This highly original reading of Fitzgerald’s book is in my opinion valid and important. (Readers should understand that most of the idiosyncratic and irregular aspects of my presentation are deliberate).
Comments welcome below or at emerson j at g mail dot com
You don’t know about me unless you just read a book by the name of This Side of Paradise that I wrote. There is things that I stretched, but I told the truth, mainly. People badmouth my book some, but at this point it wouldn’t be realistic to have a guy like Amory Blaine writing a smooth book. That comes later. And anyway, I probably let some things slip out that a smoother writer would have covered up, so you get that.
I’m a naturalist like Dreiser and all those guys. I show my characters with all their flaws, non-judgmentally. If they seem precious and fake that’s because I show the gritty reality of their lives, pretense, even though maybe they don’t look so appealing that way. I just tell the truth, and I even show you the half-baked novelist himself (me) right there in the middle of his half-baked novel.
Sometimes I wonder where my friend Edmund got the nerve to say all those things, given that he can barely write his way out of a paper bag, if that. But then, I have a lot more nerve than he does, which is why I wrote a novel that people will still be reading a century from now, and he didn’t.
Also, my book is a morality play, with a Virgin Mary (Clara) and two succubi (Axia and Elaine), and if you read the book carefully you will understand how women and the devil lead us into sin. “I know myself, but that is all”. Ha.
Amory Blaine is F. Scott Fitzgerald, more or less. Blaine tells us various things he has noticed about the Midwest, Princeton University, the WWI generation, women, etc., and some of these things are very interesting, but the book is mostly about him. He learns a lot about himself from the women he tries to love, and these women also tell him what it’s like to be at the receiving end of fetishism.
A stranger in the world, Amory must manipulate and dominate his way through life, but doing so makes real human contact almost impossible. His aristocratic egotism, analytic reflex, misogyny, asceticism / Puritanism, and decadent disdain for the world of his time separate him from the rest of humankind, making a life dedicated to the Church seem tempting. But the vocation he ends up choosing is writing, not the priesthood.
As a writer he needs experience, and for a committed romantic like Amory (despite his Puritanism), experience means love. But even love does not save him, and at the end of his book he is in utter confusion, overcome by cynicism, misogyny, resentment, and a vaguely progressive nihilism, with has no other choice than to become a writer, which is what he had always wanted to do.
Scott Fitzgerald and Decadence
[The Jazz Age] is as dead as were the Yellow Nineties in 1902.
Fitzgerald, 1931, “Echoes of the Jazz Age” in The Crack-Up, p. 13.
Young Benêt (at New Haven) is getting out a book of verse before Xmas that I fear will obscure John Peale [Bishop]’s. His subjects are less precieuse and decadent. John is really an anachronism in this country at this time…..
Letter to Wilson, 1917, in The Crack-Up, p. 248.
The old English hunting prints on the wall were Tom’s, and the large tapestry by courtesy, a relic of decadent days in college, and the great profusion of orphaned candlesticks and the carved Louis XV chair in which no one could sit more than a minute without acute spinal disorders—
Suddenly he felt an overwhelming desire to let himself go to the devil…..There were so many places where one might deteriorate pleasantly: Port Said, Shanghai, parts of Turkestan, Constantinople, the South Seas—all lands of sad, haunting music and many odors, where lust could be a mode and expression of life, where the shades of night skies and sunsets would seem to reflect only moods of passion: the colors of lips and poppies.
II:5:237, “In the Drooping Hours”.
This Side of Paradise is usually understood in terms of its future (the Jazz Age / Lost Generation) but it is more illuminating to look at it in terms of the past. The voluminous reading lists comprising Amory Blaine’s literary education show us this book’s literary background in detail, and authors of the decadent tradition are found on these lists from the very beginning. Along with midwestern Catholicism, it is the decadence he inherits from his mother that gives Amory a feeling of otherness that plagues him throughout the book.
At least ten recognized decadent authors are seen on Amory’s reading lists (Verlaine, Wilde, Swinburne, Pater, Huysmans, Gautier, Bourget, Dowson, Symons, and Ralph Adams Cram) along with another ten or so authors beloved by the decadents or in some way related to them (Poe, Rabelais, Boccaccio, Suetonius, Petronius, Byron, Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Compton Mackenzie, and H. L. Mencken). One of the book’s two epigraphs comes from the decadent Oscar Wilde, and the author most frequently named or cited in the book (along with the progressive H. G. Wells, who is later rejected) is the decadent poet Swinburne.
The American decadent tradition was still alive and publishing when This Side of Paradise appeared — both Ben Hecht’s Edward Dorn and James Huneker’s Painted Veils (which was re-released 30 years later as a scandalous dime novel) were published at about that time. Huneker was H. L. Mencken’s mentor, and Hecht would go on to become one of the greatest of the early screenwriters, but Fitzgerald was aware that decadence was already passé and refrained from identifying himself as a decadent (though he still did use a Wilde quip).
By now the decadents have been disappeared from canned literary history, so before discussing Fitzgerald’s relation to decadence in more detail, I need to explain what decadence was.
A brand, not a description
“Bourgeois” doesn’t mean a citizen with the rights of the city. A duke may be bourgeois in the indirect sense in which the word has been used for the past thirty years or so. “Bourgeois”, in France, means roughly the same as “philistine” in Germany, and it means everyone, whatever his position, who is not initiated in the arts or doesn’t understand them. Once upon a time…. it was enough to be pink-cheeked and clean-shaven, with a square shirt-collar, and a stove-pipe hat, to be apostrophized with this injurious epithet.
Théophile Gautier, in Le Moniteur Universel,
Dec. 31, 1855.
When we try to understand this forgotten literary tendency, the contemporary use of the word “decadent” (even ironically) to characterize self-destructive wastrels, idle social parasites, and sybaritic consumers of luxury products is not very helpful. The decadents were self-aware dissidents with a rationale and a theory of history, and the present degraded definition of the word only calls to mind the least-admired traits of some of them.
“Decadence” evokes overripeness, the declining Roman Empire and its ornate prose style, and the inexorable decline of nations, races, classes, and families, thought of in terms of Darwin, Hegel, or Gibbon. The class origins of the decadents were various, but they gravitated toward the old families and toward wealth. (Weir distinguishes bohemians from decadents by the bohemians’ declassé status and the consequent squalor and shabbiness of their lives). Decadents lived in the shadow of greatness; there was often a hint that they would have been able to do heroic things, but that great things are not possible in this fallen bourgeois world. The decadents were past-oriented, anti-democratic, and conservative or reactionary in sentiment (though in some contexts they might sympathize with the left), but they had no real place in the political world, disdained political participation, and were effectively apolitical.
The decadents’ great enemy was the bourgeoisie with its bad taste, sentimentality, and national, technical, industrial, and commercial committments. Decadents rejected all theories of progress (Whig, Marxist, humanist, or other), and replaced them with mirror theories of regression and inevitable decline. But “decline” was a moving target: their argument was both that bourgeois progress is in itself a decline in real human terms, and that the nations and races of Europe were regressing even from the bourgeois or nationalist point of view.
In practice, the crux of decadence was the belief that for an individual in this declining world it was wisest to live beautifully rather than righteously — to live life to its fullest today rather than
dutifully re-investing in “progress” while deferring realization to some never-to-be-attained future state. Their defining difference from the optimistic and dutiful Victorians was their denial of purpose and direction in history, and of duty in the lives of individuals.
Individual expressions of decadence took widely varied forms, always involving disengagement from public goals and rejection of public obligation. Decadents were normally discreet gentleman with an aristocratic air, a scorn for the bourgeoisie, and refined tastes (some of which might be regarded as depraved). Many were were wealthy or successful. They were characterized variously by aestheticism, idleness, languor and fatalism, reclusiveness, disdain for the mass, preciosity, artificiality, obscure and erudite interests, antiquarianism, exoticism, eroticism and debauchery, (but sometimes celibacy), and a taste for the macabre, the Gothic, and Satanism — though no decadent had all these traits and some only a few of them. (In particular, the more lurid forms of the pursuit of evil were not general).
The decadents were alienated both from the world of business and from the world of nations, and it is not as surprising as it may seem when they are found in to be communication with radicals, given theior biurgeois common enemy. Decadents and radicals were both dissatisfied with the present, for reasons which were mostly very different but which sometimes overlapped, but decadents looked to the past and radicals looked to the future. Oscar Wilde called himself a socialist, and it was probably a kind of Wildean aesthetic socialism that Amory was arguing for in the final pages of This Side of Paradise.
By the time that Fitzgerald’s book was published, decadence was forty years old in France, England, and even the United States and had been in decline for a decade or more. However, the WWI disaster sparked a revival, and while the critic and polemicist H.L. Mencken who dominated the American Twenties may not have been quite a decadent himself, he revered the decadent James Huneker as master.
Beatrice Blaine as Decadent
Amory’s wealthy, histrionic, alcoholic, cosmopolitan, bourgeois-hating, Verlaine-reading mother Beatrice, with her wavering Catholicism and ornate dreams, was a daughter of the American fin-de-siecle decadence (the”Mauve Decade” or “Yellow Nineties”). Like the mad witch later in the book (a “wilder and brainier” Beatrice), Amory’s mother had even spent time in Vienna, the most decadent place on earth. Beatrice does not much resemble Fitzgerald’s real life mother, and her portrait as a decadent must be regarded as a deliberate statement by Fitzgerald.
She learned in England to prefer whiskey and soda to wine, and her small talk was broadened in two senses during a winter in Vienna.
I:1:11-12, “Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
She fed him sections of the Fêtes Galantes before he was ten.
I:1:13, “Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
Often she deplored the bourgeois quality of the American Catholic clergy, and was quite sure that had she lived in the shadow of the great Continental cathedrals her soul would still be a thin flame on the mighty altar of Rome.
I:1:14, “Amory, Son of Beatrice”. (Compare Mencken bewailing he “monotonously bourgeois” nature of American vice: Weir. 1995 p. 179).
“Yes,” continued Beatrice tragically, “I had dreams—wonderful visions.” She pressed the palms of her hands into her eyes. “I saw bronze rivers lapping marble shores, and great birds that soared through the air, parti-colored birds with iridescent plumage. I heard strange music and the flare of barbaric trumpets ….. gardens that flaunted coloring against which this would be quite dull, moons that whirled and swayed, paler than winter moons, more golden than harvest moons—”
I:1:27,”Preparatory to the Great Adventure”.
Amory Blaine as Decadent
In prep school young Amory tended toward dandyism and succeeded in finding the only poem in Milton in which decadent escapism might possibly be found: “L’Allegro” (“The Joyful Man”). The companion piece to “L’Allegro” (“Il Penseroso” — “The Thoughtful Man”) is not mentioned, and perhaps this is a comment of Amory’s lack of seriousness at that point in his life.
He had appeared …. in his first long trousers, set off by a purple accordion tie and a “Belmont” collar with the edges unassailably meeting, purple socks, and a handkerchief with a purple border peeping from his breast pocket. But more than that, he had formulated his first philosophy, a code to live by, which, as near as it can be named, was a sort of aristocratic egotism.
This Side of Paradise, I:1:24, “Code of the Young Egotist”.
Many nights he lay there dreaming awake of secret cafes in Mont Martre, where ivory women delved in romantic mysteries with diplomats and soldiers of fortune, while orchestras played Hungarian waltzes and the air was thick and exotic with intrigue and moonlight and adventure. In the spring he read “L’Allegro,” by request, and was inspired to lyrical outpourings on the subject of Arcady and the pipes of Pan. He moved his bed so that the sun would wake him at dawn that he might dress and go out to the archaic swing that hung from an apple-tree near the sixth-form house. Seating himself in this he would pump higher and higher until he got the effect of swinging into the wide air, into a fairyland of piping satyrs and nymphs with the faces of fair-haired girls he passed in the streets of Eastchester.
I:1:37, “Philosophy of the Slicker”.
Later at Princeton, under the guidance of Tom d’Invilliers (based on Fitzgerald’s college friend, the poet John Peale Bishop), Amory plunges into the reading of decadent authors. A tinge of fatalism and uselessness is added to his formerly-ambitious egotism and narcissism.
So he found “Dorian Gray” and the “Mystic and Somber Dolores” and the “Belle Dame sans Merci”; for a month he was keen on naught else. The world became pale and interesting, and he tried hard to look at Princeton through the satiated eyes of Oscar Wilde and Swinburne—or “Fingal O’Flaherty” and “Algernon Charles,” as he called them in precieuse jest. He read enormously every night— Shaw, Chesterton, Barrie, Pinero, Yeats, Synge, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, Keats, Sudermann, Robert Hugh Benson, the Savoy Operas….
I:2:54, “Spires and Gargoyles”.
Yet he knew that where now the spirit of spires and gargoyles made him dreamily acquiescent, it would then overawe him. Where he now realized only his own inconsequence, effort would make him aware of his own impotence and insufficiency.
I:2:56, “A Damp Symbolic Interlude”.
When Amory’s college disasters begin, his reading continues its decadent turn, though at first formerly-decadent Catholic authors hemp him defend himself against the real thing:
Even Amory’s reading paled during this period; he delved further into the misty side streets of literature: Huysmans, Walter Pater, Theophile Gautier, and the racier sections of Rabelais, Boccaccio, Petronius, and Suetonius.
I:3:102, “First Appearance of the Term ‘Personage’.
“[Amory] had fallen into a deep cynicism over what had crossed his path, plotted the imperfectability of man and read Shaw and Chesterton enough to keep his mind from the edges of decadence….. He was not even a Catholic, yet that was the only ghost of a code that he had, the gaudy, ritualistic, paradoxical Catholicism whose prophet was Chesterton, whose claqueurs were such reformed rakes of literature as Huysmans and Bourget, whose American sponsor was Ralph Adams Cram, with his adulation of priests and cathedrals — a Catholicism which Amory found ready-made, without priest or sacraments or sacrifice”.
