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Gatsby: Under the Red, White, and Blue

May 28, 2013 in American History, American literature, Classic Literature, Classic Writers, Kickstarter

Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was distantly related to the man who composed “The Star-Spangled Banner?” That, in fact, he was named after him?

I didn’t – Though, of course, Fitzgerald geeks are probably way ahead of me. Since beginning research for our latest project, the Literary Traveler team has closely followed the media attention that the Fitzgeralds attract even from beyond the grave. This sounds both melodramatic and macabre – but the Fitzgeralds are among those writers  – like Sylvia Plath – who attract the kind of personal, possessive fan attention that most celebrities only endure while they’re alive. Jumping in a fountain at The Plaza, or curled up asleep after a party, it seems as if they belong to us, American sweethearts in disgrace.

At Literary Traveler, however, we have been gearing up, not for the glamour of the movie or for dirt on the Fitzgeralds’ personal lives, but the real-life ingredients that went into The Great Gatsby. The main ingredient for us, since we’re a travel website, is place. We don’t only want to know why and how it happened — we want to know where, and we want to show where.

Many associate The Great Gatsby with the archetypal mansion or resort setting. But we think it’s crucial that readers understand the connection Fitzgerald himself made in the novel, between origin and destination, between starting out and success. That, after all, is the essence of the American dream: the difference between the two, and the near impossible journeys of those who made it to the top.

Readers of Gatsby will notice how the novel is structured along the arc of the journey east, from humble Midwestern origins, to glitzy palatial homes on the Gold Coast.  When Nick Carraway picks his Midwest, he rejects the wheat fields and lazy prairies. Instead, he relishes the sharp air of homecoming at Christmas, the bite of the bone-dry, wintry weather and of the bittersweet feeling of homecoming itself. Gatsby is a novel about heart as well as heartlessness – it is a book about how the heart experiences a wrenching journey from what’s familiar to what’s extraordinary – and ends up pining for the thing it cannot have.

Through the virtual travel of my research, I found myself at the grave of Scott and Zelda. Fitzgerald chose to be buried with his Maryland family members, one of whom was the famous author of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Francis Scott Key), who gave Fitzgerald part of his name. But Scott and Zelda had to wait to settle down in their final resting place until the 70s – Fitzgerald, having married a protestant, was barred from being buried in his ancestral plot at St. Mary’s in Rockville, Maryland.

One of Fitzgerald’s preferred titles for The Great Gatsby was “Under the Red, White, and Blue.” And the other place I found myself investigating (again virtually) was an ostentatious Long Island Dwelling. A New York Times article from June 30th, 1918 reports that Clarence H. Mackay had a dinner for forty guests and a reception for several hundred people at his mansion, Harbor Hill.

“A large American flag done in colored electric lights topped the house and, as Harbor Hill is the highest point on Long Island, it could be seen for miles around,” the article tells us.

The Fitzgeralds were in Paris by this time, but they had attended a party there the year previously. They may have heard about this blow-out event and drawn on its legendary parties for inspiration. For the one night that this glittering flag was flying over Long Island, everything there was “Under the Red, White and Blue.” But what about the family connection with the star-spangled banner?

Naming your son or daughter after a famous family member is an aspirational gesture. Similar to naming your child after a celebrity, it’s a blueprint for a green light, imparting a fatedness and limitlessness to the child’s future – whether they asked for it or not.

It’s very likely that when it came to mapping the red white and the blue of an American success story, Fitzgerald felt that he was expected to go far. There are more connections between Jay Gatsby and the humble James Gatz than you might expect, and the clues are found both between the pages of the novel and in Fitzgerald’s life – in the places Gatsby aspired to and the places he left behind.

At Literary Traveler, we want to visit those places and show you the real roots of the Gatsby myth. We’ve done a lot of reading, we’ve plotted our mental maps – the next step is to talk to the experts and get filming!

Check out our Kickstarter page for more information on what is to come.

