Happy 200th, Herman!

Herman Melville, 1870

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Happy 200th, Herman!

The first of August 2019 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick or, the Whale (1851), as well as numerous other novels, short stories and much poetry.

Because of the depth of his thought as well as the range of his invention, Herman Melville (1 August 1819 – 28 September 1891) remains America’s greatest writer of literary fiction, and also one of its superior poets. I consider Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) the quintessential American novelist because his masterwork, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), is such an exquisite encapsulation of anti-slavery and anti-bigotry moral principle within a widely popular coming-of-age boy’s adventure story. But Melville is America’s deepest literary artist, his novels are metaphors for long-running threads of reality entwined as the American experience.

While Mark Twain’s facile humor and droll prose made him very popular with his 19th century audiences — both through publications and with live appearances — Herman Melville remained largely neglected during the last forty years of his life, by a reading public that was alienated by the complexity of his art. That complexity resulted from the combination of his literary sophistication, strongly influenced by the poetic language and moral insights of both William Shakespeare and the King James Bible; his personal philosophical thought as the fundamental source for his writing; his morally enlightened (non-racist) attitude about the world’s people; and the wit of his continuing critique, embedded in his fiction, of Americans’ myopic for-profit utilitarianism and obsessive hucksterism and con-artistry, which continues to this very day.

Herman Melville, 1860

I am no amateur scholar of Herman Melville and his literature, nor do I pretend to be. I am just one of millions of readers who since 1851 have been entranced by Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. I have read this book at least three times since 1961. With each reading I was older, more experienced, and was able to gain more insight about and appreciation for the literary use of the American language, and 19th America, out of the richness of Melville’s prose. I used the image of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal and fatal obsession to hunt down and kill the white whale Moby Dick, in a recent article of my own, as a metaphor for humanity’s current obsession to continue racing with its self-destructive fossil-fueled capitalism, which is the profligate source of greenhouse gas emissions causing anthropogenic global warming climate change.

Many readers today would find Melville prolix, abstruse, convoluted, and with a confounding multifarious vocabulary. This obviates Melville’s work from achieving instant contemporary mass pop-appeal. However, that prolixity, abstruseness, convolution and wide-spectrum vocabulary we grumble about now could reflect the devolution of Americans’ thought processes and language from a measured 19th century pacing of consideration to a hurried jittery 21st century attention-deficit superficiality: the shorn American language of today, our no-brainer “New Speak.”

Herman Melville, 1861

Herman Melville gained popular success as an author with his initial novel Typee (1846), a romantic account of his experiences of Polynesian life, gathered during his time as a whaler and seaman in the South Pacific between early 1841 and late 1844. Typee was followed by a sequel, Omoo (1847), which was also successful and paid him enough to marry and start a family. His first novel not based on his own experiences, Mardi (1849), was not well received. His next fictional work, Redburn (1849), and his non-fiction White-Jacket (1850) were given better reviews but did not provide financial security. (1)

Moby-Dick (1851), although now considered one of the great American novels, was not well received among contemporary critics. His psychological novel, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) was also scorned by reviewers. From 1853 to 1856, Melville published short fiction in magazines which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales. In 1857, he traveled to England and then toured the Near East. The Confidence-Man (1857) was the last prose work that he published. He moved to New York to take a position as Customs Inspector and turned to poetry. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) was his poetic reflection on the moral questions of the American Civil War. (1)

In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land was published in 1876, a metaphysical epic. In 1886, his son Stanwix died of apparent tuberculosis, and Melville retired. During his last years, he privately published two volumes of poetry, left one volume unpublished, and returned to prose of the sea. The novella Billy Budd was left unfinished at his death but was published posthumously in 1924. Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891. The 1919 centennial of his birth became the starting point of the “Melville Revival” with critics rediscovering his work and his major novels starting to become recognized as world classics of prominent importance to contemporary world literature. (1)

Most of Melville’s works can now be found on-line. (2)

Herman Melville, 1868

A most interesting and knowledgable commentator on Herman Melville’s works is Louis Proyect, both because of his familiarity with Melville’s texts, and because of his discussions of how Melville’s themes are critically reflected in the social contexts of both the 19th century and today, and of how Melville’s anti-racist attitudes contrasted favorably with the “utilitarian” consensus of his times, and even ours. (3), (4), (5).

To end this commemoration of Herman Melville and his literature, on the occasion of his 200th birthday, I borrow the following paragraphs from Louis Proyect (3). Mark well what ye read here, for we need slake our forgetfulness and remember this conviction today.

