By August the Intimate Bookshop had also become a meeting place of the socially committed young people, drawn mainly from colleges, who represented an active minority in that conservative Southern state. They were interested in literature and serious nonfiction, sometimes bought a book on credit, and sat around talking, smoking, and drinking coffee. Their visits were a welcome relief from our regular clientele—the cash customers who kept our bookshop open.
One afternoon Fitzgerald walked in when Phil Russel—not Phillips Russell, but a younger man—Bill Buttrick, and I were arguing about the use of revolutionary tactics for the preservation of peace (a subject that is not the discovery of the current generation). Fitzgerald was freshly shaven, sober, and in low spirits; seeing the young group, he started to retreat, but I drew him back inside and introduced him to my friends. I knew he felt out of touch with the younger generation, but he agreed to stay, provided we went on with our discussion. He said it reminded him of bull sessions in his early Princeton days, and later in the back room of the Kilmarnock Book Shop in St. Paul, while he was working on his first two novels.
Fitzgerald was soon drawn into the conversation and supported the liberal position held by Bill, which at the moment was losing out to Phil’s radicalism. Phil, whom I remember as stocky, red-haired, and full of vigor, spoke with the brilliance and conviction that had won him top honors in Chapel Hill debating circles. Bill, a semi-invalid with a frail build, was slow of speech but was just as logical and earnest in his argument. Seeing that Bill was no match for Phil’s fire, Fitzgerald came to his rescue. His voice began to sound in the small shop, his spirits obviously getting a boost as he held his own with the robust student.
Yet it appeared that he was more interested in Phil and Bill as bright, articulate, politically oriented youths of the Depression generation than in the subject itself, and the more he talked, the more his opinions took on a conservative tone. Phil was on top of him quickly, reminding him of a passage near the end of This Side of Paradise in which Amory says that he was “a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation—with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals.”
“Yes, I was a rebel and I haven’t stopped being one,” Fitzgerald said. “But I also have Amory saying that he and his kind would struggle against tradition, and try to displace old cants with new ones. Like Amory, I used to think I was right about life, but such faith is difficult to sustain, and disillusionment comes soon enough to bury old ambitions and unrealized dreams.”
“You ended that novel already sounding disillusioned,” Phil said. He threw back his head, half shutting his eyes, and recalled the words he wanted. “You spoke of the past hovering over your generation, a new generation raised on old beliefs and shouting the old cries, but ’dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.’ I remember those lines. I quoted them in a recent debate on peace, comparing your so-called lost generation with ours.”
“Gertrude Stein tagged us,” Fitzgerald said a little apologetically. “It stuck and colored our outlook and manner. But cynicism was a face-saving device for us when we saw through the grandiose lies. It’s your generation that is inheriting the final consequences of those lies—a ruin all around you. How did you use my lines?”
“In not too complimentary a fashion, Mr. Fitzgerald,” Phil answered with an aplomb that should have reminded Fitzgerald of his own cocky youth. “I used them as a warning against defeatism, against the notion that it’s all over but the burial. I pointed out that the old gods were false, the old faiths opiates, and that war itself was around the corner. If we didn’t want it, we had to do something drastic and quick to save world freedom and peace instead of helping to build up the new war machines of Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan. And the answer to fear and poverty was to work to end the exploitation of all human and natural resources solely for the God-almighty dollar.” “I agree in principle, but your words have a familiar ring.” Fitzgerald gave me a discreetly knowing glance. “Where did you say this—at Chapel Hill?”
“There, and at a Students’ International Peace Conference in Switzerland.”
I served coffee. While we drank it, Fitzgerald turned to Bill, who had been out of the conversation during this last round, asking him questions about his background and whether he was going into politics. Bill explained that his field was social work. After a term at the new, experimental Black Mountain College nearby, he was now teaching at Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas. This was a workers’ school in the Ozarks, where there was perhaps more ingrained poverty and ignorance than in any other rural area in the country. The work there consisted of showing the mountain folk how to improve their lot through education, small cooperatives, and union organization.
“The property owners and storekeepers don’t like us,” Bill said with a laugh. “They’re trying to scare us off by saying we’re free-loving, Christ-hating radicals from way up North. One of us is Jewish, but they’d say we were anyhow. Now they’re after the state politicians to get rid of us. If that doesn’t work, I reckon they’ll try the sheriff. He’s one of them.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Scott nodded. “Is there any poverty here?”
Phil was the one to answer. “Where the tourists can’t see it, Mr. Fitzgerald. The people in these mountains survive on wild animals and herbs. The only cash they see is what their kids can get picking galax, those waxy green leaves used in funeral decorations.”
Then Phil told Fitzgerald about another side of Asheville life. Behind its serene facade of misty mountains and the rhododendron festival, a press was rolling out millions of copies of pamphlets, flyers, and books vilifying Catholics, Jews, Negroes, labor unions, the foreign-born, and, with special venom, President Roosevelt for his recognition of the Soviet Union. This was the Galahad Press, sponsored by the Silver Shirts of America, an organization with insignia, uniforms, and salute that openly imitated the Nazis.
The founder and spokesman of the Silver Shirts, with headquarters in Asheville, was William Dudley Pelley, a retired U.S. Army general whose appearance would have met Hollywood’s ideal for active duty. Dressed in a tailor-made gray uniform, Pelley directed Silver Shirt activities from his office there, and traveled the country addressing clubs and rallies of fearful, one-hundred-per-cent Americans.
“I’d like to get a look at him,” Fitzgerald remarked scornfully.
“His office isn’t far from here.”
