Showing posts with label F. Scott Fitzgerald. Show all posts
Showing posts with label F. Scott Fitzgerald. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Nostalgic Tour


Once again we are preparing to leave our boat after an abbreviated summer in the Northeast, one that was mostly hot and humid.  This is our thirteenth summer living on our boat and given that time, combined with the countless weekends during the score of summers preceding retirement we spent on board our boats, not to mention vacations during that same time we’ve probably lived almost six years on the water.  Could that be? As I type this, the water is slapping on the hull, a sound we’ve become inured to, but one I will surely miss one day.

A couple of weeks ago our friends, Harry and Susan, visited.  It was a hot day, the wind not exactly right for going out to our mooring, so instead we toured our old homes and haunts in Westport, Weston, and East Norwalk, sandwiched between lunch at our club house and then dinner in Westport (why does everything seem to be centered around food as one ages?).

Our first stop was the home on the Norwalk River where we lived before relocating to Florida.  We had renovated the old cape, adding a master suite to the top floor.  It was certainly Ann's favorite home, and mine for the view and nautical feel, but when the Nor'easters came, so did the river and on several occasions the home was surrounded by water.  As the burden of manning the pumps fell on me, I was not sorry to bid the home goodbye.  The house  has been renovated still again, the guts of it torn apart and even the top floor which we had so meticulously planned and built redone as well, but at least the house was recognizable.

Next stop was the town of Westport. When we arrived there in 1970 it was a quaint town of shops, a movie theatre, a bank, some venerable restaurants, a nice New England feel. It has morphed into an outdoor mall of Brooks Brothers, the Gap, Coach, Crate and Barrel, Talbots, etc.,  those stores replacing Klein’s, the Remarkable Bookstore, Acorn’s Pharmacy, etc. The character of the town has changed; the only remaining stores I recognized being the Westport Pizzeria, and Oscar’s Deli.  That’s it!

From there we went up North Main to Fillow Street which becomes Ford Road, passing the Saugatuck River on the left and the entrance to the Glendinning complex  an office building now occupied by Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge funds in the world.

The Saugatuck River has a waterfall there and we used to swim in the pond above the waterfall, cool, clear mountain water so refreshing. Now it has been fenced off, another casual freedom lost.  Turning onto Sipperly's Hill Road, where we had first rented a small chauffeur's cottage on a nine acre estate (now parceled off with huge homes built on the property), we arrived at our first home on Rabbit Hill Road.

The house we bought in 1972 was set on two acres bordering a pine forest.  Over the last 40 years  the subsequent owners have rebuilt parts of it, adding a small second story, although the footprint has not  changed that much.  We drove up the narrow driveway, feeling a little ill at ease doing that, and sure enough someone came out of the house and got into her car and proceeded down the driveway.  We had to back out.  We rolled down the window and said we used to live there forty years ago and, remarkably, she invited us in.  She had bought the house in 1992. 

It is still a modest home, and some of what we did to the house remains, such as adding a small dining room off the tiny kitchen, but the bookshelves I built around the fireplace are gone, although the fireplace and mantel still stand.  The original detached one car garage remains, probably built when the house went up in 1925, just large enough for a model T! Outside the house the new owners cut back part of the pine forest and they now have a beautiful expansive lawn before the forest begins.  Actually, it is no longer a forest as one can see other new houses beyond.  When we lived there, Rabbit Hill itself – the subject of the Robert Lawson children’s book -- was indeed an uninhabited hill except for the few small homes clustered around the entry road.

From there, we drove up Weston Road to the home we lived in for twenty five years near Weston Center.  Ridge Road / Lane, was almost unrecognizable, many of the old homes torn down or lots sold off to build huge homes, the size of which astounds me.

We bought our Weston home in 1975, a small ranch, which we added onto, but retaining the character of the home.  Our old home is now gone and a “McMansion” has been built in its place.  Although it sits well on the property in the front, the back of this “palace” is almost on the road, its towers and turrets in one’s face and – I thought -- inappropriate for the sylvan nature of the setting.  Sad to see.

