Scott Donaldson (1983)

Cover of the 2012 University of Minnesota Press reissue of Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Scott Donaldson, originally published in 1983. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Scott Donaldson, who has written biographies of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John Cheever,  and Archibald MacLeish, among others.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in his notebooks, “There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.” Fitzgerald was a very good novelist, and he presents a complex and contradictory figure for a biographer to take on.

Scott Donaldson’s 1983 biography Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a penetrating look at this brilliant writer. Donaldson did not seek to present the reader with an exhaustive, comprehensive approach like Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli, rather, Donaldson presents what he sees as the different keys to Fitzgerald’s psychology and personality.

Donaldson examines Fitzgerald’s adolescence in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Fitzgerald’s social rank within the upper classes of Saint Paul. (As a fellow Minnesotan, Donaldson is well-equipped for this task.) As I’ve written in my other pieces about Fitzgerald and Saint Paul, Fitzgerald’s social status allowed him access to the world of the wealthy, but he never felt like he truly belonged to that world.

One chapter of Fool for Love dissects Scott’s marriage to Zelda Sayre, which had become a truly toxic cocktail of hatred and jealousy by the time of Zelda’s mental breakdowns in the 1930’s. Scott and Zelda may have loved each other, but if they had continued to live together, they would have destroyed each other even more thoroughly than they already had.

Fitzgerald’s alcoholism is a focus throughout the book, and Donaldson uncovered excellent material relating to Fitzgerald’s “crack-up” period from 1934 to 1936. In the summer of 1935 Fitzgerald was living in Asheville, North Carolina, where he met a divorcee named Laura Guthrie, who was working in his hotel as a palm reader. They instantly had a deep connection, and although they never became lovers, Guthrie worked as Fitzgerald’s secretary for the summer. (Being Fitzgerald’s secretary involved many tasks, including accompanying him to the movies.) Guthrie later wrote down her recollections of Fitzgerald, and while they were never published as a book, the manuscript is in the collection of Fitzgerald’s papers at Princeton University. Donaldson makes excellent use of Guthrie’s writing to flesh out his portrait of the artist at his lowest ebb. During this time Fitzgerald was writing some of the stories, initially rejected by the magazines of the day, that were recently collected in 2017’s I’d Die for You. He was also writing trivial oddities like “Shaggy’s Morning,” a short story written from the point of view of a dogMatthew J. Bruccoli writes that the story “may or may not have been intended as a parody of Hemingway.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.397)

Even at this moment of extreme drinking and depression, Fitzgerald could still be a sharp analyst of his own work, telling Laura Guthrie, “My characters are all Scott Fitzgerald. Even the feminine characters are female Scott Fitzgeralds.” (p.209) He also told her, “Everything is either love or money. There is nothing else that counts.” (p.99)

Fitzgerald was aware enough to know how bad things were getting, if only in hindsight. He later wrote of this period in his notebooks: “My life looked like a hopeless mess there for a while, and the point was I didn’t want it to be better. I had completely ceased to give a good god-damn.” (p.156) As he prophetically wrote in a 1926 letter: “Wherever you go, you take yourselves and your faults with you. In the mountains or in the city, you make the same things happen.” (p.172)

It may sound like a stereotype, but reading Fool for Love led me to the conclusion that Fitzgerald really was an extremely sensitive artist. He was deeply in tune with so many nuances of meaning, and sharp delineations of class and status. I suspect he probably felt emotions more deeply than most peoplethis is part of the reason he was such a great writer, and also probably why he was hurt so easily by other people as well. As Donaldson wrote:

“In his papers at Princeton are at least three lists of snubs, with the longest of them naming a total of sixty-six people who had snubbed him during the 1925-29 period. To have been put down by so many in so short a time suggests (1) that some of the snubs were imaginary rather than real, though it was during these years that he and Zelda became personae non gratae because of their drinking and quarreling, and (2) that out of masochism or self-hatred he was actually courting the disapproval of others.” (p.181)