I:4:117-8, “Narcissus Off Duty”.
After Amory has been rejected by his one true love, Rosalind Connage, decadence and uselessness triumph. After a disastrous week-long binge, he talks with his friend Tom about his prospects, speaking of the heroic deeds he had once planned but feels are no longer possible, and in response Tom paints a discouraging picture of the literary world Amory still hopes to enter. Amory then rather incongruously brings up Carlyle as a point of comparison, saying that nowadays heroes of the type of which Carlyle spoke are destroyed as soon as they are created. (“Wood” here is WWI hero Gen. Leonard Wood who has actually been forgotten by the public, though there is a military base in Missouri named for him. “Roosevelt” is Teddy, at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War).
“I’m tres old and tres bored, Tom,” said Amory one day, stretching himself at ease in the comfortable window-seat. He always felt most natural in a recumbent position…. Existence had settled back to an ambitionless normality.
“Carlyle would have difficulty getting material for a new chapter on ‘The Hero as a Big Man’ “….. People try so hard to believe in leaders now, pitifully hard. But we no sooner get a popular reformer or politician or soldier or writer or philosopher—a Roosevelt, a Tolstoy, a Wood, a Shaw, a Nietzsche, than the cross-currents of criticism wash him away”
Monsignor Darcy and
Thornton Hancock as Decadents
Like Amory’s mother Beatrice, Amory’s mentor Monsignor Darcy (his mother Beatrice’s former Swinburnean beau and now a Catholic convert and a priest) was a child of American fin-de-siecle decadence. Darcy’s character is based on the ex-decadent Monsignor Sigourney Fay, to whom the book is dedicated. Fay served as mentor and father-figure to Fitzgerald, whose real father was a weak presence. Not only did Fay convince Fitzgerald that Irish Catholicism mught be something to be proud of rather than an embarrassment, he even was able to introduce him to an eminent American of Puritan descent who had taken an interest in ritualistic Catholicism. Henry Adams, the author of Mont St.-Michel and Chartres and a descendant of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, shared the decadents’ sense of the shabbiness of bourgeois life and the reduced possibilities of the world of that time. The fictional Adams (“Thornton Hancock”) is very impressed with Amory, and the admiration was mutual.
Only to bishops and above did she divulge her clerical romance. When she had first returned to her country there had been a pagan, Swinburnian young man in Asheville, for whose passionate kisses and unsentimental conversations she had taken a decided penchant—they had discussed the matter pro and con with an intellectual romancing quite devoid of sappiness. Eventually she had decided to marry for background, and the young pagan from Asheville had gone through a spiritual crisis, joined the Catholic Church, and was now—Monsignor Darcy….. He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.
I:1:14-15, “Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
[Darcy] announced that he had another guest. This turned out to be the Honorable Thornton Hancock, of Boston, ex-minister to The Hague, author of an erudite history of the Middle Ages and the last of a distinguished, patriotic, and brilliant family….. He’s a radiant boy,” thought Thornton Hancock, who had seen the splendor of two continents and talked with Parnell and Gladstone and Bismarck—and afterward he added to Monsignor: “But his education ought not to be intrusted to a school or college.”
I:1:31,”Preparatory to the Great Adventure”.
“Monsignor Darcy still thinks that you’re his reincarnation, that your faith will eventually clarify”.
II:4:193, “Temperature Normal”: Mrs. Lawrence, “a type of Rome-haunting American whom Amory liked immediately”, to Amory).
–“He’s the natural radical?”
–“Yes,” said Amory. “He may vary from the disillusioned critic like old Thornton Hancock, all the way to Trotsky”
II:5:246, “Amory coins a Phrase”.
The decadent witch girl
Amory’s decadence and romanticism culminate in a summer-long relationship with Eleanor, who (like Edgar Allen Poe and Fitzgerald’s own father) comes from old Maryland stock. They find one another like birds, by ear, as Eleanor hears Amory reciting Poe’s “Ulalume” and responds with Verlaine (in French) and two poems by Swinburne. This chapter is littered with poetry, including Amory’s and Eleanor’s, and Fitzgerald even manages to sneak in a rhymed poem disguised as prose (for which he was rebuked by the relentless Edmund Wilson). In Amory, Eleanor sees Rupert Brooke and Lord Byron, and Amory plays to that; in Eleanor, Amory sees the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and one of Poe’s fatal heroines. Their minds meet as one and they live out a summer of passionate intensity, each occasionally reminding the other that summer cannot last.
As intended, Eleanor’s escalating impiety and sacrilege shock the still-pious Amory, and she ends with a dramatic, abortive suicide attempt that actually does kill her horse. No longer able to maintain her pose, she falls out of character and breaks down in tears. The spell is broken, and they return to the mundane world they had tried to escape, each hating the other (though much later they communicate in verse, from a distance).
Eleanor is of a kind with the demon women in Poe and in the decadent-romantic contes of Nodier, Nerval, Gautier, and the other authors of France’s fantastique tradition. Amory’s parting from Eleanor is inconclusive; he later speaks of her as evil, but at moment of parting he does not flee from her as he had from Axia, but merely escorts her glumly home as if she had committed an unforgivable faux pas. Amory soon returns to his decadent poems and decadent fantasies, but his rejection of Eleanor seems to represent his realization that their dreams had been fake and in the end probably would have been fatal.
Eleanor is is the only major figure in the book who cannot be identified with someone known to Fitzgerald in real life. Amory thinks of her as a smarter, wilder version of his mother Beatrice and wonders whether he had dreamed her, suspecting that everything he found in her was probably just a projection of his own mind. Elaine is, in fact, a succubus, Fitzgerald’s portrayal of a medieval Catholic (or maybe Freudian or Jungian) archetype.
Eleanor was, say, the last time that evil crept close to Amory under the mask of beauty, the last weird mystery that held him with wild fascination and pounded his soul to flakes. With her his imagination ran riot and that is why they rode to the highest hill and watched an evil moon ride high, for they knew then that they could see the devil in each other. But Eleanor—did Amory dream her? Afterward their ghosts played, yet both of them hoped from their souls never to meet…… She will have no other adventure like Amory, and if she reads this she will say:“And Amory will have no other adventure like me.”
II:3:202, “Young Irony”.
“I’ve got a crazy streak,” she faltered, “twice before I’ve done things like that. When I was eleven mother went—went mad—stark raving crazy. We were in Vienna—”
II:3:218, “The End of Summer”.
….Rosalind not like Beatrice, Eleanor like Beatrice, only wilder and brainier…..
II:5:235, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage”.
Not long after Amory’s escape from Eleanor, his worldly disaster becomes complete in “The Collapse of Several Pillars” (II:4:229), the sudden, 298-word turning point of this supposedly plotless book. He is now thrown into utter confusion, and during the last 35 pages of the book a chaos of contradictory ideas rush through his head.
He begins by writing a nicely decadent poem and dreaming of escaping to some tropic isle to rot pleasantly there:
A fathom deep in sleep I lie
With old desires, restrained before,
To clamor lifeward with a cry,
As dark flies out the greying door;
And so in quest of creeds to share
I seek assertive day again…
But old monotony is there:
Endless avenues of rain.
–Amory Blaine, II:4:230,
“The Collapse of Several Pillars”.
He pictured himself in an adobe house in Mexico, half-reclining on a rug-covered couch, his slender, artistic fingers closed on a cigarette while he listened to guitars strumming melancholy undertones to an age-old dirge of Castile and an olive-skinned, carmine-lipped girl caressed his hair. Here he might live a strange litany, delivered from right and wrong and from the hound of heaven and from every God (except the exotic Mexican one who was pretty slack himself and rather addicted to Oriental scents)—delivered from success and hope and poverty into that long chute of indulgence which led, after all, only to the artificial lake of death.
II:5:237, “In the Drooping Hours”.
Like any good decadent, at age 23 he now thinks of himself as tired old man (disillusioned like the rest of his generation) watching the younger generation fall blindly into the pit of lust and ambition.
There were no more wise men; there were no more heroes; Burne Holiday was sunk from sight as though he had never lived; Monsignor was dead. Amory had grown up to a thousand books, a thousand lies; he had listened eagerly to people who pretended to know, who knew nothing. The mystical reveries of saints that had once filled him with awe in the still hours of night, now vaguely repelled him. The Byrons and Brookes who had defied life from mountain tops were in the end but flaneurs and poseurs, at best mistaking the shadow of courage for the substance of wisdom.
II:5:238, “Still Weeding”.
As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets.
II:5:255, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage”.
In the final section chapter Amory claims to speak for his “restless generation”. Generational thinking can take many forms. In a traditional society the new generation is seen as simply learning the ways of the elders and eventually replacing them. In a progressive society, the new generation is seen as superior and is expected to improve on the life it inherited and make a better world. In the decadent theory of decline, each new generation is worse than the one before, and living in a worse world. Amory here speaks with his customary confusion, but seems to think that the postwar generation is different from his, and worse. In any case, he sees transition rather than stability, as he usually does, and it also might be true, as intimated by Edmund Wilson, that his generational talk (added last, in response to Scribners’ demand for a proper conclusion, but also quite suitable for The American Mercury, The Smart Set, and The Saturday Evening Post) was is part of his marketing plan for his book.
My whole generation is restless. I’m sick of a system where the richest man gets the most beautiful girl if he wants her”….. I simply state that I’m a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation—with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals.
II:5:251,-2, “The Little Man Gets His”.
“You are ‘the man’, you told me, you know, at the beginning of our conversation “who has made America “Younger-Generation-conscious”. Did you realize, when you used that expression, that you had dropped into the language of advertising?”
Edmund Wilson, in Kazin, p. 62: Wilson imagines a Van Wyck Brooks saying this to Fitzgerald.
Purpose, Direction, Duty
Up until WWI, almost everyone in America — Protestant, Catholic, establishmentarian, patriot, progressive, or radical — believed that life and history have a knowable direction and purpose, that people had a duty to live their in terms of this purpose, and that works of art should contribute to this purpose. Only the decadents disagreed. The first two versions of This Side of Paradise were rejected by the publisher because they didn’t “work up to a conclusion”, and even though Fitzgerald finally satisfied the publisher by tacking a chapter onto the end, many critics were still not satisfied. The book leaves Amory Blaine is left in a fog, with no clear idea of what to do next, and for most readers of that time this did not count as a real ending. The Quest has been unsuccessful, Amory has not come to understand his mission in life, all of his supports have disappeared, and “what’s next?” — almost like an episode of a radio serial inviting us to tune in next week while the hero hangs in midair.
Neither the hero’s career or his character are shown to be brought to any stage which justifies an ending.
Anonymous Scribners reader, cited in Carson. p. xxi .
…..a phantasmagoria of incident that had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force. In short, one of the chief weaknesses of This Side of Paradise is that it is not really about anything; its intellectual and moral content amounts to little more than a gesture, a gesture of indefinite revolt…..
Edmund Wilson, in Mizener, pp. 80-81.
During his prep school years Amory had been confident and ambitious, with vague but high goals. During his college years he remained confident even after an early setback, but by the end of This Side of Paradise the confidence has disappeared.
Amory was enjoying college immensely again, The sense of going forward in a direct, determined line had come back….
I:4:128, “Still Calm”.
There were days when Amory resented that life had changed from an even progress along a road stretching ever in sight, with the scenery merging and blending, into a succession of quick, unrelated scenes.
This was what admirers and detractors of This Side of Paradise loved or hated: the book’s unprogressive doubts about life, history, and purpose. Amory has turned away from conventional wisdom but also from progressivism, since he and his friends believed had both been debunked by The Great War, and Amory, at least, had never quite believed in them anyway. All his life Amory had been recruited to public purposes, but by the end of the book he has definitively disengaged himself from all of them.
This Side of Paradise is not quite a decadent novel. Amory’s parting from Elaine seems like a parting from decadence, or at least from her romantic version of it. On the last pages of the book Amory is headed toward an angry, messy Bohemianism, and seems quite unlikely to be financially or otherwise capable of maintaining the serene disdain characteristic of successful decadents. In 1920 Fitzgerald was too shrewd to tie himself to the tradition of aging uncles writing in outdated literary forms, an overripe tradition of decay, but instead chose to speak to the disenchanted modernist youth of the future. Nonetheless, when Fitzgerald lifted pen from paper at the end of This Side of Paradise, the existing tradition to which it most clearly belonged was the decadent one.
The decadents and the naturalists are never rejected, and Amory’s cynicism and pessimism at the end of the book are consistent with decadence. The break with Eleanor seems to represent a break more from romanticism than from decadence, since Amory writes a classically decadent poem (II:5:230, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage”) immediately after leaving her, and not too long later nurtures decadent fantasies of escaping to rot in the tropics (II:5:237, “In the Drooping Hours”).
The end of This Side of Paradise is a beginning, and it gives us a good idea of what kind of writer Amory will and will not be. Amory will show, rather than explain or advocate, and will make no attempt to leave the reader with a comforting or inspiriting message. This is a reasonably good description of what Fitzgerald did in This Side of Paradise.
“A Romance and a Reading List”
More than a hundred and fifty books or authors are mentioned or cited in This Side of Paradise, and there is a definite progression as authors and categories of author appear and disappear. These lists amount to a literary biography / autobiography of the aspiring author Anthony Blaine / F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The epigraphs come first, but they state the conclusion: the received wisdom has failed. Amory’s own life has been a comedy of errors, the wise leaders of the greater world had blundered into in the disaster of WWI, and the wisdom Amory had been searching for turned out to be “a thousand lies”.
Wilde was the most famous and most cynical of the British decadents, and Rupert Brooke (the last of the English romantics) had died uselessly in WWI. Despite his late misgivings, Amory was a decadent and a romantic first and last.
