This Side of Paradise depends indirectly on Fitzgerald’s personal experience, but “we must not forget,” as one critic has put it, “that the artist may ‘experience’ life differently in terms of his art.” If Amory Blaine, the hero of This Side of Paradise, like Fitzgerald, settled in New York after the war, worked for an advertising firm, and had a love affair which ended in disaster and an epic three-week drunk, we would nonetheless be wrong to conclude that what he felt about his experience was what Fitzgerald felt about his. Fitzgerald was in love with the daughter of an Alabama judge, and he felt nagging doubts—no less strong because he defied them—about Zelda’s ability as well as his own to stand up socially in the world he longed to conquer. The story of Anthony Patch and Dorothy Raycroft in The Beautiful and Damned and the story of Ailie Calhoun (“The Last of the Belles”) and Lieutenant Earl Schoen, with their wonderful feeling for class and custom, derive in their devious ways from Fitzgerald’s feelings about himself and Zelda too. These feelings are a far cry from Amory’s feelings for Rosalind, the smart and socially triumphant sister of Amory’s Princeton classmate, the assured citizen of Fitzgerald’s Lost City, the gallantly philosophical flapper. Not that Amory and Rosalind have not their roots in Fitzgerald’s feelings about himself and Zelda too, as do many other quite different characters in his fiction.The very variety of these characters shows how dangerous it would be to confuse any of them with him and Zelda. What it is important to see in This Side of Paradise is the way Fitzgerald got the possibilities of his life, his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” into it without betraying its actuality.
The idea of a book about a young man’s college experience and his coming of age was suggested to him by books like Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale as he eagerly confessed in his unselfish way to Johnson the first time they met. But Fitzgerald’s conception of his subject was very different from Johnson’s. Stover’s great problems were those of “the team” and the need to create class unity and the difficulties of making a senior society without sacrificing self-respect. Through all these crises he was earnestly supported by the heroine, Jean Story. When as a sophomore he “forgot” himself and told Jean he loved her and she met “the shock of his blunder” with “dignity and gentleness,” Stover “put out his hand and gently took the end of the scarf which she wore about her shoulders, and raised it to his lips.” This is not quite the way Amory and Isabelle make love. Nor is Johnson’s feeling that, when Skull and Bones taps Stover in spite of his independence, the world has been proved sound like the feeling with which Fitzgerald leaves Amory on the highway near Princeton, thinking, “here was a new generation… grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”
Fitzgerald’s feelings about his subject were very much influenced by Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street. Unfriendly reviewers like Frances Newman thought that “[if] ’sinister Street’ was until very lately the apple of one’s eye and if even the discovery of a new apple [this was Jurgen] has not caused one to love it less, the perusal of ‘This Side of Paradise’ becomes nothing less than agony”; and after reading the manuscript of This Side of Paradise in November, 1919, Wilson wrote Fitzgerald half jokingly that it was “like an exquisite burlesque of Compton Mackenzie with a pastiche of Wells thrown in at the end.” These influences, too, Fitzgerald was anxious to admit. “I sent the novel to Mencken,” he wrote Frances Newman, “with the confession that it derives itself from Mackenzie, Wells and Tarkington,” and six years later he was still being careful to list, among the books which had influenced him greatly, “At 20, ’sinister Street’—Compton Mckenzie. At 22, ‘Tono Bungay’—H. G. Wells.”
For most readers these influences were hardly visible, and This Side of Paradise struck them like a bombshell. “My how that boy Fitzgerald can write!” said Harry Hansen, then the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News, “I have just had a wonderful evening with ‘This Side of Paradise.’ It is probably one of the few really American novels extant.” Whether readers thought, as some did, that “the boy was a cad” and the girl an insult to her sex, or, as others did, that “the fine open eyed outlook that the boy has on his generation” and “the keen sense for details of contemporary psychology” gave readers “the very essence of youth” made little difference; they were fascinated. It is possible to argue, as Burton Rascoe recently has, that there was nothing very novel about the life described in This Side of Paradise, that casual drinking and petting had been going on for several years. They had; Frederick Lewis Allen thinks “‘the petting party’ had been current as early as 1916”; and Fitzgerald himself later said it dated from 1915. But the historical fact is not the point. Fitzgerald was the first to describe this life in detail and to represent these activities as new, daring, and admirable. They cease to be in his book merely casual, occasional gestures and become the acts of a generation which was making a sincere effort to live more fully and happily than their parents and to be honest and unhypocritical about what they were doing.
