Appreciation #5

“Thomas Pynchon” by D. Greenhorn

Phantom of Opera 1925

(Not a photo of Thomas Pynchon.)

Thomas Pynchon’s greatest scene sees Charles Mason stuck in a time warp created by England’s transition to the Gregorian calendar. Typical of Pynchon is its weird setting, its oblique prose, its obsession with the effects of technology on man. Atypically, we find Mason longing for his wife—a rare display of pathos from Pynchon’s characters, who are generally a mob of proto-autists and freaks. Yet when Pynchon deigns to converse with us humans, there is no better living author.

Pynchon is the greatest American prose stylist of the late 20th Century. His audacious use of the vernacular recalls Twain—betters him, when at a poetic height. Pynchon is the most religious American since Hawthorne, except his religious is conspiracy. His first three novels exist in a paranoid oikonomia, the characters searching for God in the form of a letter, a mail carrier, a German fiber. In his nonstop conspiracy-mongering, Pynchon taps into the most genuine religion of our age.

Pynchon is the quintessential university novelist. His knowledge is capacious, but his wisdom rises and ebbs with his poetic intensity. His characters blur together; his scenes manage to be absurd yet unmemorable. His poor works are so wretched, and so closely resemble his great works, that they taint his genius as a whole.

Yet when good, Pynchon is the best of the moderns. His fantastic prose carries us beyond his often lame wit and precocity, making him an author worthy not only of being read, but revered.
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D. Greenhorn is a writer living in the Midwest. His first novel, Western Empire, will soon be available by Lulu. New Pop Lit will feature a new short story of his in September.

 

Who Is Finnegan?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Hemingway shooting

WHEN WE PRESENTED our “Hemingway-Fitzgerald Trivia Question” we were fairly confident in our answer. We looked for critical support. We received instead a response from Dr. Scott Donaldson disagreeing with our analysis.

“‘Snobbish Story’ possibly based on E.H., Finnegan definitely not (FSF writing about himself). . .”

Scott Donaldson is THE authority on the two legendary American authors. His works include Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, plus separate books on both men. Hard to believe he could miss on this story, “Financing Finnegan.” (Or indeed on both stories.)

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is F. Scott Fitzgerald writing about himself? Or, instead, as we contend, about his on-and-off friend Ernest Hemingway?

You can read the story here and judge for yourself.
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As for ourselves, further research on the matter confirms our original opinion.

Dr. Donaldson has bought the accepted narrative on F. Scott Fitzgerald. In part, a portrayal of Fitzgerald as victim, with bearish Hemingway as antagonist. This viewpoint is in part attributable to Hemingway himself, and his seemingly unprovoked attacks on Scott in A Moveable Feast. But also to Scott’s “Crack-Up” essays in Esquire.

But again we ask, is Scott “Finnegan”?

At one point in his career he might’ve been. His experiences and one-time standing as a literary wonderboy no doubt informed his view of the character. But at the time he wrote “Finnegan,” nothing about Scott himself any longer fit. And hadn’t fit for a long time.

“Finnegan” is a famous novelist. By contrast, in 1938, for the greater public, Scott Fitzgerald was almost forgotten. He didn’t become a legendary author until the 1950’s, years after his death. In retrospect. No one considered him to be one in 1938. (On the other hand, Hemingway’s standing in 1938 was almost exactly the same as Finnegan’s.)

“Finnegan” has unending money problems– owes his publisher money on advances. Scott Fitzgerald had once been in this situation. But in 1938 he was not working on a novel, had received no advance for one. Instead, in 1937, as described on his Wikipedia page, F. Scott Fitzgerald had “entered into a lucrative exclusive deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” to write screenplays. In 1937 Fitzgerald earned $29,757.87– the equivalent of $540,000.00 today. Over half-a-million dollars. In 1938 when he wrote “Financing Finnegan” he was swimming in money. For anyone alive during the Great Depression it was a near-fortune.

If anything, Scott’s situation fits well not with Finnegan, but the narrator of the tale.

What of Ernest Hemingway?