Before Amory was ten, his mother read to him from the Fêtes Galantes of Paul Verlaine, one of the first and greatest of the French decadents, and Verlaine appears several more times in the book. (Normal boys, by contrast, were read to from boys’ books like Do or Dare by Horatio Alger). The early appearance of Verlaine sets the tone of the book and also explains Amory’s difference from other boys, which plagues him throughout the book. (Beatrice, Amory’s decadent mother, is not at all like Fitzgerald’s own mother except in her drunkenness, so Beatrice’s decadence is a deliberate statement by Fitzgerald).
I:1:12-13, “Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
Amory’s early reading: Edgar Allen Poe; the campus novel For the Honor of the School; Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief and master of disguise; the American Victorian novel Little Women; the more risqué novels Three Weeks (Elinor Glyn) and Sapho (Daudet, possible in Fisk’s dramatization); The Police Gazette (a scandal sheet); Jim Jam Jems (jokes and political commentary from radical North Dakota) and many other romances, detective stories, and adventure stories: The Common Law, Dangerous Dan McGrew , Mary Ware (Annie Fellows Johnston), Gunga Din, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Alfred Henty.
Amory is a diligent reader but quite conventional. Among these books, only a few might be called high-minded.
I:1:23, “A Kiss for Amory”.
18 year old Amory at prep school: his reading is more adult, but all mainstream. The Gentleman from Indiana (Booth Tarkington), The New Arabian Nights (Robert Lewis Stevenson), The @@ of Marcus Ordeyne, (William John Locke: an adventure story, complete with a harem girl), The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton), Stover at Yale (a campus novel), Robert Chambers (adventure), David Graham Phillips (muckraker), E. Philips Oppenheim (thrillers), Kipling, and for school, Dickens, Tennyson, and Milton’s “L’Allegro”.
This is still mostly middlebrow escapism, but there are a few more serious works: Dickens, Tennyson, Milton — Amory even finds decadent escapism in Milton’s “L’Allegro” (“The Joyful One”). Stover at Yale, the preeminent Joe College book of the era, was an instruction manual for young Amory and to a degree a model for This Side of Paradise. Chesterton was a Catholic ex-decadent and for Amory, a halfway house on the way to full decadence.
I:1:37-38, “Philosophy of the Slicker”.
I can’t decide whether to cultivate my mind and be a great dramatist, or to thumb my nose at the Golden Treasury and be a Princeton slicker.”
I:2:50, “Spires and Gargoyles”.
Palgrave’s Golden Treasury was the era’s standard anthology of English lyric poetry, backward-looking and by including no living poets by design. The English lyric was almost the only sort of pre-nineteenth century literature in which Fitzgerald, who initially wanted to be a poet, displayed any serious interest.
College reading, early freshman year, now all adult literature: Wilde, Swinburne, Dowson, Symons (all decadents); Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson (Catholic ex-decadents); George Bernard Shaw, James Barrie, Pinero, Yeats, Synge, (advanced contemporary authors); Gilbert and Sullivan. Keats is also named, a reminder that young Amory / Fitzgerald was a diehard romantic. Amory’s tastes are becoming more sophisticated.
I:2:53-5, “Spires and Gargoyles”.
Amory reads the decadent poems of Swinburne to his admired and very mainstream friend Kerry, and Kerry loves them.
I:2:55, “Spires and Gargoyles”.
In the midst of his friends’ banter, Amory remembers a stanza from Swinburne. A little later, a line from Kipling seems apropos. For Amory, poetry is a natural language.
I:2:74, 77, “Carnival”.
After he has been rejected by Isabelle, Amory remembers lines from Browning about a wasted life — hers, we must assume. Six of the eleven poems cited in This Side of Paradise are associated with one of Amory’s four major lovers, usually either upon first meeting them or when they finally leave him.
I:3:91, “The Egotist Reconsiders”.
Amory’s friend Sloane’s conventional library (Kipling, O. Henry, John Fox, Richard Harding Davis, James Barrie, Robert Service, Rupert Brooke, James Whitcomb Riley — the last a gift book too corny even for Sloane) is contrasted to Amory’s “books from the misty side streets of literature“: Huysmans, Pater, Gautier, Rabelais, Boccaccio, Suetonius, Petronius, all of whom are either decadents or smutty classic authors admired by decadents. Shelley and Pope are mentioned in passing. Amory is surprised to find Rupert Brooke, one of his own favorites, among Sloane’s books.
I:3:102, “First Appearance of the Term ‘Personage’ “.
Three “quest books’: Sinister Street, Compton MacKenzie; The Research Magnificent, H. G. Wells; None Other Gods, Robert Hugh Benson.
In the ‘quest’ book, the hero set off in life armed with the best weapons and avowedly intending to use them as such weapons are usually used, to push their possessors ahead as selfishly and blindly as possible, but the heroes of the ‘quest books’ discovered that there might be a more magnificent use for them.
I:4:114, “Narcissus Off Duty”.
These writers are all later superseded; in the end, Amory / Fitzgerald no longer believes in quests. Along with Swinburne , H. G. Wells is the author most often named in This Side of Paradise. Wells, along with George Bernard Shaw and Amory’s friend Burne Holiday, represents the progressivism that Amory dabbles in but eventually rejects.
Amory’s reading (George Bernard Shaw and the Catholic ex-decadents Chesterton, Huysmans, Bourget, and Ralph Adams Cram) is this time contrasted to the energetic progressive Burne Holiday’s reading (William James, Edward Carpenter, Walt Whitman, and Leo Tolstoy). Amory greatly respects Burne’s progressive idealism but cannot share it. Up to this point he has been flirting with decadence but is still holding himself back, with the help of the Catholic ex-decadents Benson and Chesterton.
Ralph Adams Cram was the architect who had designed much Princeton’s Gothic architecture, which provided the setting for Fitzgerald’s book. This architecture had the nostalgia of age, but the nostalgia was designed in; most of these ancient buildings were only about 25 years old when Fitzgerald arrived at Princeton.
Cram was also the author of The Decadent (1893), a short book reporting a debate between an democratic progressive leader and a former political follower of his who had become a fatalistic, opium-smoking decadent, with Cram clearly taking the decadent side. The political discussions in Cram’s book somewhat resemble the dialogue between Blaine and Holiday in This Side of Paradise, except that the latter dialogue lacks opium.
I:4:117-118, “Narcissus Off Duty”.
Amory is embarrassed when his friend Alec (Rosalind’s brother) catches him reading The Life of St. Teresa. At the beginning of This Side of Paradise Amory is a superstitious Catholic who is afraid of the dark and believes in ghosts and the real presence of the devil, and he toys with the idea of becoming a priest like Monsignor Darcy. During the book he loses his faith but remains a cultural Catholic, wavering between decadence and asceticism.
Amory’s wise, chaste third cousin Clara Page reads Browning to Amory in the process of politely but very firmly rejecting his suit; above, Amory had cited Browning when he parted from Isabelle. In This Side of Paradise, Browning stands for Victorian conventionality and good sense, though he is not treated as harshly as is Tennyson.
Amory compares Tennyson very unfavorably to the Victorian-era decadent Swinburne. For Amory / Fitzgerald, rejection of Victorianism was a basic principle, and this is one of the ways in which Fitzgerald was a spokesman for his generation. But in This Side of Paradise Victorianism seems to be identified more with war, industrialism, urban squalor, and a self-righteous and stuffy sense of purpose than with sexual repression.
Early on Amory had confessed to a Puiritan conscience, though nowadays we would describe his condition as Catholic sex guilt. He had to “confess” this not only as a fashionable young Ivy Leaguer, but also as a Catholic, since Puritans are the worst kind of Protestant. This may be local color: more traditionalist Catholics had attacked Archbishop Ireland of Fitzgerald’s home town of St. Paul for Protestantizing Catholicism.
I:4:140, “Amory is Resentful”.
“To have and to hold and then let go”. When Rosalind rejects Amory (though she still loves him), she quotes this line from the now-forgotten Lawrence Hope, though she knows that Amory will scorn it. (In “The Debutante”, the chapter of This Side of Paradise dominated by Rosalind, literary name-dropping is notably scarce).
II:1:179, “Five weeks Later”.
Amory drunkenly tries to sing Verlaine’s “Claire de Lune” in the midst of strangers. Later in the chapter his egregious behavior causes him to be severely beaten by an indeterminate number of other drunks.
II:2:185, “Still Alcoholic”.
Amory’s reading after he has left the Army and has lost Rosalind: modernists, progressives, and naturalists. James Joyce, H. G. Wells, H. L. Mencken, Frank Norris, Harold Frederic (a naturalist), and Theodore Dreiser. The Catholics Chesterton and Mackenzie and the old-school writers Bennett, and Galsworthy are specifically demoted, to be replaced by the progressives Shaw and Wells. Mencken, with his decadent associations, was a last-minute addition to this list; in the dedication to a review copy, Fitzgerald confesses to Mencken that this was partly because he had come to adopt many of Mencken’s views (West, 1983, p. 98).
II:2:191, “Temperature Normal”.
Amory mentions Carlyle in a discussion with Tom d’Invilliers. Amory had been a conventionally ambitious hero-worshipper as a boy, and his mention of Carlyle here is a relic of that. Decadents rejected hero-worship, which had been very influential during the early nineteenth century, but they also regretted the disappearance of heroism from the own world.
American mass-market authors scorned by d’Invilliers: Edna Ferber, Gouverneur Morris, Fanny Hust, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Harold Bell Wright, Robert Hughes, Ernest Poole, Dorothy Canfield, Zane Gray. If Amory becomes a writer. they will be his competitors.
II:2:197, “Tom the Censor”.
D’Invilliers jokes disrespectfully about a group of bohemian, avant-garde poets identified with Harvard or Greenwich Village, most of whom have non-Anglo-Saxon and perhaps Jewish names: Walter Arensberg, Alfred Kreymborg, Carl Sandburg, Louis Untermeyer, Eunice Tietjens, Clara Shanafelt, James Oppenheim, Maxwell Bodenheim, Richard Glaezner, Scharmel Iris, and Conrad Aiken.
Of these, Aiken and Sandburg are still read. Arensberg (not Jewish) was an heir of a Pittsburgh steel dynasty and an important art collector and patron (especially of the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp). Bodenheim was a famous eccentric in his day, though only a minor writer. Tietjens, Kreymborg, Untermeyer, and Oppenheim played significant roles in world of letters. Shanafelt is a very obscure figure, though a few of her poems survive, but Iris and Glaezner seem to have disappeared entirely.
Throughout the book Amory and d’Invilliers steer clear of Greenwich Village and the bohemians, though toward the end the declassé Amory is in danger of becoming one of them.
II:2:198, “Tom the Censor”.
Spurred by d’Invilliers’ tirades, Amory confesses to still liking the Midwestern authors Booth Tarkington, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters. Tarkington, a Midwesterner who had gone to Princeton and had written about his experiences there, was an early model for Fitzgerald. The other two were exception, populist vestiges of Amory’s Minnesota past and completely out of tune with his decadence.
There are a number of other recognizable Minnesota touches in the early pages of This Side of Paradise: long underwear, frostbite, galoshes, ice skates, bobsledding, and the North Dakota satire magazine Jim Jam Jems. Amory’s sophisticated mother slips into conventionality by fussing about his long underwear and galoshes, and at one point Amory comes fashionably late for a party and finds out that the party was happening on Minnesota time and had left without him.
II:2:198, “Tom the Censor”.
Amory easily accommodates himself to the romantic and decadent tastes of the lovely witch girl Eleanor: Verlaine (cited in French), Byron’s “Manfred” and “Don Juan”, Poe’s “Ulalume”, Rupert Brooke, Swinburne, Shelley, Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”, Freud, Plato, Wilde.
In this section Verlaine and Poe are each quoted once (II:3:204 and 207, “Young Irony”), and Swinburne is quoted twice (II:3:210 and 211, “September”). Amory’s romanticism culminates here, and when he rejects Eleanor he moves away from the romanticism of Byron and Brooke (see below at II:5:238, “Still Weeding”).
II:3:204-216, “Young Irony”.
Henry’s sympathy for the common man is not shared at all by Amory, who hates the poor. O. Henry was an entertaining short story writer famous for his gimmicky surprise endings. Many of his stories were about very ordinary people in New York City.
II:5:232, “The Ego Becomes a Personage”.
Amory is adrift after his many disasters. He rejects Byron and Brooke; compares himself to Goethe and Conrad when they were his age; favors Samuel Butler, Voltaire, and Renan over Plato and H. G. Wells; and downgrades Benson, Chesterton, and Shaw as epigoni and repackagers of Huysmans, Newman, Ibsen, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. (Amory speaks of Goethe’s Faust here, but The Sorrows of Young Werther, all in all, would have been a more appropriate comparison).
In one amusing passage Amory lumps the progressive sage George Bernard Shaw with three nominally progressive statesmen (Bernhardi, Bethmann-Hollweg and Bonar Law, two Germans plus the most obscure of British Prime Ministers), all of whom he felt had been discredited by what was at that time still called the Great War.
Amory’s failure as a person is his liberation as a writer, but when he invites a comparison to Goethe (whom he had not even read) he is swinging wildly. Conrad was a last-minute substitution, replacing Wells; Conrad and Samuel Butler were great discoveries for Amory / Fitzgerald, who felt that they validated his exhibitive approach to the task of writing: “to make you see”. (West, 1983, p. 98).
II:5:238-9, “Still Weeding”.
Still swinging wildly, Amory rants about “Rousseau, Tolstoy, Butler, Blaine….”. For Amory to class himself with Rousseau and Tolstoy is again wildly presumptuous, but Samuel Butler (mentioned here for the second time) is a more reasonable model; his sardonic bildungsroman The Way of All Flesh is, like This Side of Paradise, an episodic book about a confused young man and leads to a rather uncertain conclusion.
