Thursday, September 27, 2012

Same-sex marriage vote: It's a family matter.

Participants in the 1982 Pride parade march down Hennepin Avenue by the I-94 exchange on the way to Loring Park. Stewart Van Cleve points out how LGBT struggles have changed—as well as how they've frustratingly remained the same—over the past few decades. Photograph by John Yoakam.

Former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies at the University of Minnesota

The Boston Spirit, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) magazine, recently examined the aftermath of the first same-sex marriage victory in the United States. In late 2003, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex marriages were protected by the State Constitution, Governor Mitt Romney found himself unwittingly poised to be governor of the first state to pass marriage equality. Romney promptly announced his support for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit same-sex marriages in order to circumvent the court's ruling.

Romney's reaction angered local LGBT couples who made several attempts to schedule a meeting. Finally, the couples met with their governor and told him about a vast absence of legal protections that married opposite-sex couples enjoy. They were met with a wooden expression and clear indifference. In fact, Romney's guests elicited a few reactions that can only be described as callous.

"I didn't know you had families," he remarked during their appeal. The ignorant slight later became an insult. As the group left the office, a woman looked Romney in his eyes. "Governor Romney," she asked, "tell me — what would you suggest I say to my 8 year-old daughter about why her mommy and her ma can’t get married because you, the governor of her state, are going to block our marriage?”

"I don’t really care what you tell your adopted daughter," he replied. "Why don’t you just tell her the same thing you’ve been telling her the last eight years.” The woman left and subsequently burst into tears. To the unsettled group's surprise, the governor promptly invited the media into his office and called the meeting "pleasant."

Nine years later and here in Minnesota, where ten electoral votes have gone to Democratic presidential contenders since 1976, the local limelight has seemingly dimmed on the race between Romney and President Obama. Instead, it has focused on the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage—which as of recently has been called a "tossup." Even if the presidential race is not as heated here, it is revealing key differences in the candidates' awareness of what a family is, or what it could be, which will be critically influential in the outcome of the proposed marriage amendment.

Denying the existence—or even the mere possibility—of LGBT families is nothing new. In fact, it was once prevalent, and eerily shared among the LGBT community and the antigay countermovement. While writing my book Land of 10,000 Loves, I interviewed Toni McNaron, professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota and a central figure in the local lesbian feminist movement. We came to the topic of LGBT families in the 1970s and 1980s.

"When I was coming up," she recalled, "it was very clear that you either were a lesbian or a gay man, or you could have a family. You didn't do both. I can remember the first time I heard here about some lesbian couple doing something and having a baby. I thought 'What, what is that? You can't do both of those things!' Because that is what we had all been taught."

At the time, LGBT activists struggled to obtain basic protections against discrimination in housing and employment; if apartments and jobs were luxuries, then marriage and children were out of the question for all but the bravest activists. Indeed, lesbians who had children from previous marriages often risked losing custody to their ex-husbands simply because they were in relationships with women.

McNaron noted that the struggle to win child custody battles paved the way to other victories for LGBT activists. "The terrified heterosexist world lost on that one, and within a few months, they will have lost 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' But what they've got left is marriage. And I think with any dying gasp situation, they're going to hang onto it for dear life. It's the last piece of difference."

In Minnesota, that difference rests in the idea that LGBT people are contemporary aberrations of a pristine, "traditional" family model. This idea complements a belief that LGBT families simply do not exist. Many LGBT or queer-identified people, their partners, and their children find that this belief is a poor interpretation of reality. Many straight members of their families, including their siblings, parents, step-parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, happen to agree with them.

This November, perhaps to no one's surprise, I will be voting "no" on the proposed amendment that would enshrine a ban on same-sex marriage in the Minnesota Constitution. Perhaps to the surprise of Mitt Romney, I, like other queer people, do indeed have a family. Mine happens to be one of the oldest European American families in the region, and it will be voting "no" alongside me.


Stewart Van Cleve is a former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota.

"Stewart Van Cleve has gone into the musty archives and brought them to vivid life. His comprehensive and entertaining overview of queer Minnesota history is a total page-turner. This feat is all the more impressive given that he’s writing about people who, for a long time, were trying hard to keep their lives hidden. This important work of regional history is also a kind of family history—documenting our recent past with equal parts painstaking accuracy and unabashed love."
—Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip DTWOF and former Dyke Heights resident

Friday, September 21, 2012

Imagining an Islam Without Red Lines

Professor of English and director of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England in Maine

The violence that has erupted throughout the Muslim world in the wake of the release of a short film on YouTube, one that depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a heartless fraud, is a wake-up call for very many of us.

