We have just read F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s This Side of Paradise and it makes us feel very old. According to the announcement of his publishers Mr. Fitzgerald is only twenty-three, but there were times during our progress through the book when we suspected that this was an overstatement. Daisy Ashford is hardly more naive. There is a certain confusion arising from the fact that in spite of the generally callow quality of the author‘s point of view he is intent on putting himself over as a cynical and searching philosopher. The resulting strain is sometimes terrific.
Of course, Mr. Fitzgerald is nearer to college memories than we are and, moreover, we have no intimate knowledge of Princeton, and yet we remain unconvinced as to the authenticity of the atmosphere which he creates. It seems to us inconceivable that the attitude toward life of a Princeton undergraduate, even a freshman, should be so curiously similar to that of a sophomore at Miss Spence‘s.
“Ever read any Oscar Wilde?” inquires d‘Invilliers, the young poet, of Amory Blaine, our hero, who has been presented as a youngster of a somewhat literary turn. “No. Who wrote it?” answers Amory, and we refuse to believe that young Mr. Fitzgerald is not pulling our leg. Then, too, in spite of the bleak and jaded way in which the author sums up the content of college life, it is evident that he is by no means unimpressed with the sprightliness of conduct and conversation which he assigns to his undergraduate characters, though it is silly conversation and sillier conduct.
It is probably true that in some respects Fitzgerald has painted a faithful portrayal of the type of young man who may be described as the male flapper, but our objection lies in the fact that to our mind the type is not interesting. After all, the reviewer who has been through several seasons of tales about sub-debs cannot view with anything but horror the prospect of being treated to exhaustive studies of her brother and first cousins.
In making himself responsible for the descriptions of college pranks and larks the author has undertaken a task of enormous difficulty. Things done in a spirit of alcoholic exuberation must of necessity sound flat and unprofitable to the mature and cold, sober reader. When Fitzgerald writes, “The donor of the party having remained sober, Kerry and Amory accidentally dropped him down two flights of stairs, and called, shamefaced and penitent, at the infirmary all the following week,” he does scant justice to Kerry and Amory. After all, in the mood and at the moment it can hardly have seemed such a silly trick as it must appear to the reader in Fitzgerald‘s laconic statement.
The thing that puzzled us most was the author‘s description of the violent effect of the sex urge upon some of his young folk. On page 122, for instance, a chorus girl named Axia laid her blond head on Amory‘s shoulder and the youth immediately rushed away in a frenzy of terror and suffered from hallucinations for forty-eight hours. The explanation was hidden from us. It did not sound altogether characteristic of Princeton.
There are occasional thrusts of shrewd observation and a few well turned sentences and phrases in This Side of Paradise. It is only fair to add that the book has received enthusiastic praise from most American reviewers. Fitzgerald has been hailed as among the most promising of our own authors. And it may be so, but we dissent. We think he will go no great distance until hehas grown much simpler in expression. It seems to us that his is a style larded with fine writing. When we read, “It was like weakness in a good woman, or blood on satin; one of those terrible incongruities that shake little things in the back of the brain,” we cannot but feel that we are not yet grown out of the self-conscious stage which makes writing nothing more than a stunt.
From New York Herald Tribune (1920).