I was Dick Whittington up from the country gaping at the trained bears,” Fitzgerald wrote in 1932, describing his first impressions of New York. Throughout his life, he remained the man from the provinces, the boy from St. Paul, Minnesota. His sense of fundamental decencies, his bedazzlement at wealth and power, his sensitivity to snubs and slights, even his need for the right romantic affection from the supremely right romantic girl, could only mean so much and persist so long in a provincial. What marks him is that he so often made what was common, banal, and transient into something singular, fresh, and enduring. Though the Fitzgerald family moved to Buffalo in 1898, when Scott was two, and did not return until 1908, St. Paul is as fittingly his home as Montgomery, Alabama, was Zelda Sayre's. In “The Ice Palace,” the best of his early stories, he captured the essential characteristics of the Northern and Southern cities superbly. Many other stories—“Winter Dreams,” “Absolution,” and those in the Basil Lee group—drew upon Fitzgerald's adolescence and early manhood in the Midwest. The Great Gatsby succeeds in being more than it seems at first reading partly because of the effectiveness of the larger contrast between the American West and East.
By 1908, St. Paul was a city of close to 200,000. Its two foremost citizens were James J. Hill, the builder of the Great Northern Railroad, and Archbishop John Ireland, the builder of the great Catholic diocese for which St. Paul's Cathedral was begun in 1906 and dedicated in 1915. The man of power and the priest inhabited Fitzgerald's being all of his life. In addition, St. Paul was a city in which hereditary position meant much.
Once past the frontier stage, St. Paul became conservative, aristocratic, smug. For all that, it accommodated itself to commercial wealth, and the best families soon included the wealthiest families. Almost all guide books speak of the air of superiority with which St. Paul faces Minneapolis and of the fact that “the sons and grandsons of the sound merchant and banking class, still give their stamp to the community.”
Fitzgerald's mother's family belonged to this sound merchant class. What security he enjoyed in his youth was of a shaky sort and came from the wealth amassed by his grandfather, P. F. McQuillan, before the turn of the century. When he died in 1877, Grandfather McQuillan left a million-dollar wholesale grocery business and a personal fortune of over $250,000. The newspaper obituary paid him this tribute:
He came here a poor boy with but a few dollars in his pocket, depending solely on a clear head, sound judgment, good habits, strict honesty, and willing hands, with strict integrity his guiding motive. How these qualities have aided him is shown in the immense business he has built up, the acquisition of large property outside, and the universal respect felt for him by the business men of the country.
The family fortune was ample to support his mother's two spinster sisters and to give solid backing to her two brothers and herself. When Scott and Zelda settled on the Riviera, they were repeating a trip his parents had made on their honeymoon. Before her marriage, his mother had visited Europe four times with the McQuillan family. When Grandmother McQuillan died in 1913, Fitzgerald's family's share from the estate reached $125,000. As late as 1936, when his mother died, the residue from the estate was $42,000.
Fitzgerald's “Scrapbook” gives evidence of the family's position in St. Paul. The plays which he wrote and played in received extensive coverage in the society pages of the daily newspaper. Later, his activities at Princeton were given similar attention, not only because he was a local boy making good in an Eastern school, but because he was the son of “Mr. and Mrs. Edward Fitzgerald, broker, 589 Summit Avenue”—and the grandson of P. F. McQuillan. Summit Avenue was the street which “epitomized St. Paul's golden day.” There the McQuillan mansion stood, and in various houses in the vicinity Fitzgerald spent his youth. “In a house below the average on a street above theaverage”—so Fitzgerald describes one of the houses in which he lived in his teens.
In a haunting way, the McQuillan fortune and his own father's failure, his parents' hopes and aspirations and their personal tragedies prefigure Fitzgerald's life and work. His ancestry was not merely that of other Midwestern provincial writers. He was, as Midwestern urban society goes, “somebody,” and he moved naturally into the country club set that defines society in the smaller American cities.
The wealth and prestige of his mother's family, however, was balanced against his father's inability to support a family by his own efforts. In practical terms, this may have meant the preoccupation peculiar to families living solely on limited inherited wealth: keeping the principal intact. It meant the postures of affluence constantly bowing to the necessities for economy. It meant grave family conferences when Scott was to be sent to Newman School in New Jersey and later to Princeton. There is little evidence that he suffered want at either place. There is some basis for conjecturing that his wanton spending when he found the money coming in goes back to his family's economic situation. The shadowy principal was always there making all other financial transactions less than ultimate, even less than crucial. The family fortune gave him the right and the predisposition to live grandly if he could; it gave him the license to spend whatever came in by his own efforts; it gave him the compulsion to spend in defiance of the economies that shabby gentility had forced upon his youth. “I enclose $1.00,” his father wrote to Master Scott Fitzgerald in July, 1909. “Spend it liberally, generously, carefully, judiciously, sensibly. Get from it pleasure, wisdom, health and experience.”
