A Civilized People


Excerpt from Homegrown Democrat (Viking Penguin, 2004)

I take a seat at a corner table facing the window. A blustery spring day. The mutter of cars and buses as they pull up to the stop sign. Western Avenue, once the city limit back when little farms lay between St. Paul and the milling city of Minneapolis. On the corner is the old drugstore where F. Scott Fitzgerald came to buy his cigarettes the summer of 1919 when he was living in his parents’ garret, a Princeton dropout and failed adman and former lieutenant who never got in the war. He walked down the street, 22, handsome, on the wagon, working up the novel that made him famous, This Side of Paradise. Book and author caught the crest of the Jazz Age and swept to fame, romance, terrible celebrity, wealth, happiness, success, insanity, desperation, failure, desperate resolution, vain hope, sudden death, but when he walked down that sidewalk and turned the corner at Selby Avenue, he was just a writer engrossed in the task of trying to turn a loser into a winner. He was born two blocks from here in 1896. His mother had lost two babies and he was the third, and from her lavish love sprouted a boy who believed he could throw the long touchdown pass and win the unattainable girl, be a war hero, and write the Great American Novel.

St. Paul was a provincial outpost to him, a city of shanty Irish and potatoheads, a cold colony he would escape and find his way to Manhattan and Paris and Hollywood and never return here. The land of bitter winds and smug self-effacing people. And yet when Fitzgerald said, “My generation of radicals and breakers-down never found anything to take the place of the old virtues of work and courage and the old graces of courtesy and politeness,” he was talking about St. Paul.

When I was still in high school, I walked around this neighborhood and thought about him. It astonished me to read the opening of Gatsby and “Winter Dreams” and The Crack-Up and think, “The man who wrote this grew up a few blocks from Aunt Jean and Uncle Les’s house.” When Grandpa rode the streetcar to St. Paul to take out his naturalization papers, the pretty boy in knee pants and swinging his book strap might have been Fitzgerald. Up and down the avenues, past the old brick and stone mansions of the Hills and Griggses and Weyerhaeusers and Ordways, I anguished in a satisfying way about death, my death, and how nobody ever would know I had the grand ambitions that I had, poor little me, dying unknown, unsung, the tiny obituary (STUDENT SUCCUMBS TO FLU). I used to sit on a little triangle of grass behind a statue of Nathan Hale, his hands tied behind his back, about to be hanged, and watch approaching headlights on Summit Avenue and think, in a satisfying and literary way, about how alone and lost and misunderstood I was. (In fact, was not: was encouraged by many, found good teachers wherever I looked, and have been lucky my whole life.) I looked at a graceful old house and imagined how happy life would be if only I owned it, a brick palazzo with French doors opening onto a terrace from which I could extrapolate a life of affection and amiable conversation. Dark ladies smoking Herbert Tareytons, their long legs draped over a stone balustrade, speaking in low, urgent tones about a book, an important book, terribly important, and their expressive hands map out the New World this book foresees in the mist, having torn the roof off the old one. I love the conversation of passionate believers. I was brought up by cautious people who taught me to make haste slowly, and yet I have always wanted more than one life, including some passionate ones—a St. Paul one but also a New York one, and a cowboy life, of course, and a showbiz one, and a literary one, and a secret life as, say, a singer in a club in Duluth. I lived a lot of lives vicariously as a reader and then invented a few lives of my own. When, at the age of forty, I bought a big green frame house with a porch on Goodrich Avenue, it only made me restless. I pulled up stakes and moved five blocks away to a brick house with a walled garden, then jumped to a belle epoque apartment in Copenhagen where I paced and plotted my escape, then to Central Park West in New York, then to a log cabin in a grove of aspens in Wisconsin with a family of wild turkeys who came and went. And then landed back here in St. Paul, near Nathan Hale, and here I have stopped.