Just how old Scott Fitzgerald was when I first met him is a question. He afterwards said that he had lied so often about his age that he had to bring his old nurse on from Saint Paul in order himself to know in just what year he had been born. He was, as nearly as 1 can make out, seventeen; but even then he was determined to be a genius, and since one of the most obvious characteristics of genius was precocity, he must produce from an early age. He did, but wanted through vanity to make it even earlier.
Long afterwards, I complained to him that I thought he took seventeen as his norm, making everything later a falling off. For a moment he demurred, then said, “If you make it fifteen, I will agree with you.”
He had, like myself, only arrived in Princeton; the Commons for Freshmen was not yet open; we sat side by side at a large round table in a corner at the Peacock Inn. It was the first time I had gone out alone, for in those opening days we stuck very close to the boys who had come down from school with us. It was bychance that I sat next to this youth so quick to conversation; we stayed on when the others had gone. In the leafy street outside the September twilight faded; the lights came on against the paper walls, where tiny peacocks strode and trailed their tails among the gayer foliations. I learned that Fitzgerald had written a play which had been performed at school. Places were cleared; other students sat down at the tables around us. We talked of books: those I had read, which were not many, those Fitzgerald had read, which were even less, those he said he had read, which were many, many more. It was the age at which we were discovering Meredith and the writers of the Yellow Book. Wells had not yet come, but to the youth from Saint Paul it was soon clear that Compton Mackenzie had.
Fitzgerald was pert and fresh and blond, and looked, as someone said, like a jonquil. He scribbled in class, or sat in an apparent dreaming drowse, from which he was startled from time to time by a question which he had only half heard. Though he arrived at what seemed a clever way of stalling until he could at least guess what had been asked him (“It all depends on how you look at it. There is the subjective and the objective point of view.”), it did not prevent his being dropped from the class. He had an ailment, which served as excuse for his departure. Like so many precocious literary talents, he had, I believe, a tendency to tuberculosis. When he returned, it was, so far as the registrar of Princeton was concerned, to take his place in another class. I saw as much of him as ever, perhaps more, for his ambitious political career on the campus had been damaged by his absence.
He left Princeton without a degree and without much of an education; but he had with him the material for two novels. The first, The Romantic Egoist, not many have seen in its entirety beside myself, a few old school friends who appeared in it, and the unwilling publishers. It was written on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons at the Officers’ Club at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was stationed during a period of training as Second Lieutenant in the regular Army. Scraps of it were saved, trimmed, and refurbished to appear here and there as patches in This Side of Paradise, a book which, when it appeared, was reviewed by one of the author’s Princeton friends, T. K. Whipple, as The Collected Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. So it was, for the time being, for not a line from any of those poems scribbled in lecture halls, if it chanced to be good, had been wasted.
Published in The Virginia Quarterly Review magazine (Winter, 1937); also in The Collected Essays of John Peale Bishop (1948). Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work, ed. by Alfred Kazin (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1951).