Wednesday, December 19, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 46 - Literary Magnolias
I read Keats as if these poems were my Bible. And I thought I could follow the old romantic poets at the same time I tried for the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I thought I could bring literature and life together in this mixed literary way.
When I first began winning debate tournaments I began to think that I would one day be President. But now in this last year of boarding school I was dreaming that one day I would live in one of those garrets of lore in Paris and become a great poet with all that that implied for love and sex and beauty.
I had actually said this to parents while in Paris that I wanted to stay in Paris, and that had set off more ridicule , so I pulled myself inside myself to wait for my time.
These dreams in the midst of this period when so much was falling apart – my young love affair as well as my pride in how I could use logic for noble ends, which had become part of my identity, even though I had not hesitated to override what I believed when I was in a debate tournament.
I would step out of this world, I decided. I was already seeing other girls in vacation times. And also during the vacations I haunted the 4th Avenue used book stores in the city, and found all the books that F. Scott Fitzgerald had published, including the out-of-print short story collections, which to a large extent were about romantic encounters in a romantic version of the South. I was there with Zelda and the magnolia.
At school I became friends with a new boy who joined our class in the last year. I had only contempt for most of his ideas, but who fascinated me, Hans Larson. He was from what he described as a place for the socially prominent, Tuxedo Park. He had gotten his parents to send him to him to prep school because he was making himself into the a facsimile of the sort of people he admired in that rich town. He related without irony, in fact with pride, how they had held celebratory cocktal parties the day Roosevelt died – while he was stuck in an immigrant Norwegian family that ran a plebeian car dealership. He looked just like the rich kids and not at all like the kids in the public schools. A real Jay Gatsby. Hans. I would edit out his politics and his prejudice, things I hated more than ever. Working through the kitchen help, we got our hands on bourbon and drank it in our dormitory late at night.
I decided I would go to Princeton, like Fitzgerald and like others in my very non-Fitzgeraldian family – though I was still a socialist and pacifist. I did not admire anything much that Hans admired except pretty girls. But I would not let anything limit me, I told myself. On some level, I was sure, Princeton would be under the Fitzgerald influence, more Old South than Tuxedo Park. I forgot to check if Negroes would be in my class – segregation in boarding schools being something I had railed against in our school paper. Princeton, in my fantasy would be a dreamy romantic place as far removed as you could be – as far as Tahiti maybe – from the wind-swept Hampshire lake country. Not the gray conservative place I suspected it might be. Hans himself was rejected by Princeton and was headed to what he considered the next best ting, the University of Virginia.
I was in Europe again the summer before college – going on a Holland-American line student dormitory ship to spend the summer in an exchange program in Holland (a venture that took me back to Paris for one last look in the Jeu de Paum). In the ship back I met two welcoming and amusing guys who had just ended their first year at Harvard. They really liked one of the two Holderness boys I knew who were in their class —Dmitri Nabokov , my debate colleague, the wild and brilliant son of a famous father. They couldn’t stand the other, Al Dawson, who was one of the dumb, sadistic, delusional school athletes. I knew for sure that at Princeton it would have been the other way around. I had made a horrible mistake. This would be no place for someone who liked Keats.
But the night before going to Princeton I read my grandfather’s admiring account of the place – admiring even though he was out of step with the would-be aristocratic Southerners who dominated. He seemed to think that on some level they were right and he was wrong. And then I read Fitzgerald’s romantic version of Princeton in This Side of Paradise – and I tensed up, clenched my teeth and all sphincters and concentrated hard to make myself believe that I and the world were not what I really did know us to be.