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In Gatsby's Shadow

The Story of Charles Macomb Flandrau

Larry Haeg

Publication Year: 2004

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century Minnesota produced three young men of great talent who each went east to become writers. Two of them became famous: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. This is the story of the third man: Charles Macomb Flandrau.

Flandrau, a model of style and worldly sophistication and destined, almost everyone agreed, for greatness, was among the most talented young writers of his generation. His short stories about Harvard in the 1890s were called “the first realistic description of undergraduate life in American colleges” and sold out of the first printing in a few weeks. From 1899 to 1902 Flandrau was among the most popular contributors to the Saturday Evening Post. Alexander Woollcott rated him the best essayist in America. And Viva Mexico!, Flandrau’s account of life on a Mexican coffee plantation, is a classic, perhaps the best travel book ever written by an American. Yet Flandrau turned his back on it all. Financially independent, he chose a solitary, epicurean life in St. Paul, Mexico, Majorca, Paris, and Normandy. In later years, he confined his writing to local newspaper pieces and letters to his small circle of family and friends.

Using excerpts from these newspaper columns and unpublished letters, Larry Haeg has painstakingly recreated the story of this urbane, talented, witty, lazy, enigmatic, supremely private man who never reached the peak of literary success to which his talent might have taken him.

This very readable biography provides a detailed and honest portrayal of Flandrau and his times. It will fascinate readers interested in writers’ life stories and scholars of American literature as well as general readers interested in midwestern literary history.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xviii

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century there were born in Minnesota three young men who each ventured east to Ivy League schools to become writers. They were as different in style, temperament, values, and viewpoint as any three young men could be. One was born in 1896, went to Princeton, became a prose poet, and wrote what many consider the great American novel of the twentieth century. ...

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Prologue: Mr. Flandrau and Mr. Fitzgerald

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pp. 1-16

On the Fourth of July weekend in 1919, a train shrouded in plumes of steam roars into the “dim, thunderous” railroad station in St. Paul, Minnesota, yards from the brown, roiling Mississippi. Off steps a young man with green-gray eyes and light blonde hair parted fashionably in the middle. Rumpled and weary, suitcase in hand, he makes his way past the “murky yellow” cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and & St. Paul beneath the long, spidery canopy of iron and glass out into ...

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1. Dublin, Normandy, and St. Paul

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pp. 17-35

The Flandrau lineage that ends with this story is an exuberant parade of scholars, classicists, poets, soldiers, and lawyers from Ireland and France. Charlie learned noblesse oblige from exceptional parents. His mother, Rebecca — the love of his life — was slim, fragile, strikingly feminine, beguiling, a glass figurine of five feet four inches. She saw the world keenly, sensitively, with sky blue eyes. Her ...

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2. Travels with Rebecca

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pp. 36-45

Willa Cather once said the formative years of a writer’s life are between eight and fifteen — the years when one’s values, attitude, and point of view gain focus. For Charles Flandrau, those years were 1880 to 1888. Fitzgerald and Lewis spent their “Cather years” as middle-class outsiders, nose to the window, performing for attention, with unempathetic parents who had little or no understanding of their ...

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3. Harvard Episodes

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pp. 46-82

Child of privilege, widely traveled, descendant of poets, there was never much question where Charles Macomb Flandrau would go to college. If Harvard College had not existed it would have to have been invented for him. He simply followed the thread of wealth and oak-paneled privilege connecting Summit Avenue to Beacon Hill. ...

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4. The Second Book of Snobs

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pp. 83-96

Harvard Episodes appeared in bookstores across the United States in early November 1897. It was bound elegantly in Harvard crimson and gold— perhaps it was scarlet, some reviewers weren’t quite sure — with deckle-edged paper and dedicated to Flandrau’s classmate Winthrop Ames, “Dear W.A. I have written about a very little corner of a very great place; but one that we knew well, and ...

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5. Viva Mexico!

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pp. 97-108

From the day he left St. Paul to attend school in the East, Blair Flandrau was a worry and embarrassment to his parents. He was kicked out of Andover. He failed to receive his degree from Harvard. He had a string of affairs, including the rumor of a scandalous one, some said, with the wife of a Minnesota governor. He was wild, immature, ...

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6. Mother, Do You Love Me?

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pp. 109-124

Except for a summer in Germany in 1892, Rebecca Flandrau’s travel abroad, at considerable financial cost, centered on her sons — grooming them for great things, cultivating an appreciation for the fine arts, helping them recover, in John’s case, from illness. One of those journeys included a winter in Egypt in 1885, mostly in Luxor, ...

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7. A Monk without a Religion

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pp. 125-137

Charlie Flandrau always came back to St. Paul, to the home his father had built for his mother. His reasons were not readily apparent to many of his eastern contemporaries. They considered it some sort of primitive cultural backwater. But Flandrau knew what he wanted. He once told brother John he felt sufficiently “Europeanized” ...

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8. Vaudeville Days, Orchestra Nights

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pp. 138-150

For several years after his return from Mexico, Charlie’s hometown Pioneer Press and Dispatch newspapers had been after him to write a drama and music column. He declined again and again. The Pioneer Press’s editor, Herbert R. Galt, ten years his junior but with eighteen years’ experience in journalism, wouldn’t give up. Educated ...

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9. Travels with Clark

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pp. 151-166

Freed from newspaper bondage each May, Flandrau found himself back where he started. He was bored and alone in his secondfloor bedroom. He drank to relieve the tedium. Then his wanderlust got the best of him. After Minnesota’s spring mud hardened, the open road beckoned, rutted and rock strewn. America had discovered the ...

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10. Young Friends, Old Enemies

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pp. 167-175

Charlie Flandrau may have believed, as Harvard’s Adam Sherman Hill said, that you couldn’t teach someone how to write. He surely did the next best thing for his young sister-in-law, Grace. When they first met he was thirty-eight, three books to his credit; she was nineteen. He offered encouragement and guidance, as he had with ...

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11. There Was an Old Man of Majorca

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pp. 176-188

By 1921 Flandrau again was restless and depressed. “More and more,” he wrote Blair, “life seems to me to be a short, uncertain sort of visit.” He looked older than his fifty-one years. His hair, a vibrant red-auburn in his youth, now was a sickly yellow-white. He tried to have it dyed, but it turned to a “bewildering cluster of copper ...

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12 Le Petit Saint-Paul

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pp. 189-204

Halfway between Paris and Rouen in the province of Eure in southwest Normandy there is a village called Vernon. It rests on steep banks of the Seine, surrounded by pasture, farms, orchards, and dense forest of oak and chestnut. The river flows through the town almost imperceptibly, around several wooded islands and beneath the ...

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13. To Die Silently, as a Gentleman Must

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pp. 205-214

Charles Macomb Flandrau, one of America’s rising young authors in the late nineteenth century, now was an anachronism. “Our last defender,” someone said, “of the genteel essay tradition.” Somewhere, perhaps at Majorca, Paris, Vernon, or St. Paul, he lost not only the will to write but the will to live. He spent springs and summers of ...

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Epilogue: A House That Is Closed

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pp. 215-220

Thomas A. Boyd lived only a few turbulent years after he left St. Paul in the 1920s. After five more novels, a book of short stories, three biographies (including one Lewis Mumford praised as a “true contribution to American social history and a distinguished achievement”), a divorce from his novelist wife, Peggy, and a brief, unsuccessful career as a Hollywood screenwriter, he went east and ran unsuccessfully ...


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pp. 221-266


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pp. 267-273

E-ISBN-13: 9781587295157

Publication Year: 2004