Behind the Article: Rediscovering James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Legacy

September 4, 2012 in American History, American literature, Behind The Article

Join us as Literary Traveler takes a look “Behind the Article” with Victor Walsh, author of our August 17th article,  “James Fenimore Cooper: Cooperstown’s Literary Ghost.”  We were fascinated by the town’s oft forgotten literary history and were eager to hear more about the writer, whose father gave the town its name.

painting by John Wesley Jarvis, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY

Literary Traveler:  What first piqued your interest in James Fenimore Cooper?

Victor Walsh:  Probably seeing the film, The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye. I thought the cinematography, the acting and sets were superb, although the film does take literary license with the novel’s plot and characters. As Michael Mann, the director acknowledges, the film was based on the 1936 film version starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye.

Cooper is part of a larger theme. He didn’t go West, but others did, venturing beyond the trans-Missouri frontier into a world they could scarcely imagine. What they saw—vast herds of bison and antelope, the great horse tribes, the incredible geological formations, the maddening prairie winds and hailstones big as turkey eggs—had an irrevocable impact on them and our national heritage. The overland experience—its astonishing range of landscapes and numbers of never before-seen animals and the first signs of their decimation—caused some westward-bound  ‘emigrants’ to question the very notion that the westward advance was a “march of progress.”  No other experience in the 19th-century Republic with the exception of the Civil War elicited such an outpouring of letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, and reminiscences—a veritable ‘folk literature.’ It’s a story that I hope someday to write about.

LT:  How do you think Cooper’s imagined West compared to the reality of the West?  How do you think his writing would have been affected had he personally experienced the frontier?

VW:  I think his prose is too elaborate and sentimental; the action too slow—you are forever waiting—and many of the situations too contrived and invented. In an essay entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,”  Mark Twain skewered the Leatherstocking tales, dismissing them as “a literary delirium tremens.”  He faulted Cooper for 18 literary ‘defects,” among them, “Use the right word, not its second cousin,” and “Employ a simple and straightforward style.”

Cooper’s work has literary merit. He not only gave voice to one of the seminal themes—the ongoing tension and struggle between civilization and wilderness—of 19th-century America, but he was also far ahead of his times in terms of his characters. He was the first major American novelist to include African and African-American characters. In The Last of the Mohicans, Colonel Munro’s eldest daughter, the raven-haired Cora is the daughter of a West Indian mulatto woman, not the typical sentimental European heroine. Cooper certainly used stereotypical and often idealized characters in his portrayal of native peoples and African Americans, but he portrays many of them with positive human qualities.

LT:  You talk about Natty Bumppo being a precursor to Huck Finn, as well as Western dime novels. What can you say about Cooper’s impact on such a wide range of works?

VW:  The impact of Cooper’s most renowned character, Natty Bumppo, on American literature is not something that I can summarize in a few paragraphs.  Cooper, suffice to say, grasped the essential myth of America: the ‘white Indian’ and the allure of the wilderness.  It was vanishing before the oncoming pioneers like a mirage. This was Cooper’s basic tragic vision.  Natty Bumppo embodies Cooper’s vision of the frontiersman as the preeminent individualist, a “natural aristocrat,” who is better than the society he protects. Poor and isolated, yet pure, he prefigures Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.  Cooper’s novels reveal a deep tension between the lone individual and society, nature and culture, spirituality and organized religion.

LT:  Does your love of frontier literature and the Western genre extend past Cooper?  If so, can you suggest any other authors or texts for further reading?

VW:  The westward advance during the 19th-century was fundamentally a story of paradox, as the historian William H. Goetzmann notes. Something precious and irreplaceable—a continental wilderness—would be lost as the Young Republic advanced further westward. Some early westward-bound ‘emigrants,’  the wildlife artist John Audubon, the Indian painter George Catlin, the English adventurer George Ruxton, the trapper Rufus B. Sage, the Mormon leader Brigham Young, and the Austrian nobleman Alexander Maximilian expressed a prophetic regret over what would surely be lost as a result of crossing and settling the Last West.

