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

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.

 

Appreciation #2

“Nelson Algren” by Joseph S. Pete

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

nelson algren 3

Nelson Algren loathed the film adaptation of “The Man with the Golden Arm,” refusing to be photographed by a marquee of a movie he “had nothing to do with” and saying Frank Sinatra’s take on down-on-his-luck vet Frankie Machine made it look like he was trying to recover from a cold instead of quit morphine.

But it landed the Detroit-born Chicagoan a windfall he used to buy a beach cottage in the Miller neighborhood of nearby Gary, Indiana. One winter, he bought a six-pack from a package store and took a popular shortcut across an iced-over lagoon, but the ice cracked and gave way, plunging him into frigid water. Though delirious, he warned rescuers not to venture onto the brittle ice and instead throw a rope to drag him out.

Algren was always like that, empathetic.

His compassion was why he was known as “the bard of the down-and-outer.” Some think he developed a fondness for life’s castaways and woebegone losers after he was jailed for five months in Texas for stealing a typewriter during the Great Depression. They blamed his stubborn attachment to the squalid underbelly of outsiders and sinners for his waning stature, even after he won a National Book Award for Fiction, saying he remained fixated on the downtrodden while society started to view the world in a more optimistic light.

Maybe Algren cared too much. Nobody wrote as well about addicts, the poor, the hustlers, the wretched refuse just trying to get by.
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Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran and a Baconfest Chicago Poet Laureate who’s been widely published in journals like Lumpen, the Blue Collar Review, Stoneboat and Prairie Winds.

Trendlines

Eugene_O'Neill_1936

(Who is this writer?)

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

THE FORTUNES of writers can change quickly– even in a short period of time. After all, five years ago Jonathan Franzen, after his big bird novel, was considered THE top current living American novelist, and Donna Tartt was far back in the pack; a once-young phenom who’d never lived up to her hype. A flop here; a big success there, and things turn around.

WHO’S UP?

Donna Tartt.  Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch put her at the forefront of contemporary American novelists. More importantly, it all but assured her a spot in the Tournament.

Octavia Butler.  Has sci-fi writer Butler turned from egregiously unrecognized to mildly over-recognized with the shifting winds of politics and approval? It helps that science fiction itself is on a credibility upswing. As the world becomes more technological– as it turns into science fiction– this upswing is likely to continue.

Gertrude Stein.  With even a new opera out about her, “27,” building on an appearance this decade in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (poorly played by Kathy Bates), Stein’s standing as a persona, if not a writer, continues to climb.

Philip K. Dick.  With so many young people on social media identifying themselves with and as robots– with the knowledge people will soon enough be hybrid robots, androids and the like– Dick’s arrow of relevance is pointing upward.

Mary Gaitskill and Philip Roth.  Two writers who each began with modest trendy success via edgy short fiction collections– Mary Gaitskill with Bad Behavior in the late 80’s; the recently-retired(??) Philip Roth with Goodbye Columbus in the early 60’s. Through sheer staying power; cranking out unexceptional novels on a steady enough basis– each novel geared toward the thoughts of the intellectual hive mind of the moment– they’re considered to be writers of serious heft, in a society and age known for its shallowness. Everything is relative.

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WHO’S DOWN?

Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Once considered the top American intellectual and a major poet, today he’s seldom heard from. Stray quotes of his appear occasionally on twitter.

Eugene O’Neill.  This most Irish of American writers was still ranked in the 60’s and 70’s as top American playwright along with Tennessee Williams. O’Neill’s plays seem not to have endured (though one was recently produced on Broadway), possibly because they haven’t made outstanding movies. We have room in the tourney for a mere handful of playwrights. O’Neill is at risk of not making the cut.

Jay McInerney.  The literary reputation of the Manhattan literary “brat pack” of the 1980’s hasn’t fared well; McInerney’s rep least of all, as he was the first of the bunch, and made the biggest splash with his stylish short novel Bright Lights, Big City.

Jay Mc w Marla Hanson

Critics and publicists acclaimed McInerney the next Scott Fitzgerald– Jay has been trying to live up to this prediction in big novel after big novel, ambitiously failing to do so. Fitzgerald famously quipped, “There are no second acts in American life.” One of the few individuals the quote applies to is Jay McInerney.

Sinclair Lewis.  Won a Nobel Prize, I’m told. Lewis once said, “Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.” Lewis’s work is fairly dead, though he’s taught not in colleges but high schools.

Jonathan Franzen.  The “American Tolstoy” as Time magazine or someone equally feckless proclaimed– or a second-rate Irwin Shaw? Time will tell. Shaw at least was a fairly good short story writer. Franzen may make the tourney on hype and reputation alone, though as a persona– as someone pushed to be the face of American letters– he’s been something of a dud.

Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos.  Speaking of Irwin Shaw, there are a host of American authors “of the moment” once thought capable of writing the great American novel; who received a ton of critical and popular attention. Then they slid slowly, painfully slowly, down the mountaintop. For Wolfe and Dos the slide continues. Our activist character “Cherry Bomb” would attribute it to them being white males and wrongly valued or “privileged” to begin with. I imagine Cherry saying, “They’re like blondes in California; throw a rock and you’ll hit a dozen of ’em.” But some of the gang aren’t bad reads, to this day. We’ll discuss those at a later date. With others like John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe, the quirky and the wordy, a case for the defense is harder to make.

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Which writers are “of the moment” now?

More #1 Seeded Writers

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

We fill in the other two #1 spots in our Tournament brackets with two other legendary names from the past.

moby dick book cover

C.) Herman Melville. What does one do with Moby Dick? One of the other top competitors, Toni Morrison, explained once in a long essay the novel’s symbolism and significance. Talk about writing about America! The Pequod with its hierarchy, mad captain, and multi-cultural crew remains a striking metaphor about the country and concept “America.” What do they chase? That which Melville, writing ten years before the Civil War, saw as America’s founding flaw– the “white whale.” An allusion to slavery at minimum. I doubt if any novel ever written by anyone anywhere has been more ambitious– ambitious in terms of discussing the world, nature, society– and ambitious in looking inward toward man’s sins and soul. It’s also a great yarn. Lest we think this was all Melville wrote, he began as a popular novelist, wrote some classic short stories, including one, “Bartleby,” which in our cubicle work world is more relevant today than ever. Herman finished his career with a great novella, “Billy Budd,” just to show he still had it. But Moby Dick. A novel which can stand with any novel written by the world’s best, even the Russians.
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mark twain young
D.) Mark Twain. We happily bow to the voice of the crowd on this selection. As a persona he’s up there with anyone. He has his undeniable masterpiece, other classic works, fantastic essays and a few good stories. If we’re talking about which writers defined the culture and the American voice, then figures like Twain have an undeniable edge. We also can’t deny there was a time when American lit was much bigger in cultural importance than it is now. But be aware– there are many brackets to fill. A wide variety of voices will be announced.
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(We will be staging a press conference at which all four #1 seeded writers will be present. At least, we have commitments from them. Could be exciting.)