The Promise Is Fulfilled: Literary Aspects
of John D. Fitzgerald's Novels
Audrey M. Godfrey1
John D. Fitzgerald produced a bibliography of over three hundred publications; yet in Utah where he was born, the literary community has rarely commented on his work. Because his books appeal chiefly to children, they are basically unknown to the state's over-thirty citizens, most of whom wrongly associate his name with the writer of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald. At his passing in May 1988, only an obituary in the Salt Lake Tribune acknowledged the event. Yet to thousands of youthful readers in the United States, England, and Germany he is a well known author. The Great Brain character in Fitzgerald's series for children is as familiar as Tom Sawyer to these young people.
Fitzgerald's name evokes some recognition when coupled with the title of his book Papa Married a Mormon, however.2 Indeed, this first book made its initial appearance in McCall's magazine in 1955 and later became a bestseller for Prentice-Hall and a selection of two book clubs. Mamma's Boarding House and Uncle Will and the Fitzgerald Curse followed soon after.3 Though not greeted as enthusiastically by reviewers as the first novel, they, too, had national recognition.
Fitzgerald also wrote two textbooks on creative writing with Robert C. Meredith: The Professional Story Writer and His Art (1963) and Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript (1972).4 Craftsman articles on writing have appeared in Writers Digest, and numerous articles and fiction were printed in a variety of magazines.
With these publications to his credit, why are John D. Fitzgerald's books not regarded as worthy examples of regional literature? Partial reasons may be that he left the state at age eighteen, he did not participate in its literary scene, and he was not a Mormon. But a more likely reason for his lack of critical recognition is the lack of sophistication in his writings.
Born in Price, Utah, in 1907 to a Scandinavian Mormon mother and an Irish Catholic father, he grew up influenced by both cultures. He left Utah behind at age eighteen, working at such varied jobs as playing in a jazz band, working in a bank, and serving as an overseas newspaper correspondent. At the time of his first break into the national literary scene, he was a purchaser for a steel company in California.
To relax in the evenings he began Papa Married a Mormon as a family history about his boyhood. He said, "I was dumbfounded when it was accepted by Prentice-Hall and even more dumbfounded when it became a best seller."s
In the tradition of the culture it depicted, five trunks of souvenirs, carefully labeled by his mother, formed the basis of the book. Its creation was a tribute to her. Possibly critics of Mormon literature find it difficult go give importance to what some have labeled as a family memoir. A New York times review sniffed,
Papa and mama talk to each other like a couple of lovers out of Godey's Lady's Book. The other family and community portrayals read like the over-sentimentalized and romanticized eulogies at a family reunion.6
However, those who so label Fitzgerald's writing may be too hasty in their conclusions. A theory for his approach is suggested by the era of which he wrote. Victorian American literature of Papa and Mama's time depicted men as lords of their homes and women as perfect genteel models. Children were seen and not heard. Fitzgerald chooses to paint his family in a humorous pose while still imitating Victorian literature with its attendant moral values. An analysis of his writing provides some evidence that it is so.
As Fitzgerald's career progressed, his style became recognizable. Some critics compared him to the genius of Mark Twain and Bret Harte in his ability to recreate local color. His nineteenth-century Mormon village became as identifiable to readers as Harte's mining camps.
In his book, Structuring Your Novel, Fitzgerald discussed the regional novel and urged authors to make their settings as authentic as possible, their characters historically accurate, and events true to historical and cultural facts. Details of the plot should also reveal the characteristics of the locale.
He followed his own advice in re-creating the Mormon village of "Adenville." Its streets were wide enough to turn a span of oxen. Agriculture and mining formed its economic base:
The flavor of Utah was everywhere as I walked along Main street....Poplar, cottonwood and elm trees
lined both sides of the street and the banks of the ditches, which were full of running water. Even the
signs on places of business told me I couldn't be any place but Utah: The Seagull Cafe, The Bee Hive
Laundry, The Deseret Meat Market"7
The citizens had their own simple hierarchies and codes of behavior. Judge Gibson administered the law. Clergymen like Bishop Aden and Reverend Holcomb looked after individual congregations and united for important things like building a school or conducting funerals. Women delayed visiting newcomers until their curtains were hung. Picnics, dances, parades, horse racing, and church socials provided entertainment.
