Article

Brett Foster


481 Laurel Avenue

Fitzgerald's birthplace and the man who lovingly restored it.

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Back home, I could now see better a baby photo of Fitzgerald reprinted in one of the biographies. He is on the sidewalk, shortly after learning to stand, I would guess. His mother hovers on the grass just above him. You can see behind the pair the familiar porch and two front decks of the Laurel Avenue birthplace. It and the nearby buildings seem to shine with newness. The trees in the background are not very tall yet. Fitzgerald, wearing the filigree-collared baby clothes common for his day, looks like a little girl or young Japanese emperor. In another photo, Fitzgerald the toddler wears a white outfit and a black beret, and sits atop a black-and-white hobby-horse. He holds a tiny riding whip in one hand, and wears an expression of slight alarm. Maybe, deep in his little boy's psyche, he was already feeling the unease, the restlessness, the psychically exilic condition that would propel his many travels later in life. Patricia Hampl writes in Blue Arabesque that "All my heroes—my saints, as I think of them—have been traitors, one way or another, to their homeplace." Her list includes Matisse, Katherine Mansfield, and "Scott Fitzgerald, shrugging off his (and my) likewise Catholic St. Paul." Hampl asks, "Doesn't everything start at home? Especially the desire to escape it. Then, having escaped, to live in a permanent elegy, drawing from the well of your own hard-hearted ambition and proud rejections all the refused tendernesses, all the provincial complacencies you determined to abandon. And did abandon."

And yet—how fortunate for there to be someone willing to maintain the home fires, so to speak. Dick stayed busy with activities relating to his home and its famous former inhabitant. He corresponded with the curious, welcomed literary pilgrimages by scholars and enthusiastic readers, and hosted nearby school kids who visited for the sake of a research project. Sometimes he organized literary events at the home, bringing a spirit of eventfulness to Laurel Avenue and the Ramsey Hill neighborhood. In an interview with him in a newsletter, I can infer from one quotation his gentle irony and the smile that projected and softened it: "Thanks for getting to know me, now that I am an interesting person." His buzzer kept ringing, as graduate students and famous authors stopped by, or visitors from Mongolia and Belgium. "I usually learned so much from them, too," Dick said in another interview, in the Star Tribune.

When I next saw Dick at a family function, he was keen to show me a carefully made facsimile of a note from one of his recent visitors, the Iranian teacher Azar Nafisi, author of the popular 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. She now lives and works in Washington, D.C., but much of Nafisi's book focuses on her teaching classics of western literature and forming secret book clubs in Iran. The suspicion and resistance she encountered were considerable, but she persisted in her love of writers such as Fitzgerald. In her own book, she refers to the "green light" visible at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock in The Great Gatsby. Nafisi writes in Reading Lolita that she left Tehran in 1997 for the same green light in which Gatsby placed his hope. She was understandably moved, then, when she had the chance to visit Fitzgerald's birthplace, following a reading she gave in the Twin Cities. It was clear from Dick's and my conversation that he had been dazzled to host her, and the correspondence and words of thanks that they soon exchanged had the courtesy and good will of messages exchanged between two courtiers, pursuing different functions but both serving in Literature's retinue. In their notes to each other, they both referred to the green light.

As he received hospice care this summer, Dick was working with a circle of friends and brainstorming about a new nonprofit, the Fitzgerald in Minnesota Fund. The group promoted a number of outreaches—a prize for local authors, an annual conference, and contributions of Fitzgerald materials to the St. Paul library. Dick donated $250,000 from his estate to create this new foundation, dedicated to preserving Fitzgerald's legacy in these ways, and making Minnesotans more aware of the local connection. Amid what he knew full well were the final days of his life, Dick felt excitement at the planning going on around him. "It's a real upper for me."

You may be wondering if there was talk of Dick's residence becoming a tiny museum. There was, but the prospect of a single condo in a six-unit building being given to a fledgling foundation held legal complications, and besides, Dick was concerned about his neighbors soon growing tired of the noise and activity of visiting tour groups. This may seem a disappointing development, but it may be for the best in the long run. This is clearly Anne Trubek's view in her recent book, A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses. "If you are trying to preserve literary history, you could do a dozen more sensible things than convert an old (and ever growing older) house into a museum," she writes. "First of all, houses are not the product of writers. Books are." In her book, Trubek visits residences associated with Whitman, Dickinson, Faulker, and various other authors, and she describes her experiences as usually "deadening." These homes "expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers," she explains.

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