Stan talks about This Week in History (the Stamp Act, James Jackson, Spike Lee, the first Black graduate of West Point, the Masters, Tomochichi, & Houdini), says goodbye to a pathbreaking historian and actor, spotlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and welcomes the opening of Major League Baseball.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is one of those artists whose tragic life has become in some ways more famous than his creations.
He was a founding member of the Lost Generation of (mostly) expatriate writers who flourished in the 1920s and ’30s, and who have been endlessly romanticized and criticized, particularly in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
Fitzgerald’s meteoric rise after the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920, his stormy marriage to Zelda and her descent into madness, his rocky friendship with Hemingway, his close partnership with editor Maxwell Perkins, his alcoholism and depression, and his last frantic scriptwriting hack days in Hollywood are all well-known and well-documented. When he died of a heart attack four days before Christmas in 1940 (at age 44, like Robert Louis Stevenson), with his last novel only half-finished, he considered himself a literary failure who would quickly be forgotten.
But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. His third novel, The Great Gatsby, had never sold particularly well in his own lifetime—in the first year Scribner’s sold only 20,000 copies—and was considered nothing more than a 1920’s period piece. Then during World War II the paperback version became enormously popular with soldiers stationed abroad, and in the post-war years it was added to high-school curricula across the country. Suddenly it was re-evaluated as a towering classic of American 20th-century fiction, and sales skyrocketed. It has now sold over 25 million copies (including about half a million worldwide annually) and remains Scribner’s most popular title. If only Fitzgerald had lived to see even a bit of it.
Mercifully, I was never required to read it in high school, because if I had, I would have brought a 17-year-old’s sensibilities to a great piece of literature, and it would have been wasted on me. Now was my time to read it. Harrumph alert: It irritates me to no end when I hear grown, mature adults wave off reading a great book because “I read it in high school,” or, when I tell them what I’m reading, ask “Didn’t you read that in high school?”
The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Gatsby “the most profoundly American novel of its time.” The Modern Library in 1998 voted it the 20th century’s best American novel and the century’s second-best English-language novel, behind only—if you can believe it—Ulysses.
Is Gatsby worthy of all the praise? In the immortal words of James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., “oh my yes.”
It’s a novel that works on and in you, that will continue to make you ponder just what was going on in it for a good long while after you’ve put it back on the shelf. I just finished it, and I’d like to re-read it already, and that’s not something I say very often. If I were writing a novel, I’d study it and use it as a model for what a writer can do with plot, a few characters (and there aren’t many) and pacing, using spare, lean language that says more than you think it does, all in 180 pages.
The book was written when Fitzgerald was just 29 years old . One can only marvel at his felicity with language at so young an age:
“The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something—most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning—and one day I found out what it was.”
“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”
“The evening had made me light-headed and happy; I think I walked into a deep sleep as I entered my front door.”
“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.”
It was a literary feat that proved hard to live up to, much less repeat. Fitzgerald spent the last sloshy 15 years of his life pitifully trying to recreate the magic. He did not know that he had already achieved literary immortality:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Finally: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Those last words adorn Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s grave in Baltimore, a fitting literary blanket under which to slumber, marking two lives that ended much too soon.
I’ve never read a book about dinosaurs. Growing up, I was never very good at (or interested in) science, though like everyone else I went to see Jurassic Park on the big screen when it came out in 1993 and was of course inspired by their majesty and beauty. That movie, for all the flaws that experts picked out, inspired an entire generation of new paleontologists.
I also don’t usually buy books when I’m browsing at the “New Releases” table at the bookstore, but I recently picked up Steve Brusatte’s new book and I’m glad I did. It looked interesting, and I thought it might be a good way to learn about a subject I know next to nothing about.
Brusatte (pronounced brew-sot-e) is an American-born and -trained paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and the “resident paleontologist” for the BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs.” He brings an infectious enthusiasm to his subject and he knows it well. He weaves into the hard science of paleontology tales of discovery that make for good reading, especially for those scientifically challenged learners like me.
First, the vastness of the chronological scale when it comes to dinosaurs is staggering. American historians study people and events from the last few hundred years. Even historians of antiquity focus on thousands of years. But the life of dinosaurs goes back over 225 million years, a temporal span that can be difficult to wrap one’s mind around.
Second, lest you think that scientists have discovered all there is to know about creatures that have been extinct for 66 million years, think again: paleontologists discover on average one new species of dinosaur every week. Not a new bone or fossil—a new species that we did not previously know about. According to Brusatte, we are living in the midst of a golden age of discovery right now; he has discovered fifteen new species himself though not yet 35.
Finally, it’s quite humbling for someone who has spent his entire career studying the history of humans—and very recent ones at that—to contemplate humanity’s link in the evolutionary chain of Earth’s 4.5 billion years. Humanity is a rather recent phenomenon, geologically speaking, and when you’re forced to step back and take the long view of millions of years—as this kind of book makes you do—you realize that we ourselves may vanish one day, as the dinosaurs did, through a natural catastrophe or one of our own making.
