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Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009 08:40 pm

All is not well forever

Robert Fitzgerald’s youth in Springfield

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The home Fitzgerald grew up in at 215 E. Jackson in Springfield was torn down in the 1960s to make way for the attorney general’s office.
PHOTO OF THE HOUSE PROVIDED BY THE SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION

All but a few members of the Springfield High School Hall of Fame are not in the least bit famous in Springfield. In the English-speaking bookish community, however, one of those anointed is celebrated. Robert Stuart Fitzgerald’s reworking into English verse of the Aeneid, The Odyssey and The Iliad are not only admired but loved. When not re-imagining the ancients’ tales in colloquial English, Fitzgerald taught and wrote poems. Both are callings distinct from being a poet or a professor, and he excelled at each.

I summed up his life in this paper in 1994, and it would be silly to try to improve on it. Dead at 74 in 1985, Fitzgerald was a teacher when students still wanted to learn, entered his middle age at a time when writers could still afford to live in Italy, and spent much of his early manhood drinking and suffering for Art in Manhattan at a time when living on that island was worth doing no matter what it cost.

Writers can be difficult people to befriend, but Fitzgerald seemed to have the gift. His papers at Yale include letters from William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, James Dickey, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsburg, Seamus Heaney, Robert Lowell, Archibald Macleish and Ezra Pound. His intimates included The New Yorker’s Joe Mitchell and William Maxwell. To James Agee he reportedly functioned as a literary conscience, and his introduction to Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge — still praised as one of the best guides to that storyteller’s work — was one of the least of his encouragements to her.

Robert Fitzgerald was both a poet and a professor of poetry at Harvard.
To those who know both Fitzgerald and Springfield, the most remarkable thing about Fitzgerald is that he grew up in Springfield. Born in 1910 back East into a genteel, if not wealthy, family of lawyers, Fitzgerald lived from ages 5 or so to 18 in a frame house at 215 East Jackson St., on land now occupied by the Illinois attorney general’s offices in the shadow of the Statehouse. (The reporter in him, if not the patriot, would have been offended by Wikipedia’s assertion that he grew up in Chicago.) He continued to visit the house until 1934, when his grandmother died and the house was sold.

Fitzgerald’s grandfather had been a successful merchant in Springfield. “The coffee, tea, whisky and groceries Fs,” as Vachel Lindsay once identified them, were Roman Catholics and Fitzgerald was schooled at St. Agnes from 1921 to 1924. He went on to Springfield High School, there not being a Catholic alternative before Cathedral Boys High School opened in 1930.

Upon graduating from SHS in 1928 at 17, Fitzgerald was judged too immature to cope with the college life, and was sent to the Choate School for a year to ripen enough that Yale might digest him. He ended up at Harvard, where, foretelling his career, he took honors in English and Greek. He would return as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard University from 1965 to 1981.

It had been taken for granted by his family that Fitzgerald too would go on to law school but by 1933, he recalled, “the wherewithal to go to law school had vanished.” Graduating in the midst of the Depression, one took jobs one could and his was on a newspaper. He eventually found his way to Time magazine, a raft which has kept many a sinking wordsmith afloat over the years.

It is difficult in reflecting on such a life to not ask what it is that a Fitzgerald or any famous son or daughter owes to her hometown. What part of his success owes to Springfield and what part to genes or Fate or milk every day for breakfast? The same questions intrigued Fitzgerald, too, and he answered some of them in reminiscences he wrote for the New Yorker in the 1970s and reprinted in the 1993 collection, The Third Kind of Knowledge.

One of the most interesting things about reading about Fitzgerald’s Springfield boyhood is how little Springfield figures in them. He mentions the Statehouse — he had a wonderfully grand walk to and from grade school at St. Agnes (then at Capitol and Pasfield), cutting through the Capitol each way — but nothing about the shops or the parks or the entertainments. We see him practicing his drop kicks, but not quarterbacking in the big game for the Senators. His world was indoors, in the rooms containing books “which contained the far away and the long ago.” There lived Henry Esmond and Ishmael and Jim Hawkins and, compared to their exploits, watching the trains roll past on the Third Street tracks was dull stuff.

He took long walks to South Grand and back up Fifth Street. On one of these jaunts one winter, he unexpectedly felt a “new sense of everything,” an experience he then supposed to be religious “though uncertainly related to faith or doctrine” and later relied on as an aesthetic criterion. A poem that worked, for example, recreated that sense of strangeness in the reader. There was nothing about Springfield that excited this sense of mystery, rather something inside the boy.

The city intruded on Fitzgerald decisively at school. It was Fitzgerald’s father, not a schoolteacher, who first showed him the Greek alphabet. And it was at Choate, not Springfield High, that the future translator met Dudley Fitts, the classics master who would become his mentor. But if the translator in Fitzgerald bloomed in foreign soil, Springfield is where the poet germinated.

As noted, Fitzgerald wrote poetry — or rather, he wrote poems in his own voice as well as those of Homer and Virgil. He did it well, as is evidenced by such work as the 1971 collection, Spring Shade: Poems. His reputation was such that he was asked to don the magic mantle of the Poet Laureate of the United States, which makes its wearer invisible to the general public.

