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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

20 JANUARY, 2014

The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Endearing Record of His First Loves from His Secret Boyhood Diary

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A lesson on self-awareness without self-consciousness.

As a hopeless lover of famous diaries, I was at once astounded and thrilled to learn that in the summer of 1910, shortly before turning fourteen, F. Scott Fitzgerald began keeping a short memoir in a notebook labeled Thoughtbook of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald of St. Paul Minn U.S.A., in which he collected fragmentary observations about his life and his social circle. Though he only kept it for six months, the celebrated author would later turn to the journal again and again, drawing on the vignettes and people in it as inspiration for his fiction. But despite being a critical piece of literary history, the Thoughtbook remained a well-kept family secret for decades, with access granted only to Fitzgerald’s official biographers, and only sparingly. Eventually, it ended up at the Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina, in a facility out of a James Bond movie — a humidity-sensitive vault deep underground, controlled by fingerprint- and eye-scan doors.

In 2013, the prized artifact finally came to public life as The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary (public library), featuring a transcription of Fitzgerald’s original diary contextualized by scholar David Page, and accompanied by a selection of photographs from Fitzgerald’s childhood.

There are two particularly curious and prominent features of the Thoughtbook — young Francis’s propensity for lists, and his intense dedication to being a ladies’ man, meticulously recording his interest in various girls and theirs in him. Best of all, however, is the intersection of the two — his lists ranking the girls according to their appearance and his affections.

Fitzgerald at age fifteen, taken while he was a student at the Newman Academy in New Jersey just a few months after he finished the Thoughtbook.

In the opening entry, titled “My Girls” and penned in August of 1910, he details with delightful freedom of spelling and grammar his impressions of his first two loves:

My recollections of Nancy are rather dim but one day stands out above the rest. The Gardeners had their home three miles out of town and one day James Imham, Inky for short, my best friend, and I were invited out to spend the day. I was about nine years old Nancy about eight and we were quite infatuated with each other. I was in the middle of the winter as soon as we got there we began playing on the toboggan. Nancy and I an Inky were on one toboggan and Ham (Nancies big brother) came along and wanted to get on. He made a leap for the toboggan but I pushed off just in time and sent him on his head. He was awful mad. He said he’d kick me off and that it wasn’t my toboggan and that I couldn’t play. However Nancy smoothed it over and we went to lunch.

Kitty Williams is much plainer in my memory. I met her first at dancing school and as Mr. Van Arnumn (our dancing teacher) chose me to lead the march I asked her to be my pardner. The next day she told Marie Lautz and Marie repeated it to Dorothy Knox who in turn passed it on to Earl, that I was third in her affections. I dont remember who was first but I know that Earl was second and I was already quite overcome by her charms I then and there resolved that I would gain first place.

In another entry, written a month later, Fitzgerald introduces Violet Stockton, who would later serve as a major inspiration for the female characters throughout his fiction:

Violet Stockton was a niece of Mrs. Finch and she spent a summer in Saint Paul. She was very pretty with dark brown hair and eyes big and soft. She spoke with a soft southern accent leaving out the r’s. She was a year older than I but together with most of the other boys liked her very much.

[…]

At the time I was more popular with girls than I ever have been befor. In truth Kitty Shultz, Dorothy, Violet, Marie and Catherine Tre all liked me best.

In an entry from November of 1910, young Scott pens a list under the heading “These are the boys and girls I like best in order,” with clarifier that “the first three boys are tie”:

Art
Bob
Cecil
Shumier
Boardmen
Bigelow
Sturgis
Jim
D. Driscoll
R. Washington
Paul
Speply
Rube
Mitchell
Smith
Smith
Alida Bigelow
Margaret Armstrong
Kitty Schulz
Elizabeth Dean
Marie Hersey
Dorothy Green
Caroline Clark
Julia Door

But the most remarkable aspect of the list is a sentence that young Scott wrote vertically along the middle of the page, between the two columns of names — an expression of his crystalline awareness, even at such a young age, that human personality is in constant flux and that to change one’s mind is an essential part of the human journey:

This list changes continually
Only authentic at date of chapter

Indeed, what makes the Thoughtbook so extraordinary is the absolute earnestness with which young Scott observes his life as it unfolds, full of self-awareness but free of the self-consciousness by which most adult writers are chronically afflicted — perhaps the same outlook that Fitzgerald wanted to instill in his own young daughter twenty-three years later.

