For people of a literary bent, Montgomery County’s link with F. Scott Fitzgerald, generally considered among the 20th century’s greatest writers, gives the area a certain prestige. Although born and mostly bred in St. Paul, Minn., the author, along with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie, are buried in a family plot in the cemetery of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville. Nearby, the City of Rockville’s Fitzgerald Theatre echoes the connection.
Twenty years ago, The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference was founded to commemorate the celebrated author’s 100th birthday. Since then—with the exception of 2012 when the event was pared down to a birthday celebration—the conference, with its centerpiece presentation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature to a contemporary writer who also serves as keynote speaker–has been held annually. A mix of seminars, panel discussions, films, lectures, a short story contest and a bus tour of Fitzgerald-related spots also have been mainstays of the event.
Among the distinguished recipients of the literary award have been William Styron (1996), John Barth (1997), Joyce Carol Oates (1998), E.L. Doctorow (1999), Norman Mailer (2000), John Updike (2002) and Edward Albee (2003). Bethesda writer Alice McDermott won in 2010.
Master storyteller, humorist and author Garrison Keillor, who broadcasts his Minnesota Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, is the 2016 award winner. As such, he will present an evening of his homespun wisdom and wit at The Music Center at Strathmore on Oct. 28 to benefit the conference and accept his award at the Best Western Hotel in Rockville the following day.
In a 2010 broadcast celebrating Fitzgerald’s birthday, Keillor recalled the author as “the fair-haired boy born in a second-floor apartment on Laurel Avenue in St. Paul, who used to sit up in the second balcony of this theater and watch plays and then go home and tell the whole story to his mother Mollie and father Edward and sister Annabelle. You could say that a writer developed his narrative skills up there in the balcony.”
Jackson Bryer–F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar, retired University of Maryland English professor and president of the conference since its inception, noted that in conjunction with Keillor’s interest in interacting with young writers, and a new association with Montgomery County Public Schools, Keillor will give a 90-minute master class for high school students. Fitzgerald Scholars, one invited from each of the county’s high schools, were invited to attend to revive a feature of the conference abandoned some 10 or 15 years ago. “We will use this as a launching pad,” Bryer said. “We intend to keep it up, to continue introducing young people to writers and writing.”
The 2016 conference, said Bryer, probably because of the popularity of Keillor and humorist Calvin Trillin who will introduce him, is poised to be the most heavily attended yet, and he hopes that bodes well for the future. “It’s hard to expect people to come out for a full-day indoor commitment at this time of year,” he acknowledged. “But we hope that the newcomers this year will realize what they have been missing and return next year.” The biggest attendance prior to this one, he said, was in 2008 when popular mystery writer Elmore Leonard was the honoree. “It’s difficult to balance the need to attract people and still maintain some literary standards,” Bryer said, noting that both Leonard and Keillor meet those standards.
The Fitzgerald Award winners are asked to include their personal observations about Fitzgerald in their acceptance remarks, Bryer noted. Last year’s winner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford referred to links in his past: his insistence that his fiancée read “The Beautiful and the Damned,” the Fitzgerald novel that so affected him at age 24. The commonalities—and of course, the differences–were plentiful: “I, too, disliked where I grew up. I, too, got a lot out of Princeton…. No one much thought I’d be any good at writing when I was young—just like him. I’ve also been a parvenu all my life. I have a terrible temper. I’ve certainly been over-praised. I love Paris. I’m slightly sensitive, but also slightly prideful, about the size of my feet.”
Finally, Ford noted, “Nobody who’s lucky enough to receive this award can fail to feel the vital turbulence of Scott Fitzgerald, or fail to feel how much that turbulence has become an ingrained trait (not always welcome) in the American writerly persona: the aspiration to do celestial work—and occasionally doing it…”
“Taking this award home today finally makes me feel what all good work, all good writing, should make us feel, and what I feel toward Fitzgerald himself, and toward the remarkable writing he did, and also toward my precious colleagues, present and gone—and even sometimes toward myself,” Ford added. “I feel empathy—an intimate understanding and esteem for a thing we do together and apart.”
Given their geographical and occupational parallels, how Keillor, who Breyer said “is a Fitzgerald enthusiast who knows his work really well,” will illuminate Fitzgerald’s legacy for this year’s audience is worthy of anticipation.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference is scheduled for Oct. 29 at various locations including Montgomery College-Rockville. At press time, standing room only is available for most of its component events. For a schedule, visit http://fscottfestival.org. For information on Keillor’s Oct. 28 performance at The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, visit www.strathmore.org or call 301-581-5100.