Fitzgerald was a charmer, but his shaky self-confidence meant that he constantly needed the approval of others. Donaldson wrote: “Almost everyone who knew him was struck by his obviouseven painfully obviousdesire to please.” (p.191) Margaret Egloff, who met Fitzgerald in Switzerland in 1931 said: “As far as I know, everyone who was really exposed to him loved him. He simply couldn’t bear it if they didn’t.” (p.191) Fitzgerald’s charm was considerable, as Margaret Turnbull said that he “had this extraordinary quality of giving you his undivided attention.” (p.191) Her son Andrew Turnbull wrote of him: “Fitzgerald focused on you-even riveted on you-and if there was one thing you were sure of, it was that whatever you happened to be talking about was the most important matter in the world.” (Scott Fitzgerald, by Andrew Turnbull, p.225) Donaldson quotes from a 1938 letter Fitzgerald wrote about Dick Diver, the protagonist of Tender is the Night: “Dick’s curiosity and interest in people was realhe didn’t stare at themhe glanced at them and felt them.” (p.196) I think this letter relates closely to how Fitzgerald saw himself, and fits in with his heightened sensitivity to people. As an adolescent, one of Fitzgerald’s favorite flirtatious gambits was to tell a girl he had just met, “I’ve got an adjective that describes just you.” While this was most likely just a line meant to pique a girl’s interest in him, it fits in with Fitzgerald’s writing about Dick Diver, “he glanced at them and felt them,” as though Fitzgerald had a sudden flash of insight into people’s character as soon as he met them.

Reading Fool for Love is a somewhat melancholy experience, as the reader sees what a mess the private life of this marvelously talented man was. I wish Fitzgerald’s life could have been as smooth and beautiful as one of his own sentences, but that was not to be.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by Anne Margaret Daniel (2017)

Scott looking handsome on the cover of I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, 2017. 
More than seventy-six years after his death in 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald continues to exert a fascination over readers and scholars. In April of 2017, I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories was published. The collection is made up of short stories that were unpublished during Fitzgerald’s lifetime. Edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, who also wrote the excellent explanatory notes, I’d Die for You adds some fine work to the official Fitzgerald canon.

Many of the stories in I’d Die for You date from Fitzgerald’s “crack-up” period of 1934-36, when he was at his lowest ebb personally and professionally. With his wife Zelda in a sanitarium due to her mental health issuesshe had breakdowns in 1930, 1932, and 1934Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, always problematic, now became debilitating. His 1934 novel Tender is the Night had gone through an extremely painful gestation. At a time when many novelists turned out a book a year, Fitzgerald had gone nine years between The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Sales of Tender is the Night were not fantastic, and Scott was heavily in debt. At a time when Fitzgerald desperately needed money, it must have been a severe annoyance to him that the stories in I’d Die for You were rejected by so many magazines.

I’d Die for You is inevitably something of a hodgepodge, and the stories range from strong“The I.O.U.,” “I’d Die for You,” and the very funny “The Women of the House,” to the weak“Gracie at Sea,” written as a screen treatment for George Burns and Gracie Allen, “Travel Together,” and “The Pearl and the Fur.” What comes across most strongly in I’d Die for You is Fitzgerald’s great talent. Even in stories with generic plots, there are always sentences of beauty that stop you in your tracks.

Sentences like these: “Non-fiction is a form of literature that lies half-way between fiction and fact.” (p.7)
“Her eyes were full of tears for the unpreventable sadness in the world.” (p.28)
“The girl hung around under the pink sky waiting for something to happen.” (p.41)
“She sat with Delannux on the side of a beached raft while the sunset broke into pink picture puzzle pieces that solved themselves in the dark west.” (p.93)
“Women don’t get bored the same way men do. They can sort of shut off their attention—but they always know when men are bored.” (p.115)
“He was one of those men who seem eternally stolid, even unobserving—and then announce the score added up to the last digit.” (p.115)
“It was a fine day with the buildings sparkling upward like pale dry ginger ale through the blue air.” (p.143)
“The sun shone bright on Kiki, a brisk November sun, blue in the drifting cigarettes of the crowd.” (p.209)
“…within a few hours he had become that strange dreamy figure of one whom we have been very close to and who is neither a stranger nor quite a friend.” (p.213)

