The Itch to Leave
Robert S. Fitzgerald—poet, translator, Springfieldian
June 23, 1994
I wrote two pieces for Illinois Times about Robert S. Fitzgerald of Springfield, the esteemed poet and translator of the classics. This was the first. (The second, which can be found here, is better.) It figures importantly in my career at that paper, being the final column in the series of columns under the Prejudices title that ran from 1979 until I left Illinois in 1994. One did not have to be too clever to figure out that the concluding paragraph was as much about me as it was Fitzgerald.
To those who observed it from places like Springfield, the life of poet and translator Robert Stuart Fitzgerald was a storybook romance. Dead at 74 in 1985, Fitzgerald had been an intimate of the best of his generation's writers. His reworking into English verse of The Aeneid, The Odyssey, and The Iliad are not only admired but loved. He was a teacher when students still wanted to learn, entered his middle age at a time when American writers could still afford to live well in Italy, and spent much of his early manhood drinking and suffering for Art in Manhattan at a time when living that island was worth doing no matter what it cost.
Writers are difficult people to befriend, but Fitzgerald seemed to have the gift. His intimates included The New Yorker's Joe Mitchell, poets Berryman, Lowell, and Jarrell, and William Maxwell. To James Agee he reportedly functioned as a literary conscience, and his introduction to Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge—still praised as one of the best guides to that storyteller's work—was one of the least of his encouragements to her.
Friends from Harvard, Fitzgerald and Agee met up again in Depression-era New York City, where the young Fitzgerald worked as a journalist and later as a book editor at TIME. The experience left his conscience bruised in the usual ways, but it bought him a chance to work on his own poetry and the translations that he had undertaken (with Dudley Fitts) of the Greek playwrights and other works.
After the war, the GI Bill college boom forced U.S. higher education to mobilize a whole army of teachers from the ranks of the civilian under-employed. Fitzgerald made a distinguished teaching career, mainly at Princeton and later Harvard, where he was eventually named the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory.
Laurence Bergreen, in his biography of Agee, describes Fitzgerald as "remote, even haughty" and "ruthlessly analytical." These are familiar poses of the emotionally fraught personality, and his writing suggests that ruthlessness was not the enemy of feeling but was used to clarify feeling, and thus to isolate the virus of confusion.
Fitzgerald is one of those celebrities who is known for not being very well known. The Aeneid has not been made into a PBS miniseries, and the closest he came to appearing on a talk show was the occasional seminar on literary criticism. Even to the larger literate public he is a shadow, a condition that owes in large part to the peculiar nature of his craft. Translators disappear into the authors they translate, which is why the good ones combine artistic daring with humility. Writing of Fitzgerald, the National Review offered this insight into the species: "The passion of the translator is a form of intellectual generosity, and also love. He knows the riches that are there, and he wishes to make them available to the life of the less aware culture."
Fitzgerald grew up in an outpost of that less aware culture. He lived in the 1910s and '20s in a house on Jackson Street in Springfield, in the shadow of the statehouse, the son of a genteel, if not wealthy family of attorneys. It was a sad house; his mother and younger brother died when he was quite young, and as a boy he tended a father crippled by tuberculosis. He recalled those years in some graceful reminiscences that must have disappointed local boosters; they were true to the experience of any child insofar as Springfield was perceived as an ill-lit stage set for dramas that were felt rather than seen.
If Fitzgerald was a boy in Springfield, Vachel Lindsay was a Springfield boy. Born not quite a generation apart, the two grew up in the same neighborhood, three blocks apart. Each was the son of a professional man (Lindsay's father was a physician). Both attended Springfield High School in an era when bright boys who confessed a love of Literature were doted upon.
Such resemblances are merely circumstantial, however. While Lindsay was the archetypal Sensitive Boy, doomed to be a poet at an early age, there was little of the budding classicist in Fitzgerald. Yes, he took Latin at SHS but then every bright kid did in those days; somewhat unexpectedly in a future poet, he was a quarterback on the football team. While Lindsay got his education at Springfield High, Fitzgerald got only his schooling there. Indeed, Lindsay, the vagrant troubadour, was almost willfully ignorant; he cannot have offered much of a model to the young Fitzgerald, who seems to have savored the dust of the library rather than the open road. His education was begun at home—it was his father who first showed him the Greek alphabet—and would continue in earnest at Choate, at Trinity College, Cambridge, and at Harvard.
Family is the real community for the young. The fact that Fitzgerald's was a Roman Catholic household and the Lindsay's a bastion of the loonier Protestant sects—the first offering a sensibility that finds meaning in the past, the second in an imagined future—is significant. So is the fact that he was orphaned at 17 by the death of his father. Fitzgerald's living heroes having died, it must have been a consolation to discover that the dead can be made to live again and again through the revivifying power of art.
Lindsay is all but unread today and is likely to remain so until his life is resurrected by the TV movie that begs to be made of it. Fitzgerald's poems and translations still are in print, and were augmented last year when New Directions published a collection of Fitzgerald's memoirs and selected writings under the title, The Third Kind Of Knowledge. For all that, Fitzgerald is all but invisible in his old home town. No schools, no streets, no rooms at the library are named for him.
He is however a member in the Springfield High School Hall of Fame. In his 70s, Fitzgerald asserted the privilege of every Famous Old Man and explained what the good life requires: "Love and mercy (and humor) in everyday living; the quest for exact truth in language and affairs of the intellect; self-recollection or prayer; and the peace, the composed energy of art." The school's curriculum might be improved by such wisdom, but the old alma mater devotes itself these days to making a living rather than living, and everyday living in Springfield thus is even more remote from art and the intellect than it was 70 years ago.
Fitzgerald is hardly the only member of his school's elite alumni to make his name outside of Springfield. The tragedy of the American small town is that it is obliged to celebrate the ability of its brightest young people to survive its failure to provide them with an appealing future at home. In the end, the best thing Springfield gave Fitzgerald was the itch to leave it. ●