Before I launch into the posts, I want to thank The Best American Poetry Blog for giving me this opportunity, and I need to set the posts into the context of the research and writing I am doing about my father, the poet Robert Fitzgerald, whose translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad have been the most clearly recognized American verse translations of the great epic poems for the 20th century. There have been other translations – Lattimore, Lombardi, Fagles to name just a few – but his seem to have stood the test of time in a particular way. More than fifty years later, his translations are still frequently the ones assigned to high school students and undergraduates studying the classic in translation, and a significant swathe of the literary world has remained very aware of his work.
Success and recognition came to my father in the early to mid sixties: he was offered the prestigious position of Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard in 1965, and he taught both there and at Yale until he retired after the publication in 1981 of his late great accomplishment, the translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.
It is the backdrop to this success and recognition, that interests me most of all now, although when I began to think about writing a memoir, the main impulse was a desire to look into my own childhood.
I was the third in a clutch of six children, five of whom were born and under the age of five in 1953 when we left the United States for Italy, thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship and an advance from the publishers for the translation of The Odyssey. My parents thought we would spend one year there, but Italy turned out to be so much less expensive than the United States that my parents did not return until 1965, and the sixth child was born in Italy in 1955. I lived the twelve years between the age of three and the age of fourteen in Italy, going to Italian schools from kindergarten to seventh grade. I then went to boarding school and college in England. I never attended an American school, coming to the United States only for vacations and then for visits. My formative years as a writer were spent in England, and that is where my novels and stories were first published. I came and settled permanently in the United States after I accepted the position of Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota that I still hold.
As I thought about and sketched out my own memory pieces, however, I found myself growing more and more interested in exploring my father’s background, what had shaped him to become the man and the literary figure he became, the role he played in mid-twentieth century letters, and his friendships with some of its great literary figures – from Ezra Pound to Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps because my own background has been so European, this exploration has become a way for me to also understand and appreciate the more American side of my heritage as well as my literary inheritance.
I have been driven by what I have found among his papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. But my interest in his background started with a visit to Springfield, Illinois, and to the catholic cemetery where many of the Fitzgerald family were buried from the 1870s.
And this is where I start with the posts. I hope you will bear with me, because my original and rather sentimental question about a burial turned into an intriguing and much more complex study of family, class, and life and death in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Plots and Sisters.
The Fitzgerald burial plot is a double just by the main gates, to the right of the office of Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, with one big salmon-colored rectangular slab of marble placed behind a dozen or so smaller tombstones. Though large, the salmon headstone is not monumental in any way, and is perfectly proportional to the surrounding stones. The names of my great-grandparents and their dates are inscribed in the long side of the rectangle. On the short right side are the dates of one of their sons who died in 1899 at the age of eighteen. Most of the smaller stones bear a name and that person’s dates, but three of them are inscribed simply and in large letters “Grandma”; “Mother”; “Papa.” In front of them is the stone that bears the name Fitzgerald and that shows the boundary of the plot.
The two plots are not tightly packed, and when I stepped into the cemetery office to inquire, the clerk found index cards with the surname Fitzgerald that made clear that one lot of twelve spaces was bought by my great grandfather James and the second by my great-grandmother Nora.
I was in a hurry. I had come to Springfield for a mere twenty-four hours, without even knowing why. It had just seemed absurd that for almost twenty years I should have lived within a day’s drive from where I knew that my father, Robert Fitzgerald, poet and translator, had been born a century ago, and not yet have been there. The final impetus had been given by the installation of a marker to honor him, organized by William Furry, the Director of the Illinois Historical Society and inspired by the suggestion made by the head reference librarian Jim Huston. I had not originally considered including the cemetery in my visit, but was already returning for the second time in less than two days.
We had twenty minutes to spare in the last couple of hours before I had to start the long drive back, before we were to meet with the head librarian in the top floor of a building where earlier in the year a number of boxes had been found that contained files from my grandfather’s legal practice. Among the files of long forgotten cases, there were photographs of my father and his brother, as well as of people Jim and Curtis had not been able to identify, and letters from my great-aunt Agnes. These were letters that my father never saw, that had been hidden in the attic of this office building for ninety years. From those found so far, Jim told me, it was clear that their mother’s sister Agnes took the two boys to the beach for an extended time during the summer of 1916: my father was not yet six, and his brother Monty was three. Their mother Anne had died of puerperal fever ten days after giving birth to Monty, on March 25, 1913.
