A Portrait of the Artist as a Not Quite Young Man

I have been doing this for eight years now, as of June 1st, 2005.


What shape do we expect the decades of our life to take? In my twenties, I lived in 10 different cities, became the first member of my family to graduate from college, marched through a few serious relationships, abandoned the religion of my youth and completed writing 3 (of 4) novels.

But so much is left undone.

If my twenties were a movie (or, better yet, a season of a TV show), it would definitely be ending on a cliffhanger: 10 Cities / 10 Years is incomplete, my ongoing real world education progresses, I continue a Ted Mosby-esque search for a lasting relationship, and my goal to merge my Humanist worldview with my literary aspirations has yet to produce a book deal.

That feeling of incompleteness is what motivates most us to keep going. For me, the thought that someone else might take up the mantle of 10 Cities / 10 Years if I failed to complete the journey has kept me on the path, both in the project and in life. That state of noncompletion, though, can feel like a weakness, or even, on the worst days, abject failure.

After all, I’m about to start a new decade of my life and the list of my accomplishments is relatively short.

Young Success

Mark Zuckerberg Time Cover

I can’t imagine being a Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook at 19 and turned it into a billion dollar business by the time he was 23, or a Swift/Beiber-type musician who will always be best known for the songs they did at a young age, no matter what they do with their aging career. Sure, some of these teenie-bopper artists transition into adulthood with their careers intact, but for every JT or MJ, there’s a dozen Britney Spears and whoever else was in N*Sync.

That’s not to say that any of those people can’t or won’t do important things later in their life, only that their names will always be associated with something they accomplished when they couldn’t even legally drink alcohol. Now, most artists, inventors and creators in any medium would give their entire careers to have one success that brought them world-wide recognition (if not renown), so there’s no reason to pity the Zuckerberg/Beiber/Swift-s of the world (that, and they’re really, really, really rich).

The truth is, most artists are burdened by this, no matter how successful they are in their careers. Due to our limited cultural attention span, for a large percentage of the population Radiohead will always be the band who wrote “Creep,” Michael J. Fox eternally remains Marty McFly and F. Scott Fitzgerald is unjustly known exclusively as the writer of The Great Gatsby. Each of their respective fans will love them for much more than that, but in the shorthand of our collective consciousness, an artist can only be known for one thing. Some artists embrace their legacy, others spurn it.

My Success?

It will be my great fortune in life if I can achieve some sort of national (dare I wish, global) recognition for this extended literary project. I’ve gone all in on this whole ‘man of letters’ thing, so I either make a career of it or I’ll be signing autographs down in front of the 7-11 dumpster.

It’s perhaps unbecoming to publicly hypothesize about future success that hasn’t been achieved, but don’t fool yourself: Every artist you know spends a good portion of their time imagining what life will be like if (when) the world finally acknowledges their talents. Even those guys who sneer at pop artists and talk about how they will never compromise their art for financial success are dreaming of grandeur because either a) they’re full of shit or b) they have delusions that the world will magically transform and suddenly start rewarding integrity. No one works to create anything just so it can go unappreciated or unseen.

If 10 Cities / 10 Years grows into a book and launches my career, it’s likely nothing I create will ever break out from underneath its shadow. Knowing my personality, I can imagine that will frustrate me in my latter years, when I’m sure to be doing the best work of my life. But if that’s the price I pay to be able to pursue my ambitions as a career, so be it.

Whatever comes of 10 Cities, though, I have no intention of ending there. I have dozens of novels in me, as well as ideas for movies, TV shows, plays, and countless other art forms that I will never not aspire to master. Despite the epochal shifts through my twenties, those ambitions haven’t changed one iota. I might have stopped believing in heaven, but that doesn’t mean I stopped believing in the everlasting life of the artist.

Maybe it’s nothing but pretension, a delusion that was endearing in a twenty-year-old but is pathetic in a thirty-year-old. But the greatest art in the world was created by men and women with just such delusions.

So we beat on… oh, you know the rest.


Why You Should Watch ‘The Great Gatsby’ on Opening Weekend

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Great Gatsby Movie Poster

On May 10th, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (in 3D) will release in theaters.

It promises to be many things, though perhaps a spectacle above all else. Every one of the trailers has put the emphasis on the visual and stylistic beauty of the film, which is no surprise coming from the director of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom. Each of those films has their critics and champions, but no one would ever claim that Luhrmann fails in his visuals. The most common critique of his films is that he is all flash, no depth.

Many of the naysayers who are already sharpening their axes in order to chop down Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby are starting from there: They say the trailers are clearly showing a movie that’s all glitz and glamour, ironically missing Fitzgerald’s criticism of the dangerously shallow excess of the 1920s and, particularly, the moneyed class. How can this film be any good if it doesn’t get the fundamental message of the book?