It’s hard to imagine that our entire species might eventually be reduced to fossils and bones, discoverable by some other species millions of years from now, but that is exactly what happened to the dinosaurs.
We can only hope that in that new world someone as talented as Steve Brusatte will be around to explain the meaning of whatever fragments of our own long-vanished world they manage to extract out of the dust.
The theme this week, like last week, is: where have these books been all my life? How am I just now discovering the glory that is C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series?
I well remember seeing the ads for the television series that was broadcast from 1998 to 2003, but I never found the time to watch. I hadn’t even heard of the books upon which the series was based.
At that time, 18 years ago, I bought an omnibus edition from the Book of the Month Club that featured the first three Hornblower novels in one volume. When it arrived, I promptly put it on a shelf, and there it sat. Why am I reading it now? Because Jonathan Yardley reviewed this book in Second Reading, which long-suffering readers of this blog will recall I was reading three weeks ago. So what if it took nearly two decades to get around to? When I was finally prepared to receive its wisdom, there it was.
And a ripping good read it is, too. I was introduced to the fascinating grisliness of 18th and early 19th-century naval warfare through Evan Thomas’ splendid biography, John Paul Jones (2003). Anyone who’s watched the opening battle scenes from Master and Commander (2003) knows well the carnage wrought by shot and shell across a warship’s quarterdeck, leaving body parts and severed heads in their wake.
Rigid naval discipline meant that commanders like Jones and Hornblower were expected to stand tall on the quarterdeck throughout the terrifying ordeal of battle, rigid and unflinching, while bloody and mutilated comrades fell screaming all around. Any sign of cowardice brought shame and dishonor, worse even than losing limbs. Courage, discipline and level-headed seamanship under fire counted above all.
C.S. Forester’s knowledge of Napoleonic-era battleships and warfare is astonishing. The granular detail and intense descriptions of battle on the high seas make for gripping reading indeed. In Hornblower, a junior level captain in His Majesty’s Navy, Forester created an historical character whose interactions with his crew, the Lady Barbara Wellesley, and his own internal demons make him a fascinating psychological study in leadership. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is not always the most affable character, but you root for him even when you don’t always like him.
Forester is himself an interesting study, having appeared on a 1956 episode of Groucho Marx’s TV show, “You Bet Your Life,” and he is additionally the author of The African Queen (the 1935 book upon which the movie was based) and a 1942 children’s book entitled Poo-Poo and the Dragons. Any author who managed to work the words “hornblower” and “poo-poo” into his book titles is worthy of distinction.
Having serendipitously found the remaining twelve volumes in this series at the GHS book sale two weeks ago, I am going to become well acquainted with the further adventures of Mr. Hornblower.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, 1961; 50th Anniversary Edition, 2011, 544 pp.)
A. Scott Berg’s award-winning Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) led me to some of Perkins’s most famous authors such as Thomas Wolfe. I’m currently listening to Robert Gottlieb’s memoir Avid Reader: A Life (2016) narrated by Gottlieb himself. He arrived at Simon and Schuster in 1955, is still editing today, and turns 87 in April. He has famously edited the work of Robert Caro, Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Nora Ephron, Bill Clinton, Bob Dylan, and perhaps his most famous discovery, Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22.
Gottlieb tells the story of how the novel was originally titled Catch-18 but was changed (at Gottlieb’s suggestion) to the more familiar title because of Leon Uris’s recently published Mila 18. The book appeared in 1961 and is considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. Never having read it, I picked up a copy and dove right in.
The anti-hero is Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier who believes the real enemy is his own military, which keeps increasing the number of missions he must fly over Italy before he can go home. Heller knew of what he wrote, having flown 60 bomber missions during World War II, an ordeal that haunted him the rest of his life. By turns hilariously funny and very dark, Catch-22 explores the tragic absurdities of war, a subject as old as The Iliad. Heller, by his own account, owes much to Jaroslav Hasek’s absurdist war novel The Good Soldier Svejk: And His Fortunes in the World War (1921-23).
Critics were mixed, but readers raved, and it created a cult following, complete with “Yossarian Lives!” bumper stickers. Harper Lee called it “the only war novel I’ve ever read that made any sense.” Nominated for the National Book Award, it lost to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I’ve avoided Mike Nichols 1970 movie adaptation till I finish the book, and am looking forward to the forthcoming 6-part Hulu miniseries produced and directed by and starring George Clooney.
Catch-22 was quintessentially 1960s before anybody knew what the 60s would be, and the book’s prescience still staggers, written as it was before Vietnam, Oliver North, WMDs, and Donald Trump. Heller in 1961: “Mankind is resilient: the atrocities that horrified us a week ago become acceptable tomorrow.”
Stoicism in the face of absurdity, as necessary now as then. Yossarian still lives.