To this generation’s extravagance and courage and to the romance of the idea that one could do anything if one onlytried, Fitzgerald responded with enthusiasm; these were his convictions, too. At the same time he was surprised by a great many things that the assertion of independence led others to do. What stands out most strongly in his own memory of his attitude in the early twenties is his sense of separation from them. This curious yet characteristic combination of feelings makes This Side of Paradise much more interesting than other books on the same subject like Dorothy Speare’s Dancers in the Dark or Percy Marks’ The Plastic Age, or even Benét’s The Beginning of Wisdom. In Fitzgerald’s book there is the constant play of an ingrained moral sense which, for all the charm and poignancy he finds in the life he portrays, places and evaluates it. He writes like some kind of impassioned and naïve anthropologist, recording with minuteness and affection and at the same time with an alien’s remoteness and astonishment.
This was always his attitude toward his material. The myths for his fiction were made out of the concrete experiences and the social ideals of his world, into which he poured his ambition for goodness and his idealizing imagination. At every stage of his career he made a hero out of the most representative and brilliant man he knew, out of Reuben Warner, the leader of his little set in St. Paul when he was a child; out of Walker Ellis during the years in college when his dream was to make Cottage Club and the Triangle; out of Henry Strater in the last two years of college; out of Gerald Murphy on the Riviera; out of Irving Thalberg in Hollywood. “At certain moments,” he wrote in one of his notes for The Last Tycoon, “one man appropriates to himself the total significance of a time and place.” With this man, in each place he knew, Fitzgerald sought to identify himself; this was the way his imagination came to grips with the world. “When I like men,” he wrote in his Notebooks, “I want to be like them—I want to lose the outer qualities that give me my individuality and be like them. I don’t want the man [;] I want to absorb intomyself all the qualities that make him attractive and leave him out. I cling to my own inards.”
Just as he found his heroes in the everyday world, so he found his moral and social ideals; and in exactly the same way he adapted them to the hard inner core of his own ego, which was never affected by his superficial adaptability: he clung to his own innards. Thus he organized a world which had the integrity of his own finely coordinated feelings and was, at the same time, vividly actual.
But if he knew this society, he was also subject to it; his imaginative commitment was the source of his power to realize it. As a subject for fiction it was—except for a brief period in the twenties—unfashionable. By the time The Great Gatsby was published critics were complaining that Fitzgerald was not writing about the American peasant (“a stubborn seeking for the static in a world that for almost a hundred years has simply not been static,” he called this fad). This complaint grew louder during the thirties. But Fitzgerald could not have pretended to a world he had never lived in even if he had wanted to. He knew the American middle-class life of his time as few writers have ever known their material; “the people were right, the talk was right, the clothes, the cars were real,” as John O’Hara put it. About such things Fitzgerald was never wrong. And in his imagination they took on shape and color and meaning almost automatically. He could make something like an American folk tale out of them:
There’d be an orchestra
Playing for us
To dance the tango,
And people would clap
When we arose,
At her sweet face
And my new clothes.
With this kind of material Fitzgerald was likely to fail as a writer, when he did so, rather with the Victorians than with the followers of Flaubert and James. His instinct was to write what James called in “The New Novel” the novel of “saturation” (James’ illustrations included Wells and Mackenzie) rather than the novel with a clear “centre of interest” and “a sense of the whole.” The very purity of his imagination and the tenacity with which it fixed itself on the life about him only made more obvious his failure to organize all his imagined experience. Not till he wrote his third book did he produce a novel in which the form is adequate to the realized life.
This was the way he knew the life he described in This Side of Paradise; he understood it—within the limits of the standards it set for him—completely. He knew the absurdity of confusing its trivial manners and its serious morals, of supposing that a particular way of dancing was “an offense against womanly purity” and rolled stockings identical with sexual promiscuity. He knew from experience that within the emerging system of manners the old distinctions still held, that among his contemporaries there were still the wise and the foolish, the brave and the cowardly, the good and the bad.