So the day was one of nostalgia, and now there is another sense of melancholy as our summer on the boat is winding down and soon we'll be flying to Copenhagen to meet a ship that will be returning to NYC via the northern Atlantic route, with multiple stops in Norway, Ireland, Scotland, and stops as well in Iceland and Greenland.  Ann has organized tours at each port and I hope to post some interesting photographs and a narrative of our trip sometime in October.

I’m loading up a few novels to read, but meanwhile I’m trying to finish Blake Bailey’s massive biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty, probably the best literary biography I’ve read since Carol Sklenicka's biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life  It is a breathtakingly detailed biography of a much under-appreciated artist, Richard Yates.

Until reading Bailey’s account, I was never fully aware of the extremely biographical nature of Yates’ fiction. His characters are from his life experiences.  And I never fully realized the extent of his asceticism, an anti-materialism that manifested itself in the most austere living conditions, almost a stereotype of the dark, brooding artist.  (One of his apartments was a seven story walk-up on 26th Street, off of 5th Avenue in NYC.  Bailey describes it as “a long studio with a few random sticks of furniture – an orange sofa bed where he slept, a wobbly table in the narrow sit-down kitchen, two or three chairs and a desk by the plaid-curtained window; also he installed a bookshelf where he mostly kept the work of friends and students, as well as a handful of novels he couldn’t do without.”)  Cockroaches frequently were his companions in these run-down apartments.

His self-destructive alcoholism (which naturally he denied), his militant, compulsive smoking (4 packs a day, even after he was diagnosed with TB), and his need to be with a woman who would support him emotionally, is in many ways reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s life, a writer who he apparently met only once.

Yates worshiped the works of Flaubert, Hemingway and then Fitzgerald, always feeling inferior to the latter or any writer who was Ivy-League schooled.   Although Yates taught fiction at the graduate level, he never went to college himself.  Nonetheless, Yates felt he had a lot in common with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald and even tried to emulate the latter in his dress from Brooks Brothers, not to mention living in Paris during his formative years.

Between his bouts with mental illness and compulsive drinking, his marriages, affairs, children, and peripatetic teaching positions, it is a wonder that he wrote such classics as Revolutionary Road and Easter Parade, two of my favorite novels, as well as other novels and short story collections.  He was the writer’s writer, respected by all but loathed for his lifestyle.

I was saddened to see that Bailey quotes what someone said about the edition of Revolutionary Road I had republished, lamenting that it “languishes in a grim (and expensive) hardcover edition published by a reprint house (Greenwood Press).”   This particular edition was reprinted for college libraries and had to be manufactured to the “grim” standards acceptable for library use.  It was not a consumer edition but at least the classic was kept in print.

Perhaps I’ll write more about this superb biography sometime in the future.  I first have to finish it!

In the meantime, we bid adieu to our boat and friends and family in the Northeast as when we return from our cruise we'll begin our drive back to Florida.  Until then……







Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Politics of Entitlement

Mitt Romney calls it the "politics of envy." "The rich are different than you and me" to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, but, let me assure you, contrary to Hemingway's rejoinder, it isn't just because they have more money. There is a sense of entitlement, something one (they) can "talk about in quiet rooms" but never in public because the rabble might grumble. The full quote from Fitzgerald's, The Rich Boy, beautifully tells about this kind of wealth: Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of Romney's campaign headquarters, advisors pouring over his tax returns trying to determine if they should be released, and, if so, when, how many, in what detail, and what explanations (spin) should accompany them. Bring on the Madison Avenue types to brand and package his wealth as a sort of "Romney Success Cereal." I am "successful" (i.e. "rich"). Vote for me, and you can be like me with a nice looking Father-Knows-Best family thrown in for good measure!

His tax returns are probably hundreds of pages and there may be multiple returns depending on how he has set up Family Limited Partnerships, etc. They probably reflect some form of tithing as by "Commandment of God" Mormons are expected to pay 10% of their gross income to the church -- including income from trust funds and food stamps (no chance of the latter) to be a member of the church "in good standing" and therefore receive its "blessings."

