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Book Report: Reprints make up for what you missed

The University of Minnesota Press's Fesler-Lampert Heritage Book Series is a rare and wonderful bird indeed.

It describes its mission as attempting "to republish significant out-of-print books that contribute to our understanding and appreciation of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest."

Over the years I've enjoyed many of these reprints of books I missed in years past thanks to the generous assistance of the John K. and Elsie Lampert Fesler Fund.

And this week is no different.

In 1983, the accomplished literary scholar and one-time Minnesotan Scott Donaldson, former journalist and professor at William and Mary, came out with a very thoughtful and sympathetic book about a fellow Minnesotan, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

First published by Congdon & Weed, the University of Minnesota Press has just reissued it under the Fesler-Lampert banner.

I must have been out for an extended lunch in 1983 because I completely missed "Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald" ($19.95 paper).

In this monumental biography, Donaldson, whose journalism career has made him an excellent reporter, examines heretofore unexamined letters and notes from the Fitzgerald oeuvre and comes up with the most comprehensive look at the life and works of St. Paul's most famous author.

Donaldson has none of Icon of the Jazz Age claptrap that has hounded Fitzgerald's reputation since his death in 1940.

Donaldson resists the sensational as he uncovers in Fitzgerald's life and work the minutiae and big events that explain his success and his failure as a man and an artist.

He begins at the beginning with life in St. Paul, at the turn of the century, with parties on Summit Avenue attended by the young Fitzgerald, whose family wasn't quite old enough or rich enough to be accepted in high society.

This debilitated Fitzgerald and also many of his characters in the course of his fiction.

Donaldson even finds a copy of an early St. Paul social register which had been amended by the young Fitzgerald.

The register listed his Grandpa MacQuillan as "Grocer." Scott added in pen and ink "Wholesale." To indicate his grandpa didn't have to deal with housewives face to face.

A telling addition.

Then there's the matter of his mother, a very weird woman, whom her son despised and who married a southern aristocrat, a dandy who was a failure in business and most everything else.

And then it's on to Princeton, to marriage with Zelda Sayre and the adventures in Parisian fountains and the stuff we already know.

But Donaldson brings alongside his narration a sympathy for Fitzgerald I never detected in earlier biographies like Budd Schulberg's.

Fame follows, then crack up, then Zelda ends in the sanatorium. Scott's talent recedes as his thirst for alcohol increases, and he's forced to work -- unsuccessfully --in Hollywood.

And here's where Donaldson shines.

He describes Scott's affair with gossip columnist Sheila Graham in most sympathetic terms, limns his financial problems and his strenuous efforts to pay his debtors and to become "only a writer" honest to himself and his readers whatever the result may be.

In the end Donaldson places Fitzgerald in a moral posture, who believed writers should distinguish between good and evils.

When he died in 1940, he left behind $600 to pay for "the cheapest funeral possible," willed his daughter Scottie and Zelda what was left of a borrowed life-insurance policy.

Friends thought there may have been a secret bank account, but there was none. Donaldson concludes that "his only real legacy was his fiction. It has been enough."

This month, the Fesler-Lambert series is out with a book that first appeared in 2005 in a Bloomsbury imprint, received rave reviews and now is available in a handsome paperback.

It's "Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald," by Michael Schumacher (University of Minnesota Press, $16.95 paper).

Schumacher said he was inspired to write about the 1975 catastrophe after hearing Gordon Lightfoot's song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and so went on to win a spot on Michigan's Notable books List and an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Library Association.