This sympathetic respect for his subject and his conviction that, like all human experience, it mattered immensely give the book its permanent interest. However immature his feelings, they are fully represented and convincing, and such full realization has some value, however inadequately the experience so realized is judged. The book’s account of Amory’s first days at Princeton and of the gay trip to Deal Beach, for example, are overwhelmingly true to undergraduate life. The Princeton scenes taken altogether, in spite of occasional over-dramatization and sentimentalization, trace very penetratingly the invisible pressures and stresses of a society (The Allenby description (p. 46) and the Light-Horse Harry Lee reference (p. 167) illustrate how he could overdo the sentiments.). If Fitzgerald failed to understand just how limited a society this one was, he still realized it vividly.
Moreover, he had been struggling since the failure of The Romantic Egotist to discover how to communicate more completely what he saw and felt, to find the kind of events which would give his sense of experience full play, to feel his way to the proper rhythm of scene and summary, to discover, above all, the right detail and the right tone. He had a fine ear, and the speech of the characters in This Side of Paradise is completely convincing. The immaturity of the conversations on supposedly intellectual subjects between Burne Holiday and Amory or the touchingly egocentric lovemaking of Amory and Rosalind is as evident as it is because Fitzgerald’s dialogue is very good. The love letter Amory writes Isabelle is so convincing that you suspect Fitzgerald of using one of his own letters to Ginevra King for just this purpose as he used Father Fay’s letters for another:
Oh, Isabelle, dear—it’s a wonderful night. Somebody is playing “Love Moon” on a mandolin far across the campus, and the music seems to bring you into the window. Now he’s playing “Good-by, Boys, I’m Through,” and how well it suits me. For I am through with everything. I have decided never to have a cocktail again, and I know I’ll never again fall in love…. Oh, dearest Isabelle (somehow I can’t call you just Isabelle, and I’m afraid I’ll come out with the “dearest” before your family this June)….
['The meeting of Amory and Isabelle is certainly drawn from our own meeting ... and the after references to the volumes of Part I & Part II letters that sped back & forth between us.' - Ginevra King Pirie to Arthur Mizener, December 4, 1947. Mrs. Pirie's adult judgment of their relation is valuable: 'I truly feel that my part in Scott's college life was a detriment to him ... but I was too thoughtless in those days & too much in love with love to think of consequences. These things he has emphasized - and over-emphasized in the Josephine stories but it is only fair to say I asked for some of them.']
And so on and on.
These virtues in the book are the products of great honesty, of a determination to record what he saw and felt at any cost. The cost, at this stage in his development, was considerable. The distance between Amory and his creator, so far as values are concerned, is always very narrow, and sometimes nonexistent. It is not only Amory who is full of unrecognized intellectual affectations and emotional immaturities; it is, much of the time, the author; in these respects the book itself is hardly wiser than its hero. The case against This Side of Paradise was never more firmly made than by Fitzgerald’s friend Edmund Wilson, writing at the very height of the book’s fame.
[Amory Blaine]—he wrote—was… an uncertain quantity in a phantasmagoria of incident which had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force…. [The book] is very immaturely imagined: it is always just verging on the ludicrous. And, finally, it is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published. … It is not only full of bogus ideas and faked literary references but it is full of English words misused with the most reckless abandon.
These essays were anonymous, but Fitzgerald knew that Wilson had written the one about him. Wilson spoke even more bluntly in the letter he wrote Fitzgerald when he first read the book: 'I have just read your novel with more delight than I can well tell you. It ought to be a classic in a class with The Young Visiters… Your hero is an unreal imitation of Michael Fane of Sinister Street who was himself unreal… as an intellectual Amory is a fake of the first water and I read his views on art, politics, religion and society with more riotous mirth than I should care to have you know… in the latter part of the book, you make Amory the hero of a series of dramatic encounters with all the naive and romantic gusto of a small boy imagining himself a brave hunter of Indians… Cultivate a universal irony and do read something other than contemporary British novelists…’—Edmund Wilson to F. Scott Fitzgerald , November 21, 1919. That Fitzgerald took such hard hitting from Wilson without complaint shows his fundamental humility.
