Author’s House
by F. Scott Fitzgerald


I have seen numerous photographs and read many accounts of the houses of Joan Crawford, Virginia Bruce and Claudette Colbert, usually with the hostess done up from behind with a bib explaining how on God’s earth to make a Hollywood soufflee or open a can of soup without removing the appendix in the same motion. But it has been a long time since I have seen a picture of an author’s house and it occurs to me to supply the deficiency.

Of course I must begin with an apology for writing about authors at all. In the days of the old Smart Set Mencken and Nathan had a rejection slip which notified the aspirant that they would not consider stories about painters, musicians and authors—perhaps because these classes are supposed to express themselves fully in their own work and are not a subject for portraiture. And having made the timorous bow I proceed with the portrait.

Rather than leave a somber effect at the end we begin at the bottom, in a dark damp unmodernized cellar. As your host’s pale yellow flashlight moves slowly around through the spiderwebs, past old boxes and barrels and empty bottles and parts of old machines you feel a little uneasy.

“Not a bad cellar—as cellars go,” the author says. “You can’t see it very well and I can’t either—it’s mostly forgotten.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s everything I’ve forgotten—all the complicated dark mixture of my youth and infancy that made me a fiction writer instead of a fireman or a soldier.”

“You see fiction is a trick of the mind and heart composed of as many separate emotions as a magician uses in executing a pass or a palm. When you’ve learned it you forget it and leave it down here.”

“When did you learn it?”

“Oh every time I begin I have to learn it all over again in a way. But the intangibles are down here. Why I chose this God awful metier of sedentary days and sleepless nights and endless dissatisfaction. Why I would choose it again. All that’s down here and I’m just as glad I can’t look at it too closely. See that dark corner?”

“Yes.”

“Well, three months before I was born my mother lost her other two children and I think that came first of all though I don’t know how it worked exactly. I think I started then to be a writer.”

Your eyes fall on another corner and you give a start of alarm.

“What’s that?” you demand.

“That?” The author tries to change the subject, moving around so as to obscure your view of the too recent mound of dirt in the corner that has made you think of certain things in police reports.

But you insist.

“That is where it is buried,” he says.

“What’s buried?”

“That’s where I buried my love after—” he hesitates.

“After you killed her?”

“After I killed it.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

The author does not look at the pile of earth.

“That is where I buried my first childish love of myself, my belief that I would never die like other people, and that I wasn’t the son of my parents but a son of a king, a king who ruled the whole world.”

He breaks off.

“But let’s get out of here. We’ll go upstairs.”

In the living room the author’s eye is immediately caught by a scene outside the window. The visitor looks—he sees some children playing football on the lawn next door.

“There is another reason why I became an author.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, I used to play football in a school and there was a coach who didn’t like me for a damn. Well, our school was going to play a game up on the Hudson, and I had been substituting for our climax runner who had been hurt the week before. I had a good day substituting for him so now that he was well and had taken his old place I was moved into what might be called the position of blocking back. I wasn’t adapted to it, perhaps because there was less glory and less stimulation. It was cold, too, and I don’t stand cold, so instead of doing my job I got thinking how grey the skies were. When the coach took me out of the game he said briefly:

“‘We simply can’t depend on you.’

“I could only answer, ‘Yes, sir.’

“That was as far as I could explain to him literally what happened—and it’s taken me years to figure it out for my own benefit. I had been playing listlessly. We had the other team licked by a couple of touchdowns, and it suddenly occurred to me that I might as well let the opposing end—who hadn’t so far made a single tackle—catch a forward pass, but at the last moment I came to life and realized that I couldn’t let him catch the pass, but that at least I wouldn’t intercept it, so I just knocked it down.

“That was the point where I was taken out of the game. I remember the desolate ride in the bus back to the train and the desolate ride back to school with everybody thinking I had been yellow on the occasion, when actually I was just distracted and sorry for that opposing end. That’s the truth. I’ve been afraid plenty of times but that wasn’t one of the times. The point is it inspired me to write a poem for the school paper which made me as big a hit with my father as if I had become a football hero. So when I went home that Christmas vacation it was in my mind that if you weren’t able to function in action you might at least be able to tell about it, because you felt the same intensity—it was a back door way out of facing reality.”

They go into a dining room now. The author walks through it in haste and a certain aversion.

“Don’t you enjoy food?” the visitor asks.

“Food—yes! But not the miserable mixture of fruit juices and milk and whole-wheat bread I live on now.”

“Are you dyspeptic?”

“Dyspeptic! I’m simply ruined.”

“How so?”

“Well, in the middle west in those days children started life with fried food and waffles and that led into endless malted milks and bacon buns in college and then a little later I jumped to meals at Foyot’s and the Castelli dei Caesari and the Escargot and every spice merchant in France and Italy. And under the name of alcohol—Clarets and Burgundys, Chateau Yqnems and Champagnes, Pilsener and Dago Red, prohibition Scotch and Alabama white mule. It was very good while it lasted but I didn’t see what pap lay at the end.” He shivered, “Let’s forget it—it isn’t dinner time. Now this—” he says opening a door, “is my study.”

A secretary is typing there or rather in a little alcove adjoining. As they come in she hands the author some letters. His eye falls on the envelope of the first one, his face takes on an expectant smile and he says to the visitor:

“This is the sequel to something that was rather funny. Let me tell you the first part before I open this. Well, about two weeks ago I got a letter under cover from The Saturday Evening Post, addressed not to me but to

Thomas Kracklin,
Saturday Evening post
Philadelphia
pennsylvania Pa

On the envelope were several notations evidently by the Post’s mail department.

