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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

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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23 DECEMBER, 2013

Neil Gaiman Reads Charles Dickens’s Original Performance Script for “A Christmas Carol”

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“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

Though Charles Dickens figures among literary history’s most notable pet-lovers with his raven Grip, he also had several cats, which he held dear — so much so, that he famously exclaimed, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?,” a line so popular that it even made it into a New Yorker cartoon. When one of Dickens’s most beloved cats, Bob, died in 1862, the author’s sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, had Bob’s paw taxidermied and turned into a letter-opener. She engraved it “C. D. In Memory of Bob. 1862″ and presented it to the author as a gift intended to forever remind him of his feline friend. This odd object, which sat by Dickens’s side in the library at Gad’s Hill where he wrote, is one of the artifacts featured in Molly Oldfield’s wonderful The Secret Museum (public library) — that magnificent inventory of sixty never-before-seen “treasures too precious to display,” culled from the archives and secret storage locations of some of the world’s greatest libraries and museums, including such gems as Van Gogh’s never-before-seen sketchbooks, Anne Frank’s friendship book, and the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was born.

Charles Dickens's letter opener. The handle is made out of his cat Bob's paw.

Today, Dickens’s bizarre literary instrument survives as a prized possession in the collection of the New York Public Library, where it shares space with the writing desk and chair the author used while traveling, as well as thirteen of the “prompt copies” that Dickens, the first famous writer to perform his own works, had made for his public readings — special performance scripts created by taking apart an existing novel, cutting and pasting select sections into a blank-leaf book, then filleting the text by highlighting the most dramatic scenes and annotating them with reading cues and stage directions. NYPL curator Isaac Gewirtz tells Oldfield:

Dickens wasn’t only a great writer, he was a fantastic actor: he loved to perform his work, rather than simply read extracts from it.

Among NYPL’s most treasured Dickensian prompt copies is that of A Christmas Carol (free download) — the classic 1843 novella, which blends elements of science fiction, philosophy, mysticism, satire, and cultural critique to tell a timeless story about the benevolence of the human spirit and our heartening capacity for transformation and self-transcendence.

Neil Gaiman, dressed as Charles Dickens, with Molly Oldfield. (Photograph: NYPL)

At a recent NYPL event hosted by Oldfield, one of the greatest writers of our time, Neil Gaimanchampion of the creative life, man of discipline, adviser of aspiring writers, contemplator of genius — reads one of the greatest writers of all time, in exactly the way Dickens intended for his classic work to be read, based on the annotations and directions in that precious NYPL prompt copy of A Christmas Carol. Here is Oldfield, introducing Gaiman, who proceeds to give an enchanting and entertaining reading of the Dickens classic:

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.

The Secret Museum is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, and A Christmas Carol is available as a free download, as is the entire NYPL readings series — how’s that for a priceless gift?

For more Gaiman goodness, see his 8 rules of writing, his charming children’s book, and the lovely story of his bachelor party.

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19 DECEMBER, 2013

Jane Austen on Creative Integrity

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How to defend your creative vision against commercial pressure with graciousness, honor, and unflinching conviction.

“Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in,” beloved Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson famously admonished in his speech on creative integrity. “Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.”

In December of 1815, Jane Austen released her novel Emma (free download), followed closely by a second edition of her controversial 1814 novel Mansfield Park (free download) — the last two novels published during her lifetime. The former sold well, but the latter was a commercial failure — so much so that it nearly absorbed all of Austen’s profits from Emma. In the spring of 1816, less than a year before her death, she received a letter from Mr. Clarke, chaplain and private English secretary to Prince Leopold and the librarian at His Royal Highness’s Coburg House, who had come to admire Austen’s talents but also wanted to steer them in a certain direction. He suggested that “a historical romance illustrative of the august House of Coburg would just now be very interesting” — essentially a request for a publicity puff piece that would be at once more commercially successful for her and politically beneficial for the Prince. (A proposition tragically prescient and familiar amidst our day and age of churnalism and clickbait vacant of substance.) But in a letter from April 1 that year, found in A Memoir of Jane Austen (public library; public domain), the celebrated author stands her ground with equal parts integrity and elegance, articulating the supremacy of the creative impulse over the allure of commercial success and capturing the very essence of why writers write:

My dear Sir,

I am honoured by the Prince’s thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work…. You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe-Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir,
  Your very much obliged,
    and very sincere friend,
  J. Austen.

During that time, Austen had begun to write her final novel, which she titled The Elliots. She completed the draft mere months after her letter to Clarke. But she never lived to see it published, succumbing to fatal illness in July of 1817. It was posthumously published under the title Persuasion (free download) six months later.

In 2013, the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen would appear on its currency, making her only the third woman in history, after Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale, to appear on a British banknote.

A Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and originally published in 1869, is excellent in its entirety, offering an unprecedented, highly influential first-hand account of the elusive icon’s character and habits, and painting a dimensional portrait of the author whom Virginia Woolf called “the most perfect artist among women.”

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