Fitzgerald at 100: Great Fiction, Great History

By McCarthy, Abigail | Commonweal, October 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

Fitzgerald at 100: Great Fiction, Great History


McCarthy, Abigail, Commonweal


F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) one of the most influential and famous of American writers, left behind a body of work that defined an age - "the jazz age" - and a generation, and did much to illuminate the American character and probe the American soul. Because this September 24 was his hundredth birthday, there have been widespread celebrations of the Fitzgerald centennial throughout the year, including the reissuing of Fitzgerald's The Jazz Age (New Directions).

Rockville, Maryland, where Fitzgerald is buried in the family plot in Saint Mary's Cemetery, has held a year-long observance culminating on September 28 in a literary conference at Montgomery College, at which author William Styron was awarded the first F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award and read from Fitzgerald's works. The observance will end with a memorial service at Saint Mary's Church in December.

Fitzgerald may lie among his father's ancestors in Maryland but he himself was formed and his view of life determined by his upbringing in Saint Paul, Minnesota, his birthplace. His mother's mercantile family was on the edge of the Saint Paul ascendancy, the scions of the traders, and the lumber and railroad barons who developed the city. He attended private schools with their young - Saint Paul Academy, Newman, Princeton - and his time at these schools served to intensify his feeling that he was always near, but never really of, great wealth. But he was of Saint Paul.

In The Great Gatsby, the novel most evocative of Fitzgerald's genius, the character who is his alter ego, Nick Carraway, writes that he comes from "a country of wide lawns and friendly trees." And in the end, Carraway concludes that he, and the other characters - Gatsby, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, and Jordan Baker - were "Westerners ... subtly, unadaptable to Eastern life."

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gaieties to bid them a hasty goodbye....

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted distinguishably into it again.

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 part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacement from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name.

Fitzgerald's feeling about the very rich, epitomized in the famous quotation "The very rich are different from you and me," began in his Saint Paul experience. Thus he wrote of Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Westerners by his definition),

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made....

Appropriately enough, the biggest celebration of the Fitzgerald centennial was organized in Saint Paul by radio personality Garrison Keillor of "A Prairie Home Companion. …

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