Melville’s Redburn is one of his lesser-known books, but it comes as close to a conscious expression of the world we are trying to build as will be found in all of his works. He writes:

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, would forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . .Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world. . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden.

Herman Melville, 1885

Notes

(1) Herman Melville
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville

All images of Herman Melville here are from Wikipedia.

(2) The Life and Works of Herman Melville
http://www.melville.org/

(3) Deconstructing cannibalism
5 January 2016
https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/05/deconstructing-cannibalism/

includes Louis Proyect’s articles:

Shakespeare’s Tempest and the American Indian
6 December 1998

Herman Melville’s Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life
18 October 2004

(4) The Confidence Man
23 December 2013
https://louisproyect.org/2013/12/23/the-confidence-man/

(5) Herman Melville and indigenous peoples
16 February 2008
https://louisproyect.org/2008/02/16/herman-melville-and-indigenous-peoples/

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism

 

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism

For me, the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was an English Romantic Poet like John Keats (1795-1821), who experienced during his college years — that pivotal time of transition from youth to adulthood — the shock of World War I destroying the Belle Époque and unleashing the blaring, crass, destructive, frenzied and wasteful Youth Quake sociological explosion known as the Roaring Twenties, when the prewar Gilded Age was resuscitated — to eventually reach its apotheosis in Trumpian America — during the postwar prosperity of a hypocritically repressed Prohibition America that was an economic bubble flinging open the starting gates to the modernization of American manners, morals, rhythms, fantasies and expectations, and whose totality we have all experienced as the 20th Century, which we can date as the zeitgeist from 1919 to 2019.

The zeitgeist now is of self-evident global warming climate change, openly acknowledged by all except intransigent ultra wealthy buffoons clinging to their hoards and their pathetically transparent propaganda intended to ward off just taxation.

Fitzgerald was a literary artist, a lyrical romanticist who became the hip young voice of the 1920s outburst because he was able to apply his 19th century mindset and literary facility to articulate — as deep psychological insights of general applicability — his personal youthful experiences and observations of transiting through the World War I cultural shock wave thrusting his generation into the manic modernity of a vastly industrialized, depersonalized and entertainment-obsessed America.

It was because Fitzgerald’s conceptions had been formed in a previous social paradigm that he had a basis from which to objectively evaluate the new psycho-social realities of the 1920s. Younger and less alert people, whose entire awareness of social life awakened during the 1920s, lacked such a contrasting mental framework because they were blindingly immersed in, and distracted and buffeted by their times. Fitzgerald was young enough to be completely hip to and synchronized with the 1920s, but not too young to be unable to understand where the 1920s had emerged from, how they were different from the prewar past, and how they were experienced as matters of personal and societal character.

Fitzgerald, along with his older English contemporary W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), have given me the deepest psychological insights into women as men experience them, and into personal character as it expresses itself through interpersonal relationships, especially between the sexes.

A similar transition of American life occurred forty to fifty years later when the Vietnam War shattered the stability and stasis of 1950s America, from which erupted the cultural efflorescence and political turmoil of the late 1960s, which like the late 1920s burned off the general prosperity that had been accumulated during the economic boom hot-housed during the preceding period of victorious peace.

Culturally alert writers of the 1960s included Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007), Joseph Heller (1923-1999), Malcolm X (1925-1965) with Alex Haley (1921-1992), and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). These writers were as different from F. Scott Fitzgerald as he was from Mark Twain (1835-1910), and none of these others matched Fitzgerald for lyricism, except for a memorable passage in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — on the Mississippi River in early morning — and the calmly eloquent and reflective moments in Tennessee Williams’ dramas.

Fitzgerald was 14 when Twain died, and when Fitzgerald died at age 44 in 1940: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was 18, Joseph Heller was 17, Malcolm X was 15, Alex Haley was 19, and Tennessee Williams was 29. W. Somerset Maugham was 22 when F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, 36 when Mark Twain died, and 66 when F. Scott Fitzgerald died.

Twain’s war shocks were the American Civil War (1860-1865) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), while Vonnegut’s and Heller’s were World War II (1941-1945), primarily, and also the Korean War (1950-1953, for the hot war) and the Vietnam War (1954-1975, for the American phase).

Fitzgerald’s life was so timed that during the third decade of his life — and prime adult years — he also experienced the societal shock of the Crash of 1929 and its immediate aftermath, the Great Depression (1929-1942), when the outlandish and dissipative prosperity of 1920s capitalism collapsed into the socio-economic wreckage of the 1930s, with his own personal circumstances tumbling into ruins along with the times.