Not known here
Try a story series in 1930 files
Think this is character in story by X in 1927 files

“This last person had guessed it, for Thomas Kracklin was indeed a character in some stories of mine. Here’s what the letter said:

Mr. Kracklin I wonder if you are any kin to mine because my name was Kracklin an I had a brother an he did not see us much any more we was worried about him an I thought when I read your story that you was that Kracklin an I thought if I wrote you I would find out yours truly Mrs. Kracklin Lee.

“The address was a small town in Michigan. The letter amused me and was so different from any that I had received for a long time that I made up an answer to it. It went something like this:

My dear Mrs. Kracklin Lee:

I am indeed your long lost brother. I am now in the Baltimore Penitentiary awaiting execution by hanging. If I get out I will be glad to come to visit you. I think you would find me all right except I cannot be irritated as I sometimes kill people if the coffee is cold. But I think I won’t be much trouble except for that but I will be pretty poor when I get out of the penitentiary and will be glad if you can take care of me—unless they string me up next Thursday. Write me care of my lawyer.

“Here I gave my name and then signed the letter ‘Sincerely, Thomas Kracklin.’ This is undoubtedly the answer.”

The author opened the envelope—there were two letters inside. The first was addressed to him by his real name.

Dear Sir I hope my brother has not been hung an I thank you for sending his letter I am a poor woman an have no potatoes this day an can just buy the stamp but I hope my brother has not been hung an if not I would like to see him an will you give him this letter yours truly Mrs. Kracklin Lee.

This was the second letter:

Dear Brother I have not got much but if you get off you can come back here an I could not promise to suply you with much but maybe we could get along cannot really promise anythin but I hope you will get off an wish you the very best always your sister Mrs. Kracklin Lee.

When he had finished reading the author said:

“Now isn’t it fun to be so damn smart! Miss Palmer, please write a letter saying her brother’s been reprieved and gone to China and put five dollars in the envelope.”

“But it’s too late,” he continued as he and his visitor went upstairs. “You can pay a little money but what can you do for meddling with a human heart? A writer’s temperament is continually making him do things he can never repair.

“This is my bedroom. I write a good deal lying down and when there are too many children around, but in summer it’s hot up here in the daytime and my hand sticks to the paper.”

The visitor moved a fold of cloth to perch himself on the side of a chair but the author warned him quickly:

“Don’t touch that! It’s just the way somebody left it.”

“Oh I beg your pardon.”

“Oh it’s all right—it was a long long time ago. Sit here for a moment and rest yourself and then we’ll go on up.”

“Up?”

“Up to the attic. This is a big house you see—on the old-fashioned side.”

The attic was the attic of Victorian fiction. It was pleasant, with beams of late light slanting in on piles and piles of magazines and pamphlets and children’s school books and college year books and “little” magazines from Paris and ballet programs and the old Dial and Mercury and L’lllustration unbound and the St. Nicholas and the journal of the Maryland Historical Society, and piles of maps and guide books from the Golden Gate to Bou Saada. There were files bulging with letters, one marked “letters from my grandfather to my grandmother” and several dozen scrap books and clipping books and photograph books and albums and “baby books” and great envelopes full of unfiled items…

“This is the loot,” the author said grimly. “This is what one has instead of a bank balance.”

“Are you satisfied?”

“No. But it’s nice here sometimes in the late afternoon. This is a sort of a library in its way, you see—the library of a life. And nothing is as depressing as a library if you stay long in it. Unless of course you stay there all the time because then you adjust yourself and become a little crazy. Part of you gets dead. Come on let’s go up.”

“Where?”

“Up to the cupola—the turret, the watch-tower, whatever you want to call it. I’ll lead the way.”

It is small up there and full of baked silent heat until the author opens two of the glass sides that surround it and the twilight wind blows through. As far as your eye can see there is a river winding between green lawns and trees and purple buildings and red slums blended in by a merciful dusk. Even as they stand there the wind increases until it is a gale whistling around the tower and blowing birds past them.

“I lived up here once,” the author said after a moment.

“Here? For a long time?”

“No. For just a little while when I was young.”

“It must have been rather cramped.”

“I didn’t notice it.”

“Would you like to try it again?”

“No. And I couldn’t if I wanted to.”

He shivered slightly and closed the windows. As they went downstairs the visitor said, half apologetically:

“It’s really just like all houses, isn’t it?”

The author nodded.

“I didn’t think it was when I built it, but in the end I suppose it’s just like other houses after all.”


Editorial

This piece appeared in Esquire in July, 1936. It derives from the same impulse as “Afternoon of an Author,” the set of feelings which developed in Fitzgerald during that long meditation which followed the experience described in the “Crack-Up” essays, when he learned to live with the despair of these years. As John Peale Bishop’s elegy puts it:

I have…
Heard you cry: I am lost. But you are lower!
And you had that right.
The damned do not so own to their damnation.
The loss and its remembrance are all here, but so is the clear sense that “in the end... it’s just like other houses after all” and that this is a gain.
“I lived up here once,” the author said after a moment.
“Here? For a long time?”
“No. For just a little while when I was young.”
“It must have been rather cramped.”
“I didn’t notice it.”
“Would you like to try it again?”
“No. And I couldn’t if I wanted to.”
He shivered slightly and closed the windows.

Here the quasi-symbolic method works nearly perfectly, as it does not everywhere in the story. Like Basil, he had once lived in princely glory up there in the wind’s trumpeting. Now, like the hero of “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s,” he no longer can. Now, too, a part of him does not want to live up there where, continually disregarding the existence of others, he did “things he [could] never repair,” and the horror of harm done that comes like a storm in “Sleeping and Waking” can be avoided. He was never completely sure it was worth it to live down here, but it was something gained.


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