Well, let me blow your minds for a second and argue that The Great Gatsby‘s defining theme is not the fatal excess of the rich. Now, before you wannabe English Lit professors have an aneurysm, let me say that, yes, that is a message in the book. It’s one of the messages, but it is not the central one.

Far too often, with our vantage point of history, we tend to adopt an interpretation of art that the artist never intended. Knowing that the Crash of 1929 was just around the corner (well, 7 years around the corner from the setting of the book), it’s easy for us, in hindsight, to read the book as a prophecy of the fleeting nature of wealth. However, Fitzgerald wrote the book between 1923 and 1924 and published it in 1925, well before the Great Depression. Because the novel, and Fitzgerald’s own personal arc of history, mirrors the boom and bust of the 20s/30s, it feels all too natural to view the book through that lens, but it’s an optical illusion.

So, if wealth’s fragility is not the defining theme of the novel, what is?

Our inability to escape the past. Throughout the novel, references to time come up again and again. In “The Authorized Text” edition (if you own a copy, odds are good this is the one you have), Matthew J. Bruccoli explains that in the novel, Fitzgerald uses “some 450 time-words, including 87 appearances of time.“¹ Every single one of the characters in the book is trying to either re-invent themselves or escape their past in some form. Gatsby is obvious, but you also have Tom and Daisy who have run from Chicago after a car crash shed light on one of Tom’s many affairs, and then there’s Jordan Baker, the golfer who was accused of cheating but managed to weasel her way out of it. Even Nick, the narrator, is trying to escape his life back home, reinventing himself as a bonds dealer in the mythical East.

(Minor characters are just as trapped: When Wilson finally gets up his nerve to force his wife Myrtle to leave New York, it leads to the climatic tragedy of the novel, fate maintaining a kind of stasis.)

There are other major themes in the book (the shallowness of excess being one of them), but Fitzgerald’s focus is most definitely on identity and its rigidity. The author was plagued by a desire to reinvent himself, and eventually did, transforming from an Irish Catholic in a Midwest middle class family into a member of the Protestant First Class. But just like his characters, that transformation would prove false and, ultimately, fatal.

What does this have to do with Luhrmann’s seemingly all-flash movie interpretation?

What the kneejerk critics don’t seem to get is that the flash is absolutely vital to the story. The dreadfully dull Robert Redford and Mia Farrow adaptation reveals what happens when you try to make a version of this book and strip it of all its youth and excitement. We’re talking about a book that pretty much defined the Jazz Age, the rebellious, youth-fed phenomenon that set the pattern for Rock n’ Roll, Disco, Punk, Rap, Grunge and every other youth movement since. As Fitzgerald famously said, he was writing “for the youth of his own generation.”

Yes, The Great Gatsby is a great work of American Literature and it deserves its place in the pantheon, but that doesn’t mean it exists in a museum. It’s a book of folly and youthful indulgence. Let us not forget, the narrator turns 30 during the events of the novel, and Gatsby is only a little older. The author was 28 when it was published.

f scott fitzgerald

Okay, fine, maybe the movie will be good, but why should I see it this weekend?

I’m so glad you asked.

Have you read this? Hollywood will always look for the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to churn out a sure-fire hit (or, if it’s cheap enough, a sure-fire meh). I’m very happy that The Avengers was the huge success that it was, because while it was a summertime popcorn flick, it was well-acted, well-written, and, most importantly, well-directed. I’d rather it was Joss Whedon ruling the summer movie roost than Michael Bay.

Still, the success of summer tent-pole movies is a given, and has been since Jaws. The zeitgeist when it comes to summer movies won’t change all that much, give or take a smart Inception-type blockbuster. Some years the superhero/giant robot/alien attack movies will be good, some years they won’t. That’s just the way the summer works.

Hollywood really only pays attention when a true anomaly breaks through. What could be more anomalous than a hyper-stylized (3D even) period piece based on a classic novel that dispenses with notions of redemptive, everlasting love? A movie like that becoming a huge success throws a wrench in the system. Computer programs can’t predict that sort of thing.

Now, I’m not naive. I realize that if Gatsby is a huge success, it won’t be because of it’s dark themes or classical literature pedigree. It’ll be because of it’s flashy trailers and soundtrack featuring Jay-z and Beyonce and Fergie. Well, good! I can’t think of anything more fitting than slipping a work of literature into the mass consciousness via the Trojan Horse of flash, spectacle and Pop music.

I don’t know about you, but I sure like the idea of a movie producer calling in his lackey and saying, “How can we get in on this great literature trend?”