Because of the book’s success and because people who disliked its account of the Younger Generation wanted to belittle it, its mechanical defects were made much of. FPA ran lists of Fitzgerald’s errors in his column, heading the first one with the observation that “‘This Side of Paradise’ is sloppy and cocky; impudent instead of confident; and verbose.” There were a great many errors in the book, for Fitzgerald was incapable of submitting to the ordinary routines of education. “Aside from his literary talent,” as Glenway Wescott put it “—literary genius, self-taught—I think Fitzgerald must have been the worst educated man in the world.” His mind moved with great subtlety among the concrete experiences he had known well and felt deeply, but he had almost no capacity for abstract ideas or arguments and could enter into other people’s attitudes only when he had known them in his own experience. He was not proud of being so constituted and tried to think of himself as an intellectual. It was only late in his life that, writing ironically about his own career, he had the narrator in “Financing Finnegan” say, “It was only when I met some poor devil of a screen writer who had been trying to make a logical story out of one of his books that I realized [Finnegan] had his enemies. ‘It’s all beautiful when you read it,’ this man said disgustedly, ‘but when you write it down plain it’s like a week in the nuthouse.’ “ By then Fitzgerald was himself a “poor devil of a screen writer” in Hollywood. But when he wrote This Side of Paradise he was anxious to conceal this deficiency and filled the book with what Wilson called “bogus ideas and faked literary references.”
He was also a startlingly bad speller. To the end of his life he wrote ect. for etc. and spelled his friend’s name Hemmingway or Hemingway indifferently. He made all the standard mistakes, such as “dissapoint,” and seemed not to know when he was spelling correctly. “Excuse the pencil,” he wrote Perkins August 25, 1921, “but I’m feeling rather discouraged tonight and I haven’t the energy to use ink—ink the ineffable destroyer of thought, that fades an emotion into that slatternly thing, a written down mental excretion. What ill-spelled rot!” His grammar was equally erratic.
It was not, of course, simply that he was impervious to the mechanics of the English language, though he was that; it was also that he wrote under the guidance of his delicate sense of the pitch and tone of English sentences. This sense is the secret of his marvelously evocative prose, and compared to it a deficiency in the textbook mechanics of the language is insignificant. His power comes out even in his fooling:
Please don’t say you can’t come the 25th but would like to come the 29th. We never receive people the 29th. It is the anniversary of the 2nd Council of Nicea when our Blessed Lord, our Blessed Lord, our Blessed Lord, our Blessed Lord—
It always gets stuck in that place….
Pray gravity to move your bowels. Its little we get done for us in this world. Answer.
In Fitzgerald’s best work this power is in every sentence. Toward its realization all the work of revision in his manuscripts was directed. It is an interesting process to watch.
He had counted on Scribner’s to correct the errors in his manuscript and was badly upset when he realized they had not. By July he had gathered from various sources “approximately 100 mispellings and misprints” and was saying to Perkins, “It was rather humiliating this morning to get a letter wondering ‘whether they left the mistakes in just as they did in the Young Visitors to keep the spirit of the original.’“ (Scribner's had ordered three printings of the book by April first, so that no corrections were possible until the fourth printing, as Perkins carefully explained to Fitzgerald (July 8, 1920). For the many errors in THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, NEW YORK, 1920, Perkins was also somewhat to blame; he 'would never, at any stage of its making, let it go out of his hands, and Perkins, but for the stern supervision of his secretary, Miss Wyckoff, would probably be something of an orthographic phenomenon himself.' (Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books, p. 112.) Critics of the book’s substance also endorsed Wilson’s judgment. The Times Literary Supplement said: “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.” Heywood Broun made the same point when he wrote in the New York Tribune: “The self-consciousness of Fitzgerald is a barrier which we are never able to pierce. He sees himself constantly not as a human being, but as a man in a novel or in a play. Every move is a picture and there is a camera man behind each tree.”
The very honesty with which Fitzgerald presents his experience and his feelings about it only makes evident the immaturity to which these comments point. Some allowance must, to be sure, be made for the conventions of the period, especially in matters of sex, in judging Fitzgerald. Benét’s The Beginning of Wisdom, a far more mature book than This Side of Paradise, written at almost exactly the same time on the same subject (it even mentions This Side of Paradise in the last few pages), makes its females epicene (“as beautiful and sexless a thing as the flight of a gull over waves”) and its love affairs boyish (“a passion that was curiously comradely”). “… the quest of slenderness,” as Frederick Lewis Allen has said, “the flattening of the breasts, the vogue of short skirts (even when short skirts still suggested the appearance of alittle girl), the juvenile effect of the long waist,—all were signs that, consciously or unconsciously, the women of this decade worshiped not merely youth, but unripened youth….”
