Why Is Sloth a Mortal Sin?

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

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.

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.

When not uncovering tossed-aside scribblers, Haeg is head of communications for Wells Fargo. It seems to be an ideal role for him. He's plainspoken and personable--the kind of biographer who calls his misanthropic subject "Charlie." He explains that his long-term side project began in 1978, when he was the morning news editor at WCCO Radio. While researching Fitzgerald, he stumbled onto Flandrau, this sort of shadowy father of modern Minnesota letters. He tracked down Flandrau's five books. Later, he whiled away afternoons at the Minnesota History Center reading all of Flandrau's theater reviews, columns, and essays for St. Paul's Pioneer Press, Dispatch, and Daily News. In 1979, he traveled to Arizona, where Flandrau's great-nephew was storing boxes full of the author's correspondence. Then he started writing his first book.

"I was just so taken with Charlie's writing ability and his style, and all the questions that these letters raised. But I'm just a rank amateur and if you had seen the book I produced in 1981--it was...not too good. I couldn't get anyone interested in it. I tried to explain it to people, and their eyes would glaze over." Frustrated, Haeg put his manuscript on a shelf presumably not unlike the one where Flandrau let his one, unfinished novel gather dust.

"Then life moves on," says Haeg, the father of five now-grown kids. "You have work to do, a marriage, children. You can't take your eye off that stuff. But the book just kept bothering me. I would think about it virtually every day."

In the late '90s, with his kids mostly grown and a clearer vision of what the book needed, Haeg started giving his initial manuscript an overhaul. He was particularly interested in tying Flandrau's career and motivations (or lack thereof) to those of Fitzgerald and Lewis.

Haeg is an avid reader and the prose in his well-researched study, though not wildly colorful, can be evocative. Still, he's entirely unpretentious about his labor of love.

"I'm not all that well-read compared to Charlie," he says. "I've tried to read War and Peace and I can't get through it. I feel really bad that I can't. It's at home and I'm going to try again. Charlie would read that in a week--of course, he had a lot of time. So I didn't bring to this book all the intellectual equipment that somebody could have brought to it to make it a better book. But I thought, nobody else is going to do this." Haeg laughs. "And I want to read it!"

Charles M. Flandrau was the oldest son of Charles Eugene Flandrau, a successful businessman, Indian agent, state supreme court justice, author, and warrior. In 1862, the elder Flandrau led a group of citizen soldiers against Dakota Indians in a famously bloody battle in New Ulm. Charles M. had a contentious relationship with his father, but was very close to his mother Rebecca, his chief inspiration and closest friend.

Flandrau overcame whatever disadvantages his Midwestern origins saddled him with to become the star of Harvard's class of 1895. Two years after graduation, he published Harvard Episodes, a satirical collection of Ivy League short stories greeted warmly by critics and enjoyed by Sinclair Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others, including Henry James--or so Flandrau learned via hearsay.

Some of the rococo sentences from Flandrau's early work reveal a young writer very much under James's spell. Flandrau was more in command of his own voice by 1908's Viva Mexico!, an idiosyncratic travel memoir drawn from the time the author spent on his younger brother's coffee plantation. If you suspect that a hundred-year-old book by a snobbish anti-Semite might not provide the most enlightened depiction of the Mexican people, you're half right. Flandrau's treatment of his Mexican and Indian subjects is frequently patronizing and often ignorant. But the author, who spoke Spanish, spends much of his time debunking gringo stereotypes about Mexicans, and his discursive, compelling little book evinces an agile mind and a delightfully droll sensibility. ("Although Felipe gets frightfully drunk, neglects his wife for other women, and regards a machete as the most convincing form of argument," writes Flandrau of one of his Mexican associates, "he has excellent qualities.")

Viva Mexico! also has some plaintive passages, as when the author, presaging his own career, writes of those who "live through the interminable days, as so many persons live through their lives, hovering upon the brink of a vague, wonderful something that doesn't happen."  

What Flandrau possessed in talent, however, he lacked in ambition. And his inherited wealth--not extravagant but more than sufficient--freed him from the pecuniary interests that tend to spur laggardly writers to action. Flandrau spent most of his adult life in the home he grew up in (the house, 385 Pleasant Avenue, was demolished in 1955), where he generally preferred lazing around in his bathrobe to pursuing the great potential that fans and critics saw in him. While the European aristocracies were in various stages of dissolution, Flandrau was leading a gentleman's lazy life in the American heartland.

"Flandrau is so temptingly close to flâneur, meaning an idler, a loafer, a saunterer," writes Haeg in the prologue to In Gatsby's Shadow. Flandrau would read late into the night and start his day around noon.

"He seldom left home in the evening;" writes Haeg later in the book, "each night the servants went window by window, drawing the shutters. The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas became annoying conventions. The telephone, the radio, the phonograph bespoke 'not only the vacant mind but no mind at all.'"

Flandrau was sometimes benighted by writer's block; he sometimes explained that he'd rather produce a smattering of modest artistic successes than a single colossal failure. But mostly he was just no great fan of work.

This is the part of Flandrau that most rankles Haeg. "In a way the book is a roundabout tribute to the work ethic of Lewis and Fitzgerald," says Haeg. "It's true that there was some literary prostitution going on there [with Fitzgerald and Lewis], in terms of selling to the slicks, going after the highest dollar, and churning out some pretty average stuff. But that's how you increase your chance of producing something great. Charlie was lazy. God gave him a great talent, and he refused to use it."

Haeg and I grab our umbrellas and leave the sleepy club more or less, mostly more, as we found it. Straightforward and straight-laced, Haeg is not the mysterious type. Yet I remain somewhat puzzled by his determination to tell Charlie Flandrau's story, which, were it a play, would be less a tragedy or a comedy than a delayed curtain followed by an especially long intermission. Haeg loans me a few of his first-edition copies of Flandrau's books, and we walk outside into a light drizzle. In a few days, he will head back to work in San Francisco, and then fly back a few days after that to what he has come to call the "Flandrau-Fitzgerald" neighborhood.

At the start of the Jazz Age, Lewis and Fitzgerald were producing bestsellers like the U.S. had never seen. As celebrity culture tightened its grip on America, Scott and Zelda enjoyed a short period of superstardom. Their dissolute glamour finds a closer recent parallel in Curt Cobain and Courtney Love than, say, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser. Flandrau hated all that stuff--movies, self-promotion, frivolous stories churned out for big Saturday Evening Post dollars.

He was very much a man out of time. After living in France for much of the 1920s, he spent his final years back home in St. Paul, tending to his pets and enjoying the company of his (married) chauffeur, majordomo, and traveling companion William Dundas Clark, who was pretty much the writer's lone remaining friend. By the time the man died, Flandrau's name was already decades along in its amble toward obscurity.

In fact, by the time I got home from meeting Larry Haeg, I'd begun to wonder if perhaps Flandrau wouldn't prefer to slumber on unnoticed and unknown. As I followed Haeg's biography deep into the vodka and drawn-curtains years, I found myself feeling even more befuddled than before. What perversity would inspire a busy corporate spokesman to lavish devotion on such an inert and--let's face it--steadfastly unlovable personage for more than two decades?

I scribbled a few notes and hypotheses about the quandary on a scrap of paper: literary immortality, the psychological burdens of fame, blah blah blah. I was paging lazily through Flandrau's Mexican sojourn when a warm combination of bemusement and lassitude crept up on me. And before I knew it I was stretched out on the bed in the hold of a bottomless nap.

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