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November 7, 2010

That Vagabond F. Scott Fitzgerald

Corley's This_Side_of_Paradise To be among the lucky people who ever lived. It was September in Saint Paul. One hundred years later, after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birth, Saint Paul was celebrating his birthday. Even if those in charge seemed to be 4 years late.

I presently live in a building where Fitzgerald and Zelda had lived when their daughter was born. On occasion, strangers come looking, trying to get in, maybe thinking the Fitzgeralds still somehow were here.

Fitzgerald was born 17 days after my own grandfather. In the last year of the Gilded Age of American history. Across the river, my great grandfather was working at a stockbroker, the son of an Irish immigrant passing out the prospecti written in plain English on fledging American businesses. With a vagabond early youth spent in Syracuse and Buffalo, New York, the Fitzgerald family had returned to Minnesota when his father was fired from Procter and Gamble, the U.S.-based Irish soap-maker and candle-maker founded in 1837. I regularly pass the small school building where St. Paul Academy, a WASPish private school, had been in 1908 to 1911, until Fitzgerald was expelled for matters of effort and study habits, neglecting his studies. The vagabond theme continued at the age of sixteen when he enrolled in a Hackensack, New Jersey prep school in 1911–1912, Newman School. Never in his life did he ever purchase a home to call his own.

We are all connected in Saint Paul, and Saint Paul was reclaiming F. Scott. Though my sister told me last night at dinner that Garrison Keillor had said in his opening monologue that he no longer admires the man, as he once had. I had driven by the Keillor home yesterday on the way to church, where there were signs in the yard of a party the night before. Keillor now lived on the block where Fitzgerald had always dreamed to live. On the bookends of Summit Avenue, starting at the state capital, ending at the Mississippi. With the search for happiness in between.

Fitzgerald was oh so real. I walked past where his grandmother lived, regularly. And I almost bought a condo in what was then an apartment building when he was about five years old… where he had lived, in Saint Paul. he wrote about his search for happiness which he imagined inside the mansions –the governor’s, the archbishop’s, and every mansion in between, in this Catholic town, in this long thought of Scandinavian state.

The cultural canvas. A college dropout, a member of the Class of 1917, on academic probation at Princeton, neglecting his studies for his writing, no longer insulated from the Great War going on in Europe, he joined the army in 1917 and was sent to Camp Sheridan, not far from Montgomery, Alabama. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry, convinced he would die in the war, Fitzgerald rapidly wrote a novel, as he fell in love with 18-year old Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge.

That cultural canvas. The world provided the themes as he wrote, in a world of great promise, of a poor boy’s desperate desire for wealth, for the girl he could not have. The prospectus of just the dream of her. The street light at twilight, looking into the homes of the wealthy on Summit Avenue. Like James J. Hill. The Great War had ended just before he was to have been sent overseas. The romance intensified Fitzgerald’s hopes for the success of his novel, before his novel was rejected by Scribners for a second time.

Who was this vagabond, trying to marry a celebrated eighteen-year-old belle? As then came the imposed prohibition, National Prohibition, in 1919. Along with the influenza plague.

And so the prospectus as the Roaring Twenties began. Taking the good times away, in 1919, with Prohibition. Was it because of what liquor had done to the returning vets? With their battle fatigue or what now is called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. During a parade celebrating the first anniversary of Armistice Day, a violent incident occurred in Centralia, Washington. On November 11, 1919, the Centralia Massacre contributed to the Red Scare of 1919-20. And thus the theme of aspiration of the idealism which he regarded as defining American character. And then dealing with mutability, if not with loss. With all the vagabonds returning home from war.

Fear was all around in the beginning of the Jazz Age. As Fitzgerald took his vows to live in either a better or worse world, in sickness or in health. The Jazz Age which defined, historian Ken Burns wrote, defined the America character to the rest of the world. With all of the surrounding Post Traumatic Stress which no one talked about. Did it seem so wonderful at the time?

The first War on Terror in the United States began at the end of World War I. After the Great Influenza. At the start of Volstead Act. And the start of the great labor wars. Which would come even to Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

The Red Scare. After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. With the returning war veterans. Missing the actual war. As Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise. The outsider looking in, at the end of war, in an America fueled by bombings and labor unrest, with approximately 30 booby trap bombs in late April 1919, and eight bombs in June 1919, sent to intended targets who had participated in some way with the investigation of or the opposition to anarchist radicals.

No longer insulated, on this side of paradise, with political agitation in America, following the hyper-patriotism of World War I, starting in February 1919 with the Seattle General Strike as 100 local unions joined with 35,000 shipyard workers on strike seeking wage increases, and 24 cities mostly urban areas with racial violence in the summer and early fall of 1919, and especially in the labor movement. The Boston Police Strike in September 1919. Sacco and Vanzetti, alleged to be Italian anarchists, were convicted for a 1920 murder of two men.

Vagabonds. In those periods of reconstruction. The world scene included vagabonds swept back into the undercurrent of world events, starting on the other side of paradise. On November 9, 1918, in Germany hundreds of thousands of people poured into the center of Berlin, in a movement which had started in the final days of October 1918 when 47 sailors dispatched needlessly to be sacrificed in battle in the last moment of the war without authorization mutinied, while the new democratic government was seeking peace. The mutiny of 47 affected sailors led to a general revolution supported by sailors and workers which was to sweep aside a hope to save Kaiser Wilhelm’s monarchy. Then in January 1919, hundreds of thousands of people again poured into central Berlin as a revolutionary wave developed. On January 4, 1919 Emil Eichhorn, the chief constable of Berlin was dismissed by the government when he refused to act against demonstrating workers in the Christmas Crisis after sailors — insisting on only their pay — had occupied the Imperial Chancellery, cut the phone lines, put the Council of People’s Representatives under house arrest, and captured Otto Wels. Reacting to Emil Eichhorn’s dismissal, revolutionary stewards and the chairs of the Communist Party called for a demonstration to take place on the following day. This demonstration in Berlin, turned into an assembly of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them armed, on January 5, 1919. In the first months of 1919, further armed revolts occurred with violence all over Germany, which was violently suppressed. Vladimir Lenin’s counterparts in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were put to death.

The Red Scars. The Civil War in Ireland, between the Black and Tans. The Civil War in Russia over a six year period between the White and the Red armies. In Poland, the 1919-1920 Russo-Polish War, as the Russians attempted to carry their revolution westward, escalating when Polish Józef Pilsudski formed an alliance with the Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petlyura in April 21, 1920, as the Poles captured Kiev.

And people in love, in search of peace. In the beginning. In the periods of reconstruction. After everything seemed to be collapsing. After his discharge, Fitzgerald went to New York City, reaching out for the glitter, to seek his fortune. With Zelda looking for a guy with more than just a pocket full of promises, came the broken engagement. In real life. In love…..using complex structure and a controlled narrative point of view…Fitzgerald wrote. On This Side of Paradise.

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