I arrived in Morocco, the most liberal country in the Arab world and a reliable partner of the West for decades, on the eve of the YouTube controversy. As soon as I heard about the murders in Libya and the violent protests elsewhere, I chose not to be silent in the face of Islamist fury. I spent a lot of energy patiently explaining to cab drivers, unemployed youths, poorly educated workers, and highly educated professionals that the US government can’t control what people post on the Internet.

The typical response I get is one about the inviolate nature of monotheistic prophets. Civility, I keep getting told, consists of respecting other faiths and beliefs. Sunni Muslims say this without the slightest sense of irony, conveniently forgetting their genocidal murders of Shiites, let alone their persecution of vulnerable Christians in Pakistan and other minorities elsewhere. (The Jews, of course, have long been pushed out of Arab lands, but saying this will get you nowhere. The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict torpedoes any attempt at a rational debate on this issue.)

Politics is only part of the matter. Try starting a conversation about cremation, for example, or asking about whether good women will get their male houris in heaven. I look at dead-serious believers in the face and start enumerating the deficits of Arab and Muslim-majority nations: No decent public education, no adequate health care, no rule of law, rampant corruption in public office, widespread social hypocrisy, no employment opportunities, and total dependency on the unbelievers, the kuffar, for everything they consume. People nod—and nod—in agreement and instantly go back to their default position: Islam is the only truth. The faith, as interpreted by the ulama (religious scholars) is so deeply woven in their psyches that they genuinely believe that questioning it might bring the wrath of God on them.

This suggests to me a fear of freedom and what it could bring. Yet without genuine freedom society cannot create or produce anything of value. It cannot bear critical thinkers, a quality that is indispensable to progress and development. Muslims live in a world of ever increasing red lines, beginning with the prohibition of reading the Qur'an as anything but divine and believing that Mohammed is God’s last prophet. Try suggesting that historical evidence--however preliminary--points out that the Qur’an, like all texts, is the product of human hands and editorial decisions over a long span of time, and see what happens. One could have serious doubts as to whether Mohammed is the historical figure we have come to know, but such views would be unlikely to be listened to or taken seriously. And so it goes. There is no budging—the world must adapt to Islamic beliefs, or the world must go to hell.

We need to push ahead with hard questions about the origins of the faith and why Islam is a historical construction. We should take a second look at our view of Islamic history, revisit old assumptions, and allow the chips of tested knowledge to fall where they may. Religion might be hard to stamp out from our lives, but we should at least try to contain its effects. That should be the goal of those who care about peace. The reader may disagree with me, but I really don't see another way for people in Muslim-majority nations to build a decent a society for themselves and their children.


Anouar Majid is the author of many books on Islam and the West, including A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent is Vital to Islam and America and We Are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades against Muslims and Other Minorities.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

School start times: Why so rigid?

Assistant professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Over the past thirty years, there’s been a mounting body of evidence regarding changes in long-term sleep needs. Infants need a lot of sleep; children less so; adolescents need more; and adults, less, until our later years, when many require even less sleep.

So over the life course, it’s perfectly normal to sleep as much as twelve hours (even more for infants) and as little as four in a day. Along with these changes in sleep needs are changes in the time of sleep onset: as infants, most of us fall asleep earlier than we will as teenagers or adults; in our later years, we’ll wake up well before we do as children or adults. Sometimes we think about these differences in our sleep as pathological and seek out medical help, especially adults who start sleeping less than they used to, who often complain of insomnia despite feeling well rested.

But before we’re adults, we’re often at the mercy of other people’s interpretations of our sleep. And no one has a harder time garnering respect for their sleep needs than teenagers.

As a teenager, I started high school at 7:30 a.m. (yep, Rochester Adams still hasn’t changed its start time since then.) I would often get to sleep around 11 p.m. or later – not because I was playing video games or texting, which didn’t exist in 1991, but because my circadian cue for sleep onset was later than it had been when I was a child. I would have to wake up around 6:30 a.m. to be to school on time, which often meant that I was sleeping 6 or fewer hours each night. I don’t think I remember anything from my first two periods throughout high school. I would sleepwalk through my morning and "wake up" around midday. I would often nap in the afternoon. And still my daily sleep wouldn’t add up to nine or more hours.