I find Fitzgerald’s keen insights on personal motivations and character, and on interpersonal relationships, to be far superior to those of both earlier and later American writers because of how his English Romantic Poetic frame of mind processed his experiences with youthful success and the allurements of fame while confronting the postwar shock of the new in the 1920s, followed by the collapse of illusions with the loss of wealth and social status in the 1930s, and all of that filtered through his intense emotions pulsing out of his marriage to and care for Zelda Sayre, his socially advanced and schizophrenic wife, and mother of his only child.

I can see why Fitzgeraldian lyricism was stripped out of American writing in reaction to the serial disappointments of the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the sterility of the Tailfin ’50s, and the Vietnam War, and why Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and imitators of his arid style became popular to this day, given the post World War II re-acceleration of life’s American rhythm, and the relentless commercially driven dumbing down of the American mind.

The loss of lyricism from American literary fiction, since that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is not a sign of its increased artistry and insight, but of the opposite.

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Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

After decades of resisting the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), thinking him and them as inconsequential and passé, I finally fell under their spell. He was a literary genius, a great romantic and perceptive and fundamentally tragic writer. His novel, The Great Gatsby, is shimmering, transcendental (beyond the powers of cinema to capture), and – from the perspective of our limited human lifetimes – eternal.

A collection of his short stories compiled in 1960, Babylon Revisited, is fascinating, showing how inventive he was at devising characters and plots detailing the intertwining of the psychologies of those characters. And he would present it all with fluidly lyrical prose of amazing compactness. What has drawn me to his stories is his implicitly deep understanding of the human heart, which he conveys from behind the casual facade of both manic and faded Jazz Age settings.

What I see from his own personal story is that every true artist must constantly struggle to be able to do the work that expresses their art and gives their life meaning, despite the enervating drag of the many demands heaped on one by the needs of economic survival, exhibiting sufficient conformity for social acceptance, and the emotional needs – and illusions – of close family. I think that is the great heroic epic of each artist’s personal life: somehow producing the work held deep in the heart and soul and mind, despite both the intentional and indifferent impediments placed before that artistic drive by life’s banalities. Some succeed better than others, and some are broken and fail in that they themselves are lost to life and their unknown art stillborn.

With all that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, I think that we are only seeing fragments of his potential, even given that he was one of America’s supreme literary artists. I appreciate his decades of struggle to produce those gems. It can be very hard to be an ordinary, imperfect human being gifted to be an instinctive channel to a primordial artistic insight and creative drive. His gift to us is the wider awareness we may gain by reading his stories, and immersing ourselves in his enthralling lyricism. I’ve now (16 March 2019) embarked on Tender Is The Night, which he called “a confession of faith.”

In the last year of his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $13.13 in royalties ($238.44 in 2019 dollars) Since his death in 1940, more than 10 million copies of his books have been sold throughout the world (up to 2001).

An excellent documentary on F. Scott Fitzgerald was produced by PBS and shown in 2001; it includes interviews with people who knew him personally. The documentary on Fitzgerald produced by the BBC and shown in 2013 is an interesting and sympathetic literary criticism.

Winter Dreams: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Life Remembered (PBS, 2001)

https://youtu.be/XnEO8yT_ApM

Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald (BBC, 2013)
https://youtu.be/cCfUsaX5F10

Standing back, looking at the U.S.A. today [16 March 2019], and reading Fitzgerald, one can’t help but remember the old talking point, Fitz or Hem? [Fitzgerald or Hemingway?] Some of us preferred the latter, the new prose style, the correct progressive politics, the lessons in manly courage. But the style has been absorbed, the politics were hardly heroic in the 1940s’ context, and the muscular courage is rather sickening just now as we get news of New Zealand, Paris and Manchester. Fitzgerald’s America, on the other hand, is still with us, money-orientated, cynical, romantic, racist and full of ambition that ends in crime.

— Peter Byrne

It has always been easy for me to see why Hemingway was popular with Americans, but for those very reasons I was not enthralled by him. I have enjoyed some of his prose, but never found a soul there that interested me. Now that I’m older, and have my own memories of being battered around in that money-oriented, cynical, racist and criminally ambitious America, I have found Fitzgerald’s tender heart and withering insights to be just right, both generally and for me. I learn slowly, but I’m glad when I do.

The above comments have already appeared at:
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/03/16/i-learn-about-f-scott-fitzgerald/

I finished reading Tender Is The Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, on 7 April 2019. I can’t remember ever being so affected by a novel. Fitzgerald’s amazing insights into human nature, human character, social interactions, and marriage, along with his breathtaking lyricism all just leave me stunned. Perhaps I lack the sophistication to know better, and be less impressed.

