Baltimore: City of Dirges and Elegies

This week about 100 or so F. Scott Fitzgerald scholars and aficionados convene in Baltimore for the conference of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. Madison Smartt Bell will give a keynote address, John Barth and Alice McDermott will attend a buffet dinner, people will give presentations like “Classy Cars: Automobiles as Representations of Class Tensions in The Great Gatsby,” and visitors will get a bus tour of the city where Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived for five years, starting in 1932. According to a preview piece on the conference in the Baltimore Sun, he spent a much of that time drunk or getting there, hanging out either with various women or writer pals like H.L. Mencken, who published his first short story.

“It’s a little dark,” society vice president Kirk Curnutt tells the Sun of that period. More detailed proof of that comes from the work of another conference attendee, Scott Donaldson, the author of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days, a new critical biography of the two authors. Donaldson details how Fitzgerald finally wrapped up Tender Is the Night while in Baltimore, but also fell into the alcoholic despair that would eventually result in the autobiographical essay collection The Crack-Up:

Fitzgerald wrote his three “gloom articles,” as he referred to them in his Ledger, in the fall of 1935. He finished “The Crack-Up itself in October 1935, “Pasting It Together” and “Handle with Care” in December. At the time he was suffering through an extremely low period in his life, during which he attempted to deaden with liquor and sex the awareness that Zelda would never be wholly well, the realization that his earning power had drastically diminished while the bills mounted ever higher, and the sense that he’d let his life and his talent waste away. In 1935 and 1936, he observed, “all my products were dirges & elegies.”

When [Esquire editor] Arnold Gingrich came calling in Baltimore one day in the spring of 1935, he found Fitzgerald in a “ratty old bathrobe” moaning about having to write another story of young love. He couldn’t do them with enthusiasm any more, and the idea of having to produce one brought up his “cold gorge.” “Well, why not write about that?” Gingrich suggested, then thought no more of the matter until, in the fall, the first of the three “Crack-Up” pieces turned up on his desk.

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