There’s a nice piece on the CBC about experiments with changing school start times that includes an interview with the principal of the Canadian schools involved. It reviews the science of adolescent sleep, which shows that sleep onset at adolescence is later – sometimes as late as 11 p.m. or midnight. Alongside that later onset is a need for greater sleep, on average ten hours each night. The school day for students participating in this program runs from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., no shorter than for those peers who start at 8 a.m. or earlier. And there’s some anecdotal evidence that it improves grades and attendance. What’s most interesting about the story – as is so often the case – is the comments. Adults weighing in on this change in start times refer to teenagers as lazy, point to their distraction by media technologies and lack of daily labor, and generally dismiss the science of sleep.

Was I just lazy as a teenager?
Are today’s teenagers more easily distracted away from sleep with the proliferation of media technologies?

The science says no. But why might adults be so rigid in their thinking about the social obligation of the school day? Many commenters on the CBC article fall into a slippery slope fallacy, assuming that today’s "lazy" teenagers will be tomorrow’s "lazy" workers and demand that work times shift to later in the day as well. The science doesn’t point to the need to change our work days – though there have been some movements towards flextime and workplace napping – but many of the adult commenters don’t even appear to buy the premise that sleep needs change throughout the life course.

As I discuss at length in The Slumbering Masses, the basis of modern school start times lies in the 19th century, when public schools were developed to care for the children of day laborers—meanwhile, the elite would send their children to boarding schools. The school day developed alongside the industrial workday to allow parents to drop off their children while they worked. There’s nothing natural about it—it isn’t based on some agrarian past where we were more in balance with nature. Instead, it had everything to do with the need to fill factories with able-bodied adults from dawn until dusk and to keep their children busy. Only slowly did this change, as American work schedules changed. Now science can support the organization of our daily obligations – or at least support the advocacy for more flexible institutions, that take things like variations in sleep need seriously.

But why be so rigid in thinking about teenagers being lazy and school start times being just fine as they are?

One of the things that comes through in the comments to the CBC story is that many adults feel as if they did just fine in high school, and that today’s youth should be just fine as well. In one commenter’s language, changing school start times amounts to "molly coddling" teenagers and playing into their entitlement. High school, it seems, is hazing for entry into the "real" world of adulthood, emblematized by work. While this is surely part of what school is intended to do – it models the demands of the workday with deadlines and expectations of outcomes – it is primarily intended to produce competent citizens. If changing the start time to slightly later in the day leads to more engaged citizens and more capable workers, shouldn’t we change our school days?

More insidious and less obvious is that many people have come to think of our social arrangements of time as being based in some innate human nature. If we accept the basic premise that sleep changes over the life course, that alone would nullify any standard of time usage. But many people tend to rely on small sample sizes to think about what’s natural and what’s not; just because modern social formations work for you – or seem to – doesn’t mean that they’re natural or that they work for everyone. How many cups of coffee do you drink each day? Or how much caffeinated soda? Have you eaten a snack today to offset sleepiness? Or taken a nap? Could you have gotten through your day a little easier if you slept in an extra hour?

There’s nothing natural about alarm clocks. And many sleep researchers and physicians would say that they’re one of the worst things for good sleep. But we use them anyway. Maybe it’s time we start to take the science of sleep a little more seriously and begin to rethink how we want our days to be organized. If we could be happier and healthier workers and students, it’s worth the investment in change and thinking past our expectations of nature and norms.


Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press. He blogs regularly here.

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Insanity, addiction, and dark humor in the shadow of the Mayo Clinic

Author Luke Longstreet Sullivan has written an astonishing memoir about the story of his father's descent from one of the world's top orthopedic surgeons at the Mayo Clinic to a man who is increasingly abusive, alcoholic, and insane, ultimately dying alone on the floor of a Georgia motel room. For his wife and six sons, the years prior to his death were characterized by turmoil, anger, and family dysfunction, but somehow they were also a time of real happiness for Sullivan and his brothers, full of dark humor and laughter. What follows here is content compiled by the author.

The Longstreet family in late 1954, right after Sullivan was born.
From top: Dan, Roger, Kip, Chris, Jeff, and Myra with Luke in her lap.