The only way, though, that such a bizarre reality can come to be is if The Great Gatsby is an out-the-gate success. I mean, a huge success. Again, I’m not naive enough to believe that this film will open to Iron Man 3 numbers, but it doesn’t have to. If Gatsby breaks the $50 million mark in its opening weekend (a feat that wouldn’t even put it in the top 100 of all-time opening weekend records), that would be spectacular (it’s projected to hit in the mid to high $30 mils) and also a huge flag for studio execs.

“You mean, we can make character- and story-based movies that actually sell? Who knew?”

Look, I know there are some people who have already decided this movie is going to suck. Maybe you hated the previews, or you’ve hated everything Luhrmann’s ever done, or you just hate anything that’s popular. Well, go see the movie this weekend anyway. I mean, if you want to be able to intelligently criticize the thing, you’ll have to see it, eventually. Might as well get it over with as soon as possible so you don’t sound like a pretentious hipster-doofus for the next few weeks. And then you can go back to listening to your vinyl.

I am fully optimistic that Luhrmann gets the book and Fitzgerald and will produce a film that is not only true to the spirit of the novel, but the spirit of the age, both the 1920s and the 2010s.

But even if the movie ends up disappointing, I’d rather Hollywood try its hand at interesting, experimental adaptations of intelligent source material than yet another movie about a toy. So I’ll be there at the midnight showing Friday morning.

I hope you’ll join me.


1 Fitzgerald, F. S. (2003). The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.

My Twenties


I turn 30 this year.

Such milestones inspire retrospection, a look back on the decade that was and contemplation of the decade that will be. What have I accomplished in my twenties, and what will I accomplish beyond them? What did I fail to achieve, and will those achievements remain out of reach?

When measured against my literary heroes and influences, it’s hard not to feel the burden of time. After graduating from college, I gave myself two years to publish my first novel to be on track with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who published This Side of Paradise at the remarkable age of 24. Well, my 24th year came and went, followed by 25, 26 and so on through my twenties without a published novel to my name, let alone a work that would elevate my name among the Promising Young Novelists.

Though I have a few publishing credits to my name, a smattering of short writings does not a career make.

It would be easy to see the impending mile marker of my life as a monument to unfulfilled promise. When comparing myself to artists both living and dead, it requires little effort to find examples of those whose output by my age eclipses mine. I will never ‘catch’ Fitzgerald, though my ambition to write at least one Literary Classic hasn’t abated. If one’s goal is to join the storied lineage of the great novelists, it helps to know one’s forebears. But such knowledge can be as burdensome as it is enlightening.

On the cusp of a new decade, I’m learning to not spend so much energy comparing my achievements with those of other writers and artists. It’s a fatal mistake to willfully live in the shadow of another. I have followed my own path, and my twenties have been as uniquely crafted as any literary work.

Two weeks after graduating, I moved across the country and began a journey that would evolve into 10 Cities / 10 Years, a travelogue as much about exploring my twenties as it is about exploring America. Now having spent more than seven and a half years living in a new city every year, I am a mere two cities (Boston, NYC) short of fulfilling my decade-long goal. This project has fully shaped the third decade of my life and when I reexamine this decade I can only hope it will be with a sense of accomplishment. 10 Cities / 10 Years may be nothing more than a gimmick I attempt to ride it to a career, but the project is also an earnest endeavor to write a definitive (albeit idiosyncratic) account of vicenarian life in America in the new century.

When all is said and done, my twenties will almost certainly turn out to have been both the most difficult and the most rewarding decade of my life. I doubt I am alone. It is, after all, the period of our lives most ripe for change and discovery.

The 20th century relegated the twentysomething population to careers in specific fields with defined expectations. Times are changing, though, and my generation (and younger) are looking for fresh careers, often creating them from scratch where before no such opportunities had existed. Just as the business world adapts, so must the artist. We set out upon new frontiers, with no guarantee that financial or artistic success awaits us.

In the 21st century, the artist’s greatest struggle is setting him or herself apart from the pact in a society where every wannabe critic can look online for someone who did it ‘first’ or ‘better.’ An Italian painter in the 17th century didn’t have to worry that a contemporary in another region of Europe (or even his own country) was creating work in the same style and with the same subject. But today, an artist in any medium is immediately shouldered with comparisons and once those associations stick they’re nearly impossible to shake.

This is the burden of living in the interconnected century. The internet is a wonderful tool for exposing us to new art and ideas and bringing niche works to a larger audience, but just as technology expands the world for the consumer, it diminishes it for the artist.

What is a young artist to do?

One can only hope to make an impression, but what does that require in this modern consumer culture? The demand for sensationalism grows and while this hunger for the execrable is nothing new (let us not forget people used to watch lynchings), it is a commercial impulse that can undermine creative integrity. You may have inside you a truly unique, personal work of romantic fiction, but suddenly the big money is in flaccid S&M erotica for the easily titillated. It sure is tempting to chase after the zeitgeist.

