The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary (Fesler-Lampert Minnesota Heritage)
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013
88 pp., 12.95
Casey N. Cep
The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald
The teenager is an invention of the Cold War. The term was first used in the Forties as a marketing term for clothing. If the 19th century invented childhood, then the 20th century invented adolescence. It's no surprise, then, that the last few decades have brought a proliferation in the publication of juvenilia.
The doggerel of poets and the young scribbling of novelists is now bound between professional covers and prefaced by serious scholars. There is quite an appetite for these early works. Readers devoured Inventions of the March Hare when Christopher Ricks published T. S. Eliot's early poems and enjoyed Hyde Park Gate News when Gillian Lowe edited the family newspaper of the young Virginia Woolf.
Whether diaries or drafts, we are all too happy to follow our favorite writers through the earliest years of their literary efforts. Dave Page brings a fresh installment of juvenilia with F. Scott Fitzgerald's boyhood diary. The Thoughtbook, as Fitzgerald titled it, begins in August of 1910 and runs through February 1911. It is only 27 pages long, but it includes some of his earliest character sketches.
Fitzgerald's first publication was a detective story that appeared in his school newspaper at age thirteen, the same year that he began keeping this diary. It's no coincidence that David Foster Wallace's "Forever Overhead" memorializes the thirteenth birthday as "the chance for people to recognize that important things are happening to you."
The thirteenth year is indeed highly significant. For Fitzgerald, it was an age of friendship and romance, dancing lessons and secret clubs. Dave Page transcribes every line of the diary with love and care, preserving spelling mistakes and even some of the more curious formatting decisions.
Fitzgerald kept the diary locked under his bed for years. Although his daughter Scottie thought she donated it with her father's other papers to Princeton, it was actually in the hands of Arthur Mizener, who quoted it in his biography The Far Side of Paradise. It was excerpted in Life magazine in the Fifties, then printed in a limited edition by Princeton Library in the Sixties. Somehow it found its way into the special collection of the University of South Carolina at Columbia, where Dave Page found it locked away.
The Thoughtbook begins in August, when Fitzgerald was living in Minnesota. "My Girls," as the first entry is titled, catalogues his memories of Nancy ("we were quite infatuated with each other") and Kitty ("It was impossible to count the number of times I kissed [her] that afternoon"). September brings a remembrance of Violet Stockton, who summered in St. Paul but "spoke with a soft southern accent leaving out the r's."
The politics of adolescent romance consume the young author, who notes without much humility: "In truth Kitty Shultz, Dorothy, Violet, Marie and Catherine Tre all liked me best." In November, the budding listmaker records: "the boys and girls I like best in order," though he is careful to note, "This list changes continually[.] Only authentic at date of chapter." The young Casanova writes later: "I have two new crushes, to wit … . I have not quite decided yet which I like the best. The 2nd is the prettiest. The 1st the best talker."
Near the diary's end, Fitzgerald turns from individuals to adolescent society. "The first club I remember really belonging to was the white handkerchief," which had dues and officers and whose members "were bound to tell none of the secrets tho [he] doubt[s] muchly if there were any to tell." That was the first, but "[t]he best club [he] belonged to was the Gooserah club." This club had elaborate rules and even a rival club to contend with, but its purpose and activities are not recorded. Its name came from the surname of a Sunday school peer. Alfred Gusan having been pitiably mispronounced, Fitzgerald writes: "The absurdity of the name struck us and I sugested [sic] that we get up a club named this."
The very end of the diary is a long reflection on Margaret and Alida, two "fickle" girls whom Fitzgerald lusts after but who have many other suitors. It's delightful to watch the young author reflect on courtship, presaging the romanticism that would fill his later novels and stories. He is a careful observer of his peers and chronicler of his own affections. The dialogue that enlivens his mature literary works is already present in these brief sketches.
It is hard to convey the precocious charm of a thirteen-year-old who writes: "Didnt [sic] do much today but learned a few valuble [sic] things to wit." The Thoughtbook is full of such delights. Everything is said to happen "quite by accident," though the yearning for narrative and order is already there in Fitzgerald's self-consciously labeled chapters. Here is the young author attempting to shape his life into a story, one with characters and plot and themes.
In February 1911, Fitzgerald writes: "I devote a whole chapter to these two [male friends] because for a long time they were my ideals but latly [sic] one has fallen in my estimation." It is not far from that devotion to his most iconic novel, where Nick Carraway decides between the idealism of Jay Gatsby and the pragmatism of Tom Buchanan.
Ceaselessly we return, not only to our own past but to the formative years of our favorite authors. Dave Page's editing of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Thoughtbook lets us do just that with one of America's best writers.
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications.
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