Still, making every allowance, the immaturity of Amory’s love affairs is remarkable—and ironic, considering how daring the book was supposed to be. Fitzgerald’s lovers are concerned with something called “kissing,” an act which is dissociated from any other physical action and in itself involves almost no physical sensation; the concomitants of kissing are for these lovers metaphysical, a generalized sense of wickedness and romance. Apart from kissing they spend their time making long speeches about themselves, full of sentiments from Swinburne and Rupert Brooke and of sweeping generalizations about “Life”; as lovers they show the hypnotized egocentricity and intellectual immaturity of college freshmen. Something of this attitude stayed with Fitzgerald as late as Tender Is the Night: Rosemary’s “body hovered on the edge of childhood.”
But however immature they are these lovers are not dull characters; on the contrary, they are hauntingly and embarrassingly real. They make us aware of how we would remember ourselves, had we Fitzgerald’s gift for remembering the precise feelings which belonged to our experience as we lived it. He remembered these feelings as precisely as he remembered the clothes, the cars, the furniture, the songs, the slang. This is the value of This Side of Paradise. But it is largely a historical rather than a literary value. Not that This Side of Paradise is only social history; it is the history of a good deal more than that. But it is still a kind of history, a remarkably accurate account of what happened, in feeling as well as fact, rather than an evaluating formal organization of things that might have happened. What justifies the Times and the critics who agreed with it is not the characters themselves but Fitzgerald’s acceptance as author of their point of view, the factthat he not only takes them perfectly seriously but, when speaking in his own person, thinks exactly as they do.
The general ideas in terms of which Fitzgerald reasoned about his experience were suggested to him by his reading, so that his book appeared, superficially, “an exquisite burlesque” with overt values that were “less human than literary.” Yet the experience itself was all Fitzgerald’s own, and the failure of critics like Frances Newman—who said quite rightly of her review that it was “assault with intent to murder”—to distinguish where what is second-hand leaves off and what is first-hand begins is the characteristic failure of people who are literary in the bad sense. For all the book’s inadequacies and affectations, it is not essentially a bad book. “Looking it over,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins twenty years later, “I think it is now one of the funniest books since ‘Dorian Gray’ in its utter spuriousness—and then, here and there, I find a page that is real and living.” Such pages come when he is drawing directly on his minutely detailed memory, of every feeling during that awful conference with the headmaster when he was so very unpopular at Newman, of every crisis in the fierce drama of his life at Princeton, of every word he and Ginevra King had ever said to one another. If he took it all, much of the time, with childish solemnity, that was because it had mattered so much to him; if he “philosophized” over it absurdly, that was because he was trying to find in it a meaning equivalent to his feeling of its importance. And some of the time he did neither. On almost the first page of the book the fundamental quality of his imagination appears in the description of Beatrice O’Hara, a description which is alive with the fascination and horror of wealth which Fitzgerald first fully realized for our period and which is a permanent part of our American feelings:
All in all Beatrice O’Hara absorbed the kind of education that will be quite impossible ever again; a tutelage measuredby 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, in the last of those days when the great gardener clipped the inferior roses to produce one perfect bud.
Here there is a genuine, experienced attitude; the sense of the romance and shoddiness, the charm and waste, that is Beatrice O’Hara is present even in the half-nostalgic, half-ironic cadence of a small phrase like “quite impossible ever again.” Beatrice O’Hara was Fitzgerald’s sharp memory of an actual person, “the mother of a friend of mine, whose name I cannot mention.”
The genuine subject of This Side of Paradise, then, is the sort of transmuted biography which was always Fitzgerald’s subject. Throughout the book, amidst all the cocksure badness of judgment, the immaturity of sentiment, the affectations of knowledge and style, this subject keeps reasserting itself, the incorruptible heart of Fitzgerald’s imagination which he was so busy trying to beautify with borrowed feathers. Sixteen years later, still remembering what Edmund Wilson, who “had been my literary conscience” all his life, had said about the book’s bogus ideas and faked references, Fitzgerald remarked: “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.”