In my opinion, Fitzgerald's use of local color follows the great tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hamlin Garland, John Steinbeck, and Harper Lee. As suggested in his own discussions of regional writing, this genre's chief interest lies in the peculiarities of the place and the persons who live there.8 Plot is secondary. Indeed, Fitzgerald's novels resemble a compilation of short stories that achieve their unity through the reappearance of their vigorous central characters. But the theme of goodness in individuals and community is strong throughout.
Fitzgerald's depiction of the Mormon community differed from those of contemporaries who recreated this environment. In contrast to Whipple's power-hungry ecclesiastical leaders, Fitzgerald emphasized Bishop Aden's ecumenical concern for his flock and its non-Mormon neighbors:
Bishop Ephraim Aden, the founder of Adenville, had been of Papa's dearest friends. The Bishop, a man of great understanding, tolerance and wisdom...gave both temporal and spiritual advice to the Saints; he officiated at dances--settled both marital and civil disputes among the Saints. Bishop Aden was like a loving grandfather, and the gentiles in town loved him as much as the Mormons did.9
Conspicuous by their absence are pretty young girls, longing to escape small-town repressions and find themselves. Women in Adenville are absorbed in service to family and friends. There is no cheating in the shadows, no dishonesty by the supposed righteous. Conflict to hold reader interest comes from children who are testing family values. Though these tests are always resolved in an acceptable manner, the reader has time to question his or her own feelings of right and wrong. In the current literary environment which sometimes rewards poor choices, a whiff of Fitzgerald's Victorian world can be refreshing.
After his early success in the national market, Fitzgerald began writing his Great Brain books. He later recalled that he had never thought of writing a book for children until one evening when friends dropped in and began to reminisce about their childhoods. Fitzgerald told them some stories about his brother, Tom (the Great Brain). They laughed so much his wife suggested he write a book about Tom. Dell Publishers brought out The Great Brain in 1969, followed by six more volumes of boyhood adventures featuring this keen-witted Fitzgerald.
These books resemble a chat around the fireside. Conversations flow easily as story after story is told, each one getting more outlandish. In one of these tales, John is trying to get the mumps before his brothers. In the past, whenever one boy became ill Mamma put the other children to bed with him so they could all get it and have it over with. The story describes John's efforts to catch the disease from a friend by creeping into his room in great secrecy and asking him to breathe on him. He describes his satisfaction that when he is almost over the mumps, Tom and Sweyn will just be getting sick. Every morning he checks the mirror to see if signs of the illness are apparent yet. When the symptoms finally appear, Sweyn and Tom are furious that he purposely exposed himself just to be able to give it to them.10 Fitzgerald's engaging ability to spin a yarn is as satisfying as hearing the best storyteller at a family reunion.
Fitzgerald strove in these books to have Tom bring out some moral point. For example, in The Great Brain Reforms, Tom dreams up a scheme involving tin cans where he tricked his friends into betting money and toys against his prowess as a hypnotist. After the children lost quarters and personal belongings to him, some of the parents called Tom's mother and complained. Tom avoided punishment by convincing his parents that he had performed a great service in teaching kids that gambling brought sorrow, heartache, and disgrace.11
Reviewer John Robert Sorfleet identified other lessons in this series. He saw in Tom's money-loving impulse a metaphor for the capitalist element in American society. Yet Tom also depicted the ethical sense of the people, "compassion for one's fellow man, the kind of cooperative neighbourliness which did much to build American society." Continually, Tom's drive to exploit his friends financially collided with his upbringing which taught him to be kind. Sorfleet thought the books were "quintessentially American: the profit motive and the ethic of helplessness [sic] mutually reinforcing one another," and held together by the democratic ideal.12
Sorfleet may have read more into Fitzgerald than the author intended. Fitzgerald never claimed the level of metaphor for his books; rather he presented them as reminiscent of his youth and morally valuable.13
John D. Fitzgerald's writings are instructive of early Mormon village life and beautiful in the feelings they recall. They tell how a community worked together to build dams, create a lively economy, and educate their children in an atmosphere of close-knit associations with neighbors. They are as accurate in this depiction as the family memoirs with which they are compared. They cause us to feel good about our heritage in the recreation of the life we hope our ancestors lived.