"If you’re looking for proof that the Great American Family Drama is alive and kicking, here it is. Luke Longstreet Sullivan’s heart wrenching, poignant, and often hilarious family history is laid bare like a shattered bottle of bourbon. I wish more memoirs took the chances this one does. And reached such heights. This is a bravura work."
—Peter Geye, author of Safe from the Sea

Chair of advertising at the Savannah College of Art and Design; former resident of Rochester, MN

I began research on my book Thirty Rooms To Hide In back in the summer of 1992, the year my first son was born. At the time, all I had in mind creating was a family history; a simple transcription of all the letters and some photographs to accompany them. But over the 20 or so years since the project began, it grew and grew. After awhile I started to shrink it, perhaps to force the story back down and between the covers of a small book.

At first I had trouble deciding whether the book was about my mother or my father. For a while I thought it was about growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, about Marvel comics and the Beatles. And some days it was just about the house; about its loneliness in deep winter, its quiet in high summer. Now after years of working on the manuscript, I’m satisfied I’ve figured which one it is.

In this deleted chapter, I played with the idea that the whole sorry story of Roger’s (my father's) life could be attributed to the fact that his Mom had ugly teeth. But it’s pure conjecture.


Irene's Ugly Teeth

I am looking at the old pictures of my father. It’s time to put them away for awhile, but perhaps one more look. There he is, my father – 9 years old in his Sunday School clothes, sitting on that stone bench. At the bottom of the picture, Grandma Irene Sullivan's shadow, elbows out, as she holds the boxy Kodak camera. (She was cold like a rock and so we six boys named her "Grandma Rock.")

I turn the pages and there’s a photo of Irene, not smiling as usual. In the next one she is the same, without emotion, a degree shy of a scowl. I count again the number of pictures without smiles just to make sure, and it’s true: of the 44 shots of Grandma Sullivan, only four show her smiling, and in two of those she has her hand over her mouth. In one, her smile is like a paper cut. But in the last, Grandpa Sullivan’s camera caught her off guard. It is a smile. And it is genuine.

I get out the magnifying glass to study the only photographic evidence that Grandma Rock expressed emotion and I see her teeth are, well, they’re pretty bad.

I set the glass down and wonder.

Was all this, my family’s pain and its implosion, was it caused by Irene’s ugly teeth? The theory’s at least feasible.

A Coshocton, Ohio, school girl is raised on a farm, back when there were no braces and no overnight teeth whitener. Her teeth make her self-conscious and slow to laugh, slow to smile. In middle school the boys make fun of her and in high school she stays home from dances and perhaps reads her father’s Bible, the parts about how physical beauty can’t fit through the eye of a needle on the way to heaven. She discovers no one makes fun of her at church and soon the bosom of Jesus is the place she feels most welcome. At age 31 she is saved, she thinks, from certain spinsterhood by the death of the local minister’s first wife. In her new son’s eyes she sees the boys who used to reject her: boys who were so fair playing baseball under the Ohio sun with their shirts off, boys who made faces after passing her, faces she saw reflected in the store windows. Momma tells the little boy other people can’t be trusted and the only love anyone really can count on is from Jesus.

It’s feasible.

If the explanation is not in Irene’s teeth then perhaps it’s somewhere in all these volumes of old letters here on the desk: something Mom wrote, a nugget, some incident, some detail in the police reports, something he saw in the Rorschach tests – something. I want there to be a smoking gun, an a-ha moment. Without it, I’m left only with, hey, my Dad was crazy. It’s what the doctors at Hartford said.

It makes for easy writing, but it’s not the truth.

The final answer is banal. My father got into the booze and it poisoned him and then killed him. It’s a story neither sadder nor bigger than one of those articles in back of the newspaper: “Toddler Chokes to Death on Toy.” The toy was on the floor and the baby put it in his mouth. The bottle was on the counter and Dad drank it. When he did, it made him crazy and his family suffered and he died.

I remember asking my father’s boss, Dr. Coventry, if he thought the death of Roger’s mother had anything to do with his relapse and final dissolution. The dry answer given by the Mayo scientist makes sense now: “Oh, I doubt it. There's always something in life. You're never going to be free of those things. No, he was simply a recidivist. He couldn't handle his problem.”

Not a bang, but a whimper.


Luke Longstreet Sullivan worked in advertising for 30 years and is now chair of the advertising department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is author most recently of Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock 'n' Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic, and also author of of the popular advertising book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Ads. He blogs at

Find more content and photos from Thirty Rooms to Hide In (just click "Beyond the Book.")

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On motivation, love, and the Roaring Twenties: Some reflections on F. Scott Fitzgerald

Literary biographer of many, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Winfield Townley Scott, John Cheever, and Archibald MacLeish

You mentioned in an interview this year that Fool for Love is the best writing you've ever done. Why?