Also, there are quite a few parallels between Dick Diver’s (ersatz F.S.F.) story arc (as regards his Sentimental Education — see Flaubert) and my own. For me, were it not for the balm of decades having passed since my “Dick Diver” years, it would be painfully so.

I can see where some of the superficial aspects of the novel, such as the glib sophistication and the not-up-to-modern-day politically-correct standards as regards the mention of Negroes (though I found no actual lack of sympathy here) could put off the “typical” American reader today. But, for me, the power of the core insight, emotion and intelligence of the novel shines through those superficial trivialities, and leaves me in silent awe of the majestically tragic and accurate vision – the life – behind the whole work.

Fitzgerald thought this novel his best; he called The Great Gatsby a “tour de force” (it is superb, I liked it) but viewed Tender Is The Night as “a confession of faith.” Reading Tender Is The Night opened up a great insight into F.S.F., the man, for me because I could connect my inner experiences (on marriage and children, and even some on doing science) with his real and fictionalized lives. I can easily imagine being Dick Diver.

Scott was an incandescent artist, who was trapped by fate: by the emotional and financial entanglements brought on by a decent romantic and fundamentally boyish nature, by public fickleness, by societal shallowness and materialism, by marriage to madness, and by all-too-common-and-human personal weakness. Who doesn’t want to be loved?

My thoughts may not be entirely coherent here, but I am overwhelmed.

By 17 April 2019, I was deep into Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western (F.S.F.’s final choice of title). He had a sharp eye and a wicked sense of humor. His abilities never diminished, though sadly he did. His prose is smooth and graceful while at the same time being so rich and suggestive.

After finishing this novel I’ll have to decide what to read next: This Side Of Paradise or The Beautiful And The Damned. I’ll probably end up reading both. I also have another collection of his short stories waiting to be read, Six Stories From The Jazz Age, And Other Stories. So far, Tender Is The Night is the one that hit me most forcefully in a personal way.

Your words were not lost on me. They got me thinking about Tender Is The Night that I’d read many years ago. I dug it out and launched into a rereading only finished just now [19 April 2019]. The Great Gatsby had always been my favourite among Fitzgerald’s books. I liked its perfect balance and the way it held the American dream up so we could view it from all sides, light and dark. Tender Is The Night struck me, first time around, as misshapen. I still think it suffered from being worked over for too many years. The author’s focus necessarily shifted. However, reading it again, I find the good parts more deeply felt than anything in The Great Gatsby. That was a younger man’s novel. With the years, Fitzgerald, like you and me, got deeper into himself. I think that’s why it touches us so now. I don’t believe we should impose our standards of political correctness on authors of the past. The very fact that they might be out of line for us today is a valuable lesson. I confess that one little thing does annoy me in Fitzgerald’s thinking. Here Hemingway was right. When his friend F.S.F. told him that the rich were different, i.e., beings on a higher plane, Hem replied, “Of course they’re different. They have more money”.

— Peter Byrne

I’m put off a bit by Hemingway’s treatment of Fitzgerald, the man who recommended him to Max Perkins [the editor of both] at Scribner’s [their publisher], which got Hemingway launched on his celebrated career. Besides publicly disparaging Fitzgerald when he was down (in 1936, with the publication of Fitzgerald’s three-part essay, The Crack-Up, in Esquire Magazine), he didn’t even have the courtesy to attend Fitzgerald’s lonely funeral (in very late December 1940), where only eleven people attended (according to one attendee who described the scene in the documentary Winter Dreams), mostly locals from the family that he had rented a house from in Maryland. I haven’t run across anything negative said about Hemingway by Fitzgerald, but only good things (including in The Crack-Up). I don’t think that responding to Fitzgerald with graciousness instead of pettiness would have hurt Hemingway’s John Wayne style macho man public image, it would probably have burnished it instead. But, writers and artists of all kinds are human, and humans are imperfect, and I may be asking too much of some of the icons.

One thing about Fitzgerald that I now know is that he was really a poet, a prose writer who sought to achieve the artistry of the great romantic English poets: Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth. No wonder he was ground down by the commercialism and shallowness of the make-a-quick-buck magazine trade and movie script writing he was forced to do. Just yesterday [20 April 2019], I finished Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. In it I found a line about an August night, so atmospheric, so vivid, so perfect, something the like of which I will never be able to produce, that I copied and saved it:

It was a gorgeous evening. A full moon drenched the road to the lustreless color of platinum, and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, section V.

