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 The collection is made up of short stories that were unpublished during Fitzgerald’s lifetime.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. 

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.