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
1974
Trilobite
Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)
Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom
My Favorite Buildings
Glass (not Glass Hotel)
Satellite
Beautiful Girl
Raining Twilight Coast
Madonna of the Wasps
Virginia Woolf
I’m Only You
Heaven
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.