Sep. 24, 2009

What I Understood

by Katha Pollitt

When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I'd ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, "Someday you'll know what it's like!"
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
the only thing I didn't understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I'll be
thirty-nine, and I still don't understand it.

"What I Understood" by Katha Pollitt, from The Mind-Body Problem. © Random House, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald, (books by this author) born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1896). He's the author of dozens of short stories and of the novels The Great Gatsby (1925), This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), and Tender is the Night (1934).

After his first novel was published, Scott and his wife, Zelda, (books by this author) became New York celebrities, icons of the 1920s and of the Jazz Age, a term that Fitzgerald himself coined. But before there was Zelda, there was Ginevra King, F. Scott's first love, who some scholars argue was the most important woman in F. Scott Fitzgerald's literary life, even more influential on his writing than his famous wife. Many think Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby is modeled after Ginevra, as well as, Isabelle Borge in This Side of Paradise and Judy Jones in "Winter Dreams."

Ginevra, named after a Leonard da Vinci painting, was a Chicago debutante from an old-money family. She and Scott met at a sledding party in St. Paul when Scott was 18, home on winter break from Princeton, and she —16 — was in town visiting one of her boarding school roommates. Almost immediately, they became obsessed with each other and began a prodigious correspondence that would last three years, in which she wrote up to 24 pages of letters a day, often ditching Scripture class to sit and write to him. In the first letter to him, dated a week after they met, she asks him to send a photo of himself, saying, "I have but a faint recollection of yellow hair and big blue eyes and a brown corduroy waist-coat that was very good-looking!'' And she signs that first letter, ''Yours Fickely sometimes but Devotedly at present — Ginevra."

She was hugely coy and flirtatious. A couple weeks after that first letter, she wrote to him: "I hear you had plans for kissing me goodbye publicly. My goodness, I'm glad you didn't. I'd have had to be severe as anything with you! (Ans. This — Why didn't you?)"

Though he was devoted to her, King's commitment to Fitzgerald fluctuated greatly, and despite his seriousness and discussion of their future, she often appeared blithe about their relationship. At one point, she wrote, ''Don't forget our plan of elopement — That mustn't fall through.''

During their courtship, Ginevra's father said to F. Scott: "Poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls." Scott wrote it down in his diary in August 1916. The line appears in The Great Gatsby, coming out of the mouth of Daisy Buchanan herself.

Their correspondence tapered off in 1917, and soon Ginevra King wrote to tell him that she was getting engaged to another man, the son of her dad's business partner. When her wedding announcement appeared in the newspaper, he clipped it out and put it in his scrapbook, along with one of her handkerchiefs, and he hand-wrote a caption under it that said, "The End of a Once Poignant Story."

In July 1918 — the same month that Ginevra announced her engagement — Scott met Zelda for the first time, at a dance in Montgomery, Alabama. But even after he'd begun a passionate courtship with Zelda, Ginevra loomed large in his mind. In 1919, he published a poem in The Nassau Literary Magazine about Ginevra entitled "My First Love."

Twenty years after they stopped corresponding, Scott and Ginevra met up for the last time. It was in Hollywood, where he was writing movie scripts and trying to stay sober. Shortly before the planned meeting, he wrote to his daughter Scottie about Ginevra: "She was the first girl I ever loved and I have faithfully avoided seeing her up to this moment to keep the illusion perfect. I don't know whether I should go or not." The two of them went to a bar, and he began drinking again.

His copious correspondence with Zelda was published in various volumes, including Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, ed. Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Banks (2002) and F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Matthew Bruccoli (1994). In recent years, Cambridge University Press has been publishing the Complete Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, replete with annotations. Nearly a dozen volumes have been published so far: The Beautiful and Damned came out last year, and Spires and Gargoyles: Early Writings, 1909–1919 is due out in the spring.

Fitzgerald wrote, "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."

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