It is writing like this that makes capturing a Fitzgerald story on film, beyond a mere mechanical visualization of raw plot, impossible.

I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.

— F.S.F., The Crack-Up, 1936

As to Fitzgerald’s failure of political consciousness, he is pretty explicit about owning up to in the The Crack-Up, and once having done so openly it is impossible to imagine he did not have a decent political and class consciousness thereafter. He even mentions Lenin and refuses to disparage Marxists in The Crack-Up. The mid to late 1930s were years of revolutionary labor unrest and socialist advances in the United States: the West Coast longshoremen’s and general strike of 1934, the GM Fischer Body Plant sit-in strike of 1935, and the Social Security Act was signed into law that same year. The 40-year-old Fitzgerald was as different from his 20-year-old Princeton college boy self (on the make, like Gatsby), as was the bottom of the Great Depression for the down-and-outers, from the glittering carefree abandon of the leisure class of the 1920s.

I find it very impressive, admirable, that throughout his writer’s career Fitzgerald managed to produce so much inventive and lyrical work despite his personal circumstances, and that his artistry deepened as he soldiered on.

The Crack-Up
F. Scott Fitzgerald
[originally published as a three-part series in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Esquire.]
https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a4310/the-crack-up/

The Moment F. Scott Fitzgerald Knew He Was a Failure
By Lili Anolik
Sep 22, 2015
https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a38113/f-scott-fitzgerald-1015/

You’re right about Hemingway’s nastiness to Fitzgerald. He makes him appear a befuddled adolescent in A Moveable Feast, otherwise a little book of great charm. A case of the survivor writing history or anyway having the last word, I suppose.

I’ve gone through The Crack-Up and autobiographical pieces again. To my mind, Echoes of the Jazz Age, My Lost City and Early Success are fine, low-intensity essays full of welcome information. Ring, the piece on [Ring] Lardner is a marvellous bit of lit-crit of the kind that only a writer himself can offer another writer. How different from Hem on Fitz! It convinced me that Ring Lardner is the model for Abe North in Tender Is The Night. The Crack-Up proper simply recalls in a kind of diary note what the author already so powerfully represented in Tender Is The Night, Dick’s personal crisis and downhill slide.

Fitzgerald for me is a novelist of greater scope and emotional depth than Hemingway. One little thing, though, bothers me in his outlook. It’s just a germ, his idea of success. But I can’t see it as not leading to the way our esteemed president [Trump] divides humanity into “winners” and “losers”.

— Peter Byrne

I suspect that one of the causes of Fitzgerald’s great disappointment in later life (besides Zelda’s mental health) was the utter shattering of his idea of “success” as it pertained to his own career: the bitterness of a formerly naïve optimist.

Speaking of ‘success’ and its ‘disappointments’, I’ve seen many people who feel life has cheated them out of the success they felt entitled to in their younger imaginations.

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Sheilah and Scott, and Abe North
2 May 2019

Sheilah Graham (1904-1988), a successful Hollywood gossip columnist, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) saw each other for the first time at a party thrown by the humorist Robert Benchley on 14 July 1937. Sheilah and Scott soon embarked on a live-in romance that would last until Scott’s death on 21 December 1940. Scott died from a heart attack while in Sheilah’s apartment in Hollywood, while they were each reading during the afternoon. Sheilah told the story of her three-and-a-half years with Scott in her autobiographical book Beloved Infidel (1958), whose title was copied from the title of a poem about Sheilah written by Scott as a present to her.

Fitzgerald was quite a character, scintillating, erudite, charming, warm (to intimates like Sheilah) and witty when sober, but unpredictable when inebriated: by turns silly, manic, aggressive, or conked-out (gin was the preferred “stimulant”). Sheilah Graham (and her co-author Gerold Frank) did a very nice job of giving a clear, vivid, honest and sympathetic portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the man, during these last years of his life.

By 1937, Fitzgerald was in debt to about $40,000, according to Graham (which is equivalent to $726,000 in 2019 dollars); his wife Zelda had often been hospitalized for psychiatric problems since 1930 and essentially lived in hospital-sanatoriums from 1934 through 1940; and Scott and Zelda’s daughter, Scottie (1921-1986), was at boarding school and college. To make the money necessary to pay for all this, Fitzgerald accepted work as a screen-writer, from mid 1937 through 1938 (about 78 weeks).

Fitzgerald was paid $1000/week ($18,200/week in 2019 dollars) for the first six months, and $1250/week ($22,700/week in 2019 dollars) for the last twelve months. The estimated gross pay for Fitzgerald (assuming 26 weeks at $1000 and 52 weeks at $1250) was $91,000 ($1.653M in 2019 dollars) — but there were taxes. Despite his lordly income during 1937-1938, Fitzgerald had to live fairly modestly in order to meet all his financial obligations (he drove a used Ford).