A couple of reasons. One is that I felt a greater kinship with Fitzgerald than with any other subject. I grew up in Minneapolis, across the river from Fitzgerald’s St. Paul. I went to Blake school, the Twin Cities rival to his St. Paul Academy. My mother, a contemporary of Fitzgerald’s, was raised in St. Paul, and attended St. Paul Central high, as did many of Scott’s boyhood friends. I like to think that she – the pretty, red-haired Ruth Evelyn Chase – may have danced with the handsome young Fitzgerald. But that’s merely speculation, for she died while I was in my early teens, before I knew anything of Fitzgerald, and so we never talked about that possibility.

The point is that Fitzgerald and I came from much the same background, thirty years apart: somewhat privileged midwestern kids yet not among the socially predominant class. He was tremendously sensitive about the divide that separated him from the elite, and it’s a major theme in his writing—not only in The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night but also in many stories, perhaps most powerfully in the great “Winter Dreams.” Much recent criticism has focused on race, gender, and class in literature, and it seems to me that Fitzgerald’s ranks as the best writing on the issue of social class in American literature. I could understand why that mattered so much to Fitzgerald and to his aspiring young protagonists, even thought I could imagine my way into his mind, or at least come close.

A second reason is that the book is based on a surprising amount of fresh material. Fool for Love came out after biographies by Arthur Mizener and Andrew Turnbull and Matthew J. Bruccoli, and after Nancy Milford’s book on Zelda. These predecessors had read through all of Fitzgerald’s published writing, yet I was the first to spend an entire semester at Princeton’s Firestone Library, scanning through the massive Fitzgerald materials there, including scrapbooks, notes, drafts of stories and novels, false starts, and correspondence.

“What are you doing this year?” people would ask me.

“Reading Fitzgerald’s mail,” I’d flippantly reply, but it was more important than that, for there is much to be learned about writers from the writing that does not find its way into print.

A third reason—the one I had in mind when Bill Morris asked where I’d done my best work in an interview for The Millions—is that I wrote a substantial section of Fool for Love at the MacDowell Colony on a month-long stay as a visiting fellow. At the MacDowell, which admits musicians and composers, visual artists and filmmakers, as well as writers, the conditions are wonderfully conducive to getting one’s work done. Each morning you walk from Colony Hall to your assigned cabin in the New Hampshire woods. At noon a knock announces the arrival of a box lunch left outside the door. Otherwise there are no interruptions until you walk back in the late afternoon. No phones, no mail, no conversation. You’re alone with your typewriter and your banker’s box of notes for eight hours, and it’s amazing how that solitude motivates and stimulates you. I wrote “Darling Heart” and “Genius and Glass,” the two chapters on the relationship between Scott and Zelda, during that visit to the MacDowell, and believe they stand as the very best I’ve done.

What is the most shocking detail you uncovered about Fitzgerald?

That discovery came in the form of two “notes to self” in the Fitzgerald archive at Princeton, and is discussed midway through the “Genius and Glass” chapter. Both notes were written in 1933 or 1934 as his marriage was falling apart. By that time he had arrived at a conviction that men and women were compulsively engaged in a war between the sexes (Tender Is the Night is the most prominent work of fiction based on that theme). But I was surprised by the vehemence and bitterness of the notes about the conflict between Zelda and himself – a conflict exacerbated by his alcoholism and her schizophrenia.

“KEEP COOL BUT FIRM” in red ink begins the first note, manifestly written as an argument for divorce. Then there followed:

As I got feeling worse Zelda got mentally better, but

it seemed to me that as she did she was also coming to

the conclusion … [that] if I broke down it justified her

whole life … Finally four days ago told her frankly &

furiously that had got & was getting rotten deal trading

my health for her sanity and from now on I was going

to look out for myself & Scotty exclusively, and let

her go to Bedlam for all I cared.

The second note was still more shocking. In brief chilling fashion Fitzgerald presented a diabolical plan to make sure that Zelda went “to Bedlam” (Fool for Love provides details of the plan). It could only have been written by a man convinced that he and his wife were locked in a struggle from which only one of them would emerge alive and well. No other biographer happened upon this “Plan – To attack on all grounds” that would “probably result” in a “new breakdown” with “All this in secret.” Fitzgerald, thankfully, did not follow through with this plan.