Even the weaker stories are still interesting. “Travel Together,” from 1935-6, anticipates the plot of Preston Sturges’ classic 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels, as a screenwriter travels the country as a hobo in order to get material. For a moment as the story begins you wonder what’s happening—F. Scott Fitzgerald is writing about hobos riding the rails during the Depression? Has he been reading too much John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell? But then we learn that the main hobo is actually a Hollywood screenwriter, and we can breathe a sigh of relief knowing we’re back in Fitzgerald territory. And there’s a girl. In Fitzgerald’s stories there is always a girl, and she is always beautiful. Fitzgerald paid close attention to women, and his descriptions of women in these stories are wonderful to read.

There are always connections to be made between these stories and Fitzgerald’s own private life. One of the odder connections is in the short story “Cyclone in Silent Land,” which is set in a hospital and features a male patient who doesn’t want to take his socks off. It turns out that the man has an extra toe. Fitzgerald also hated to reveal his bare feet. He wrote in his ledger about a neighbor boy who “went barefoot in his yard and peeled plums. Scott’s Freudian shame about his feet kept him from joining in.” (Fool for Love, by Scott Donaldson, p.179) His last girlfriend Sheilah Graham wrote, “All the time I knew him he always refused to take off his shoes and socks on the beach.” (The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald Thirty-Five Years Later, p.33)

Through these stories the reader gets a sense of Fitzgerald’s diverse interests. “Offside Play” is about college football—one of the characters mentions that a star player should get paid, an issue still relevant in 2017, 80 years after the story was written. Fitzgerald was a lifelong football fan, and when his fatal heart attack struck he was making a list of football players in his copy of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. The last note he made was “good prose” on a story about Princeton’s football team. We learn from the explanatory notes to “The Women in the House” that Fitzgerald knew a lot about flowers and kept notes about them in his notebooks.

Another minor obsession of Fitzgerald’s was the Civil War. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, had deep roots in Maryland, a border state that allowed slavery but remained in the Union. However, Edward Fitzgerald had an affection for the Confederates, and passed this nostalgia for lost causes on to his son. (One could go deeper into the psychological consequences of Fitzgerald identifying more with failure than success, but I’ll stop here.) And of course, Scott went on to marry Zelda Sayre, a true Southern belle from Alabama. The Civil War is the setting for the stories “Thumbs Up” and “Dentist Appointment,” which start out in a similar manner, and then diverge into two different endings. The story was eventually published in 1940 in Collier’s in a very different format as “The End of Hate.” I actually think “The End of Hate” is the best of the three. “Thumbs Up” and “Dentist Appointment” come so close to working, but just don’t quite get there. Although “Dentist Appointment” does feature a wonderful sentence describing Fitzgerald’s hometown of Saint Paul, Minnesota, during the 1860’s: “The rude town was like a great fish just hauled out of the Mississippi and still leaping and squirming on the bank.” (p.196) “The End of Hate” was published in the 1979 collection The Price was High: The Last Uncollected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a title that is now out of date, thanks to I’d Die for You.

While it would seem to be a safe bet that I’d Die for You will be the very last collection of writing from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anne Margaret Daniel makes the tantalizing admission in her editorial note that “Many examples of what Fitzgerald called ‘false starts’ and what are obviously drafts of incomplete stories survive. Some run to twelve or fifteen pages before they fade out or stop abruptly. Others are as short as a paragraph or two.” (p.xxi) Why not publish those false starts? Of course, Fitzgerald wouldn’t have intended for those to be published, but his notebooks have been published, as well as several collections of his letters, so why not the false starts as well?

I’d Die for You is probably not the best place to start with Fitzgerald’s short stories but it is well worth reading and provides yet more insight into one of America’s greatest writers.

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.