Butler compared growing up to learning to play the violin in front of an audience, where every mistake is seen by hundreds of people. This comparison works here not only for Amory, but also for Fitzgerald, whose apprenticeship in fiction can be watched as it happens, right there in the text of This Side of Paradise.
Fitzgerald Versus Amory
So far I have been treating Amory almost as though he were Fitzgerald himself, and by and large I think that this highly irregular procedure is justified. When Amory is treated as as a representative of his generation there does end up being a degree of idealization or standardization, and there is definitely an element of self-caricature, but Fitzgerald was in a hurry to finish his book and drew from his own life whenever he could, if only to save time. Amory is a reasonable approximation of Fitzgerald for fictional purposes.
There are differences, of course. Amory is taller that Fitzgerald and a better athlete, and Fitzgerald’s real mother was not much like the lovely and cosmopolitan Beatrice. An additional point of difference is that while Amory was a very diligent reader for a college student of that era, the real-life Fitzgerald was even more diligent. Authors read and admired by Fitzgerald but not mentioned in the book include Mark Twain, Henry James (but only the early books), and William Makepeace Thackeray, who young Fitzgerald had read over and over again. But the most significant of the authors read by the young Fitzgerald not found on Amory’s lists is the decadent English novelist George Meredith, who will be discussed separately below.
A Romance and a Reading List:
As Edmund Wilson noted in one of his attacks, Fitzgerald’s range was limited. Almost all of the works named in This Side of Paradise or discussed by Kuehl are fiction or poetry, and almost none of them were written before 1800, and except for Palgrave , it is doubtful that he read any of the early works with any care. Most of Fitzgerald’s reading was contemporary, and to begin with it was often mass-market literature.
Amory’s development is rather predictable. After the adventure stories, campus novels, and popular literature of his early days have faded from the picture, modernist literature, progressive literature, naturalist fiction, Catholic literature, and decadent literature contend in Amory’s mind. (Joyce is mentioned at II:2:191, “Temperature Normal”, and the “stream of consciousness” is imitated at II:5:234-235, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage”).
The ex-decadent Catholics Chesterton and Benson and the Catholic-convert quest novelist Compton MacKenzie rise and fall. The progressive modernists H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw rise and fall. The romantics Byron and Rupert Brooke have their day and are then denounced. Commercial novelists and New York Bohemians are ridiculed. In the end, Amory discovers Joseph Conrad and Samuel Butler, and these two authors remained important to Fitzgerald throughout his career.
The decadents and the naturalists are never rejected, and Amory’s cynicism and pessimism at the end of the book are consistent with both. The break with Eleanor seems to represent a break more from romanticism than from decadence, since Amory writes a classically decadent poem (II:5:230, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage”) immediately after leaving her, and not too long later nurtures decadent fantasies of escaping to rot in the tropics (II:5:237, “In the Drooping Hours”).
The end of This Side of Paradise is a beginning, and it gives us a good idea of what kind of writer Amory will and will not be. Amory will show, rather than explain or advocate, and will make no attempt to leave the reader with a comforting or inspiriting message. This is a reasonably good description of what Fitzgerald did in This Side of Paradise.
George Meredith and F. Scott Fitzgerald
It was the age at which we were discovering Meredith and the writers of The Yellow Book.
John Peale Bishop, “Fitzgerald at Princeton”, in Kazin, p. 46.
The first two versions of This Side of Paradise were entitled The Romantic Egotist, and a comparison with George Meredith’s The Egotist is inevitable. Meredith’s book is the story of Clara Middleton’s ultimately successful struggle to free herself from her engagement to the title character, a wealthy, forward-looking country squire whose manipulative, domineering, and sometimes vindictive treatment of his inferiors is always accompanied by a supreme confidence in his own generosity and kindness.
Fitzgerald’s “egotism” in This Side of Paradise is the same as Meredith’s “egoism” in The Egoist. Fitzgerald distinguished between the ethical / philosophical position of “egoism”, and “egotism” as selfishness and lack of sympathy, but the “egoism” of Willoughby Patterne in Meredith’s book is unmistakably egotism in that sense. In most ways Amory Blaine is completely unlike Patterne, but he shares Patterne’ s self-centeredness, conceit, and inability to love. (Fitzgerald’s description of Amory as an egotist makes you wonder how anyone could claim that Fitzgerald takes his characters too much on their own valuation of themselves).
The Egoist is structured around a marriage engagement contracted for purely practical family reasons (a very common novelistic theme), though unlike most such novels Meredith’s ends happily — with a broken engagement. Practical marriages are also a structuring theme in This Side of Paradise:
- Amory’s mother jilts the Swinburnean Thayer Darcy to marry Stephen Blaine “for background”. The jilted lover later becomes a Catholic priest and Amory’s mentor –a father figure in place of the ineffectual Stephen Blaine.
- Amory’s cousin Clara is trapped into marriage when she’s too young to know better (just as Meredith’s Clara almost was), and escapes only with the death of her husband.
- The lovely, mad witch Eleanor dreads her fated marriage to an as-yet unnamed “dinner coat”, but she sees no escape.
- Rosalind Connage, Amory’s one true love, speaks very sarcastically about the dating and marriage game (and about practical marriages) but she is convinced by “her people” to jilt Amory in favor of the hapless, boring, but well-fixed J. Dawson Ryder.
Practical marriages also played a role in Fitzgerald’s own life, though the real-life practical marriages cannot be matched up to those in the book.
- Fitzgerald’s mother was was an heiress from a parvenu family, and it was his feckless, quasi-aristocratic father who married for position, though since this marriage turned out to be impractical, perhaps it was a love marrriage after all.
- Fitzgerald’s first lover, Genevra King, rejected him because of his poverty; this made him perpetually aware of his poor-cousin status. (The fictional Genevra, Isabel Borge, rejects Amory from mere petulance; at this stage of the plot Amory still has money and couldn’t be rejected for the same reason Fitzgerald was).
- And finally, in a truth stranger than fiction, poor cousin Fitzgerald magically transformed himself into a famous rich man by writing and marketing This Side of Paradise. Instead of having to watch his beloved Zelda marry some J. Dawson Ryder, he married her himself.
Oddly enough, in this novel neither the Zelda-figure (Rosalind) nor the Scott figure (Amory) looks good at all, and after correctly predicting that her marriage to Amory would be a miserable one (with her brother Alec agreeing), the Zelda-figure rejects the Fitzgerald-figure and marries Ryder: a cunningly self-refuting prophecy by Fitzgerald. (If Zelda had read the book and was still willing to marry Fitzgerald, what does that tell us? Was she a success-worsipper, or did she admire him for his honest writing?)
Tom d’Invilliers’ name is generally agreed to be a reference to Villiers de l’Isle Adam, a decadent French author, and Clara Page’s situation in Fitzgerald’s book was so similar to Clara Middleton’s in Meredith’s book that I cannot believe that the similarity of their names is accidental.
Can we go on to suspect that the names of Amory’s lovers Eileen and Isabelle also can be traced to the characters Meredith’s characters with those names — even though the two maiden aunts in Meredith have nothing in common with Fitzgerald’s lovely flirts? And does Beatrice’s name comes from Dante, and Rosalind’s Shakespeare, and Darcy’s from Jane Austen, and “Amory” from “amour” or possibly “Amerigo”? (The antecedents of the names of Myra, Tanaduke, Humbird, Axia, Burne, Kaluka, Margaret Diamond, Jill, and the rest must be left for the reader).
Of all these, only Clara, Rosalind, and Tom resemble their namesakes, so this is just a silly game — but one that I think Fitzgerald was capable of playing.
“Sentimentalists”, says The Pilgrim’s Scrip, “are they who seek to enjoy without incurring the Immense Debtorship for a thing done.”
George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel.
It may be seen that they were sentimentalists. That is to say, they supposed that they enjoyed exclusive possession of the Nice Feelings, and exclusively comprehended the Fine Shades….Such persons come to us in the order of civilization. In their way they help civilize us. Sentimentalists are a perfectly natural growth of a fat soil. Wealthy communities must engender them. If with attentive minds we mark the origin of classes, we shall discern that the Nice Feelings and the Fine Shades play a principal part in our human development and social history.
I dare not say that civilized man is to be studied with the eye of the naturalist; but my vulgar meaning might almost be twisted to convey that our sentimentalists are a variety owing their existence to a prolonged period of comfortable feeding. The pig, it will be retorted, passes likewise through this training. He does. But in him it is not combined with the indigestion of high German romances. Here is so notable a difference that he cannot possibly be said to be of the family.
George Meredith, Sandra Belloni, 1865.
In the hundred and fourth chapter of the thirteenth volume of the BOOK OF EGOISM. it is written, “Possession without obligation to the object possessed approaches felicity”….. Our possession of an adoring female’s worship is this instance.
George Meredith, The Egoist, Chapter XV p. 108.
“The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy, without incurring the immense debtorship for the thing done”.
James Joyce (Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses).
“The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.”
Amory Blaine (II:1:163, “The Debutante”).
The sentimentalism characteristic of the Victorians was George Meredith’s bete noir, and both Fitzgerald and James Joyce both borrowed Meredith’s aphorisms on that topic. Stephen Dedalus repeats the Ordeal of Richard Feverel version almost verbatim, whereas Amory’s aphorism seems closer to the version in The Egoist.
Meredith’s significance for Fitzgerald is worth a book in itself. These were merely the points that came immediately to mind.
Every evening…. I wrote paragraph after paragraph on a somewhat edited history of me and my imagination.
Fitzgerald, September, 1920, Saturday Evening Post (in Hook, p. 18).
He said that he found himself unable to write a heroic character other than himself and that he had to be the hero of any novel he undertook cannot depict how anyone thinks except himself and possibly Zelda.
Alexander McCaig, April 12, 1920, in Levot, p. 88.
Also you are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at any one time saw him clear myself — for he started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself.
Letter to John Peale Bishop, August 9, 1925, in The Crack-Up, p. 271.
Amory Blaine / F. Scott Fitzgerald inherited from both parents the wavering tendency which was the key to his character. As his saintly widowed cousin Clara explained, Amory was the slave of his imagination and incapable of decision.
Stephen Blaine handed down to posterity his height of just under six feet and his tendency to waver at crucial moments,
I:1:11:,”Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
….discovering that priests were infinitely more attentive when she was in process of losing or regaining faith in Mother Church, she maintained an enchantingly wavering attitude.
I:1:14:,”Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
“You’re a slave, a bound helpless slave to one thing in the world, your imagination. …. you lack judgment — the judgment to decide at once when you know that your imagination will play you false…..
I:4:133-4, “St. Cecilia” (Clara speaking).
“Don’t be a spoil-sport—remember, you have a tendency toward wavering that prevents you from being the entire light of my life.”
II:3:213, “The End of Summer” (Eleanor speaking).
Amory gratefully accepted Clara’s diagnosis but did not change. He just added it to his stock of wisdom alongside various other principles, including the author’s need to let his imagination run free. Scott / Amory’s wavering doubleness makes him seem weak, and it did make him vulnerable, but it also gave him the openness to experience which he needed in order to write, and an unsuspected superiority to more self-assured friends and acquaintances.
Men of genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect — but they have not any individuality or determined Character.
John Keats, cited by Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up, p. 95.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Fitzgerald in “The Crack-Up”, The Crackup, p. 69.
[Fitzgerald has] “the rare faculty of being able to experience romantic and ingenuous emotions and a half hour later regard them with satiric detachment”.
John Peale Bishop, cited by Shain in Mizener, p. 78.
The young author wavered between progressivism and decadence, superstitious piety and atheism, cosmopolitanism and provincialism, West and East, puritanism and libertinism, self-assurance and doubt, boldness and guilt, ambition and self-destruction, and so on. His glibness, clownishness, intelligence, manipulative powers, and fakery made it possible for him to survive within the foreign, non-double, non-wavering world which he always had to seduce or flimflam, but they also kept him from being taken as seriously as he deserved, and living with his difference made him lonely.
Amory considered lying, and then decided against it.
I:1:27, “Preparatory the the Great Adventure”
With a dread of being alone he attached a few friends, but since they were not among the elite of the school, he used them simply as mirrors of himself.
I:1:33, “Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
Years afterward, when he went back to St. Regis’, he seemed to have forgotten the successes of sixth-form year, and to be able to picture himself only as the unadjustable boy who had hurried down corridors, jeered at by his rabid contemporaries mad with common sense.
I:1:40, “The Philosophy of the Slicker”.
“I’m a cynical idealist”. He paused and wondered whether if meant anything.
He let himself go, discussed books by the dozens — books he’d read, book’s he’d read about, books he had never heard of, rattling off lists of titles with the facility of a Brentano’s clerk.
I:2:53 “Spires and Gargoyles”.
“I don’t know. Until I talked to you I hadn’t thought seriously about it. I wasn’t sure of half of what I said”.
II:5:251, “The Little Man Gets His”.
Amory had believed that he was smarter than anyone, and he had started off with grand ambitions, but by the end of the book these have mostly been destroyed by disaster and failure; only his intention of becoming a great writer remains. He briefly dreams of becoming a great progressive leader like his friend Burne Holiday, but his decadent instincts tell him that great things are no longer possible in this world. With no straight road before him, he toys with the idea of rotting pleasantly on some tropical isle, but in the end his ambition survives, though only in its literary form.
“Mentally.– Complete, unquestioned superiority”.
I:1:24-25, “Code of the Young Egotist”.
Turning on all the lights, he looked at himself in the mirror, trying to find in his own face the qualities that made him see clearer than the great crowd of people, that made him decide firmly, and able to influence and follow his own will.
His philosophy of success had tumbled down upon him, and he looked for the reasons.
–“Your own laziness,” said Alec later.
–“No—something deeper than that. I’ve begun to feel that I was meant to lose this chance.”
Oh, Lord, what a pleasure it used to be to dream I might be a really great dictator or writer or religious or political leader—and now even a Leonardo da Vinci or Lorenzo de Medici couldn’t be a real old-fashioned bolt in the world. Life is too huge and complex. The world is so overgrown that it can’t lift its own fingers, and I was planning to be such an important finger…..