What can you tell us about Fitzgerald’s years in St. Paul?

He was born there in 1896, but in the following year his father’s job with Procter & Gamble took the family east to Buffalo and Syracuse for the next decade. When the firm decided to let Edward Fitzgerald go, they limped back to St. Paul and remained there throughout the rest of Scott’s boyhood and adolescence. “All one can know,” he later observed, “is that somewhere between thirteen, boyhood’s majority, and seventeen, when one is a sort of counterfeit young man, there is a time when youth fluctuates hourly between one world and another – pushed ceaselessly forward into unprecedented experiences and vainly trying to struggle back to the days when nothing had to be paid for.” During those years he attended S.P.A., where he was probably the only student from a Catholic family who did not own a house of their own – they moved almost every year from one row house to another, several of these on Holly just off the more fashionable Summit Avenue – and whose father was out of work. The money to support them came from grandfather McQuillan, who had migrated from Ireland to establish a prosperous wholesale grocery business. His daughter – Scott’s mother Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald – spoiled her son badly, and understandably so, for her first two children died only three months before he was born. For his mother, her brilliant good-looking boy could do no wrong. Until he was fifteen, he commented, he didn’t know anyone else was alive. At S.P.A. he was too cocky to be popular with the other boys. He did better with the girls.

How is Fitzgerald a Fool for Love?

Fitzgerald was driven by a compulsion to please, to gain the approval and admiration, the friendship and love, of others. He wasn’t very good at attracting male friends. He asked too many questions, some of them embarrassing. Princeton classmates were put off by his repeated inquiries about their financial and social standing. And at their first meeting in April 1925 in Paris, he asked Hemingway whether he had slept with his wife Hadley before they were married. “I don’t know,” Hemingway answered. “I don’t remember.”

He was much more successful with women, for he had an amazing capacity to understand their ways of thinking. He looked on courtship as a competitive sport, and he played it well. In boyhood he kept a record of precisely where he stood in the affections of various neighborhood girls. At eighteen he wrote an instruction manual for his younger sister Annabel, telling her how to present herself to boys at dances – what to wear, what to say and what not to say. One of his own overtures was to tell a girl, early in the evening, that he had thought of the one adjective that really, really captured the way she was, but that he wouldn’t tell her until later. That got their attention.

That youthful view of courtship as a competition in which the winner was the one most admired did not wear well with age, eventually transforming itself into the battle between the sexes that troubled his marriage. Yet in his final years Fitzgerald grew out of his obsession with pleasing others, his need not to love but to be loved. You can see the change in his letters to Scottie, after Zelda was institutionalized and he had in effect to become both parents to her. In cautioning her against making the same mistakes he had, he emphasized that it was doing one’s work that mattered most. Never mind the plaudits of the crowd: do what you can do well, and keep doing it as long as you can. In Hollywood, from 1937 to 1940, he stopped drinking, became responsible and caring, wrote most of what was going to be a wonderful book, and shook off his obsession with pleasing other people. He died tragically young, at only forty four, but not before he had achieved a very real triumph over himself.

What do you make of the resurgence of interest in the Roaring Twenties: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the success of Gatz off Broadway, the new film The Great Gatsby due out next year, and the Paris Wife revisiting of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway?

It may be, as Malcolm Cowley believed, that American literary culture flowers about once every thirty years. So then, beginning in the 1920s when Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby and Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises and most of his best stories and Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury and Dos Passos wrote Manhattan Transfer the succeeding decades of the 1950s (lots of good books then) and the 1980s and now the 2010s should produce bumper crops. Or at least a reflowering, here in the 2010s, of the magical 1920s.

Fitzgerald, of course, saw himself as reflecting in his own life the boom of the 1920s and the bust of the 1930s. Never again, as he wrote in the poignant 1937 essay “Early Success,” would he be able to recapture the intense excitement of the young man who stopped cars along Summit Avenue to tell people that his first novel This Side of Paradise (1920) had been accepted. But there were still times when he could go back into the mind of that youth who walked the streets with cardboard soles, “times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring morning in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county.”

Literary biography, no matter how well done, cannot match writing like that.


Scott Donaldson is one of the nation's leading literary biographers. He is author most recently of Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

"The most penetrating psychological examination of the author ever written."
—James L. W. West III, editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald

"A stunning portrait. Full of intriguing insights. Donaldson comes close to what the inner man must have been."
—Publishers Weekly

 "Written with great polish and researched as fully as any work on Fitzgerald."