Took a well-deserved family trip down to Duluth and Minneapolis for a couple of days. In the wee hours of Monday morning, I stole away from our hotel with my two oldest to visit this little house in a very old part of St. Paul, MN. It’s actually a duplex, and the left half is the birthplace of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It’s funny, I’ve been it Minnie several times, but never popped over the river (that would be the Mississippi for those of you keeping score) to see the house. I guess I always think of New York and Paris and the French Riviera when I think of Fitzgerald. But even his alter-ego, the great Gatsby himself, started his adventures in Duluth.
Is it so strange then to find Fitzgerald in such a place?
Noël asked me if I felt moved by being at his birthplace. I didn’t actually, though I’m not sure why. I thought I might. Perhaps I felt rushed (I did) but more likely it was because I was feeling a little voyeuristic, hanging out on that narrow sidewalk in front of (ostensibly) someone’s house in a very residential neighbourhood, taking pictures of an old front porch.
(Incidentally, there was a light on in the foyer, but no signs of life other than that. I wonder if someone does live there? And if so, did it have to be legally included in the house’s description that there would be waves of slightly-aging-but-still-idealistic English majors skulking around at dawn snapping pics? Added to the “Additional Comments” along with the wet basement and the shed encroaching on the neighbour’s back lawn?)
It did get me thinking about the meaning of home. Fitzgerald was a world figure, a jet-setter before there were even jets. Did he ever come back to St. Paul and wonder at his own roots like we do today? Or was that in the past, left on behind like Gatz left Lake Superior and the Midwest to live and (spoiler alert) die in West Egg?
Home is such an emotionally charged word, and Fitzgerald such an emotional writer, it’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t nostalgic about his early childhood days. What did he feel he left behind, if anything? Or were St. Paul and Duluth just stops that helped him get to where he believed he really should be?
What does home mean to me? Is there some yacht in the harbour waiting to take me off?
I don’t think that Fitzgerald ever found any other place he could call “home” (and honestly, I can relate — I’m happiest when I’m travelling). When Zelda started falling deeper into her schizophrenia, he took off to Hollywood to write screenplays — and didn’t have an easy time of it. How humbling, this literal inventor of the Jazz Age to find he had to learn how to write all over again. But how exciting too, don’t you think? Like seeing the lights of Paris again for the first time or leaning on those oars and looking up at a long, gleaming, white ship and knowing that when it leaves, you’ll leave too.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Funny, I never connected those two boats before, the one at the end and the one Jay Gatz boarded all those years before. Perhaps that’s another level of meaning — that no matter what boat we get on, we can’t escape where we came from.
So yes, I can imagine Fitzgerald standing here on the sidewalk — maybe on a stopover to Hollywood — looking up at the house where it all began for him and puzzling over what home means and whether we’ll ever reach that orgastic future receding before us.