Pasted in the Thoughtbook is an endearing earlier entry from another journal, which young Scott wrote in 1908 at the age of eleven:

I love Kitty Williams. Today in dancing school I told her she was my best girl. I dared Earl Knox to say “I love you Kitty,” to her and he did it. Then I did it too. She asked me if I liked dancing school and I said I liked it if she went. Then she said she liked it if I went.

Beneath it, a list appears ranking his favorite girls in 1911:

  1. Kitty Schultze
  2. Alida Bigelow
  3. Elenor Alair
  4. Marie Hersey
  5. Julia Dorr

He then replicates the list for 1912 — but since the journal was only kept between August 1910 and February of 1911, it appears to be a projection for his future affections, making it all the more of a charming curiosity:

  1. Elenor Alair
  2. Kitty Schultz
  3. Marie Hersey

On February 12, 1911, he records his changing affections yet again:

Since dancing school opened this last time I have deserted Alida. I have to new crushes, to wit — Margaret Armstrong and Marie Hersey. I have not quite decided yet which I like the best. The 2nd is the prettiest. The 1st the best talker.

He adds, proudly:

Last year in dancing school I got 11 valentines and this year 15.

But brains prevail over beauty and Margaret wins out over Marie. In another entry from February 24, young Scott gushes:

I am just crazy about Margaret Armstrong and I have the most awful crush on her that ever was. This has been the case ever since Bob’s party. She is not pretty but I think she is very attractive looking. She is extremely graceful and a very good dancer and the most interesting talker I have ever seen or rather heard.

He proceeds to recount an impossibly endearing anecdote, brimming with the exalting highs and crushing lows of teenage love:

Jim Portfield and I were invited to call on Elizabeth Dean by Elizabeth and when we got there we found her too and we started out for a walk. Margaret and Jim walked ahead and Elizabeth and I behind. This made me mad and this was further inflamed when they got a block ahead of us. Then Elizabeth told me some things. She said that Margaret had given her a note the day befor in school which said “I know I am fickle but I like Jim just as much as I do Scott.” When I learned this I was jealous of Jim as I had never been of anyone before. I said some ridiculous things about how I was going to get even with him in Margarets estimation when we reached the country club. Elizabeth went ahead and asked Margaret which of us she liked the best. Margaret said she liked me best. All the way home I was n the seventh heaven of delight.

Slim as it may be, The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary is infinitely delightful and highly recommended. Pair it with grown-up Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing and his exquisite reading of John Masefield’s “On Growing Old.”

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17 JANUARY, 2014

Party Like It’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance

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“Dance music … stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room.”

“Oh, how wonderful! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed in her moving first experience of dance. “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter to a friend. “Twyla Tharp reconciles me to being a woman … Non-sexist dancing — strong women with their own energy, subjects not objects, playful with men — not afraid of them,” Susan Sontag mused in her diary.

From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same wonderfully rich volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts and the glory of the human mind — comes a glimpse of a lesser-known side of the seemingly reserved author: Her love of music and dance.

In an essayistic entry from 1903, titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” and reproduced here with her original spelling, 21-year-old Virginia writes:

About two hours ago, when I went to bed, I heard what I took to be signs of merry making in the mews. A violin squeaked, there was a noise of loud voices & laughter. It reminded me how once, as a child, I woke at dead of night: it seemed to me — 8 or 9 I suppose really & I heard strange & horrible music as of a midnight barrel organ, & was so frightened that I had to crawl to the cot next mine for sympathy. But I am too old for that kind of blind terror; my critical mind when awake enough to think at all about it, decided that the fiddle squeaking &c. was token of a ball — not in our street — but in Queens Gate — the tall row of houses that makes a background to the mews. The music grew so loud, so rhythmic — as the night drew on & the London roar lessened, that I threw up my window, leant out into the cool air, & saw the illuminations which told surely from what house the music came.

