The University of Minnesota Press has published a charming little diary that F. Scott Fitzgerald kept at age 14 in St. Paul. He called it his “Thoughtbook.” The dominant subject is his crushes on girls and the extent to which they liked him.
Some girls liked him a lot. Granted, their romantic allegiance shifted around, but so did his, and so does the romantic allegiance of 14-year-olds in general.
The text provides not only a view of his adolescent mind but also of Summit Avenue teenage society in 1910-11, thus offering useful background for the Basil Duke Lee stories Fitzgerald wrote as an adult.
The publication is welcome because the document has been difficult to access. Princeton University Library issued a hard-to-read facsimile in 1965 and printed only 300 copies. Few libraries have it.
Only 14 leaves — that is, 14 two-sided pages — of the original manuscript survive. As many as seven leaves have been lost. To flesh out this material, editor Dave Page adds photos, an introduction and a scholarly afterword. These essays discuss the provenance of the manuscript and offer insights to the diary’s significance.
Page observes that the author is cheerful and socially successful. This point is valuable because scholars sometimes think of Fitzgerald as an unhappy boy struggling for acceptance among wealthier children. The diary shows otherwise. Its narrator is a leader who organizes secret clubs for boys, competes for the affections of the most popular girls and often gets the alpha girl to say she likes him best. Page commendably finds exterior evidence that Fitzgerald was fully accepted among Summit Avenue community teenagers.
Several flaws mar the book. The afterword has a focus problem at the beginning. A digression about Fitzgerald’s double vision as an adult blurs the good point about his cheerful tone as a teenager. This digression includes a quote from John Keats, taken not directly from Keats, but from an article about somebody else, and Page misquotes both the secondhand source and Keats.
A university press should catch such problems. It should also ensure a higher level of documentary editing. The book breaks its laudable promise of preserving Fitzgerald’s misspellings, keeping some and silently correcting others. The text contains some errors Fitzgerald did not make.
A page layout with lined, gray background, like a facsimile, suggests each transcript page represents an original page, but this suggestion is deceptive because page breaks are different. A good edition would have discussed every textual issue, including reasons for this layout.
Still, the book has a beautiful cover with a haunting photo of the teenage Fitzgerald, and the text is substantively accurate. Despite flaws, “The Thoughtbook” is worth having because of what it shows about Minnesota’s extraordinary native writer.
George Killough is the editor of Sinclair Lewis’ “Minnesota Diary, 1942-46,” published by the University of Idaho Press.