Though his attempt to transform himself into a screenwriter and potential movie-maker was a complete flop, and though experiencing serial artistic frustrations and social embarrassments while in late 1930s Hollywood “…the film work was beneficial. It extricated Fitzgerald from a period in which he had been depressed and incapable of writing successfully. It enabled him to repay most of his debts and it gave him the time to start his last novel. It provided him with a plot [for The Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western]. His unfinished novel captured a unique portrayal of the film industry. He left us with a wonderful work in progress. Undoubtedly, the final version would have been greater.” [Alan, Margolies, Fitzgerald and Hollywood, from The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002].

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Peter Byrne wrote that he saw Abe North, one of the tragic characters in Tender Is The Night, as being inspired by the real Ring Lardner, one of Fitzgerald’s drinking buddy writer friends, whose full potential was squelched by alcoholism.

Milton R. Stern, in his essay Tender Is The Night and American History (in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002), wrote that “in many details Abe North was in part consciously modeled on Fitzgerald’s friend, Ring Lardner” and that “The corruption of the legacy of Lincoln in the legacy of the Grant administration is encompassed in the devolution from the great Abe of the North to an Abe North whose drunken ruin of his great promise is the debauched national heritage after the war [World War I].”

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From: The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002

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Soon after the publication of The Great Gatsby, John Dewey was to write that “the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction, and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared.” The world of The Great Gatsby is a version of the new social world feared by the tradition of American moralists from William James to John Dewey. It is a world of broken relationships and false relationships; a world of money and success rather than of social responsibility; a world in which individuals are too free to determine their moral destinies.

Harmony and discord have the same relationship to each other as expectation and reality.

Ronald Berman, The Great Gatsby and the twenties, in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002

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8 May 2019

Two “F. Scott Fitzgerald” movies:

Last Call is based on the memoirs of Frances Kroll Ring (1916-2015), Fitzgerald’s last secretary, and sounding board, to whom he dictated his last novel The Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western. Frances Kroll Ring’s book (1985), highly praised by both scholars and Fitzgerald aficionados for its accuracy, detail and sympathy, is about the last two years (1939-1940) of Fitzgerald’s life. Frances Kroll Ring (herself in 2002) appears at the end of the film. A very well made film, as close as we’ll ever get to “being there” with Scott. Jeremy Irons plays Scott, Neve Campbell plays Frances Kroll Ring, both excellently in my opinion. The Cambridge Companion To F. Scott Fitzgerald (2002) is dedicated to Frances Kroll Ring “with affection, gratitude, and respect from everyone who reveres F. Scott Fitzgerald as man and artist.”

Getting Straight is a fun movie of college life and protest in 1970, and centers on a much put upon ex-activist and graduate student of literature (“Harry,” played by Elliot Gould) who ultimately gives it all up (except the girl) in a very spirited defense of the art and spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This movie was approvingly pointed out by Ruth Prigozy, the editor of The Cambridge Companion To F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was surprised at how many references Harry makes to characters and incidents in both Fitzgerald’s novels and in his life (with Zelda and then Sheilah Graham). The movie can be fun without having to know all these references, but it is much funnier being in the know. I thought, my god!, this bright, breezy, light-hearted confection from 1970 would be over the heads of the illiterate comic-book-cartoon-movie-consuming popular audiences of today: we’re doomed!

Last Call (2002, trailer)
https://youtu.be/uzxx8C2xWDc

Getting Straight (1970, stills and music)
https://youtu.be/vWER0TLWLuo

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What’s Wrong With The United States?

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What’s Wrong With The United States?

In his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World, Science As A Candle In The Dark, Carl Sagan wrote:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. *

Isn’t this all true today? We have Ubu Roi Trump as US President and officially in control of the most awesome nuclear annihilation button on Earth. We are mostly galley slaves chained to our capitalistic economic and perceptual oars, implacably driving ourselves into the geophysical tempest of climate change. We have cracked the secrets of genetic modification and have let this incredible power be held by tight-fisted corporations only interested in their own financial gain. We have a growing infestation of measles, a disease that in 2014 was thought to be nearing extinction but which has since 2017 expanded due to a decrease in immunization, reflecting an idiotic anti-vaxxer superstition justified as a “protect-my-child” panic. Our infotainment media is a wholly-owned subsidiary of plutocracy, for the electronic diffusion of corporate propaganda against the public interest, and for the mass virtual pithing of the public mind.