Now I have been listening for an hour. The music stops — I hear the chatter, the light laughter of womens voices — the deeper notes of festive males. I can almost see the couples wandering out from the ball rooms to the balconies which are starred with small lamps. They look straight across the mews to me. The music has begun again — oh dear — the swing & the lilt of that waltz makes me almost feel as though I could jump from my bed & dance to it too. That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music. Here the bars run low, passionate, regretful, but always in the same pulse. We dance as though we knew the vanity of dancing. We dance to drown our sorrows — but dance, dance — If you stop you are lost. This one night we will be mad — dance lightly — raise our hearts as the beat strengthens, grows buoyant — careless, defiant. What matters anything so long as ones step is in time — so long as one’s whole body & mind are dancing too — what shall end it?

Dinomania: (n) irresistible urge to dance

Artwork by Polly M. Law from her Word Project. Click image for details.

After a short contemplation of the fabric of the music, noting “the very height of the rhythm, some strange, solitary sound,” Woolf finds herself exhausted and consumed by the dense darkness of the night sky, then returns to the exhilaration of dance — but this time as a melancholy observer, painting an ominous, zombie-like picture of the dancing throng:

The music again! I begin to think someone has wound up this weary waltz & it will go on at intervals all thro‘ the night. Nobody is dancing in time to it now I am sure — or they dance as pale phantoms because so long as the music sounds they must dance — no help for them. Surely the music that seemed to ebb before, has gathered strength — it sounds louder & louder — it swings faster & faster — no one can stop dancing now. They are sucked in by the music. And how weary they look — pale men — fainting women — crumpled silks & trampled flowers. They are no longer masters of the dance — it has taken possession of them. And all joy & life has left it, & is diabolical, a twisting livid serpent, writhing in cold sweat & agony, & crushing the frail dancers in its contortions. What has brought about the change? It is the dawn.

Complement A Passionate Apprentice with the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice and her timeless meditations on how to read a book, the language of film, the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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09 JANUARY, 2014

Henry James on Aging, Memory, and What Happiness Really Means

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“I have led too serious a life; but that perhaps, after all, preserves one’s youth.”

What does it take to live a good life, to flourish, to be happy? The art-science of happiness has been contemplated since the dawn of recorded thought, and yet no agreement seems to have been reached: For Albert Camus, it was about escaping our self-imposed prisons; for Alan Watts, about living with presence; some have pointed to learned optimism as the key, while others have scoffed at optimism and advocated for embracing uncertainty instead. But if there is one immutable truth about happiness, it’s that it is never a static thing — not a permanent state, but a constantly evolving experience of being, one that George Eliot believed had to be learned, transformed in each new moment and sculpted by the passage of time.

One of history’s most beautiful and crystally aware meditations on happiness, specifically in terms of how it illustrates the schism between the experiencing self and the remembering self, comes from The Diary of a Man of Fifty (public library; free download) — one of the finest, most timelessly resonant notable diaries of all time — by literary legend Henry James.

In early April of 1874, approaching his fifty-first birthday, James returned to Florence, where he had visited in his youth. His diary entry from April 5th bespeaks the odd elasticity of time in our conscious memory, with all its propensity for modification:

They told me I should find Italy greatly changed; and in seven-and-twenty years there is room for changes. But to me everything is so perfectly the same that I seem to be living my youth over again; all the forgotten impressions of that enchanting time come back to me. At the moment they were powerful enough; but they afterwards faded away. What in the world became of them? Whatever becomes of such things, in the long intervals of consciousness? Where do they hide themselves away? In what unvisited cupboards and crannies of our being do they preserve themselves? They are like the lines of a letter written in sympathetic ink; hold the letter to the fire for a while and the grateful warmth brings out the invisible words.

James adds a simple yet powerful definition of happiness — or, at the very least, of existential satisfaction — with equal parts poignancy and humor:

I have led too serious a life; but that perhaps, after all, preserves one’s youth. At all events, I have travelled too far, I have worked too hard, I have lived in brutal climates and associated with tiresome people. When a man has reached his fifty-second year without being, materially, the worse for wear — when he has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives — I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.

The Diary of a Man of Fifty is an indispensable trove of wisdom and is available as a free download.

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