Some thoughts on James Franco’s poem “Obama in Asheville”
Yahoo! News evidently commissioned James Franco, for reasons best known to themselves, to write a poem on the occasion of President Obama’s second inauguration. What came out is linked here:
All that interested me in this, er, poem are the mentions of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Franco is said to be getting a MFA from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina – a little town once the home of a factory that made the best blankets in America, and proximate to the celebrated Black Mountain College, home for fine artists and students until 1957. You can see that he’s wearing a Warren Wilson t-shirt in his self-directed, self-produced video.
Fitzgerald lived, very unhappily, in the area during 1935 and 1936, before decamping more or less permanently to Hollywood, in an irony that should not be lost on Franco. Fitzgerald came to western North Carolina for his own health, and returned for his wife Zelda’s – she spent most of the rest of her life, from 1936 until her death in 1948, at Highland Hospital in Asheville.
Franco’s poem starts like he’s reading a Wikipedia entry on Asheville – the birthplace of Thomas Wolfe (Thomas, not Tom, who wears white suits and is from Richmond, Virginia, and is still delightfully alive). Asheville he calls the “sometimes,” not sometime, “residence of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Fitzgerald, says Franco, “stayed at the Grove Park Inn, a grand stone edifice.” To make it, “They pulled the stones from the mountains and brought them down on mules. Soon after his 40th birthday, Fitzgerald attempted suicide here. But couldn’t shoot his own head – drunk, I guess. Later, after he was actually dead, from alcohol, Zelda perished in a fire at her institution, one of nine.”
Fitzgerald spent the summer of 1935, and the last half of 1936, at the Grove Park Inn. He hated it there. Initially, he’d come to the mountains of North Carolina in February 1935 (to the Oak Hall Hotel in Tryon) for his own health, convinced he was dying of tuberculosis. He wasn’t, but – distraught by what he felt to be his declining ability to write short stories, and his wife’s mental illness – he began some miserable times in the Asheville area before Zelda even arrived. She was in a clinic in Baltimore in 1935, but arrived in April 1936 at the Highland Hospital in Asheville –where her brother Anthony had been treated in 1933, shortly before his death. Stay away from Asheville, Minnie Sayre warned her daughter and son-in-law: “It is full of hospitals and sick people always in evidence.”
During his first stay at the Grove Park Inn, Fitzgerald had an affair with a married woman named Beatrice Dance that brought him more trouble than pleasure. He broke things off with Dance with a letter telling her to maintain, in Ernest Hemingway’s words, “grace under pressure” and urging her to be strong. During his second stay, Fitzgerald broke his arm in the swimming pool, his mother died, and a reporter named Michel Mok from The New York Post interviewed him on his 40th birthday – September 24, 1936. The interview was a hatchet piece and after reading it Fitzgerald told his agent, Harold Ober, that he took morphine, but then threw it up.
Franco turns all this into a joke: Fitzgerald trying to shoot himself in the head, but missing because he was drunk. “Later, after he was actually dead, from alcohol, Zelda perished in a fire at her institution, one of nine.” Fitzgerald’s fatal heart attack was caused by a lifetime of cigarettes and Coca-Cola as much as it was by alcohol; he died not drunk in a gutter, but making critical notes on someone else’s writing, and eating a chocolate bar. Zelda was indeed one of nine women who died at Highland in a horrible, avoidable, and possibly intentionally set fire eight years later.
Why are Scott and Zelda in Franco’s poem? To show that great writers once spent time in western North Carolina? They’re here along with Tom Cruise and Claire Danes, Apocalypse Now (which Franco has informed his film students at UCLA, where he evidently teaches, “used Heart of Darkness as a model”), President Obama, and King Charles I (who “was beheaded, good-bye, Charles”). Please feel free to engage in a close reading of the whole poem yourself, if you’d like to. I only wanted to change the lines about Scott, so they were closer to the truth – but making up your own version could be said to constitute poetic license….in an actual poem.