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The Pierian Springs and the Last Straw

F. Scott Fitzgerald

MY UNCLE GEORGE assumed, during my childhood, almost legendary proportions. His name was never mentioned except in verbal italics. His published works lay in bright, interesting binding on the library table—forbidden to my whetted curiosity until I should reach the age of corruption. When one day I broke the orange lamp into a hundred shivers and glints of glass, it was in search of closer information concerning a late arrival among the books. I spent the afternoon in bed, and for weeks could not play under the table because of maternal horror of severed arteries in hands and knees. But I had gotten my first idea of Uncle George—he was a tall, angular man with crooked arms. His opinion was founded upon the shape of the handwriting in which he had written, “To you, my brother, with heartiest of futile hopes that you will enjoy and approve of this, George Rombert.” After this unintelligible beginning, whatever interest I had in the matter waned, as would have all my ideas of the author, had he not been a constant family topic.

When I was eleven I unwillingly listened to the first comprehensible discussion of him. I was fidgeting on a chair in barbarous punishment when a letter arrived and I noticed my father growing stern and formidable as he read it. Instinctively, I knew it concerned Uncle George—and I was right.

“What’s the matter, Tom—someone sick?” asked my mother rather anxiously.

For his answer, father rose and handed her the letter and some newspaper clippings it had enclosed. When she had read it twice (for her naïve curiosity could never resist a preliminary skim), she plunged—

“Why should she write to you and not to me?”

Father threw himself wearily on the sofa and arranged his long limbs decoratively.

“It’s getting tiresome, isn’t it? This is the third time he’s become—involved.” I started, for I distinctively heard him add under his breath, “Poor damn fool!”

“It’s much more than tiresome,” began my mother. “It’s disgusting. A great, strong man with money and talent and every reason to behave and get married (she implied that these words were synonymous) playing around with serious women like a silly, conceited college boy. You’d think it was a harmless game!”

Here I put in my word. I thought that perhaps my being de trop in the conversation might lead to an early release.

“I’m here,” I volunteered.

“So I see,” said father in the tones he used to intimidate other young lawyers downtown; so I sat there and listened respectfully while they plumbed the iniquitous depths.

“It is a game to him,” said my father. “That’s all part of his theory.”

My mother sighed. “Mr. Sedgewick told me yesterday that his books had done inestimable harm to the spirit in which love is held in this country.”

“Mr. Sedgewick wrote him a letter,” remarked my father rather dryly, “and George sent him the Song of Solomon by return post—”

“Don’t joke, Thomas,” said mother, crowding her face with eyes. “George is treacherous, his mind is unhealthy—”

“And so would mine be, had you not snatched me passionately from his clutches—and your son here will be George the second, if he feeds on this sort of conversation at his age.” So the curtain fell upon my Uncle George for the first time.

Scrappy and rough-pieced information on this increasingly engrossing topic fitted gradually into my consciousness in the next five years like the parts of a picture puzzle. Here is the finished portrait from the angle of seventeen years—Uncle George was a Romeo and a misogamist, a combination of Byron, Don Juan, and Bernard Shaw, with a touch of Havelock Ellis for good measure. He was about thirty, had been engaged seven times, and drank ever so much more than was good for him. His attitude towards women was the pièce de résistance of his character. To put it mildly, he was not an idealist. He had written a series of novels, all of them bitter, each of them with some woman as the principal character. Some of the women were bad. None of them were quite good. He picked a rather weird selection of Lauras to play muse to his whimsical Petrarch; for he could write, and write well.

He was the type of author that gets dozens of letters a week from solicitors, aged men and enthusiastic young women who tell him that he is “prostituting his art” and “wasting golden literary opportunities.” As a matter of fact, he wasn’t. It was very conceivable that he might have written better despite his unpleasant range of subject, but what he had written had a huge vogue that strangely enough consisted not of the usual devotees of prostitute art, the eager shopgirls and sentimental salesmen to whom he was accused of pandering, but of the academic and literary circles of the country. His shrewd tenderness with nature (that is, everything but the white race), his well-drawn men, and the particularly cynical sting to his wit gave him many adherents. He was ranked in the most staid and severe of reviews as a coming man. Long, psychopathic stories and dull, germanized novels were predicted of him by optimistic critics. At one time, he was the Thomas Hardy of America, and he was several times heralded as the Balzac of his century. He was accused of having the great American novel in his coat pocket, trying to peddle it from publisher to publisher. But somehow, neither matter nor style had improved; people accused him of not “living.” His unmarried sister and he had an apartment where she sat graying year by year with one furtive hand on the Bromo-Seltzer and the other on the telephone receiver of frantic feminine telephone calls. For George Rombert grew violently involved at least once a year. He filled columns in the journals of society gossip. Oddly enough, most of his affairs were with débutantes—a fact which was considered particularly annoying by sheltering mothers. It seemed as though he had the most serious way of talking the most outrageous nonsense, and as he was most desirable from an economic point of view, many essayed the perilous quest.

Though we had lived in the East since I had been a baby, it was always understood that home meant the prosperous Western city that still supported the roots of our family tree. When I was twenty, I went back for the first time and made my only acquaintance with Uncle George …


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