Though Perkins wrote him temptingly that “the pyramid we have made of [This Side of Paradise] in our window [on Fifth Avenue] is striking,” Fitzgerald wanted to be in Princeton the day his book was published. Scribner’s advertising department ran a small ad in the Daily Princetonian: “The First Novel of F. SCOTT FITZGERALD ’17 … A Story About a Princeton Man,” it asserted boldly. As an advertising man with a long experience in selling the services of the Muscatine, Iowa, Steam Laundry, Fitzgerald was disgusted bythis conservative policy. But there was something like a stampede in the Princeton University Store the day of publication.
Plans for his wedding were now pretty well completed. At Mrs. Sayre’s suggestion they were to be married in New York. “She wants me to come to New York,” Zelda wrote, “because she says you’d like to do it in St. Patrick’s. … I told Mamma I might just come and surprise you, but she said you mightn’t like to be surprised about ‘your own wedding’—I rather think it’s my wedding.” Fitzgerald accepted Mrs. Sayre’s generous suggestion happily and wired Zelda: I HAVE TAKEN ROOMS [for Zelda and her sister] AT THE BILTMORE AND WILL EXPECT YOU FRIDAY OR SATURDAY WIRE ME EXACTLY WHEN. Then he added his usual conclusion: BOOK SELLING ALL MY LOVE. Two days later they were still arguing about the date, but by announcing that he would be awfully nervous until it is over and that the first edition of the book is sold out … love, Fitzgerald prevailed on Zelda to arrive in New York in time to be married on Saturday, April 3.
When Zelda arrived in New York she seemed to Fitzgerald’s friends, as she was, charmingly and romantically Southern, but Fitzgerald, sensitive as always to such things, was upset by her clothes and immediately called in his old St. Paul friend Marie Hersey, who was in school in New York. “My God, Marie,” he said to her in an anguish of social distress, “You’ve got to help me! Zelda wants to buy nothing but frills and furbelows and you can’t go around New York in that kind of thing; you go shopping with her.” So Marie went shopping with Zelda and tactfully guided her to a Patou suit. “There was a rippling sun along Fifth Avenue the day it was bought,” Zelda remembered fifteen years later, “and it seemed very odd to be charging things to Scott Fitzgerald. The thing was to look like Justine Johnson at the time and it still seems a fine way to have looked. The shopper was two days out of Alabama. From the shop we went to tea in the Plaza Grill.”
On April 3 they were married in the rectory of St. Patrick’s cathedral; Ludlow Fowler, one of Fitzgerald’s college friends, and Zelda’s sisters Rosalind, Marjorie, and Clotilde were the only others present. After the ceremony the priest said to them: “You be a good episcopalian, Zelda, and, Scott, you be a good catholic, and you’ll get along fine.” It was, Fitzgerald always remembered wryly, the last advice he ever got from a priest. During their honeymoon they went to Enter Madame “and the actors were cross because our tickets were in the front row and we laughed appreciatively at the wrong places and uproariously at the jokes we made up as the show went along.” They went to the midnight roof and “thought the man was real who straggled into the show dressed like a student and very convincingly got himself thrown out.”
They also went to a great many parties, and then, for the week-end of April 25, they went down to Cottage to chaperone houseparties. Fitzgerald started the week-end off with one of his practical jokes, by solemnly introducing Zelda to everyone as his mistress. Since they appeared at the club dances in a condition such that, as one observer remarked, a draft would have blown them down, the joke convinced more people than it should have; then there was “a rather gay party staged conspicuously in Harvey Firestone’s car of robin’s-egg blue” at which Fitzgerald acquired a very black eye; there was also a dinner at Cottage. It was all quite innocent and harmless, but it offended what Dean Gauss later called “blue-nosed respectability.”
On May 1, the Nassau Lit scheduled a banquet of old editors. It was a beautiful spring day, and Stanley Dell, Bishop, Wilson, and Fitzgerald drove down from New York for the occasion. All of them except Dell, who was driving, got a little drunk on the way down. They had set out with the idea of celebrating the spring, and had purchased in New York a supply of gilt laurel wreaths, lyres, and pipes of Pan. Whenthey stopped for a moment outside Princeton on the old Lincoln Highway Fitzgerald, having entered into the occasion with characteristic enthusiasm, made an ecstatic speech in praise of the spring, Princeton, and his friends. In this state of mind they arrived in Princeton, where they sought out Dean Gauss. They found him on his front lawn, and there crowned him with a laurel wreath, to the accompaniment of extempore verses on the occasion from Fitzgerald. They then separated to go to their various clubs until the banquet that night; the last anyone saw of Fitzgerald was when he went dancing up the walk of Cottage, a laurel wreath askew on his head and the pipes of Pan at his lips. It was, for all its innocence, precisely the image of him that was already in the mind’s eye of respectable members of his club. He was quickly approached by the president and told that he was suspended from membership. He went straight to the station and back to New York, as hurt as he had been when, a child of six in Buffalo, he had approached a crowd of children and been told to go away, they did not want him around (I have reconstructed this episode from the accounts of friends who were with Fitzgerald, largely from Edmund Wilson's account. The version of it given in 'Early Success' (The Crack-up, p. 89) omits a good deal and is, in certain respects, demonstrably inaccurate. The date is fixed by The Daily Princetonian's report (issue of May 3, 1920) of the Lit banquet).