Primary accounts left by those who saw a vast, unspoiled West before it was forever overrun and changed by California’s great Gold Rush of 1849 are a rich lodestone of literature  Among the best are John James Audubon,  The Missouri River Journals  (1843); Rufus B. Sage,  Scenes in the Rocky Mountains  (1846); James Henry Carlton,  The Prairie Logbooks; George Frederick Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains  (1847); Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834  (1843), and George Catlin,  Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians  (1841).

LT:  How do you feel about James Fenimore Cooper, an American legacy himself, sharing his Cooperstown legacy with the Hall of Fame of our National Pastime?  Is the town big enough for the both of them?

VW:  I don’t really have a problem with that. As mentioned, the family’s physical connection to Cooperstown had disappeared before the town’s transformation as the home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  The 600-acre Glimmerglass State Park overlooks the northern end of Lake Otsego.  Just up the hill from the parking lot of Hyde Hall, an early 19th-century limestone mansion with no association to Cooper, is a hiking trail that plunges into a dense forest of white birch and hemlocks. It evokes to some degree the setting of the great forest that once surrounded the 18th-century village. Perhaps, something could be done here to commemorate James Fenimore Cooper and his father, Judge William Cooper.

LT:  Next time our literary travels take us through Cooperstown, we will be sure to check it out and pay homage to the Cooper family, and I am sure our readers will be tempted to do the same.  Thank you!

 

Behind the Article: Taking a Closer look at “Literary Brooklyn Heights”

August 18, 2012 in Behind The Article, Literary Festivals, New York Travel

 

Join Literary Traveler as we go ‘behind the article’ with Norm Goldstein, author of our August 13th article, “Literary Brooklyn Heights.”  After reading about the wealth of literary history in Brooklyn, we were very excited to learn more about the past, present and future of the borough and all it has to offer the literary traveler.

 Literary Traveler:  So much is written about city life at the turn of the century.  Do you think more attention needs to be paid to Brooklyn?

Norm Goldstein:  Brooklyn, I’m pleased to say, certainly is getting its share of attention these days. It’s the new “in” place; Brooklyn is cool. And it is deserving of the attention. It’s changed dramatically for the better, especially in the last dozen years or so. Its history is fascinating, from the days of the early Dutch settlers through the Revolutionary War to its growth after the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, then the subway extension.  And it all started in Brooklyn Heights, called Breukelen by the Dutch.

LT:  You mention a few books on the topic in your article.  Is there one book on the subject that you would recommend to those interested in reading more?

NG:  I recommend February House  by Sherill Tippins for those interested in more about that unique gathering of talent in one Brooklyn Heights house in the pre-World War II years and Literary Brooklyn  by Evan Hughes for the broader picture.

LT:  How do you feel Brooklyn influenced the work of the writers who have lived there?  Do you think this has changed over the years?

NG:  In earlier times, there’s no question that the lure was cheaper rents. In 1939, W.H. Auden was talked into moving to the so-called February House from his apartment a few blocks away because he’d save money.

This has certainly changed over the years; rents in Brooklyn Heights are far from cheap today. But there is the lure of a quieter space than the usually frenetic Manhattan, the peaceful views from the waterfront, and, of course, Brooklyn’s unique idiosyncrasies — and characters — enough literary fodder for a lifetime of novels.

LT:  Who is your personal favorite writer who lived and worked in Brooklyn in the 19th or early 20th century?  Tell us a little about your choice.

NG:  For that period, I’d have to choose the poets, Whitman and Hart Crane. The latter is a personal favorite for his poem about the Brooklyn Bridge.  I often walk to the Promenade overlooking the bridge and the East River for substantially the same view he had when he described the fusion of “harp and altar” and feel his passion.

LT:  For those unfamiliar with Brooklyn, what is the best way for a new visitor to experience the area?

NG:  Brooklyn is a huge borough, a conglomeration of hundreds of distinct neighborhoods; it’s impossible to see it all. There are bus tours for an overview of some of it, but I suggest a walking tour of Brooklyn Heights, beginning with a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to get there.

LT:  For Literary Travelers visiting Brooklyn, do you have any off the beaten path suggestions of things they should see and do?

NG:  Plan a visit during the Brooklyn Book Festival.