An artist’s mission should be to redefine the zeitgeist, to undermine it and push it in a new direction. It’s not possible for every writer, photographer, musician, painter or what-have-you to achieve such lofty heights, but the pursuit is what sets the artists apart from the hacks, those just seeking to cash in. I may succeed in my ambition for literary relevance, or I might not, but I’m hot in pursuit.

Art or commerce is the defining choice of our twenties.

I spent the first half of my twenties pursuing Fitzgerald’s legacy. Now, on the verge of a new decade of my life, the only legacy I’m concerned with is my own. What I accomplish will be the result of talent and persistence with a healthy dose of pure damn luck.

Which, as it so happens, are exactly the elements it took to survive my twenties.

Self Cliche

F. Scott Fitzgerald – A Brief Examination of Alcoholism in a Literary Icon

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

            The 20th century was a shining moment for American literature.  Great literary figures had grown up in the States in the previous one hundred twenty-five years of the nation’s history, but it wasn’t until the 1900s that American authors truly began to challenge European authors (especially the British) on the international literary stage.  One of the most prominent novelists of his age, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what some consider the definitive American novel, yet gnawing at the edge of his talent was an addiction that would eventually overshadow his greatest achievements.

           Francis Scott Fitzgerald had an uneventful birth, but his childhood was still troubled, mostly because he “grew up embarrassed by his mother and alternatively proud and ashamed of his father.”[1]  This shame derived from the fact that his parents were not among the upper echelon of society.  From an early age, Fitzgerald believed that he must find a way of inserting himself among the moneyed and influential classes, a preoccupation that filled much of his writing, though not without its fair share of critical consideration.  While his first and largely autobiographical novel, This Side of Paradise, depicts a young college “egotist” attempting to fit in among the Ivy League, his third and most highly regarded novel, The Great Gatsby, paints a rather grim picture of the rich and their utter disregard for decency and human collateral.  That is not to say that Fitzgerald rejected wealth and its excesses, only that it never quite lived up to his childhood aspirations.

           Fitzgerald flat out rejected his Irish ethnic heritage, almost certainly because it set him apart from those in high society.  In his attempt to recreate himself in the image of his ‘superiors,’ though, Fitzgerald never fully disassociated from his Irish roots, becoming “a mixture of aspiring, self-loathing WASP and, as he once put it, ‘straight 1850 potato-famine Irish.’”[2]  As concerns his religious upbringing, Fitzgerald likewise moved away from it, writing in a letter to his friend and, later, critic, Edmund Wilson, “I am ashamed to say that my Catholicism is scarcely more than a memory.”  He then waffles and claims it is “more than that” but then derisively asserts that he never goes to “church nor mumble[s] stray nothings over chrystaline [sic] beads.”[3]  There can be no question that Fitzgerald had little room in his life for the structured religion of his forbearers.  Of course, as most of the people he wished to call his peers would have been Protestant, it’s no surprise that he felt a need to distance himself from his Catholic heritage.

           He attended Princeton for a time, but he was never an ideal student and didn’t graduate.  While Fitzgerald certainly had his scholastic failings, he was a very popular and active member of his class and made a few lasting literary connections, but ultimately he dropped out to fight in the war (though, to his regret, he never made it overseas).[4]

           Fitzgerald is among a long line of Irish-American literary figures, and with that heritage comes an appreciation for alcohol.  It has been noted that the greatest undoing of the Irish was “not in how much the Irish consumed, but how they consumed it.”[5]  Alcohol plays arguably as large a role, for instance, in Italian culture as it does among the Irish.  However, the difference between the two cultures is “in the style and purpose of their drinking.”[6]  For the most part, drinking in the Italian culture involves wine drank with a meal, whereas for the Irish, the alcohol of choice is usually hard liquor, such as whiskey and it is done as a “recreation,” with emphasis placed on imbibing for purposes of “socializing, celebrating and mourning.”[7]

            For Fitzgerald, this cultural attitude towards drinking was obviously at play.  He began drinking at a young age and it would become such a prevalent force in his life that alcohol and alcoholics appear as central characters throughout his writing.  Whether it was the revelers at Gatsby’s parties or the disastrously young and married couple in The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald filled his writing to the brim with liquor.   He peopled a great deal of his short stories and pretty much all of his novels with alcoholics, though he rarely seems interested in self-indictment.  His characters, even when they display some of the most reprehensible characteristics of alcoholism, are by and large sympathetic people, often quite charming (as Fitzgerald, himself, was).[8]  That is not to say that he didn’t craft true-to-life characters.  One of his great gifts as a writer was his keen sense for humanity, but at times it seems he had a blind spot for his own greatest weakness.