It is difficult not to sympathize with Fitzgerald’s feeling that “the unctuousness and hypocrisy of the proceedings was exasperating.” Years later, when he himself was under attack for suppressing a vicious undergraduate riot, Dean Gauss remembered this occasion and wrote Fitzgerald: “I remember with a good deal of feeling how a number of years ago a number of respectable evangelists in the cause of letters came down to Princeton crowned with laurel to reestablish the cult of Apollo and what a scandal this was to bluenosed respectability. Yet the aim then in view was a worthy one…”
Presently the Fitzgeralds moved from their honeymoon cottage at the Biltmore to the Commodore and settled down to another round of parties. They celebrated the move by whirling about in the revolving doors for half an hour. With such gestures of innocent ebullience the period Fitzgerald was to name “the Jazz Age” began. “The uncertainties of 1919 wereover” he said in “Early Success” “—there seemed little doubt about what was going to happen—America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history…. The whole golden boom was in the air—its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America in prohibition.” Of this gaudy spree the people who were of an age with the century counted on having their share. They did not lack social generosity or political idealism, as the Sacco-Vanzetti case was to show a little later. Even Iris March, the heroine of The Green Hat, was capable of giving her feelings about the older generation a political turn, as when she says to Sir Maurice: “To you, it seems a worthy thing for a good man to make a success in the nasty arena of national strifes and international jealousies. To me, a world which thinks of itself in terms of puny, squalid, bickering little nations … is the highest indignity that can befall a good man, it is a world in which good men are shut up like gods in a lavatory.” But we do not remember Iris March’s attitude as a political one any more than those who remember Ford Madox Ford’s more brilliant portrait of Sylvia Tietjens remember how politically conscious her hatred of Christopher is. For the twenties the situation did not define itself in these terms. “… in spite of the fact,” wrote Fitzgerald in 1931, “that now we are all rummaging around in our trunks wondering where in hell we left the liberty cap—’I know I had it’—and the moujik blouse … it was characteristic of the Jazz Age that it had no interest in politics at all.”
For what it was worth, Amory Blaine was a socialist. “We fancied ourselves,” said Joseph Freeman of the most earnest people of the twenties, “disinterested devotees of art, revolution and psychoanalysis. All these seemed indiscriminately to point the way to universal human freedom from external oppression and internal chaos.” Max Eastman could pin his faith simultaneously on The Masses and The Enjoyment of Poetry, and Floyd Dell could write a Compton Mackenziequest novel about the education of a middle-western socialist; the realities of the Russian revolution and the poetry of T. S. Eliot—both of which Max Eastman came to hate—were not yet evident. It took ten years for this split between Marxism and literature to make its appearance in the general thought of the period, so that Fitzgerald would write, jokingly but revealingly, to Wilson: “[Alec] told me to my amazement that you had explained the fundamentals of Leninism, even Marxism the night before, & Dos tells me that it was only recently made plain thru the same agency to the New Republic. I little thought when I left politics to you & your gang in 1920 you would devote your time to cutting up Wilson’s shroud into blinders! Back to Mallarmé!”