But Fitzgerald didn’t see Phil again, and while I could have arranged for him to meet Pelley, having interviewed the man at one of his local meetings, Fitzgerald never spoke to me about him.
He stayed after the two students left. He was struck by the difference between them and the friends who had frequented the St. Paul bookshop. That circle had been purely literary; its members discussed poetry and fiction, and there were one or two novels under way. Politics and the world situation seemed not to exist for them. They were absorbed in literary ambitions, each with the dream of achieving success.
“While I was writing Paradise I saw a lot of Donald Ogden Stewart, though he wasn’t part of that crowd,” Fitzgerald said, pacing the shop now that he had it to himself. “He was from the East and was Ernest’s model for Bill Gorton in The Sun. He had come to Minneapolis working for an insurance company, I believe, and we spent evenings talking about Shaw, Wells, Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and Havelock Ellis. Don has a literary gift, a critical mind, and an engaging humor. We both sold our first stuff to The Smart Set. He was helpful in shaping up Paradise. We didn’t meet in the bookstore but at a dance in St. Paul. I remember him leading a cotillion. I loved to dance in those days.”
He passed on to talk about Peggy and Tom Boyd, the mainstays of the bookshop, who were to become his close friends. Peggy was writing stories and later published a highly regarded collection of them. Tom also wrote, although he had his hands full as part owner of the Kilmarnock and book editor of the St. Paul Daily News. It was Tom who interviewed Fitzgerald after the success of This Side of Paradise and called him “St. Paul’s only famous author.” At the time, Tom had written a novel about World War I, Through the Wheat, which Scribners had rejected; later they published it solely because of Fitzgerald’s enthusiasm. The book received excellent reviews and enjoyed a fair success.
“Your friend Phil reminds me of Tom. The same assurance and vitality, the same easy flow of expression, and the kind of dedication that was to ruin Tom a few years later.” He stopped and gave me a pointed look. “Qualities that go with the talented young. I don’t say your friend has talent—or you—but Tom had more than his share. I admired his novel, but I didn’t have the same faith in him that I had in Ernest and Cummings. The limitations in Tom took over when he quit writing about what he knew and turned out phony American peasant stuff. We never had the kind of peasants you read about in books about old Russia, but the critics ate it up as genuine—the same critics who later ignored me for writing about trivial people, the socially insignificant rich.”
Boyd ruined himself that way, Fitzgerald lamented. His estimation of Boyd’s work hit bottom with the publication a few years later of Samuel Drummond. The book angered Fitzgerald because its one-dimensional characters were presented as the salt of the earth. His prediction that the book wouldn’t sell, but would be dead in a month, proved right. At the time, Fitzgerald worried about Boyd and was anxious to see him, fearing he would become embittered by failure. (I later noticed that he wrote to Perkins about Boyd in this regard.) Then a few years later, Boyd seemed to have dropped out of the literary scene.
“The tragedy is that Tom had a strong talent. Through the Wheat was one of our best war novels, along with Three Soldiers and The Enormous Room. This was before the war became a popular subject in plays and films. Then Stallings made a fortune out of What Price Glory? I honestly believe Stallings could never have written it without having read Tom’s book—just as Kaufman could never have written Of Thee I Sing without having absorbed the idea from my comedy, The Vegetable. When What Price Glory? was going to be filmed, Stallings referred the producer to Tom’s book for background material. It was a case of Tom and I creating something original and somebody else making it slick and obvious.”
Fitzgerald had heard conflicting stories about what had happened to Boyd in recent years. He wanted to know whether I had any news of him. It happened that a month or so earlier I had read of Boyd’s sudden death the previous January. This came as no shock to Scott, but his face sagged, taking on an aged look. The news was in a tribute to Boyd by the critic Granville Hicks, delivered at the American Writers’ Congress in New York City that April.
Hicks said that Boyd had been “searching for a fundamental understanding of American life,” and that he didn’t find it until he had allied himself with the working class. Boyd had joined the Communist Party in Vermont and had worked actively for it, writing the while. In the fall of 1934, Boyd became a candidate for governor of the state on the Communist ticket. The following January he died, but Hicks’ piece didn’t mention the cause of his death.
“The poor bastard,” Fitzgerald said softly. “He went haywire.”
There was no difference, after all, between my friends and his own,Fitzgerald remarked. His friends may have started out as literary in St. Paul, Princeton, or elsewhere, but those who amounted to anything had eventually taken the left fork of the road. Fitzgerald hadn’t gone along, I knew well enough by now, but at this time I felt he was experiencing a peculiar sensation, a stance temporarily outside of his personal reservations. He was seeing the political face of his time much as one sees a face in modern art—one face, all faces, an abstraction that holds the reality.
Then Boyd’s name reminded him of something, an association on the surface of the mind that didn’t distract him from his contemplation of the road taken by most of his friends. He asked whether I had met James Boyd of Southern Pines or Margaret Culkin Banning of Tryon, who belonged to the horse-and-hounds set.
“No, but I’ve reviewed their books,” I answered, willing to change the subject for his sake. “One writer I do know is Olive Tilford Dargan, who has turned novelist under the name of Fielding Burke. She lives here in West Asheville and her novel is Call Home the Heart. I think it is”—he wasn’t paying much attention to what I said, but I struggled on—“why, it seems to me as poetic and honest in dealing with her Carolina mountain people as Mary Webb’s Precious Bane in its English country setting. Dargan started as a poet and she was published by Scribners too. I’m to interview her after the Southern Writers’ Conference at Black Mountain this month.”
By now Fitzgerald was slumped in the chair, his face buried in his hands. In a voice that carried emotion he murmured, “That clever kid. He ran the best book page west of New York . . . the poor son of a bitch.”