While religion should not be an issue in this or any election, and I will vote for any candidate I think best suited for the job, no matter what the religion, even (gasp!) an atheist, undoubtedly this is an issue for the American electorate (which would never elect an atheist), and therefore what is revealed in Romney's tax return may have a bearing.

But, mostly, it will be about how his tax handlers may have manipulated the issue of earned vs. unearned income. And this cannot be determined by one year's return. When asked about his intentions to release multiple years' tax returns at a recent Republican "debate" he chortled with his patented disingenuous laugh, "maybe." In fact, every time his wealth comes up as an issue he looks like a deer in the headlights, trying to portray himself as having lived "real streets of America" and having come from modest means (father, president of American Motors, and later Governor of Michigan).

The greater the wealth the greater the opportunity to shift income between "earned" (taxed up to the maximum 35%) to "unearned" (income from investments and in private equity, "the carry" which is taxed at 15%) It was not long ago when those figures were approximately in equilibrium, but the Bush era changed all of that and Wall Street would like to keep it that way. Masters of the Universe, unite! A reasonable measure of economic equality has become a corpse of the American Dream.

This election year is conjuring up the most virulent politics in history, Super PACs having contributed to this, something that should be abolished. Here, in Florida, we are now being besieged by them on the airways, Romney having a presence in political advertising even weeks before. The Republicans would like us to believe that calling to roll back the Bush "temporary" tax cuts is the "politics of envy" and that "class warfare" is actually a tactic in an overarching strategy by Obama to make a "welfare class" dependent on the Federal government and therefore more likely to vote Democrat. Talk about conspiracy theories. Might as bring up the issue of his birth certificate again.

Ironically, if I had to hold my nose and vote for just one of the remaining Republicans, my default candidate would be Romney. But as much as I find wanting in President Obama, he has the right idea when he said "don't compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative."


Jan. 24 Follow-Up: "The" Return was released -- as expected, hundreds of pages but everything legal and above board, an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent. Romney also contributed what would be expected to the Mormon Church, so, on both counts he is absolved of any wrong doing. But if there was ever a clarion call for a more sensible tax code, this is it. I've written repeatedly over the years about the issue of economic inequality and just clicking that label at the bottom of this entry will bring most of them up, so no sense going into great detail.

However, I will say the following fearing this point gets lost in all the rhetoric about what motivates people to work: the Republicans argue that lowering the tax rate for everyone (Gingrich proposes a zero tax rate for capital gains) will magically create jobs, economic growth, and therefore the necessary revenue for the Federal Government to do its job, albeit at a reduced level (with cuts in just about every area of social welfare as everyone would "then" be working). But if their theory is wrong, we will be right back onto the same economic precipice at the end of the Bush Presidency.

Romney says his success was due to "working hard." Did he do so because of an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent? At the end of the Reagan Presidency my effective rate was 33 percent. Did I work "less hard" as president of a publishing company than Romney did in private equity? My mistake was to work for a W-2 rather than for carried interest. This kind of tax code games the system so, indeed, the rich can only get richer while everyone else is mired in economic limbo at best.

Jobs do not "happen" because of the tax code alone. They come from education, a passion for working, jobs being valued by society no matter what they are, entrepreneurial vision, a host of other, more relevant, factors.



Friday, April 29, 2011

Conroy's Reading Life

Our good friend Edie gave me My Reading Life by Pat Conroy when I recently entered the hospital, which was supposed to be for a more routine visit than it turned out to be. She knows I love good writing, and she thinks of me as a writer as well. It was a very thoughtful gift. Yes, I write, and I enjoy it, but to be a real writer means to forsake just about everything and dedicate yourself to the craft. It also helps to have an abundance of talent, an omniscient eye and an encyclopedic memory.