(Editor’s note: The year the  Brooklyn Book Festival  is taking place Sunday, September 23rd, with preliminary events beginning on September 17th.  According to the Festival’s  website, “The Brooklyn Book Festival is the largest free literary event in New York Citypresenting an array of literary stars and emerging authors who represent the exciting world of literature today. One of America’s premier book festivals, this hip, smart, diverse gathering attracts thousands of book lovers of all ages.”  This year’s festival boasts appearances by Dennis Lehane, Mary Higgins Clark and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.)

LT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.  I look forward to exploring Brooklyn in more depth, and I have a feeling that our readers will be similarly inspired.

‘Girls’: HBO’s new comedy about ‘sex and the city’

August 14, 2012 in Comedy, New York Travel, Television, Women Writers

HBO’s new comedy, Girls,  has everything I look for in a television show.  It is smartly written, raucously witty and excruciatingly relatable.  It is a startlingly refreshing comedy in both its dry humor and acerbic social commentary. Yet, because its premise involves four single gals living in New York City, it has quickly drawn comparisons to HBO’s other female-centric comedy, Sex and the City.  While Girls  is clearly its own animal, the similarities are there. Take away the money, the clothes and the careers and it could be a prequel of sorts, had the SATC girls been twentysomethings in 2012.  Girls  is a self-deprecating un-photoshopped Sex and the City,  where pink cosmopolitans with perfectly curled lemon peel garnish are replaced with Solo cups of warm craft beer.

26-year-old Lena Dunham writes, directs and stars in the HBO comedy, produced by Judd Apatow of Bridesmaids  fame, which just finished its first season and is slated to return this winter.  Dunham graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in creative writing and first made waves with the independent film Tiny Furniture.

Discussing Girls  in a New York Times interview, Dunham said, “I get to look at so many aspects of what it means to be a woman, of what it means to live in an urban environment.”   While the shows are quite different and air over a decade apart, the same statement could have been made by the writers of Sex in the City  in 1998.

Girls  is very aware of the comparison and pokes fun at the association while simultaneously paying homage to their television predecessor.  Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has a SATC  poster prominently displayed on the wall of her apartment, and refers to her cousin Jessa (Jemima Kirke) as “definitely a Carrie, with some Samantha aspects, and Miranda hair.”  It is clear to anyone watching, who had also been a fan of SATC,  that naïve and virginal Shoshanna is a Charlotte, and Jessa, who misses an appointment at the women’s health clinic to have sex in a bar bathroom, is most obviously a Samantha.  This makes the responsible and sometimes uptight Marnie (Allison Williams) the Miranda of the group and aptly leaves the main character Hannah to clumsily fill Carrie’s Manolo Blahniks.

At the same time that they accentuate it, the apparent similarities are paradoxically what expose the core differences of the two shows. Hannah is Carrie…in real life.  Hannah is all of us in real life.  Those of us who watched Sex and the City  related to the women’s relationship struggles, but most us didn’t have the closets or six pack abs to match.  Hannah is us, only funnier.  While Sex and the City  projects itself as older, wiser, and wearing better shoes, Girls  is its awkward, uncoordinated and downright hilarious younger sister.

One of the major tropes of SATC  was the rift between women in their twenties and women in their thirties.  In a season 2 episode, Samantha exclaims, “These girls in their twenties, they’re so spoiled and ungrateful, they think they’re it,” to which Miranda replies, “because the world validates their delusion.”  Girls  does not validate this delusion.  In fact, it exposes it. No one would choose to be in Hannah’s unemployed, financially insecure and emotionally unfulfilled shoes.  Yet many of us are, or were at one time.

While both shows expose embarrassing and relatable relationship issues, Girls  does not sugarcoat, or airbrush.  Miranda’s postpartum sex scenes (before she had dropped the baby weight)  look like a Cinemax late night feature when compared to Hannah and Adam’s self-conscious and uncomfortable to watch romp in the first episode of Girls.  Samantha’s slight ‘weight gain’ in the SATC movie, represented by the svelte actress wearing a pair of pants one size too small, is treated as something that needs to be addressed immediately.  Meanwhile on Girls, Adam grips Hannah’s stomach awkwardly in bed, causing average weighted women everywhere to cringe.

