Babylon Visited, or My Trip To Fitzgerald’s House – Day 190

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.

~Graham

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4 Responses to Babylon Visited, or My Trip To Fitzgerald’s House – Day 190

  1. Kelly says:

    Graham,

    I dunno. I’ve been moving most of my life, and I often feel the pull of a phantom “home” that isn’t… as if it was amputated during the first move at age 2… but I’ve never really had the urge to stand at any one of the homes I’ve lived in.

    Though I still visit the town where the first “home” was now and again (family there), I’ve never even asked my parents what street it was on, nevermind gone to see it. So did Fitzgerald have a longing for *that* home, even if he had a longing… erm… for belonging? (I wish that didn’t rhyme.) Putting him in my shoes, and projecting totally, LOL, I’d guess not. After all, ya gotta start somewhere. That’s just where his story started.

    Maybe also why it didn’t stir anything much for you, being there? I think folks who do have a hankering for a certain home can make it grab you in their work (even if the actual place is not specified)… then there’s a Wow to being in a place they treasured or missed. Fitzgerald’s writing always grabbed me, but not for that reason.

    ‘Course it’s all speculation. And I’m rambling. Makes you think, though…

    Regards,

    Kelly
    Kelly’s most recent blog post: Inspiration Points- The Steve Ballmer Guide to Keepin’ It Real

  2. Graham Strong says:

    lol – hey, rambling’s how I got this post in the first place. I like where I got with it though.

    I’m not sure it was the home thing that didn’t stir things in me. (Does that sentence make sense?) When I was in New York, I wanted to head out to where Fitzgerald lived in Long Island, but ran out of time. I’ve been where other writers have been — a hotel that Somerset Maugham stayed in, the old Globe theatre (recreation in London), Thoreau’s (supposed) cabin on Walden Pond — and I have felt a connection to them. Not to be too esoteric about it, but it’s the same kind of connection you feel as when you’re touching an old building or looking at a lake that others have looked at for a long, long time.

    (Similarly, standing where John Lennon was shot was very moving for me.)

    So standing outside Fitzgerald’s house and feeling nothing was kind of a weird sensation in itself, though I was glad to be able to share “pilgrimage” with two of my boys.

    That being said, I’m interested in your take of home. Funny how we naturally project our own feelings! I do have a sense of nostalgia for the places I’ve lived — even fleetingly. It’s kind of a full-circle thing, except that there are loops and loops of it. (Most recently, singing the Mary Tyler Moore theme song as we drove into Minnie — my wife and I haven’t done that in years, since before the kids, and it was a kind of “homecoming” in itself…)

    Perhaps that’s what home is. Happy memories and touchstones for our lives.

    Well, you know what I mean. That idea without corny clichés. (Actually, Hemingway said it best, perhaps? To paraphrase, home is a moveable feast?)

    ~Graham

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