Speaking with the Paris Review in 1984, Fitzgerald recalled his time at SHS.

I discovered I could put words together and the results were pleasing to me. After I had discovered the charms of verse, I wrote verse all the time. Then when I was a senior, a great, kinetic teacher named Elizabeth Graham conducted something called the Scribblers’ Club for a few seniors. It was a class, but it called itself a club, and was engaged in writing throughout the year. They put out a little magazine. I guess that was when the whole thing came to a head.

Springfield was then a congenial hometown a for a budding poet, in that it had its own resident Famous Poet in the person of Vachel Lindsay, who had grown up three blocks away from the Fitzgerald place, at Fifth and Edwards. His example suggested that such a calling was possible to a Springfield boy, even if doing so excited scorn among most of one’s neighbors. (“The town for which [Lindsay] had his visionary hopes of policy and beauty,” Fitzgerald would write, “laughed up his sleeve at him.”)

Lindsay recognized in Fitzgerald not only a kindred sensibility, but a genuine talent. In 1928 Lindsay wrote his Springfield High School English teacher and mentor, Susan Wilcox, thanking her for sending him copies of the Scribblers’ Club journal in which a Fitzgerald poem appeared. “[My wife] and I,” said Lindsay, “were specially interested in the brilliant work of young Fitz.” Later, Lindsay wrote notes of introduction for Fitzgerald when he went away for a year at Cambridge; the student thus met Eliot and Pound. “I thought that Vachel was a really great fellow, molto simpatico, and very good to me,” Fitzgerald remembered.

The seven-year-old Fitzgerald in 1918, posing in front of the Andrew O’Connor statue of Lincoln which had just been installed in front of the Capitol that year.
If Wilcox and Lindsay were the elders who showed Fitzgerald how to be a poet, it was his widowed father who moved him to want to. The senior Fitzgerald had a good Catholic education, thanks to the Jesuits who drilled Latin into him, and he did successfully what Santa Clara College and Michigan’s law school asked him to do. Fitzgerald Sr. had played college football (one of his old pals was a professional baseball umpire), Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post told him as much about the higher things as he wanted to know and the library at home was inspired more by Michigan than the Muse.

Not by Erato anyway. Fitzgerald’s father loved to perform, and co-founded the Comedy Club at the University of Michigan law school; he met the future poet’s mother-to-be in a theatrical troupe. (Fitzgerald’s own widow insisted that the poet’s theatrical inheritance revealed itself in his speech and his platform manner in front of a classroom.) When the boy needed bucking up, dad would say, “Be a trouper, Fitz!”

And the boy often needed bucking up. Fitzgerald lost his mother when he was two, a grievous portent. His only sibling, a kid brother, died five years later. As a boy, “Big Bob,” as his father was known, had had diphtheria and was sent west for his health. The man was crippled by tubercular infection that spread from his hip, leaving him all but bedridden. After his death, the Illinois State Journal handsomely said, “There was a pathetic heroism in [his] struggle to regain his health and do the work which he had so well begun.…What he felt of his disappointment, he concealed with the cheerfulness of a consummate actor.”

Unlike many children of ailing parents, who protect their kids from it, the young Fitzgerald saw suffering up close and learned from it. He was companion and nurse to his father, helping him clean and redress the abscess on his hip twice a day. While grownup things were not shared with the boy, there was much that he took note of, without quite understanding. One of these was the fact that there are wounds that even loving care cannot soothe. The boy watched when his father occasionally surrendered to drink, left “crazed and sodden” by grief, and rage at lives cut short. “I was no more than eight or nine,” he would recall, “when it had come home to me that the fate of the breathing person was to be hurt and then annihilated.”

Such precocious insights tend to turn a sensitive boy inward. Fitzgerald uses words such as timid and hyper-fastidious and squeamish and self-conscious to recall himself as a youth in Springfield. Outwardly, however, he was the hail-fellow-well-met, shaped to the template of his class. He edited the yearbook, lettered in football and tennis, took part in the debating society, was a class officer and ranked top in his class. Yet he had already learned what most people take decades to discover, that “all is not well forever with prosperities and abilities and loving families.”

As he neared graduation he had one more thing to learn. “My mother and my brother had been taken from me,” he would recall about the decade he spent alone with his father. “Now my father was given to me, and the gift was beyond estimation.” He realized, “I could not live without my father,” but he had to nonetheless. At 18 the son became the patriarch of a clan of ghosts.

None of this was talked about, partly because he was a boy, and partly because of his father’s the-show-must-go-on ethic. “Communication with grownups had to be laconic or sportive,” he wrote, “since no language existed for the way things really happened, no means of learning what was common in experience and what was not.” Fitzgerald spent much of rest life trying to find that language.

Robert Fitzgerald was inducted into the SHS Hall of Fame in 1968. Apart from that, Fitzgerald is all but invisible in his old hometown. No schools, no streets, no rooms at the library are named for him. Vachel Lindsay’s house survived as a monument and museum, but the Fitzgerald house was torn down in the 1960s. The Illinois State Historical Society is looking for a sponsor to place a marker near where it stood, on the grounds of the Illinois attorney general’s building. Interested parties should contact William Furry at 217/525-2781 or wfurry@historyillinois.org for more information.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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