            A heavy dose of denial and rationalization explains how he could live so long pursuing a deadly habit without stepping back and realizing the dangers.  Part of that was undoubtedly cultural. 

            He never truly gave up alcohol, though there were periods in which he claimed to have cut back or even gone long periods without any drink.  In the Roaring Twenties, when he and his beautiful wife, Zelda, were the talk of the town, they lived up their celebrity both in the States and abroad as ravenous partiers.  Despite their public personas, though, the Fitzgeralds were lousy drunks.   When inebriated, Scott was prone to “theatrical” displays, almost invariably making a fool of himself in front of his companions.  “In Zelda Sayre, he found a companion who liked drinking – and exhibitionism – as much as he did.”[9]  Almost every friend they had as a couple could attest to an embarrassing story involving the couple’s drunkenness.  Ernest Hemingway, friend and competitor, fellow literary giant and alcoholic, looked down on Fitzgerald’s seeming inability to handle his alcohol ‘like a man’ and painted a very unflattering portrait of him in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s account of the expatriate American writers living in France during the 1920s.  In general, Fitzgerald does not come off well in Hemingway’s memoir.

            This is not to say that Fitzgerald was unaware of his drunken escapades.  His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, reads like a fictional version of the early years of his marriage to Zelda (just as his final complete novel, Tender Is The Night, offers insight into the later years of their troubled marriage), with a husband and wife who drink too much and make spectacles of themselves both in play and while fighting.  As is usual with Fitzgerald’s characters, though, the reader’s sympathies are with the couple, or at least with the husband, Anthony.[10]

            What is most astonishing is that, unlike other authors of his time and disposition, Fitzgerald remained married to one wife.  This fact has probably been largely responsible for the general myth that Scott and Zelda were literary romantic heroes, doomed to tragedy but passionately in love with each other.  In reality, their marriage was often contentious, even before Zelda’s mental breakdowns, though those made the situation all that much worse.  Up until her first collapse in 1930, they managed to find ways to rekindle their love and continue together, despite Scott’s fear of infidelity and Zelda’s feelings of abandonment, and even her accusations that he was a homosexual.[11]  Whatever had kept them together throughout the 1920s, their marriage began quickly unraveling in the 30s, much in the same way his literary reputation seemed to crash concurrently with the stock market.

          Of all their ups and downs, the one thing that can be said for their marriage is that Fitzgerald apparently never turned violent towards Zelda, which would have been entirely out of character for him.  He was a less physical person in comparison to, say, Hemingway who Zelda disliked on the grounds that he was a “poseur” who artificially inflated his masculinity (plus, she suspected her husband of being sexually attracted to him).  Hemingway, for his part, thought that Zelda was a bad influence on his friend’s writing productivity.[12]  In fact, Zelda and Scott did fight often, and when she had her breakdown and was admitted to a sanatorium, the letters between Scott and her doctor reveals just how bad the cracks in their marriage had become.  It also exposes an alcoholic who was unwilling, perhaps unable, to quit drinking and his justifications for it:

Two years ago in America I noticed that when we stopped all drinking for three weeks or so, which happened many times, I immediately had dark circles under my eyes, was listless and disinclined to work.[13]

Here is the author arguing that the alcohol helped him write, not the only time he would claim this.  At the same time, he is suggesting that he frequently went long periods without drink, throwing in the “which happened many times” to imply that it was no great task to be sober.  He made such claims to friends and editors, too, quite often, even going so far as to say that he planned to “quit drinking for a few years.”[14]  Of course, it was never true.  Ironically, his justification for drinking were the negative effects he felt when he wasn’t drinking, almost certainly symptoms of withdrawal.  But he couldn’t see it that way.

            Zelda had apparently threatened to not take him back if he kept drinking, but Fitzgerald refused to be bullied into sobriety, as he saw it.  In fact, he puts much of the impetus for his drinking on her, writing, “the regular use of wine and apperatives [sic] was something that I dreaded but she encouraged because she found I was more cheerful then and allowed her to drink more.”[15] Here, again, is an alcoholic who apparently has been browbeaten into the overindulgence of drink against his will.  The alcoholic as victim is a common theme.  Displaying a fine gift for contradiction, he later admits in the same letter that his abuse of liquor is a crime he must pay for with “suffering and death perhaps but not with renunciation.”  A glass of wine at the end of the day is, after all, “one of the rights of man.”[16]  In this one letter, Fitzgerald seems to check off every excuse and justification in the alcoholic’s handbook before finally concluding that he will not give up drinking simply because Zelda has asked him to.

            Fitzgerald’s final ten years would continue in pretty much steady decline.  His fourth novel, Tender Is The Night, was not well-received upon publication in 1934 (though it has since, like Fitzgerald himself, received critical revival), and he spent much of the decade supporting himself with short stories and attempting to find success as a Hollywood screenwriter, success that would not come.  The period would provide fodder for what would be his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.