Fitzgerald's sense of tragedy may also have developed out of his parents' past. Their life, observed by a sensitive boy, conveyed its share of pain. Both came to marriage late: he was thirty-seven, she was thirty. Their first two children died a short time before Fitzgerald was born; a subsequent child died in infancy. By the time Fitzgerald had reached the keenly sensitive years of adolescence, both parents were past fifty: the father, a man who couldn't hold a job, who dwelt in the past, and on some image of himself superior to the one he was able to maintain; the mother, a woman of odd appearance and manner whose thwarted affections found some release in a sentimental devotion to her only son. Not until later was Fitzgerald able to see thetrue pathos of lives beginning late and slowly running down. After his mother's death, when he was going through the many small treasures of the past she had saved, he wrote: “When I saw all this it turned me inside out realizing how unhappy her temperament made her and how she clung to the end to all things that would remind her of moments of snatched happiness.”
Because of the wealth of his mother's family, because of that family's deeper roots in St. Paul, because of his mother's excessive and somewhat eccentric devotion, and because of the pallid character of his father, Fitzgerald's youth was dominated by his mother and by her family. His later attitudes are mixed— the novel he began work on and stuck to for a number of years after 1925 was a story of matricide—but the family and the social world which he was privileged to circulate among became a solid part of his fiction. His father seldom appears; indeed, in the Basil Duke Lee stories, he is already dead when Basil is introduced.
Yet, despite the dominant position of his mother, Fitzgerald's deepest mature feelings are not toward her family—“straight potato-famine Irish” he once called them. It is rather the Maryland ancestors of his father, with their distant kinship with Francis Scott Key, that exercised the greatest fascination. The treasured image is that of his father, the Southern gentleman who can trace his ancestry back to the colonies and the Revolution and who should have possessed wealth as he possessed manners: as a natural gift unaffected by falling sales or declining energies. In i. moving passage in the manuscript “The Death of My Father,” written in 1931, Fitzgerald said, “I loved my father-always deep in my subconscious I have referred judgments back to him, [to] what he would have thought or done.”
Very little of Scott Fitzgerald's life in Buffalo and Syracuse before the family moved back to St. Paul gets into his fiction. When it does, it is in such minor ways as placing Dick Diver's childhood home in Buffalo and having him drift off into upper New York State at the end of Tender is the Night. Fitzgerald's later account of these years in his “Ledger” mentions the birth of his sister Annabel, the only other Fitzgerald child to survive childhood; visits back to St. Paul, to his paternal aunt's home in Maryland, and to Atlantic City; and various changes ofresidence. He tells about crying when he was sent to school in 1900 (his parents took him out after one morning), about telling “enormous lies to older people,” about running away at six, about a birthday party to which no one came. At nine, “he fell under the spell of a Catholic preacher, Father Fallon of the Church of the Holy Angels.”
The details of these years reveal a somewhat pampered and sheltered boy, an occupant of apartments and rented houses, an inheritor of a sense of family superiority without much visible evidence to support it. As they appear in the “Ledger,” these years seem almost as rich in experience as the later years in St. Paul; the experiences of 1907 in Buffalo shade off into those of St. Paul in the next year. Though the years were neither idyllic nor wretched, they were marked by impermanence and instability.
The details of Fitzgerald's life in St. Paul from 1908 to 1922 are quickly told. At St. Paul Academy, he published his first story in 1909 in Now and Then, the school magazine. His life during his two years there is full of evidences of accumulating feelings which were to be expended on the writing of two decades. Among these experiences were a succession of athletic attempts in which he—shorter and lighter than the other boys-performed bravely but poorly; a number of clubs for which he was usually organizer and leader; a “Thoughtbook,” the earliest of his account books of his activities and emotions; attendance at a dancing class which heightened his sensitivity toward social position; and a considerable amount of juvenile writing, particularly of plays for which he was often writer, producer, and actor.
In 1911, he began a period of two years at Newman Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Hackensack, New Jersey. Newman gave him his first chance to visit New York, and the plays he saw there helped to keep his literary ambitions closely tied to the stage throughout this early period. During the summers and vacations in St. Paul, he fell in love. One memorable summer, he directed “The Captured Shadow,” a play written by fifteen-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald. He also played the lead, that of a suave gentleman burglar, apparently one of Fitzgerald's youthful ideals.
