Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald!

114 years ago today, F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald!

Fitzgerald has been my favorite writer since I was fifteen, but I've always had a complicated relationship with him and his work. He led an extremely imperfect life and had some real weaknesses as a writer. But when he was at his best, he was better than anyone else. His best novels and short stories remain classics of American literature simply because he wrote about Americans so deftly.

Recently, I read Patricia Hampl's great introduction to The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it really hits the nail on the head when it comes to Fitzgerald's complex view towards his roots. He claimed to hate St. Paul, and yet that particular Midwestern, American viewpoint holds in nearly all his work. I've always thought that the line separating great writers from merely good writers lies somewhere in the place of formative experience. Most of my favorite writers are people who write from a particular viewpoint informed by the homes and towns and places from which they came. Fitzgerald is one of these writers. And so, I leave you with another one of my favorite passages from The Great Gatsby that plays into this idea. Here, the narrator Nick Carraway talks about his youth in Minnesota and his the disillusionment he found in the East.

That's my middle-west - not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am a part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all - Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old - even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg especially figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house - the wrong house. But no one knows the woman's name, and no one cares.

After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction. So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.

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