            While a more self-aware author would have explored his history with alcohol  more directly (as Eugene O’Neill, a contemporary of Fitzgerald, did through his plays), he relegated the topic to secondary plot points.[17] However, from Fitzgerald we have a refreshingly candid but at times still self-deluding confession in his 1936 series of Esquire essays titled, “The Crack-Up.”  As a means of summing up his life, it serves as a better analysis of his motivations and failings than those offered by his peers like Hemingway.  In the second essay, he explains that he spent a great portion of his life “distrusting the rich, yet working for money with which to share their mobility and the grace that some of them brought into their lives.”[18]  For a man who famously wrote about and lived among his generation’s upper class, this is a remarkable admission of feelings of disconnection.  Yet, in the first essay he claims to not have been “entangled” in alcoholism, having periods as long as six months in which he didn’t touch even a drop of beer.[19]  While he did practice temperance during the writing of The Great Gatsby, this seems to be a pretty clear example of the author trying to offer up a sympathetic self-portrait for posterity.  In confession he could not admit to his audience (and, it seems, to himself) that he was an alcoholic, even at the end. 

            In 1940, at the age of 44, Fitzgerald died of an alcohol-induced heart attack, leaving behind a legacy of wasted talent.

           Posthumously, Fitzgerald has been recognized as one of the great writers of his (or any) generation in all of American literature.  His failing was that of so many of his peers, which in a way makes his tragedy seem inevitable, though it was not.  His literary strengths were overshadowed by his personal weaknesses; most damning, an unwillingness to admit them to himself.   For this reason, literature’s great gain was his greater loss, a truism of so many of the world’s finest artists.


[1] Scott Donaldson. Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald, The Rise And Fall Of A Literary Friendship (Woodstock: Overlook Pr), 1999.  15.

[2] Edward O’Donnell. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History (New York: Random House Inc), 2002, 258.

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald. On Booze (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation), 2009. 80.

[4] Donaldson, Fitzgerald, 56.

[5] O’Donnell, 1001 Things, 66.

[6] Kevin Kenny. The American Irish, A History (New York: Longman Pub Group), 2000. 201.

[7] O’Donnell, 1001 Things, 66

[8] Donaldson, Fitzgerald, 232-235.

[9] Ibid.,223.

[10] Ibid., 232.

[11] Ibid., 156-158.

[12] Ibid., 156-157.

[13] F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Life In Letters. Ed. by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli and Judith Baughman  (New York: Scribner), 1994. 196.

[14] Donaldson, Fitzgerald, 235.

[15] Fitzgerald, Life In Letters, 196-197.

[16] Ibid., 197.

[17] Thomas Dardis. The Thirsty Muse (New York: Houghton Mifflin), 1989, 250.

[18] Fitzgerald, Booze, 22.

[19] Ibid., 13.

The Rich Are Different Than You and Me

“Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.” ~ The Great Gatsby

It feels like this debate over wealth distribution has to be reaching a tipping a point.  Between the Occupy Walls Street Protests, the Republican candidate debates and the release of the report detailing “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007,” it seems that something’s gotta give.

Even as the Mirror Universe Tea Party protests seem to be gaining respectability and influence, with prominent publications finally taking the time to understand their message, the negative response to the movement remains steadfast in their conviction that the whole movement is nothing more than bums demanding that the rich give them their money.

After reading that Eugene Robinson WaPo opinion piece on the matter, what I found most interesting (besides for his very cogent and well-written points) were the dissenting comments (I’ve got a bit of experience with angry Conservative commentators).

Some choice examples:

“The thing is, the poor in America have more than enough opportunity to make it !
So please stop blaming everyone else for thier [sic] inability to achieve. “

“The “poor” willingly give their money to the rich when they buy crap that they do not need.”

Got to love these comments.  I mean, the first one simultaneously criticizes the poor for an “inability to achieve”  while displaying an inability to perform a spell check.  Priceless.  The second suggests that the poor are really all well-paid people who have just wasted all their rent money on Chalupas and PSP games.

Classic blaming the victim.  I mean, let’s face it, if she didn’t want to get raped, why did she wear such a short skirt?  Hello!

Steal From the Poor to Give to the Rich

You’d think that the poor were the ones with all the power, forcing the unassuming (and unwilling) rich to take more and more money.

Anyone who takes even five minutes to listen to the Occupy Wall Street protestors (preferably not an edited, flash clip on Fox News) will see that their message has nothing to do with demanding more money go into their pockets.  It’s about changing the legislation that has been bought by the rich to benefit themselves.  Unless you believe that wealth is an unfettered pass to do anything (possibly, you might), these protests should seem reasonable.