Girls—his thoughts of them and of what they were thinking of him—filled his mind in these adolescent years. His crushes were many. The most enduring, its memory lasting his entire life, was over Ginevra King, a Chicago girl who enjoyed the wealth and social position to which Fitzgerald was always drawn. Hemet her in St. Paul in January, 1915, on the next to the last day of Christmas vacation, and he continued the romance in person and through an ardent correspondence. By the time ill health and low grades forced him to withdraw from Princeton at the end of 1915, the romance was on the wane. “No news from Ginevra,” is entered in his “Ledger” in August. The nine months he spent at home until he could enter Princeton again in the fall term of 1916 were among the emptiest of his life. It was plain then that Ginevra, like Minnie Bibble of his stories, had looked over his shoulder to fall in love with someone else.
Through these years and the half-dozen to follow, St. Paul was a place to return to from the various defeats and distractions of a wider world. He spent the summer of 1917, as usual, in St. Paul; in July he was examined at Fort Snelling for a provisional appointment as a second lieutenant in the regular army. Though he began the fall term at Princeton, he withdrew in October and was inducted into the army at Fort Leaven-worth, Kansas, the next month. When he came back to St. Paul again, it was a return from defeat with a resolve to gather his forces for another assault. The war was over, his first novel had been rejected, his engagement with Zelda Sayre was broken off, his stories had been sent back, his career in advertising had foundered at $90.00 a month. “I retired,” Fitzgerald wrote later, “not on my profits, but on my liabilities, and crept home to St. Paul to 'finish a novel'.”
It was from St. Paul that he mailed the manuscript to Scribner's, and it was there that he received the news of acceptance. The St. Paul paper announced his success in terms even the young Fitzgerald could not have improved upon: “He is a young man less than 24 years old, but in spite of his youth he has written a serious book of more than 100,000 words, which has gained the recognition of the big New York publishing concern.”
Though from this time on Fitzgerald's fiction and his life are bound up with his “incalculable city” of New York, the publication of his novel did not quite close out his life in St. Paul. When he returned for an extended period—from August, 1921 until October, 1922—it was again a return to a haven after the disordered life of New York City and the suburbs during the Fitzgeralds' first year of marriage. The reasons for returning were obvious: Fitzgerald needed a place to work and his wife a place to have their child. When they left St. Paul for New York a year after their daughter (their only child) was born, theydid not again return. The boy from St. Paul had accepted his uneasy place in the world.
The factual details of these years, and more important, the emotional facts of this early experience, appear in a dozen or more stories—some written close upon the experience, others long after. It is to these stories that we now turn to consider what of this youthful experience was important to Fitzgerald's writing. The stories which most clearly and connectedly explore his youth are the nine Basil Duke Lee stories, eight of which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post from April, 1928, to April, 1929. Five were collected in Taps at Reveille, three others in Arthur Mizener's Afternoon of an Author.
The stories are as excellent in craftsmanship as any stories Fitzgerald ever wrote. They are all the more remarkable for having been written during the first period at Ellerslie and the frantic summer of 1928 abroad, a time in which Fitzgerald's growing inability to control himself and Zelda Fitzgerald's developing schizophrenia must have made steady work very difficult. The stories are evidence of Fitzgerald's meticulous attention to dates and events and of his ability to evoke the precise shades of feeling that accompanied events of the past. The dates during which the stories take place—the earliest in 1909 while Basil is still attending Mrs. Cary's Academy, the last in the fall he enrolls at Yale—tally exactly with Fitzgerald's life from his last year in Buffalo to his enrollment at Princeton. White Bear Lake, where Fitzgerald spent part of his summers (he was a member of the White Bear Lake Yacht Club), becomes Black Bear Lake; “The Captured Shadow,” the play Fitzgerald wrote and produced in 1912, is the same play Basil writes and produces the same year; the note in Fitzgerald's “Ledger,” September, 1911, “Attended State Fair and took children on rollercoaster,” refers to the same fair that Basil attends the same fall; even the small size of Newman Academy (actually only sixty pupils) is used in the Basil story in which St. Regis loses valiantly to Exeter: “good for a school of only 158.”