What is wrong with the United States? It is the failure of its people to unite with the vision of “with charity — and justice — for all, and malice toward none,” but instead to debase themselves into passive entertainment-dependent robots, or into ambitious careerists “led by their materialism and instinctive worship of power.”

The United States Of America is both classist and tribal. These are the fault lines of American greed and politics. The varieties of American bigotry arise out of envy and resentment, from within our classes and tribes. The nation itself is big and powerful, but greatness eludes it because its people are unwilling to overcome their pettiness. Internally, the classes and tribes are fragmented by ageism and sexism, as well as by racism where a class or tribe happens to be multi-racial.

As is always true when speaking about society, all generalizations are formally wrong because one can always find individual counterexamples. However, what is wrong with the United States is that the number of such counterexamples to the sweeping criticisms made here do not count up to an overwhelming majority of the American people. If they did then everything in our society would be different, as would everybody who is now “in charge.”

The decadent nature of our society is a mirror of our cowardly denied national consensus for a pathetic tolerance of anti-intellectualism, ignorance, superstition, moral irresponsibility within our particular class and tribe, shameless sociopathic egotism, criminality labeled as capitalism, bigotry labeled as religion, and religion practiced as hate-crime.

There is no sociological fix that can come down to us, externally, from our political and judicial systems — whose only functions are to protect capitalism from popular democracy and to mediate capitalistic disputes — nor from organized religions, which arrogantly claim to hold the answers to ultimate questions (they don’t), and which demand to regulate and compel social morality.

The only possible fix is the combination of attitudes and behaviors that emerge individually out of personal commitments to principled and thoughtful living, and then merge into a mass socialist consciousness, from which collective economic, social-humanitarian, technological and self-defense actions can be logically organized.

To say that this emergent (as opposed to external) sociological fix is “utopian” is simply to dismiss the possibility of ever seeing it achieve any degree of reality, however modest. I think it better to be realistic than defeatist: our “utopia” is easily possible if we “all” want it, and though that is highly improbable it is better to align our intentions for personal conduct with this vision than to acquiesce to a personal debasement of becoming another trivial mind-numbed soul-dead unit in the official hypocrisy of decadent materialism.

Why is it better? Because you would develop and realize more of your human potential, and because you would acquire greater lived experience that would justify an authentic and satisfying sense of freedom and self-respect. Also, you would have a greater positive effect on the people you personally come in contact with, most importantly your family. I believe the abstractions we apply to the masses and label as “socialism” and “utopia” and “green new deal,” and so on, can only materialize by bleeding out of the realities of individual lives of integrity, and then mixing into a rising tide of socialist revolution.

So, what movement should you join?, politician should you vote for?, petitions should you sign?, charities should you contribute to?, job should you try to get?, sect should you fight in in our sectarian wars for political purity?, in short what is “the right way?”

How do I know? All my specific choices to these questions can be argued with — even by people who agree with me in the global abstract — because every person’s experience of life is different. Our individual templates for personal action will inevitably be ill-suited for most of each other. The persistence of people pushing their own “right way” orthodoxies onto others, whom they share a grand fuzzy vision with, is what dissipates popular energy that could otherwise propel a worthwhile — if fuzzy — collective purpose, and which instead thus leads to an enervating argumentative fragmentation of the original socialist unity.

So, at this point I am left with only platitudes and a reliance on high-minded innuendo, if tasked to spell out a detailed program to fix our society “once and for all,” to wrest it from it’s late-stage capitalist Kali Yuga.

What I believe is that the effort to do this is and will always be never-ending and myriadly multifaceted, and that any worthwhile elements of socialism that successfully make the transition from popular aspiration to realities that can be experienced, will have had to emerge atomistically from individual lives of integrity — rather than being imposed deus ex machina — in order to blend and bond organically into the humane, compassionate and intelligent future society we can so easily imagine.

All I can offer here are recommendations for aspirational solidarity, such as expressed by Albert Camus: “I rebel, therefore we exist,” and for intentional moral character, such as expressed by Thucydides as a quote by Pericles: “Honor is the only thing that does not grow old.”

Maybe from such airy notions, and a bit of personal pride, we can surprise ourselves into finally making America decent for everybody. And that would be great.

* [Thanks to Dan Kaminsky and Ivan Sudofsky for pointing me to the Carl Sagan reference and passage.]

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Mendocino County, 2019

I just came back from a visit to Mendocino County, California, and here are 20 of my pictures from that trip. I’ve chosen to present these photos at a “large” size (not “full”) and “high” resolution (not “maximum). I hope you enjoy them.