For the most part the attitude was far less earnest than Freeman’s and Eastman’s. For a moment after the war it looked as if the political strain this generation had inherited from Wells and Shaw would predominate over the aesthetic, as if the interest which would, in the thirties, produce Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station would anticipate the interest which, in the twenties, produced his Axel’s Castle. The response to John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers, in 1921, showed the feelings which could have led to this result. Fitzgerald’s own review of the book is typical. “[The reader],” he says, “will hear [in Three Soldiers] the Y.M.C.A. men with their high-pitched voices … he will see these same obnoxious prigs charging twenty cents for a cup of chocolate. … He will see filth and pain, cruelty and hysteria and panic, in one long three-year nightmare and he will know that the war brought the use of these things … to himself and to his OWN son….” At the same time, he speaks of the war in that tone which Mencken made stylish, as “the whole gorgeous farce of 1917-1918.” “When the police rode down the demobilized country boys gaping at the orators in Madison Square [on May Day in 1919],” Fitzgerald recalled later, “it was the sort of measure bound to alienate the more intelligent young men from the prevailing order. … If goose-livered business men had this effect on the government, then maybe we had gone to war for J. P. Morgan’s loans after all. But, because we were tired of Great Causes, there was no more than a short outbreak of moral indignation….”
Instead of indignation there was a carefully cultivated air of amused indifference to the whole business of public affairs. In a general way you thought the socialists were right about our society, and you were sickened by the earnest hypocrisy of politicians and professional moralists, but public affairs seemed remote and insignificant, and, for the most part, quite hopelessly absurd; Mencken compared the superior intellectual in America to a man in a zoo. Fitzgerald documented this view in a characteristic passage in The Beautiful and Damned:
[Anthony] tried to imagine himself in Congress rooting around in the litter of that incredible pigsty with the narrow and porcine brows he saw pictured sometimes in the rotogravure sections of the Sunday newspapers, those glorified proletarians babbling blandly to the nation the ideas of high-school seniors! Little men with copy-book ambitions who by mediocrity had thought to emerge from mediocrity into the lustreless and unromantic heaven of a government by the people….
“Life,” as he recalled long afterwards, “was largely a personal matter,” and this personal matter consisted mostly of an assertion, often deliberately extravagant and calculated to shock the old lady from Dubuque, of the virtues of hedonism. Very few stopped to wonder, with Walter Lippmann, “Who knows, having read Mr. Mencken and Mr. Sinclair Lewis, what kind of world will be left when all the boobs and yokels have crawled back into their holes and have died of shame?” As long as the boom lasted, as Malcolm Cowley has pointed out, it was possible to ignore American society as an obscure mess, to concentrate on the cultivation of the pleasant life. Americans who made a heroine of Iris March liked to think it was all pour le sport and that they were much too committed to doing what was fun or “interesting” ever to sink to earnestness about a career or society. “Suppose,” said Cole Porter with devastating finality to the suggestion that he make a career of music, “I had to settle down on Broadway for three months just when I was planning to go to Antibes.”
Carl Van Vechten’s Campaspe represents the attitude which the period wanted to affect:
The tragedies of life, she reflected, were either ridiculous or sordid. The only way to get the sense of this absurd, contradictory, and perverse existence into a book was to withdraw entirely from the reality…. On n’apprend qu’en s’amusant, according to Sylvestre Bonnard…. She mentally decided that Hilaire Belloc’s The Mercy of Allah gave a better picture of a modern millionaire, because the book was good humored… than the more solemn performances of W. L. George… and Theodore Dreiser. … It was this same lack of humor, this sentimental adherence to a rigid point of view which in her eyes spoiled Three Soldiers…. An attempt to trump up tears for the victims would always fail with a sophisticated audience, but when ridicule was aimed at the real offender, modern democracy or the church, a sense of tragic irony ensued. Something might even happen, although she was extremely dubious about this.
On n’apprend qu’en s’amusant; practically this meant for the twenties parties, and for a few years—until people began to say like Dick Diver, “So much fun—so long ago”—life was for them a nearly continuous party. “Topics of the Times” carried a little essay on how the word “party” had taken on a new significance and had “come to mean a gathering of persons who have a ‘good time’ only when highly stimulated by strong waters” and suggested to its readers that they study “that remarkable book” The Beautiful and Damned if they wished to understand the nature of these affairs. And Zelda wrote later of this period:
“We’re having some people,” everybody said to everybody else, “and we want you to join us,” and they said, “We’ll telephone.”
All over New York people telephoned. They telephoned from one hotel to another to people on other parties that they couldn’t get there—that they were engaged. It was always tea-time or late at night.
… Up they went, humming the New Testament and Our Country’s Constitution, riding the tide like triumphant islanders on a surf board. Nobody knew the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”