But more important than the fact that the fictional details fit the actuality of Fitzgerald's experience is that these stories, written as they were at the peak of Fitzgerald's skill, are able to capture with precision the emotions and attitudes of Fitzgerald's youth. Fitzgerald had not, as Basil vowed he would, become president at twenty five; but he had become almost as famous. He had fulfilled his dreams and had proved the practicality of dreaming large. And yet through all the stories and all the dreams of success runs the theme of desires not quite satisfied, of last-minute rescues from shame and despair, of the “worst things” as later recorded in his Notebook: “To be in bed and sleep not, / To want for one who comes not, / To try to please and please not.”
“That Kind of Party” (unpublished), “The Scandal Detectives,” and “A Night at the Fair”—the three stories set earliest in time-are all about Basil Duke Lee's life before he leaves for boarding school. Basil is described as “rather small as yet, bright and lazy at school … by occupation actor, athlete, scholar, philatelist and collector of cigar bands.” All these stories convey the atmosphere, as Fitzgerald described it, of adolescence at a time when Basil and his generation “were sitting with disarming quiet upon the still unhatched eggs of the mid-twentieth century.” All three turn upon Basil's relations with girls; and all three have the pattern, familiar in all of Fitzgerald's work, of a young man swinging back and forth between humiliation and success.
The first of the stories, “That Kind of Party,” was rejected by the Saturday Evening Post because, according to Arthur Mizener, “its editors did not care to believe that children of ten and eleven played kissing games.” The story was published in the Fitzgerald number of the Princeton University Library Chronicle (Summer, 1951). In the typescript, Fitzgerald had changed the names of the characters, but the situation and feeling are clearly those of the Basil Duke Lee stories. Though it is not clear when the story was written, it clearly falls at the beginning of the series, for the setting in time is 1909. Basil (called Terence R. Tipton in the manuscript) and his friends are ten and eleven years old. A good many, perhaps most, of the details are from the years in Buffalo and Syracuse. References to Tonawanda, to relatives upstate, to apartment-house living, and to Mrs. Cary's Academy were drawn from the Fitzgeralds' life before they moved back to St. Paul.
The story is a weak story; it depends too much on trickery, and the author does not yet see the central character clearly. Terence uses all his cunning to try to arrange a party in which kissing games will be the sole entertainment. Despite all his pains, his plans are discovered, and he escapes complete humiliation at the end only because Dolly Bartlett, the girl he's been after, has been sufficiently impressed with his daring to ask him for dinner. Thus the story ends with the hero displaying an attitude which is present throughout the series: “It was time things went better. In one day he had committed insolence and forgery and assaulted both the crippled and the blind. His punishment obviously was to be in this life. But for the moment it did not seem important—anything might happen in one blessed hour.”
In “The Scandal Detectives,” Basil attempts to scare rival Hubert Blair by sending him anonymous threats and by planning to waylay him and put him in a garbage can. To get Hubert out of his house after dark, Basil disguises his voice as that of Imogene Bissell and invites him to a party. The plan miscarries, partly because the timing goes wrong but, more important, because Basil develops scruples at the last moment. Confronting Hubert, Basil, in disguise, “for a moment felt morally alone.” After he lets Hubert escape, the desperadoes-Basil, Riply Buckner, and Bill Kampf—invite themselves to Imogene's supposed party claiming that they too had been deceived. While the Bissells and Mr. Blair puzzle over the uproarious laughter of the three boys, they goad Hubert into enlarging fantastically upon his desperate encounter. In the end, Hubert goes to the seashore leaving Basil some of his dazzling mannerisms and a brief moment of romantic pain in recognizing that what another girl has said is probably true: “Hubert Blair is the nicest boy in town and you're the most conceited.”
Light as it is, “The Scandal Detectives” is an interesting story for the concern with values which runs through it. “The Book of Scandal” in the story (Fitzgerald's “Thoughtbook”) was not composed for the purpose of gaining power. Rather it was treasured against the time when adverse fortune might strike, when the subject of one of its entries might wish “to do something to Basil and Riply.” The threats made against Hubert are not really carried out; in fact, they miscarry in a comic way. The triumph Basil achieves is one of the imagination, the most common land of victory Fitzgerald permits his youthful heroes. The real spoils—the whispering, scuffling, and kissing with Imogene Bissell—have gone to Hubert.
