Some years back Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett joined forces for a comic novel about the apocalypse called Good Omens. Almost immediately, fans of this jeu d’esprit, in which the newly born AntiChrist is mixed up at the hospital with an ordinary baby, clamored for a sequel. Though it seems unlikely that such a book will ever be written, the two authors do have a title—664: The Neighbor of the Beast.
Did F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Crack-Up” essays — in which the author began to chronicle his mental collapse — usher in and anticipate the rise of autobiographical writing in America?
Poets traditionally own cats. Baudelaire would caress his “beau chat” and, being Baudelaire, daydream about his Creole mistress’s pliant body. T. S. Eliot famously celebrated the entire species in the comic verse of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Michael Dirda muses on famous feral muses, from songbirds to horses. Read.
F. Scott Fitzgerald on Ernest Hemingway and vice versa, circa 1936
In a letter dated February 7, 1936—right after the first “Crack-Up” piece was published—Hemingway complains to Perkins that Fitzgerald “seems to almost take a pride in his shamelessness of defeat. The Esquire pieces seem to me to be so miserable. There is another one coming. I always knew he couldn’t think—he never could—but he had a marvelous talent and the thing is to use it—not whine in public.”
Fitzgerald wrote to Beatrice Dance (who had been his lover that summer) to report that he had protested his old pal’s literary slam in “a somewhat indignant letter,” though Hemingway remained unrepentant. “Since I had chosen to expose my private life so ‘shamelessly,’ in Esquire,” Fitzgerald notes, “he felt that it was sort of an open season for me.”
Fitzgerald then wrote Hemingway “a hell of a letter,” which, on second thought, he decided not to send. “Too often,” he says to Beatrice Dance, “literary men allow themselves to get into internecine quarrels and finish about as victoriously as most of the nations at the end of the World War.” Hemingway, he says in a final remark, “is quite as nervously broken down as I am but it manifests itself in different ways. His inclination is toward megalomania and mine toward melancholy.” About as good a mutual character assessment as either of them ever got.
I fear that my decreasing interest in the contemporary indicates the onset of old age, or even old fogeyism. Soon I’ll start harrumphing when I open the morning paper.
If one cannot really teach students to be gifted writers, one can teach them to be gifted readers—to learn how great stories were produced, and to respect the craftsmanship that went into making them. They can also learn to see when authors were lazy or simply off their game. This helps to put a face behind the literary work—not a conventional biographical face but a human one.
Every burned book enlightens the world.