Even if you aren’t 100% in line with Occupy Wall Street, I bet you agree that a system that rewards wealth by punishing poverty is unfair.  Unjust even.

The fact that certain powerful interests attack and undermine the message of the protestors is no surprise.  The rich are going to protect their honeypot.  Far more confounding is the backlash against the protestors that is coming from within the so-called 99%.

Part of that is simple political allegiance.  Hippies and liberals are protesting something?  Gotta oppose them.

But, I think there is an even deeper psychological reason for the opposition.

Oh, To Be Ruled

There is a portion of society that, despite their lip service to democracy and equality, still yearns for the reign of kings.  They steadfastly maintain that some men are just better suited to lead, to guide, to have power;  simply better.  They believe in the rich’s superiority: intellectual, physical, moral.

Among a portion of the rich, this conviction might as well be common sense.

When the poor hold this notion, however, it is because they believe that poverty is just a temporary situation for them, a holding pattern until their talent or genius is recognized and rewarded.  They don’t count themselves as among the poor.  For other people, ‘poor’ is a trait; for them, ‘poor’ is a condition.

This is why the poor can so often be convinced to vote against their best interests.  Granted, often it’s because of an appeal to their religious values, but mostly it’s that they don’t believe the Poor’s interests are their interests.  What’s good for the Rich is good for them because, like a character in a Disney fairy tale, they are secretly royalty, their noble lineage merely waiting to be unearthed in the third act.

The Beverly Hillbillies

I’ve had a discussion with a family member who expects to be rich.  This expectation, they openly admitted at the time, is the motivation for their alignment with conservative fiscal values.  They want to know that if (when) they become rich, their hard-earned wealth will be protected from the greedy, grubby hands of moochers.  I suppose the logic of this is somewhat sound.

Except, getting rich in America through hard work, moxie and determination has about the same odds as striking black gold.  Sure it happens, but it shouldn’t be counted on, especially with a deck loaded so impressively against the working class.  Through various mediums, we are fed a constant diet of wealth and success stories that lead many to believe that any one of us is just a fat ass or YouTube video away from becoming the next Kim Kardashian (famous and wealthy for no reason at all).

I’m not suggesting that we should all collectively stop aspiring to success.  My project is rooted in an ambition for success (literary, if not financial).  Historically, America has been the nation that encouraged innovation and pursuing your dream, and that’s an admirable legacy.  The Occupiers are fighting to return this country to a place where such ambition has a legitimate chance of paying off.

Freedom and Ambition

Personally, I don’t define success as wealth, but rather as freedom to pursue one’s ambitions.  I think it’s a mistake to put too much focus on building up wealth.  The only sure fire way to be rich is to redefine the word to mean contentment with what you have.  Not complacency that immobilizes or strips you of ambition, but satisfaction that what you own is sufficient and anything more would be a pleasant but unnecessary bonus.

If I ever achieve great wealth – and I don’t think anyone could argue that I lack the ambition or will power to succeed – it will represent an advantage, not a validation of my worth.

That said, I recognize that money can provide personal freedom.  In fact, the very root of Conservative Capitalist philosophy is that a thriving, productive society provides greater freedom for its members.  ‘Freedom’ is the favorite word of any respectable capitalist.

But, the past 30 years have shown how that freedom can be stripped away from the poor (even the middle class).  Those with influence feed the lower classes a steady diet of “Unregulated Free Markets equal Freedom” and then dazzle the proletariat with visions of sudden success stories on “American Idol” and “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” always drawing attention away from the fact that for every overnight millionaire there are a thousand people trapped in poverty.

Whose Money Is It Anyway?

The wealthy are attempting to recontextualize and distort the Occupy Wall Street message into a capital ‘R’ Romantic horror story of hordes of poor banging at their gates, threatening to storm in and loot.  And the take away message is, “If they can do it to us, they can do it to you.  No one’s safe.”   It is an exquisitely told tale, but it’s more Grimm than grim.

There is a chasm of difference between asking for handouts and demanding that the playing field be leveled.  It requires tremendous audacity to claim that American citizens demanding legislative reform are the equivalent to panhandlers on the street corner. 

But this disinformation is spreading, largely because a hefty portion of the lower and middle classes have sworn to die for their king.

Unfortunately, if they get their way, they very well might.

All’s Fair In…

I’m not arguing that Capitalism should be abandoned (though, I have my problems with it), or that the rich should be punished for being rich.  I am, like literally everyone else, only saying that if we are going to have a capitalist society, it should be fair, not rigged in favor of the rich (or any particular group).  Some will argue that the system isn’t rigged at all, that what we’re seeing is just the natural free progress of Capitalism.  But it’s hard to look at the distribution of income data and not see a manipulating hand.

