When Sandra Thompson’s book club read “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of Jazz Age decadence and idealism, it was her introduction to St. Paul’s most venerated author.
The experience was like striking a match, igniting a summer-long reading binge: “The Beautiful and Damned.” “Tender Is the Night.” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”
“For me, I can read Fitzgerald just for the beauty of the language,” said Thompson, who lives in Inver Grove Heights. “That’s why it’s so cool to be here, where people know so much more than I know about him.”
“Here” is a monthly gathering at Common Good Books called FitzFirst@Four because it meets at 4 p.m. on the first Sunday of the month.
It’s a fledgling effort, and in turn part of a relatively new group called Fitzgerald in St. Paul. Its common goal is to illuminate an author who left St. Paul, never to return, yet who continued to draw upon the city as a geographic muse. St. Paul, in turn, had to finally forgive Fitzgerald for ditching it with such finality.
“There’s been a certain ambivalence about him until a couple of decades ago,” said Stu Wilson, who heads up Fitzgerald in St. Paul. “He left when he was 25 or 26, and literally never came back. Some saw him as the hometown boy who made the big time, then abandoned his city.”
Fitzgerald didn’t help matters by aiming a skewering pen at some of St. Paul’s upper crust. “Some of that played well,” Wilson said. “And some of that didn’t.”
Still, he’s a famous guy, so there are walking tours of Fitzgerald’s haunts, and plaques on several of the places he lived, including his birthplace at 481 Laurel Av.
Richard McDermott lived there for more than 35 years, after he and others rallied to save the decaying building. When McDermott died in 2012, he left a bequest toward a project that had been batted about for some time: establishing an F. Scott Fitzgerald interpretive center.
As with how most novels begin, it’s an idea in someone’s head waiting for the telling details to emerge.
Fitzgerald never lived in St. Paul after young adulthood, but neither did he reside elsewhere for any lengthy period.
“This is where it’s actually a blessing for us,” Wilson said. “Fitzgerald never lived anywhere for longer than four years, so unlike a Twain or a Faulkner, there’s no one site associated with him.” Even in St. Paul, he lived in almost a dozen places, and in each hardly for longer than a couple of years.
Thus, Wilson said, they don’t have to create and maintain a historic site that can become a sentimental money pit. “We can create a site that’s fresh and new.”
That Fitzgerald deserves such a center may have as much to do with his own life as with his work, given how his persona of playboy and partier from Paris to Hollywood captured the no-holds-barred nature of the Jazz Age, until he died of his third heart attack at age 44.
He’d gained almost overnight success 20 years earlier with “This Side of Paradise,” which he finished in St. Paul, then married Zelda Sayre, a “golden girl” who matched his taste for luxury, magnum for magnum. Yet throughout his writing life, he never achieved the level of fame of those first years. Respect came decades later, when perspective revealed him as one of America’s finest writers.
Many now consider “The Great Gatsby” a classic of world literature. Upon his death, the New York Times wrote that he “was better than he knew, for in fact and in the literary sense, he invented a generation.”
Stories within stories
“I’m not a scholar, but. … ”
That qualifier prefaced a few comments at this month’s FitzFirst@4, but that also revealed the mix of folks. Some could quote certain Fitzgerald passages from memory, while others left the bookstore having bought their first of his works.
Chummily squeezed into a wide spot amid the shelves at Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., about 30 people braved subzero weather to discuss the short story “The Ice Palace.”
It’s the story of Sally Carrol Happer, a young woman from Tarleton, Ga., who visits her fiancé’s family in his “Northern city,” where its winter carnival touts the first ice palace built in years. It could be several northern cities, until mention of the state having “four Swedish governors” places the action squarely in St. Paul.
Her fiancé trumpets his love of the city: “Can you feel the pep in the air?”
Sally Carrol, however, sees a world where men, not women, hold court at gatherings, where her future sister-in-law is “the essence of spiritless conventionality,” where “a dreary loneliness” seemed a palpable presence rising “from ice-bound whalers in the Arctic seas.”
You can imagine where the story ends, but perhaps not the path it takes.
Fitzgerald wrote “The Ice Palace” in 1920, when he was 24, living in New York City and gaining a name for his writing. The FitzFirst@Four discussion began with Bob Olsen, historian for the St. Paul Winter Carnival, melding story passages with slides of ice palaces over the years.
In all likelihood, Olsen said, Fitzgerald was inspired by the palaces he saw in 1917 or 1918, coming home to St. Paul from his studies at Princeton. The ice palace must have been an irresistible subject, given that the Winter Carnival idea sprang from a New York columnist condemning St. Paul as a “Siberia unfit for human habitation.”
Olsen clicked through a series of slides from the first palace in 1886 through the years. They were spectacular. “It was the first building in St. Paul to have electricity instead of gas-powered lights,” he said.
Leaving the group well-grounded in the real influences behind the fiction, the discussion moved on to what Fitzgerald sought to accomplish with this story.
Reflecting St. Paul
Turns out it was written on a dare of sorts after Zelda, his Alabama-born wife, mused that her husband couldn’t ever truly understand her if he didn’t understand the South. He wrote the story to prove that he did indeed understand that culture.
“What is he telling us about ourselves in contrasting North and South?” asked Melissa Barker. She led a discussion that ranged from thoughts about fitting in and being accepted by a new group, to challenging “the Scarlett O’Hara lens” through which Northerners tend to look at the South, to the description of one woman as “an egg,” perhaps a reference to the fragility of Fitzgerald’s mother.
Wilson said FitzFirst@Four focuses on the short stories because people are more likely to read one before a meeting. They also try to study stories with a St. Paul influence.
“Unlike anywhere else he lived, he resonates with our history,” Wilson said.
Even “The Great Gatsby,” set on New York’s Long Island, is full of references with a basis in St. Paul. “Three-quarters of a guest list for one of the parties are prominent St. Paul names,” Wilson said.
“His daughter, Scotty, always commented that even though he never came back to St. Paul, he always felt attached to it, and that it was a place that was special to him. It was his foundational place.”