Suddenly he felt an overwhelming desire to let himself go to the devil…. [Here he might be] delivered from success and hope and poverty into that long chute of indulgence which led, after all, only to the artificial lake of death.
II:5:237, “In the Drooping Hours”.
Amory was alone. He had escaped from a small enclosure into a great labyrinth. He was where Goethe was when he began Faust; he was where Conrad was when he wrote Almayer’s Folly.
II:5:239, “In the Drooping Hours”.
Fitzgerald’s portrait of himself / Amory is hardly flattering. Amory is an egotist and narcissist who hates immigrants, the poor, and (by the end of the book) women , and he is selfish to the bone. However, he’s also introspective, self-critical and no stranger to guilt, and he does really not like “his personality” — his manipulative way of presenting himself to people and interacting with them. And he is always watching himself (and everyone else) in order to report back to his readers, as if he had cast himself as the protagonist in a real-world novel he was living and writing.
Probably more than any other concrete vice or failing Amory despised his own personality.
II:5:236, “In the Drooping Hours”.
The berths across from him were occupied with stinking aliens — Greeks, he guessed, or Russians. He thought how much easier patriotism had been to a homogeneous race, how much easier it would have been to fight as the Colonies fought, or as the Confederacy fought. And he did no sleeping that night, but listened to the aliens guffaw and snore while they filled the car with the heavy scent of latest America.
I:3:134, “Amory is Resentful”.
He thought cynically how completely he was lacking in all human sympathy. O. Henry had found in these people romance, pathos, love, hate — Amory saw only coarseness, physical filth, and stupidity.
I:5:232, “The Egotist becomes a Personage”.
“I am selfish”, he thought. “This is not a quality that will change when I ‘see human suffering’ or ‘lose my parents’ or ‘help others’. This selfishness is not only part of me. It is the most living part of me”…. I have not a drop of the ‘milk of human kindness’ “.
II: 5:253, ” ‘Out of the Fire, Out of the Little Room’ “.
For Amory “people” are definitely Other — usually tedious, sometimes threatening, but fortunately easily manipulated most of the time. Sometimes in moments of terror you need them around for comfort, and sometimes your narcissism leads you to want to help them, but mostly “people” are conventional and obtuse and unable to share the real things in life.
When he came to himself he knew that several hours had passed. He pitched onto the bed and rolled over on his face with a deadly fear that he was going mad. He wanted people, people, someone sane and stupid and good.
I:3:112, “At the Window”.
–“People are beginning to think that he’s odd.”
–“He’s way over their heads — you know, you think so yourself when you talk to him. Good Lord, Tom, you used to stand against ‘people’. Success has completely conventionalized you”.
I:4:124, “Narcissus Off Duty”.
I need to write you if only to shriek the colossal stupidity of people….” (From his mentor Monsignor Darcy).
He found something that wanted, had always wanted, and always would want: ….. to be necessary to people, to be indispensable….
Amory thinks of renouncing the world of “people” and becoming a priest, on the model of Monsignor Darcy. But flirtation, seduction and conquest are necessities for him, and his faith is growing weaker. He wants to experience life to the full (the first duty of any decadent) but fears that his staginess, egotism, narcissism, analytic compulsion, and vocation as a writer make it impossible for him to live life or experience reality at all. He decides that his true vocation is writing, but fears a double bind. Writing is another ascetic vocation and often seems to cut him off from life, but that cuts him off from the experiences that make it possible for him to write. And marrying Rosalind remains his main goal, but he fears that if he marries “life will get him”. So he wavers.
“I’ll never be a poet’, said Amory as he finished. “I’m not enough of a sensualist really”.
He lay awake in the darkness and wondered how much he cared — how much his sudden unhappiness was hurt vanity — whether he was, after all, temperamentally unfitted for romance.
I:3:90, “The Egotist Considers”.
“You used to be interesting before you tried to write,” Tom continued. “Now you save any idea that you think would do to print”.
“Trouble is I get distracted when I start to write stories — get afraid I’m doing it instead of living — get thinking maybe life is waiting for me in the Japanese gardens at the Ritz or at Atlantic City or on the Lower East Side”.
Yet was Amory capable of love now?
More than one relationship, serious or casual, was ruined for Amory by his habit of thinking his experiences (and planning to write about them) rather than living them. Even when he is experiencing life most deeply, his mind tells him that all this will pass, and that it soon he will have nothing but the sad memory of it, which he will write about — and this anticipated regret replaces the experience itself. He believes that in general, human life consists of a short rise to a peak followed by a long dismal decline, and at age twenty-three he looks back on life as if he were an old man, readying himself to watch the rise and decline of the generation following him.
–“And you didn’t feel tired dancing or want a cigarette or any of the things you said? You just wanted to be—”
–“Oh, let’s go in,” she interrupted, “if you want to analyze. Let’s not talk about it.”
“It’s just that I feel sad these wonderful nights. I sort of feel they’re never coming again, and I’m not really getting all I could out of them.”
“As he put on his studs he realized that he was enjoying life as he would probably never enjoy it again”.
–“You’re a nervous strain” — this emphatically — “and when you analyze every little emotion and instinct I just don’t have ’em”.
I:3:90, “The Egoist Considers”.
“I’m so happy I’m frightened. Wouldn’t it be awful if this was — was the high point?”
II:1:173, “Bitter Sweet.”.
“We were so happy,” he intoned dramatically, “so very happy”.
II:2:184, “Still Alcoholic”.
There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory, the regret for his lost youth —
II:5:255, ” ‘Out of the Fire, Out of the Little Room’ “
Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.
II:5:255, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage”.
He has long thought of himself as transitory, and ends up feeling that the most intense realities are transitions (notably, seductions).
He had realized that his best interests were bound up with those of a certain variant, changing person, whose label, in order that his past might always be identified with him, was Amory Blaine.
I:1:24, “Code of the Young Egotist”.
GILLESPIE: Then why do you play with men?
ROSALIND (leaning forward confidentially) For that first moment, when he’s interested. There is a moment — Oh, just before the first kiss, a whispered word — that makes it worthwhile.
II:1:167, “Several Hours Later”.
SHE: You’re not sentimental?
HE: No, I’m romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional.
II:1:163, “The Debutante”.
Youth is like having a big plate of candy. Sentimentalists think that they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again. The matron doesn’t want to repeat her girlhood. — she wants to repeat her honeymoon. I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.
II:5:234, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage”.
Already an orphan and a college dropout, in “The Collapse of Several Pillars”(II:4:229-30) Amory finds out in the space of 326 words that he has been publicly disgraced, that Rosalind has jilted him, that his inheritance has disappeared into bankruptcy, and that his mentor Monsignor Darcy has died. Is this astonishingly swift transition inept clumsiness on Fitzgerald’s part, or a brilliant stroke? Certainly Henry James would have handled it differently.
This is the turning point of the novel. Amory has lost everything. Ideas rush through his mind: reflections on the infinite possibilities of children and the awfullness of the poor and smelly, dreams of a flight to the tropics, a sudden commitment to socialism, thoughts about the “spiritually unmarried man” and “new systems that will control or counteract human nature”, doubts about good and evil (“Am I corrupt? I think so”), the revelation of the bankruptcy of all moral authority, and even a stream-of-consciousness passage.
A little later at Monsignor Darcy’s funeral he feels an “immense desire to give people a sense of security”, which runs contrary to everything he has ever thought about “people”. He claims to speak for his restless generation in a socialist speech, but mixed into his political rant are his resentment at Rosalind’s decision to marry J. Dawson Ryder, and even his anger at Princeton University’s expectation that he learn conic sections.
“How could I intrigue the hero into a “philosophy of life” when my own ideas were in much the same state as Alice’s after the Hatter’s tea-party. ”
Fitzgerald, cited by Donaldson in Prigozy, p. xx.
…..Question—were the stairs on the left or right as you came in? Anyway, in 12 Univee they were straight back and to the left. What a dirty river– want to go down there to see if it’s dirty–French rivers were all brown or black, so were southern rivers. Twenty-four dollars meant four hundred and eighty doughnuts……
I:5:235, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage”.
Amory had grown up to a thousand books, a thousand lies; he had listened eagerly to people who pretended to know, who knew nothing.
II:5:238, “Still Weeding”.
Life was a damned muddle … a football game with every one off-side and the referee gotten rid of—every one claiming the referee would have been on his side.
II:5:240, “Still Weeding”.
He found something that wanted, had always wanted, and always would want: ….. to be necessary to people, to be indispensable…. Amory felt an immense desire to give people security.
Still they’d let any well-tutored flathead play football and I was ineligible, because some silly old men thought we should all profit by conic sections.
I:5:251, “The Little Man Gets His”.
One has trouble believing at the end of This Side of Paradise that Amory will write anything of consequence very soon.
James L.W. West, Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
After his disaster, in a well-made novel Amory would have gained wisdom or would have found himself, or something of that kind. But he just doesn’t. What he finally does conclude is: “I know myself — and that is all“. But you don’t believe him.
Women and Amory Blaine
Often Amory met wives whom he had known as debutantes, and looking intently at them imagined that he found something in their faces which said:“Oh, if I could only have gotten you!” Oh, the enormous conceit of the man!
I:4:137, “St. Cecilia”.
Amory’s most deeply-felt moments are found in the courtship and seduction of women of quality. Initially this was a mere matter of conquest and a test of his manipulative skills, but he had also hoped to find in women something more real than the disappointing things of this world. But marriage terrifies him, and easy women (even willing, innocent little fourteen-year-old Myra, who wants a second kiss) bring visions of sinister revenants, or of the devil in person wearing pointed shoes. What he needs to find is a classy woman, as artificial and stagy as himself but sincere too just like him, whose love could save him from his solipsistic loneliness. But at the end of the book, as he sees it, women have failed him, and his last stated position (but probably not his final position; he’s utterly confused) is as renunciate and misogynist as St. Bernard’s — or to put it more bluntly, exactly the same as St. Bernard’s. Beautiful women are the face of evil.
Much of what Fitzgerald reports about the youthful sexual mores of his time was shocking when written, but Amory / Fitzgerald’s own tendency was toward judgment and guilt rather than liberation, and judgment and guilt played a role in all of his relationships.
Sometimes I wish I had gone along with that gang (Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart,) but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart and really want to preach at people in some acceptable form rather than entertain them.
Fitzgerald to his daughter Scottie, in LeVot, p. 52.
Now a confession will have to be made. Amory had rather a Puritan conscience. Not that he yielded to it—later in life he almost completely slew it—but at fifteen it made him consider himself a great deal worse than other boys … unscrupulousness … the desire to influence people in almost every way, even for evil … a certain coldness and lack of affection, amounting sometimes to cruelty … a shifting sense of honor … an unholy selfishness … a puzzled, furtive interest in everything concerning sex.
I:1:25, “Code of the Young Egotist”.
Women—of whom he had expected so much; whose beauty he had hoped to transmute into modes of art; whose unfathomable instincts, marvelously incoherent and inarticulate, he had thought to perpetuate in terms of experience—had become merely consecrations to their own posterity.
Isabelle, Clara, Rosalind, Eleanor, were all removed by their very beauty, around which men had swarmed, from the possibility of contributing anything but a sick heart and a page of puzzled words to write.
I:5:238, “Still Weeding”.
Twelve different women play some role in This Side of Paradise (see Appendix I), and six of them, including his mother Beatrice, play major roles. Just as with the reading lists, there is a developmental sequence. His mother sets him on the decadent path and teaches him to how to pretend, but also fills him with doubts and fears. His approach to other women is at first conventionally seductive, but these encounters are unsatisfying or even horrifying. His later encounters are more meaningful and less false, but in the end they are also unsuccesful and disturbing. Amory projects his fears and desires onto the women in his life, and often sees them as medieval archetypes, with several temptresses and a Virgin Mary. At the same time, several of the women push back and tell him things about himself, sometimes quite eloquently and against his will. It is in his romantic relationships, problematic though they are, that he is most likely to encounter a reality which he cannot evade.
Amory’s mother spoils him, reads him Verlaine, and gives him an impossible model of womanhood. This is the mother Fitzgerald wished he had had, as eccentric, tipsy, and profligate as his own mother, but beautiful, cultured, and elegant. From Beatrice Amory gets decadence and arrogance, and from her he learns that life is all performance, and since Fitzgerald was “hip to Freud”, we should also assume that she determined Amory’s sexual and psychological development.
All in all Beatrice O’Hara absorbed the sort of education that will be quite impossible ever again; a tutelage measured by the number of things and people one could be contemptuous of and charming about; a culture rich in all arts and traditions, barren of all ideas….
I:1:12, “Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
Amory’s penetrating green eyes would look out through tangled hair at his mother. Even at this age he had no illusions about her.
I:1:13, “Amory, son of Beatrice”.
“This son of mine,” he heard her tell a room full of awestruck,admiring women one day, “is entirely sophisticated and quite charming—but delicate—we’re all delicate; here, you know.” Her hand was radiantly outlined against her beautiful bosom…..
I:1:13, “Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
To the consternation of East Coast mothers, kissing games were popular with young teens in America’s semi-civilized West (which in the prep school world of the 1920s, according to the publisher James Laughlin, included even his home town of Pittsburgh). Amory’s first conquest is fourteen-year-old Myra, but his cunning seduction is short-circuited when it becomes clear that Myra has been all too willing to be conquered. When she asks for another kiss Amory flees in terror, as he later would from the willing showgirl Axia, and years later he later punishes Myra by telling the world that she’s easy.
Arbiters of eastern etiquette…. had long maintained that the Western regions were inhabited by barbarians who permitted their daughters greater license…..[Fitzgerald ] was puzzled by the Boston and Philadelphia ministers and editors who accused him of trying to corrupt their daughters, and puzzled by the daughters themselves who saw his novel as a clarion call to revolt.