I cannot think of any great writer who is not obsessive compulsive about writing. In many ways, I wish I could roll back time and make that choice, but it would have been to the detriment of a publishing career I loved and other avocations such as the piano, studying the machinations of economic markets, politics, and a bunch of other things. Although I started Conroy's work in the hospital, I had difficulty concentrating on it or anything else after undergoing such major surgery. My recovery left me unable to do much but change channels watching awful TV which I can only describe as crap, and if that is emblematic of where American "culture" has migrated, there is no hope for our society.

Once I returned home, I picked up the book again. Conroy achingly cries out in poetic terms for an understanding as to why he writes, why he found refuge as a child in literature, first as a means of connecting with his mother (no, worshiping her) and as a means of escaping his father. I have a particular empathy for literature as a means to understand family, as I wrote in an earlier piece: "What draws me to these writers is families, or more specifically, dysfunctional families. Strong mothers or weak fathers or weak mothers and strong fathers with borderline “crazy” behavior, dark humor and the unpredictable maturation of children from those families. Of course if art mirrors life, it may be that “dysfunctional” is merely normalcy in today’s world."

It was heartbreaking, though, to read Conroy's dedication page. My Reading Life begins with: "This book is dedicated to my lost daughter, Susannah Ansley Conroy. Know this: I love you with my heart and always will. Your return to my life would be one of the happiest moments I could imagine."

So, as in my family, succeeding generations are affected by the tribulations fostered by previous generations. I naturally tried to discover more, and found his comments about the dedication page in an NPR review: Apparently he has been estranged from his daughter since divorcing her mother in 1995: "She has a perfect right not to see me. She's 28 now. But I thought this [dedication] was going to be a last cry of the heart. I would at least try to get her attention and see if I could get her to come back. It has been one of the most soul-killing things to ever happen to me." [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Maybe his daughter will reconnect with her father if she has the opportunity to read this book and understand the undertow of Conroy's maturation as a man and as a writer. He covers a wide range of influences on his writing, first and foremost his mother, who became immersed in Gone With the Wind, continuously reading passages from the novel to her son, beginning when he was five years old. "I owe a personal debt to this novel that I find almost beyond reckoning. I became a novelist because of Gone with the Wind, or more precisely, my mother raised me up to be a "Southern" novelist, with a strong emphasis on the word "Southern," because Gone with the Wind set my mother's imagination ablaze when she was a young girl in Atlanta, and it was the one fire of her bruised, fragmented youth that never went out....It was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world."

Then there were the teachers, in particular Gene Norris's English class, and the "anti-teachers" in particular his father, Donald Conroy, the Marine who beat his family. Conroy bore much of this. "From an early age, I knew I didn't want to be anything like the man he was....I was on a lifelong search for the different kind of man. I wanted to attach my own moon of solitude to the strong attraction of a good man's gravitational pull." Gene Norris was that man and he became a lifelong friend and mentor to Conroy and introduced Conroy to a wide range of classic literature.

Then there were people in his life who could have been negative influences, the librarian, Miss Hunter, at Beaufort High School, Cliff Grabart, the proprietor of the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, and the cantankerous, but lover of literature, a book representative, Norman Berg, who I met on several occasions at book conventions. Conroy even went out on sales calls with Berg. That was the foundation of the publishing business then.

From each of these people Conroy took away something and bonded with them in his own way. In fact, Conroy was sponge-like in his dealings with people and the literature he read, recording everything, the eyes and ears of a writer on duty at all times. This is what separates mediocre writers from great ones.

He did the ex-pat "thing" in Paris in the late 1970s. "Parisians... relish the xenophobic sport of stereotyping and love to offer an infinite variety of theories on the nature of Americans. To them, we as a people are shallow, criminally naive, reactionary, decadent, over-the-hill, uncultured, uneducable, and friendly to a fault....Whenever Parisians heard my execrable attempts at French, they would cover their ears with their hands and moan over the violation and butchery of their sweet tongue." My own visits to France taught me a similar lesson, my high school French had to be left behind and I sometimes pretended to be Canadian. But maybe the French are on to something, given my captivity by the mindless TV programming during my hospital stay.