Again, we have to go back to 1938, when Fitzgerald wrote the story. Hemingway’s latest novel, To Have and Have Not, released in October 1937, had been a giant flop. It was slammed by reviewers, including the New York Times, which said, “this new novel is an empty book.” It was Hemingway’s first novel in eight years. It’s generally regarded by critics today, as it was then, as his worst novel.

As for finances, a glance at Hemingway’s Selected Letters shows he was in continual money trouble– at least as much as Scott had ever been. In part because Hem refused to crank out scores of short stories (or screenplays) purely to earn money. In 1938, after the failure of a long-awaited novel, Hemingway’s financial situation must’ve been particularly precarious.

Anyway you slice it, “Finnegan” is a depiction not of F. Scott Fitzgerald but of his one-time friend, Ernest Hemingway. Still smarting from his buddy’s shot at him in Esquire, Scott used the same forum to subtly even the score. Scott Donaldson didn’t catch it– but the ever-sensitive Ernest would have.

Ritz Bar w FSF picture

Owning the Future

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

race car for street

We consider ourselves little different from car designers, out to build a better product. The reality about the literary world now is that the future is up for grabs. Those who can offer a truly BETTER lit product– novels, poetry, stories– will own that future. In this hyper-competitive age, complacency isn’t good enough.

The main complacency agent for literature today is the academy. Professor’s drumming moldy institutional choices into students’ heads, while the world changes outside their doors. Everyone pats one another on the back, assuring themselves all is well– while the standing of literature in the culture dwindles.

Many are okay with that– they want the art to remain rarefied, marginal, mummified, so they can control it. “Our thing.” Like the award-winning author who once said the literary world was 5,000 people in New York.
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By understanding where we’ve been as an art form, we can better understand where we’re going. That means examining ALL received attitudes and hand-me-down literary gods. Which is what the ATAWT tourney is about. In that endeavor, this project we call New Pop Lit has barely started.

 

The American Novelist

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Irwin_Shaw_(1948)(Pictured: Irwin Shaw.)

HAVING READ and reviewed Jay McInerney‘s most recent novel as a way to check his suitability for the big Tournament, we encountered, in the book’s strengths and weaknesses, more than we expected.

We found the novel, Bright, Precious Days, no better than a 1950’s novel by O’Hara, Cozzens, Wouk, or Shaw. The corollary to this is that their once-admired novels are no better than his.

We caught McInerney using the trademark James Gould Cozzens plot “surprise” two-thirds of the way through to jumpstart the narrative. Effective– if you haven’t already experienced it.

One can travel back in time further than J.G. Cozzens and Company to find apt comparisons to the McInerney book– to Booth Tarkington, the most popular award-winning novelist of the 1910’s and 1920’s. Tarkington’s writing style and subjects are notably similar to those of Mr. McInerney. “The novel of manners.” Which isn’t Booth’s fault– but Jay’s. Or the publishing industry’s.

The next step in this line of thought: The very concept of “The Great American Novel” may be obsolete. Perhaps the novel form itself.

Which calls into question the premises of our tournament.

THE idea of American literature for over 100 years has been the idea of the novel. The belief that the novel is the “white whale” of American letters. The chief object for a writer to pursue.

Yet when you read or re-read these thick books; well-designed products created by giant corporations filled with talent– products as surely as are automobiles manufactured by General Motors– you find that, as art, most of them are failures. Diverting, yes. Absorbing? Often. Insightful? Occasionally.

Deep art which shakes the soul of the reader? Which shatters assumptions, premises, convictions, viewpoints; turning the world upside down? No.
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IN FILLING THE BRACKETS of this tournament, we have the almost impossible task of assessing each writer in context. Which means not undervaluing literary giants of the past because they’re no longer considered giants– while not overvaluing the literary stars of now. (The latter task is easier, as there no longer are literary giants who overawe the culture-at-large.) This means factoring in the extent to which hype and unearned critical acclaim– or mere politics, pro or con– have distorted a writer’s reputation.

Joyce_Carol_Oates_2013

(Pictured: Joyce Carol Oates.)