A fight for financial equality is not about forcing the rich to give up their legally earned money.  It’s about eliminating the loopholes and legislative padding that continues to widen the gap between the wealthy and everyone else.  It is indefensible that the income of the top 1% went up 275% over the past 30 years while the 20% of households at the bottom only went up 18%.

If those numbers seem reasonable to you, may I suggest a life of serfdom?

One Box Packed

That makes one box down, hopefully two to go (though probably three).

The ritual of packing is a familiar one, though one I still manage to screw up in the silly ways:  Writing the address on the clear tape instead of under it; overpacking some boxes, underpacking others; those sorts of things that you’d think, by now, I’d have down to a science.

The problem is that I get distracted when I pack.

I don’t own much anymore, after 6 years of unloading possessions and unnecessary ephemera that I accumulate thinking that one day I’ll want to remember this concert or that art exhibit.  Inevitably, I remember it all the way to the trashcan.

Yet, every year, I get to this stage and shake my head at how much stuff I still have to pack.  Thankfully, this year, I don’t need to bring any kitchen materials, so those are being left by the wayside, along with most of my bedroom sheets/blankets and a couple bags worth of clothes that, hopefully, I’ll have the funds to replace.

But there are certain things I never get rid of:  My notebooks.  I imagine by the time I’m moving to NYC, the only possessions I’ll have left will be my notebooks, laptop and clothing.

And just like every year, when it comes time to pack up my pages and pages of scribbles, I can’t help but stop and read them (which is why packing one box took two hours tonight).  Mostly I read the poems to see if there is anything salvageable in the emo or completely unauthentic rubbish I wrote three, five or seven years ago (nope).  But there are also snippets of longform writing in these notebooks, portions of novels or short stories, occasional notes I’ve written over the years as writing prompts.

Most of the stuff I’ve read a half dozen times by now, holding onto it merely because I figure there should remain some documentation of my literary evolution (it’s embarrassing, so let’s hope none of it surfaces until after I kick it).  But tonight I came across something I don’t think I’ve read since I wrote it, seven years ago.

The summer before I started the project by moving to Charlotte with my girlfriend, I moved to D.C. with that same girlfriend.  In one notebook was a dozen or so pages of a journal I kept throughout the first month of that summer.  It’s pretty out of character for me to write about my day to day life, especially back then, so I’m not sure what motivated me to do it.  Though, a reoccurring theme within the pages probably explains it:  Loneliness.

I had moved to D.C. by myself, awaiting my girlfriend’s arrival a couple weeks later, once her semester ended.  The pages are filled with my thoughts on the relationship (strained), my life back home (missed it but didn’t miss it, too) and, of course, how lonely I was being in a big city completely on my own, knowing no one.  How ironic that just a year later I would decide to make that my entire existence.  I must have a short memory.

But the other major topic I kept coming back to in those pages was my legacy as a writer.  I was terrified of turning 42 and looking back and realizing I hadn’t written anything of worth.  I thought that I might get married and lose track of the dream.  The 10 Cities Project wasn’t even a glimmer of an idea at that point, so all I was really concerned with was writing the Great American Novel.  I wanted to be published by 25 (Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at 24).

Now I’m 28 and unpublished (in any substantial way), and that urgency isn’t there anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, I still want desperately to publish a novel (and I have a completed, edited one I’m sitting on), but I don’t feel the need to be published by a particular age, I don’t feel the need to compete with Fitzgerald.  It’s funny, at 21 I was more worried about running out of time to make my literary impact than I am now, seven years later.

I suppose that’s largely because I’ve reconfigured what I believe my literary legacy to be.  I still very much want to be an acclaimed novelist (why be any other kind?), with my books read in college classrooms.  But I guess I see my literary output more tied into 10 Cities/10 Years now.

Back then, I didn’t have a plan, so all I had to hang my hat on was that elusive dream of being a Literary Star (despite the fact that our culture will probably never produce another Fitzgerald again).  I still want success as a writer, but I’m more concerned with the overall course of my life, and am trusting if I’m true to my pursuit that everything else will fall into place.  That’s not to say I think I can just sit back and let a writing career fall in my lap.  Quite the contrary, everyday I’m actively pursuing that career.  But I’m doing it by living, not by yearning for it in a journal.

I may never achieve literary success.  The naysayers would say the written word is dying.  I don’t buy it for a second, but book publishing is certainly not as robust an industry as it once was.  I am unquestionably fighting an uphill battle.

But I like where I’m at, and I know it’s miles beyond where I was when I wrote that journal in D.C.

So, I guess if nothing else, those notebooks serve as mile markers for the journey.

Plus, it’s good to be reminded once in awhile just how much of a whiny bitch I was back then.