Conroy was finishing The Lords of Discipline in Paris, staying at a hotel where he encountered a wide range of travelers, including other artists. As my son is an inveterate traveler, I was fascinated by Conroy's exquisite explanation as to what it is to be an ex-pat, meeting other people on similar journeys: "Because we were strangers who would know one another on this planet for a very short time, we could trade those essential secrets of our lives that defined us in absolute terms. Voyagers can remove the masks and those sinuous, intricate disguises we wear at home in the dangerous equilibrium of our common lives. The men and women I met at the Grand Hotel des Balcons traveled to change themselves, to trust their bright impulse with the hope they would receive the gift of the sublime, life-changing encounter somewhere on the road. There is no voyage without a spiritual, even religious impulse. Each of us had met by accident, our lives touched briefly, fragilely -- then we continued on our own private journeys, and those intense encounters left a fragrant pollen on the sills and eaves of memory."

But to this point, My Reading Life is merely a warm up for what is the main event and influence on Conroy's writing and he appropriately entitles the chapter "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe."
It was Gene Norris who gave him Wolfe's classic Look Homeward, Angel in 1961 as a Christmas present. "The book's impact on me was visceral that I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life....The beauty of the language, shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, brought me to my knees with pleasure....I was under the illusion that Thomas Wolfe had written his book solely because he knew that I would one day read it, that a boy in South Carolina would enter his house of art with his arms wide open, ready and waiting for everything that Thomas Wolfe could throw at him."

I felt the same awe when I read the novel in college, probably at about the same time as Conroy. Never before had I felt that way when reading fiction. The only way to describe his writing is as being concurrently prodigious and poetic, an uncommon combination. And the novel was even larger before publication and luckily for Wolfe his editor was none other than the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's who also was Ernest Hemingway's and F. Scott Fitzgerald's. Wolfe was in good company.

The publication of Look Homeward, Angel, had, at its heart, detailed autobiographical elements, the same sort of autobiographical elements in which Conroy's own The Great Santini is grounded. Wolfe's work caused an uproar in his hometown, beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. For a while he was banished from the town, but he did return later to write You Can't Go Home Again.

Conroy has made the pilgrimage to Asheville, first with his teacher, Gene Morris, to visit Wolfe's "Old Kentucky Home," the boarding house maintained by Wolfe's mother. Conroy rocked on the chairs where the boarders gathered on the porch. He toured the home which has been so lovingly restored. I wonder whether Conroy has seen the wonderful play about Wolfe's return to Asheville, Return of an Angel which we were lucky enough to experience during one of our visits to Asheville. It brought Wolfe's return to Asheville alive.

We have been to the Wolfe home in Asheville twice and came away with the same feeling of time having been stopped during those years, before Wolfe's untimely death at the age of only 37. Imagine the great works he would have written if he had lived. As Conroy says, "I think the novels of his fifties and sixties would have been masterpieces. Time itself is a shaping, transfiguring force in any writer's life. Wolfe's best novels sleep in secret on a hillside in Asheville -- beside him forever, or at least, this is what I believe." I agree, Pat, and thank you for reminding me of Wolfe's passion, an invitation to reread his work.

Conroy's concluding chapter, "Why I Write" is probably one of the best I've ever read on the subject, setting the serious writer apart from the potboilers that weigh down today's best seller lists. "Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself...Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear."

Also in that chapter, he returns to the overarching theme of literature and family, the role of literature explaining who we are and where we came from: "I've always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable. but I soon discovered that I've been writing voluptuous hymns to that boy my whole life, because somewhere along the line -- in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that's a home place for the beaten child -- I fell in love with that kid." And I too fell in love, as much with Conroy's nonfiction as his novels, particularly with My Reading Life, as well as My Losing Season. Such truthfulness and beautiful writing. One can only hope his honesty will lead to a reconciliation with his daughter. It would be just.

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