St. Paul’s literati look back at the debut of their most famous native son

By Anne Murphy

One hundred years ago this April, F. Scott Fitzgerald published his first novel, This Side of Paradise. To mark the occasion, the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library is presenting a series of programs devoted to the native St. Paul author.

Last January the Friends assumed stewardship of Fitzgerald in St. Paul (FISP), and it has enlisted the nonprofit organization’s help in the centennial celebration beginning with “Fitz Bits,” a series of video lectures about Fitzgerald’s life and literature. The first three “Fitz Bits” videos were written and will be narrated by local Fitzgerald scholar Dave Page, who has been active with FISP since its founding nearly 10 years ago.

“Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, Minnesota ruled the American literary landscape in the 1920s,” Page said. “A century later, it’s hard to imagine any of today’s authors gaining the kind of legendary status that Fitzgerald and his generation of writers had. To have him associated with St. Paul provides the city with a small but steady boost in tourism, bragging rights and the magic that can be found in his descriptions of the region.”

The first “Fitz Bits” video has been posted on the Friends’ website for free viewing. It highlights the connections between St. Paul and Fitzgerald’s alma mater Princeton University and how those connections inspired This Side of Paradise, which Fitzgerald wrote in his parents’ home at 599 Summit Ave.

Accompanied by Fitzgerald in St. Paul president Stu Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar Dave Page leafs through his first edition copy of This Side of Paradise in front of the brownstone at 599 Summit Ave. where Fitzgerald completed the writing of his debut novel 100 years ago. Photo by Brad Stauffer

The first “Fitz Bits” video has been posted on the Friends’ website for free viewing. It highlights the connections between St. Paul and Fitzgerald’s alma mater Princeton University and how those connections inspired This Side of Paradise, which Fitzgerald wrote in his parents’ home at 599 Summit Ave.

COVID-19 hit just as FISP was gathering steam under the Friends’ stewardship, according to Page. “Everything just kind of ended when it was getting started,” he said. “I think we had one program. Then they contacted me about creating some videos. I would’ve said ‘no’ if it hadn’t been for my wife, Mecca. I’m not technologically savvy enough to do the videos by myself, but she is, so I said I’d do three.”

The story behind Page’s first video, “How St. Paul’s McKibbin Family Influenced This Side of Paradise,” is not included in his recent book, F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer and His Friends at Home. Unlike many homes associated with Fitzgerald and his childhood and early adult years in St. Paul, the duplex where the McKibbins lived at 83-85 N. Virginia St. is no longer standing. It was razed in 1927 with no photographic record.

“This is an interesting story,” Page said. “It’s about an accidental meeting that is tied into This Side of Paradise.” Without giving too much of the video away, Page related how Fitzgerald was introduced as a freshman at Princeton to college football and hockey great Hobey Baker by his St. Paul friend Joe McKibbin II. Hobart Amory Hare Baker was the namesake of Fitzgerald’s main character in This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine. “Fitzgerald was known for turning actual events into vivid fiction,” Page said, “and a chance meeting instigated by Joe McKibbin II gave him the excuse to incorporate one of America’s most famous athletes into his first novel.”

Page’s second “Fitz Bits” installment was inspired by Fitzgerald’s extremely heavy smoking, a habit that occupied a prominent place in his life and literature along with his excessive drinking. Titled “T’Bacca Heart: The Running Theme of Tobacco in Fitzgerald’s Work,” it will be released on the Friends’ website in mid-June. 

“Everyone mentions his drinking, and it obviously played a big role in Fitzgerald’s life and death, but smoking had to have had a least an outside role,” Page said. “One of his last stories was just about smoking.” Fitzgerald died at 44 on December 2, 1940, from complications following a recent heart attack. He wrote “Thank You for the Light” in 1936.

Page’s third video, due out in mid-July, is about Fitzgerald’s interest in the Civil War. The future author was 14 years old when America marked the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War, and his father used to tell him Civil War stories, according to Page. As with other aspects of Fitzgerald’s life, the Civil War plays into his fiction. His story “A Night at the Fair,” included in the book The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Page and fellow St. Paul author Patricia Hampl, features a Civil War reenactment scene.

Stu Wilson, who helped found FISP with the support of his late friend Dick McDermott, said he is pleased with the Friends’ stewardship of the organization. McDermott lived at 481 Laurel Ave., Fitzgerald’s birthplace, and taught at the University of Minnesota. He left a portion of his estate for the establishment of FISP.

“There is no other organization like ours,” Wilson said. “There’s the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, which involves primarily scholarly research, and there’s the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in her native Montgomery, Alabama, devoted more to history than literature.

“An intriguing aspect of this is that most of the major Fitzgerald scholars are not Midwesterners,” Wilson said. “They aren’t familiar with the world in which Fitzgerald lived and that is in his works. That was a large missing piece before Fitzgerald in St. Paul.

“Fitzgerald touches a lay audience,” Wilson said. “And there’s a great future here for further celebration across generations. There are high school and college students who are reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the first time this year and finding it incredibly relevant. The time when he grew up and that he wrote about are similar to today.”

Alayne Hopkins, director of programs and services for the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, said her nonprofit organization is thrilled to have FISP included in its effort to celebrate Minnesota literature. “The mission of FISP fits exactly with the focus of the Friends,” she said.

As part of the year-long celebration of This Side of Paradise, the Friends are planning a lecture by noted Irish writer and Fitzgerald scholar Philip McGowan in September, on or around what would be Fitzgerald’s 124th birthday on September 24. “He will have to go through three major airports to get here,” Hopkins said, “so we will have to see. He may be here virtually, but he’s on the program along with more ‘Fitz Bits.’”

For more information or to view “Fitz Bits,” visit thefriends.org/fitzgerald.

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