Saint Paul's Dreamer: F. Scott Fitzgerald

This month, F. Scott Fitzgerald will be celebrated by scholars and fans.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born and raised in Saint Paul, and although he left his hometown in 1922 after writing his first published novel, This Side of Paradise, Saint Paul remains inextricably entwined with the great American author.

Kirk Curnutt, professor and chair of English at Troy University in Troy, Ala., and vice-president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, says that Saint Paul is Fitzgerald’s “point of origin, and every ounce of class-consciousness Fitzgerald would develop in life is palpable in the birthplace.”

This month, 200 to 300 members of the Society will converge on Saint Paul for its 14th international conference, which was held here only once before, in 2002. A host of scholars and academics from countries around the globe—including England, France, Italy, Canada and South America—will be in attendance, many presenting talks on a vast array of Fitzgerald topics.

“Fitzgerald really embodies the ideal of America to scholars abroad,” says Curnutt. “His romanticism speaks to the whole notion of the shining city on a hill, to the idea of a nation symbolizing a dream of optimism and progress. But he also deals with the downside of that ideal, too, with the inability to realize the promise and ambition.”

However, the conference is not just for experts. Curnutt says fans of Fitzgerald are typically drawn to these events to learn more about the author and his work. “Sites like Saint Paul that already have a strong fan base tend to see as much local support as people coming from far-flung places. Locals are deeply invested in maintaining the spirit of Fitzgerald in that place.”

Over the years, local writer Dave Page, who now lives in Hastings, has become the de facto expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald in Saint Paul, extensively researching, writing and speaking about Fitzgerald’s early years here, and his career following his departure. Page’s latest book is F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer and His Friends at Home.  Page, a retired college professor, traces his fascination with Fitzgerald back to 1981 when he moved to the Twin Cities from Iowa and saw 599 Summit Ave., where Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise, for the first time.

“There was just something amazing about this neighborhood. I had certainly read Fitzgerald, and bought into the ‘poor boy’ myth he created about himself because that was all I knew,” says Page. “Then I started interviewing people who knew him and every one told me what a great person he was.” Page’s latest book, which is a guidebook organized by address, connects Fitzgerald to past residents in homes from Summit Hill to downtown Saint Paul to White Bear Lake and Frontenac.

Fitzgerald struggled to keep his insecurities hidden, according to preeminent Fitzgerald biographer Scott Donaldson, a Minneapolis native now living in Arizona, who is the author of several books on both Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, including Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship.

“Fitzgerald was envious. He aspired to a social status he was never able to achieve. And he had a need to be admired,” says Donaldson, who will deliver a keynote presentation at the conference on Tender Is the Night, published in 1934, which Donaldson believes contains the most authentic autobiographical portrait of Fitzgerald in the novel’s main character, Dick Diver.

“The character of Diver has great charisma, like Fitzgerald did when he was sober,” says Donaldson. (Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age 44.)

Above all, it is Fitzgerald’s writing, from his short stories (several based in Saint Paul) to his novels and even his letters, which defines him. “Fitzgerald is just such a part of the American literary fabric,” says Page, who, along with Donaldson and Curnutt, references the significance of The Great Gatsby in the national literary canon.

“The image of ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ speaks to the unwillingness if not inability to not believe in the American dream,” says Curnutt.

“Every time you go back to Gatsby, you find something new you haven’t seen before,” says Donaldson, who has read the book more than 30 times. “There’s more craft and emotional content in this novel; that’s true of very few books.”

Mamie Fabel, also a presenter at the conference, has been teaching English at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in Saint Paul for 41 years, and according to her estimation, has had the experience of introducing Gatsby to more than 4,000 students. In today’s world, Fabel says Fitzgerald and the characters in Gatsby remain as relevant as ever.

“I tell my students that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were the Jay-Z and Beyoncé of their day,” says Fabel. “People read about them, women cut their hair like Zelda, they admired their style. The Fitzgeralds were known all over Paris—T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker and Ernest Hemingway were all their friends.

All of them were under 30 and famous."

As for the characters in the novel, Fabel makes it a point to personalize them for the students. “I tell them that the Tom Buchanans are the bullies in the lunch line. The Nick Carraways are the ones standing by who don’t do anything,” she explains. “The girls who don’t have drivers’ licenses, but pretend to be a friend and take rides until they get their own license, those are the Daisy Buchanans.”  

Fabel has copies of the book in 15 languages and has read the novel more than 100 times, never tiring of it.

For most people, their first introduction to Fitzgerald and Gatsby happens in high school, and according to Fabel, it's always been popular with her students.

“This is a book written in 1925 that still applies to 2017,” she says. “Good literature outlasts time.”

The Conference

Fitzgerald in Saint Paul was founded in late 2012 to promote the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and to secure his legacy. Each year, they sponsor a variety of events including the Puttin’ on the Fitz Gala (read more about Sam Pearson, who plays F. Scott each year at the gala, on page 7).

According to Stu Wilson, president of Fitzgerald in Saint Paul, plans for the June conference have been in the works for approximately two years. Writer Scott Donaldson says that “Stu’s devotion to celebrating the great works of Fitzgerald and promoting nationally” is one of the reasons participants from all over the globe are drawn to the conference.

With presentations as diverse as “F. Scott Fitzgerald: Fleeting Memories of Beauty and Youth” and “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Saturday Evening Post Stories: What was Worth the Maximum Rate of $4,000 per Story?” scholars and casual Fitzgerald fans alike can dive deeper into the author’s world.  In addition to academic presentations, there will also be social events such as a pool party at the University Club on June 29 and Gatsby Night at the Saint Paul Saints game on July 1. Learn more at the website here.

Fitzgerald at the Movies

F. Scott Fitzgerald has been depicted onscreen in films such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Genius and most recently in an Amazon series called Z, about Zelda Fitzgerald.

Scott Donaldson: “Woody Allen makes Fitzgerald out to be something of a sap. I thought Genius was quite a good movie; the portrayal of Max Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor, was quite good.”

Kirk Curnutt: “The films are a mixed blessing. They’re good in the sense that they spark interest in people who don’t live in the Fitzgerald bubble like some of our specialists do. The downside is the representation tends to be stereotypical—we see more of the self-destructive, troubled Fitzgerald than the creative one.”