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Literature: Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald -- newsmakers again

March 9, 2011 | 10:31 am

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Oops. That's from Charles Dickens. This is supposed to be about Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Oh well, if the quote fits.

Mark Twain On Tuesday, The Times' Larry Gordon wrote a fascinating Column One about the unexpected, runaway success of the "Autobiography of Mark Twain" produced by UC Berkeley's Mark Twain Papers & Project. As Gordon reported:

The first volume of the planned trilogy has remained a national bestseller since its release in November, 100 years after Twain's death at the age of 74. There are nearly half a million copies in print, putting it as high as No. 4 on the Los Angeles Times' hardback nonfiction list and No. 2 on the New York Times' list.

I'd call that a contender for "the best of times" (literature category). Especially since the Twain project is "the little engine that could" of the scholarly world.

From Gordon's story:

The Twain project has an annual budget of $600,000, including $190,000 from UC. Among its private donors is UC Berkeley's Class of 1958, which gave $1 million to mark its 50th reunion, and the Koret Foundation. And it receives crucial backing, $7 million over four decades, from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In other words, a brilliant, bestselling work about perhaps America's greatest writer has been produced for about what we spend in one hour on the war in Afghanistan.

Quick, someone call Capitol Hill and tell them to hold off on cutting the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities. At least until Twain volumes two and three come out -– now scheduled for 2012 and 2014.  Gotta be some "Huck Finn" fans up on the Hill (though hopefully not of the proposed "n-word"-expunged version).

But these are also the "worst of times" too, right?

F. Scott That's where F. Scott Fitzgerald comes in.

Newsday reported  that the mansion where Jay Gatsby's beloved Daisy Buchanan lived is going to be razed.

OK, it's not really Daisy's mansion. It's actually a house on Long Island that some people think inspired Fitzgerald.  

Called Lands End, the 20,000-square-foot place sits on 13 acres in Sands Point, N.Y., on Long Island Sound. And, according to Newsday, Winston Churchill, the Marx brothers, Dorothy Parker and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor attended parties there.  And, local lore has it, Fitzgerald drank there too.

You'll recall that in the book, Fitzgerald portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, evidenced in its overarching cynicism, greed, and empty pursuit of pleasure. The reckless jubilance that led to decadent parties and wild jazz music -- epitomized in "The Great Gatsby" by the opulent parties that Gatsby throws every Saturday night -- resulted ultimately in the corruption of the American dream, as the unrestrained desire for money and pleasure surpassed more noble goals.

(Or maybe you didn't recall that.  I didn't either; it's been a number of years since I read "The Great Gatsby." But thanks to Google and SparkNotes -- from which I lifted that passage -- I had you as fooled as my college American lit instructor.)

It's a fitting description, though, for the end of the real-life Lands End, because what do you think will happen to the property?  Yes, of course: Five Sands Point Village has approved plans to raze it and divide the site into lots for five custom homes -- starting at $10 million each. (No word yet on whether the developer will keep the green light at the end of the dock.)

Greed and the empty pursuit of pleasure never go out of style.


Leave 'Huck' alone

'Huck' and 'Rent' done wrong

The Conversation: What's the harm of sanitizing 'Huck Finn

--Paul Whitefield

Top photo: In this undated photo, author Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, is shown. Credit: Associated Press file. Bottom photo: Author F. Scott Fitzgerald poses with his wife, Zelda, and their daughter, Scottie, in their Paris apartment on July 16, 1925. Credit: Associated Press

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