In the summer of 1933, F. Scott Fitzgerald included the following advice in a letter to his daughter, age eleven, who was away at camp:
Things to think about:
What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?
I read the letter for the first time about a year ago. While I wasn’t convinced these were timely goals for an eleven-year-old, I figured they’d be worth copying and taping to the wall above my desk—if not to meditate upon then at least as something pompous and peripheral, like a first-year film student hanging a Citizen Kane poster over his bed. I got out my masking tape.
One year later, I’m pretty comfortable saying that my scholarship “in comparison to my contemporaries” probably lacks a certain vigor, and, yes, I am “neglecting it.”
But (b) hasn’t been so passive. In fact, I’m challenged by it all the time. And I wonder if everyone who writes or otherwise creates is always challenged by (b):
Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
Especially that first question:
Do I really understand about people?
I went to New York City for the first time last month. A good friend of mine, Jeff, had been living in Brooklyn for over a year and had been campaigning hard for me to join him, preferably permanently. By June I had talked myself into an Amtrak ticket—an 18-hour ride from South Bend, Indiana to see what all the fuss was about.
Jeff showed me the “sights” for as long as he could tolerate, but by the end of the weekend we weren’t leaving Brooklyn. We spent early Sunday afternoon wandering through industrial warehouses that had been converted into art studios. Performers hovered on street corners. Three or four twenty-somethings played Velcro ball in the street.
We eventually meandered our way into a yard party hosted by one of Jeff’s former co-workers a few blocks away. The crowd was thin at first, but music bumped from the sound system. A little disoriented, we found a place to sit off to the side as strangers trickled in.
Smoke plumed from the grill. A giant, gold, confetti-covered number “5” leaned against the back shed. Plastic flamingos were stuck in the ground here and there. Someone had run power out a window to an old TV/VCR on the first story roof. The NeverEnding Story was just finishing, not that you could hear it. “Should I put on Top Gun?” someone shouted.
Someone turned the music louder, and the standing crowd—now over fifty—danced from the waist up. A woman walked past me wearing a black t-shirt, across the front of which was printed only “SATAN” in bold, tie-dye letters. A man in his sixties in a long purple tunic, headband, and thick-lensed glasses who I’m sure I heard singing The Rolling Stones outside a hotdog place two nights before climbed up on a stone wall to wild applause. He was handed a microphone, introduced as “Super Bad Brad,” and sang—among other things—Barry White to a backing track. Maverick and Goose played volleyball behind him.
By the time Bad Brad finished his first set, the “5” from the shed had been roped to the yard’s singular tree. Someone had shimmied up the trunk, grabbed the longest branch, bent it down, and tied it to the four foot number, which didn’t leave the ground.
Jeff and I slipped out after five or six of Brad’s songs. We walked a few blocks before stepping tentatively into a lowlit restaurant for dinner. While we waited for our food, I said, “I know it might be unfair to generalize, but let’s try to explain the people we just saw.”
Jeff, never one to shy away from the abstract, was game.
Words were thrown around haphazardly. Irony. Sincerity. David Foster Wallace. Identity. Postmodernism. Nostalgia. Jeff knocked my explanations down. I shrugged at his.
Our food came and we gave it a rest. Neither of us had any idea what we were talking about.
Do I really understand about people?
In some ways, that’s exactly what art is—a way of showing the extent to which one understands about people, the world. When we think, for example, of the world’s greatest writers, we list those who have done this well—those who have understood something about people, and put that something into words.
Two years before the letter to his daughter, Fitzgerald reflected, in an essay called “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” on the era he is famous for defining. Speaking in third person, he writes that the Jazz Age “bore him up, flattered him and gave him more money that he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did. . . .”
Simply for telling people that he felt as they did. Maybe that’s where we start.
David Greendonner (’12) is an MFA candidate at Western Michigan University where he teaches writing and is the managing editor of the literary magazine Third Coast.