If this were 1930, Booth Tarkington would be a shoo-in to make an all-time American writers tournament. If it were 1987 instead of 2017, Joyce Carol Oates would be a shoo-in. Sometimes writers, by failing to take another step intellectually or creatively beyond initial promise, take care of their own reputations. Or maybe, in time, it becomes apparent their initial successful work was overvalued all along.

Answer to Trivia Question

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

hem w 2nd wife

Time to give the answer to our Hemingway-Fitzgerald Trivia Question! We asked,

“In what two F. Scott Fitzgerald pop stories was a major character a thinly-disguised version of Ernest Hemingway?”

AFTER WE SENT the question to an array of literary experts, we received responses from two of them reminding us of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Philippe” stories published in Redbook magazine in 1934/35. The chief character Philippe is based on Fitzgerald’s intermittent hero worship of the younger writer. We haven’t read the stories, and don’t know if they’ve been anthologized. Thanks to Dr. Kirk Curnutt and Dr. Scott Donaldson for the information. (They can collect on our original prize of a free beer in Detroit at any time.)
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But while the Philippe answer is technically correct, we were thinking of two other, better known Scott Fitzgerald stories.

The first is “A Snobbish Story,” originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in November of 1930, then later by Scribner’s in a collection, The Basil and Josephine Stories. It’s an excellent story, with dialogue which still bites, between rich girl Josephine and a young Chicago journalist. The characterization of the journalist is superb– there are more than enough clues in it to determine this is a vivid portrayal of the young Ernest Hemingway.

“–his eyes were nearly black, with an intense, passionate light in them; his mouth was sensitive and strongly set.”

The character, John, is described as a large young man. John talks and behaves much like how the early Hemingway must’ve been. Brash, confident, outspoken; “extraordinarily handsome.” “I’m going to be a great writer someday,” he announces.

Josephine and the young man insult each other. She tells him, “I’m going into a convent or else to be a trained nurse in the war.” (The story is set in 1916, when the Great War was raging in Europe.) “Will you enlist in the French army and let me nurse you?”

This is not just a nod to Hemingway, who was famously nursed by a beautiful nurse in that war– it’s an obvious one, given that Hem’s A Farewell to Arms had been published a year before Scott wrote this story, and was still topping best-seller lists. The plot concerns an injured young man who falls in love with his nurse.

“I want to be the best writer in the world, that’s all,” the John character says. In 1930, Ernest Hemingway was in the process of becoming exactly that.

The clincher in deciding that the character is based on young Ernest Hemingway comes when the man’s wife shows up! “–a handsome girl–.” “Neither of us believed in the old-fashioned bourgeois marriage–” John tells Josephine, about his wife.

Ernest Hemingway had something of an open marriage with his first wife– at least after future second wife Pauline showed up!
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It’s not as if F. Scott Fitzgerald was NOT known for putting persons he knew into his fiction. He in fact did this time and again– most notably with his wife Zelda, but also with good friends the Murphys; with old college friends; with old girlfriends; with anyone and everyone. Hemingway was a large presence in Scott Fitzgerald’s life; first as protege; then, equal. In subtle ways, as rival.
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The second story completing the answer to our Trivia Question is “Financing Finnegan,” originally published in Esquire magazine in January 1938.

The timing and venue of this publication are telling. In 1936 Ernest Hemingway published, in Esquire, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in which he mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald by name in a disdainful way. Fitzgerald was highly embarrassed, to the extent of asking Ernest to change the name in any future appearances of the story. Hemingway complied. Was it payback time?

The character “Finnegan” is described by the narrator but never seen. The relationship between the two writers mimics that of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. They both have the same publisher. Finnegan receives the kind of large advances for his work that the narrator used to receive. Finnegan is working on a novel, “one of those great successful novels of his.” “There’s never been such a talent,” the narrator says, a bit sarcastically. “His was indeed a name with ingots in it.”

Finnegan is injury prone– as Hemingway famously was– and is also a world traveler, forever looking for new experiences, new material for his work. (He’s said to be at the North Pole, then in Norway.) The clincher comes when the narrator describes Finnegan’s work.

The writing is described as containing “–a shy frankness together with an impression of a very quiet brave battle going on inside of him that he couldn’t quite bring himself to talk about– but that showed as heat lightning in his work.”

