Why Is Sloth a Mortal Sin?

Was Charles Macomb Flandrau the father of modern Minnesota letters--or just a literary layabout?

Imagine that you're a book publisher. (Go ahead, there's a first time for everything.) A man walks into your office. He's a driven but unassuming businessman with no real literary experience. He makes his pitch: to tell, once and for all, the story of "the Charlie Flandrau nobody saw."

And who is the Charlie Flandrau nobody saw? More pertinently, who is the Charlie Flandrau anybody saw? Charles Macomb Flandrau, the budding biographer reports, is a briefly acclaimed, largely antisocial writer of essays, short stories, and Midwestern theater criticism who willfully failed to meet his potential and whose books are all long out of print. Surely by now the only remaining question is whether to do an initial printing of 500,000 or a million.

Some of my best friends are dogs: Charles M. Flandrau at home
Minnesota Historical Society
Some of my best friends are dogs: Charles M. Flandrau at home

Larry Haeg, Charlie Flandrau's first biographer, has always been realistic about the limited appeal of a book about a man he calls "a forgotten writer from Minnesota who never really did that much." Flandrau, a St. Paul patrician one generation older than F. Scott Fitzgerald, issued a light trickle of words in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a character, if not a man of great character. Many knew him only as the local theater critic who often came to the show drunk. He kept a horse and a cow in his backyard, which was also ultimately home to as many as 18 canine gravesites.

Presumably homosexual, he had no known romantic life. Instead, he had several vaguely mysterious friendships with men much or somewhat his junior, some in his employ. Known as a witty and erudite conversationalist, he could also be cruel and cuttingly sarcastic. Like many in his milieu, he was anti-Semitic ("My luncheon," he wrote in a letter, "was all but ruined by...a French Jew family at the next table [who] had an idiot child with them--a girl of about ten--horrible in her imbecility and deformity."). Flandrau, however, was liberal with his hatred: His anti-Semitism was surpassed in intensity by his violent distaste for Germans. By the time of the writer's death in 1938, he was nearly friendless.

Perhaps you should bring that print number down to 10,000.

Of course, Haeg didn't appeal to publishers with precisely the soft-sell approach imagined above. But he did, perhaps predictably, receive polite no-thank-yous from 18 local and national houses.

"If somebody had given me a list of things I could have spent my time on, this would have been number 999," says Haeg. "But I just kept plugging away for some reason. I wanted the reader to care as much about this man as I did."

Among the living, Haeg is rather alone in his passion for Flandrau, but he's not the first to find merit in the man's modest output. Alexander Woollcott, the influential literary critic and head of the Algonquin Round Table, called Flandrau "the best damned essayist in the United States." Critic Charles Poole, in a 1954 article in the New York Times, ranked Flandrau's travel book Viva Mexico! among the best of its genre. Flandrau also seems to have influenced Fitzgerald, though the younger writer never acknowledged the debt. Sinclair Lewis, however, was an avowed admirer. All of this has earned Flandrau a place in American letters somewhere around the margins of a terse endnote printed in six-point typeface.

And so Larry Haeg resolved to single-handedly usher in the Flandrau revival. He has perhaps been as determined to realize his odd project as his proudly indolent subject was determined to avoid exertion. Now, at age 59, Haeg is seeing the release of his debut book, In Gatsby's Shadow: The Story of Charles Macomb Flandrau, issued by the University of Iowa Press, with an initial printing of 750.

On a recent rainy afternoon, St. Paul's University Club on Summit Avenue and Ramsey Hill has a stolid, grandfatherly charm--especially if your grandfather was Alistair Cooke. Built in 1912 and modeled after English social clubs such as London's Oxford and Cambridge clubs, the University Club was one of the spots frequented by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who attended some jake cotillions there when they lived in St. Paul, on and off, from 1919 to 1922.

Haeg, who lives nearby when he's not working his day job in San Francisco, is a member of the club. He's tall and wears a casual button-down shirt bearing Ralph Lauren's polo logo. He explains the origins of his book in the club's library, which is filled with antiquarian volumes and equipped with an imposing leather chair presumably designed to sip brandy in while reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War for the seventh time.

"I can't remember where I saw Charlie's name first," Haeg says, "but it really begins with Fitzgerald. Because if you're from here and you love great writing, he's the guy."

Haeg talks in a low-key, moderately folksy manner. He tends to lean black in his chair and rarely reaches for the glass of ice water on the coffee table in front of him. The University Club, I discover, serves an excellent ice water, and at a reasonable price. It's a beverage selection that neither Flandrau nor Fitzgerald, kindred spirits in dipsomania, would have approved of.

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