Sep. 24, 2003

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Poem: "Number 20," by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from A Coney Island of the Mind (New Directions).

Number 20

The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
               fell in love
                         with unreality
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
                         the licorice sticks
               and tootsie rolls
     and Oh Boy Gum

Outside the leaves were falling as they died

A wind had blown away the sun

A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room

Outside the leaves were falling
               and they cried
                         Too soon! too soon!

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1896). In April of 1920, at the age of 23, he published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which made him an overnight sensation. A week later, he married his sweetheart, the belle of Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda Sayre, in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. They were young and beautiful, and they were emblems of the Jazz Age, a name Fitzgerald himself had coined. Dorothy Parker said they looked "as though they had just stepped out of the sun." By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, Fitzgerald had started to crash too. His marriage was coming apart—Zelda had her first nervous breakdown in 1930. The changes that came with the Great Depression made F. Scott Fitzgerald seem like ancient history, along with everything else from the "Roaring Twenties." He had written about the lives of the rich, and now he remained associated with them and had fallen out of favor. His books, including The Great Gatsby (1925), did not sell well. In 1929, the Saturday Evening Post paid him $4,000 per story, but his total royalties on seven books that year were only $31.77.

In 1932, as the Great Depression was approaching its worst point, Fitzgerald was living in New York, a city that he loved. He said, "New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world." One evening he did what a lot of New Yorkers did that year—he went to the top of the newly built Empire State Building. He wrote about it in his essay "My Lost City": "Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground."

After The Great Gatsby, it took Fitzgerald nine years to write his next novel, Tender is the Night. When it came out in 1934, it got a mixed reaction. In the spring of 1936 he was broke, looking for advances from Esquire magazine, but the editor told him he'd have to write something, anything, just to show the accountants. So Fitzgerald looked at his problems, his situation as a writer, and wrote a series of personal essays called "The Crack-Up," about what it was like to hit bottom. The essays were shocking; it was a time when people didn't air their own dirty laundry in public. Fitzgerald's writer friends—Hemingway, Maxwell Perkins, John Dos Passos—didn't understand why he would expose himself in that way. But "The Crack-Up" not only put Fitzgerald's name back out in front of the public, it also paved the way for a new confessional style in American writing. It begins: "Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again." Fitzgerald died in 1940 at the age of 44. That year, all of his books sold a total of 72 copies, with royalties of $13. Today, The Great Gatsby alone sells about 300,000 copies a year.

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