Similarly, in “A Night at the Fair,” Basil uses his head to gain another qualified triumph—this time over the humiliation of being the only boy still condemned to wear short pants. Thegirls this time are pick-ups; the successful pursuers are a fast older boy, Elwood Learning, Riply Buckner, and Hubert Blair. Basil's moral scruples are as delicate in this story as in the former one. When he finds himself with a girl that he cannot endure, his instinctive decency will not let himself hurt her openly, but it cannot prevent him from finding a means of escape. When Hubert Blair, calling himself Bill Jones, takes Riply's girl away, Basil slips off leaving his date with Riply. Later, sitting safely in the grandstand beside Gladys Van Schellinger, a girl both rich and proper, Basil watches Elwood, Riply, Hubert, and the girls pass by in a sort of “Lilliputian burlesque of the wild gay hie.” Basil's position at that moment is both morally and imaginatively superior and, for that reason, intensely satisfying. He lets himself enjoy Riply's shame for a moment—“the natural cruelty of his species toward the doomed was not yet disguised by hypocrisy”—but a moment later he suggests to Riply's aunt, in that tone by which he was almost always able to please adults, that it would be a sort of mistake to tell Riply's mother. When Gladys moves toward Basil, “her breath warm on his cheek … that vague unexciting quality about her more than compensated for by her exquisite delicacy,” she says, “Basil—Basil, when you come tomorrow, will you bring that Hubert Blair?”
With “The Freshest Boy,” the scene shifts to Basil at St. Regis. Chronologically, the story moves forward only a few months. Emotionally, it moves a good way. Technically, even the minor characters are sharply etched. The opening scene of Part Four, which reveals the character of the football coach, Mr. Rooney, could not be improved upon. The whole story makes a meaningful contrast between the Basil who fits easily into the St. Paul adolescent crowd and the Basil who arrives at St. Regis to become the most unpopular boy in the school.
The story does more than evoke a momentary nostalgia for one's youth. To some degree, each of these stories separates itself from the conventional story of childhood or adolescence by strongly suggesting the connection between this time and the time to come. Booth Tarkington's Penrod or Owen Johnson's Lawrenceville boys can hardly be imagined out of either the setting or the time in which they are placed. Basil Lee can. The ending of “The Freshest Boy,” though overly dramatic, is explicit in suggesting this continuity, but all of the stories have this sense of connection somewhere within them.
“The Freshest Boy” takes itself more seriously as a story thanthe earlier ones; it ends seriously rather than comically. Basil has more moments of insight. He sees the necessity for understanding his own unpopularity at the same time that he is trying to understand a wider range of behavior in the person of Mr. Rooney and in the conversation between the radiant girl and Ted Fay, the Yale football captain. Out of this last, Basil gathers “that life for everybody was a struggle, sometimes magnificent from a distance, but always difficult and surprisingly simple and a little sad.”
“The Freshest Boy” is the central story in the Basil group in that the Midwestern boy of the first three is now brought into the larger world for which he has yearned and is sharply rebuffed by that world. He carries that experience with him into the next three stories as the vital part of his past. The preparation and departure for Yale mark a change of climate for which all that has passed is background.
“He Thinks He's Wonderful” moves ahead to the end of Basil's first year at St. Regis. Basil's aspirations tally almost precisely with Fitzgerald's: “He wanted to be a great writer, a great athlete, popular, romantic, brilliant, and always happy.” (When the story was revised for inclusion in Taps at Reveille, Fitzgerald left out both “a great writer” and “romantic”) The story uses another event of Fitzgerald's life—his exclusion from a dance in St. Paul—to dramatize the turning of Fortune's wheel. In the story, the dance is preceded by a game of Truth and Consequences in which Basil is named the favorite of three of the girls. Despite what he has learned from being “the freshest boy” at St. Regis, he cannot disguise his satisfaction over this evidence of his charm. Offered the chance of making a new friend with a boy who is not yet on to him, Basil throws it away by setting out to tell the boy how to be as popular as he is. How well Fitzgerald reveals his youthful character becomes apparent when one compares this episode with the lengthy instructions Fitzgerald gave to his sister Annabel during his first year at Princeton, reprinted at length in Andrew Turnbull's biography. Though Basil manages to beg his way to the dance, he bores Imogene when he gets there and discovers he's been left out again, this time from a trip being planned by the others.