We stayed in this house, designed to collect solar heat with its high row of windows facing south, and its full length solarium. The large vegetable and fruit garden is being prepared once again for the coming spring.

 

A meditative spot by the house is the Koi Pond.

 

Daffodils have started to carpet the green fields of the old cemetery for the town of Manchester.

 

Navarro Beach, where the Navarro River meets the Pacific Ocean, south of the hamlets of Albion and Little River.

 

I can never take too many pictures of the beach and surf.

 

The “isness” of nature is so beautiful, it takes you out of yourself and into the universal and primordial.

 

Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937) was an American fine arts painter. She made this self portrait in oil, in 1881, when she was a 16 year old art student in San Francisco. This photo is only of a portion of the full painting.

 

Grace Hudson spent most of her life in the small city of Ukiah (inland Mendocino County), where today many of her art works are displayed at the Grace Hudson Museum.

 

Grace Hudson focused her artistry on the portraiture of the Pomo Indians, who live (still) in the Ukiah and Potter valleys (of inland Mendocino County). She painted real people in the natural settings of the region. This particular painting is about “the birth of song.”

 

A young Pomo girl with her pet fox.

 

A young Pomo girl with an orange, and attitude.

 

Grace Hudson made many paintings of Pomo children and babies. This is a detail of one of her best known “baby pictures.”

 

Grace Hudson sketched this amazingly subtle and detailed portrait of an expert Pomo basket weaver, and friend, with bitumen (which I think of as a coal/tar crayon).

 

Nit’s Cafe is a small, wonderful Thai-themed restaurant in Fort Bragg.

 

This view shows over 90% of the dining area of Nit’s Cafe. Note the potted orchids and colored lights. The food is phenomenal; the seafood is exquisite.

 

Menus at Nit’s Cafe.

 

Here is the chef of this one-woman enterprise, Nit herself: an accomplished gourmet chef who combines refined French culinary technique with Thai sensibility, and a passion for fine cooking. A lively and lovely person. Nit’s is at 322 CA Hwy 1 (the main street through Fort Bragg, in the center of town).

 

Point Navarro, north of Navarro Beach and south of Albion and Little River; looking west toward the setting sun, from near the edge of the high cliff (rocky surf below, and a very windy day).

 

The ceaseless surf at Navarro Point.

 

Looking north from the same cliff-edge spot at Navarro Point.

 

I Learn About F. Scott Fitzgerald

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with daughter Scottie

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I Learn About F. Scott Fitzgerald

After decades of resisting the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), thinking him and them as inconsequential and passé, I finally fell under their spell. He was a literary genius, a great romantic and perceptive and fundamentally tragic writer. His novel, The Great Gatsby, is shimmering, transcendental (beyond the powers of cinema to capture), and – from the perspective of our limited human lifetimes – eternal. A collection of his short stories compiled in 1960, Babylon Revisited, is fascinating, showing how inventive he was at devising characters and plots detailing the intertwining of the psychologies of those characters. And he would present it all with fluidly lyrical prose of amazing compactness. What has drawn me to his stories is his implicitly deep understanding of the human heart, which he conveys from behind the casual facade of both manic and faded Jazz Age settings. What I see from his own personal story is that every true artist must constantly struggle to be able to do the work that expresses their art and gives their life meaning, despite the enervating drag of the many demands heaped on one by the needs of economic survival, exhibiting sufficient conformity for social acceptance, and the emotional needs – and illusions – of close family. I think that is the great heroic epic of each artist’s personal life: somehow producing the work held deep in the heart and soul and mind, despite both the intentional and indifferent impediments placed before that artistic drive by life’s banalities. Some succeed better than others, and some are broken and fail in that they themselves are lost to life and their unknown art stillborn. With all that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, I think that we are only seeing fragments of his potential, even given that he was one of America’s supreme literary artists. I appreciate his decades of struggle to produce those gems. It can be very hard to be an ordinary, imperfect human being gifted to be an instinctive channel to a primordial artistic insight and creative drive. His gift to us is the wider awareness we may gain by reading his stories, and immersing ourselves in his enthralling lyricism. I’ve now embarked on Tender Is The Night, which he called “a confession of faith.” In the last year of his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $13.13 in royalties. Since his death in 1940, more than 10 million copies of his books have been sold throughout the world.

Winter Dreams: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Life Remembered (PBS, 2001)
https://youtu.be/XnEO8yT_ApM

Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald (BBC, 2013)
https://youtu.be/cCfUsaX5F10

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