Henry Dan Piper, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Bodley Head. 1965, p. 61.
“What a story to tell Marylyn! Here on the couch with this wonderful–looking boy….”
I:1:21, “A Kiss for Amory” (Myra thinking to herself)..
—“We’re awful,” rejoiced Myra gently. She slipped her hand into his, her head drooped against his shoulder…..
–“Kiss me again.” Her voice came out of a great void.
–“I don’t want to,” he heard himself saying. There was another pause.
–“I don’t want to!” he repeated passionately.
I:1:21, “A Kiss for Amory”.
…. there’s Myra St. Claire, she’s an old flame, easy to kiss if you like it….
I:2:51, “Spires and Gargoyles”.
None of the Victorian mothers—and most of the mothers were Victorian—had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed……Amory saw girls doing things that even in his memory would have been impossible: eating three-o’clock, after-dance suppers in impossible cafes, talking of every side of life with an air half of earnestness, half of mockery, yet with a furtive excitement that Amory considered stood for a real moral let-down. But he never realized how widespread it was until he saw the cities between New York and Chicago as one vast juvenile intrigue.
3. Anonima in Louisville
On a show tour during his freshman year, Amory is again shocked to find just how willing the girls are, but the young author ruins everything (and not for the last time). Like a newspaperman reporting on Young People Today, he starts questioning the unnamed Louisville girl waiting for her kisses, and when he breaks the spell and fails to do his job, she huffs off. (The devil appears in Amory’s love life for the first time here, though only verbally).
–“Why on earth are we here?” he asked the girl with the green combs one night as they sat in some one’s limousine, outside the Country Club in Louisville.
–“I don’t know. I’m just full of the devil.”
–“Let’s be frank—we’ll never see each other again. I wanted to come out here with you because I thought you were the best-looking girl in sight. You really don’t care whether you ever see me again, do you?”
–“No—but is this your line for every girl? What have I done to deserve it?”
–“And you didn’t feel tired dancing or want a cigarette or any of the things you said? You just wanted to be—”
–“Oh, let’s go in,” she interrupted, “if you want to analyze. Let’s not talk about it.”
His first semi-serious relationship is with the the lovely, spoiled debutante Isabelle Borge, a flirt and tease with a reputation for being “a speed”. A matchmaker’s warnings that each was dangerous had made them mutually desirable, and the courtship proceeds like a military campaign, which ends in Amory’s defeat. Isabelle is infuriated when Amory is insufficiently contrite after a little tiff, and is also annoyed by his analytic, writerly approach. Once again a romantic opportunity is destroyed. When Amory had been with Myra, both were playing to imagined audiences, and Isabelle and Amory’s romance is even stagier. At first both Isabelle and Amory enjoy the joust, but after Isabelle has won, Amory departs vengefully, quoting Browning and declaring that he had never really cared for her anyway. But conquest has been denied and he has been grievously wounded.
This pleased Isabelle. It put them on equal terms, though she was quite capable of staging her own romances, without advance advertising…..She was accustomed to be thus followed by her desperate past, and it never failed to rouse in her the same feeling of resentment; yet—in a strange town it was an advantageous reputation….. in the last month,when her winter visit to Sally had been decided on, he had assumed the proportions of a worthy adversary……
As an actress even in the fullest flush of her own conscious magnetism gets a deep impression of most of the people in the front row, so Isabelle sized up her antagonist.
Isabelle met them tactfully. At her best she allied all with whom she came in contact—except older girls and some women. All the impressions she made were conscious.
Amory struggled to Isabelle’s side and whispered: You’re my dinner partner, you know. We’re all coached for each other”. Isabelle gasped — this was rather right in line. But really she felt as if a good speech had been taken from a star and given to a minor character….. She mustn’t lost the leadership a bit.
He waited for the mask to drop off, but at the same time he did not question her right to wear it. She, on her part, was not impressed by his studied air of blasé sophistication. She had lived in a larger city and had slightly an advantage in range. But she accepted his pose— it was one of the dozen little conventions of this kind of affair.
I:2:67, “Babes in the Woods”.
“Isabelle!” he cried, half involuntarily, and held out his arms. As in the story-books, she ran into them, and on that half-minute, as their lips first touched, rested the high point of vanity, the crest of his young egotism.
Amory kept his temper with difficulty. He became aware that he had not an ounce of real affection for Isabelle, but her coldness piqued him. He wanted to kiss her, kiss her a lot, because then he knew he could leave in the morning and not care. On the contrary, if he didn’t kiss her, it would worry him. … It would interfere vaguely with his idea of himself as a conqueror. It wasn’t dignified to come off second best, pleading, with a doughty warrior like Isabelle.
I:3:89, “The Egoist Considers”.
— [Isabelle]: “You got all upset tonight. You just sat and watched my eyes. Besides, I have to think all the time when I’m talking to you — you’re so critical.
–“I make you think, do I?” Amory repeated with a touch of vanity.
–“You’re a nervous strain” — this emphatically — “and when you analyze every little emotion and instinct I just don’t have ’em”.
I:3:90, “The Egoist Considers”.
He returned to his contemplation of the outdoors, and began repeating over and over, mechanically, a verse from Browning, which he had once quoted to Isabelle in a letter:
Each life unfulfilled, you see,
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy;
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired—been happy.
He took a sombre satisfaction in thinking that perhaps all along she had been nothing except what he had read into her; that this was her high point…..
I:3:91, “The Egoist Considers”.
“Damn her! She’s spoiled my year!”
I:3:91, “The Egotist Considers”.
Romantic, decadent, and Gothic fiction typically wavers between eroticism and misogyny; like witches, women are terrifying just because they are fascinating. When Amory is set up with Axia, a willing showgirl with the evening already planned out for him, he ends up fleeing in horror just as he had from little Myra. In Axia’s lewd apartment, Amory suddenly thinks he sees the physical presence of the devil himself ,wearing the face of Amory’s dead, sinful friend Humbird. He bolts from the room, but he believes that the devil is still following him and his terror does not diminish. Even after he reaches home he remains fearful, and before falling asleep he needs to read a bit of a sensible Wells novel to calm himself down. Women who do not need to be conquered are purely and simply evil.
They were mostly from the colleges, with a scattering of the male refuse of Broadway, and women of two types, the higher of which was the chorus girl.
I:3:105, “The Devil”.
He looked up and saw, ten yards from him, the man who had been in the cafe, and with his jump of astonishment the glass fell from his uplifted hand. There the man half sat, half leaned against a pile of pillows on the corner divan. His face was cast in the same yellow wax as in the cafe, neither the dull, pasty color of a dead man…. Then, suddenly, Amory perceived the feet, and with a rush of blood to the head he realized he was afraid. The feet were all wrong …
I:3:107-8, “The Devil”
Then something clanged like a low gong struck at a distance, and before his eyes a face flashed over the two feet, a face pale and distorted with a sort of infinite evil that twisted it like flame in the wind; but he knew, for the half instant that the gong tanged and hummed, that it was the face of Dick Humbird.
I:3:110, “In the Alley”.
Back at the hotel he felt better, but as he walked into the barber-shop, intending to get a head massage, the smell of the powders and tonics brought back Axia’s sidelong, suggestive smile, and he left hurriedly. In the doorway of his room a sudden blackness flowed around him like a divided river.
I:3:111, “At the Window”.
By now Amory has learned a thing or two about the ways of the world and has somewhat sharpened his seductive skills, but his encounters have been shallow and unconsummated and have left him doubting himself. The next three relationships are more real, since these women touch him in ways that the others had not, but they also end painfully.
For unspecified reasons Monsignor Darcy asks Amory to visit Clara, a widowed third cousin with two children and limited resources whom Amory had never met. Clara is beautiful, charming, and socially adept, and Amory develops a crush on her, but she dismisses his suit as firmly as she possibly could without being entirely hostile. She tells him that she has never been in love and would rather have been a nun, but that her beauty (and social pressures) had trapped her into an early marriage. Widowhood has liberated her (though she does not say it that way), and she now lives for the sake of her children.
Amory’s identifies Clara with St. Cecilia and the Virgin Mary, but she speaks to him like a Dutch uncle (or like Monsignor Darcy : “My dear boy, there’s your big mistake…..”). After detailing his faults (wavering included) in firm but not unfriendly terms, she goes on to tell him about her own fate and the fate of beautiful women in general, as Amory’s next two lovers will also do. In particular, she mentions the fear inspired in her when no fewer than five of her hopeful lovers have seemed to be confusing her with God.
This Side of Paradise is full of loose ends, and Clara is one of them. Is she as pure as she is shown to be, or is something else going on? Is she just another of Amory’s projections, a saint this time instead of a temptress? Is she the designated spokesperson for Monsignor Darcy, or for the conventional point of view Amory is trying to escape? When, in the end, Clara runs from Amory to go pick up her children, does she run because Amory was starting to tempt her?
Clara’s apparent acceptance of things as they are and her mistrust of the imagination could be strangling. Does Amory, as he claims, really respect someone as “humdrum and commonplace” as she confesses herself to be, or was it a mere infatuation so that he is grateful in the end for being turned down and saved from a marriage to a “silly, flaxen woman” who dispenses platitudes? Clara needs a novel of her own.
But he fell gradually in love and began to speculate wildly on marriage. Though this design flowed through his brain even to his lips, still he knew afterward that the desire had not been deeply rooted. Once he dreamt that it had come true and woke up in a cold panic, for in his dream she had been a silly, flaxen Clara, with the gold gone out of her hair and platitudes falling insipidly from her changeling tongue. But she was the first fine woman he ever knew and one of the few good people who ever interested him. She made her goodness such an asset. Amory had decided that most good people either dragged theirs after them as a liability, or else distorted it to artificial geniality, and of course there were the ever-present prig and Pharisee—(but Amory never included them as being among the saved).
“The reason you have so little real self-confidence, even though you gravely announce to the occasional philistine that you think you’re a genius, is that you’ve attributed all sort of atrocious faults to yourself and are trying to live up to them”.
I:4:133, “St. Cecilia”.
“You’re a slave, a bound helpless slave to one thing in the world, your imagination. …. You never decide at first while the merits of going and staying are fairly clear in your mind. You let your imagination shinny on the side of your desires for a few hours, and then you decide. …. This has nothing to do with will-power; that’s a crazy, useless word, anyway; you lack judgment — the judgment to decide at once when you know that your imagination will play you false…..
I:4:133-4, “St. Cecilia”.
Clara’s was the only advice he ever asked without dictating the answer himself—except, perhaps, in his talks with Monsignor Darcy.
I:4:134, “St. Cecilia”.
–“I think,” he said and his voice trembled, “that if I lost faith in you I’d lose faith in God.” She looked at him with such a startled face that he asked her the matter.
–“Nothing,” she said slowly, “only this: five men have said that to me before, and it frightens me.”
–“Oh, Clara, is that your fate!”
She didn’t answer.
I:4:135, “St. Cecilia”.
She seemed suddenly a daughter of light alone. His entity dropped out of her plane and he longed only to touch her dress with almost the realization that Joseph must have had of Mary’s eternal significance…..
I:4:136, “St. Cecilia”.
–“You’re not in love with me. You never wanted to marry me, did you?”
–“It was the twilight,” he said wonderingly. “I didn’t feel as though I were speaking aloud. But I love you—or adore you—or worship you—”
–“There you go—running through your catalog of emotions in five seconds.”
I:4:136, “St. Cecilia”.
A last qualification—her vivid, instant personality escaped that conscious, theatrical quality that AMORY had found in ISABELLE. MONSIGNOR DARCY would have been quite up a tree whether to call her a personality or a personage. She was perhaps the delicious, inexpressible, once-in-a-century blend.
II:1:158, “The Debutante”.
Amory’s next lover, Rosalind, is a debutante as stagy, artificial, and adversarial as Isabelle, but she has more self-awareness and rather hates the games she is so good at playing, and which she continues to play. Like Amory, she wavers, and also like Amory, she critically watches the game at the same time that she is playing it. Her hobby is kissing men and then making them miserable, but she really is looking for the right man, even though she has not seen any sign of him so far.
In the immediate term she and Amory are a perfect match, and they fall in love and briefly are ecstatically happy. They make plans for a marriage that both Rosalind and her brother Alec suspect will be miserable for Amory, but (encouraged by “people”, in the shape of her mother) Rosalind’s fear of poverty intervenes and she becomes engaged to a man with money and a secure social position.
When Rosalind’s breaks their engagement, it is the culmination of a long series of disasters, and it throws Amory into despair.
ALEC: Rosalind hasn’t changed a bit.
CECELIA: (In a lower tone) She’s awfully spoiled.
ALEC: She’ll meet her match to-night.
CECELIA: Who—Mr. Amory Blaine?
II:1:157, “The Debutante”.
The education of all beautiful women is the knowledge of men. ROSALIND had been disappointed in man after man as individuals, but she had great faith in man as a sex.
II:1:158, “The Debutante”.
HE: I’d better go.
SHE: I suppose so.
(He goes toward the door.)
SHE: (Laughing) Score—Home Team: One hundred—Opponents: Zero.
(He starts back.)
SHE: (Quickly) Rain—no game.
(He goes out.)
II:1:164, “The Debutante”.
AMORY: Suppose — we fell in love.
ROSALIND: I’ve suggested pretending.
AMORY: If we did it would be very big.
AMORY: Because selfish people are in a way terribly capable of great loves.
II:1:170, “Several Hours Later”.
ROSALIND: I love you—now. (They part.) Oh—I am very youthful, thank God—and rather beautiful, thank God—and happy, thank God, thank God—(She pauses and then, in an odd burst of prophecy, adds) Poor Amory! (He kisses her again.)
The critical qualities which had spoiled for each of them a dozen romances were dulled by the great wave of emotion that washed over them.