The books are simple enough for children to read, and an adult can complete one in an evening. But their lucidity is deceptive, for the characters are complex individuals. Mamma is a small-town Mormon girl who defied her parents and community to marry a Catholic. But her goodness and determination to succeed as a wife, a daughter, and as a caring individual eventually brought her love and acceptance from the very people she defied. Mamma worked hard at being the kind of self she desired. Fitzgerald shows her always succeeding, but not without effort. After her husband died, she decided to take in boarders against the wishes of her children. They suggested she move to a smaller home where they could care for her, but she resolutely told them,
I know that because, you are dutiful and loving children you will visit me after all of you are married. And you will bring my grandchildren to see me. but I will not spend the rest of my life watching out a window, hoping, praying and waiting for my children and grandchildren to visit me. I must make a new life for myself. 14
This excerpt revivals a strong Victorian woman but also reminds us of the modern self-sufficient feminist.
Then there is Thomas, her husband, who has stolen her from her parents. His brother is a saloonkeeper and he could have been despised by the Mormon community because of this. But he, too, is a complex person. He is smart enough and good enough to see how to aid his neighbors, and he implements these ideas, building bridges of friendship. He fathers wisely, yet his children know him as an imperfect being who gets lost occasionally and who needs their assistance often.
Finally, there is the Great Brain who, as mentioned, seems to be two people--a conniver who takes advantage of others, and a doer like his father who knows how to remedy problems. These two personalities struggle for outlet, sometimes colliding but most frequently benefitting the community.
The novels alternate between excellence and sentimentality, hallmarks of the Victorian storyteller. But Fitzgerald's purpose of depicting life's peculiarities and people in an interesting and humorous way with its attending moral message, is as good a reason for consideration by the Utah literary community as any.
In the foreword to Papa Married a Mormon, Fitzgerald says he promised his mother that he would write a story about "the little people who built the West," a regional story, if you will. He ends his introduction:
Now, there are left only the tombstones, man's briefest biographies.
Now, there are left only the diaries, the turning of each musty page like the opening of a door into a
long vacant room.
Now, there are left only the newspapers, jaundiced and brittle with age.
Now, there are left only the love letters, faded and so crisp they crumble even at a loving touch.
Now, there are left only the failing memories of the very aged.
Now, there are left only the skeletons rattling in the family closet.
But now the promise is fulfilled.15
1Audrey M. Godfrey has an M.A. in history from Utah State University and has published and presented papers on Mormon women, the Mountain Meadows massacre, the Utah Expedition, songs of the Utah War, and Indian women. This paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters, 28 January 1989 at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
2Papa Married a Mormon (1955; reprint ed., Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1976). McCall, November and December 1985.
3Mamma's Boarding House (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1958); Uncle Will and the Fitzgerald Curse (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961).
4Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald, The Professional Storywriter and His Art (New York: Thomas Y. Growell, Co., 1963) and Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1972).
5Anne Comire, ed., Something About the Author, Volume 20 (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980) 57.
6Frances C. Locher, ed., Contemporary Authors, Volumes 93-96. (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980), 152.
7Mama's Boarding House, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1958) 12-13.
8Meredith and Fitzgerald, Structuring Your Novel, 150.
9Mama's Boarding House, 3.
10The Great Brain (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1967) 32-34.
11The Great Brain Reforms (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), 19-32.
12John Robert Sorfleet, "John Dennis Fitzgerald," in Twentieth Century Children's Writers, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983) 291.
13John D. Fitzgerald...American Author, videotape (Salt Lake City: the Great Brain Enterprise, 1987), copy in my possession.
14Mama's Boarding House, 92.
15Papa Married a Mormon, viii.