At the heart of both shows is a female writer using her own experiences as social commentary.  Both women grapple with insecurities and complicated relationships, all the while navigating life in the city.  Adam, Hannah’s pseudo-boyfriend, may not be Mr. Big, but he is equally emotionally distant and cryptically confusing, in need of immense examination and ripe for the analytic writer’s eye.  In one particularly hilarious turn of events, Marnie’s boyfriend gets his hands on Hannah’s notebook, in which she comments on the questionable state of their relationship. This causes problems for the couple and, after Hannah is forced to read aloud to them from her writing, she asks, “If you had read the essay and it wasn’t about you, do you think you would have liked it? Just as, like, a piece of writing?”

Hannah asks of Marnie and her boyfriend what Girls  asks of the viewer.  Its reflexive nature is constantly turning the gaze back on itself.  While we relate to the scenarios experienced by the characters, we are constantly bombarded with purposefully uncomfortable images, such as the aforementioned sex scenes between Hannah and Adam.  By doing so, Girls  exposes the reality that Sex and the City  glossed over with high fashion and well-placed puns.

In the first episode, Hannah tells her skeptical parents, “I don’t want to freak you out, but I think I may be the voice of my generation.”  If the first season of Girls  is any indication, she just might be.

*

Girls returns to HBO in January 2013.  In the meantime, if you are a fan of the show, experience NYC by taking a walk in the ladies’ shoes.  The Guardian has created a map, with pins marking the real locations used in filming.  Create your own New York Girls tour and see the city through the eyes of Hannah, Jessa, Shoshanna and Marnie. 

A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein in Somerville, Massachusetts

November 12, 2011 in Cambridge, Leonard Bernstein, Music

Leonard Bernstein was born and raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his family ran a bookstore. He studied in Boston and Cambridge, as well as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In New York City he became known as a producer, in Vienna and Israel he was touted as one of the world’s greatest conductors; it was Tanglewood, however, to which Bernstein would “come home” to perform the work, and foster the friendships, that helped shape who he was as a person.

Cynthia Woods, Music Director of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and acclaimed international guest conductor, sheds light on the importance of Place in Leonard Bernstein’s life and career.

While Bernstein had long standing associations with many orchestras and areas–New York, Vienna, Israel–his lifelong relationship with Tanglewood, Massachusetts, stands out as one of the most defining places and experiences of his life.

Leonard Bernstein was accepted into the Tanglewood program in 1940 by Serge Koussevitzky, the iconic conductor and director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at that time. Bernstein had already finished his studies at Curtis with Fritz Reiner, another major influence, but it would be his time spent studying with Koussevitzky that would shape the public persona that everyone would come to know; the flair for the dramatic, the commitment to new music, and a love of teaching became principals that defined him for the rest of his life. It would also be at Tanglewood that first summer where Bernstein would meet another of his greatest friends and musical influences, Aaron Copland.

Bernstein maintained a relationship with Tanglewood for the rest of his life, eventually taking over for Serge Koussevitzky, teaching young conductors and composers, and leading the BSO in their summer season. It would also be at Tanglewood that he would “come home” to give his final concert. On August 19, 1990, Bernstein gave his final concert, almost collapsing on stage from a coughing fit, forcing himself to continue on and giving one of his greatest performances. All of his friends and family say that he knew it would be his final performance. He would die a few weeks later on October 14, 1990.

The Cambridge Symphony Orchestra is playing A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein, Sunday November 13, 2011, at 4:00PM at the Somerville High School on Highland Avenue.

The program includes the Overture to Candide, an operetta composed by Bernstein in 1956, based on the satirical novella by French philosopher Voltaire; a sweet and compelling orchestration of West Side Story, which premiered on Broadway in 1957; and in excellent contrast, Symphony No. 3 by early Romantic composer, Robert Schumann.

Please join us for a beautiful program and a historical, musical tribute to Leonard Bernstein—the places that influenced him, and indeed, the places influenced by him.