They were together constantly, for lunch, for dinner, and nearly every evening—always in a sort of breathless hush, as if they feared that any minute the spell would break and drop them out of this paradise of rose and flame. But the spell became a trance, seemed to increase from day to day; they began to talk of marrying in July—in June. All life was transmitted into terms of their love, all experience, all desires, all ambitions, were nullified—their senses of humor crawled into corners to sleep; their former love-affairs seemed faintly laughable and scarcely regretted juvenalia.
ALEC’S attitude throughout has been neutral. He believes in his heart that the marriage would make AMORY mediocre and ROSALIND miserable, but he feels a great sympathy for both of them.
II:1:176, “Five Weeks Later”.
Eleanor was discussed above as a decadent. She is a pure fantasy object, the witch girl of the decadent / Gothic / fantastique stories. Amory and Eleanor have an intense, idyllic love affair, but in the end the illusion that they had worked together to create fails, and they part silent and angry. Eleanor is not replaced in Amory’s life by any other woman, and Amory retreats to lonely misogyny.
Eleanor’s story, like Clara’s, is very weakly integrated into the novel as a whole, and she also deserves a book of her own. Her chapter of the book is wonderful as such, but there many loose ends, and in the end Amory himself doubts his perceptions of her. Like Clara, she is a medieval stereotype, and in fact she may have been dreamed up as a formal counterbalance to Clara’s virgin.
She was a witch, of perhaps nineteen, he judged, alert and dreamy and with the tell-tale white line over her upper lip that was a weakness and a delight. He sank back with a gasp against the wall of hay.
II:3:206, “Young Irony”.
As long as they knew each other Eleanor and Amory could be “on a subject” and stop talking with the definite thought of it in their heads, yet ten minutes later speak aloud and find that their minds had followed the same channels and led them each to a parallel idea, an idea that others would have found absolutely unconnected with the first.
II:3:206, “Young Irony”.
–“So now I know I’m a materialist and I was fraternizing with the hay when you came out and stood by the woods, scared to death.”
–“Why, you little wretch—” cried Amory indignantly. –“Scared of what?”
–“Yourself!” she shouted, and he jumped. She clapped her hands and laughed.
II:3:208-209, “Young Irony”.
They seemed nearer, not only mentally, but physically, when they read, than when she was in his arms, and this was often, for they fell half into love almost from the first. Yet was Amory capable of love now? He could, as always, run through the emotions in a half hour, but even while they revelled in their imaginations, he knew that neither of them could care as he had cared once before—I suppose that was why they turned to Brooke, and Swinburne, and Shelley. Their chance was to make everything fine and finished and rich and imaginative; they must bend tiny golden tentacles from his imagination to hers, that would take the place of the great, deep love that was never so near, yet never so much of a dream.
Eleanor’s character may have been based partly on stories Fitzgerald had heard about a woman from Monsignor Fay’s decadent younger days. Since Monsignor Darcy (= Fay) had been a beau of Amory’s mother Beatrice, and since Eleanor has been identified as a smarter, wilder Beatrice, perhaps the succubus Eleanor “is” Amory’s mother (the woman from Darcy’s younger days), and Amory’s mentor and surrogate father Monsignor Darcy (=Fay) “is” his real father, so that Amory himself (Fitzgerald) is the unnatural child of a witch (Beatrice / Eleanor) and a priest (Darcy), doomed by fate to be an unnatural man.
In real life Monsignor Fay did serve as a father figure for Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald did invent several imaginary genealogies for himself, to which I have added this one.
9. The Women Speak
Fitzgerald was a man of his time (Ivy version) and had inherited Catholic sex guilt and narcissist romanticism from his Minnesota past. His liberation was a weak version of the frat boy / Playboy / dudebro liberation of today and he can hardly be called a feminist. However, in This Side of Paradise Clara, Eleanor, and Rosalind are allowed to vividly express their dissatisfaction with their roles as fetish objects / wives-to-be.
–“Don’t you like boys at all?”
–“No”, she said , considering. ” I’d like to be one, but I don’t like them.”
From The Romantic Egotist (the early version of This Side of Paradise), in Piper, pp. 53-4.
ROSALIND: Cecelia, darling, you don’t know what a trial it is to be—like me. I’ve got to keep my face like steel in the street to keep men from winking at me. If I laugh hard from a front row in the theatre, the comedian plays to me for the rest of the evening. If I drop my voice, my eyes, my handkerchief at a dance, my partner calls me up on the ‘phone every day for a week.
II:1:160, “The Debutante”.
SHE: I’m not really feminine, you know—in my mind.
II:1:161, “The Debutante”. (Rosalind speaking)
I’m the opposite of everything spring ever stood for. It’s unfortunate, if I happen to look like what pleased some soppy old Greek sculptor, but I assure you that if it weren’t for my face I’d be a quiet nun in the convent without”—then she broke into a run and her raised voice floated back to him as he followed—“my precious babies, which I must go back and see.”
I:4:136, “St. Cecilia” (Clara speaking).
“Rotten, rotten old world,” broke out Eleanor suddenly, “and the wretchedest thing of all is me—oh, why am I a girl? Why am I not a stupid—? Look at you; you’re stupider than I am, not much, but some, and you can lope about and get bored and then lope somewhere else, and you can play around with girls without being involved in meshes of sentiment, and you can do anything and be
justified—and here am I with the brains to do everything, yet tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony. If I were born a hundred years from now, well and good, but now what’s in store for me—I have to marry, that goes without saying. Who? I’m too bright for most men, and yet I have to descend to their level and let them patronize my intellect in order to get their attention. Every year that I don’t marry I’ve got less chance for a first-class man. At the best I can have my choice from one or two cities and, of course, I have to marry into a dinner-coat.
II:3:215-216, The End of Summer”.
“Oh, you’re one of those men,” she answered haughtily, “must lug old self into conversation.
II:3:207, “Young Irony”.
–“All right,” Amory interrupted. “Now go back to yourself.”
–“Well, I will. I’m one of those people who go through the world giving other people thrills, but getting few myself except those I read into men on such nights as these. I have the social courage to go on the stage, but not the energy; I haven’t the patience to write books; and I never met a man I’d marry. However, I’m only eighteen.”
II:3:207-208, “Young Irony”.
We cannot be sure how much Fitzgerald really learned from the women in his own life, but these words are there for us to see. The parts of Fitzgerald’s wavering self were often in systematic disagreement, and when the man is confused with the author, his books are at risk of being misread. The real-world Fitzgerald and the author trapped inside him were two different things.
The Women in This Side of Paradise
Beatrice (I:1:11-40, “Amory, son of Beatrice”; I:2,94-98, “Aftermath” and “Financial”).
Amory’s lovely, charming, cosmopolitan, decadent, histrionic, drunken, wastrel mother. Eleanor later in the book is a version of Beatrice, and so is Amory.
2. Myra (I:1:15-22, “A Kiss for Amory”).
Amory’s first, fourteen-year-old kiss. Seduction, rejection, and shaming. After successfully stealing a kiss, Amory is repelled by Myra’s demand for another.
3. Anonymous in Louisville: I:2:61, “Petting”.
Amory is surprised to find out how easy young women are to kiss, but ruins everything by questioning the young lady like a newspaper reporter.
4. Isabelle: (I:2:62-71, “Isabelle” and “Babes in the Wood”; I:3:87-91, The Egotist Considers”).
An ambitious mutual seduction that flops, since there was never anything in it on either side but the desire to seduce.
5. Kaluka: I:2:76, “Carnival”.
Pure frat boy behavior. A homely, non-white, possibly mentally handicapped woman is made the butt of stupid jokes.
6. Axia (and Phoebe): I:3:104-108, “The Devil”.
Amory is terrified by the excessively willing showgirl he has been set up with, and he has a mental breakdown in which he believes that he sees the devil in person.
Phyllis: I:4:118-120, “Narcissus Off Duty”.
Amory’s admired progressive friend Burne Holiday is set up with an overage (25 year old) woman who still hopes to marry a college man, and he publicly humiliates her.
8. Clara: I:4:129-132, “Clara” and I:2:132-137-, “St. Cecilia”.
Msgr. Darcy recommends that Amory visit Amory’s third cousin, a widow with two children. Amory comes to believe that he has fallen in love with her, but she explains that he hasn’t, and that most of his emotions are fake. She herself had never wanted to marry and would never remarry. Clara is a Virgin Mary archetype, and perhaps Amory was supposed to learn something from her.
9. Rosalind II:1:155-181, “The Debutante”.
The love of Amory’s / Fitzgerald’s life. More real than Isabel and modeled partly on Zelda Sayre, her erotic confusion, aggression, and charm are on a par with Amory’s. Under pressure from her “people”, she ditches Amory for a more prosperous suitor.
10. Margaret Diamond: II:4:187, “Still Alcoholic”.
A sloppy-drunk woman makes a pass at Amory in a bar. Amory’s friends rescue him.
Eleanor: II:2, 202-220, “Young Irony” (all of Chapter 2).
Amory and the precocious 18-year-old Eleanor together concoct an amazing fantasy relationship within which they try to live decadent and romantic poetry in the real world. It collapses into a failed suicide attempt by Eleanor, and both return sadly to everyday life.
Jill: II:4:221-227, “The Supercilious Sacrifice”.
Amory’s friend Alec hires a cute prostitute with a flat, noncommital attitude; the police become involved and Amory lets himself be disgraced in order to proetect Alec.
This Side of Paradise and the Critics
[Fitzgerald] lacked that instinct for self-protection which the writer needs, and which the American writer needs most of all.
Lionel Trilling in Kazin, p. 204.
Fitzgerald has been left with a jewel that he doesn’t know what to do with. For he has been given imagination without intellectual control of it….. and he has been given a gift for expression without many ideas to express….
Edmund Wilson, 1924, in Mizener, pp. 80-81.
The best American novel that I have seen of late is also the product of a neophyte, to wit, F. Scott Fitzgerald….. In This Side of Paradise he offers a truly amazing first novel — original in structure, extremely sophisticated in manner, and adorned with a brilliancy that is as rare in American fiction as honesty is in American statecraft.
H. L. Mencken, Smart Set, 1920, in Prigozy, p. 310.
I remember arguing with a well-educated, intelligent Dartmouth footballer who refused to see anything in Gatsby, Being serious-minded and a little self-righteous, transferring his contempt for the frivolous waste of the 20s to that amazing little book.
Budd Schulberg, 1939, in Kazin, p. 111 (speaking of The Great Gatsby, but this is even more relevant to This Side of Paradise.
Once I had come to believe that This Side of Paradise is a wonderful and fascinating book, I had to ask myself why even favorable discussions of this book are required, even now, to begin with the concession that it’s a terribly flawed apprentice work scarcely worthy of close examination: “formless, pretentious, self-indulgent and intellectually weak”, etc. Even when the rest of Fitzgerald’s works were rehabilitated around 1950, This Side of Paradise was not. Over time the book’s bad reviews from the more prestigious critics, carried the day, even though there were many favorable reviews and the book sold very well.
Mr. Fitzgerald has recorded with a great deal of felicity and a disarming frankness the adventures and developments of a curious and fortunate American youth.
The New Republic 1920, in Prigozy, p. 310.
He tells the story in a new way, without regard to rules or conventions…..I should be inclined to hail as a genius any twenty-three-year-old author who can think up something new and say it in a new way so that it will be interesting to a great many people.
Robert Benchley in Prigozy pp. 312.
His first novel gives him, I think, a fair claim to membership in that small squad of contemporary fictionists who are producing literature.
Burton Rascoe, Chicago Daily Tribune, 1920
The glorious spirit of American youth glows throughout tuis fascinating tale.
New York Times Book Review, 1920
And once in awhile it comes — the book that moves you to enthusiasm.
Chicago Daily News, 1920
One group of negative criticisms wouldn’t deserve mention except that they were taken seriously at the time. Scribners certainly should have proofread the novel, for example, but since 1922 or so that point has been irrelevant, and Fitzgerald should never have been blamed in the first place. And perhaps this book really is derivative from books by Booth Tarkington, Compton Mackenzie, Robert Hugh Benson, and H. G. Wells, but it surpassed all of them and no one cares any more: “The mediocre artist borrows, the great artist steals”.
Maybe it just comes down to the changing of the guard. It was at about this time that book reviewing started moving from the newspapers to little magazines, glossy magazines, and finally the university. H. L. Mencken, the critic who dominated the Twenties, loved This Side of Paradise and even preferred it to The Great Gatsby when that book came out, and many of his newspaper colleagues agreed with him. But Fitzgerald’s envious friend Edmund Wilson, the very serious-minded critic who dominated the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, hated the book, and his scornful reviews cast a long shadow, particularly after 1929 when Fitzgerald’s reputation went into a depression along with the rest of the world.
Fitzgerald’s decadent denial of purpose offended traditionalists and progressives alike. Wilson could hardly contain himself: “not really about anything”, “without many ideas to express”, “no dominating intention” “preposterous farrago”, and so on. Not only was Fitzgerald’s book directionlessness, cynical, and morally and politically offensive, but it also violated contemporary ideas of what a novel should be: in fiction just as in life, there should be an intelligible path from a beginning through a middle to the conclusion, and This Side of Paradise didn’t go like that.
…..a phantasmagoria of incident that had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force. In short, one of the chief weaknesses of This Side of Paradise is that it is not really about anything…..
Edmund Wilson, in Mizener, pp. 80-81.
His epic quest is unfulfilled and unfinished in the novel. It scarcely begins. This Side of Paradise doesn’t end. It just stops.
Bruccoli, “Introduction”, p. xi.