The second half of the story introduces the most engaging woman in these stories, with the most engaging name in Fitzgerald's fiction: Erminie Gilberte Labouisse Bibble. Like so much in Fitzgerald's fiction, even this name came in part from his past. One of the new boys elected to Cottage Club at the same time as Fitzgerald was named 'Labouisse.' A New Orleans girl, she is in St. Paul because her parents are trying tosee if outdoor life will take her mind off indoor pleasures. Only girls like Minnie can sense at a glance the essential Basil. Once again, however, Basil's moment of glory is brief. In another excellent comic scene, Basil rides a few miles with Minnie's father and talks away his chances of being invited to tour Glacier National Park with the family. “Imagine having to listen to that fresh kid for two weeks,” says Mr. Bibble. Basil's horrified realization that “he had undone the behavior of three days in half an hour,” was the kind of lesson learned too late that Fitzgerald must have tormented himself with in the years before this story was written. At the end, Basil gets at least second best. He gets to drive his grandfather's electric, and he is last seen driving Imogene away at a speed somewhat in excess of what he told her mother it would go.
The Captured Shadow” is the account of the production of Fitzgerald's play of the same name in St. Paul in the summer of 1912. Some of the difficulties Basil has in getting the play on the boards are probably fictional, but the general account and the specific feelings are undoubtedly very close to the real experience. Here, Basil's imagination finds its way into art. His St. Regis past still clings to him—Hubert Blair quits the show because of Basil's “bossiness”—but the play is a success in all respects. Yet that success is not allowed to stand without a touch of foreboding. The story ends with Basil's mother leaning over him as he sleeps, “God, help him! help him,” she prayed, “because he needs help that I can't give him any more.”
In the next story, one short year after being “Bossy” Lee at St. Regis, Basil becomes his school's hero in a football game with Exeter. (The factual counterpart was Newman's victory over Kingsley, October 26, 1912, in which Fitzgerald, substituting for the injured captain, distinguished himself for his “snap and bang.”) Basil plays so brilliantly that a St. Regis alumnus, John Granby, now at Princeton, singles him out as the man to redeem youth through setting a perfect example. This is the starting point for “The Perfect Life,” a story which shows how much Fitzgerald can make of a “plot” story. Basil succumbs completely, though briefly, to the missionary charm of Granby. He gives up tobacco, liquor, women, and a host of sins of which he is only dimly aware. Basil's earlier dreams are subtly deflated in the ironic way Fitzgerald treats Basil's quest for the perfect life. The paragraph in which Basil defines his aspirations is worth quoting in full:
To be of great wit and conversational powers, and simultaneously strong and serious and silent. To be generous and open and self-sacrificing, yet to be somewhat mysterious and sensitive and even a little bitter with melancholy. To be both light and dark. To harmonize this, to melt all this down into a single man—ah, there was something to be done. The very thought of such perfection crystallized his vitality into an ecstasy of ambition. For a moment longer his soul followed the speeding lights toward the metropolis; then resolutely he arose, put out his cigarette on the window sill, and turning on his reading lamp, began to note down a set of requirements for the perfect life.
The rest of the story concerns itself with Basil's introduction to Jobena Dorsey, a typical Fitzgerald girl who has sinned little but has the appearance of having sinned greatly. Basil tries to get her to go with him into the perfect life, but he only succeeds in driving her to consider eloping with a sentimental wastrel named Sldddy De Vinci. How Basil prevents the elopement is the final joke in a conspicuously clever plot. Basil goes back to his less-than-perfect life, and Jobena finds him infinitely more interesting when he does.
The last two stories are concerned with Basil's life at the time of his departure for Yale. “Forging Ahead” is the most undisguised wish-fulfillment story in the group. Its details, such as his employment in the Great Northern Railroad car shops and the untappable wealth of his mother's family, are taken directly from Fitzgerald's last adolescent summer in St. Paul. Basil has grown somewhat older, but he is still dependent upon his imagination and a kindly fate for what triumphs he gains. Two visions are foremost: “the faraway East, that he had loved with a vast nostalgia since he had first read books about great cities,” and “the inevitable, incomparable girl.”
Yale, which Fitzgerald whimsically chose instead of Princeton, represents the East; Minnie Bibble is the girl, as she is in “Basil and Cleopatra,” the last of the series. In this story, Basil, like so many of Fitzgerald's heroes, is in love with love. His wooing is complicated by the necessity of inducing in the girl the right response, not only to him but to love as well. The details of “Forging Ahead” are too complicated to elaborate. It is chiefly concerned with Basil's plan to attend Yale in the fall and the threat to those plans which arises from financial losses suffered by his immediate family. He is forced to work, then to seek help from his great-uncle at the price of becoming the steady escortfor the uncle's plain daughter, Rhoda Sinclair. All this complicates his pursuit of Minnie. In the end, Minnie, Yale, his family pride, his bright future, are all secured by the sudden sale of a block of family property for $400,000.
