So here it is, the last of my thoughts on some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s major works, and right in time for summer. It was a true pleasure to re-read these again and write a bit about them, and thank you so much for the positive feedback. I haven’t had a chance to do something like this in a long time.
This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, is the work that catapulted him to fame at the very tender age of 23. While it’s obvious from the first page that it was written by a young author, …Paradise also clearly showcases his developing brilliance.
Here, Fitzgerald flexes his abilities in numerous ways. Stylistically and structurally, he throws everything but the kitchen sink into the book, telling it through third person narration, poetry, letters, and even sections structured like plays. It isn’t tight or subtle like his best writing, but damn, it’s an extraordinary sign of things to come. And taken within the context of the time, it not only provides a nuanced reflection of the social and cultural era of the young, post-war generation…it helped to shape it. For that reason, its importance to American literature can’t be overstated.
The book was published 99 years ago (I still can’t believe it…or that it’s almost the Twenties again), but despite that, Amory Blane’s college odyssey at Princeton still strikes very close to home…His self-importance, constantly shifting enthusiasms, and self-conscious displays of “transformation” all remind me of the vast majority of undergrads I knew in college…including myself. When you’re young, in an environment that encourages growth, and trying to discover yourself and your place in the world, everything has meaning…Everything has significance…It’s all important. Amory believes all his experiences, all his philosophies, all his realizations, and all his relationships are milestones worthy of public reflection. And, of course, he therefore shares those reflections with everyone around him, whether they want to hear them or not.
That said, Amory isn’t a true narcissist, even though some scholars disagree…He’s just young, naïve, full of himself, and for those reasons is convinced that he is destined for future glory. But after he graduates from Princeton, serves overseas in World War One, and returns home, he learns (often painfully, through breakups and death) that his previous “wisdom” isn’t as sound as he originally thought. A true narcissist, on the other hand, never learns…narcissists are often clever, but never wise.
In particular, Amory learns that self-understanding doesn’t come when willed, but when life provides the opportunity for it to be grasped. He has five relationships throughout the book, all youthful, all passionate, all doomed…but it is only after the war, when his relationship with Eleanor collapses, that he stops using girls and women as props to reflect his own ego. His relationship with her allows him to finally, truly see himself, and when he loses her, he recognizes an important truth: not only does the world not revolve around him, but he is also not, by default, the hero in his own story. That must be earned, and he has not yet earned it.
Only when he acknowledges this, reflected in the famous last line, “I know myself…but that is all,” does he truly exhibit real, hard-won wisdom. And that kind of education, of course, comes not only from living, but from recognizing, through living, that there is much that we don’t know, and more work to be done.
That’s a hell of a motif for a 23 year-old to tackle. But Fitzgerald did head-on, and the book was an overnight sensation. Its success convinced Zelda to marry him. It made him one of the great, shining lights of the Jazz Age. And unfortunately, it also set an unrealistic precedent of success that he fully expected to maintain…and which eluded him for the rest of his life. This often happens when artists explode into mainstream popularity at a young age. Maintaining that level of success simply isn’t plausible, and when it hits very early on, the shifting of public interest that inevitably follows can be extremely hard to bear.
Fitzgerald’s popularity peaked around 1922. When The Great Gatsby was published a mere three years after that, it only went through two printings (the second had not even sold out at the time of his death 15 years later), the general public – perhaps worse than condemning it – just shrugged its shoulders, and he spent the rest of his life trying in vain to somehow repeat that first, early wave of success.
The irony, of course, is that while his reputation stumbled and his finances began a precipitous decline, Fitzgerald’s skills only increased, and his work only got better. Yet much like so many of his famous characters, he would spend the rest of his days trying to recapture the great flush of youth that “year by year recedes before us” – and that haunts us and motivates us for the duration of our lives.
“I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”
“Experience is the name so many people give to their mistakes.”
“The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts back at the last edge of twilight. The early moon had drenched the arches with pale blue, and, weaving over the night, in and out of the gossamer rifts of moon, swept a song, a song with more than a hint of sadness, infinitely transient, infinitely regretful.”
“…it was only the past that seemed strange and unbelievable.”
“Her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others.”
“Selfish people are in a way terribly capable of great loves.”
“Those days are over. I have to be won all over again every time you see me.”
“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”
“When Eleanor’s arm touched his he felt his hands grow cold with deadly fear lest he should lose the shadow brush with which his imagination was painting wonders of her. He watched her from the corners of his eyes as ever he did when he walked with her – she was a feast and a folly and he wished it had been his destiny to sit forever on a haystack and see life through her green eyes.”
“Beauty and love pass, I know…Oh, there’s sadness, too. I suppose all great happiness is a little sad. Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses…”
“For years afterwards when Amory thought of Eleanor he seemed still to hear the wind sobbing around him and sending little chills into the places beside his heart. The night when they rode up the slope and watched the cold moon float through the clouds, he lost a further part of him that nothing could restore; and when he lost it he lost also the power of regretting it. Eleanor was, say, the last time that evil crept close to Amory under the mark of beauty…”
“Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into the dirty grey 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 faiths in man shaken.”