Until the very end of his life, when he died aged 44 in 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald would send diagrams of football plays to the Princeton head coach, aiming to facilitate gridiron glory. You’d not be amiss in stating that Fitzgerald never got over college. He was, as history rarely seems to remember, a college dropout, one who spent most of the summer of 1919 back home and drunk in St. Paul, Minnesota, mulling his university life, desperate for it to still play some role in getting him what he wanted.
Fitzgerald had a habit of writing less well on what he called, in his letters, “stimulants,” but his pain over his break-up with socialite Zelda Sayre was not insubstantial. Fitzgerald viewed her rejection as a renunciation of who he was as a person, rather than a mere sign of a bad fit. But the young writer had a plan: to take the 80 or so pages he had of a book called The Romantic Egoist, thread it through with short story sketches, fictionalized autobiography from his Princeton days, and some stream-of-consciousness prose, and turn it into a big hit to win back Zelda’s love.
That book, a pasted-together jam-job of seemingly everything Fitzgerald had written to date, would be called This Side of Paradise, and for ten decades it has masqueraded—in literary history, anyway—as a novelistic celebration of the liberal arts life. At first, no one at Scribner wanted to publish it. Max Perkins, soon to be famous for similarly discovering Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, insisted, and wrote the author saying they would publish the book in spring 1920. With brass balls and sense of entitlement intact, Fitzgerald insisted on an autumn publication date, thus to win Zelda all the faster, but he was told to cool his lovelorn heels.
Four days upon the release of this novel by an unknown, unpublished writer, the first printing had sold out, this being a time in our culture when there were readers in America keen to discover something new and exciting. Say what you will about This Side of Paradise, it was both of those things. And it was partially so because despite Fitzgerald’s own desires, the book took a stand against the kind of person and the kind of thinker Fitzgerald almost became.
In almost every aspect of his life—his letters, his conversations, his memories, his sports fandom—Fitzgerald romanticized college. It was, to him, something he pined for but never realized, and it was bound up in his own search for respect and, more importantly, self-respect. “Life was something you dominated if you were any good,” he once professed to believe. For Fitzgerald, for a spell, that meant being the big man on the Princeton campus; or, having failed in the endeavor during his undergrad days, at least doing his bit to publicize the lofty university ideal.
But it is here that we come to the most salient truth about F. Scott Fitzgerald, prose artist: For all of his faults, Fitzgerald possessed the most stalwart of artistic consciences, a guiding, almost-infallible rudder that rarely swerved him off the course of truth. This was evident from the jump with This Side of Paradise, a satirical blood-letting that argues that, when it comes to thinking critically and discovering who you are as a person, academia is a far cry from paradise. You might even say that the ultimate college novel is decidedly anti-college, whatever Fitzgerald may have intended. This Side of Paradise is satire that perhaps does not see itself as such, recounting a saving fall from ideals that probably never really existed.
Real-life Fitzgerald had a crush on a rich girl from Lake Forest, Illinois, named Ginevra King. King becomes the model for Isabelle Borgé in the novel, the first love interest of the protagonist Amory Blaine. The name will tell you something of his character. This is not a grounded individual. He’s someone whom Booth Tarkington—a writer esteemed by Fitzgerald—would have singled out for comeuppance. The name is sourced in part from Princeton legend Hobart Amory Hare Baker (“Hobey” to his friends), best known these days for the award in his name given out annually to the best men’s college hockey player in the country.
The third-person narrator describes Blaine with leveling pith: “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” That was a problem for Fitzgerald too at this juncture of his life, and it’s a staple of the liberal arts education: a kind of grandiose, Ivy-sanctioned prevaricating.
Blaine has a horror in the novel of “growing domestic,” as he puts it, which is to say, anchored and stagnant—he’s not knocking a life of marriage and partnership, but rather expressing a fear of dormancy. He is frequently ridiculous in the story, which is reducible to “boy wants debutante, boy doesn’t get debutante, boy nurses broken heart and is mentored by a priest figure”—as Fitzgerald was—“and also crushes on his cousin”—who is too wise for him—“and then tosses entire remaining contents of heart at another young woman, which will make him think he is deserving of self-respect.”
In life, that woman was Zelda; in the novel, she is Rosalind Connage. Meanwhile, Blaine has his college adventures, a lot of BS sessions that would cause the likes of a slightly older Holden Caulfield to retch. Groucho Marx remarked that he wouldn’t be a member of a club that would have him, and that’s Blaine, so desperate for the approval of people whose lives are a carefully ordered succession of poses.