“Basil and Cleopatra” brings the series to a close. It does so, Arthur Mizener concludes, because Basil, now on the verge of manhood, is forced to recognize with grief and regret that “you couldn't be with women incessantly.” Since the stories were written in 1928, there is a more obvious reason for its ending the series: the stories which followed Basil into Yale and after had already been written. Basil leaves off where Amory Blaine of This Side of Paradise begins. The fine passage with which “Basil and Cleopatra” ends is very close to a similar passage in This Side of Paradise:
Jubal the impossible came up with an air of possession, and Basil's heart went bobbing off around the ballroom in a pink silk dress. Lost again in a fog of indecision, he walked out on the veranda. There was a flurry of premature snow in the air and the stars looked cold. Staring up at them he saw that they were his stars as always—symbols of ambition, struggle and glory. The wind blew through them, trumpeting that high white note for which he always listened, and the thin-blown clouds, stripped for battle, passed in review. The scene was of an unparalleled brightness and magnificence, and only the practiced eye of the commander saw that one star was no longer there.
A comparison with the other passage, written ten years earlier, shows how Fitzgerald developed as a writer over these first ten years:
No more to wait the twilight of the moon in this sequestered vale of star and spire, for one eternal morning of desire passes to time and earthy afternoon. Here, Heraclitus, did you find in fire and shifting things the prophecy you hurled down the dead years; this midnight my desire will see, shadowed among the embers, furled in flame, the splendor and the sadness of the world.
Romantic longing inspired both passages; only in the first has he developed the style which captures the feelings convincingly. The story “Basil and Cleopatra” is one in which fulfillment and disappointment, the comic and the serious, the real and the imagined, are neatly and effectively balanced. The irony throughout is deft. Basil finds out that Erminie has not merely passedhim over for his football rival, Littleboy Le Moyne, but has already passed Le Moyne over for “a sad bird named Jubal.” Le Moyne, less wary than Basil, saves him from making a fool of himself over a lost cause. Basil passes up the invitation to succumb to Cleopatra once more, but not without the regret that goes with leaving the immortal woman “who wore her sins like stars.”
Throughout the story, Fitzgerald's preoccupation with the truth (and the falsity) of the romantic vision gives the story a substantiality beyond its rather thin plot. Basil as a man of destiny, an idea playfully treated in all the stories of this series, is here treated with some depth. His destiny, in turn, is involved in that Faustian desire for the moment of satisfaction. It is Fitzgerald's singular ability to dignify the trivial while remaining faintly ironic toward it that gives this story its best effects. Thus, the football game is treated as the counterpart of Antony's conquests of empire, and Fitzgerald's authorial reflections stand out as quite superior to the context: “Like most Americans, he was seldom able really to grasp the moment, to say: This, for me, is the great equation by which everything else will be measured; this is the golden time,' but for once the present was sufficient. He was going to spend two hours in a country where life ran at the pace he demanded of it.”
The highly developed technique in all these stories may be suggested by a number of observations about this one. First, the irony in “Basil and Cleopatra” makes the comparison with Antony and Cleopatra more than a mere use of an obvious parallel. The closing paragraph, in its imagery as in its explicit meaning, creates the heightened feelings of the classical story even as it illuminates the untragic romance being described. The foreshadowing in the second paragraph is as effective in this way as it is felicitous in its phrasing: “He was almost unconscious that they stood in a railroad station and entirely unconscious that she had just glanced over his shoulder and fallen in love with another young man.” Second, the ordering of events and use of events is precisely right. The movement from the Southern city, to New Haven, to the Yale football field puts the world of dalliance against the world of conquest. And, after the conquest, the temptation that always reaches out to the victor provides the final drama of the story. Finally, the characters: Erminie, Littleboy Le Moyne, Jobena Dorsey, and Basil are used with more fullness than in other stories. Basil still is mortgaged to the past even as he is steadily pulled into the future, but hisawareness of what is happening and his judgment of it have increased greatly.
The Basil Duke Lee stories are consistently the best of the stories dealing with Fitzgerald's early youth. Among a number of stories written earlier, “Absolution” (1922) and “Winter Dreams” (1924) make the most imaginative and effective use of this same past. “Absolution,” one of Fitzgerald's most admired stories, succeeds despite its flaws. No story of Fitzgerald's so suggests the “literary” short story of the early 1920's. The weeping priest, the wheat terrible to look upon, the ineffectual yet tyrannical father, the sensitive young boy for whom “the pressure of his environment had driven him into the lonely secret road of adolescence,” all bring to mind Winesburg, Ohio and a multitude of similar stories of throbbing souls in the simmering Midwest. The heavy hand of heredity and the brooding presence of environment make this story the most “naturalistic” story Fitzgerald ever wrote.
