Monday, November 12, 2012

Babe in the Woods: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Unlikely Summer in Montana

by Landon Y. Jones - Pen American Center
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Source: Princeton University Library

In July 1915, a fresh-faced young man got off a train and presented himself at a working cattle-and-sheep ranch in the North Fork of the Smith River, a few miles outside of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. He was slender - about 5'8," 150 pounds - and handsome, with champagne-colored hair and blue-green eyes. He carried himself so lightly on the balls of his feet that his wife later wrote, "There seemed to be some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretely enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention."
The ranch hands must have been astonished at the sight. F. Scott Fitzgerald had arrived in Montana. In the summer before his junior year at Princeton University, the boyish, eighteen-year-old Fitzgerald had traveled west to visit the Castle Mountain Livestock Company, the ranch owned by the family of his wealthy prep school and college friend, Charles W. Donahoe. In the ensuing weeks, Fitzgerald would do what easterners visiting Montana often do: he went native. He outfitted himself in boots, brandished a pistol, rode horses, drank bad whiskey, played cards with cowboys, flirted with daughters of neighboring ranchers, and took but one bath a week.
More significantly, Fitzgerald also found in Montana a western version of the predatory capitalism and baronial lifestyles that had so fascinated him in the East. Montana gave Fitzgerald the setting for one of his best-known short stories, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” written just six years after his visit. His literary imagination continued to be fired by the stories he heard at the ranch about wide-open Butte and its Copper Kings. In Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby’s mentor, Dan Cody, is described as a version of Marcus Daly, “a product of the Nevada silver fields, of every rush for metal since seventy-five. The transactions in Montana copper . . . made him many times a millionaire.” The Donahoe family’s palatial stone manor, which Fitzgerald visited and which still looms atop a hill in White Sulphur Springs, may have contributed to his imagining of the “feudal silhouette” of Jay Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house.”[2]
Donahoe Manor - White Sulphur Springs, Montana
by Landon Y. Jones

Surprisingly, despite the exhaustive scrutiny given to virtually every stage of Fitzgerald’s life, the details and consequences of his visit to Montana have remained unknown and unexamined. Why? One explanation is that Fitzgerald’s experience in Montana does not fit easily into the better-known narrative of his life with its themes of urbanity, sophistication, and Jazz Age dissolution and settings like New York, Paris, and the French Riviera. Moreover, unlike the steady parade of well-born eastern writers and artists who visited and celebrated the region before and after him—Owen Wister, Theodore Roosevelt, Struthers Burt, and Frederic Remington, to name only a few—Fitzgerald did not embrace the typical easterners’ vision of the West as a place of manly renewal, an “exhilarating region of adventure and comradeship in the open air.”[3] 
The contrasting experiences of Fitzgerald and his friend Ernest Hemingway in the West are especially instructive. A fellow Midwesterner, Hemingway did not visit the northern Rockies for the first time until 1930, fifteen years after Fitzgerald. But Hemingway repeatedly returned to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho for his increasingly obsessive hunting and fishing trips. Fitzgerald never returned to the Rockies at all (though he spent his sad, last years writing screenplays in Los Angeles). If he ever caught a trout or shot an elk, he never mentioned it. A few other travelers were not as enamored of the West as Hemingway either. The India-born Rudyard Kipling, exulted over fly fishing for cutthroat in the Yellowstone’s Yankee Jim Canyon in 1889 but saw no romance whatsoever in the unwashed westerners “without clean collars and perfectly unable to get through one sentence unadorned by three oaths.”[4]

Full piece at Pen American Center

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