Does that not describe the writing of Ernest Hemingway?

“–nobody ever denied that Finnegan could write.”

The story catches Finnegan between successes, when he’s straining the faith of his publisher. Everyone hopes he’ll come through with a “great, successful novel.” In the real world Ernest Hemingway would do this, when For Whom the Bell Tolls was released in 1940.

Overall the story is derogatory toward Finnegan. It strongly hints at Fitzgerald’s disillusionment with Hemingway, particularly when the narrator says, “I’ve taken it upon myself to investigate some of the stories about him–.” And found they were mostly fake.
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Hemingway was to have the last word in his memoir of the 1920’s, A Moveable Feast.

 

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald as Pop Writer

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Scott pensive

According to Ernest Hemingway‘s testimony in A Moveable Feast, Scott Fitzgerald claimed to intentionally alter the ending of his short stories to make them more saleable. More palatable to Saturday Evening Post readers.

Yet when one reads Fitzgerald’s “pop” tales, their endings are as perfect, as apt, as artful, as those of his more highly-regarded works.

This is especially true of the “Basil and Josephine” stories, most of which are compact gems full of insight, beauty, and meaning.

Examine these two endings, each of which is a culmination of theme and plot:

from “Basil and Cleopatra”

“Jubal the impossible came up with an air of possession, and Basil’s heart went bobbing off around the ballroom in a pink silk dress. Lost again in a fog of indecision, he walked out on the veranda. There was a flurry of premature snow in the air and the stars looked cold. Staring up at them he saw that they were his stars as always– symbols of ambition, struggle and glory. The wind blew through them, trumpeting that high white note for which he always listened, and the thin-blown clouds, stripped for battle, passed in review. The scene was of an unparalleled brightness and magnificence, and only the practiced eye of the commander saw that one star was no longer there.”

from “A Snobbish Story”

“Then she caught her breath as the lights changed, the music quickened and at the head of the steps, Travis de Coppet in white-satin football suit swung into the spotlight a shimmering blonde in a dress of autumn leaves. It was Madelaine Danby, and it was the role Josephine would have played. With the warm rain of intimate applause, Josephine decided something: That any value she might have was in the immediate, shimmering present– and thus thinking, she threw in her lot with the rich and powerful of this world forever.”

(Hardly throwaway endings! Note: Both reflect disillusion and disappointment, and so are not exactly “happy.”)

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “pop” stories are as sophisticated as his more famous works. In a few cases, more so.

What makes them important to the editors at New Pop Lit?

Fitzgerald’s pop stories point the way, more than his “serious” work, toward where literature needs to go NOW in 2017. Readability, humor, sparkle, punch– presented in unpretentious fashion available to all. The short story as lively as a pop song.

(As I’ve pointed out often, the short story was once THE popular American art form.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pop stories are soaked in verve and style. A writer falling back on his past, consumed in memory and insight, not trying to overawe literary critics but simply writing. Letting his magical talent flow. They’re also very well written.

While today a Fitzgerald classic like “Babylon Revisited” seems a tad maudlin and contrived– the saloon Irishman crying in his beer at closing time– the pop tales are fun and very real.
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FYI: With even the Hemingway-Fitzgerald experts unable to come up with the solution to our Trivia Question (we contacted a few of them), we’ll be giving and explaining the answer soon. Did we overreach? You’ll have to judge for yourself.

 

Hemingway-Fitzgerald Trivia Question

Fitzgerald Pat Hobby book cover

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

To mark the placement of both Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald into the big Tournament, as #1 and #2 bracket seeds respectively, we offer a quick trivia question to mark the occasion.

WE KNOW that Hemingway famously referred to Scott Fitzgerald in the widely anthologized short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

OUR QUESTION:

“In what two F. Scott Fitzgerald pop stories was a major character a thinly-disguised version of Ernest Hemingway?”

OUR PRIZE:

A free beer on the editors of New Pop Lit, either in Detroit or the Detroit area, or during one of our visits to our second home city of Philadelphia. No time limit on payment.
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We’ll find out who knows the work of these two American literary giants thoroughly!