The boy of eleven in “Absolution,” Rudolph Miller, is not an earlier version of Basil Duke Lee, though one could guess that religion, guilt, and shame were a part of Basil's (and Fitzgerald's) past that does not come through in the Basil stories. The father is not Basil's father nor is he Fitzgerald's. The setting is certainly manufactured for the occasion, and it is weak in being that vaguely foreboding Midwest which many writers before and during Fitzgerald's time used for background. Even though the incidents upon which the story turns—the telling of a lie in the confessional and the father's striking the son—were occurrences in Fitzgerald's life, they are used in the story to dramatize the fictional relationship between father, son, and mad priest.
Nevertheless, the story fits in with the Basil Duke Lee stories and The Great Gatsby. The story was written, Fitzgerald said, as a beginning for Gatsby, but close readers of that novel will recognize that only superficial resemblances tie Rudolph Miller and James Gatz together. What the character shares with Gatsby is also shared with Basil Lee, Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby, and Dick Diver of Tender Is the Night, whose pasts cling to them but whose lives shape themselves year by year in accordance with some Platonic image of themselves. In Rudolph Miller, however, this shaping force is hardly apparent, and we are gladthat Fitzgerald did not incorporate this background into The Great Gatsby and by so doing risk making the novel just another story which sentimentalizes over the adverse effects of a barren youth.
“Winter Dreams” begins with the experiences of another fourteen-year-old boy, who is in many respects like Basil Duke Lee. Dexter Green lives in the world of his dreams and yet is shrewdly aware of his relationship to the world outside. He quits his caddying job abruptly, “unconsciously dictated to by his winter dreams” which take the tangible form of a girl of incomparable worth. Judy Jones, the girl in this story, becomes a woman who “simply made men conscious to the highest degree of her physical loveliness.”
The rest of the story is a full but compressed story of the provincial boy from the middle class rising into sufficient wealth and power to claim the rich girl of his dreams. It was, as Fitzgerald said, a short version of The Great Gatsby, and its central character interests us not merely for his success but for the illusions that drive him to success and for “the mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges.” Dexter has his brief love affair with Judy Jones—of one month's duration—but in the end, as in The Great Gatsby, he cannot have her. “So,” the story puts it, “he tasted the deep pain that is reserved for the strong, just as he had tasted for a little while the deep happiness.”
The ending of the story is ironic, as Fitzgerald's ambitious stories almost always are—in part as a resort to a device of plot to which his short fiction seems committed, in part as a turning to his essential feeling for the flow of life. Dexter succeeds in Wall Street, “so well that there were no barriers too high for him.” At thirty-two, he has settled in the East and has become so identified with it that a business acquaintance is surprised to learn the facts of his past: “I thought men like you were probably born and raised on Wall Street.” Through this acquaintance, Dexter learns of Judy's unhappy marriage. Worse, he realizes from a casual remark of this near-stranger that she is no longer beautiful. Dexter's tears, when they come, are not for a lost love, nor even because this beauty, all beauty, fades, but for himself, and for the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness and promise of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.
The story owes much to the love affair between Fitzgerald and Ginevra King; but, as always in Fitzgerald's best work, it is not the details of real experience which give his fiction itsstamp of quality, it is the essential truth evoked by the reshaping of that experience. The worth of these stories which so closely parallel his own youth is the value that Fitzgerald draws out of every passing moment of experience. Fitzgerald's vision is clear on this point. The stories escape being merely sentimental or nostalgic because he does not rest content with re-creating a static, though memorable, past. He insists on having his past merge into present and for both to absorb the future. Unlike the characters he is most fond of describing, he can, in the act of writing, grasp the moment for his reader and make the reader realize, if only fleetingly, that “this, for me, is the golden time.” Even as he writes, however, the golden time is receding into the past and the mind is already creating another time that lies ahead. So it was for Basil Duke Lee and so it is, were we capable of either admitting it or describing it, for us all.
All this Fitzgerald was learning in these early years in St. Paul. His literary apprenticeship goes back to those years not so much in what he was writing, but in what he was feeling. Though the Basil Duke Lee stories were written fifteen years after the events, they expose to our view the essential emotional past out of which Fitzgerald was to create his best work.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald (Twayne’s United States Authors Series #36) by Kenneth Eble (revised edition 1977, first edition 1963).