Some reviewers took offense at the fact that the ideas expressed in This Side of Paradise are mostly half-baked, but this book is more like a parody of the Literature of Ideas than the real thing. Amory’s ideas during his soliloquy and the ideas of his twenty-something characters in their campus bull sessions are certainly not profound, and few of them are of any real interest any more, but they are primarily meant to characterize their speakers, and they work well to evoke a now-distant historical transition. Amory’s long philosophico-political monologue, for example, quite effectively shows us the particular forms that confusion and loss of direction take, if you are someone like Amory Blaine and it is 1918. (In any case, the early twentieth-century Literature of Ideas has not worn well, so this criticism is again moot).
As an intellectual Amory Blaine is a fake of the first water.
Edmund Wilson in letter to Fitzgerald, in Donaldson, p. xiv.
For a person of his mental agility, he [Fitzgerald] is extraordinarily little occupied with the general affairs of the world; like a woman, he is not much given to abstract or impersonal thought.
Edmund Wilson on Fitzgerald, in Mizener, p. 82.
Criticism of This Side of Paradise often got personal. Many critics simply did not like Amory Blaine and his friends, or Fitzgerald either, as if An American Tragedy (and Dreiser) were being attacked because Clyde Griffiths was not a nice person. The Jazz Age culture wars had something to do with this. By and large, people who loved the Jazz Age loved the book, and those who hated it hated it. Neither of these reactions is terribly perceptive, given the actual content of the book and Fitzgerald’s serious doubts about himself, his characters, and the Jazz Age, but this has often been a typical first reaction to realist or naturalist novels describing immoral or unattractive people without a satisfying conclusory ending, and Edmund Wilson’s reaction was the progressive version of this. (It must be granted that Fitzgerald was partly to blame for the misreading: in the final chapter publishers by the puiblishers, Amory claims to be the voice of his generation, whether he believes it or not, and in promoting the book Fitzgerald enthusiastically beat the younger-generation Jazz Age drum).
This Side of Paradise is of interest — not as an accurate delineation of social conditions among our gilded youth, but as a “psychological document”, a psychological document adumbrating the murky adolescence of its author.
San Francisco Chronicle, 1920, in Prigozy, p. 314.
As a novel, it is rather tiresome, its values are less human than literary, and its characters, with hardly an exception, a set of exasperating poseurs, whose conversation, devoted largely to minute self-analysis, is artificial beyond belief.
Times Literary Supplement, 1921, Prigozy p. 315.
The author of This Side of Paradise ….does not sustainedly perceive his girls and men for what they are, and tends to invest them with precisely the glamor with which they with rather pathetic assurance invest themselves.
Paul Rosenfeld, 1925, in Kazin, p. 73.
Most critics agree that the crucial failure of the book is he failure to see his material objectively…. he omits all machinery that might function as an integral part of his story, to evaluate the characters and the incidents.
James E. Miller, 1957, in Mizener, p. 87.
Edmund Wilson was the most important critic to write about This Side of Paradise, and his part in in Fitzgerald’s story is most peculiar. He and Fitzgerald were friends from the time they met at Princeton until Fitzgerald’s death, and after Fitzgerald’s death it was Wilson put together Fitzgerald’s collection The Crack-up. But during the 1920s Wilson published two scathing and undeserved attacks on Fitzgerald’s novel. Fitzgerald and Wilson were in close contact during the period when the novel was being written and published, and some of Wilson’s public criticisms of Fitzgerald seem oddly like plagiarism:
- In one place Wilson writes “like a woman, [Fitzgerald] is not much given to abstract or impersonal thought. This is exactly what Amory, in the book, thinks about the minor character Rahill: But Amory knew that nothing in the abstract, no theory or generality, ever moved Rahill until he stubbed his toe upon the concrete minutiae of it. (I:1:39, “Philosophy of the Slicker”).
- Edmund Wilson’s claim that This Side of Paradise was derivative of Compton MacKenzie and H. G. Wells may also have been echoes what Fitzgerald says in letters to Wilson.
- The “phantasmagoria of incident” mentioned in one of Wilson’s critiques might have something to do with the “phantasmagoria of breath” at the beginning of Fitzgerald’s Chapter 5.
Wilson apparently never changed his mind, and his opinion still has weight today; like the villainous double in a Gothic novel who hounds his guileless, defenseless friend to his death and even beyond, Wilson was relentless, and in the end he even succeeded in convincing Fitzgerald that his own book was no good.
I have said that This Side of Paradise commits almost every sin that a novel can possibly commit: but it does not commit the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live. The whole preposterous farrago is animated with life.
Edmund Wilson, 1924, in Mizener, pp. 80-81. (But then, Amory / Fitzgerald wasn’t at all sure what he thought about life: “He’s done! Life’s got him! He’s a spiritually married man”: II:5:245, “Amory Coins a Phrase”).
A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.
Fitzgerald, 1936, in Prigozy, p. 336.
I think it is now one of the funniest books since “Dorian Gray” in its utter spuriousness….
Fitzgerald, 1938, in Prigozy, p. 337.
This Side of Paradise was an off-brand novel at the time. The drifting point of view, the pastiche of poetry, playlet, and fiction, and the picaresque plot just seemed wrong. But few today are looking for well-made novels anymore, and the vast majority of the well-made novels of 1920 are unread today. Most of Fitzgerald’s supposed blunders are now acceptable and might even be described as innovative, though there are still some who disagree, and most critics now seem more aware of Fitzgerald’s purposes and more willing to accept it for what it is.
Surprisingly it was regarded as an innovative or experimental narrative because of the mixture of styles and the inclusion of plays and verse.
Bruccoli, in Carson, p. xxiii
“The conscious struggle to find bigness outside, to substitute bigness of theme for bigness of perception ….is the antithesis of my literary aims”
Fitzgerald, 1920, in Hook, p. 2.
Fitzgerald’s novels and stories rarely appear to grapple with the traditional “big” subjects: philosophy, politics, religion, world-views, etc. He himself worried about this, at least until, just before beginning to write The Great Gatsby, he read and digested Conrad’s Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus and rejoiced to realize that a great writer did not have to be a profound philosopher or thinker…..In an essay for the Saturday Evening Post, which ends with a definition of ‘the serious business’ of the writing profession, he wrote: “Joseph Conrad defined it more clearly, more vividly than any man of our time: ‘My task is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see”.
Hook, pp. 1-2.
Yet, rather than seeing the novel as formally flawed, This Side of Paradise can be read as a novel that works by means of a series of “adjacencies” that, for Edward Said, characterizes the modern text per se…. Said claims in his Beginnings that the modern novel “has no central point or central trajectory: it imitates no spatial or temporal object….” …. For Said, this “wandering” through voices and points of view is indicative of the modern author and the modern novel…..”
Scott Donaldson, “Introduction”, p. xxii.
Like Blaine, Fitzgerald believed that he was and outsider and could survive only by cunning, evasion, and manipulation, but never by direct attack. Often this strategy amounted to retreat, as he partially conceded the opponent’s points (with silent reservations) while trying to partially deflect or cushion the blow. Decadence is hardly a fighting creed, and Fitzgerald’s masochism and doubleness of mind made it all too easy for him to accept his enemies’ judgments, and as a result, travelled through the world of letters with an indelible “Kick Me” written on his back.
“The decadent style…. disintegrates into a multitude of overwrought fragments” (Nisard) “The idea that a decadent style is necessarily fragmented is echoed by Paul Bourget” (1881)
Weir, 1995, p. 88.
It purports to be the picaresque ramble of one Stephen Palms….
Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up, p. 252, from a 1918 letter to John Peale Bishop describing The Romantic Egoist (the early version of This Side of Paradise).
It is a well-considered, finished whole this time.
Fitzgerald, August 16, 1919 letter to Maxwell Perkins, in Hook, p. 24.
This Side of Paradise is the story of the early life of the author-to-be Amory Blaine, and in it we can watch Fitzgerald himself becoming an author. In “a romance and a reading list”, we we are given a very detailed picture of Amory’s literary development. which happened to be much like Fitzgerald’s). Glenway Wescott wondered whether Fitzgerald might be “the worst educated man in the world”, but in reality his education was specialized toward writing fiction, the way Sherlock Holmes’s education was specialized toward solving crimes. His reading was almost all literature, and enough of it was popular literature (of not quite the highest grade) for it to be easy for him to find an audience.
Fitzgerald read diligently within that range, and he understiood what he was doing better than his critics did. He expressed great confidence in his book, at least some of the time, but he had no confidence that others would understand what he had done. Often he abased himself before their criticisms, and his self-effacing meekness in the face of his friends’ incomprehension is one of the reasons why his book is still underrated.
This Side of Paradise is best analyzed sui generis. This book was a commercial proposition, patched together in a hurry so that Fitzgerald could become famous and wealthy enough for Zelda Sayre to marry. Quite astonishingly, it turned out to be a wonderful book despite the circumstances of its making; equally astonishingly, he did become famous and, for better or worse, Zelda did marry him.
This Side of Paradise is a pastiche in three different ways:
1. The bulk of the book was written by Fitzgerald , first as The Romantic Egotist, and then as the much revised and expanded present text. However, significant passages from other writers were were folded in: letters to Fitzgerald from his friend Shane Leslie and from from his mentor Sigourney Fay (the model for Monsignor Darcy), writings by his wife-to-be Zelda Sayre (the model for Rosalind Connage in the book), and probably poems by his friend John Peale Bishop (the model for Tom D’Invilliers in the book).
2. This Side of Paradise is predominantly prose fiction, but it includes a number of Fitzgerald’s poems (attributed to Amory or Eleanor), some rhymed verse by Fitzgerald set as prose, one or more of Bishop’s poems (probably), a playlet featuring Rosalind, and two short stories loosely attached to the novel which feature Eleanor Ramilly (in a Gothic tale) and Clara Page ( in a a Sunday School tract). Most or all of these had been written before the novel had even been thought of, and some of them had even been published.
3. Finally, in This Side of Paradise a number of different fictional genres are found tacked together or laid on top of one another (in most cases violently reinterpreted): a boys’ book (but with a decadent, drunken mother , and full of kissing games), a campus novel / bildungsroman / quest novel (in which the hero flunks out of school and fails in everything), a romantic comedy ending in jilting, a naturalistic portrayal of the real life of the spoiled rich, a contemporary novel of ideas (but not necessarily intelligent ideas), a Catholic tract about temptresses and saints, and a Gothic tale. But it is not a well-made novel bringing the reader to that satisfying conclusion.
When young Fitzgerald put together his first novel he seemed like a novice author faking his way to a book, but he was primed to write it, and when the dust had settled he had pulled it off. This Side of Paradise has many descendants (whether recognized or not): novels of youth rebellion, novels of failure, self-referential novels about narcissists watching themselves and watching other narcissists watch themselves. This book’s vaguely drifting point of view is often seen today, and sometimes its pastiche of poetry, drama and fiction, but even by now few authors insert into their works page-long passages written by the personal friends who are the real-life models for their characters.
Rather than a defective apprentice work, This Side of Paradise should be regarded as a neo-decadent, self-referential, picaresque, autobiographical pastiche novel set in the familiar worlds of Midwestern boys’ books, American campus novels, optimist early Twentieth Century progressive fiction, and post-WWI disillusion. At its core are reflections on the true self vs. public roles and narcissism vs. love, and in it the dissatisfied objects of male fetishism are given a voice. The incomprehension of the critics of the time, together with their envy of Fitzgerald’s fame and financial success, have kept this book from being appreciated at its true value even to this day.
Thomas Beer, The Mauve Decade, Octagon, 1980 (reprint of 1926).
Matthew Bruccoli, “Introduction” to F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, Signet, 1996.
Tony Buttitta, The Lost Summer, Sceptre 1974 / 1987.
Kirk Curnutt, “Youth Culture and the Spectacle of Waste” in in Prigozy, ed., The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cambridge, 2002, pp. pp. 28-47.
Scott Donaldson, “Introduction” to This Side of Paradise, ed. Prigozy, Washington Square, 1995.
Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (ed. Edmund Wilson), New Directions, 1945.
Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, Scribners, 1920 / 1948 (the version I used, the “book club” version).
Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (e-text) https://archive.org/stream/ThisSideOfParadise-ScottFitzgerald/ThisSideOfParadise-ScottFitzgerald_djvu.txt
(I found this text very useful, though its pagination does not match my printed version and some searches annoyingly fail, due to hyphenated words or non-standard punctuation marks).
Scott Fitzgerald, (ed. Prigozy, “Introduction” by Donaldson), This Side of Paradise, Washington Square Press, 1995 (includes many reviews).
Sarah Beebe Fryer, Fitzgerald’s New Women, UMI, 1988.
Dorothy Ballweg Good, “‘A Romance and a Reading List’: The Literary References in This Side of Paradise“, Fitzgerald / Hemingway Annual, 1976, pp. 36-64.
Remy de Gourmont (tr. Jack Lewis), The Book of Masks, Luce, 1921 (2015 fascimile edition).
Laura Guthrie Hearn, A Summer With F. Scott Fitzgeald, Esquire, December 1964.
Jack Hendricksen. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise as a Bildungsroman, Lang, 1993.
John Kuehl, “Scott Fitgerald’s Critical Opinions” and “Scott Fitzgerald’s Reading” in Profile of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Bruccoli, Charles E. Merrill, 1971.
Arthur Mizener, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Spectrum, 1963.
Alred Kazin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, World Publishing, 1951.
James Joyce Online Notes: From Meredith to Mulligan via Moore.
Henry Dan Piper, F. Scott Fitzgerald: a Critical Portrait, The Bodley Head, 1965.
Edgar Saltus, Decadence: Being the Gospel of Inaction, San Bernardino, 2016 (scanned reprint of John Wilson and Son, 1893).
David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism, Amherst, 1995.
David Weir, Decadent Culture in the United States, SUNY, 2007.
James L. W. West III, The Making of This Side of Paradise, Pennsylvania, 1983.
James L. W. West III, “The Question of Vocation in F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Prigozy, ed., The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 48-56.
Edmund Wilson, I Thought of Daisy, Penguin, 1929 / 1963.