But Anne was not buried in this plot. Her body was taken back to Albany, New York and buried there. Already the day before, on my first visit to the cemetery, during the first hours of learning so much about my father’s childhood, I had been struck by this fact: she was not buried in the Fitzgerald plot, where by then her father-in-law and three of her husband’s siblings as well as the grandparents were buried. Why? At breakfast that morning I talked it over with Bill and with Jim. Ferrying a body is not easy, I said. There were a number of hoops to jump through: the casket had to be lined in a special way, and pages of paper work had to be filled.
Perhaps in 1913 little paperwork would have been necessary: Bill pointed out that caskets were frequent cargo, stored with luggage. There were even funeral cars on trains, he told me, where a number of caskets would have been picked up and dropped off at stations all across the country.
Whichever way I turned and spun the fact, it continued to strike me as strange. I had always understood that my father’s parents were devoted to each other. I had always known that Robert Emmett Fitzgerald and Anne Stuart had met ‘on the stage,’ children of a middle class solid enough to allow them to be well-educated, and to allow them the early indulgence of acting before my grandfather took up his legal practice. They were engaged a long time before they married, and married in 1905, five years before my father was born, little more than a year after Robert Emmett suffered the severe accident that I remembered, in the language of a child, as being ‘squashed between two tram cars,’ which put a definitive end to a career as an actor, and which would eventually develop into a tubercular hip.
But at the time my father was born the hip had mended, or so everyone thought. I knew Robert Emmett shared a legal practice with his brother Arthur, and I imagined the family was all set to live the peaceful small town life on “aristocracy hill”, on the right side of the railroad tracks, a stone’s throw away from his and Arthur’s mother Nora, who after the death of her husband took over the running of the successful grocery business James had built up since the 1860s; and another long stone’s throw from where Frank Lloyd Wright had recently built a house for one of the wealthiest widows in town. My father Robert was born in October 1910, and by June 1912 Anne was pregnant again.
“Of her death nothing rises from the dark” my father wrote in Animula, a poem from the 1930s. And indeed, how could anything be remembered by the child, who was more than six months away from his third birthday when his mother died? But what about his father, left a widower with a toddler and a baby, who had to move back home to the bustling and fussing housekeeping of his mother? In one of the essays he wrote in the 70s, my father did recall his father’s bouts of drinking between the time of his wife’s death and the death five years later of Monty, the son whose birth had caused the puerperal fever that took her from him.
“…I am sent to fetch him from what I sense to be degrading company -- not very, in fact; only a few men playing poker in a shabby office downtown, with whiskey and syphon bottles beside them.” (A Third Kind of Knowledge, p.5)
Neither father nor son seemed to question the distant and unvisited gravesite. I wondered whether my father’s sense of his mother’s absence ‘removed as by a razor’ could have been multiplied by the absence of a place of mourning, whether his father’s grief would not have found some miserable outlet in visiting her graveside. Are not cemeteries exactly that, places where mourners can carry out the life-long rites of bereavement? There is no benefit to the dead of a place of mourning. But for those living, destined to live afterwards permanently without them, it seemed to me that there is the constant comfort of knowing a stone marks their past existence, their present influence, their future memory.
My father mentions Calvary Cemetery in connection with the progression of his father’s illness which followed quickly his younger brother’s death at five, a victim of the 1918 influenza epidemic that raged around the world as the First World War was coming to an end:
“A polished small coffin took the center of the parlor, and there the small boy lay, turned to pale wax, an utter stranger in his Eton collar. I do not remember what happened at the funeral Mass or what happened at Calvary Cemetery. One day not long afterward my father stayed home with a boil. Since it was not a boil but the sickness of the bone working outward, he never went back to his office, nor to any poker game, nor again to the church or cemetery….” (The Third Kind Of Knowledge, p.10)
In subsequent years, on the regular walks my father took at his father’s insistence, perhaps he did sometimes turn and make his way there, just over two miles due north of 215 Jackson Street, to stand helplessly in front of the salmon-colored rectangle of stone that bore the name Bernard, the nickname Monty, and the pitiful span of years of his only brother. Surely he must have thought of his mother, as well. Could the razor of her absence have made an even deeper cut by the absence of stone and word, Anne Stuart, May 5 1878 -- March 24 1913?