Fitzgerald's French

Article excerpt

For John Callahan

Everyone knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald came from St. Paul, Minnesota, but fewer are aware that the city was originally French-Canadian. Before 1841 it was just a hamlet called L'Oeil du Cochon (Pig's Eye) after a tavern established by trapper Pierre Parrant. In 1841 the first Catholic missionary resident in Minnesota, Father Lucien Galtier from the Ardeche, raised the tone of the place by giving it a more respectable name. His colleague Joseph Cretin, the first bishop of St. Paul, went on to establish the city's cathedral and contribute toward making the town the "middle-class, dull, unpoetical and fettering" center of Midwestern Catholicism that Shane Leslie felt it had become by the early twentieth century (qtd. in Meyers 11). Many of its established inhabitants were thus of French origin, and they tended to look down on later settlers and coreligionists, in particular the Irish.

The fact that the St. Paul Fitzgeralds had their own patrician pretensions no doubt complicated their relation to these French top dogs. Scott's parents Edward and Mary had spent their honeymoon in 1890 on the French Riviera, of which, according to LeVot, "Mary retained an enchanted memory" (10). Judging by a letter of 1909, Edward seems to have spelled his daughter's name the French way ("Mother and Annabelle are very well and enjoying Duluth" (Bruccoli and Duggan 5), and perhaps the family may have meditated more generally on the name Fitzgerald in the Franco-Irish context of the city. Irish fitz is of course French fils, and some of these Midwestern "Sons of Gerald" may have felt that the name they bore had a sufficiently aristocratic ring to entitle them to look the city's French Catholic nabobs in the eye. At any rate, Fitzgerald would later satirically encode aristocratic pretension in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" by providing the founder of the Montana Washington dynasty with the sonorous Anglo-Franco-Irish Christian name Fitz-Norman Culpeper (Jazz Age 291).

In the St. Paul years of his childhood, Fitzgerald grew up surrounded by French names, with whose sounds, I shall suggest, he became fascinated, which had significant consequences for his writing. French, I want to show, became for him a language of dreams expressing fantasies of glamour, elegance, sexual conquest, and upward social mobility--even if all these were equally understood by his daytime consciousness as pretensions offering apt targets for social satire. I shall also examine how failing to speak French well becomes a symptom, in Tender Is the Night in particular, of a cardinal Fitzgerald preoccupation with failure tout court, and perhaps of a more general modernist preoccupation with decline and dissolution.

Minnesota is full of French names, and so is Fitzgerald's fiction. In This Side of Paradise, where Amory Blaine and Froggy Parker are given to strolling through Minneapolis "in the balmy air of August night, dreaming along Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues" (17), wandering down streets named after seventeenth-century French explorers. Fitzgerald himself spent his 1909 summer holiday at Frontenac, named after the governor general of New France, and commemorates this fact in the story "Three Hours between Planes," where Nancy Gifford attempts to recall "unspeakable" holiday sexual exploration there: "It was at Frontenac--the summer we--we used to go to the cave" (Collected Stories 577). Frontenac, Hennepin, Nicollet: the names clearly resonate, and later perhaps generate, inter alia, Nicole, the daughter of Devereux Warren.

On the basis of such evidence, it would be profitable to take a new look at Fitzgerald's French. His daughter Scottie certainly agreed with the judgment upon his "horrendous French" (qtd. in Meyers 110) and "atrocious accent" by all those who heard him speak the language. He was thoroughly aware of his drastic linguistic limitations, mocking his habit of Franglais on several occasions in his letters: "'Je suis a stranger here,' I said in flawless French. …