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. 

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