Saturday, July 8, 2017

Reflections on the 14th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference

Poster for the 14th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference in Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2017. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Me with Sam Lanahan, the grandson of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, June 26, 2017.

Author Scott Donaldson speaking at the Conference, June 26, 2017. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)
Last week I attended the 14th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference in Saint Paul. It was an excellent opportunity to meet some of the leading Fitzgerald experts from around the world, and to indulge my own burgeoning fascination with Fitzgerald. 

I read Fitzgerald in high school, back in the late 1990’s, The Great Gatsby in 10th grade, and some of his short stories after that. But for some reason, even though I loved Fitzgerald’s writing and bought several of his books, I didn’t go on a Fitzgerald binge the way I did with Hemingway at around the same age. So now I’m finally really digging into Fitzgerald’s life and work, and it’s been richly rewarding. He’s a great author who is still having a significant impact on popular culture, and he led a richly fascinating life. His writing obviously still speaks to people in a meaningful way in 2017, 121 years after his birth. 

I was excited to meet several of the scholars attending the conference, but Scott Donaldson was the one I was most excited about. I’ve been aware of Scott Donaldson’s work for about twenty years. At some point in 1995 or 1996, during my freshman year of high school, I picked up The Stories of John Cheever. The compact little paperback, with its distinctive bright red cover with the large, swooping C on it, quickly transported me to a post-war suburbia full of drinking, adultery, and page after page of gorgeous prose. At some point over the next year or two, I found Donaldson’s 1988 biography of Cheever at a bargain bookstore in an outlet mall. I read bits and pieces of it, but didn’t read it cover to cover, and I added it to my growing Cheever collection. A couple of years later, I learned that Donaldson and I were both alums of The Blake School. My awareness of Donaldson’s work has increased in the last couple of years, with the reissue of his biography of Fitzgerald, Fool for Love, by the University of Minnesota Press in 2012, and his 2015 book The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography. I recently reviewed Fool for Love and his 1999 book Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald. 

Scott Donaldson was very nice, and he was actually the first person I talked to at the conference, he was walking out of Hotel 340 as I was walking in, so I said hi to him, told him I’d enjoyed his books, and mentioned that we had Blake in common. He said he’s always looked back fondly on his time at Blake. His talk Monday afternoon was about Tender is the Night, and he said his next book will be about Tender. Later in the week I was able to ask Donaldson if he had known William F. Buckley when he was at Yale. Donaldson laughed and said, “I used to beat him at bridge all the time!” It turns out that Donaldson and his roommate regularly played Buckley and his roommate. He told me that it was obvious then that Buckley was brilliant. I knew that Donaldson had written a biography of Charlie Fenton, a professor at Yale who taught a class called “Daily Themes.” I told Donaldson that Buckley also had great things to say about the “Daily Themes” class. 

I also met Sam Lanahan, grandson of Scott and Zelda and son of Scottie Fitzgerald. He gave a talk about some of Zelda’s relatives, which was fascinating and informative. Lanahan has some resemblance to his grandfatherthe eyes and nose especially. Lanahan was also an excellent speaker, with a quiet charisma that drew the audience in. As I was listening to him, I thought, “This is probably similar to what Scott Fitzgerald was like.” I chatted with Lanahan briefly after his talk, and he was a delight. 

One of the highlights of the conference was an early morning session with A. Scott Berg, who has written acclaimed biographies of Fitzgerald’s editor Maxwell Perkins, Charles Lindbergh, and Woodrow Wilson. (I reviewed Berg’s biography of Wilson here.) Berg was a fascinating speaker; I could have listened to him all day. He’s actually named after F. Scott Fitzgerald, as his mother was reading Fitzgerald’s novels when she was pregnant with him. Berg and Chris Keyser discussed the upcoming Amazon TV series The Last Tycoon, based on Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel. It sounds pretty interesting, and the clips they showed made it look good. I hope it’s better than the 1976 movie that Elia Kazan directed, which I reviewed here.

I also heard James L.W. West III speak, he’s the editor of the Cambridge edition of Fitzgerald’s collected works; the 16th volume in the series is due to be released later this summer. Anne Margaret Daniel spoke at the same sessionshe’s the editor of I’d Die for You, the volume of uncollected Fitzgerald stories that just came out in April, which I reviewed here. I asked Daniel after her talk about the uncollected pages still in the Fitzgerald collection at Princetonwhat Fitzgerald called false startsand if she thought those would ever be published. She said they wouldn’t, since they were so clearly unfinished and never meant for publication. But they’re still available for scholars to see at Princeton. In that same session Don Skemer spoke. Skemer is the Curator of Manuscripts at Princeton and handles the Fitzgerald papers there. He spoke about how Fitzgerald’s papers came to Princeton, and he dispelled the notion that the University didn’t want Fitzgerald’s papers. That was what I had read, so I was glad to know that Princeton understood the value of Fitzgerald’s papers, even though he was out of fashion as a writer at the time they accepted the papers. There was initially some reluctance on the part of John Biggs, the executor of Fitzgerald’s will, and Scottie Fitzgerald to allow access to letters that described Zelda’s mental illnesses, but with her death in 1948 the decision was made not to restrict access to Fitzgerald’s papers. I think this was a very smart move, as the open availability of Fitzgerald’s papers has aided so much of the research that has produced biographies that continue to kindle interest in Fitzgerald’s life and work. 

There was also a superb bus tour of Saint Paul’s Cathedral Hill/Summit Avenue/Crocus Hill/Summit Hill neighborhood, where Fitzgerald grew up. I was fortunate enough to be on the same bus as Dave Page, the leading expert on Fitzgerald’s time in Saint Paul. Page was the co-author of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Towards the Summit, which I reviewed here, and the sole author of the recently published F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer and His Friends at Home. Page knows just about all there is to know about Fitzgerald’s time in Saint Paul, and I learned a lot of new information on his tour. 

The Fitzgerald Conference was a lot of fun, and thanks should go to Fitzgerald in Saint Paul for helping organize it.

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