Saturday, September 22, 2018

Benediction

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

“It was a pietà, a life-size statue of the Blessed Virgin set within a semicircle of rocks.” Photograph of the statue of Mary in a rock formation alongside a path through the woods near Woodstock College, Maryland, c. 1930, by John Brosnan, S.J. Courtesy Georgetown University / Woodstock Theological Library Collections. Traditionally, a pietà is a depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus, but the statue placed in this grotto and described by Fitzgerald in “Benediction” is of Mary alone.
When he was a fifteen-year-old high school student, F. Scott Fitzgerald spent spring break with his cousin Cecilia (“Ceci”) Taylor, in Norfolk, Virginia. He was near the end of his first year at the Newman School, a Catholic boarding school in Hackensack, New Jersey, where he had been sent in September 1911 because of his poor academic performance back home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Ceci, sixteen years his senior and a widow with four children, was Scott’s favorite among his relatives, and he would immortalize her as the widow Clara (“She made her goodness such an asset”) in This Side of Paradise.

During the break Fitzgerald accompanied his cousin on a trip to Woodstock College, near Baltimore, to visit her brother Tom Delihant, a Jesuit scholastic finishing up the nearly two decades of study and contemplation required before his ordination as a priest. Delihant made quite an impression on the teenager; they kept in touch for years and Fitzgerald’s admiration was unabated even as the young author renounced his on-again, off-again faith in his journal on his birthday in 1917: “A year of enormous importance. Work, and Zelda. Last year as a Catholic.” Not long before making this journal entry Scott wrote to Ceci about Tom, “He’s the old-fashioned Jesuit—the kind they got continually when the best men in the priesthood were all Jesuits.” Seven years later Fitzgerald wrote an essay on his boyhood for Woman’s Home Companion and cited the men he admired during his youth: in addition to football star Ted Coy, he listed “Richard Harding Davis in default of someone better, a certain obscure Jesuit priest, and, occasionally, Theodore Roosevelt.”

The visit to Woodstock College inspired two of Fitzgerald’s short stories. In 1915, while a Princeton student, Fitzgerald wrote “The Ordeal,” about a Jesuit seminarian in Maryland who is spiritually tested moments before taking his vows: “He felt himself alone pitted against an infinity of temptation.” Four years later, he completely reworked and expanded the story as “Benediction.” In this later version, the clash between spiritual faith and earthly enticement is transferred to a new main character, Lois, who is visiting her brother at seminary outside of Baltimore.

The story was snapped up by the influential literary magazine The Smart Set, edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Mencken loved the story, although Fitzgerald didn’t think much of the magazine (“I think their stuff is rather punk as a rule and never send them anything until some better magazine has passed it up”). A few months later, when Mencken reviewed Fitzgerald’s story collection Flappers and Philosophers, he declared “Benediction” the best story in the book and claimed that its initial publication “brought down the maledictions of the Jesuits and came near getting the magazine barred from the Knights of Columbus camp-libraries.”

Mencken is almost certainly embellishing readers’ reaction, since there is little evidence that the story inspired any such backlash, but he adds, “Re-reading it, I can see no reason why any intelligent Catholic should object to it in the slightest. . . . I commend it to the rev. clergy; they will enjoy it.” Indeed, a few years ago the story was heartily recommended by Anthony Lusvardi, S.J., one of five Jesuits writing for the blog Whosoever Desires:
The story is a gem, written in the witty, dancing prose of the youthful Fitzgerald, and touching on many of his typical themes—the giddiness of coming of age, the wistful sadness of romance, even a hint at class sensitivities. . . .

Lois’ encounter with God, with Catholicism deeply lived by Kieth and his companions, has changed her. It may not, Fitzgerald leads us to believe, have resulted in a conversion such as we read about in hagiographies, an about-face from a life of sin to a life of grace. But it has resulted in a life that is deeper, that contains previously ignored levels of meaning and profundity, a life perhaps more difficult, but also more real.
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Notes: In the opening scene of the story, the telegraph company clerk and a customer wrangle over whether a message contains fifty words, allowing it to qualify for a special rate. As the March 1910 issue of The Commercial Telegraphers' Journal explains, “The ten word limit on telegrams has for years been the basis of much fun among the jokesmiths who concocted many stories based on the inability of people to be brief. This industry is now threatened with extinction. The ‘night letter’ will now give everybody an opportunity to give vent to their verbosity to the extent of 50 words for the price of the much-abused ten word message.” A special rate was soon extended to daytime hours by both the Postal Telegraph Company and Western Union, as System magazine reported in 1920: “A 50-word night letter by either company costs $1.20. A day letter of 50 words between [San Francisco and Cleveland] costs $1.80, while if you have 51 words—and it happens that way quite often—your day letter will cost you just $2.16, thus making a cost of 36 cents for the extra word.”

On page 392, one of the seminarians is teased for his fascination with the maxixe, a Brazilian dance resembling the two-step which became popular in the United States in 1914.

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The Baltimore Station was hot and crowded, so Lois was forced to stand by the telegraph desk for interminable, sticky seconds while a clerk with big front teeth counted and recounted a large lady’s day message, to determine whether it contained the innocuous forty-nine words or the fatal fifty-one. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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