Blaine wants to pose, too, but there’s also something in his gut or soul that abhors a pose. It’s almost like a somatic symptom that, say, causes the nose to bleed when telling a lie even though one wants the end that comes with the lie.
Amory Blaine is inchoate. Fitzgerald hadn’t figured out the character of his own character, which is one reason he constructed This Side of Paradise as if it were an American variant of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, another hodgepodge first novel, but one that showed fewer seams. We could say that Fitzgerald stuck parts of stories together, whereas Dickens stuck stories together. Still, Paradise has a punk rock energy. Not many books have a greater crackle quotient. It thrills, even as it sputters—a head has been cut off a chicken, but look at that chicken go.
The reason? For all of Blaine’s expenditure of energy on things and people that don’t really matter and won’t play a part in his future, he ultimately earmarks the most energy trying to locate himself. This stand-in version of Fitzgerald, who wants to be the Big Man on Campus, is haunted by a nagging tug that the answer lies elsewhere. But where? If the university is the haven for learning, then surely it can’t all be a sham, a poor holding pattern for the real business at hand?
Blaine’s problem is twofold: He recognizes the non-answer on some level, and he doesn’t know where to invest his mental and emotional resources if not in that sham-dream. He’s scared; thus, he talks a big game. Everyone knows that the person at the bar, bragging more and more as the night goes on, is largely terrified in this life. So it was with the young Fitzgerald, and with Blaine. They were both on their way only when the quietude descended.
For Fitzgerald the writer, that would mean structure, trusting his talent, locating his voice, not a setting on a microphone that would make him sound like others. In May 1920, as This Side of Paradise was going through another print run, the Saturday Evening Post published “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Fitzgerald would write around 130 stories in his life, and this is not one of the best, but it’s the first important one, written without a speck of intellectual artifice or pose. There is no attempt to wow anyone with recondite prose, and the mandarin aspects of Paradise have been ditched just as Blaine sheds many of his poses by the end when he declares—as a lament—that “I know myself, but that is all.”
Bernice is a girl of mixed-race from Wisconsin who spends the August before school starts at the home of her socially polished cousin, Marjorie. The latter considers Bernice a drain on her social life. She’s awkward, none of the boys like her, and Marjorie thinks they’ll like her less, too. Every teenager knows the horrors of being less-popular-by-association.
Marjorie tries to coach Bernice, but she also likes seeing her fail. Craving approval, Bernice announces within the hearing of some boys that she is going to have her hair bobbed, which would have been a bit like stating she was going to turn cartwheels naked down Main Street. The boys, naturally, are into this, and Bernice becomes popular, to Marjorie’s horror.
There’s an arc and shape to the story. Were there such a thing as prose engineers, they could look at this piece and say it was like a well-designed bridge. Confronted with the charge that she never really intended to have her hair bobbed at all, Bernice has the deed done at the stylist, which immediately causes all the boys to lose interest. She departs the home of her cousin in the middle of the night, to get a train and return north, but not before first snipping off Marjorie’s beloved braids while she sleeps, and then throwing them on the porch of a boy Marjorie doted on. Thud-thud. Arc completed.
In somewhat priggish fashion, Fitzgerald, at 19, had written a series of letters to his sister Annabel, then 14, instructing her on to behave with boys and how to be popular. (Fitzgerald would do a sweeter, more mature version of this later with his daughter Scottie, advising her about books to read to shape her soul.) The letters stuck with him more than with her, and he must have looked them over in his mind later and reflected on his own callow youth.
Say this for Fitzgerald—he aged very quickly, and I mean that in a good way. He acquired sagacity at a rate that someone like a Hemingway was never able to approach. Fitzgerald’s longtime foil couldn’t keep the life he lived and the work he made—with its straining, desperate machismo—separate. Fitzgerald, starting with “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” after swimming through the necessary chum of This Side of Paradise, could maintain that distinction without sacrificing the emotional quality of his work. At times, he was the most emotionally powerful writer of the last century—think of stories like “Winter Dreams,” “Basil and Cleopatra,” “Babylon Revisited,” the miraculous scrap called “Our April Letter,” those “Crack-Up” essays about his own mental collapse. The failed Big Man on Campus became the wise owl in the trees, the bird understanding that flight—and concomitant risk, so rare in academia—was integral to writerly growth.
The object of that growth? Connection with readers, which can’t be measured with degrees or cum laude citations. To give up the ghost of that which does not matter is to acquire the flesh, the pulse, that does. That’s why even Fitzgerald’s earliest works, before he became a prose virtuoso, remain so resolutely alive. Today they may well be more alive than ever, as you will find if you are wise enough to visit with them, or let them call upon you.